Perhaps due to the shield of anonymity they offer, foreign cities are sometimes the best place to get senior public officers and chief executives to commit to an interview. There are immense benefits in that: it’s a pleasant surprise for journalists who find their subjects unburdened by the usual inhibitions that often cause such men and women at the helm to speak without actually speaking; also, the interview would certainly proceed without the frequent intrusion of aides and hangers-on. So, sitting with Presidential Spokesman Reuben Abati as he drank Cappuccino at the rear lounge of the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, the interview went on blissfully. It was such a frank and engaging discourse that he was unaware that President Jonathan had left for a session on agriculture at the World Economic Forum on Africa.
This meant the car that would have taken him to the convention centre had gone with the convoy - without him! “Well, this is still part of the job,” he reasoned. I nodded, happy that there would still be ample time spent taking in the splendid view of the Table Mountain and, of course, gleaning how challenging it must have been for him as Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity at such a turbulent time. Abati has been on the job for about two years now. He explains how he has braved the exigencies and why he believes the president does not receive as much acknowledgement as he should from Nigerians. Two hours later, we were off to the convention centre where the session on agriculture was just rounding off. Laurence Ani reports
Have the days flown by for you?
Well, the movement of time is a natural thing. Just like the hour glass, before you know it time is gone. But I think that the less than two years that I’ve been on the job have been time well spent -great opportunity, great learning opportunity, great exposure in terms of expanding one’s horizon. When you stay in the gallery, the character and nature of your country may come across to you in form of impressions; but when you go beyond the gallery and go right into the centre of it all it’s a different experience. All of us as Nigerians must take a keen interest in how our country is governed. Not just as people who go to vote but as active participants. Nothing is more fulfilling than having an opportunity to serve your country. It’s a great experience working with a man like President Jonathan. I came to the job with a lot of passion, a lot of loyalty because I believe in him. Many of the people who criticise him do so because they are yet to get used to the fact that something historic has happened in Nigeria.
The fact that a man from a small community, a man from the minority, can be president of Nigeria. Whoever emerges the president deserves the support of all and sundry because at the end of the day it’s our country. Politics should not be a do-or-die affair. People like to quote the example of the United States, Britain and other countries, but they don’t learn the appropriate lessons from those examples. At great moments of national crisis where the integrity of the American state is involved, Republicans and Democrats come together and speak with one voice.
Does one necessarily have to be in government to glimpse some of these insights?
You can acquire experience in virtually every field of life. And every field has its own peculiarities. But for you to know how government works, it’s a different kind of experience; it’s a different territory. That is why part of my responsibility is to make sure that on a constant basis, we keep explaining and providing information. The only challenge I have seen in that regard is the cynicism of the average Nigerian. Over the years, because of the history of the politics and governance process Nigerians have learnt to be cynical and distrustful of their government. But what we keep telling the Nigerian people is to open their minds and try and see that a lot is happening and the country is really moving forward. Many sectors of the Nigerian economy that were completely comatose due to mismanagement or inactivity have come alive.
The railway sector was totally gone. But President Jonathan made it happen; the trains are moving again. As at the time President Jonathan took over, the supply of electricity was less than 2000 megawatts. The National Electricity Reform Act, which was supposed to form the basis for the fast track of the privatisation process was abandoned and many of the plants that had been completed were abandoned. Before then a national emergency had even been declared in the power sector. But today the sector has moved forward. He came up with a power sector roadmap, timelines with specific outlines in terms of what needs to be done to modernise and privatise the electricity sector to make it more competitive, to attract investment and build confidence in that sector. We’re almost at the last stage of that roadmap. Something that seemed impossible in the past, we’re witnessing progress there.
How frustrating is it when it emerges the public would rather see things from a grim perspective?
What I have seen is that the majority of Nigerians, the people who vote, the ordinary people who are directly affected by these things, people who are not playing politics appreciate what President Jonathan is doing. They are the ones who travel in the trains, they are the ones who have noticed a change in terms of power supply, they are the ones who have seen that something concrete is happening. The people who complain are the politicians; those who say it is either they are the ones in power or nobody else. I think that we just have to keep drawing the public’s attention to that.
Do you spend the day fretting over what has been said about the president?
No, I don’t wake up in the morning expecting that I would read bad stories. We take the day as it comes. Part of my responsibility is to continue to engage the media and to provide information. The president always tells me, for instance, that he is not afraid of criticism; but it shouldn’t be criticism that is based on deliberate distortion of the facts.
What’s your default mode when the pressure gets intense?
I’m used to the pressure now. In the early days of my appointment it used to bother me a lot. One of the things I did was to buy books on the presidency in order to learn more about the American presidency, the prime ministers of Great Britain, the presidency in Venezuela. I sat down and soaked in all of that and I could see that some of the challenges that we face are, more or less, the same everywhere. I bought books by presidential spokesmen and read them. And I saw that they face more or less the same challenges. There may be peculiarities in our own environment; but in terms of the main issues they are the same. Once I figured that out I became a lot more relaxed.
You spoke about the president’s popularity in glowing terms, but it appears it has dipped in comparison to what it was at pre-election?
Addressing this subject in a previous interview I spoke about the effect of the crisis of expectations. For the first time we’re lucky to have a president that outlines precisely what he wants to do. When he became president, he presented the transformation agenda. The government even presented a document on the transformation agenda. People forget that it’s a medium term plan; it’s a four-year framework. People expect this transformation overnight. Governance is a process.
But people who criticise forget that for those things to be done, certain building blocks have to be put in place. And this administration inherited a lot of rot accumulated over the years. What the president and his team are doing is to take issues one by one and resolve them. There is a lot of misconception as to how government works. People once said they wanted the president to be hard. But the president’s response at a church service that he is not a dictator. The whole idea of this transformation is that this is a democracy; this is a government of the people and you cannot transform a man who is not a bully into a bully. Nigerians still have this military hangover of the leader as a bully. And I guess we just take consolation that democracy is evolutionary; with time people get used to it. Now the same people who were accusing the president of being weak are at this moment saying, ‘oh, it looks like this president is going to become a dictator’.
Should a leader seek to be popular than simply strive to do the right things?
Every political leader is concerned about how the people perceive him and his administration because it is the people who have elected him. There is too much misrepresentation out there. The opposition wants to twist everything the government does.
With the benefit of the insight so far glimpsed, do you look back occasionally at some of the things you had either written or said in the past and say, ‘I was wrong’?
I don’t criticise people on the basis of misrepresentation of the facts. There is nothing I wrote that I cannot defend. But people should realise that my primary commitment is to President Jonathan right now, and to this administration and Nigerians. And if I say I have taken a position, it’s on the basis of what I know; it’s not on the basis of sycophancy, it’s on the basis of information at my disposal which I also make available to the public. When you go into government you would have a helicopter view and with that helicopter view, you see so much.
Is politics a post-appointment possibility or you would simply return to either journalism or academics?
Well, my usual answer to these kind of questions is that tomorrow will take care of itself just as today was taken care of by yesterday. I have so many options. I believe that I have acquired additional capacity. If anything, at least my absorptive capacity has been expanded.
It appears to me that in setting up the committee to examine the feasibility of amnesty to Boko Haram, the president had already presupposed amnesty would be recommended?
This idea of amnesty came about because there was a clamour for it. Several months back I had said there was backroom channel discussion with the insurgents because there have always been people who would come around to government and say they could help. In such circumstances the government did not discourage them.
The second leg of that is this clamour for amnesty coming from the Sultan and other stakeholders in the North also joined. When it got to that point, the president who had been calling for a collaborative effort in ensuring peace and security is the same president who had made the point that ‘look, this Boko Haram people live among you in the community; if you know who these people are it means that traditional rulers and community leaders are also in a position to assist. We welcome that assistance while government is also playing its own part. So when there was that clamour for amnesty the president took it to National Security Council and set up a technical committee to work for two weeks, to consider the feasibility or otherwise of the amnesty proposal. And if so, to recommend to government the modalities for actualizing this. On the basis of that report, the government then set up the National Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Conflicts in Northern Nigeria. So there has been a process. This committee is to look at the issue again and now make recommendations in terms of how to make it operational.
But it’s ironic neither the JTF nor the insurgents is relenting despite the supposed dialogue?
Don’t forget that in this matter it is the Nigerian state that is the victim. The Boko Haram insurgents have since mutated, they are factionalised; they are fighting what they consider an ideological battle against the Nigerian state. They have even gone to the extent of trying to create a state within a state in a part of Nigeria. There is a sustained attempt by these insurgents and terrorists to violate the integrity of Nigeria. Government will not sit by and allow terrorists to create an enclave inside Nigeria. The talk about amnesty is not an indulgence, it’s not a license for the intensification of criminality. And if you look at the details of what has happened, using the Baga and Bama incidents, you would see that it’s the terrorists that are the aggressors. The military high command made it clear that the security agencies are wrongly accused of high-handedness. These Boko Haram insurgents use rocket-propelled grenades, they target civilians because these are just anarchists. And I think that the incident that occurred in Bama a few days ago would seem to have clarified it: they targeted government buildings, they killed women and children, they set government buildings ablaze. So we’re dealing with an evil phenomenon, people who have no respect for human lives, people who have declared war on the Nigerian state. I think that is where the narrative should be focused on.
Given the president’s initial reluctance to contemplate dialogue with Boko Haram, is it not right to say he was simply pandering to political sentiments or trying to be politically-correct by inaugurating the committee?
No, the president never ruled out dialogue. We had a presidential media chat where he was asked that question pointedly by one of the panellists. What he said was that for us to engage in dialogue we must know who we are dialoguing with. When the president said ‘we cannot dialogue with ghosts’, he was in fact defining the character of the terrorism challenge. And he then said if the people are willing to come forward government would of course be ready to listen to them.
But this whole amnesty mechanism, the expectation is that if the committee is able to identify the leaders and they are able to talk to them, then that would be a step forward. In the case of the Niger Delta amnesty the militants came forward, they had identifiable leaders whom people knew and still know. So you could put faces to the various factions. But in this case you’re dealing with terrorists and the phenomenon is not restricted to the local environment; there have been indications that some of these people got their training in Mali, there are indications that the implosion in Libya and some of the terrorist activities in parts of Algeria would seem to have provided more resources and more ammunition for the ones we’re fighting in Nigeria. That is why we have the multinational joint task force protecting that axis of infiltration to ensure the contiguous work in concert to check this challenge.
Why is the Jonathan administration uncomfortable with the notion that it hasn’t taken sufficient steps to curb corruption whereas it has gone ahead to do something that seems to negate whatever effort it has taken towards curbing corruption? I’m talking about the pardon granted former governor Alamieyeseigha.
Pardon is first and foremost a constitutional matter. It’s not something that is granted unilaterally; there is a process. Government has a Committee of Prerogative of Mercy. A recommendation is made to that committee, which is chaired by the attorney-general. The attorney- general takes the recommendations to the executive. The president cannot act on it; the powers relating to that is granted under Section 175 of the constitution for the president. For the state governors it’s under Section 212. But even in spite of that, Sub-section 2 of Section 175 says the president must take it to the Council of State. The Council of State is essentially an advisory body, but where pardon is involved - that is under Section 175 - the president cannot do anything except the Council of State ratifies it. All of these processes were followed.
The Council of State is made up of former heads of state, former chief justices, the governors of all the states, the president and the vice president. When a decision like that is taken, it’s a collective decision. So in exercising that constitutional powers, the law was followed. Also, Alamieyeseigha is not the only one on that list, but people have picked on his own example for political reasons. Pardon is about crime and jurisprudence. What is the purpose of punishment? Is it to destroy people or reform them? Is it to shut them out permanently out of society or to give them an opportunity to be rehabilitated? In many countries there are examples of this in terms of the construction of their justice system. That is why we have things like parole, reduced sentence, pardon and suspended sentence. Pardon is granted only to somebody that has been tried and convicted. I said in a television programme that the stigma is still there. The only thing that pardon does is grant you an opportunity to go back to your normal life. It restores corporal rights. You know if you’re convicted you can hardly do anything. If you were a young person still looking for employment it may even be difficult because you’re an ex-convict. But the idea of pardon gives you an opportunity to be rehabilitated. It’s not only the president that grants pardon. Governors do also. They go to prisons, look at some categories of inmates and they set them free.
There is no where pardon is granted that it is not controversial. When President Gerald Ford decided to grant state pardon to his predecessor, Richard Nixon, it was a big issue in America. He was villified, in fact some commentators said that was the only thing that many people remembered about his administration. But President Carter, I think, praised him that he was a man who wanted to heal wounds and unite the country. When President Clinton was leaving in 2001, on the eve of his departure he granted state pardon, including one to his own brother, Roger Clinton, who had been convicted for drug-related matters; including Suzan Mcdougal, who had refused to testify against him in the Whitewater case. She was in fact working with him in Arkansas. He also granted state pardon to a woman who was jailed for terrorism. This year, President Obama granted pardon to 19 persons. You can check the offences - terrorists, drug addicts, murderers, etc. It’s just part of the normal function of government. People raise the point that I had in the past written and condemned Alamieyeseigha. I stand by that article to the extent that at the time the article was written the offence had just been committed; the outrage was out there.
The purpose of that article that I wrote was that if a man has conducted himself in this manner he should be sanctioned; that he should not be allowed to get away with it because he occupies privileged position. But at the same time I’m in a position to also argue many years later that once a man has had his day in court, the purpose of justice has been served, I do not have anything against such a man being pardoned many years later because my understanding is that the purpose of punishment should also be reformatory; it’s not to destroy or shut out the individual. People argue that when you do this you are giving a license for criminality. I do not think so, because the institutions of state are still in place. If someone says that because Mr. Alamieyeseigha has been pardoned he would likewise commit an offence, the institutions of state are there to say ‘no, you cannot do that’. You cannot claim ignorance of the law, and you cannot assume that even if you’re punished that you will also be pardoned. So it’s important to put these things in their proper perspectives.
Why does the president seem obsessed with committees but tends to carry out their recommendations in a half-hearted manner? An example is the Oronsaye panel on rationalisation of government agencies and the confusion over the scrapping of the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board and National Examination Council
People always ask the question: why does government set up committees? My response is you cannot do without committees in a democratic set up. When an issue comes up you cannot have a situation where the leader acts unilaterally, particularly with regard to issues where there are so many interests - the interest of constituencies, the interest of stakeholders. Rather than be criticised for setting up committees I think President Jonathan should be praised for running a democratic system, for placing emphasis on openness, for placing emphasis on consultation. When a committee is set up, that committee is to advise and make recommendations to government. There will never be a time when government would not use committees if we’re running a democracy, because it must take inputs from the people and various shades of opinion must be represented. An example is the Committee on National Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Conflicts in the North. Various stakeholders are involved: traditional rulers, diplomats, members of the intelligence community, politicians, academics, civil society and several other interests. If the president had on his own taken a decision, the same people who are criticising him for setting up a committee would have said ‘no, this man has taken a unilateral decision on an issue that affects all of us’.
The Oronsaye committee on rationalisation of ministries is not something that a president can just decree on a whim because you’re dealing with many interests. Some members of the Oronsaye committee are technocrats, people who know how the system works, who can bring in information in terms of the weaknesses of the system, who are in a position to do the audit. The president cannot just restructure without having information. And it’s also not true that the president has not done anything about the Oronsaye committee’s report. We have spent the last month or so looking at every line in the draft white paper. After the committee submitted its report a white paper committee was set up, and that committee has submitted its draft white paper and we have gone through every line of it as I said earlier. At the end of that a white paper will be released. It’s on the basis of that white paper that action will be taken, so that in the future if anybody audits what the Jonathan administration did there is proper documentation that due process was followed. It’s about accountability. Government has not yet taken action on the basis of the Oronsaye committee. With regard to UTME and NECO, no decision has been taken on it yet that has been publicised to Nigerians.
The story that both have been scrapped was founded on rumour, quoting sources close to the committee. Nowhere in the story was any government official quoted. I always tell the press corps in the Villa: ‘don’t rely on sources, if there is anything on which you need information come and ask me. I would get the information for you’.
Do you think it’s right to stop fuel subsidies in the face of unreliable power supply?
The point that needs to be made in this regard is that people who say government is not fighting corruption are unfair to this president. The president is not someone who can condone corruption. You know it was this president that led the vanguard to expose the scam in that sector. This president inherited a situation whereby people claim that they were importing fuel, and they would get all the papers but they would not bring any fuel.
They had no vessel anywhere; if they had any vessel it was probably not even used for the declared purpose. And then at the end of the day, they would go and collect money from government. What existed was a system of rent collection in the petroleum sector. People were literally scheming off the Nigerian state, reducing revenue that should be used for development purposes. This president as acting president in 2010 had ordered an audit of NNPC, which was what first brought out the information. And in 2011, the president went back to that same issue, hence the scam was properly exposed. The government looked at it and realised that the attraction for this rent collectors is the subsidy. At that level what government was dealing with was corruption. Now when Nigerians kicked, government then embarked on partial removal of subsidy and the money that is saved from that partial removal is what has now been put under SURE-P. Government set up a committee under Dr. Christopher Kolade, a man whose integrity you cannot question. The SURE-P committee is an oversight committee, that committee does not award contracts. The committee monitors and makes sure the money is spent for the purpose so defined. The people who do the jobs are the project implementation units in the various ministries. Political corruption was a major issue in this country; this president has fought it to a standstill. Our elections are now free and fair.
This president has conducted many elections - Edo, Kogi, Adamawa, Sokoto; there were no issues. The ruling party even lost to the opposition in some states. Have you ever heard of any complaint that the president tried to influence the outcome? Instead, he would be the first to congratulate the winner. President Jonathan was the first person to congratulate Oshiomhole when he won. We issued that statement less than 30 minutes after the announcement. By removing subsidy, even partially, money has been saved for Nigerians. What President Jonathan has done on power is something that is laudable. The only thing that I have seen is that Nigerians having enjoyed improvement in electricity supply, they don’t want it to go down.
What difference does a declaration of emergency in three states really make given that the armed forces and military hardware had always been deployed in the affected states?
Oh, the difference is quite obvious. Now in those three states, the Federal Government is adopting extra-ordinary measures, which would probably have been impossible, or rather difficult under normal circumstances. The insurgents and the terrorists have been declared as groups waging war against the country, seeking to exercise control and authority over a section of Nigeria. They have hoisted their own flags, different from the flag of Nigeria.
They are threatening to overwhelm the rest of Nigeria. They pose a threat to lives and property and are desperately engaged in the violation of law and order. The security forces have been authorized to take them on frontally, to defend the territorial integrity of Nigeria. This means an intensification of internal security operations in that part of the country. In addition, the security forces have been given powers to conduct searches, without warrant, to lock down any area of terrorist operation, and hunt down the terrorists. All of this of course, within the ambit of the rules of engagement, as the President said, and the action is constitutional: Sections 305 and 217 of the 1999 Constitution.
You can see the difference almost immediately. The military High Command has declared curfew, it has invaded the hide-outs of the terrorists; there is heavy military presence in the affected states. The President has sent a very strong signal: enough is enough, to any group whatsoever that seeks to undermine the indivisibility and the indissolubility of the Nigerian state, as defined in Section 2(1) of the Constitution. This is not just routine military operation; it is the declaration of a show down
How would the declaration affect the work of the dialogue committee?
The National Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Conflicts in Northern Nigeria is very much in place. In fact, President Jonathan met and discussed with members of the Committee before the state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states was proclaimed. There is no contradiction. Those insurgents and terrorists who are ready to lay down their arms and embrace peace have the mechanism of the Committee on Dialogue to address them. The ones who are recalcitrant will be hunted down and brought to justice.
The involvement of the Committee, made up as it is of key stakeholders drawn from different sectors is good. They can monitor developments, gather useful information, make contacts, and advise government appropriately. What is important is the declaration by President Jonathan that “no matter what it takes, we will win the war against terrorism.” The support for this has been overwhelming, which shows that Nigerians really love their country; whatever may be our differences or the challenges we face, the majority of Nigerians are patriots who are committed to national progress and development.
Looking back now, how do you reconcile your position as the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Guardian, where you were more or less the custodian of the conscience of the newspaper, with your present position as spokesman of the government. Do you have any regret taking the government’s job?
As a journalist, columnist, media executive and public affairs analyst, my primary commitment was to defend and promote the common good. Today as President Jonathan’s spokesman, my commitment remains the same. It is a great honour to serve our country within or out of government. And in particular, I have no apologies serving President Jonathan. I believe in him. He is capable and humane. And his presidency makes a serious point about the Nigerian dream to the effect that this country belongs to all of us and that the position of president is open to every group. I have no regrets working for him. In fact, I am of the view that President Jonathan deserves the support of all Nigerians. With the benefit of hindsight, I ll like to add that nobody should shy away from contributing to the governance process in this country; there should be a level playing field to make that possible at all times.