Senator Babafemi Ojudu:   How Family, Friends Deserted Me When I was in Trouble

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World-famous, his looks belie his doggedness and astuteness. As a celebrated journalist and battle-ready politician, he is up to another mission. He excelled in adversity during the dark days of the ‘Goggled One’, Gen. Sani Abacha, and today, he shines as a democrat in Nigeria’s nascent democracy. He is the Special Adviser to President Buhari on Political Matters, Senator Babafemi Ojudu. In this interview with Adedayo Adejobi, Ojudu talks about his mission to rescue Ekiti State from the grip of Governor Ayodele Fayose and his cohorts in the state’s next governorship poll. He also talks about how he intends to develop the state moving it away from the poverty mentality – stomach infrastructure – being promoted by the incumbent administration. But before he can do all that he has to contend with a big opposition, Segun Oni, within his political party, the All Progressives Congress, to achieve his ambition of directing the affairs of Ekiti State

What was your experience during Nigeria’s military dictatorship under Gen. Sani Abacha?
Between 1993 and 1998, I was arrested and locked up 15 times – sometimes for two days; one week; the longest was nine months.  I had no access to books, radio or any form of communication. At a time about 13 of my colleagues in The News were in detention. I was released a month after (Gen. Sani) Abacha died. The caftan I wore for nine months that time is on display in the Newseum at the epicentre of Washington D.C. Newseum is a museum of news. I lost Bagauda Kalto, one of my staff who was tortured to death, and many went into exile.
It was a nasty experience, but I have no regret. I’m happy and fulfilled today. For me, democracy has been good. We have to continue to work hard. We must not despair; we must not succumb to cynicism. We should continue to search for the best to run our affairs and one day we will get it right.

During that period how did your family cope?
They got used to the choice I made. Although it was hard for them, they were supportive – particularly my wife and parents. I remember when I met my wife-to-be then: she was dating someone else. When she informed her ex that she was opting for me, the man warned her that marrying a journalist would mean taking meals to the prison to feed her husband. Not up to three months after we got married, that prophesy came to reality. But during the courtship, I educated her about what I was doing and she became very courageous. She managed the home front very well.

What did your experience in detention teach you about life?
Many will not associate with you. Some friends and family members deserted me. It was as if the world – my world – was collapsing. There was uncertainty. There were months we could not pay salaries. Hard times don’t last forever.

Why do you want to be the governor of Ekiti State?
It is because there are problems to solve in Ekiti State. Anywhere there is problem to be solved I like to go there. As a young man, I saw that the military was running the country aground. I took it up, collaborated with my colleagues, fought the military and I suffered for it. Ekiti is where I was born and raised. I have the capacity to solve problems especially when my people are suffering under a clueless, ignorant, greedy and egoistic government. I believe that I should go and help solve their problems – and I am going to so do.

What are you bringing to the table?
In the last few years, the government has given us a very bad image. We (Ekiti people) are seen through the prism of the incumbent governor. Ekiti people are decent and honest. They have integrity. We want to call the attention of the rest of the country to the fact that we are not what our governor (Ayodele Fayose) portrays us to be. There are social and economic problems in the state. Majority of the young people in Ekiti are unemployed, so we want to see how we can get them employed. There is no single industry in Ekiti. Aside from the civil servants and teachers, there is nothing happening in Ekiti State. It should not be so. We are not poor. I just got back from America – visited many states meeting with Ekiti people who are hard-working, contributing to the development of America. If they have the opportunity to come back home to develop Ekiti, they are ready to do so now. We are saying enough of the rots and shenanigans going on in the state.  We want to bring our intelligence to bear to create a state all of us can be proud of.
The economy is key; our people are hungry, going to bed without food in their stomach. Many can’t send their children to school. People are dying of curable diseases. Many do not have hope for tomorrow. Teachers and civil savants have not been paid for eight months. Many can’t pay their rents, hospital bills, and school fees. We have a governor who is fooling the people. Go to Ekiti State, you will find out he is not as popular as he used to be. The people have seen light.

If you were elected as governor of the state what would you address first?
My priority will be agriculture. Within three months, the work would have started. Ekiti (soil) is fertile. A belt in Ekiti is known for cocoa production. We will revive old farms and cultivate new ones. We will produce ethanol from cassava and corn. We will bring about mechanised agriculture. We are going to mobilise investors to come in and establish processing factories which will keep our youths engaged. Because of its strategic location between Lagos and other parts of the country, we will also add value to whatever product is coming from the North before it gets to the final consumer. So there is so much we can do to create wealth and bring about development. We have done our homework and have crafted our manifesto. We are making contacts with players in the private sector – those in agro-allied industries both locally and internationally. They are responding to us.

With a strong contender in Segun Oni – both of you are members of the All Progressives Congress – how do you intend to win the party’s ticket?
I know Segun Oni very well. I know everyone involved. I am not new in Ekiti politics. I have my strategy in place. I understand the place perfectly well. I have done unimaginable things in the state, so that should not be a problem. Moreover, our agenda is collective. It is not a personal thing.

Some people have said that the relationship between President Muhammadu Buhari and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is no more robust. What do you think?
That is beer-parlour talk. There is no problem that I am aware of between the President and Tinubu. It is the elements who do not know how to crawl but want to sprint that are peddling that. Tinubu’s public utterances have shown that he is in full support of the President ahead of the 2019 elections.

Do you think Buhari should go after Governor Ayodele Fayose when he has left office?
I don’t know what is going to happen to Fayose when he’s more a governor. Have you ever heard any word spoken to or about Fayose by President Buhari in spite of the abuses and curses Fayose rains on him every day? President Buhari has never attended to that and will not.

With seven APC governors endorsing the president for re-election, do you think 2019 presidential election will be free and fair?
With Buhari that I know, it is going to be free and fair. He has called on INEC to do their job in a lawful and just manner.

As the Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters, do you have access to Buhari and does he listen to you?
There is access as much as I want in terms of my job. Whenever I want to get across to the President, I have opportunity to do so and he listens to advice. He’s a very soft-hearted man, who believes in the idea of a united Nigeria. He is free of corruption and very touchy when it comes to matters of corruption. He believes Nigeria could be better if we all make up our minds not to steal. He wants to sanitise the environment for the betterment of the people. But he is being sabotaged and everybody wants to continue to behave the way it used to be. Nigeria is not good for us because people are not doing the right thing. I wished he is 20 years younger. One thing you can’t take away from him is that he has succeeded in making anti-corruption an agenda in Nigeria.

Why should the Buhari administration take credit for what former President Goodluck Jonathan did like the railway project?
A different government can decide to start a new project and abandon an old one. But this government won’t do such.

Why does this government overlook politically exposed persons and their charges of corruption, when they defected to APC? Take for instance, the case of Jim Nwobodo and Timipre Sylva.
The fact that you defected to another political party does not mean that your corruption case has been overruled. Orji Uzor Kalu defected to APC but he still has a case. So are cases of other people who defected. Have you considered the details of Timipre Sylva’s case before you judged him? Was it that Buhari called the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or the judge and requested him to return his property? Some of these things have nothing to do with the President at all. Buhari will not dictate to any judge, or prosecutor how to handle a particular case. He certainly won’t.

Are you saying the return of the 47 luxury houses is not an issue to be considered at all?
No, I am not saying that. For all you care, Buhari may be as embarrassed as you are on hearing about that. When he felt things were not going right he went and arrested judges, and you all cried foul so what then do you want this man to do? If we are going to clean this society, then all of us must be ready because we are all one way or the other beneficiaries of corruption. That is why some people want corruption back. They prefer the last government because they got the money they didn’t work for. Whatever position you occupy now and you come to Aso Rock, what Mr President will give you is a handshake and a photo op.
The man is insisting that whatever resource we have must be used for the development of this country’s infrastructure. Many who have lived on corruption are not happy with the turn of events – they’re livid. They are the ones sponsoring all kinds of fake news. They’re trying to knock heads, one against the other, and bring not just the regime down but also the country.

In three years of this government, Nigerians seem to have a different story. Apart from propaganda, what has this government achieved?
Anti-corruption – although corruption has not been completely wiped out, the abhorrence of it and the will to fight it are what matter. Why it appears that he is not succeeding is because every agency and department of government is still populated with humans who believe in corruption. On productivity in the economy, it’s been established that close to three million Nigerians have gone back to the farm. We are producing rice and wheat. Cocoa (production) is on the rise again. Agro-allied companies are processing rice in Kebbi, Jigawa, and Sokoto states. A N35b-poultry business has taken off in Kaduna. Ebonyi and Anambra are making giant strides in agriculture. In the next one year or so we would be self-sufficient in production of rice.
Look at the social welfare programme under the Vice President’s office; graduates can now get jobs without knowing anybody by visiting the portal of Npower and get something to sustain them until they are able to find their feet. There is a conditional cash transfer for the very poor. These are very poor women in rural areas who are given money on a monthly basis. The home-grown free meals programme for schoolchildren has taken off in 22 states. Millions of pupils are fed, thousands of caterers employed and local framers are provided markets for their products, while school enrolment has increased.

Is it the same school feeding programme that’s seeing children being fed miserly bread and stew?  Didn’t you see the viral video? How do we ascertain government’s claims?
That was a fake video. There is a mechanism in place to make sure that the programme is not compromised. What you saw is a fake video made by elements who do not wish the government well. It was established to be a fake video. The Federal Government is making billions of naira available through the Central Bank of Nigeria for small-holding farmers. The government registers local farmers, small-holding farmers, and give them inputs that enable them clear their lands, provide seeds and fertilizers and the rest. It is a big revolution going on in the agriculture sector.

All of these are not evident in the economy. How do you explain that?
It takes time. For now, we no longer go out to buy rice. We are focusing on infrastructure; encouraging productivity in Nigeria. As time goes by, people will get jobs. People are looking for a quick fix; the problem we met on the ground cannot be solved overnight.

How come the President and seven APC governors approved $1b without due process?
No, there is no way it wouldn’t have gone through the approval process. People were just too hasty to condemn.

The government said Boko Haram has been technically defeated but it requested $1b from the ecological fund to fight terrorism. Isn’t that a subtle way to raise funds for 2019 election campaign?
People have the right to their opinion; what nobody can accuse Buhari of is to say that he is a thief. The president is making arrangements all over the world to equip our military. Over the years our military has been neglected and starved of equipment. He is trying to build a new army that is well equipped and primed to confront any security challenges.

Nothing indicts the government more than its failure in securing lives and property as revealed in killings carried out by herdsmen in places like Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Kaduna, Enugu, Edo and Ogun. Buhari has been silent.
Is he silent? There are decisions that have been taken that may not be known to the public because they are security matters. I will, however, like to reiterate that life is sacred and anyone who has been found to take the life of others should adequately be punished.