By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, in this interview, says the Federal Government does not agree with the assessment of the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria that last week’s attacks on foreign nationals, including Nigerians, in that country did not border on xenophobia. Adesina, among other issues, also says President Muhammadu Buhari will rely on the report of his special envoy to South Africa in resolving the imbroglio generated by the xenophobic attacks. Excerpts:
The elections have come and gone and here we are in the second term of Mr. President. How does it feel working with the President all these years and then your reappointment as his spokesman?
Like I have always said, what I am doing is not just a job; it is an assignment I willingly took. I see it as a national call and a national assignment; out of almost 200million Nigerians and then you get singled out to come and serve your country, serve the President as the spokesman, I think it is a very big thing.
Is it difficult being the spokesperson of Mr President compared to what you would have done?
Not difficult, challenging.
If you are asked to describe the person of Mr. President, having worked with him this long, what would you say?
A simple, easy going man, very reflective. A man of a few words, a man of deep thoughts, a man that loves Nigeria and a man that wants to bring change to the country. A man that wants to leave his footprints in the sands of time. A man that wants to leave endearing legacies in the country.
But many people feel that he has been demystified, that General Buhari who we used to know in those heydays as an action man to the core has been demystified because a whole lot is actually happening in today’s Nigeria?
General Buhari belonged to the military, President Buhari belongs to democracy. The two institutions are different. What you would do as a military man, you dare not attempt it as a civilian because the two institutions are different. Military ruled by decrees. If you made a pronouncement, it got done immediately. Now, if you want to do anything, you have to pass it through a process which may take weeks and even months before it matures.
Could it be why the issue of corruption has not been completely stamped out like he promised he would do?
No country ever stamps out corruption completely. There are even countries where corruption is capital punishment and they execute people, they keep executing and that shows you that it has not been stamped out. So, I doubt if any country can completely stamp out corruption but you can minimize corruption. You can kill corruption to an extent. But when corruption is well and alive in a country, it is bad news for that country. So, President Buhari wants to minimize corruption to the barest and he is working at it
In the course of of the fight, many Nigerians have spoken out and have linked some persons close to him as being corrupt or have corruption allegations hanging on their necks but it does appear the President doesn’t budge?
An allegation is not the same thing as an indictment. If what they have against you is an allegation and it is not proven, then, nobody should hold that against you. It will be an injustice if on the basis of an allegation that is unproven, any action is taken against you. President Buhari is a very fair-minded man. If anything is alleged against anybody, the question he asks is where is the evidence and if you give him evidence, he looks at it. If the evidence is damning, if the evidence is indicting, see if he will not act but he will never act based on beer parlour gossips.
Do you feel energized having been reappointed to work, do you feel you have got another opportunity…?
Yes, I feel that whatever we have done in the first four years we can do better. If we have served our principal well, we can serve him better. If we have served him better, we can serve him best. So, we just want to give our best to a man we admire and love. I must tell you that I have always admired Mr. President since his days as a military man. I have always admired him and, till tomorrow, I still do. No matter what anybody says, he remains my role model, he remains my hero.
The first assignment that took you to Japan since your reappointment was the week-long TICAD 7 conference. Can you tell Nigerians the benefits they stand to gain from that conference?
I will say that with a caveat and the caveat is that when you go for international conferences like that, it is not a buying and selling market where, at the end of the day, you will say I carried goods worth 50,000 to the market, I made 75,000, that is not the way to look at it, that is not the intention, that is not the conception. Rather, it is something that is going to be both. There are immediate gains, there are midterm gains, there are long term gains; so you need to bear that in mind. It was a conference for Africa, African development held in Yokohama, Japan. So, it was for the whole continent and what came from the conference was like a bouquet for the entire continent and each country will strive to make its peak from the bouquet. But then, during the conference itself, there were some low-hanging fruits that you would have seen that you could pluck easily and Nigeria plucked those ones. EU signed a MoU 50million Euros to help Nigeria in the North-East, you know the North-Eeast has severe humanitarian crisis. EU is helping. That is a significant one. Japan itself is helping with aid for health in Nigeria, it is going to pump a lot of money into the health sector in Nigeria, it is also going to give money to our defence college. Then, you will see investment enquiries that have been made. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation met with the President and they said we have some resources that we have put aside to help Japanese companies in Nigeria; we are interested in sectors like healthcare, oil and gas and things like that. So, that is a positive for Nigeria. And then you see that Toyota came and they said they were not just interested in marketing cars, the President invited them to come and build an assembly plant but they said they wanted to build an international diagnostic centre in Nigeria in collaboration with Siemens of Germany so that nobody will have to go outside Nigeria for medi-care again in terms of diagnosis. So you find all these coming from the sidelines of the conference itself.
The Prime Minister of Algeria met with our president and he said let’s collaborate to build a gas pipeline; to pipe gas from Africa to Europe through the desert. That is one window that is opening which may turn out to be what is weight in gold depending on how it goes.
There, he also met with President of South Africa and Benin Republic, it was a window of opportunity to speak about the xenophobic attacks, to speak about smuggling through the Benin Republic border; so, those are gains from the conference.
And then, the President Buhari in his own key note unfolded Nigeria. He told them these are areas in which you can come to invest, oil and gas, petrol chemicals, railways, ICT, he just unfolded everything and we saw that potential investors followed up on that. So, it was very positive for Nigeria, it was a successful conference.
The President came under heavy criticism by the PDP that the world has divorced him and his government; that nobody wants to do business with him again. How do you react to that?
I think there is something in that Wadata Plaza that makes them hallucinate. I don’t know what happens to them there because this was a conference that was highly successful, very positive for Nigeria and they talk as if they have taken something that turns the mind. So, I don’t understand what happens to them when they operate from that Wadata Plaza. I think it is a haunted house. I think we need to bring in people to do exorcism and exorcise whatever evil spirit that is operating in that place.
TICAD 6 held in Nairobi, Kenya three years ago and this one was in Japan. Is there a possibility of it holding in Nigeria as well?
It can hold in any African country. I am sure they will have to bid for it. For instance, the next one is three years away. I can imagine the countries that are interested to host it will begin to bid for it. So, there is nothing that says it cannot hold in Nigeria.
When you were there, something struck some Nigerians. Why do you always have 54 African nations called or gathered by just one country in Europe or America for instance Japan and Africa, US and Africa to discus issues. One would have thought it should be done on continental levels but these are countries on their own too. What does this tell you about African leaders?
Well, Africa needs help particularly in the areas of infrastructures and investment. Africa has potentials but it has not really tapped the potentials, that is why countries like China, Japan, India set up fora like that. There is the India-Africa fora and we attended in New Delhi, I think in 2015. There is the Forum of China-African Cooperation (FOCAC), it held in China last year but before then it had held in Africa, it is rotational. So, these are wealthy countries who have seen that they can do something, win-win for themselves and the African continent. It is not a buccaneering thing they are not coming to raid or rape Africa, no, rather they are coming on a win-win relationship in which they will benefit and Africa will benefit too. Africa can use that kind of help and Nigeria particularly, we can use any help that we get from any part of the world.
Talking about Africa, it does appear at the moment there is no love lost amongst brothers in Africa. Look at what is happening in South Africa and you made mentioned that the two Presidents met in Japan. Barely one week after the meeting held back there in Japan, look at what has happened. Foreign nationals have been attacked and Nigerians in particular have suffered so many losses from that. How is the Presidency taking that?
Very depressing, very sad. I have sat with the President on this issue, so I know how he feels about it and he remains a statesman. He must tackle it decently and diplomatically. There must not be knee-jerk reactions. There must not be instigations to retaliations and all that but he must tackle it and I must tell you that the President is tackling it well. He has sent an envoy to the president of South Africa. That envoy will bring back a report and there will be follow-up decisions and actions. All those who are advocating for rash decisions and actions, they don’t understand how diplomacy works. Anything rash will exacerbate the matter rather than helping it. So, I believe the President is handling it as a mature man, like decent man, like a painstaking person that he is.
Has Nigeria called off their participation in the World Economic Forum holding there and then recalled the ambassador?
That has not been substantiated.
On both issues?
No, for the World Economic Forum, the Foreign Minister has come out to confirm that Nigeria stepped down from the World Economic Forum.
But at a time like this, many Nigerians have looked back and remembered General Sani Abacha, saying he would have done something by now.
Like what? Throwing bombs at South Africa? It is still diplomacy that will settle this matter.
But it is one death too many?
In fact a single death is too many, not to talk of many deaths and it has been happening repeatedly but you know that this latest development has helped to situate the problem properly. President Ramaphosa was in Nigeria some months back and he told the press that not every killing of Nigerians in South Africa is perpetuated by South Africans, that there are Nigerians killing Nigerians, that happens and I will not deny that; we have heard of confrontations between Nigerians and one killed the other and President Ramaphosa repeated this same thing in Japan. You have rivalries, you have petty bickering that leads to death and all that. But what happened, this time, I think started on August 29, and it has clearly shown that there is xenophobia in South Africa because it was targeted at foreigners, Nigerians particularly. The South African ambassador to Nigeria said it was a sporadic attack hijacked by criminal elements, no, we don’t agree. If it was sporadic, the different countries including South Africa itself would have been affected; if South Africa got affected in any way, it was just incidental, maybe criminals took the opportunity to loot and to perpetuate other heinous crimes.
But in terms of target, it was against foreigners and Nigerians in particular. It was xenophobic.
What do you think Nigeria will do when the envoy returns with the report?
No, you don’t second guess that.
No, with the number of deaths out there and what Nigerians have really suffered in the hands of South Africans?
The envoy needs to return first, brief the President and the President will meet with his team, take a decision as a government and the president then will visit South Africa, discuss with the South African President. So, there are still some steps ahead.
When do you think the return of the envoy will happen and the other events that will happen?
The envoy was billed to arrive South Africa latest Thursday September 5. So, I don’t think it is something that will take too long to meet with the President and bring back a report. It is going to be as short as possible.
That means the President’s visit to South Africa is happening soon?
It’s been scheduled but let me keep the date to myself.
Some Nigerians are saying that at times like this, there is fury and anger in the land, our President needs to do a national broadcast to reassure the citizens that…?
That is why you would need a mature President like President Buhari. When things like this happen, you don’t need knee-jerk reactions, you need the kind of reaction that will mollify the people calm them. If he begins to do national address and it is not carefully done, it can even make the matters worse. Already, you have some reprisal attacks against some interests perceived to be South African but those interests are not really South African. They are just franchises, yes, they are South African franchises but they belong to Nigerians. So attacking Shoprite, Multichoice, MTN, they are not strictly South African owned companies because the investors are Nigerians. So, it is Nigerians that are losing and how many South African nationals do we have in Nigeria compared to Nigerian nationals in South Africa? So we need to be careful.
Like the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind. This is not the time for an eye for an eye, yes, we must be firm about this, we must demand protection for Nigerians in South Africa, we must demand justice for those who have lost goods and those who have lost lives, we cannot bring them back but South Africa must be penitent about it and apologise and see compensations they can even pay to the families of some people but now is not the time for an eye for an eye.
Let me take you back to Japan, were you in any way rattled by the threat of IPOB at the time, coming just after the incident in Germany against Senator Ekweremadu?
We didn’t even smell IPOB in Japan not to talk of seeing them. All that IPOB did was just on social media.
Were there not protests on the streets?
No, not a single one. We didn’t see, we didn’t smell, we didn’t see glimpse of IPOB in Japan. All that you saw were just social media threats. There was no point in which we heard that they were near where we were, no, not at any point. Not at the conferences, not on our way to the airport, not when we were taking off. For us in Japan, IPOB did not exist because we didn’t see them.
How is the President taking the issue of IPOB especially after the Germany incident?
As far as the President is concerned, IPOB is proscribed. It doesn’t exist.
The wanton crises in Taraba State, the Tiv, Jukun crisis, I understand the governors from that axis are meeting with the Federal Government team to find a way out; back in Benue, many people have also lost their lives, are we seeing end in sight very soon?
It is not strictly a government thing; a lot will depend on the people themselves. Tivs and Jukuns; they are brothers and neighbours. It is not a crisis that started now. It dates back in time. Peace will not come until the people themselves are ready for peace. Government cannot legislate peace. It cannot enforce peace, and people themselves have to embrace peace. So the people themselves are involved in the peace process.
Is there any other thing you would like to say to Nigerians?
Just to say that President Buhari whether evil doers like it or not; you know some people are deliberately causing distractions so that eight years will pass and they will say he didn’t achieve anything but they will be shocked, they will be ashamed at the end of that period because Nigerians will look back and say, ‘yes, a man has come, he has seen and he has conquered’.
Is he optimist that he will win at the tribunal?
Yes, there is no case. Didn’t you hear Festus Keyamo who is one of the lawyers, saying it is the most worthless election petition since Nigeria began to hold elections. So there is no case, there is no cause for alarm. But the courts have the final say and we are confident of positive outcomes.