Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, in this interview with NIYI ODEBODE, JOHN ALECHENU and ADE ADESOMOJU, speaks on the expectations of Nigerians from the incoming administration of Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), his perception of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, among other issues
The President-elect, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has acknowledged the fact that expectations of Nigerians from him are very high. How do you think he can meet these within the next four years?
Whenever there is a change in government in a democracy, whether in Nigeria or anywhere else, normally the expectation tends to rise. It is not unexpected in Nigeria, particularly when this is the first time in our democratic process that we are witnessing a smooth change in government from the ruling party to an opposition. Therefore, expectations are much higher within the normal circumstance of change.
After several shots at the presidency, will you still present yourself if the opportunity avails itself to you again?
It is quite too early for such a question. We are in a transition process. We have not even formed the next government. You are asking me whether I will like to run again or not. I think it is just too early. My concern is to make sure that the transition process is smooth and complete and a new government is formed because it is the party that I belong to that is coming in. My dream for Nigeria is always that we can, from time to time, change government so that there can be competition among parties and that competition will bring about, perhaps more development and progress in the country. I think that is my most important concern now rather than thinking of whether I’m going to run again or not.
Why is it taking your party so long to decide on zoning?
I think that is one fundamental thing Nigerians tend to forget. There is no zoning in the constitution of the All Progressives Congress. In the true sense of it, there is no zoning. But we also know that this country is between North and South, Muslims and Christians. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country; hence there is the need for balance of government appointments. We are not unaware of that. In the strictest sense of it, there is no zoning in the APC’s constitution. It is in the Peoples Democratic Party’s constitution and it has a long history. Those of us who were in the Constitutional Conference of 1994, 1995 actually initiated it.
What are the pitfalls the APC must avoid to steer clear of the fate that befell the PDP?
There are quite a few and fundamental ones that I will urge the APC government to avoid. Firstly, the political party should be allowed to freely operate on its own so that the issues of governors and the president being the leaders of the party and also the leader of government can be separated. It is only when one does that that internal democracy is allowed to thrive within the political party. Internal democracy is the building block, but when one mixes the two (leadership of political party and that of government), then one will find oneself where the PDP has found itself in the last 16 years.
Secondly, the governors and the president must be focused on key fundamental issues of governance. If they want to make an impact, for instance, in the first 100 days, three months, six months, as the case may be, they have to pick up certain key areas and also let Nigerians know that in the first 100 days, this is what you should expect from us. For instance, in my policy document, when I was running for the presidency, I said in the first 100 days, this is what you should expect from me. I think it will be necessary for the government to tell Nigerians that this is what you should expect from us in the first 100 days and so on.
What is your take on the prediction that the APC would be torn apart by the struggle for positions in the incoming government?
I don’t believe so. I think we have come across a number of challenges since the formation of the APC. I believe that government is not essentially an employer of labour. It should create the necessary environment for the private sector to create jobs. I think there is too much emphasis on government employment or government patronage in this country. This is because various levels of governance, whether local government or state, don’t function well. In other words, it is the failure of our institutions. If one goes to certain countries, one doesn’t find the president even having one visitor. For instance, I have visited my brother and friend, Jacob Zuma, several times. You don’t find even one single individual sitting with him and he goes out like a normal person because the institutions are working. The local councils are working. The provincial governments are working, everything is okay. Thus, whatever one is looking for at any level of one’s life is being provided for by the institution that is established to do it. Therefore, one doesn’t need the big man at the top. But unfortunately in this country, all our institutions are not working. They have been undermined. The constitution is very clear on that. But because the implementers of the constitution have not implemented the constitution as they should, the institutions are failing or have failed. Therefore, everybody looks up to the president to solve all the problems. No, that should not be. That is why we have local and state governments. Hence, I think we have to strengthen our institutions and make sure that they deliver services to their respective people.
The President-elect, like many other Nigerians, believes that corruption has reached an intolerable level in this country. Do you share the view that he (the President-elect) cannot achieve much in tackling the menace as he has promised because he is surrounded by many politicians that are also accused of being corrupt?
I think it takes political will to fight corruption. I have sat down with the President-elect and I believe he has the political will to do that. He told me clearly that anybody who is corrupt should not expect any appointment from his government and I agree with him. I also told him that if he really wants to cleanse this society, he should not make the mistake of trying to appoint anybody who is alleged or perceived to be corrupt and he can do that by making sure he gets the necessary information from the relevant government agencies. So, I believe he has the political will.
Apart from the area of appointment, what other specific areas must he explore to ensure that corruption is curbed?
Corruption has become so endemic in this country that any level of the society one goes to, it is present. Even in my house, my wife is always fighting with the drivers; fighting with the mechanic; fighting with the cooks. When she gives them money to do this or that, they do fake receipts and all that. Therefore, corruption is so endemic in the society, even in households. But then, if the political leadership provides the direction, the leadership and the will to fight corruption, one will find out that gradually we will be eliminating corruption and we will bring it to a minimal level. There is no society where there is no corruption, even in the advanced democracies there is corruption, but at a very minimal level. It is not threatening their progress as a country.
Still on corruption, you once said that you were one of the most investigated Nigerians. If the President-elect says, again, he is going to investigate the cases against you, will you be afraid or worried?
I’m not worried. You can investigate me. But you know most of my cases have ended up in the court up to the Supreme Court and the apex court has ruled on them. Thus, for you to reopen a case that has been closed by the Supreme Court … but I am ready to be investigated.
Before the general elections, President Goodluck Jonathan visited you. The picture that was being painted out there by his loyalists was that you gave a tacit approval for his second term bid. Can you use this opportunity to tell Nigerians what really transpired between the two of you at that meeting?
I have told Nigerians what transpired between the two of us. He wanted me to come back to the PDP and I said I was not coming back.
There is this story that the PDP is being repositioned and that the party is reaching out to you and Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State. If the party leaders reach out to you, will you return to the PDP?
Nobody has reached out to me yet. And for the question of if I would go back or not; how many people will the President go to their houses to say, ‘This is the favour I want’ and they will look at him in the face and say, ‘No, we are not going back?’ How many in this country will do that?
Your former boss, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, said so many not-too-complimentary things about you in his latest book, ‘My Watch’. Have you both met since then?
You know, really, I don’t give a damn (about) what Obasanjo says about me.
You talked about South Africa working. Do you think that the concentration of power in the hands of the Federal Government is undermining the development of the country?
There seemed to be better service delivery by the government during the period we ran the regional government system. I had said that in my paper to the last Constitution Conference. I wrote a very comprehensive paper on that. I believe that the powers of the Federal Government are too many and there should be power devolution to the state and local governments.
Still talking about former President Obasanjo, do you think he scuttled the best chance you ever had to lead this country as president?
I don’t think so. How? When?
Your second term with him as Vice-President between 2003 and 2007 was stormy and he did everything to stop you from succeeding him as a result of which you left the PDP for the then Action Congress.
As far as I am concerned, Obasanjo may believe that he scuttled my presidential ambition, but I believe it is about God. If God says I will be president, I will be president; if He says I will not be president, I will not be president. Let’s forget about Obasanjo.
You chaired the privatisation committee and you did a lot in various sectors, including telecommunication, by laying the foundation. I can’t remember you handling that of power…
I refused to handle that of power.
Why did you refuse?
I refused to because I had a fundamental disagreement with the President (Obasanjo). He believed we should go left; I believed we should go right. He said I should become the chairman of the committee, I accepted. He inaugurated it, but I never sat. I allowed the Minister of Power then, Liyel Imoke, to sit. You can see that I was right because I told him what we needed was short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions to the power sector reform. He wanted to go for the long-term and up till now, we are not yet there. If we had adopted the short- term and medium-term solutions to our power problem, we would have been self-sufficient by 2005; even before we left office; because that strategy was planned for small and medium power stations in various parts of the country. We had even harvested international bids: people, who were prepared to come and invest $500m, $250m to set up small and medium -size power stations. By now, we would have been self-sufficient, but he said, ‘Oh, we must go gas’ and I said, ‘Gas? There is a problem. It’s long term; a lot of investments. There is instability in the region (Niger Delta). You must bring peace, before they would allow you to evacuate the gas. There is the issue of building the gas infrastructure, which takes a longer time and also a lot of investments and that I don’t see us even getting there in the next 10 years.’ But he said, ‘No, this is the way I want. We must go that way.’ I said, ‘Ok, fine, you are the President,’ and I declined to sit on the power committee till we left office. That is why when there was an investigation by the National Assembly; nobody invited me because my name was never there. Contracts were awarded and paid 100 per cent upfront; people disappeared with the money, and even stole, yet no power. I stand by this: We must have short- term, medium-term and long- term power solutions.
Is that why you recently called for the reversal of the privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria?
How does one begin to privatise distribution? Distribution of what? There is no power. First of all, one should start with generation. When one starts with generation, then transmission follows. After there is enough power, then one knows that one has the capacity to transmit and then one can now distribute. But they started with distribution, distribution of water or what? I mean, one can’t do that. Now we have privatised distribution, where is the power to distribute? No power! And they borrowed money from the banks to go and set up these companies. They said the Federal Government gave billions to encourage the privatisation; now they are not recouping the money. They have huge loans. There will be interest and there is no power to distribute. They have also increased electricity tariff when there is no power.
Some people have called for the removal of fuel subsidy while oil price in the global market has crashed. Are you in support of this and what must the incoming government do to diversify the economy because almost all the states have problems?
First and foremost, I was in charge of deregulation and we had started. If we had continued our programme, we would have finished deregulation before our government left office. But unfortunately we did not. Thus, as far as I am concerned, I’m in for full and total deregulation in the downstream oil sector. Let the market determine (the economic needs).
Believe me, we are complaining now because there is subsidy. By the time one deregulates and opens the market, everybody is free to bring in these finished products and sell, there will be competition and the prices are even likely to come down. I am for deregulation. There is no doubt about it because at the end of the day, I think that is the best for the country.
On the issue of the prices of petroleum, I don’t think $50 is too low because when we came in, how much was it? $20? Yet we were able to implement our programmes. Therefore, it is all an issue of planning. Of course, governments, both military and democratic, over the years have always been talking of diversifying the economy, but no government has really focused on the issue of diversifying the economy so that the reliance on oil can be reduced substantially. When we go back to the Gross Domestic Product, we know oil is just about 15 to 20 per cent; the rest is either services or this and that. But then, I believe the diversification of the economy would have been much better for us if we had done it a long time ago.
Do you have any pact with the APC leadership or the President-elect for you to nominate people into positions in the incoming government and what roles will you play in the next administration?
There is no pact. Essentially, I am a party man. Therefore, I will do wholeheartedly whatever the party decides I should do or that I should help in doing.
At the APC primaries you were expected to win, but you were in a distant third position.
No! With 20 votes.
But did you suspect any conspiracy?
As far as I am concerned, the APC primaries have become history. We have gone beyond that. I have endorsed the outcome of the primaries. I said the process was successful. That is it.
Talking about forming the next government, do you support reducing the cost of governance by cutting down the size of government in the country?
Yes, I believe that particularly, the Federal Government should cut down on cost. If we devolve more powers to the state and local governments, obviously we don’t need a very unwieldy government structure as we have. There is too much at the federal level – too much to do.
How many ministers should the President-elect appoint? The constitution says a minister must come from each state of the federation?
One cannot avoid constitutional provisions. One has to be law-abiding so he (the President-elect) has to go by the constitution as far as the issue of ministerial positions is concerned.