Reuben Abati: I don’t Want To Waste Precious Saliva on Asari Dokubo

Nigerians Saving Nigerians: www.nigerianssavingnigerians.org

President Goodluck Jonathan

Below are excerpts from an interview Nigerian newspaper, Vanguard conducted with President Jonathan’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Reuben Abati regarding issues affecting Nigeria.

“Your assessment of the performance of the Jonathan administration which you have put at above average has not affected the scathing criticism from Nigerians. Why do you think Nigerians are very critical of this administration despite the sterling performance as you have consistently said?

This being a democracy, there will never be a time when people won’t criticize government. The positive freedom that democracy offers includes the right to complain about everything including the weather. But even this must be done responsibly. Freedom does not mean the right to be irresponsible. Under the Jonathan administration, there has been real freedom. Nigerians have never had it so good. But what is bothersome is the tendency by some people to insist on promoting falsehood. I have read articles based completely on false premises, and even when the ignorance is pointed to the authors of such articles, they claim that this is a free country. Now, that is not the exercise of freedom. It is sheer irresponsibility.

Second, we have a President that is humble and accessible; focused and disciplined and a system that supports fundamental freedoms. In exercising their freedom, the people ask for more; they want more. Thus, expectations are high. There is a fast food mentality that has over-conditioned our conception of democracy. That is another reason why there is so much criticism. But democracy is not a fast-food recipe. It is a process, like putting a building together or bringing a child to life. And this government respects due process. Our own expectation is that people will come to understand this point in due course.

The good news is that the majority of Nigerians knows and appreciates the fact that this government has been very productive in delivering on President Jonathan’s transformation agenda. They are happy with what has been done in the agricultural sector to diversify the economy, create jobs and add value through a value-chain, business oriented approach to agriculture.

Are you sure they are happy with the value chain?
In the agric sector, this government has ended the season of tractor and fertilizer scam and re-energized the private sector and state governments, to take agriculture more seriously. Our aviation sector is different today. The airports have been upgraded, facilities for air traffic control, which used to be a major issue in the past, have been provided. International best practices are being enforced. The Jonathan administration has placed more emphasis on capital expenditure, resulting in massive investments in infrastructure.

Electricity supply has improved in many parts of the country; the power sector privatization process, abandoned by previous administrations has been revived, and there is every indication that in due course, the interest and commitment that this has generated among private sector investors will yield the desired goal of an effective, modern, and competitive electricity sector and market. At the moment, generation is up, distribution is up; things can only get better.

The railway sector is alive again. The trains are moving, moving goods and persons from North to South, North to East, and West to North. When you consider the fact that the railway sector practically died and became a poster case for abandonment, inertia, and mismanagement, you’d appreciate what this administration has done. At the same time, the roads are being fixed across the nation. There is a total road network of 200,000 km in Nigeria. About 65, 000 of that is paved with bitumen; 54% of which belongs to the Federal Government. The Federal Government is working on its roads. The states and local governments must also do theirs otherwise the Federal Government will continue to get blamed for roads that do not fall under its care.

Industry, trade and investment is another area where this government is doing well. Investment flows into the country keep rising every day because there is renewed confidence in this economy. The capital market has stabilized; our economic outlook is good, with the economy growing at an average of 7% per annum, and in 2013, IMF has projected that the country may record up to 7.2% growth rate. In this case, we are talking about inclusive and real growth. When last did you hear of any company relocating to neighbouring countries? That used to happen in the past, not anymore.

The ports have been sanitized. I mean, sanitized, because duplication of agencies resulting in real terms in the duplication of artificial toll gates at the ports has been checked. The gain is measurable in terms of the growing efficiency of ports operations. Before this President assumed office, there used to be long queues at fuel stations, universities used to be shut down for months. That has changed. The fuel queues have vanished. School sessions have become regular. This is the case because someone has been working hard, relating well, and paying attention.

Our foreign relations is much better. President Jonathan’s diplomacy has strengthened Nigeria’s relationship with its neighbours, the rest of Africa and the world. Our national pride and honour has been restored. I must add that under this President, the integrity of elections has been achieved. Today, Nigerian elections are always considered free and fair. This is a major legacy achievement by President Jonathan.

When you try to transform a system and promote change, it is normal that people who used to benefit from the old, retrogressive system will protest. Those are the ones spewing scathing criticisms to use your phrase. Then you have members of the opportunistic opposition who have declared publicly that their main task is to discredit and pull down the Jonathan administration.

They should not be taken seriously because they have no useful ideas they are bringing to the table. Ignorance poses a big threat to democracy, and the most vicious brand on our shores is the thinking by opposition elements that the best way to play politics is to destroy the government of the day with any possible means. That is not politics; that is perfidy. Being in the opposition does not mean being congenitally contrarian. And that is why I find it instructive that the attempt by the leadership of the Action Congress of Nigeria to shoot down the President’s proclamation of State of Emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states has been dismissed by many Nigerians as utterly irresponsible.

It is two years since President Jonathan assumed office and I am saying he has done very well, and he is committed to doing even more, and he enjoys the confidence of Nigerians at home and abroad. There are security challenges, yes, and that probably accounts for some of the criticisms, but the administration has demonstrated great resolve and confidence in dealing with the challenges.

The inauguration of the committee on dialogue with members of the Boko Haram sect has not in any way affected the activities of the sect. Is the President discouraged by this development?

He is not discouraged. Rather, he has taken the decision to deploy all necessary and appropriate tools in concert with local and international stakeholders, to ensure that we all overcome the evil of terrorism that is threatening our well-being as a nation. Terrorism is a new kind of threat on our shores. Suicide bombing, nihilism, was something we thought impossible in Nigeria.

But here we are. It is also important to note that there can be no illusion of simplicity where the fight against terrorism is involved. Terrorists strike at will with deadly cruelty. Besides, in Nigeria, there are many sides to the terror, many factions within the group, and now they want to take over the country.

Government’s commitment is to get the factions to lay down their arms, government’s commitment is to enforce the rule of law and justice; government’s commitment is to beat terrorism. The overriding consideration is the peace, security, and stability of Nigeria. While the option of dialogue and peaceful resolution is being pursued, government will also not condone impunity of any sort, or the obvious attempt by terrorists to create and run an enclave within the Nigerian state. Hence, the declaration of a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states by President Jonathan.

If anyone is in doubt, the Commander in Chief of Nigeria’s Armed Forces has made it clear: this government will not tolerate any attempt to violate the sovereignty of Nigeria. Those who are willing to dialogue and lay down their weapons can approach the National Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution on the Security Challenges in Northern Nigeria. The work of that Committee remains significant and relevant, and it is bound to be impactful.

In the South-South, the spate of attacks on oil facilities is on the increase despite the amnesty programme. This is even more worrisome because the President’s home state of Bayelsa has recorded most of these attacks. What is happening?

It is not true that there is renewed insurgency in the Niger Delta. If anything, the amnesty programme in the Niger Delta has been very successful. Thousands of Niger Delta youths have been sent for training in South Africa, Botswana, Europe and elsewhere. Over, 1, 000 of them, ex-militants just returned from South Africa.

In Botswana, I was there when President Jonathan met with a graduating class of ex-militants. Their former leaders, self-styled warlords have been reintegrated back into society. They are now gentlemen, not anarchists. President Jonathan’s focus is to create new role models among Nigerian youths and his administration has done a lot in that regard. The Almajiri Education Programme is one example. YouWIN is another example. There is also the Youth in Agriculture programme.

What is happening at the moment in the Niger Delta are isolated, episodic, and opportunistic cases of criminality including crude oil theft or occasional protest. It is not an insurgency. You have on one hand, militants who failed to take part in the amnesty programme all through Phases One to Three, who have now suddenly woken up and are insisting that they must be accommodated outside the original framework. Then, you have the greedy, attention-seeking “Na my brother dey there” noisemakers who just want to be noticed. And the crude oil thieves. Now, crude oil theft is a serious matter; because it is economic sabotage and an assault on the Nigerian state. Government is dealing with that decisively.

Some people have said that the crisis in the People’s Democratic Party is an indication of the people’s frustration with the President. How will you react to this? Secondly, why is the President fighting the governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, as people have alleged?

There is no connection between the politics within PDP and what the people feel about President Jonathan. Every political party has its own internal dynamics. The PDP as a political party can and will resolve its own internal issues. As a political leader and as Nigeria’s Head of State and Head of Government, President Jonathan’s focus is on service delivery, performance and progress. I am sure that people are able to differentiate between intra-party politics and the very business of governance. And surely, there is no political party anywhere that does not have its own internal issues to deal with. Secondly, the allegation that President Jonathan is fighting Governor Rotimi Amaechi is wrong. There is no rift between the President and the Governor. Amaechi himself has said that much publicly.

The insistence by the president to retain Arumah Oteh, the DG of SEC has created an impasse on the passage of the 2013 budget. Is Oteh so irreplaceable that the country’s budget would be put on hold because of her?

There is no impasse as far as I know over the passage of the 2013 budget. The 2013 Budget is not on hold; it has been passed by the National Assembly and it is already being implemented. I think both the Executive and the Legislature must be commended for ensuring that the 2013 Budget was prepared and passed early. Considering what used to happen in the past, that is indeed commendable.

I am aware that both arms of government had agreed to look into some grey areas and take care of these in a supplementary budget that is now being considered. But nothing has been put on hold. What the Jonathan administration has introduced and has been able to achieve is to make the budgeting process open and transparent, so much that today even masons and motorcyclists pretend to be experts in budget analysis. I like the idea of people taking ownership of something as fundamental as the Appropriation Act, but we must beware of beer parlour economists taking charge.

There are big and serious issues involved. The budgeting process cannot become an instrument for vendetta. It cannot be reduced to the level of personality conflicts. That will amount to a reductio ad absurdum. Arunmah Oteh was head-hunted for the job of Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 2010, her appointment was endorsed by the National Assembly on the basis of merit and the excellent credentials that she brought to the job. She is one of the very many high-fliers in President Jonathan’s team of the best and the brightest and she has acquitted herself very well.

She met a Stock Exchange that had been reduced to a penny stock market and a source of fright for local and international investors. She has rescued that market from the decline slope; she has strengthened it, and reorganized and rebuilt confidence in it. Our stock market is becoming bullish again, it is on the rebound, investors are streaming back in large numbers. That should be rewarded not opposed just because some people don’t like Arunmah’s face. She has a very pretty face by the way, and a sharp brain. Those who are gunning for her head should adjust their lenses.

The leader of one of the groups in Niger Delta, Asari Dokubo, has sensationally asserted that there would be no Nigeria if President Goodluck Jonathan is not elected in 2015. Some people have alleged that he is speaking the mind of the President, that is why he has neither been called to order nor arrested. How do you react to this?

I speak for President Goodluck Jonathan. The last time I checked, I was still his official spokesman, not Asari Dokubo. And I can tell you that President Jonathan has not issued any formal statement with regard to the 2015 general elections, other than to state that he remains focused on the assignment that Nigerians have given him and that the time has not yet come for 2015 politics. INEC has not issued any directive on it. The political parties have not either. When the time is ripe, he will make his position known.

Are you with me? I can also tell you that President Jonathan who is an exponent and champion of the one man, one vote, one woman, one vote, one youth, one vote electoral principle will never play the politics of threat and intimidation. He believes in Nigeria and the right of Nigerians to choose their own leaders. For him, politics is not a do or die affair. It is an opportunity to serve and make a contribution. He sees leadership as a privilege not a birthright. As for Asari Dokubo, I stand by my earlier comments on him. You’d have to google that, because I don’t want to waste precious saliva.

In the next few weeks, this administration would be two years. Some Nigerians have argued that their electoral investment has not been worthwhile because of the myriads problems that have remained unsolved. They cite the increasing insecurity, unemployment and corruption as some of the areas that this government has failed. Would you say Jonathan has met the expectations of Nigerians?

I believe I had answered this question much earlier. But you must have your reasons for bringing it up again and my well-informed, categorical and affirmative answer is yes. The only new thing perhaps is your pointed reference to unemployment and corruption and I will deal with the issues quickly. First, on the matter of insecurity, you must have seen that Nigerians are quite happy that President Jonathan is taking a very decisive step in that regard with the declaration of a State of Emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states and the signal that no form of impunity will be tolerated in any part of Nigeria.

President Jonathan is committed to solving the problem of insecurity, just as he is solving inherited problems in other sectors of the economy: agriculture, aviation, education, infrastructure development, aviation, industry and so on. The combined effect of these efforts is to further open up the economy, deepen its absorptive capacity and create opportunities for job seekers. Once the economy continues to grow, it opens up access for skilled labour automatically. In addition, there are specific schemes for job creation: YouWIN, the Graduate Internship Scheme under the SURE-P and the youth empowerment programme in agriculture. There is also a specific emphasis on entrepreneurship promotion from curricular review to that critical school to work intersection that is central to development dynamics.

What of allegations of corruption?
Corruption! There has been so much misinformation and blackmail on this subject. To say that the Jonathan administration is not fighting corruption is a wrong-headed expression, which I have no doubts attracts very easy donor funding and so, that attracts so many opportunists. You just have to shout corruption as many times as possible for you to become a saint, and also smile to the bank. Don’t be fooled; some of the people claiming to be holier than thou are the most corrupt elements in this country and one day, they will get their come-uppance. The hypocrites aside, President Jonathan’s position is that corruption is inimical to national growth and development, worse still, it amounts to economic sabotage.

Through a well-articulated reform agenda, the Jonathan administration is waging war against corruption in the power sector, in the civil service, at the ports, in the downstream sector of the Petroleum industry, and more importantly in politics through the administration’s emphatic insistence on the integrity of electoral processes, this has been empirically proven in all the elections conducted under President Jonathan’s watch. After two years in office, President Jonathan deserves commendation. He has shown great resolve and resourcefulness and has led us all with a good heart, conscience and a result-oriented, productive strategy.”

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