The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in this interview with (THE PUNCH), says the Federal Government will tell Nigerians the truth and not how they take it
A lot of Nigerians are wondering if the Change Begins With Me Campaign is about stealing because just after it was launched, two men- Mr. Akin Fadeyi and Omo Bazuaye- said the concept was stolen from them. What do you say to that?
It is unfortunate that some Nigerians don’t believe in industry, honesty, integrity and hard work. But they should realise that there is no shortcut to success except by being honest and straightforward. This is the case with these two young men because I will show you evidence that proves that by October 14, 2015, the entire thematic production of Change Begins With Me had been completed. And by October 31, the theme songs had been completed. Fadeyi was sent to me by Simon Kolawole (a former Editor of THISDAY Newspaper) in December or January and when he came, we compared (our works). However, this is a campaign that will last the entire administration.
So, I said to him, ‘if and when we need contents and your contents match our own, we will contact you’. And that was why I told him, we can’t even take your material because we are not changing our theme -Change Begins With Me- because everything we have done is on that and yours is Not In My Country; and he went away. The next time we heard from him was in June 2016, when he wrote a letter to request for partnership. We did not make a secret of this campaign. As soon as I became minister; I told the whole world what I was going to do. I will read this out to you. The correspondence was dated October 14, 2015 and was sent at 3.04pm on that day.
Some Nigerians are incredible people. Fadeyi came in January. We thank God for technology. As soon as I became minister, I called a meeting of all the directors to say that I was going to launch this campaign and after that, I received proposals from more than 20 people, including Jimi Johnson. And to all of them, I had just one message- wait for me to launch my campaign, if your material matches our own, we will call you.
In December, I came to Lagos to seek the support of Don Jazzy, Sunny Ade, Kwam 1, Tiwa Savage, P Square, all of them. I met them at the Southern Sun and told them that they could produce a theme song for me. So how can anybody now wake up and say this was his idea? Honestly, it is just inspiration from God and I worked with a team of more than five people. We invited Brian from CENTERSPREAD. All the time I was telling the world that I was going to launch the campaign, why didn’t anybody say it was their idea?
But some Nigerians have questioned the timing of the campaign, describing it as diversionary and that it appears as if the government is pushing its change agenda on the people after it failed to keep its promise. What do you say to that?
Isn’t what I have sent to you now an answer to that? If by October 2015, I had completed this project, can it now be seen as an afterthought? By October 2015, even before I was confirmed as minister, it had been my idea to launch the campaign and I had completed work on it.
Why would anyone say it was an afterthought? Two, why had it not been launched before now? When you take an idea to the government, you must also make budget provision for it. We (ministers) came in November last year and the budget was not passed until April, so I had to wait. And also, there is no better time than now to launch this campaign. Let’s face it, what is this programme about? .
What are we demanding of any of you? Are we asking you to pay more tax? We are asking you to be diligent at your work; we are asking you to be more patriotic; we are asking you to buy made-in-Nigeria products; we are asking you as a Danfo driver not to take ‘paraga’ (local liquor) before driving: we are asking the patent medicine store owner not to sell substandard drugs; we are asking the customs officer not to undervalue on the job. So what are we asking of you that is a burden? It is actually in time of adversity like this that you launch this kind of programme. It is quite possible for the price of oil per barrel to rise to $100 tomorrow, then everybody will forget about recession and we will become wasteful in our spending again. Then we will start to import champagne and refuse to invest in infrastructure. And corruption will be rife again and we will return to this situation. So is there any better time than at a time of adversity to run this campaign?
But don’t you think the campaign will be difficult to sell to people who are hungry or have not been paid salaries for six months? Where should they get food to eat and survive?
Okay, we are asking somebody who has not been paid for six months to be diligent, but we are also asking his boss not to embezzle his workers’ entitlements. We are also asking the customs officer to ensure that revenues are collected adequately; that is the best way the man who has not been paid salary can get his money. Are we now saying because he has not been paid his salary, then stealing and corruption should go on? Or that people should continue to vandalise our pipelines? Listen, why is it that the man has not been paid his salary? Corruption! Vandalism! .
We are losing one million barrels of crude oil daily, you know how much that translates to in naira? And we are campaigning that people should be patriotic and not destroy infrastructure. We are appealing to you to please buy made-in-Nigeria goods so that there can be more jobs and you think that because the man has not been paid, he should go on the rampage. It is a very comprehensive campaign that is not aimed at the unpaid worker alone; the aim is to address the issue from the top to the bottom.
Nigerians are saying the government has not fulfilled its part of the change that was promised them, yet, it is asking them to do their own part.
Even if we did not launch this campaign, is it not right for people to be honest? Is it not right for people to be upright? Okay, because the government has not been able to deliver on its campaign promises, is it right for people to be selling substandard drugs and be killing citizens? Is it right to be breaking pipelines and putting everybody in darkness? .
I don’t see the logic in it. And why is it that the government has been unable to deliver on its promises? It begs repetition. It is simply because of these same ills we are trying to correct. We inherited an economy that was defective, that was 60 per cent dependent on oil and oil related products. We inherited an economy that was driven by consumption. Even when they kept saying that there was growth, what kind of growth was it? Yes, there would be growth as long as petrol dollars come in and people buy things. But did that translate into employment? Did it translate into more factories?
But Nigerians are saying that the blame game should have ended by now and that this government should get down to serious work and justify why it got majority of people’s votes.
Who is involved in blame game?
Is it not embarrassing how this government keeps blaming the Peoples Democratic Party for the country’s woes when it was voted in to fix the problems?
Blame game! Listen, is it blame game to say that we are losing one million barrels of crude a day, is that blame game? Is it blame game to say that we over relied on oil and failed to diversify the economy? I am not even talking about stealing. We are talking about the facts on ground, that our economy had been defective for a long time, not during (former President Goodluck) Jonathan’s time alone. We have always made that very clear, that this problem was waiting to happen because past administrations refused to invest in infrastructure.
They did not leave cushion for us. That is not blame game. And what have we done since we came in? We stopped the bleeding by introducing the Treasury Single Account; that is one. Two, we have ensured that money is spent on essential things alone. In the whole of 2015, only N18bn was spent on roads, but N65bn on estacode and travels.
We have reversed that. This year alone, we have spent N70bn on roads but unfortunately, we met over N400bn debt. That is not blame game. Look, why are the Jews reminding you of the holocaust after 70 years? It is not blame game and we should understand this. You can’t tell us to wish away the past. Do you have a magic wand to say that the economy should be running smoothly? We are not even blaming Jonathan or whoever; we are saying this is what we met and this is what we are doing. And now, you are saying why have you not delivered on your promises? Is it our fault that the price of crude oil crashed from $100 to $28? Did we blame Jonathan for that?
All over the world, people hold parties responsible for promises made during electioneering, so this government should even commend Nigerians for their fortitude thus far.
We always do that. But let me give you an illustration. You promised your son that you would buy him a bicycle. All of a sudden, you lose your job. What do you do? You explain to him, ‘Son, I promised you a bicycle but this is what happened. I am working hard to get another job and I will still buy you a bicycle.’
There is no difference between running a government and running a family. I will tell you what recession is. It is very simple: a driver with one wife, earning N60,000 was living in a bedroom flat. Then his salary was increased to N100,000 a month. And his wife said, let us be saving money and buy land. He said no.
He married another wife and they moved from their one bedroomed flat to a two-bedroomed flat and also moved their children to a private school from public schools and started living the life. All of a sudden, his employer said he was closing down the factory and could only pay him N40,000 a month now. What will he do? He will have to return to a one bedroomed flat, move his children back to a public school, and the second wife he married will have to go. It is a recession.
But beyond the fall in oil prices, it appears that this government was ill prepared for governance as your party-the All Progressives Congress- has said openly it had no idea of how bad the situation was. Isn’t that where due diligence and the need for shadow cabinets come in? Who should we blame for that?
I was a member of the transition committee of this government and it is shocking to see how soon you all forget what happened. Where were you when we were crying that five days to the handover date, we had not received any handover notes? You published it then. You are asking me this question now. How prepared were we? .
How can you be prepared when nobody gives you a handover note? You are going to buy a house and you are not allowed to enter until the day you pay, then you get there and see the leakages and all of that. We did not even know that the government owed N67bn in fertiliser alone; we didn’t know because we had no access to the figures. We did not know that Nigerian government was not paying up its Joint Venture to the oil companies. We didn’t know that government owed over N400bn to contractors; it was when we came in that we realised that contractors had not been paid for 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. When oil was selling at $100 a barrel, government did not pay contractors. We have to pay them now.
We owe Julius Berger over N70bn, so when we gave the company N13bn to start work, their official just laughed and said it was just to service the interest. You see, we will not shy away from telling Nigerians the truth; it is not important how you want to take it. But that is the honest truth. And we always say, take us as if it is your small family unit and tell us how you are going to react.
But Nigerians are saying that there appears to be no direction or concrete plan by this government to get us out of recession, which is really the problem.
Do you understand what recession is? It simply means that for two consecutive quarters, you record negative figures. Japan has been in recession for 60 years. Why our recession is biting more is because there is no reserve to fall on.
When the money was there, there was no investment in infrastructure. You can imagine if there had been rail lines, the cost of transportation would have been cheaper. The cost of transporting produce would be cheaper. Crude oil transportation would be cheaper. When we had the money to do this, we did not do so.
That is why the situation is biting hard. Eleven oil producing countries that suffered the same shock as Nigeria did have gone into recession; six more are preparing to do so. Saudi Arabia entered the crisis with over $600bn in reserve; we entered the crash with over 170 million people and less than $30bn in reserve. Nigerians must know these figures. But what are we doing? We were not surprised that there was going to be recession, in fact, the Minister of Finance said it, and so we know what it is. What are we producing? Where are the factories? Where is the power? How can you make your factories work when people are sabotaging pipelines and cutting off electricity supply? When you are losing one million barrels of crude a day, 1,000MW of electricity per day, and the source of gas is being cut every day, how do you want to survive? But what we are doing is very clear as I explained to you.
One, we have not only introduced the TSA, we have introduced fiscal discipline. We have been able to weed out over 33,000 ghost workers; we have reduced monthly payments from N165bn a month to about N159bn. We have been able to achieve significant reduction in tours and travels; and these are some of the things you can do while also concentrating on diversifying to areas like agriculture, culture and industry. If you read the result of the second quarter, there were improvements in agriculture, solid minerals and growth in investments. We are very confident we are going to get out of this recession because we are taking fiscal measures.
Immediately this government came into power, there was significant improvement in power supply and then the Niger Delta Avengers came in.
Even the TSA this government has implemented, a lot of people feel that it has been causing more damage than good on the economy and that it should have been a gradual process because of its adverse effects on banks, which are now struggling to survive.
Do banks in other parts of the world depend on government deposits? When I was younger, I knew what banks did. That is what we have to correct. If all a bank can survive on is for the government to give it N10bn, keeps it and gives the government five per cent, 10 per cent, and then loan the same money out to people at 23, 24 per cent, do you think that is what banking is all about? I don’t think so. Again, why did the government have to implement the TSA? It realised that there was no way it could know where its money really was. Generating agencies like Nigerian Customs Service, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and others, were keeping money elsewhere and when government needed money, it had to go and borrow when its money was lying idle somewhere. You are now saying that we should take the money back there; that doesn’t make sense.
Do you think this government has the luxury of delaying some of the things it promised the citizens because it is almost two years now that it came to power?
Do you think the government is delaying anything? I’ve given you facts and figures. I’ve told you that the economy was dependent on a single product and that product suffered a serious crash. And I have asked you as a person if you made a promise to your wife and kids, based on your income, to take them on vacation to Dubai and your salary drops from N100,000 to N20,000 can you still keep that promise immediately? .
Would your wife divorce you on account of that? Can she accuse you of delaying it? And that is why we have to be open. What we need to do now is to look at what is essential, which is why we are diversifying and looking for other sources of income. And we are not the type of government that would pass the buck to the next generation; we could do so. But no, we came with a rescue mission and we are going to rescue this country by the grace of God.
Senator Shehu Sani recently said that he hoped that by the time that would happen, all of us would not have died.
Comments are very free. I have been on the outside and now I’m inside and I understand the situation. Any of them who comments, we just laugh at them because they have little understanding of the enormity of the problems government is confronted with. How many of them understand what sacrifices our soldiers are making, not just in the North-East? Do they know how much it costs to maintain the military? I don’t join issues with people; they comment from their own perspectives. But clearly, this government is people-oriented and the only reason why we are here is because of the people.
How can majority of Nigerians, especially in the South-East and South-South, be patriotic when appointments are skewed in favour of the Northern region?
It is balanced and I will prove it to you.
Will you say it is balanced if out of 17 security agencies, 14 are headed by northerners?
Do you know your problem, you do not take a holistic view of a situation; you take a small view of it. We have made about 260 appointments and I will tell you that even for the South-East that seems to have the least, it is because people forget that it has five states while the North-West has seven states.
So when you break it down, it is equal number of appointees for each state and I will give you the figures. People only try to whip up religious and ethnic sentiments but the facts are there.
In North-West, there have been 51 appointments; North-Central, 46; North-East, 45; South-East, 41; South-West, 45; and South-South, 45. Meanwhile, North-West has seven states, South-East, five states. If 41 appointments are made from the South-East and you divide by five, it is roughly eight per state. If you divide 45 in the South-West by the six states there, you get less than eight. If you divide North-West that has 51 by seven, you get just about seven. So what are we saying?
Which of the agitations were not there before, militancy, cattle rustling, Boko Haram insurgency?
Some Nigerians have accused the APC of using the PDP script after the Edo governorship election was postponed. Is it true that the election was postponed to save the APC from an imminent defeat in Edo?
It is not the same thing (with the postponement of the 2015 general elections). If the election was held at the time or two years ago, the APC would still have won. I have no reason to doubt that there were security challenges and I think we can have elections when a nation exists.
What about nepotism in this government, which Dr. Junaid Mohammed even described as the worst in Nigeria’s history?
I have just given you the breakdown of the appointees. Are you saying the President has relations also in the South-East and the South-West? Or in the North-Central? If he has relations, it would be in the North-West. He might have friends across Nigeria. I am from Kwara State and I am not his relation. Audu Ogbeh (Minister of Agriculture) is not his relation. He has 36 ministers; he could only pick one from Katsina State. It is not as if there are five appointments and all five are from Katsina. There are some appointments that might be from the President’s state and they are not even his appointees.
Why did this government use and dump the Bring Back Our Girls campaign group? The APC supported the group before it came to government but now prevents it from protesting peacefully.
This government has the same objective with the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign group and we will work with it. If there is any communication gap, we are going to ensure that it is restored, but clearly, we have not abandoned them and we are not dumping them. This is not a case of use and dump.
President Buhari may have integrity and other virtues but former President Olusegun Obasanjo said he could not vouch for him in the area of managing the economy. Is that not reflective of our economic situation now?
That is Obasanjo’s opinion and he is entitled to it. Like I said, I have worked with President Buhari and he does not micromanage any ministry. Yes, the President will have an influence on the economic direction of a country, but I think he has largely left this matter in the hands on those who know best and he has never imposed his own economic world view on us.
When will this government cut down on the size of the Presidential Air Fleet?
If I remember, your paper carried the story and also said that a committee has been set up. Aircraft is not like buying a car or selling a car and there are lots of implications attached to the sale of aircraft, how many hours has it flown? What is its maintenance record? And so on.
And these things have not been concluded after one year in office?
The point is that this government is doing something along that line. And it is important to note that this government has not bought a single new aircraft; it is the ones it met that it is maintaining.
Why does this government like to demarket Nigeria?
On the contrary, I think when investors know that you have a President, who wants to stamp out corruption; it encourages them to trust more. I heard a lot of funny things being said that the President has been demarketing Nigeria. Who does not know the situation in Nigeria? How many people have lost contracts because we are Nigerians before now? The truth must be said; this is the time that Nigerians are better respected; this is when our green passport is starting to have value. Before now, we were all just crooks, 419 people (fraudsters) and drug smugglers.
But today, you can see that because the President has integrity and is respected all over the world, you can see the reference given to him whenever he travels and that is what is percolating down. I have been to China and other places and I can see that it is not what it used to be before.
Even though this government said it has not started probing former President Goodluck Jonathan, but it seems to have been chasing his wife, relations and associates around. Is this government sincere?
I don’t know your definition of sincerity but if I, as the President, say I want to know what happened to the money that was allocated to fight Boko Haram and you say you gave this man out of it, I would investigate him. I have still not deviated. If he now says out of that money, he gave to the aide of the former President, I would also question him. But in this particular case, it was the aide of the former President that the money was traced to and he was being investigated, until the former President’s wife (Patience) said the money belonged to her.
So because she said the money belonged to her, we must hands off? I don’t see the logic. And the accounts were said to have been opened in the names of house helps and stewards and so on. The government did not set out to investigate the woman, but she is saying that the money belonged to her. In law, the fellow who bought a stolen good is as guilty as the one who stole it. So you want the government not to investigate it. So how can you accuse us of insincerity? So if money is found on another person, all you have to say is that it belongs to Jonathan, therefore, we cannot probe him. I don’t see the logic.
In less than three years time, there will be another presidential election and the APC could be voted out, considering the situation in the country. How does that make you feel?
If our intention was to secure eight years without working for the people and laying a foundation for a better tomorrow, then we would be the most unfortunate government to come to power. We have come to government to bring that change.
That change will come and people will judge us by our commitment and honesty and by the time they start seeing the results of our efforts, I have no doubt that all the pessimists would be proven wrong. Then again, a government cannot achieve everything in 15 months but you are already judging us as if we have been there for three years.
Nobody is even giving us credit for being able to keep the ship of the state afloat. In Venezuela, which has a similar story like ours and has one of the world’s largest deposits of oil reserve, their leaders squandered all the money. Today, people are queuing up to buy soaps there. We are not saying people should start singing our praise for no reason, no, we are aware of the enormity of the challenges but we are up to the task.