Corruption, insecurity, among many other issues, have become recurring decimals in the Nigerian equation. Besides that, the current administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and the ruling party – the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) – have been frequently criticized by the opposition and many public commentators for its inability to solve the country’s multifarious problems.
Recently, I spoke to Dr Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to President Jonathan on Media and Publicity, in London, to get an insider’s view. In this exclusive interview, Abati, who was also a renowned public commentator, provides the answers to these burning questions, including what he termed the ‘crisis of expectations’ by Nigerians of President Jonathan’s government.
SU: Despite the fluctuations in the power sector, Boko Haram menace, general insecurity, and poverty in the country, do you honestly believe that President Jonathan has performed well, especially with the transformation agenda being championed by his administration?
REUBEN ABATI: My concern is that your question is negatively phrased. And it betrays a certain mindset that gets promoted by the opposition and those I refer to as the “collective children of anger” in trying to put down this government. Our concern is that that viewpoint gets echoed again and again. I think that the truth needs to be put on the table again and again to counter what, like I said in another interview, amounts to sheer disinformation. I think many of the people who criticize this administration have been unfair to it, specifically; they have been unfair to President Jonathan. We keep saying this; President Jonathan did not create the problem of insecurity in Nigeria or poverty in Nigeria. His charge and promise to Nigerians on the issue of transformation has been that, as President, he will try to effect change and transform Nigeria. That is precisely what he has been doing. But many Nigerians do not want to give him credit for what he is doing. If you look at the situation in Nigeria today, at the time that President Jonathan took over, the power supply situation in the country was a great embarrassment. That has improved. The majority of Nigerians – the ones who don’t have an agenda, who are not being sponsored, who are not playing politics, who are not being mischievous – will confess to you that power supply has indeed improved. The challenge that government faces is to fast track the privatization process and (ensure that) there is accelerated progress with regards to what has even been achieved so far. That is why almost every other month; the President holds special meetings on power. He is personally tracking the progress that is being made. So with regards to power, the improvement that has occurred is something that needs to be remarked upon, again and again. This has not only translated into advantages and opportunities, particularly in terms of its impact on social living, but also in terms of its implication for small and medium enterprises that depend a lot on power supply; also for big manufacturers, who need power to be able to function. Now take the railways, an area of big scandals in Nigeria. All kinds of contractors from different parts of the world were brought by previous administrations to revive the railways. Today as we speak, Nigerians are travelling in trains from Lagos to Ilorin, from the East to the North. Efforts are being made to fix the rail line from Lagos to the North, and also from Lagos to Ibadan. The Nigerian Railway Corporation, which was one of those poster cases for abandoned government projects, has suddenly come alive. Through that, jobs and opportunities have been created. I have read one or two comments by some persons who say they have travelled in the trains and the trains are not as comfortable as they should be. Okay, maybe people want the standards to be raised further, but the truth of the matter is that the rail lines have come alive again. It is this administration that has been able to do it. What is it that this administration has done that previous administrations did not do? The difference simply is that this is an administration that is committed to transformation. I give another area of intervention, in Nigeria, the agricultural sector, used to be the headquarters of scam – fertilizer scam, tractor scam, overtaking by all kinds of rent collectors and LPO carriers. Under this administration, agriculture is right there in the forefront. Agriculture, as a business, is the emphasis; not agriculture as a contract-awarding department of government. You see a lot is being done in terms of the value chain, improvement with specific emphasis on cassava, rice cocoa and millet. For the fist time, Nigeria has cassava surplus. But before this administration came, Nigeria’s cassava was hidden underground and the country was importing very high volume of metric tons of rice. But today, the amount of hectares being cultivated, the partnership between the government and private sector is the new reality within the agriculture sector. Now people talk a lot and say the government is not fighting corruption. In the last one year, the EFCC (Economics and Financial Crimes Commission) has published statistics saying that it has secured over 200 convictions. You can Google it. It is out there in the public domain. Nobody is…
SU: Sorry to cut you short here, we are going to get to several issues you have raised. With regards to power, CNN’s Christiana Amanpour recently had an interview with President Jonathan. Later she did a follow up report with the common man as the President insisted, with the underlining assertion that power has not improved in the country. What is your reaction to this?
REUBEN ABATI: Well you know one major concern is that for some journalists, you don’t know where to draw the line between professional work and activism or “envelope pushing”. I think in this particular case, with regards to power, what Nigerians have is a crisis of expectations. If people have power, say consecutively for two to three weeks in neighbourhoods where probably for a whole month there was no power supply, something happens and that electricity supply goes for maybe one or two hours; you know our people, they are likely to get really angry and say nothing has changed. People forget very easily. There is a lot of present mindedness. Even in neighbourhoods where for maybe two, three weeks there was no power supply, if the power goes for one hour, you will see they will go on Twitter (to say) “they have ‘taken light’ in my neighbourhoods”…. These are people who used to live in darkness and accept it as reality. So, some of the reaction you are getting from the average Nigerian is a way of saying, if this thing is going to change, let it just changed permanently. It is just human reaction. But I think people should be objective in admitting that, yes there has been a lot of improvement. Maybe in some cases that improvement is not yet permanent. But the improvement is there and what government needs is the encouragement to do more. On our side what we keep insisting upon is that there is hope, things can only get better. We will not roll back what has been achieved. We can only do more. That why the position of the President now is making sure that the privatization process is fast tracked, that the metering system is aggressively pursued and made available, so that at the end of the day, this success that has been recorded in the power sector is further concretized for the benefit of Nigerians. And the expectations of those Nigerians, who are beginning to get used to regular power supply and do not want it to go off for one hour again, can be met.
SU: But CNN went to the streets to interview the average Nigerian. Many others on the social media also said that power has really not improved. Another view out there is that what is being done is not enough, from about 2,000 megawatts to about 4,000 megawatts? It is like a drop in the ocean…
REUBEN ABATI: Don’t forget that when President Jonathan took over, the power supply situation in the country was less than 2000 megawatts. Companies were relocating from Nigeria to neighbouring countries because of power challenges. Some in certain parts of the country were closing down because they could not have access to gas to run their systems. That has changed. By December, it was close to 4,500 megawatts, from less than 2,000. In less than two years, the Jonathan administration took power supply to almost double what some other administration could not do in eight years. That is progress. All I am telling you is, (this happened) even without the privatization process being completed. The Jonathan administration inherited a power sector where almost all the IPPS that the Federal Government invested in were shut down (because) they were not functioning. There were issues about gas supply to the thermal stations. All these have been addressed. What the average man is saying is that it is not enough, you said so yourself. You said we should not celebrate 4000 megawatts plus, but the truth of the matter is that people should be honest enough to say that progress has been made. The thing is not going to change completely over night. Transformation is not like a bullet you shoot, it’s a process and the progress that is recorded is incremental. I am saying that it can only get better.
SU: You mentioned the government’s desire to fight corruption, and some people feel that the President lost the moral high ground when he refused to declare his assets?
REUBEN ABATI: I didn’t talk about the government’s desire. I said the government is fighting corruption, I was categorical and affirmative. Now on the issue of the President not declaring his assets, that is not the issue. The President did not say he will not declare his assets, I have responded to this question before and I keep responding to it. We are dealing with an oppositional audience, inspired by politics and this emergent merger mentality in which politicians become armoured personnel carriers of sort; to think that anything government must be shut down. In fact, the President has declared his assets over and over again. The law requires a public official to declare his assets when he is taking office and when he or she is leaving office. So for a man like President Jonathan, who has been holding office since 1999, you can imagine how many times he has declared his assets in accordance with law. What he said in that interview was that the law did not require him to declare his assets publicly. What the law requires is for him to declare his assets with the Code of Conduct Bureau and he has done that. Whoever wants the detail should go to the Bureau and ask for the information. But Nigerians are saying No! He must declare his assets publicly. If he must declare his assets as the law requires, what is the point of going to carry a microphone to say, these are my assets. Now if the law is inadequate and if Nigerians say, we want public/government officials to declare their assets publicly or we want the assets declaration form to be made public; then the appropriate area of intervention will be a legislative advocacy to say let us change the law. If the law is changed, then it is the law. Then everyone will be required to abide by it, this where the issue is. A president that says he is carrying the banner for the defence of the rule of law cannot – either for purposes of expediency or political compromise – also be seen to be bending the same law just because he wants to please the crowd. I think some of these things that are used to criticise the government must be backed by investigation and a deliberate attempt to respect the facts. Now there’s been a lot of furore over oil subsidy scam. People forget that it was the same president who set up the committees that exposed the fuel subsidy scam before the National Assembly (and) the House of Representatives in particular picked it up. Don’t forget that this is all part of the fallout of the proposed deregulation of the downstream sector of January 2011, when the government took the decision to withdraw fuel subsidy. That decision led to riots and complains. But the major fallout of it was that the attention of Nigerians was drawn to the fact that subsidy was paid on fuel supply. The identity of the persons collecting the subsidy was exposed and on the basis of that, we have this investigation into the management of fuel subsidy. I think that is a positive outcome and the trigger, the catalyst, was a policy decision taken by government. Today the fuel subsidy payment process is better managed. There is greater rigour and you can see the fuel marketers fighting back, with the Ministry of Finance insisting that everything has to be carefully double-checked. The age and time in Nigeria when people will claim to supply fuel and use non-existent vessels in some ocean somewhere and there will be no verification, they will just collect rent; that will not happen again. So you must realize that these rent collectors who have always fed fat on the Nigerian system are also very powerful interests. I think it is Githongo in the book ‘It Is Our Turn to Eat’ by Michela Wrong that said when you fight corruption, corruption fights back. It is part of the things that this administration is trying to deal with. Nigerians must realize that things have changed and it is no longer business as usual.
SU: So has the President been largely misunderstood, wrongly or unfairly criticised by Nigerians? For instance, you mentioned the committee set up to look at the rot in the Petroleum Sector, one of the criticisms is that committees are simply set up but their recommendations are not implemented?
REUBEN ABATI: They are fact-finding committees. I keep saying this. They are not quasi-judicial bodies. And this why when people talk about the Ribadu report and others, I say there is a misconception. They should go back to the terms of reference of those committees. A President does not run a country on the basis of whims. He runs the country on the basis of facts and information. He deploys the intelligence of other people, delegates processes and on the basis of it, he acts on the information that he has at his disposal. Those three committees that were set up – to look at the state of the refineries, revenue, financial task force, and on the governance system in the petroleum sector and before then the PIB task force; they are fact-finding and if you like, investigative committees. They are not quasi-judicial bodies. They are to gather the information and offer advice to the government and on the basis of it government takes certain actions. It serves nobody’s purpose if the government sets up such committees, it gets politicized and people begin to dictate what government should do, or persons within the committee themselves insist that their recommendations have descended from the temple of Solomon. And these are absolute declarations on the state of the issues they have been asked to investigate. I think that is what is happening in this case. But government doesn’t work that way. If you look at the various committees set up, President Jonathan makes sure that virtually all the committees are made up of respectable Nigerians who have distinguished themselves. Look at the SURE-P, which is an adhoc body to monitor savings from the reduction (and) the partial reduction of the fuel subsidy. Go and check the composition of that SURE-P committee; they are mostly members of civil society, Labour Unions, from professional bodies, from the general society. Government’s representation is the minority. If the savings have been made, let us get respectable Nigerians representing different constituencies. But people have been saying no, the SURE-P is collecting money, it is awarding contracts. The SURE-P does not award contracts; it is like an oversight body. The SURE-P oversees the project implementation you need in relevant ministries. And to make sure that money voted for x is used for x and results are achieved. The committee is led by a respectable Nigerian, Christopher Kolade, and look at what it has been able to do within six months from when the mandate was given. But Nigerians will insist that there must be contract there. Yet, that body does not award contract. So these are the kinds of challenges that we face, people twisting, misinforming the public and every Nigerian is a closet manager of situation and resources; just like in football where every Nigerian is a football coach, including people who cannot describe the shape of a football.
SU: Isn’t it worrisome for this government that someone the calibre of a former prominent government official reportedly alleged that this administration has frittered $67 billion (N10 trillion) former President Olusegun Obasanjo left behind; most people are saying why is the government not coming out to defend its position? Why is the government not coming out to engage her in a debate?
REUBEN ABATI: What do you mean by ‘calibre’, because I really don’t understand? People cannot just wake up in their homes and say you are challenging the Federal Government of Nigeria to a debate. That is presumptuous. I mean, what is her qualification?
SU: She was a former minister….
REUBEN ABATI: And so what? I mean, how many people have been privileged to be minister or to serve in government? How many of them have come forward to say, I am challenging the Nigerian government to a debate? People should not get carried away by the privileges they have been opportune to have within the Nigerian system. Yes, you can raise questions as an individual, people raise questions every day. In her own particular case, those questions have been addressed. The Federal Government has published the details of the excess crude account and foreign reserves, information provided by the minister of finance. That information was put in the public domain in different newspapers to say that, as at the time the Jonathan government took over, this was the balance. As at this time, if you look at the balance, it has even increased. But you see some people just come throwing around figures. The issue is not even the integrity of government. It is about their own integrity and motives. I don’t know why whatever question she raised is being over flogged. At the level of principle, yes government has a duty to offer explanation and on this particular matter it has done that. People should just back track, go look at the information that has been put out there and make an effort to think and analyse; instead of all this emotional thing that is out there and grandstanding, if you ask me.
SU: Nigeria has enjoyed almost 14 years of democratic rule. Do you think the country’s democracy and opposition has come of age?
REUBEN ABATI: Nigeria’s democracy is growing, and under President Jonathan it is being consolidated. Also, the kind of things you find within the space is only possible because we are running a democracy. We were all in the same Nigeria under the military, when freedom of opinion was heavily curtailed. But under President Jonathan, you see that the scope for free expression has expanded. And there is a lot of robustness out there in terms of people expressing their views – both people who say reasonable things and people who say stupid things, as well as those who over estimate themselves and say what they like, they are all out there in the public domain. I think that it is good for our democracy, both the sense and nonsense. So I think it is something that we should celebrate. When you look at it from that angle, you don’t get angry with people, because it is a positive thing for Nigeria. Maybe perhaps from all these contestations, from this mixture of sense and nonsense, we’ll get the truth and we all move the country forward, because at the end of the day, like I keep saying, what is important is the country. People will come people will go, but the country must continue to move forward.
SU: How worried is President Jonathan over the merger by the opposition?
REUBEN ABATI: The President welcomes the development. The President believes in the freedom of association. He believes in the freedom of expression and believes that politicians coming together to say they are merging just shows that our democracy is growing. Don’t be surprised that the PDP has welcomed the development. It is a good thing and it will be remembered that in President Jonathan’s time the space was so open and the debate was so rich that both sense and nonsense was accommodated, that even mergers were taken as positive development. It is a positive development.
SU: Some of your recent articles, like The Jonathan They Don’t Know and The Hypocrisy of Yesterday’s Men, have come under severe criticism in the mainstream and social media and among a section of Nigerians generally. Why do you think Nigerians react angrily to almost everything you write to change their views about President Jonathan?
REUBEN ABATI: I have been in the public domain for more than 28 years and in this business of public affairs commentary for as long as that period. So controversy is something I am used to. I don’t think it is because I work for the government. People know me as someone with very strong views and when I express my views, I don’t pull punches. I wasn’t in government when I did a critique of the emerging music industry, and that generated tons upon tons of paper. In fact, Jahman Anikulapo, then Editor of the Guardian on Sunday, ran the reactions for almost five weeks, filling every edition with almost four to five pages of rejoinders. I wasn’t in government. So I think that in this business there are certain views that you express and people take those views seriously. Because they take it seriously, they think they must express their own views. But it doesn’t bother me. When you check, I don’t always write rejoinders to rejoinders. I have said my bit and other people have the right to express themselves. So, once it is said and I have put my views down concretely I move on. It is not a thing I want to dwell upon.
SU: People believe that if you were not in government you would have joined the bandwagon of commentators criticizing this government?
REUBEN ABATI: Well the thing to note is that when you are out there and you write commentary, you are doing so within the circumference of what you know and what you see. That is one observatory. But when you are inside government, you also get to see a lot that people who are on the other side probably do not see. This why I tell people that I don’t think it is a sin to work in government. I don’t think that it is wrong for people who have been active in civil society to go into government. Because when you have the benefit of the two sides of a coin you are then in a better position to analyse, comment and be objective if you really want to be. If you read that my piece that you referred to earlier, there is a subtext in that piece about what you see when you are inside government, about human motives, people, character, the pretentiousness of a certain class which you may not easily see if you are just out there. Follow the front pages and you would see the icons created by the media. But from this side, you see everything. So, when I say this is the way it is, you can be sure that I am what I see. But people will say, he is doing his job, he has been paid to do it and all that, which is where the problem lies. But I can tell you truthfully that you get to see a lot more when you are inside government. But unfortunately, many of the things you see and know, you really cannot put them out in black and white, because of the complexities of so many things. But I can tell you that you can double check everything I have said. For example, if I tell you that the Aviation sector in Nigeria has improved. As I pointed out in the piece you quoted, you cannot controvert it to the extent that in terms of the provision of infrastructure. That used to be a major issue. Air traffic controllers used to complain that they don’t have basic equipment. Go and check all those facilities, they have been upgraded and modernised.
SU: You had an iconic status in public commentary. Now, your critics and loyal readers have dredged up articles you wrote in the past criticising this particular government. Are you saying that being in a position in government now gives you an objective view and would you say your articles in the past were subjective?
REUBEN ABATI: I have just told you, when you are in government you get a lot more information and you have a far more comprehensive view and maybe being inside government makes you more sympathetic because you see everything. And for someone like me who is a…
SU: Are you sure it is not because the government pays your salary?
REUBEN ABATI: You know I am a stakeholder; we are all stake holders in this country called Nigeria. Nobody should say my view is superior to yours. You can only speak from the benefit of your experience and from what you have seen. And I see also that there is a lot of name calling and viciousness. You read some of those things and wonder whether these people are even human beings. People go online; they curse and wish you evil, saying all kinds of atrocious things….
SU: But you have also been accused of name calling too, the “collective children of anger” …?
REUBEN ABATI: I don’t curse people. I don’t say this evil thing will befall you. If I say people are “collective children of anger”, how is that a term of abuse? It is not abusive. It is just a description. In the same Britain, there was a movement called the Angry Young men, which was a literary tradition. In fact, it was a positive thing to say that those young men that wrote within that period of British literature were angry because they wanted to change the status quo. They wanted to change the establishment. The way some people comment, you just look at it and say, did this people go to school at all? But, the internet gives you the freedom to say what you like and that is why I spoke earlier of the mix of nonsense and sense.
SU: What are the major challenges confronting the Presidency in fulfilling its goal of transforming the country’s economy and image?
REUBEN ABATI: The rot that needs to be changed is so much and it is on all fronts. That is why even when the government is prioritizing and saying this is what we would deal with, you just look at every section and you see that there is so much to be changed, to be transformed. And it is not a thing that you can do overnight. If you look at how governance works, it takes a while before the changes come and then you add them all up together, particularly if you have to deal with the magnitude of the wrath that you are dealing with. I think another challenge is the heavy politicking within the environment. It can be very distractive because the government is trying to work and some people are just trying their best to distract the government. They use all kinds of tactics, including obviously subversive moves and government will have to deal with that. It dissipates energy. What President Jonathan has been doing is to remain focused. If you look at him as an individual, you would see that by his personal style, he is a very humble and very well composed person. Sometimes I read comments that say Nigeria doesn’t need a gentleman, Nigeria doesn’t need somebody who is composed, that Nigeria needs a bully. I had cause to write a piece that no amount of intimidation will turn this man into a bully because that is not his nature. There are Nigerians who are saying what we need in Nigeria is a dictator and I say, why do you need a dictator if you are running a democracy. You can’t at the same time be asking for a dictatorship. But I guess all of these are parts of the fact that our democracy is developing. Just as the government is learning, I believe the people are also learning.