Dr. Reuben Abati
Against the backdrop of the controversy that dogged the 2013 budget presentation, Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, believes that those criticizing the budget are doing so out of ignorance. In this interview, he took State House Correspondents through the budget details. Muhammad Bello presents the excerpts:
What with Nigeria’s proposed pact with Niger Republic on joint border patrols?
The more important fact of the meeting in Niamey was that it was a meeting of the Nigeria/ Niger Joint Commission for Cooperation, with the two leaders and their ministers and other members of their team discussing issues of mutual interest to both countries. The objective was to consolidate existing relations between the two countries. A number of issues that were discussed as you pointed out included the immediate take off of joint border patrols between the two countries. You know Niger shares border with about six or seven states of Nigeria in the north which means that it is a very strategic neighbour. One of the things that the two countries also did in that communiqué is to reach an agreement on working together on the issue of global warming. You know River Niger also flows through Niger Republic and the recent flooding that we had in Nigeria was as a result of climate change. So the two leaders also discussed this.
Having defined the context of that meeting let me go back to your concern about terrorism which I said was one of the major issues that came up. You know that the challenge of terrorism is an international one and there have been reports and findings that some of the persons that are involved in terrorist acts in Nigeria in the form of the Boko Haram have international links. They even have routes through neighbouring countries.
So, it is a strategic move for the Nigerian government to seek partnership with neighbouring countries to see how these issues can be addressed. You know, it is not just about terrorism alone. It is also about smuggling. You know that along the border between Nigeria and Niger, apart from crime challenge, there is also the issue of smuggling. And the two countries have resolved to work together to consolidate existing relations to make sure that the border is very well patrolled and it is in the interest of both countries to do so.
Why has it been difficult for government to prosecute the supposed financiers of Boko Haram?
Well, the thing to note is that government has made tremendous progress in dealing with the challenge of terrorism, specifically, the Boko Haram menace and it is one major area of progress that is very visible. That, you know, people have commented upon. It is not something that you can take away from this government. A lot has been achieved in terms of protecting the lives and properties of Nigeria from the threats of the kind of violence that you have described. I think that is what is important.
Some persons that have been arrested at anytime or the other have been taken to court. At least, one prominent Senator still has a case to answer in court and the case is ongoing. One of the things that the security agencies try not to do is to put everything that they are doing in this regard in the public domain, and that is for strategic reasons. To win the war requires, as I have said in another interview, a multi-pronged approach. You know-intelligence is part of it, the prosecution of the affected persons is part of it, social engineering is part of it, diplomacy is part of it and constructive engagement is part of it. The Jonathan administration is adopting all of these measures and what you have seen in the lowering of the tension is the effect of this multi pronged approach to this security challenge.
The 2013 budget has widened the gulf between the executive and the legislature. What went wrong?
I think it is very unfortunate that something as important as the budget is being politicised. I know that the headlines are attractive. When you see some of the headlines you will know they are sensational, but when you subject many of the reactions to rigorous analysis, what you will find is just a lot of hot air and no substance. This is a budget that has been submitted by the President to the appropriate assembly but people started commenting on the budget even before the President laid it on the table. It is a very strange thing. It is only in Nigeria that people comment so expertly on things that they have not studied; on something they have not even taken the basic effort to understand what is involved. If you look at the budget, there are many angles and many aspects of it.
Now, the benchmark is not the only thing that is in that budget. There are other aspects of that budget. Many of these people commenting with so much passion on the budget are just commenting on what they know nothing about. I have seen people on television saying things. The simple question you should just ask some of them as at the time they start making such comment is: ‘have you read that document that you are commenting on?’ People who take themselves seriously should also carry themselves with some amount of seriousness in a real sense.
If you look at that budget, there are incentives that have been given to the manufacturing sector and to the agriculture sector. There are projections there in terms of empowering the women, in terms of wealth creation, in terms of job creation, in terms of fiscal discipline and in terms of protecting the interest of the country. The people who are playing politics are not commenting on this. They just take one issue and begin to comment on it and then take another issue out of context to comment on in such a way that the Nigerian public is being misled. There are deliberate attempts to create confusion and I think it is very disturbing that even the media encourages this. You will expect that by now the media would take the document itself and do a proper dispassionate analysis in order to provide the kind of intellectual leadership that is required rather than this political grandstanding that you find all over the place among people who should be otherwise more serious.
What’s your take on the Ondo election?
One thing to note is that political parties have relative strength in terms of where they are most influential. At the end of the day, it becomes very difficult in a contest like this to describe one party as strong and the other one as small because increasingly, in terms of values, so much has changed in the political landscape of Nigeria and the electoral process. And the credit for this as I said in a comment that I issued immediately after the elections must go to President Jonathan because in terms of the electoral reforms and the achievements, leadership is everything. People look up to the man at the top and what President Jonathan has shown since he took charge and promised to make sure that the electoral machinery in Nigeria is raised, the level of integrity is deepened and that our democracy is thereby consolidated, is to keep to his promise.
The second point to note is that in Ondo State, as a result of this background, the will of the people prevailed. And I think the key lesson from Ondo as was the same lesson in Edo, is that we have an electoral system now in which performance is rewarded and recognised by the electorate. And you can judge from the reactions of the people of Ondo State immediately it was announced that Mimiko won.
The report that we got was that there was dancing in the streets. In one state after another, in one election after another, the Jonathan administration has continued to show that it is the people's will that is important in an election and I think again, this is the beauty of what has happened in Ondo State. Parties do not win elections because they are small or because they are big. Candidates win elections because the people believe in them, because the people have chosen them, because the people are convinced that this is the man or this is the party that deserves to be rewarded.
Do you think we are ready for Diaspora voting?
Everywhere that the President travels to, one thing that he makes sure he does is to meet with Nigerians in that particular country. So, those people abroad are Nigerians and remain Nigerians in every sense and they want to be part of the process at home. They want to be able to vote and they know that other countries of the world have this absentee balloting process or what you call Diaspora voting. In some of these countries, you will be surprised at the population of Nigerians. In Mali alone, there are close to 5 million Nigerians we were told.
I don't know whether the figure is exaggerated but, there is quite a large community of Nigerians there. So, Mr. President's position and what he tells them is that he too believes that the people in Diaspora must be involved; they must be encouraged to vote, may be, not in every election for reasons of logistics, but at least in the Presidential and the gubernatorial elections. They should be able to have a say. It is also a way of connecting them with home. You know the fact that they are living abroad does not rob them of their citizenship rights and their rights also to choose who leads their country.
But it is not a decision that can be taken by the Executive. So, Mr. President then told them that he has already conveyed this concern to INEC which is the appropriate body; that INEC while preparing for the next election should try to look at the possibility, work out the mechanism and pursue the process of ensuring that Nigerians in Diaspora can also vote. So, this is the position of the President in that regard.
What are the President’s thoughts on constitution amendment?
The President is a citizen like every other Nigerian. He has a right to make proposals, to express ideas and to provide leadership in line with his own vision for the country. And that was precisely what he did when he lent his voice to the issue about the tenure of elected officials. It was a principled position namely that with the obsessions that elections every four years generate, it is very difficult for people who have been elected to focus properly because the people who are not in government and who have lost out in the last elections go out of their way to distract the attention of the person who is there.
Now, for purposes of stability, he was then saying is it not possible for us instead of having two terms to have just one term for the president and governors and even extend the number of years that National Assembly members or legislators generally spend in parliament. That way, you know people can focus for a period of time and he was not dogmatic about it because it is not the executive that will amend the constitution. It is the job of the legislators and it is the Nigerian people who will say what they want or what they do not want at the end of the day because the constitution belongs to the people. It is an expression of the sovereignty of the people. The critics almost hijacked the proposal from us, and they twisted it, because of their own misconceptions and their own selfish ambitions.
My point is that President Jonathan has no selfish agenda. His vision is one of progress. His vision is one of further consolidation of Nigerian democracy. He is not seeking to benefit from any constitutional amendment; rather, he is seeking to deepen the democratic process in Nigeria, which was why he expressed that opinion. And he is not the only person that holds that opinion. It has been on the table ever since. And to those who are saying if the constitution is amended in that regard, then he will benefit from it, I said no. Even a bathroom lawyer should know that a particular piece of legislation cannot have retro-active effect and that is even a bathroom lawyer not to talk of people who are knowledgeable.