In this interview, Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, speaks on the challenges confronting his ministry, his recent call out to the National Assembly as regards the President’s request for a $30bn loan, why he led other governors to ask for the sharing of funds in the Excess Crude Account during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and how he fell out with Governor Nyesom Wike, among other issues. Amaechi spoke at a media parley and Tokunbo Adedoja was there
You have been in office as Minister of Transport for about a year and three months, what are the challenges and what would you consider as your greatest achievements?
I don’t know about achievements but I know about challenges. There are challenges and the greatest challenge is how to get the economy moving the transport sector forward because a huge chunk of the economy depends on the transport sector. Even those who transport crude by pipe will still need the transport sector and we have all sorts of ideas that we want to implement but basically there are no funds. When I tell people that we met recession, they would say how? That it was not true and I told them that recession does not start in a day. It could not have happened in our first one year in office if the factors were not there before we came in but the factors were huge. If you had listened carefully, I had said as chairman of the Governors’ Forum, the first disagreement I had with the former President Goodluck Jonathan was on funds that the Presidency couldn’t account for. There wasn’t any specific reason why we were fighting other than my insistence on good governance.
First battle between Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and I. How much did former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, leave behind? About $68 billion in the Excess Crude Account, not in the foreign reserve and then we fell into the economic crisis we had in 2008. To be able to battle with that economic crisis, late President Umaru Yar’Adua borrowed quite a lot of money from the Excess Crude account. He was taking $1 billion every month from the Excess Crude account that was shared among federal, states and local governments to augment the budget and ensure that we didn’t feel the impact of that economic crisis.
We came out of that economic crisis by 2009 or so, the oil price bounced back to about $110 to $150 and by that time, Yar’Adua had spent the money to $48 billion. So, Goodluck Jonathan inherited the Excess Crude Account, inherited an untouched foreign reserve and also inherited increase in price of oil.
If all that money they saved, and the railway construction from Lagos to Kano, which contract was awarded at $8.7 billion by the Obasanjo administration, and you had an excess crude account of about $48 billion. All he would have done was to take $8 billion from the $48billion and he would have done the Lagos-Kano railway project. Former President Jonathan awarded the contract for the Lagos-Calabar railway project for $11.9 billion before this government brought it down to $11.1 billion. Let us even go back to $11.9 billion; from that $48 billion, you can still take another $11.9 billion. You would have funded the Lagos-Kano and the Lagos-Calabar railway project.
So, here now as minister for transportation, I am battling on how to raise funds from China for these same rail projects, and like I said, they have just released $1.5 billion for the Lagos-Ibadan railway project. The most difficult aspect is the funding and security. Most people don’t know that NIMASA is in charge of water security in the coastal areas and it is huge. The coastal area is essentially the Niger Delta. So, it is a huge problem but we are confronting the challenges and trying to find solution to the problems as we approach them.
You got into a little bit of hot water with the Senate over the issue of funding some rail projects with loans and they said that you were not telling the truth…
(Cuts in) As a journalist, what do you think is the truth? As much as possible, I have huge respect for the National Assembly. I was once in the legislative arm of government and I wouldn’t want to get into confrontation with the National Assembly.
It is a fact that the Federal government submitted a request for $30 billion borrowing plan, it is a fact that it was rejected, it is a fact that $1.5 billion of the Lagos-Ibadan railway project was in it. That was what I said in Kwara and I told the people of Kwara that they should beg the National Assembly to please approve it. So, what are they disputing?
Once they pass the borrowing plan, we will start work because it is very embarrassing that the Chinese government has approved. We cannot travel to China to sign because the National Assembly is yet to approve the borrowing plan. One reason why China quickly approved it was because we told them that we didn’t want the rainy season to meet us before we start the project. I don’t think I insulted or lied against the National Assembly, all I did was to repeat the facts as they happened. I told my (media) people not to reply the National Assembly because it is an institution and you don’t have to joke with such an institution.
In a language that an ordinary man will understand, what should we expect in concrete terms, which of the railway projects will come up this year?
If the National Assembly approves the borrowing plan and I hope they will, then the Lagos-Ibadan rail line will start. In fact, ordinarily, we expect to start this February or first week in March. I hope that the National Assembly will approve it and we expect that we start early in March.
Nigerians want to know why the Federal government is not utilizing recovered looted funds to fund the budget?
How much is it? There is no money that they recovered that has not been announced. Everyone they get, they announce and you should be able to tabulate from that point.
One of the mistakes I made as a governor was that I listened to Rivers people who said I shouldn’t take loans because they hate their governor borrowing money. Even what I borrowed, I paid off almost everything. And I was not borrowing as the current governor is borrowing now. I was borrowing to execute projects. If you asked anyone who was in my administration in Rivers State, he/she would tell you that we suffered in the last six months because we could have told the new government to pay.
So, the federal government has to borrow to come out of the current economic crisis we are in. One person that does not like to borrow is the President, he believes we can manage our way through. The reality is that the President also understands that people need to come out of recession and that is why he agreed to submit the $30 billion borrowing plan. These loans are tied to specific projects and when the money comes, it won’t come to the Ministry of Transportation, there will be an account where they will be paying the contractors.
So, you can see the discipline by the President. Unlike before, the loan will be provided but it is the federal government that will allocate to projects. But these are loans for specific projects and imagine how the economy would look like. Just imagine $30 billion pumped into the economy, you and I would no longer be talking about recession because it will generate so much economic activities, so much jobs etc. It will revolve around the economy and create a lot of jobs, that is our argument but like I said, I make sure that my ministry don’t go into any dispute with the National Assembly.
Still on the borrowing plan, many people are skeptical about the huge amount of money government want to borrow.
The infrastructure gap is huge and as I said, this loan is not taken to any ministry or minister’s pocket. I just told you that by the time we were getting huge money from crude, we didn’t need to borrow money because we had money to do these rails. Now, one of the things that can bring us out of recession is construction. And since we don’t have money, is to borrow. If you review the borrowing plan, they are all tied to specific projects.
One controversial issue has been the closure of the Abuja airport. There are experts who would tell you that you don’t need to shut down that airport to do what you need to do. The fleeing airlines have been particularly difficult about that shutdown, have you made any progress towards that?
Who are the experts? The truth is that the federal government does not want to close that airport, the pain we will feel for closing the airport is unimaginable. How do you close an airport in the seat of power? The president is also compelled to go to Kaduna to fly out. When people say these things, it is as if we are having fun closing the airport. That is not our intention. The crisis you have at the Abuja airport is that the runway has lasted for 34 years and it is supposed to last for 20 years. What these so called experts are telling you is that they think we are repairing the runway. We are not, we are building a new runway because the foundation has given up, you cannot repair it anymore.
If it is to overlay the runway, we will be glad to do that but if you overlay it, it won’t last and we don’t want to lose any life. It could be anybody, it could be me because I use the airport too. We are also confronted with the reality that people may die if we don’t shutdown this airport and rebuild the runway. I think Nigerians should be patient and give us some time. One government that is cautious and committed to Nigerians is our government.
So are you meeting the foreign airlines midway?
The Minister of State for Aviation has held series of stakeholders’ meeting, he has spoken with them on the challenges that we have and the arrangements we have put on ground to assist them in Kaduna including security, alternative mode of transportation, putting more soldiers and policemen on the road and all that.
The Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike granted an interview recently where he made a lot of disparaging remarks about your tenure as governor and what he inherited. He said he inherited a mess and that some of the projects you left behind were just bogus projects like the school projects. He also alleged that you built hospitals with no doctors in them.
How do you react to that?
A governor should not tell lies but when you make a child a governor then, you expect a reverse of the protocols of governance. There is a saying in my village that if you give a child something he can’t carry, he would falter and falter. The hospitals I built are still being used; he tried to change the name of one of the hospitals I built inside the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. He lied. I met 200 doctors when I came in as governor, I employed 400 more. He even lied that I owed salaries for six months. Let anybody in the state come out to say I did not start paying April salary before I left in May 2015.
If he claims to have knowledge, if he is educated enough, he should ask for files. The primary schools I built, till tomorrow are the best primary schools in Nigeria. They all had computer laboratories which people have seen but have now been shutdown by the present Rivers State government. We got Indians to train the children on computer education. A class had 30 children. The school has an auditorium for 390 children, with music instrument. The current governor cannot manage these schools; he has handed over the primary schools to villagers to manage. He said each village should manage their own primary school security. It is disastrous because Rivers State will not come out of this disaster for a long time.
I met a Rivers State that people were being killed and I stopped it; now people are not just being killed, they are being beheaded. As a governor, the lives of your citizens are sacrosanct, they are sacred and you cannot afford to allow a citizen die. One of the responsibilities you have, which is an impeachable offense if you don’t perform, as a governor is that you swear to protect lives and property.
One of the things he said was that although you did some things and that you were getting N20 billion per month and that if he had N500 million, he would have done more than you.
Do you believe that? There are months we got N7 billion. One good thing that I was thought in governance is that whatever document you sign you must have a copy. So, if you go to my house now, I have an open space where I kept all the documents I signed as governor of Rivers State. He first said I did nothing but I paid salaries. So multiply the number of months I paid salaries.
When I came in as governor, Local government was paying primary school teachers, because I focused on education, I took away their wage bill of N2 billion to add to mine. So every month, I was paying the primary school teachers for the LGAs. But now the governor sits down and collects local government money. That is not the responsibility of a governor.
I said I won’t say anything until he competes his four years, then you (the press) can compare. Nigerians have forgotten the fact that I not only did roads, which he is using, I also did education. I had a plan.
Can you imagine a governor taking an acting President to a place he said he was doing recreational centre; he called a village square that he wants to build a motor park and mini market. You know he was formerly a local government chairman, he still governs the state like a local government chairman.
Wike said he didn’t want to be governor…
(Cuts in) The quarrel was because he wanted to be governor. From the first day we came into government house, Port Harcourt, he said he wanted to be governor but we all thought it was a joke. Now, it is inducement that made former first lady Mrs. Patience Jonathan to endorse him as PDP candidate and he was subsequently forced on Rivers people. Elections are over and it is time for governance, if not that he granted that interview replete with lies, I won’t be talking about him. Let governor Nyesom Wike tell us one road he has done. If Governor Wike did not grant that interview to the Sun newspaper, my plan was to keep quiet until elections, then I will call Rivers people and tell them it was time to compare the two administrations.
What is the story of the nomination of Wike as minister because he said you actually nominated him but that you went behind to get security agencies to write negative report against him to stop his appointment?
One thing Wike knows about me is that I am not a coward. If I didn’t want to nominate Wike a minister, I would not have nominated him and the sky would not fall and he knows that. Nigerians know that I don’t lack courage. Let me tell you how Wike became a minister.
The issue of corruption against Wike had started becoming an issue in my government and the people were saying Amaechi is clean, what about his Chief of Staff? So, I then vowed that he was not going to be my Chief of Staff anymore because I could not deal with the issue of corruption. Then, when I signed any file or document approving a contract and I said they should pay the contractor, Wike as my Chief of Staff would hide the file and tell the contractor how he was the one who convinced me and begged me to sign and would then buy it off the contractor and collect the money and would not execute the contract. He bought the Rumuoji and Ibaa road that were awarded to two former council chairmen. He (allegedly) bought a road, the Rumuolumeni road, which was awarded at N700 million, but did not do the road. I only knew all these towards the end of my first tenure.
I now told him that I couldn’t be claiming that I am fighting corruption if Wike as my Chief of Staff is doing what he is doing. Tell Wike that he knows that I hate corruption. We are in court and till today, he has not filed any paper one year after I went to court. Till today, his government has not filed. I nominated him to the President (Goodluck Jonathan) and the truth was that the President did not want him and I pleaded. Why? Chuma Chinye, my Commissioner for Commerce came to tell me that having stopped Wike from being my Chief of Staff, he was dying. I asked how. He said Wike was drinking whisky every hour out of frustration. I didn’t know that aspect of his life.
Chuma Chinye is still alive and can attest to what I am saying. In the first place, he (Wike) was the one who brought Chuma to me to give appointment; they (Wike and Chuma) are friends, I didn’t know Chuma before I became governor. So, Chuma suggested if I could make Wike my SSG, I said God forbid, then he suggested minister. But, I had already nominated Tonye Cole (of Sahara Energy group) as the substantive minister from Rivers State. Now, I think twice about whatever Chuma Chinye tells me because he has misled me before, not once, but twice… Wike should know that we were told to bring a name and not 10 names that is why I said he lies a lot. Don’t forget that I was chairman of the Governors’ Forum and as chairman; I was entitled to nominate one other ministerial appointment to the President, what we used to call zonal minister.
I made the case to the then president (Goodluck Jonathan) that not only because I am chairman of Governors’ Forum, Rivers State PDP produced the largest number of votes for him and Delta State that he wanted to give it to, had produced it more than three times, under Obasanjo and Yar’Adua. Jonathan now told me that he had to discuss with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala because she gave a condition and that condition for which she can come into the government was to come in with Bright Okogwu as Minister of State for Finance. I told Jonathan that it was a faulty argument because Bright Okogwu is Delta, Ngozi is also Delta by marriage and it can’t work. So, he made that argument to Ngozi and succeeded and now came back to me that I should go and bring the name. So I brought Wike.
A week or two after, then President Jonathan sent for me. He told me that there was a report from the DSS against Wike. I knelt down before Goodluck Jonathan and begged him not to drop Wike. So, he asked me, what pedigree does he (Wike) have? I said sir, please for my sake and because Rivers State had given Jonathan the highest votes at the election; and we were then very friendly. I even told him that if we don’t take this man (Wike), I am told that he was about committing suicide.
Who did Wike know until he became a minister? One thing I try as much as possible to guard against is betrayal, I have been betrayed by a lot of people. People I helped to become Deputy Speaker of House of Representatives (apparently referring to Rt. Hon. Austin Opara), Commissioners, those I appointed, people I helped during elections. Very few Nigerians have principles, do you know why? It is because the only source of income is the revenue of the state. Wike took his time to paint me black and I told him that there is only one way to prove it, let us go to court.
When it comes to Rivers State, I spent all my time not sleeping, working to enable us get to where we are. I introduced free education, Wike has introduced school fees, I introduced free healthcare, Wike has introduced payment for healthcare. I built new hospitals, they are there for people to see. Wike has been telling lies, I am telling you facts.
One principle I established, while I was governor of Rivers State is that I let Rivers money to be used for Rivers purposes. Wike knew that, because he was my Chief of Staff. Wike was somebody I supported for second term as chairman of local government council even when the then governor (Peter Odili) did not want him to return for a second term. Do you know the portfolio Wike wanted when I came in as governor in 2007? He wanted to become the Commissioner for Finance, I told him no.
But Wike actually said you wanted him to be the Commissioner for Finance but that he objected and chose to be your Chief of Staff?
Wike does not have the courage to look at me and tell me he wanted any position. One of the persons he sent to me is our common friend, Bello Adoke, the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General. The former Attorney General of the Federation, is our common friend. He told Bello to come and beg me to appoint him (Wike) as Commissioner for Finance. I told Bello, no. Due to my busy schedule, I didn’t know what Wike was doing, I didn’t know he was snatching people’s files and all that.
There was a lady I gave a contract to supply cars for the government. She was paid but she didn’t supply all the cars. It was after I left office that she told me… (the alleged involvement of Wike) and that was why she could not complete the delivery of the cars. So, how can Wike say I wanted him to be Commissioner for Finance? That is why I am mentioning names. What is Wike’s background to be commissioner for finance? You cannot give a lawyer, who does not have that background of managing money to become commissioner for finance. Let me tell you something that will surprise you. Nyesom Wike swore to me with his children that if he ever betrayed me, that his children should die. It shows you the character of the person we are talking about.
For many Nigerians, it is like the APC has started something they cannot finish?
Nigerians cannot say that…
(Cuts in) But that is what people are saying
Nigerians cannot say that. Do you know why I said Nigerians cannot say that, they owe me sympathy. As chairman of the Governors Forum, when I started fighting with President Jonathan, I was clear about what the fight was all about. I was the first Nigerian to raise the alarm about the former CBN governor’s letter to President Goodluck Jonathan that $49 billion was missing from the NNPC account and not paid to the federation account.
If they had returned it, we would not be in recession. If that $49 billion was there plus other recovered looted funds, perhaps, we would have hit $50 billion. With $50 to $60 billion, you don’t need to look for dollars to buy. What we are saying is that we did not meet money. Now, we are generating the funds before we can deploy. We have ideas, which will generate huge economic growth, but we don’t have the money and that is why our president is talking to people to give us money. So, we are not overwhelmed by the job, we are overwhelmed by the fact that we don’t have money. So, we are looking for money.
But top government officials of the past administration have also argued that there were efforts and moves by the past government to save and invest some of the excess funds that accrued to the federation account but that the Governors Forum, of which you were the chairman opposed the move and went to court. Do you regret that action?
Let me correct the false impression because you see the first action was when President Goodluck Jonathan took over in 2011, there were savings. Then we used to have the National Economic Council meeting and the Minister of Finance used to tell us how much we had in the excess crude account.
Let us say in May, it was $48 billion, but when you come by June it would drop to $47 billion. Whenever we asked, Minister of Finance would say that the President directed that she should use the $1 billion for something.
Again by July, $1 billion would be missing, and it would be the same story. Four months after, the president was still directing her to take money from the account monthly, without the governors knowledge and that was when we decided to put a stop to it and demanded that the money be shared but we agreed to put $1 billion in the Sovereign Wealth Fund. Each state can then go and do their savings, while the FG can save its share.
What was shared was $10 billion. So ask, what happened to the larger chunk of $37 billion? And remember, what we are arguing about here is the savings from Obasanjo era, which President Yar’Adua inherited and then passed on to President Goodluck Jonathan. And all we shared from that amount was $10 billion. When we became strong enough to resist the illegal spending from the account, they stopped calling NEC (National Economic Council) meetings. For about two years, there was no NEC meeting but the constitution says NEC must hold at least once in a month.
So, in disobedience to the constitution, they stopped calling NEC meetings because they wanted to spend the money.
These are the facts. There are governors you can ask. Governors went on strike three times and we refused to collect our monthly allocation until they stopped deducting from the SWF. Why would people now say that it is the governors that caused it? The reason why we embarked on strike was because we said the money was being shared illegally. Out of the whole money, what was given to us was $10 billion. So, under President Goodluck Jonathan, nothing was saved. If you convert these funds into infrastructural development, the infrastructural gap we have now, won’t be this wide.
Under President Goodluck Jonathan, our country had the money to do it. Now, the money is just not there. The President is extremely disciplined. So, when you want to ask that kind of question, you should ask what happened when we had money?
We must accept the blame because we are the government in power but the challenge from the President is that you must not remove your eye from the ball. What is the ball? When you get the money, spend it on the project.
That is why you see that it is taking a longer process before we award contracts because you must do that six weeks of advertisement, you must go through all the processes. Even when they give you, the federal executive council must look at it to see whether you passed through the process. If you did not comply with it, it is sent back to the ministry for you to start afresh. What Nigerians should be saying is that yes, we are facing challenges but we are sure that our resources are safe.
What were you trying to achieve by holding an APC stakeholders meeting during the acting President’s visit to Rivers State?
First and foremost, what was held in Government House, Port Harcourt by the governor was a PDP rally and not a stakeholders meeting. How can you hold a town hall meeting inside government house? Two, Wike printed invitations for the event and since it was a PDP rally he did not give any invitation to APC members or those outside the PDP.
There is a Conference and Convention Centre I built which can take about 3000 people, why didn’t Wike hold it there and make it free for everybody that wants to attend. I had already heard that the APC members were complaining that they were not given invitations, so we agreed that if our people were not given the opportunity to come into the hall, we must afford them their own opportunity. If not, we have sold out our people.
All the governor did was that he brought in PDP people. When we got there. That was what happened and all of us told the Acting President that you cannot leave this Rivers State without addressing APC members. When the Acting President addressed us, he addressed us as APC members.