President Muhammadu Buhari fielded questions from a select group of editors last Thursday as part of activities marking his first year in office. Excerpts from the interview as presented by Levinus Nwabughiogu
Looking at the last one year, how would you assess what has happened in terms of your expectations when you took office, the challenges you met and the progress made or lack of it?
I am sure you will recall that during our campaign, we identified three problems for our country. First, was security – the situation, especially in the northeast then. Second, was the economy – unemployment; and the third was corruption. I am sure you can recall that these were what we identified. In the northeast, when we came in, Boko Haram occupied 14 local governments and they had hoisted their flags and called the areas their Caliphate. But I can assure you that Boko Haram is not holding any local government presently, but they have progressed to using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and by taking on softer targets – people in mosques, churches, market places, motor parks, killing them in tens, twenties and fifties that you all know about, and killing school children.
So I think we have made substantial progress in that area. If you know anybody living in Maiduguri or Yobe, he or she will tell you that people are going back to their homes, those who moved to Kano, Kaduna or even here in Abuja are now moving back and they are trying to continue with their lives.
On the economy, again we were unlucky. We are now a mono-economy and everybody is dependent on oil revenue. The oil price collapsed and we were exposed. From 1999 to 2014, the average price of Nigerian crude that was sold was $100 per barrel, but when we came in, it plummeted to about $30 per barrel and now it is between $40 and $50 per barrel. At some stage, I got the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria to give me a list of the things we have been spending our foreign exchange on and it showed food items such as tomato purri, grains, rice, wheat and even toothpicks. I didn’t believe it and I still don’t believe it because if he said we were building so many factories, buying essential raw materials and spare parts machineries, I would have believed it. But to show me that what we were consuming majorly just food items? I believe that Nigerians from the eastern part of this country, from the west and north, about 60 per cent of them eat what they produce because they cannot afford to buy foreign food.
So what was happening was that people who had plenty of naira, they just filled the papers that they were importing food, were given foreign exchange and they go and invest the money outside in whatever form.
My belief was strengthened when we got into trouble about the import of petroleum products. We conducted a survey and we found out that one-third of what Nigerian marketers claimed to be bringing in, they were not bringing it in. They were just signing the papers and taking the money out. So people were doing the same thing with food products. But I think subsequently when we get to the court with some people, you will hear more about it.
The third one was on corruption, I would speak about that in two days’ time and also on subsequent attempts to prosecute where we have found evidence; about where the monies have gone and the different banks either here or outside the country, we would let you know.
We know that your party did not support the idea of a National Conference when it was held, but one year after, it is like the clamour is rising again given some of the challenges such as security and the economy, and people say all these issues were addressed by the National Conference report. Would you have a rethink by going back to see what is good in that report?
No, I don’t want to tell different stories. I advised against the issue of National Conference. You would recall that ASUU was on strike then for almost nine months.
The teachers in the tertiary institutions were on strike for more than a year, yet that government had about N9billion to organise that meeting (National Conference) and some (members) were complaining that they hadn’t even been paid. I never liked the priority of that government on that particular issue, because what it meant was that the discussions on what the National Assembly ought to do was more important than keeping our children in schools. That is why I haven’t even bothered to read it or asked for a briefing on it and I want it to go into the so-called archives.
The progress that has been made in the fight against Boko Haram is widely acknowledged not only in Nigeria but outside the country. But as we have made progress with Boko Haram, other serious security challenges have arisen. You have the issue of the herdsmen and the killings; you have the Niger Delta Avengers; the Biafra agitation; and incessant kidnapping. Can Nigeria’s security infrastructure deal with these multiple fronts that are opening up?
To speak in the order the question was asked, on the herdsmen, note that Gaddafi ruled Libya for 43 years. During his 43 years, Libya was a small country in terms of population, but very big in terms of resources. They have oil reserves, light crude like Nigeria’s crude. But he was quite generous to some of the countries in the Sahel. He took their young men and trained them. But unfortunately, he didn’t train them to become electricians or plumbers, bricklayers or mechanics. They were trained to shoot and kill. When that administration was removed, of course those who removed his administration knew that he stabilised his country by using these people from the Sahel. So they pursued them and they went back home. You know what happened in Burkina Faso, Mali, and a few of them we believe are around the North East. I am sure you know that here in Nigeria, our border with our northern neighbour, Niger is at least 1,500km-long – it is an open country and you cannot stop donkeys from crossing, you cannot stop camels neither can you stop people from crossing the borders. Only God can effectively guide these borders. So some of them found their way here. Even on the recent herdsmen (killings), I asked one of the governors if the herdsmen were fighting perennially with the farmers and he said there was a difference. Which means that these people were either hired to come and fight and worsen the ethnic relationship in Nigeria or they have no profession other than fighting for a fee. But these are just reports that still have to be confirmed later. So that is what I can answer about the herdsmen and I think the law enforcement agencies are working very hard to identify them.
Now about the militants in the South-south: when we came in, I got one of the senior officers (in the army), a major general, and asked him to revisit the agreement the late (President Umaru) Yar’Adua signed with them. I said he should get a copy of the gazette so that we can see the agreement to know what stage we were in. I haven’t received a comprehensive report on that yet, but I believe the officer is working hard. I saw him responding to some of your colleagues (journalists) a couple of days ago in the papers. Meanwhile, I have told the military and law enforcement agencies that the promise this government made was that this country has to be secured before it can be effectively managed. So we can’t wait for that report before the military re-organises itself and secures the Niger Delta area. So I think very soon they would do some serious operations there.
But for Biafra, those looking for Biafra have a tough job. A lot of them that have participated in the demonstrations (recently) were not born and didn’t know what people like us went through (fighting Biafra) by walking from the northern border to initially Abakiliki, then came back and started from Awka to Abagana and to Onitsha, and we lost our friends, our relatives and about two million Nigerians were killed. They thought it was a joke. So I think they have a problem.
Kidnapping is a very serious thing because it’s like the operations of the militants where they are destroying installations (in the Niger Delta). I was going round the world telling people that we are going to secure Nigeria and by our performance in the North East, they believe us and people are prepared to come and invest in Nigeria. But nobody would invest in an insecure environment. Those who had been in Nigeria for so many years can conduct feasibility studies. But why do they put money, paying militants or paying for corruption? This means with all the goodwill we are winning, we may not be able to benefit in the long run because of the kidnapping and the actions of the militants. So it is a top priority for this government to address. Once we settle down to make sure that we deal with militants, we will deal with kidnappers also.
There have been so many pronouncements by your government that once the budget is passed and assented to by you, that we would see progress in the economy. But even the budget assumptions today are threatened, that is, from where you expect to get your revenue to implement your projects and even the N500 million needed for the palliatives. For instance, oil production has dropped to almost half due to militancy; even revenue coming from taxes is declining. How are you going to assure Nigerians that this budget which the government is hinging its programmes on is going to be implemented in such a way that it trickles down to the masses?
That is a major challenge for us. It is not going to be easy to complement the revenue as we promised in the budget. I think I mentioned initially that the market plummeted from an average of $100 per barrel for crude oil from 1999 to 2014, and suddenly went down to $30 per barrel and now it is between $40 and $50 per barrel.
Still on the economy, the new song is diversification. But using the 2016 budget as a guide, it is surprising that agriculture which is the new hope of this country has just N75 billion, both recurrent and capital expenditure, allocated to it in the budget; solid minerals is even less. If agriculture is going to be the saviour of tomorrow, are you convinced that with that budgetary allocation, we shall get it right?
Well, you are absolutely right. You are forcing me to go back to the issue of budget which was difficult to overcome. I am sure you noted (the issue of) padding? I didn’t know of it until recently, although I started being in government since 1975. The Minister of Budget and Planning had my attention during the budget sessions because I tried to follow up on what he was doing – taking presentations from each ministry. Having done that, he wrote a comprehensive memo to the Council of Ministers, which I presided over and some corrections were made by the ministers. So we thought it was completed and I was ready to go and bow and deliver it to the National Assembly as the constitution has directed. But what I did not know was that the real thing had been removed and that they (legislature) put their own. I have to repeat this because I told it to your colleagues earlier on: for instance, the Minister of Health was sitting before a committee (at his budget defence). I wasn’t even sure of the committee and they were very excited and happy with what they were doing. They then asked the minister to defend his budget. So they handed over to him his supposed budget and he looked at it and said, ‘I can’t defend what I didn’t present. This was not what I presented.’ Instantly I was alerted. Also a number of the ministers that were asked to defend their budget, it was not what they presented that they were asked to defend. So what happened is that some group somewhere at the National Assembly had done their own budgeting and they called it padding.
Meanwhile, I became governor of the North East made up of six states in August 1975, later I went on to become the Petroleum Minister and then Head of State, and I never hear of padding until now. So I said whoever is linked to the padding has no room in this administration. Even at that, the minister went back and came back to me to sign it so that the government can move on, but I said I don’t normally sign what I don’t understand or what I don’t agree with. He said the government has to move on and I said okay. Before he left, I said, ‘If you insist, I would sign because I trust you. But I would put you in front of me (if anything goes wrong). So whoever wants anything, I would push to you.’ So he went back (to the National Assembly) and not long after, he came and said I shouldn’t sign and that took us another six weeks before they brought back the paper and I signed. This was because the government decided that we should have at least 30 per cent allocated to capital projects. We can’t help our country and our state of development year after year with more than 90 per cent on overheads and no capital projects. So we decided to have at least 30 per cent on capital expenditure. Even the central bank alone has assisted by giving more than N200 billion to agriculture.
Are we really close to an economic recession and in what ways can all your foreign trips and the foreign investments you are anticipating mitigate this looming recession and what would you do with the loot recovered?
With what happened to us so far and what I mentioned to you, I wouldn’t doubt a recession. I have just told you that from 1999 to 2014, Nigeria’s crude was selling on the average of $100 per barrel. These are facts you can cross check. The average production was about two million barrels per day. If you take about half a million for consumption at home, about 445,000 per day, which was what was officially budgeted for local refineries, only to be complemented by marketers. But suddenly when the oil price plummeted, we looked left, right and centre, and no arrangement was made to support the economy if such a thing happened. That was why I called to know what we were spending our foreign exchange on and it was on food items. However, low-income earners cannot afford imported food, people that are not working who are the majority, live on what the farmers produce. So really, it is frightening. I agree with you that the prospect of going into recession is frightening and I believe that the leadership of this country should bear the consequence for not meeting up, I blame the elite for not alerting the other government sufficiently for us to realise that if anything happens to oil, we would be in trouble. What is my solution? It is to advise the Nigerian elite to please for once be patriotic. Let them work very hard to support this country. Not only politicians, but for the leadership at every level to take responsibility to make sure that the economy of this country is resuscitated.
Looking at the anti-corruption fight by the EFCC and the probe of the arms funds has ended up showing that some of the funds were allocated to the PDP campaign. But your critics have accused you of probing the PDP campaign funds while not probing your own campaign funds and that you have people in your government that allegedly used state resources to sponsor your campaign. How will you explain this?
I don’t know whether I have some official protection. If I don’t have it, why haven’t you started the investigation?
(Cuts in) Because the constitution gives you immunity?
I see, very good. But then, it doesn’t extend to all the executives and party leaders and the party leaders are there. If anybody has received $100 million to give to the party, I think he should be asked to tell us where he got the $100 million. I know those we would eventually successfully prosecute, they wouldn’t leave it, neither will they let their friends leave it. We do not believe if we were so reckless we would get away with it. I don’t believe it. Do you remember the three and half years when I was in charge of the petroleum ministry, have you forgotten the $2.8 billion (issue)? If you have forgotten, I haven’t. Have you forgotten the PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund)? In the PTF, at one stage we had more than N53 billion at a time, we planned and spent it. It was investigated subsequently. So I assure you that I feel perfectly safe. But nobody is perfect, only God is perfect. But let me tell you, from being governor of the six states (the old North Eastern State) which was only for seven months, to the petroleum ministry, to Head of State, and to PTF, I tried not to expose myself, and I hope God will continue to help me.
You were a military Head of State; you contested elections several times, and became president last year. What are your thoughts on your administration in the last one
We came into power at a very difficult time. We discovered too late that we had put ourselves as a nation in a mono economy, depending only on petroleum. From 1999 to 2014 the average cost of Nigeria crude oil per barrel was $100. Unfortunately, when we came in it had reduced to an average of about only $30. We suddenly discovered that we are depending on petroleum; we import virtually everything, including food. On the issue of insecurity, it was there during our campaign and we knew about it; we knew about the saboteurs in the South-South, and then the unemployment. We have a huge number of unemployed persons. I’m told the population of the unemployed youths is about 65 per cent. And for a country of our size, this is something for which we must be concerned. We campaigned on insecurity, unemployment, bribery and corruption, which have done much damage to this economy.
Nigeria is said to be difficult to govern. Did you find it to be so?
There are a lot of problems in the country. You have insurgency in the North-East. But how did Boko Haram start? If you could recall, it was like a group of political thugs, and along the line a young charismatic leader called Mohammed Yusuf emerged. That young man assumed that reputation in the North East because of the way he preached. One afternoon the group wanted to go and bury one of their own. Most of them were on motorcycles; some wore helmets and some did not. Then, there were the military patrol vehicles. The normal thing was for them to wear helmets, but the group had a way of wearing their headgears, which made it difficult to wear helmets. Instead of arresting them and taking them to court to pay a fine of some N250 the patrol team just shot six of them. Hell was let loose. The situation went out of control for the police, and the military took over. Mohammed Yusuf went into hiding; the military looked for him, arrested and handed him over to the police, and he was murdered. That’s why we now have Boko Haram. I know all these because I was once a governor of North-East state and I follow the political developments there closely. For unemployment, things became clearer and compounded when we became a mono economy. We abandoned agriculture, left solid minerals, and everybody rushed to the town to get oil money. Now, we’ve found out that that oil money is not available. Then, corruption is what we are going through now. How can you take $2.1 billion meant to fight insurgency and share among yourselves, and think that nothing should happen? Not to talk of when political money is being raised for elections and the Central Bank, NNPC, Customs funds are where the funds are collected from. We’ve made some progress in recovering this money, which I promised I will tell the nation in the next two or three days, just to show Nigerians that we haven’t given up and have no intention of giving up. We’re giving the people the opportunity of fair trial. They take the money and pay into some persons’ accounts, and there are signatures of some persons who admit that they had taken the money. Somebody comes and calls another, saying ‘you’re a member of this party?’ The other person responds by saying ‘yes’. Then, he’s told ‘take a N100 million to go and keep,’ and the other person doesn’t ask any questions. You take a N100 million and disappear, and subsequently you complain that you have received money for doing nothing?
The biggest shock was when oil price went down to less than $40 per barrel. I asked the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria to go and bring to me what we had been doing with the foreign exchange we had earned. He came back, and we discovered it’s all food items. Grains, tomatoes, rice… That was unbelievable! All those billions of dollars went into the purchase of food?! I believe 60 per cent of Nigerians eat Garri, yam, grains that they grow. So what was happening was this: those who had a lot of naira on their hands changed it into dollars and kept. I had this experience in the 1980s when we were told that Nigeria consumed more sugar than all Africa in the south of the Sahara, except South Africa. Even now, when we conducted an investigation into marketers who claimed to import fuel into Nigeria, we discovered that one-third of what they claimed was not true. Some people were just taking the money out. Thirty years down the line, we still discover that the Nigerian elites do not care about the country.
Considering the hike in the price of fuel and the devaluation of the Nigeria, which have led to hardship, what would you tell Nigerians to give them the hope that things will be better?
In 1984, we were advised to devalue the naira and withdraw subsidy, whatever their perception of subsidy was in Nigeria. We even had subsidy on flour. The IMF and World Bank talked about subsidy removal. My argument has been that those who devalue their currencies have developed economies, where there is local production and they export the excess.
They have good infrastructure. So they devalue their currencies to sell their products outside their shores, and employ their people. We claim to import food, but this is a lie. People just take the money out of the country. How many factories have we built? So I refused to devalue the Naira.
They talk about petroleum subsidy. I say what do they mean by subsidy? They say Nigeria’s petroleum is so cheap that it encourages smuggling into our neighbouring countries: Cameroon, Chad, Niger. But I know the four refineries we built could produce 450,000 barrels, we have 20 depots … we didn’t borrow a kobo. So even if we put something on top and pay the cost of refining and travels to filling stations and small overhead, we’ll still be selling at a good price. But they say, there’s a lot of smuggling. I said these countries to where they claim petrol is being smuggled, can’t consume more than what one city in Nigeria consumes. I was asked how I knew, and I said, for three and a half years I was Commissioner for Petroleum under Obasanjo. At the time I was removed naira exchanged for three dollars. Now you need N350 to get a dollar! I challenged Nigerian economists to tell me what benefits Nigeria has earned from the devaluation so far. How many factories have we built by killing the naira?
I have to reluctantly give up because the so-called Nigerian economists come and talk things to me, and when I raise issues they talk over my head instead of inside my head. For us to lose over N300 (every year we’re losing the value of the currency by N100), what for? Let them tell me how many factories they’ve build. I find myself in a very difficult state because the economists cannot tell me why we should continue to devalue our Naira. People say import, and we find out that we are just importing food! We’re now planning to stop importation of rice, wheat, maize in three years’ time.
On the value of the naira I’m still agonizing over it, that the naira should be reduced to such a disgraceful level over the last 30 years. I need to be educated on this. But I’m not ruling this country alone. I’m under pressure and we’ll see how we can accommodate the economists.
What are you thinking about privatization of refineries?
I believe in privatization, but I believe before you do it you have to look at your state of development as a nation. The first refinery in Port Harcourt was built to refine 60,000 barrels per day. It was upgraded to refine 100,000 barrels per day. Another one was in Port Harcourt to refine 150,000 barrels per day. So Port Harcourt alone has the capacity to refine 250,000 per day of Nigerian crude. So you’re not importing anything. As Commissioner for Petroleum I signed the contract for Warri to refine 100,000 barrels per day; Kaduna, 100,000 barrels per day. We laid pipelines up to Maiduguri, Gusau, all over the country… We took tankers off the road, and then some greedy people in this country took over and now all the refineries stopped working. Nigeria has to go cap in hand, like a non-oil producing country, and buy fuel and bring into Nigeria. With this background in mind, do you want us to privatize our infrastructure as scrap? So, we’re just starting to get them repaired. We want to make them work so that we don’t sell them as scrap. We can’t spend so much money to put up the refineries, just to sell them as scrap. I think that will be disservice to the country. Let’s repair them and negotiate with them to sell them at good prices. We don’t want them to dictate how much we sell fuel in this country after we’ve sold the refineries to private investors.
There are many initiatives to rebuild the North-East. Why can’t we have one cohesive approach in this regard?
If you could recall, during the week I was sworn in, I was invited to G7 meeting in Germany. I was impressed, but I was surprised that I was the first item on the agenda. I was told to brief them on the security situation in Nigeria and on the North-East. I spoke, and all of them promised to help Nigeria. When I returned I told the governors of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States to make a survey of the entire infrastructure destroyed by Boko Haram: schools, local government headquarters, health centres and broken bridges. They did and put costs to them. I sent it to the headquarters of G7. Then I learnt of T.Y Danjuma Committee. He contributed $10 million and Aliko Dangote contributed something substantial. So we reinforced the committee and Danjuma is in charge of it. We persuaded him to stay. We drafted the legal instrument that would give them the legal powers to spend that money. I sent the request to AGF. He sent me a draft and I gave to Danjuma. Instead it went into some hands and what I got when it returned was virtually another government, with many governors and important people involved. So, I feared that all that money would finish on overhead. I returned to the original draft from the Ministry of Justice and see if we can put few people from Yobe, Borno, Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi and Taraba to handle the rebuilding of the North-East. Each of the governors should send directors or some officials from ministries of works, health, education, governors’ offices, and form committees. So whoever comes to help from Nigeria or outside would work with these people under the control of the Danjuma committee. If anybody wants to help he would be taken to locations and he would decide what to do.
If United Nations identifies a project they will go there and do it. We have plenty of retired but not tired people who could manage things like that. It will take another two weeks or more before the committee members will be announced. But I don’t want a big organization that will just consume the resources but not produce anything.
Are you satisfied with the performance of your team and do we expect changes?
I expect to hear from you. But look at what has been happening: after the election, I went to thank Jonathan for what he did – conceding defeat. A former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), told me he had an experience in handover and asked if he should advise me. I said, yes. He said committees in the ministries met and wrote handover notes and Obasanjo set up transition committees to work with each ministry and at the end Obasanjo took whatever he wanted from the reports. I agreed. Jonathan agreed. When I came to sit down, Jonathan’s ministers complained, saying ‘why would Jonathan allow Buhari to take over government before he is sworn in’.
They refused to cooperate. So I took over without knowing what Jonathan’s government contained. After we were sworn in, I began to debrief the Permanent Secretaries, taking two ministries per day, to just try and find out what they had. They had 42 ministers; the economy had collapsed. We reduced 42 ministries to 24 and we had to ask some permanent secretaries to go on several grounds. After taking over we had a strange encounter on the budget, which was called ‘padding’. I was in government since 1975 in one form or another, but I had never heard of the word, padding, until this time around. I pity the Minister of National Planning. All the ministers made presentations to him, he compiled them and took them to the council of ministers. It was corrected by the council how they could and I was allowed to go and bow and deliver to the National Assembly. I didn’t know I delivered a sham! Some [civil servants] removed what the ministers put and put what they wanted. How did I know about it? I was sitting, watching the television and I saw the Minister of Health appearing before a committee to defend the budget.
They gave him the document and he said there was nothing to defend. ‘How can I defend what I haven’t presented,’ he argued. I was shocked. He was not the only one. Many of the ministers spent months, hardly eating, and some [civil servants] removed what the ministers have put there and put what they wanted. I called the minister of National Planning, and said I thank you for your hard work, but I can’t assent to this. I don’t normally, I don’t sign what I don’t understand. He begged me to sign, but I said because I trust you I will sign, but I will put you in front of me.
Wherever there is trouble I will put you in front. Not up to 24 hours, he began to look for me desperately. I said, ‘what is it, Honourable Minister.’ He said, ‘please don’t sign,’ because he sat down to look at it and discovered what damage those terrible Nigerians had done to us. It took about six weeks to correct it before I agreed to sign it.