Minister of Information Alhaji Lai Mohammed recently fielded questions from a group of journalists in Lagos. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports
Was the APC expecting the gale of defection or it took the party by surprise?
Anybody who has been a close observer of this political landscape should not be taken aback by the defections. I think that it even came so late. A Yoruba adage says, ‘If we build a house on spittle, the first fog will demolish it.’ The foundation for what you see today was laid the day the Senate President forced himself on the party as Senate President. Traditionally, it is the party’s prerogative to decide presiding officers in the two houses. Here we were met with a fait accompli when Dr. Bukola Saraki, against the wishes of the party, did the unthinkable by aligning with the opposition and making them an offer they could not refuse.
I can’t quite remember the number but in a situation whereby almost the entire 40 plus Senators in PDP voted for him, he needed only a minority from the APC. So we were all waiting for Mr. President to come and address us on this issue at the International Conference Centre and it was announced that he (Bukola) had emerged as the Senate President.
From that day, we knew we had two problems. Number One, we had a Senate President who imposed himself on the party and to make it worse as an insurance, he arranged for an opposition person to be Deputy Senate President and that makes it impossible for us to remove him. ‘If you remove me, you are going to have a PDP Senate President’. I think from that day we had a problem. Of course, you could see the behaviour of the National Assembly since then. We have a National Assembly in which we had a clear majority in both houses but which treated the Executive with contempt and who actually slowed down the work of government. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, our budgets were delayed. We can understand 2015 budget because we came in, in the middle of the year. But 2016, 2017, the earliest we got our budgets was June. Key appointments, nominations and confirmations for key organisations that could move the government forward like the CBN, like the NDIC, were delayed. Really, it couldn’t have been worse if the PDP had a majority in the National Assembly.
Some are also blaming the APC for its refusal to zone those positions before and after the elections were won and lost. Others are of the view that those who are members of the APC today arranged with former Speaker Aminu Tambuwal to go against its party’s decision in 2011. You should have expected what happened in 2015?
It is not exactly the same thing. In 2011, there were two aspirants from the PDP. Each of them knew that they needed the opposition to emerge. So the kind of horse-trading that took place in 2011 is normal in any democracy since the party did not succeed in getting one candidate. When they approached us, we looked at the offer and we believed that the other party didn’t do as much. What we did in 2011 in helping him to come to power was a normal thing in a democracy because once you don’t have absolute majority, you would need the support of other smaller parties. In 2011, we were the biggest minority in the House of Reps. The difference is this. Tambuwal did not destroy his party in the process. He didn’t offer Gbajabiamila Deputy Speaker, that is the difference. In our own case, we tried to get all parties together, we called meetings which were boycotted by their group and at the end of the day when we realised this thing was getting so bad, Mr. President was to address all of us. We were waiting for Mr. President to come with majority of our Senators when it (Saraki’s emergence as Senate President) was announced. It is not the same thing.
So does your government want Saraki removed or it is just a party affair?
The Chairman of the party has asked him to resign.
What is the difference between Tambuwal’s defection in December 2014 and Saraki’s defection this time? At that time you issued a statement as party spokesman that it was justifiable and he did not have to resign. Now the party is asking Saraki to resign?
You see in 2014, the political climate was completely different. By 2013, three major political parties and factions of two had collapsed into a new party. We had ANPP, CPC and ACN and a faction of APGA that came together to become a new party. In 2014, there were internal wrangling within the PDP and they decided to defect to meet us in APC. Even now nobody is saying people can’t defect. Mr. President said it that many of the people who defected did so for selfish purposes because many of them want to come back to the National Assembly but many of them too when they were coming reached understanding with their local people. You know a Senator sometime represents up to 10 local governments. There are some unwritten rules that if this side of the Senatorial district produces a Senator for four years, it has to go to the other side in another four years. So many of them are facing re-election problem because they can’t go back to their constituency and say they want to run again. If you are going to do a primary to be a Senator and you have agreed that it has to come from Shomolu this time around and Mushin says it wants it, they will tell Mushin it can’t get it and they won’t vote for it. So there are so many reasons why some of them defected and probably they can get the ticket in another party. Defection is as old as politics itself even in the First Republic.
The fundamental thing is that, it would have been better that they left a long time earlier because they have strangulated this government for too long. When you are now being betrayed by your own party, it is more painful because we can’t fight back as much as we want to fight back.
Why should Nigerians trust you with governance for another four years?
We have delivered on all promises. We promised to fight insecurity. At that time, the major threat to our corporate existence was the Boko Haram insurgency. Despite what anybody says, we have decimated Boko Haram. When we came in on May 29, 2015, 24 local governments in the North East, an area three times the size of Lebanon, were under the effective control of Boko Haram and what this means was that they were running the administration. As a matter of fact, once we got to Maiduguri, that was the end of Bornu State. If you move outside, either to Kaure, Konduga or Bama, they were under the control of Boko Haram. By 2014, 2015, nobody in Abuja could sleep with his two eyes closed. They came and attacked THISDAY Newspapers headquarters with casualties, they attacked the UN Headquarters, they attacked the IGP’s office, Nyanya Park was bombed twice, they were active in Suleja, Kaduna, Sokoto, Plateau, Nasarrawa, Kogi. As a matter of fact, there was hardly any state in the North that Boko Haram was not operating. It was nipped in the bud in Kwara.
Today, there is relative peace. We have been able to recover all territories. No inch of Nigerian territory is under the Boko Haram control. Yes, there have been suicide bombings, that is what terrorism is all about. A couple of weeks ago in US, we saw terrorist attack. About a month or two months ago, we saw what happened in Texas. Terrorists killed many children. This is not a sign of renewed threat rather it is a sign of desperation and weakness. Compare the regularity it used to occur before and now. It is all about intelligence gathering. Yes you would talk about herdsmen-farmer clashes, was it not something we inherited? The first farmers-herders’ clash was in 1947 even before Nigeria became independent but over the years we have been able to manage it.
What has aggravated the farmers-herders’ clash today is the government’s position, its stand on fighting corruption.
We found out that in Benue State in particular that some people facing corruption charges are the ones that have armed militia. Is it not interesting that Terkula that was arrested is actually a government appointee? And since his arrest, these killings have gone down. The suspects arrested for killing those priests were not Fulani herdsmen. They were militia men from Benue State.
Politicians are afraid that if Buhari is re-elected, they would end up in jail and they are now fueling this herdsmen crisis especially in Benue state.
What about Zamfara?
Zamfara is a very interesting state. It is a clear example that these killings are neither ethnic nor religious in nature. It is pure criminality because the cattle rustlers are Muslims and Fulanis themselves and the victims also are Muslim and Fulani. So, how can you talk about ethnicity or religion here? The truth of the matter is that when there is trouble along the Sahel- Mali, Libya, Chad, Niger, you can just go across the border and buy AK-47 for about maybe $200. These criminals are now very well armed, well equipped. It is about the economy, cattle rustling. Zamfara is a very good example that this thing is not religious ditto in Kebbi. In Kebbi state, the governor said 70 per cent of all the inmates in Kebbi prisons are there because of farmers-herders’ clashes yet the farmers in Kebbi are Muslims and Fulani and the herdsmen are Muslim-Fulani. There are other reasons, apart from sheer criminality and political instigation, which are even more genuine. What about demography? What about Climate Change? Nigeria had 45 million people when we became independent in 1960. Today, we are 190 million people. It is about the struggle for resources. Secondly, Lake Chad was 25,000 square metre surface area in 1963. The same Lake Chad has shrunk today to 2,500 square metre yet Lake Chad was supporting 35 million lives from Nigeria, Central African Republic, Benin, Chad, Niger and Cameroun. Those 35 million people were using that water to fish, farm and do irrigation. There used to be about 3000 different types of fish in Lake Chad, it has now shrunk to about 500. It is about resources that are dwindling combined with population explosion and of course criminality. The good thing is that we are looking at this problem in a more holistic manner than people want to know and that is why Nigeria has hosted twice the Conference of Lake Chad Basin countries. The only solution is to reflate the Lake and we are talking to all the countries. It is very expensive but it is the only way out. Until more water is brought back into the Lake Chad, we will continue to have this problem. When you look at farmer-herder’s crisis, it is not restricted to Nigeria, it is in Ghana, it is in Southern Sudan, it is in Kenya. The good thing is that while we are looking at the long term solution, we are also looking at the short-term solution, that is why we set up this quick response wing of the Air Force to tackle herdsmen-farmer’s clashes in Zamfara, in Taraba, in Benue state. The military has established two new battalions in both Zamfara and Birnin Gwari in Kaduna. Just recently 1000-combined force of security agencies are tackling the matter in Zamfara and every day we are recording successes.
In Zamfara, one of the Senators, accused the government of sponsoring the attacks, what is your reaction to that?
I would not know the validity of that allegation, it might be purely political, it might be real. It just confirms my position that in Benue state in particular that corrupt politicians who are facing trial are also aiding and abetting this. When you look at Benue state, this is a state where civil servants have not been paid any salary for 11 months. So it is quite easy for the governor to focus people’s attention on the herdsmen-farmer crisis so that they would have no time to think about the fact that they have not been paid.
What future for Kwara APC following the defection of Senate President, the governor and members of the National and State Assemblies?
Some members of APC have decamped to the PDP. We have gained more from those who say rather than stay in the same party with Bukola Saraki, they would come to APC. I was home primarily to reassure our people that there is no cause for alarm. I was amazed at the kind of reception I got. At the time I went home, Dr. Bukola Saraki was yet to announce his resignation from the party. As far as the people of Kwara State are concerned, it was as if finally, the state was being liberated. The excitement today in Kwara State is akin to how Nigeria felt on the eve of Independence.
I am meeting on the 19th of this month if it is convenient for me with about 200 leaders of Kwara PDP ranging from former Speaker in the Second Republic, community leaders across the state. I think APC can only grow stronger in Kwara State. People have forgotten that Saraki joined APC after the merger. Merger took place 21st of July 2013, they came in 2014. The moment he joined the APC, the former ACN, former ANPP, former CPC members who were in APC left APC because they could not be in the same camp with him. What we are witnessing today in Kwara State is like a liberation and from the support I have received so far including the entire leadership of the party led by the Chairman, Akogun Oyedepo Iyiola who met with me and the National Chairman with 17 other leaders including Professor Oba Abdulraheem, Senator S.S Ajibola, all the three Senatorial district chairmen of the PDP in the state gives me confidence that Saraki’s days in dominating Kwara politics are limited. I also met with the 16 PDP candidates in the last local government elections in my home town in Oro on Monday and those 16 candidates actually claimed they won the local government elections. They had a rally on Wednesday in Ilorin and everywhere was locked ddown. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. From the back channel, some of the so-called decampees are reaching out to us. It is on record that some of them can’t go back to their constituencies in Kwara especially in Kwara North.
The defectors said the Federal Government abandoned their states in appointments. The Senate President said out of 200 appointments made, himself and Dogara were not allotted anything. Tambuwal said he cannot find anything the Federal Government has done in his state. Do you think President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has not done enough in those states?
I think it is a blatant lie that Kwara State was not considered in appointments. There are 26 appointees to boards, parastatals, either as members or DG to Kwara State and of these 26, I recommended only two. The other 24 were done by Dr. Bukola Saraki.
Who did you recommend?
The DG of NBC and the GM of National Theatre. We are not even talking about ambassadorial post which I absolutely had no input. When I give you the list, you will know that all other appointees are his people.
In terms of development, the arterial road of Ilorin, Jebba, Mokwa, Birnin Gwari road is 80 per cent completed. It is one of the major roads that links the state. On the other hand, it is this same government that awarded the contract for Lokoja-Omu Aran-Ilorin road. In terms of housing, we are building many two bedroom houses in Ilorin. Again, in terms of appointment, one of the chairmen of parastatals, is the out-gone chairman of APC, Ishola Balogun Fulani. So, it is blatant lie.
On whether we can win in Sokoto, Kano and Kwara. People forget very easily that in 2014, in Lagos Buhari roundly defeated both Atiku and Kwankwaso at the primaries. In Kano, any contest today between Buhari and anybody, Buhari is going to win. I am not in doubt about it. In Sokoto 12 out of 30 House of Assembly members refused to go with Tambuwal, that is very significant including the Deputy Governor and you can see that the next day people went on the streets in Sokoto sweeping them out. Benue is dicey but people forget that it was Senator George Akume that brought Ortom. When the whole of the North Central was in PDP, Akume fought and won election on the platform of APC.
In Kwara, I am very confident that…the only thing that can make us lose Kwara is if we don’t manage the situation well – ego and ambition and that is why the first thing I said was that I am not contesting for anything so that I can be a honest broker.
The Buhari administration has been accused of selective implementation of the anti-corruption fight, what do you have to say?
This allegation of selective fight is not correct. The former governor of Plateau State who has been sentenced, was he not in ACN? You forget one thing that the executive is quite independent from the Judiciary, we can only prosecute. We can’t convict anybody. It is left to the court to convict. So this thing about once you become a member of APC, you are free is false. Tell me one member of the APC whose prosecution has been stopped because he crossed over to APC. There is no way the executive can instruct the court to stop that case.
The suspects arrested for killing those priests were not Fulani herdsmen. They were militia men from Benue State. Politicians are afraid that if Buhari is re-elected, they would end up in jail and they are now fueling this herdsmen crisis especially in Benue state