It’s been tough, it’s been a tortuous journey so far but president Buhari is also a tough and dogged fighter committed to change Nigeria for good— GARBA SHEHU
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Though the sun was hot, the interview was hotter as it turned to be a no-holds-barred. Garba Shehu, the Special Assistant to President Mohammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity spoke on various issues, ranging from the campaigns days to now that they are one year in office. Excerpts.
The administration of president Mohammadu Buhari has clocked one year. How may you review the journey so far?
It is a very testing one for the administration because President Muhammadu Buhari came to power and made a huge clamour for change because the country had become sick of mismanagement. The international community was almost giving up on Nigeria. There was a sense of despair in Nigeria and so, Buhari was ushered in by popular vote into office as president and a messiah; as a president; as a miracle worker; as a president; as a fixer, someone who was going to fix all the country’s problems in two days. In fact I overheard a conversation between himself and vice president Osinbajo in the course of the campaign.
As we got into Bauchi the crowd was unbelievable. They walked the president from the airport to the palace of the emir which was covered on foot and so even though the president, the convoy and campaign team were in a bus, the speed at which the bus and the entire convoy moved was the same speed at which the entire crowd was walking and I remember the vice president Osinbajo, at the time vice presidential candidate, drew the attention of the president to the crowd and the president saying “do you know my worries? My worry is that these people think that all their problems will be solved in two days of our taking power”.
So, the president took power and met a massive crisis of expectations and then a tragedy I would say, befell the administration from commencement. First, was the discovery that yes we knew there was corruption in the land, there was the stealing of public resources in the land, there was rot in the public service but nobody in the administration could imagine the magnitude of the decay.
Of course, you saw all the things that happened with the oil price. This country ignored its key potentials. We turned our back to agriculture, solid mineral development and even the development of human resources. This country has 170 million people. If all Nigerians have quality education, they can labour abroad and bring in enough money to run this country.
That is what Malaysia is doing and that is what the Indians are doing. We relied on oil and oil crashed heavily from 140 US dollars to, at some point, 28 US dollars per barrel and in addition to that we have the the Niger Delta crisis. All the things that the amnesty program was set out to solve are back now; kidnapping, piracy on the high sea, sabotage of oil properties and pipelines, power and networks and therefore the country has a real problem to deal with even after finishing with Boko haram.
So, it has been a tough one for the president but he is equally a tough fighter. He had been military Head of State. He ran this country as a military leader and to some, that may have been easier for him because then, he wasn’t in encumbered by the constitution, wasn’t in combat with the parliament and the judiciary. So, if he wanted anything done in one day it was done. Now the due process holds sway. He seeks parliamentary approval before anything. While he is challenged in the court, he has to wait until the judges decide the given matter. So, all of these things are there and therefore to maintain focus is a great challenge because there are all sorts of distractions and in fairness, the party men who helped the president to win wish they are flying across the globe as ambassadors.
They wish they are wielding complementary cards as board chairmen or directors or this and that and for many Nigerians they are using that to judge the president; why hasn’t he named ambassadors, the boards and the chief executives? My sense is that the president didn’t want much distraction from two key things; one is to stop the bleeding corruption was causing the country the country and the other was security.
People tend to forget an important statement he made earlier on that you must secure the country before you can manage it well. I consider this as a classic definition of the administration of Muhammadu Buhari and it is like a miracle as we speak today. Boko haram which began as a street protest in Maiduguri was allowed to grow into a city monster and spread into neighbouring states. Boko haram was at some point in Lagos. Boko haram was caught in Ibadan and then all the neighbouring countries; Niger, Chad and Cameroon,
Boko haram became a problem to them. In those five years, Boko haram established international connections to the dreaded ISIS. So you can see the president’s focus has paid off. In his 10/11 months of rule, he has brought the Boko haram threat to such a low level that the military commanders are saying that they have made progress in sambisa forest; that they are on a mobbing up process which means that the job is about to be finished.
This is a government that was elected on three key promises; to restore security and ward off terrorism, fight corruption and repair the economy to the point that it will create jobs. If you allow me, I would say that on security, president Muhammadu Buhari has scored 100 over 100. Nobody would have imagined that Boko haram would have been reduced to what it is within a year of his rule. He met an unacceptable situation on ground in which this country was literally isolated from the neighbours; Cameroon, Chad, Niger and our neighbours said they didn’t have anybody to talk to in Abuja. That when they called, their phones were not been answered. So, there wasn’t any partnership on the field fighting Boko haram.
The international community had chosen to punish Nigeria for human rights abuses and corruption. A country that needed weapons badly and weapons weren’t sold to it. So troops were been sent to fight Boko haram with bare hands and if they refused they were court-marshalled and sent to prison. This was the situation the president met. The president has reset the relationship in this country with all our neighbours, with leading powers of the world; the European Union, with China, the Middle East, about everyone within the space of one year and we are getting support in terms of military training, sharing of intelligence, repairing of weapons and military equipment including aircraft that we have and supply of new ones. So, that has come together to ensure victory in this country against a major threat that was allowed to fester for 5 years in spite of international and global outcry.
One of the horrible misdeeds of the Boko haram being the abduction of the Chibok secondary school girls and so here we are, peace now reigns substantially in the country. Boko haram has been reduced to the border lines of Lake Chad area of Sambisa and as we speak now, it has been three weeks since the army began a major operation inside Sambisa which has began to yield enormous outcomes including the recovery of some of the captives; women, children and generally people held against their will and military equipment and other weaponry. So much has been achieved in that and I think the president has got it right.
Corruption is of course the next best area in terms of achievements for the president. This is a country in which impunity reigned supreme and no high profile cases ever led to conviction in this country before he came to office. Yes there were some dramatic arrests, dramatic seizures of stolen assets but they never led to conviction and some of the trials were just been played out like an opera. So, here we are. We have serious people taking over the anti corruption engagements of the government and the president himself has made a promise that on May 29 he is going to make a disclosure on how much has been recovered in terms of assets and money. Beyond what is happening in the country, you know that the president appreciates the fact that this war can’t be won domestically without international co-operation.
A lot of the assets that had been stolen from this country had been taken abroad. Whether they have been used to purchase homes, yacht, private jets, bank lodgement in little loans, islands and even some of the metropolitan capitals of the world, so the president has deliberately engaged the international community. He has signed a number of agreements that would see this country requesting and getting not only stolen assets but also the perpetrators of the crime so that they are brought back here to face trials and punishment and of course. The landmark outing he made at the Cameron’s summit on the anti corruption.
Really, it is one that is still being acclaimed as one of the finest acts of diplomacy. Though the British picked on this country and Afghanistan and said very uncomplimentary things, you could also see the president’s reaction when he said ‘look I am what you say I am but can you bring back our assets?’ and the British press was very quick to understand this. They even showed their resentment to Cameron’s remark. You can see quickly that everyone around is saying they will help to quickly return our assets. Some of these things having been lying there since Abacha years and we haven’t got them back.
So we hope we will see some positive results to that.
The economy has been the one that has been naughty as far as the administration is concerned but again giving a deeper understanding of what is going on, Nigerians would have only praises for the president not because I want to defend or protect a good image for him. Nigerians should compare what is happening in this country today with Venezuela. As we have chosen to be a mono cultural economy today, relying only on oil, that is how Venezuela had become over the years and as I speak to you now that country is broke completely. The government is using police, the army to force manufacturers to open their factories even when they have no incentives to continue production.
People are been laid off and the president in his wisdom said look. Here, we have inadequate dollar to serve all of the needs of Nigerians especially dealing with the luxury items, holiday and fishing abroad or the purchase of tooth picks or tissue paper from overseas. He said our forex should be reserved for that manufacturer who wants to keep their factory open and keep Nigerians employed and I think the manufacturers are very happy because that is the only way to keep the economy going. While we undergo this suffering, one hopes that the oil market gets better and the efforts he is making to diversify the economy; to reinvent agriculture and solid minerals pay off. These things will take time.
How would you justify the fact that it took a president, former Head of State who has a lot of pedigree six months or more to assemble his cabinet members for government to take off? Recall that the president and APC came under criticism as they were seen not have prepared for governance. It depends on what the critics see as the most important function of government. It maybe to someone that the most important function of government is to make appointments; ministers, board members, ambassadors and things like that. For President Muhammadu Buhari, it is clear by his pronouncement that the government had a more urgent task in securing the country, defeating terror and restoring hope to the people. Without these being in place, there can’t be any development.
No investor will come. I give you this example. In my town Kano which prides itself as one of the largest markets in Africa, people in the city pride themselves with how many foreign buyers; West Africans who come to buy from them. The grain market used to have not less than 500 trucks driving out of Kano, the largest grain market in West Africa. Boko haram made it impossible for people even from neighbouring states to venture into a city like Kano and don’t forget that there would be a price to pay for that because it would tell on the local economy and the national economy.
I had a friend who had 13 road blocks to encounter from his home to his office and tell me if you are a business man coming to make procurement, would you like to subject yourself to that kind of situation? So, the president had a clear understanding of what the country’s needs were. Number one priority of the nation for him was security and when he didn’t appoint ministers for six months, did the government stop working? He employed permanent secretaries to take over and carry out the role of ministers. So, there wasn’t any vacuum and when he was ready he named the ministers.
Now assuming, given the level of corruption, the stench that was in place, he had appointed ministers on the second day of assuming office, won’t they have continued on the rotten foundation they found in place? It would have been business as usual. Ministers had to come to find out that the operating environment was entirely new and in line with the anti corruption posture of the president. I think Nigerians must praise him for doing that rather than blaming him for any delay.
It does appear many Nigerians are regretting voting “change”. Hardship is increasing, increment in the prices of some goods and service – increment in electricity tariff and now increment in fuel price coupled with harsh business conditions . Was APC voted into power to impoverish the people? I think that the understanding of change to many differs from person to person. If one’s aspiration for change is the continuous issuance of freebies, continuation of living styles that are false, living styles that can’t be paid for by the nation, then, they are mistaking the notions of change. These two examples you have stated are perfect of how this country has failed to evolve into the full potentials of the country. If government will continue to give electricity at a cost that is less than the cost of the market tax, payers money would be used to subsidize power.
If there is government subsidy for power then only government can generate power at a loss and sell at a loss. No business can come in to invest in that sector and the point has been made over the years that the condition for foreign investment in that sector is that government must deregulate and allow market prices to prevail. It is only then that people with money from outside the country can come in. Take it from me, the government doesn’t have all the money to provide all the electricity that Nigeria needs. So you need foreign investors in that regards and they won’t come to subside the life style of Nigerians.
They must produce at a profit that is the only incentive for them to be in our own market. When the government deregulated the telecommunication sector, this country boasted of 250, 000 telephone lines nationwide when the sector was handed over to the private sector. Today we have more than 100 million telephone lines and everybody is pointing at that as a good example of how things can be run better by business and not by government. So look at that model, it is easy to imagine that all the investors that are holding their money wishing to invest in the power sector will begin to come when the market is favourable to their coming and the same argument goes for the price of petroleum products. This country has been deluding itself on this matter.
For more than 30 years, the government has been trying to get out of the market because of pressure from beneficiary of the existing system. Past governments have failed to deregulate and so, every Christmas we dread the coming of the season, every salah, we dread the coming of the season because we know that petrol would be scarce, prices would rise up and so on and so forth. The SSS did a study for the government about 5 – 6 months ago and they found out that only in Lagos and Abuja that petrol was being sold at 86 Naira. Virtually all parts of the country were buying at higher rates.
A minster from the east said he bought petrol at 250 Naira per litre, so who are we pretending to? The control mechanism had broken down and for many years Maiduguri, Sokoto, even Akwa Ibom that produced oil for more than 5 years nobody bought petrol at government price in petrol stations. So, what are we talking about? Should we continue to deceive ourselves that we have a system? A system that has crumbled! This is why the NLC when they called this strike Nigerians didn’t heed them.
Look at the social activism in this country that is very powerful; they understoodwhy government had to do this. Nigerians are saying …in fact in many parts, the new price regime from N86.50 to N145 is a relief to them that prices have come down from the way they were. So if government is there to serve the people, to serve the purpose of national interest, it was inevitable. These policies have been drawn up to serve the best national interest and given time, Nigerians will be witnesses to the good that will face us.
The President is seen as a dogged fighter by many who also believe that the president is such a hard person, not such a soft and friendly person. Having worked with him closely this one year, what would you tell me of the person of Mr. President?
President Muhammadu Buhari is a very simple and straight forward person who has very few needs unlike a typical Nigerian politician who wants to get everything here on earth: Money, home, estate. That’s not him. He is detached from all of these things. He is modest in his living which is very clear in the homes he maintains in Daura and Kaduna. Nobody would have seen those homes and said it belongs to a former president of this country. He runs a farm that isn’t different from what others have. He is generous in his own way. What most people don’t know about him is that he has a large store of humour and being around him is never boring. He relaxes situations when he comes into meeting rooms. He has a way of breaking the ice.
Unfortunately Nigerians aren’t used to leaders with a sense of humour and my sadness is that our media takes his jokes as being something of a serious intent and they go on to make analysis of something that is wrongly placed. Someone in his position would have given up on being humorous but as you said yourself he is a dogged person, he believes in what he believes in. He is concerned about being fair and just. Has he changed as you asked? Obviously there must be change when he first came as military head of state. Of course there were things that he did, given his age and wisdom now he won’t do all over again. I think he has come at the right time. He has matured into a statesman and a deep thinker. He isn’t hasty in an attempt to avoid mistakes.
Has politics changed him from being a family man?
The president guards his family life jealously. In spite of all the pressure of the office, he spends time with his grandchildren whom he so much adores. They come around him and they provide him with so much relaxation and relief. So, he is a family man and for him he has time for work, for play and time for his family.
The president has done so much to curb corruption but some people feel he is selective in the fight against corruption, targeting mainly the people from the opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party. How would you react to that?
I think it is very easy to explain this. The president isn’t probing all of the corruption that has happened from 1960 till today. He is focused on what he found on the table which is looking at the last 5 – 6 years. I think that Nigerians aren’t being shocked by the kind of revelations that are coming out from the panels that have been set out by the national security adviser investigating defence contract and those undertaken by the EFCC and ICPC. Some will think that we have become so used to the shocking revelations that we will never be shocked anymore but corruption in the past 4 – 5 years reached such a height that was unimaginable.
You had situation in which money was provided to go and buy weapons to fight the enemies of the country. Weapons for our troops who were out there with bare hands to confront terrorism as if they were going to have dinner on the table and they shared the money. This was the highest it could get to. When all of these things are happening; the one in Kano they said he got N950 million. What did he do? He said he doesn’t have storage for the money, he took it to the home of the PDP minister in the same state and then they sat down and they shared the money. When they were sharing that money did they call APC? Did they call Labour party? Did they call APGA? So if you want to be a fair judge yourself as a reporter, if they ask you to do this assignment, would you call APGA leader and lock him up or Labour Party? This is very simple and straight forward.
There are feelings that some ministers are not competent to help the president drive the change agenda of APC. Again, there are accusations that some are enriching themselves even under the president. I wouldn’t know how does the president feel about having some people who may not really help him in delivering on the change agenda?
The president has only two ears as a human being. He has two eyes like we all do, and he doesn’t have more. He charged Nigerians when he inaugurated the ministers to point out wrong doings on the part of those he gave position of trust and he said I won’t spare anyone engaged in wrong doings. The president would be helped when people have evidence of wrong doing on the part of any. They should just put it on the table, bring it to the knowledge of the president and see whether he will not act. As to whether a minister is competent or not again, it goes back to the president. The president who has appointed them has his own expectation of each one. Are they meeting up to those expectations? He decides whether they are or not and I am sure that if any of them is failing it will not fail to get his attention and at the right time he will be dealing with all of that.
The president’s reputation and integrity was hurt recently by a foreign news medium which said he used the financial aides for personal activities. How would you respond to that. Is it that the president is now seen to say one thing and does another?
On the contrary, I think the president is a collateral damage of sort to changes that are going on within Europe and particularly the United Kingdom. They are been hurt by the decline in money, incomes and all of that and they are looking at what the country is spending abroad and they want to see that it can be used to enhance the comfort of their people at home. All these talks about getting out of Europe and all of that is part of the story but the thing then is that for many who understand the way the international press works especially in the UK, if you have a good press agent, there is nothing he can’t help you to put in some of the newspapers in UK and many Nigerians were shocked to discover that some newspapers which had done some horrifying stories on our president;
Daily Mail and Uk Telegraph said they got their story from the twitter handle of the PDP. Well, we know the sort of people that are responsible for the PDP twitter handle. They have been slandering people. They have been publishing falsehood on that handle to the extent that the party itself expelled the Director responsible for the twitter handle. So, it is amazing to hear that a respectable, leading newspaper will base its story on a handle that has been discredited by the owner; the PDP itself. You also know that this government has powerful enemies who command resources.
That is a threat to the security of the country. With the kind of money these people have, they can hire the best agents abroad to smear the government and their own country. I am delighted to say that we work for the president’s media and we have no access to funding and government resources. Yes, we take salary but I am happy doing this job as it is because the way these names are being called that you have collected this and that and they are charging you to court for taking money that was inappropriately given; I don’t want to be a part of that. So, the president doesn’t have money to pay newspapers or their agents abroad to garnish his image.
His good works will speak for him and they are already doing so. However there are times where records must be set straight like the case of Daily Mail saying that our president had five homes…What is it? Do you count mud houses in his native area as home? Mud houses that you would call neighbours to just dig up sand and then they will help you to raise. What is there?
The rescue of Amina Ali, one of the Chibok school girls came at the twilight of this one year in office. Many Nigerians feel it was a drama put together to buy some form of PR for the present government to mark its one year in office. Will you seriously dispute that?
Are you yourself surprised that someone would say that kind of thing? These are people that said that Chibok girls were never abducted. Isn’t it to their embarrassment that the discovery of the Chibok girls are been made? The people we are dealing with, they are thuggish, unreasonable and they are unthinking. They never believed that anyone had abducted those girls for three weeks. Even the stolen cows at Northern Nigeria, cattle rustlers if they raid your community at night by 5am – 6 am you would have gone after the foot marks and follow your cattle the following morning.
Government of the federal republic of Nigeria waited for three weeks to agree with the citizens of this country whether any girls were missing or not. What do you expect from people like that?
How do you feel that this government doesn’t have one physical project, infra-structurally speaking, to commission on May 29?
This is our first budget and the first budget has a capital allocation of more than 30 percent. We inherited a government that had about 90 percent of all of the money coming into government for recurrent expenditure. So people should give us a break. Things are going to change. The capital allocation made in this budget, we haven’t had capital budget on this scale for decades. So, it is going to work out for this country. There would be roads, there would be rail networks, and there would be power projects. You don’t have to pretend that something is going right when it is not. This country had been mismanaged so severely that given the choice, perhaps, the president would have said just keep your job but he is committed. He wants to help the country and he is determined to do so. And he is on track.