By Dirisu Yakubu
Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar has in the past few weeks spoken of his desire to reposition the Nigerian economy for good if elected into power. Across many state capitals where the PDP Presidential campaign rallies held; he reiterated his commitment to job creation while throwing jibes at the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari.
A fortnight after getting the flak for refusing to participate in a debate organised for candidates in the 2019 elections; Atiku alongside his running mate and former governor of Anambra state, Mr. Peter Obi appeared on “The Candidates,” an audience participation programme featuring party flag bearers and their running mates, anchored by television host and ace journalist, Kadaria Ahmed.
Atiku for the first time since his emergence as the PDP candidate at the 2017 Port-Harcourt convention faced an audience of curious Nigerians waiting to hear him speak on the various corruption allegations he has been linked with since quitting office in 2007. He fielded questions on a remark about him by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in his memoir, “My Watch,” while also highlighting his plans to provide jobs for teeming Nigerian youths currently facing the scourge of unemployment.
Kadaria Ahmed: Will you make the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC fully independent? How would you reform the criminal justice system, given the lack of confidence Nigerians have in it to deliver justice against public officials and politicians who are corrupt?
Atiku: My quarrel with our judicial system is that there is too much delay. If we can shorten the delay so that justice is seen to be meted out immediately, the better for us.
What in your view is responsible for that delay and how will you tackle it?
It is by looking at the legislation and also the procedures being adopted by the judiciary. We have to sit with the National Assembly and the judiciary. Do you know that the cases we initiated in our administration are still in courts? Now where is the justice there? We set up the EFCC. I brought the piece of draft legislation from Brazil. And it was based on that draft that EFCC legislation was crafted. When it was eventually passed by the National Assembly, EFCC did not even have the money in the budget to start operation. I borrowed N300 million from the privatization proceeds and said ‘You better get to work’.
The following year when there was budgetary allocation, they paid the money. Most of the convictions that you are hearing about today were cases that we started in our administration.
What kind of reform will you carry out in the judiciary as well as agencies charged with investigating corruption related crimes?
I have already indicated to you the kind of reform I want to undertake. That reform has to shorten the period of investigation by investigative agencies.
How will you do this?
You have to legislate. This is a country that is governed by rule of law. So, you can only use rule of law to approach issues. And therefore, you have to legislate. In other words, investigative agencies must have a time limit within which to investigate. There must be a time limit within which to prosecute. And there must be a time for the judiciary to dispense justice.
How practical is it?
Why is it that other countries are doing it within a shorter period? Are they denying justice to their citizens? Not necessarily that I want to put statute of limitation for investigating certain type of crimes. I don’t like statute of limitation. Because sometime you let criminals go. In this era of technology, what financial investigations will technology not be able to do within a specified, reasonable period of time? I believe it is doable.
What happens to existing cases?
I believe there will be need for dialogue between the various branches of government. We are at a very crisis point in this country on the issue of fight against corruption. We can’t afford delays. Before we review our procedures and laws, I think there is need we do something immediately. And I believe everybody will understand me if you really intend to fight corruption.
Would you consider an amnesty for people who have been involved in corrupt practices?
Why not? I give you an example of Turkey. The country gave an amnesty and all the money abroad came back to Turkey and the government said ‘when you bring the money, there is even no taxation. We want you to invest in manufacturing, technology, real estate. And look at Turkey today. It’s like any other European country in terms of development. And they drew a line. Why not? We could consider it.
Personally, I have considered it. Yes, it will be problematic but what have they been able to achieve? Let me tell you what we achieved when we came into office to fight corruption: there was a recovery panel set up by (former) President Obasanjo under my chairmanship with the then Attorney General and the National Security Adviser. And by calling various people who had been alleged to have stolen money, we recovered over $4 billion which we paid back into the treasury. If you were to go and prosecute these people, up till now, you would still be prosecuting them and that money would have been denied.
It all depends on what you intend to achieve whether it is moral rectitude or you want to see a fast development of your country from proceeds of corruption.
The United States Senate Committee mentioned your wife by name in a case involving Siemens which was fined on charges of corruption. What are your views involving that specific case in which your wife was fingered?
My view about it is that my wife has not been indicted, my wife has not been charged. So, I don’t accept that view.
Do you feel the need to clear this since it is like a moral burden on you?
The company was fined for a number of offences committed, not necessarily on the issue of my wife’s account. What I can tell you is that my wife has never been indicted and never been charged. So, there is no way you can hold my wife accountable. My wife is an American, mark you. There is no way they would not have charged her to court or indicted her if she was guilty.
Has she been to America since that report came out?
She has been travelling to America. Of course, she does very regularly. One other serious corruption that is facing us is elections rigging. It is also a form of corruption. Why can’t we have an Election Fraud Commission so that we bring to book any individual whether he is a member of any political party or a staff of INEC or even a member of the security services who infringes on electoral laws? It is becoming a very serious issue. So, if it requires us to have a special investigation bureau called Election Fraud Commission, why not? This country requires a leadership that is pro-business, pro-private sector so that we can get out of this mess that we found ourselves. 21 million young men and women unemployed, we have never had it this bad in this country.
What are your plans for the poorest of the poor?
We have moved people into the middle class during the PDP administration than we have in the APC administration today. The middle class is completely eliminated. And you have to have a middle class before you can uplift the ones on the bottom because it doesn’t just happen like that.
Does this mean if you become President, Nigeria’s poor people will have to wait a little while?
One of our major plans is to create jobs. And the greatest job creation sector in this country is agriculture. Our agricultural policy seeks to empower the farmers to be more commercially oriented. Where they cannot, we have a system whereby they will be supported and assisted.
How is it different from the Anchor Borrowers’ programme of the Buhari administration?
Go to Kebbi and see whether it is not fake. It is fake! You have the rice farmers (in Kebbi) but how many of them? They are very few instead of them to expand (to other states).
It is the same programme but you will just do it better?
In fact, the PDP was doing it better when we introduced the purchase of fertilizer on mobile phones and our agricultural output was much higher than the present administration.
Given what Obasanjo said about you in his book, ‘ My Watch’, why should Nigerians employ you?
You must know that nobody has been investigated by Obasanjo more than myself. If Obasanjo could not find me guilty of any wrongdoing, then I don’t think those statements stand.
Did he lie about you?
I am not here to say that. It is up to my employers to say if I have been employed or not. But if I was the most investigated politician or public officer and I was not found wanting, then it is up to my employer to believe what has been said or not.
How do you intend to end the lingering herders-farmers clashes in Nigeria?
I believe that the best solution to the farmers-herdsmen is to try and enlighten our herdsmen on the use of feeding lots, which can conveniently be established all over the country. Because we have a number of factories that are producing animal feeds. There is need for an extensive public enlightenment with these herders. To adopt this solution is a way to minimizing as much as possible the herdsmen-farmers clashes. It is an old conflict dating back to the years of the Prophet. America has faced the same thing. Eventually, the solution they found was the establishment of feeding lots all over the country. There, even the herders will find that their cattle have more milk and more beef. And therefore they can earn better income if they adopt that system.
How will it work?
Each state government through extension services can enlighten the herders. It used to happen before. Only that it has been abandoned. And if you enlighten and teach them how they can remain in one place with the feed lots, it can help. It costs a little bit of money but the income they are going to generate from the milk and beef will far exceed their expenses. It has to be over a period of time.
Are you aware that some states may not like that?
When we introduced nomadic education, at least we were able to get them to settle in one place. Now the nomadic education system was abandoned. I have a guy who is today a PhD holder. He started from nomadic school.
What is your opinion about the anti-grazing law in Benue state?
We have to look at the constitutionality of those laws. I am not sure whether they come with the provisions of our constitution which guarantees free movement and the right to decide wherever you decide to live in the country.
People are saying that privatization under you as head of the economic council during your time as Vice President, was not a huge success as you claim. How will you react to that?
Well, in any policy that you implement, you are bound to find some mistakes here and there. But in the overall, if you look at the reform of our government and also theprivatization, you will find out that it was a huge success.
What did you do then as Vice President that you will not do if elected as President?
I will give you an example: when we were in office, we sent a bill to the National Assembly to make education compulsory for every Nigerian child from primary to secondary education. But you know, education is virtually a state and local government affair. And as a result of that legislation, we established the Universal Basic Education and also imposed taxes. And all these revenue were remitted to states and local governments to help educate these poor Nigerians who cannot get education. Eventually, most of these monies were mismanaged at the state and local government levels. And going through the legislation, I discovered that we made a mistake. We did not have a provision to penalize any level of government if they fail to implement those policies. And I think if I have another opportunity, I will return the law to the National Assembly and insert a penalty clause to say where a state or local government is given money to invest in public education and it decides not to do so, we will have the right to penalize or take their money from even the Federation Account. And intervene directly in the education of those kids.
Let me tell you what I did. When I was Vice President, I took a tour to Anambra State during the administration of Governor (Chinwoke) Mbadinuju. I found out that the public schools were closed for two years. I came back and meet the President and said: ‘This governor will never be allowed to go back’. He said: ‘Why?’ I said I found out that all the public schools in Anambra State have been overtaken by weeds. For two years, they were not open. Believe me; I made sure Mbadinuju never went back. This is how I feel about education. But for education, I will not be what I am today.
If you lose the election, will you accept the results?
If the elections are adjudged to be free, fair and credible- why not? I have lost elections before.