Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, recently briefed some journalists on the feats of the federal government in infrastructure development, security and the COVID-19 management. Olawale Ajimotokan presents the excerpts:
With respect to infrastructure, there are many projects across the country by government and through private partnership. How will these impact the country, when they eventually come on stream and what do we expect from the federal government this year on projects?
You see; infrastructure is the basis for development. But, unfortunately, like Mr. President said too, when you have security challenges it overshadows whatever progress you are making in other areas. That is the truth of the matter. No administration has made the type of progress we have made in terms of infrastructure. And it is showing now in terms of how it is going to help the economy.
Take for instance a 326 kilometres Ajaokuta-Itakpe-Warri rail line. It was started in the 80s but it took this administration to complete 30 years later but the import of that is that we are looking at least a million passengers a year and about 2-3 million metric tonnes of goods that would be ferried by that line.
That line is now being extended to the Warri Port so that it would be seamless infrastructural development so that when it gets to Warri Port, first it can ferry goods from the Port all the way to Ajaokuta and Itakpe especially, raw materials and finished products. People do not see the import of that now.
Two, but for COVID-19, we should have commissioned the Ibadan-Lagos dual carriage standard gauge railway. It will reduce traffic on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and enhance security. The beauty of the particular Lagos-Ibadan railway is that it has been extended to Tin Can Island.
So, containers meant for outside Lagos will now be discharged at the Inland container terminal outside Abeokuta so that if you have containers to clear at Apapa and your container is going to Ilorin, you don’t have to come to Lagos. You can imagine what that would be. It means you won’t see the trailers with the containers you see on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. Talking about infrastructure, the Ajaokuta, Kaduna Kano gas pipeline is going to change the entire industrial outlook of Nigeria.
The emphasis the administration has put on gas as a substitute to petro and AGO is going to be the impetus we need for industrial revolution. You can imagine the sheer number of industries that will come up using gas. And of course the gas expansion programme of the federal government is also there. It is part of our own infrastructural initiative and you spoke about the PPP in the area of infrastructure.
It is COVID-19 that is preventing us from showcasing this. The 43 kilometres road made by Dangote between Kabba and Obajana has been completed. It is one of the best roads in the country today. It was completed using local materials. It is the first experiment on large scale of cement being used for roads and what we are told is that it will even last longer than bitumen.
There is the Apapa-Oworonsoki Tollgate. It is the biggest project in Lagos by Dangote. When I said by Dangote, it is actually by the federal government. Let me explain what happened. The federal government knows that it does not have the money. It approached companies like Dangote, who would construct these roads but they would get deferred payment. Federal government would also calculate how much they spent and look at how much they ought to have paid in tax.
So probably over 10 years, Dangote would have paid in tax the amount of money for that project. So, it is a win-win situation for everybody. Dangote is using its local materials, which would have sold anywhere. So, he has a ready market. For that, he also does not have to pay tax. Federal government, it’s a win-win for us, because we don’t have the money. We know it would take us 10 years to recoup that money from Dangote, who is our forebear.
What that is going to do is that it will completely eliminate the gridlock at Apapa. It is not only here that is happening. There is the collaboration between the LNG and private sector at Bonny Bodo for a link bridge. The Federal government is doing a lot in the area of infrastructure development. Our own style is that it should not come from us alone. Let us go together, because we don’t believe in propaganda.
There is serious concern about security situation in the country. Recently, the president announced the nomination of new service chiefs. What do you expect from this?
First, the appointment and engagement of service chiefs is the exclusive prerogative of Mr. President. And that is because he is best positioned to know exactly which area of security needs to be revamped and who’s best to handle it. There is no point second guessing his appointment or his choice, but don’t forget that in his New Year speech, he promised Nigerians that he was going to reenergize and restructure the security apparatus in a manner that will meet the ever-changing demands of our security.
The cheering news for us all Nigerians is the fact that when you look at the background of the new service chiefs, almost every one of them had at one point or the other been involved in the prosecution of the war against insurgency, which means they would not be new to the challenges and will be able to take off from the brilliant performance of their predecessors. So, there is good expectation that being new to the conflict and having been at the one time or the other commanded the force that is dealing with the insurgency, they will hit the ground running.
I think that when we look at the recent exploits of the Nigerian military in the fight against insurgency and banditry, they have been making a lot of successes in the last months especially, in January and before then. So, we look forward to them, building on the successes especially, since they have the experience and have led the Commands at various times of their career.
Do you agree that the appointment of the Service Chiefs is as a result of pressure on the administration, considering that the opposition has always been critical of the handling of the insurgency in the North East?
No. Like I said the disengagement or engagement of service chiefs is the exclusive prerogative of Mr. President anywhere in the world. He is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. There are many things that we don’t see that he sees: he receives reports from both formal and informal sources and he makes the decision as the buck stops on his desk.
So, I don’t think it helps matter saying that was it late or early in choosing the new Service Chiefs. There is no point second-guessing the President on this issue. He is the Commander-in-Chief and he makes the calls and based on his perfect and complete understanding of the situation, and he is the only person who has a comprehensive view of the situation.
What is your opinion on the quit notice being given to Fulani herdsmen in Southwest? Do you think it is right for the Southwest to issue quit notice to herders and what do you think should be done to ensure that peace and security returns to the region?
I think we should stop playing politics with the issue of security. And we should not bring ethnicity and religion into the issue of security. Yes, it is true that the governors are the chief security officers in their states and they would do everything possible to maintain peace and stability in their states. I believe the matter of quit notice or no quit notice has been politicised completely. I am glad the two governors had met the President and the matter is being resolved.
They have briefed the President and every stakeholder, whether political, religious and are all working to be on top of the situation. I want to appeal to the media not to sensationalise this kind of report. People are giving different interpretations and headlines. But the truth of the matter is that the issue of security should not be politicised, otherwise, we will never resolve it.
We are already in the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic and there is a spike in cases. What are the plans of government to curb the situation? And what is being done to change the conspiracy theories around COVID-19 Vaccine particularly in the North, where there is concern about Pfizer-made vaccine?
It is true there is a rise in the number of people, who are testing positive to COVID-19. It is also correct that there is rise in mortality. This is directly attributable to the disregard Nigerians have for the directive of the various authorities like the PTF, the Centre for Disease Control, the state level and other agencies. The crux of the matter is that many Nigerians still live in denial. They don’t believe there is COVID-19.
And for many of them, when we announced that so many people have tested positive and so many have died, these things just remain as figures and numbers until when those who are closed to them are victims that they begin to realise that this is a serious matter. In the first instance, we don’t have the health infrastructure to support this kind of total recklessness on the part of Nigerians.
On the conspiracy theories on the part of Nigerians, more than the vaccines, we need Nigerians to understand that the Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions are still the most effective way of interrupting and slowing down the infection in Nigeria and consequently slowing down the mortality rate. Nigerians also must appreciate the fact that they must continue to take personal responsibility.
We are not talking about anything that is external, but what can affect them. If you go out today, one in 20 Nigerians are not wearing masks and out of five that wear masks, only one will wear it correctly. We have no respect for social distancing. I think it is about time we took the matter seriously. I think the good news for me is the fact that Mr. President has signed a regulation that sort of criminalises violation of any COVID- 19 protocol. I think the most important thing today is the government has a taken a very huge step in signing the quarantine regulation.
Now there is also the big question about the Vaccine. I think there are many issues about the Vaccine. The first is the affordability of the Vaccine. The second is the safety of these vaccines. The third is the availability of these vaccines not talking about the logistics of these vaccines. Already there is a big scramble the world over. I think as at today, the population of Africa is about 1.3 billion people and I doubt if we have secured half a billion vaccines so far.
While the various governments and fellow Nigerians focusing on how to source these vaccines, whether it is Pfizer, Modena or Oxford AstraZeneca, a bigger problem, which is the vaccine hesitancy has arisen against the background of conspiracy theories for these vaccines. It’s not only conspiracy theory about the vaccines, but also conspiracy theories even about the virus itself.
Some people have introduced religion, some people don’t just believe in science, but the truth of the matter is that COVID-19 is real. People must have confidence in the vaccine, because the vaccines, if they are not safe the federal government will not recommend them in the first instance. That is why it is already said the president, the vice president and the governors will be the first to take these vaccines, to convince everybody that these vaccines are safe.
The Amnesty International has alleged that the federal government is liable on the issue of #EndSARS. You are not known to take this kindly, are you?
Honestly, my view is that Amnesty International is becoming an irritant and I think they are purveyors of disinformation and fake news. Why did I say this? Amnesty International came up and said according to their report that 12 people were shot at the Lekki Toll Gate. And we challenged them if anybody has proof of people that were killed at the tollgate they should go before the judicial panel of inquiry. Give the names and addresses. And let us forget legality, three months, 100 days after the Lekki shooting, if anybody has lost a relation, a son, a daughter or a ward, won’t she or he has come forward?
And we are waiting. And it is the level of contempt that Amnesty International has for Nigeria that it is not a respecter of our judicial system. What Amnesty International ought to do if there is any judicial evidence is to go before the judicial panel of enquiry or at least wait for the outcome of the judicial enquiry. And of course, for Amnesty International, there are two sets of rules: one for Nigeria in particular and one for other parts of the world.
Otherwise, when #EndSARS protesters leveraged fake news and disinformation, to kill 37 policemen, because it was the fake news by the media using social media that led to the looting, killing and arson by the hoodlums. Now back to the curfew, Nigeria media questioned the declaration of the curfew from 4pm when at 12 noon, but when they went to invade Capitol Hill in Washington DC, how many hours were they given for the curfew?
Two, the same media, including CNN that described the #EndSARS protesters as harmless and peaceful protesters, when they went to Capitol Hill, they took them as insurrectionists. The same media that said we were wrong to try to regulate the social media, when Instagram and Twitter suspended the President of America, because they said he was using that platform to spread fake news and was dangerous, EU today has agreed that social media is causing disunity and violence everywhere. But when we said to Nigerians that we must regulate the social, the world took up arms against us. How come that the same CNN that went and concocted lies against us is now the one championing the crusade in America that social media must not be used for fake news and disinformation?