Nigerians are craving answers for many questions concerning the Buhari administration. For instance, why hasn’t the government appointed ministers six weeks after it was inaugurated? Why would President Muhammadu Buhari, as the leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), not intervened in the free-for-all at the National Assembly? Is he disappointing the South-West zone which massively voted for him at the polls? Is the President anti-Igbo by leaving them out in the appointment of Service Chiefs? Will he probe past government officials? Is he corrupt himself? Why is he going to USA when there is terrorism war raging in his backyard? From his office at the State House in the Presidential Villa, to a hotel room in Wuse 2, Abuja, I was able to finally, after two weeks, get a hold of the workaholic Femi Adesina, Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity and a staunch believer in the President’s cause, to provide answers to these questions during an interview Thursday night. Excerpts:
It has been more than 30 days since the new administration was inaugurated. How do you assess it?
That is a little bit unfair because you know how I will assess the administration since I work with the President. But then to be fair and impartial, I will say, yes, the President is on the right course. Maybe because there are also some facts that were previously unknown, but I just know that the President is laying a foundation for a new Nigeria. If he can continue on the wind of change that he rode on into office and continue building on the same foundation, definitely change will come. But he is laying a completely new foundation and, when that foundation is fully laid and the country continues, you will see that change is truly here.
When you were announced to be the Special Adviser, how did you feel? Did you see it coming or you never expected it?
I was announced May 31, but if you remember, on May 20, ThisDay had speculated on the story. The moment ThisDay speculated it, anything could happen. So, it was just a question of, will it happen or not? Since ThisDay speculated it, we knew anything could happen, but, before then, no. It could have gone either way anyway.
How does it feel settling down to work with President Muhammadu Buhari in this capacity?
It is a rare opportunity. Out of 170 million people, you have been called to work for your country; it is a rare opportunity and I will say it feels good. I have left positions that are eminent. I have been the Editor-in-Chief of a national newspaper; President, Nigerian Guild of Editors. I was satisfied in those positions, but then, coming to serve your country can’t be compared with anything. So that is why I left those positions to come and serve because I believe in the President. If it was another administration led by someone that I don’t believe in, I wouldn’t come; but I came because I had always believed in President Buhari.
Were you prepared for this assignment irrespective of the fact that you have occupied other positions?
If you had spent 29 years in journalism like I have done, then you are prepared for a lot of things including this assignment. If that is the question, yes, I have a background that prepared me for this assignment. But if your question means did I think it was going to come, I will say no, I didn’t think it was going to come. My mind didn’t go to it and I have always supported President Buhari since he was a military Head of State. I had admired him. In fact, the day he was overthrown was one of the worst days of my life. I felt very sad for Nigeria; very sad for him and his family, very sad about everything. I didn’t think that government should have been toppled. If that government had lasted, Nigeria wouldn’t have been where it is today. So, when he attempted to come through the ballot box since 2003, I had always supported him and, even when it seemed like he stood no chance, I still believed he was the best candidate. In 2011, I had always said we needed a correlation in order to get PDP out. So when that correlation came through the emergence of All Progressives Congress (APC), I felt there was a good chance in 2015 and it has happened. But to think that I was going to work for him, no, it didn’t cross my mind.
What are the attributes that really drew you to the President?
The first one is his simplicity. I just love his simplicity. He is a very simple man. Then I like the fact that he is very straightforward. I like people who know where they stand with anybody. It is either yes or no. When he says yes, it is yes; when he says no, it is no. Then, of course, integrity, to me, counts a lot. The fact that every man can testify that he is a man of integrity gets me because I love integrity and then transparency and accountability. A country like Nigeria where anything goes and then you see a man that has chosen to be transparent and accountable. Look at all the positions he has held in this country, yet he remains a simple man. I love that kind of person. Why can’t I support him? Why can’t I point Nigeria to that kind of person? He is good for our county? So that is why I did it.
But many Nigerians don’t really share these ideas. Some will be quick to dismiss all these, saying that beyond the facade, you may discover many other things when you dig deep.
Well, if they say that, they have a right to their own opinion, but then we want to see the evidence to justify that. You don’t need to look far. Just look at the positions the President has held: governor of North-Eastern State, which is now six states: Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa and Taraba. Then he went on to become the Minister of Petroleum Resources and held that position for three and a half years. Can you hold such position and not have oil blocks? If anybody thinks President Buhari has an oil block, let him show it to us? After that, he became Head of State and he was there for 20 months; after that, he was Chairman, Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), and we know all the achievements he made in that position and then today, President. Not many Nigerians have this kind of pedigree and who are not going to be stinkingly rich. I am not saying President Buhari is a poor man, but then I don’t think he is stinkingly rich when he held all those positions. He should be stinkingly rich and it is only a very rare Nigerian that will not be stinkingly rich after holding those positions.
You said when he was toppled you were truly sad. Now he has another opportunity! What do you crave for? Or do you say he has changed from who he used to be and perhaps may not realize those things that he would have truly accomplished if his government then had continued?
Whether he has changed, yes, I would say he has changed in some areas and, in some areas, he remains the same. You know that age tempers a man. Age has tempered him but for good. Remember, after he was inaugurated, some officials of the former administration were about travelling out and the security officials and agencies were stopping them and, you will recall that a statement was issued that they shouldn’t be stopped. That shows you that the man is really temperate now rather than the old Buhari. The military man would have packed all of them immediately he was inaugurated and they would be heading for jail and then you would be sifting the weeds from the shaft thereafter. So, that already shows that he is a different man, a more mature person, a more reflective person, a more contemplative person and that can only come with age. Again, you would see what played out in the National Assembly. You know he is a man who wants to respect the Constitution. That shows he is already different from the soldier that ruled this country. If he was a person that didn’t want to respect the Constitution, he would have interfered in the selection or the election of the leadership of the two chambers. But he left them and said anybody that emerged, he will work with. What he didn’t know is that not everybody was going to respect the rules and we saw what played out. In terms of whether he is a changed man, yes, he is a changed man. He is a true democrat now. There are so many things that have come up in just six weeks of the administration that show you that this is a man that respects the Constitution and will continue to respect it. So, he is a changed man in those areas. But then, there are some areas like accountability, transparency, integrity; of course you know that he will never change in those areas and that is the reason he was elected. Imagine a man who was a military leader 30 years earlier getting elected just on the basis of integrity, transparency and accountability; you know that kind of man will never change that.
Some persons argue that if this man doesn’t exercise his authority, things might still go wrong because a leader is a leader. Being the President of Nigeria, he is the leader of the party in all ramifications. There is a proverb in my place that an elder doesn’t sit idly while the goat dies in tethers. He can’t be sitting while things are going wrong.
If you also permit me to quote another proverb or a saying that a tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigritude. A tiger doesn’t need to come out and say ‘I am a tiger’. When he does that, go and check properly, he can be a cat; but when you see a tiger, you know it is a tiger. So, he doesn’t need to ride over everybody before they know that he is a leader and indeed he is a leader. He has the traits, the characteristics and all the potentials. He has everything it takes to be a leader. He doesn’t need to throw his weight around before everyone knows he is a leader.
Let me take you back a little to the issue of allowing the last government officials to travel out. Does that mean that he has hands on probity, assuming there was something to probe?
He has said it that money in billions of dollars will be recovered. But you know the world is too small a place for anybody to hide if you are running from justice. The world is too small a place to hide. You will be fished out. So, there is no need that you say they should not be heading for jail if eventually the law goes after them. Very few countries can they hide in and how long will they hide? So, it doesn’t mean that anybody that has ill-gotten wealth will not regurgitate it. They will. Remember when he went to Germany for the G7 summit, he met with President Obama and Obama told him to just give us information on where the loot is hidden and we will help you recover it and the government has been working on that. So, that shows that looters will never go free.
Is he going backwards? I mean where is he going to start to probe?
He can’t afford to go too deep into the past or else it will be destructive for his administration. There are some things you can’t close your eyes to while you don’t want to shine the torchlight into the dark recesses of our past; immediate past where things are evident. The Yoruba have a saying that the corpse we buried, the leg is sticking out and, if you bury a corpse and the leg is sticking out, you can’t pretend. When there are trails all over of the monies in billions and trillions, then a responsible government can’t close its eyes to that.
Let’s look at insecurity. In the last two weeks, the bombings have increased. People have expressed fear that the government’s efforts in the past one month and two weeks haven’t really paid off because I know that the President, immediately he was sworn-in, travelled to places and there was this assurance. But then it does appear much hasn’t been done in that direction?
Let me draw an analogy. One day, the world woke up to hear that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US Navy Seals. But did you know how long it took to plan that operation? It took 24 months of painstaking planning. Drills, simulations, all that happened until they got him. I am not saying it is going to take 24 months before this government breaks the back of Boko Haram. I am just telling you that planning needs to be carefully done and that is what is being done. In his very first week in office, he went to Niger, Chad and why did he go? Because of this Boko Haram thing and one major reason he went to G7 is because of the Boko Haram issue because the leaders of G7 said ‘come and let us know what we can do to help’. After that, the leaders of Chad, Niger, Benin Republic, Defence Minister of Cameroon also came here under the Lake Chad Basin Commission. They are planning. Before the end of this month, after he comes back from America, he is going to Cameroon and why is he going there? Still on Boko Haram and you know there is a multinational task force they are contributing to and Nigeria has released $21 million for the joint task force. That is money Nigeria can use in other areas but it has invested $21 million in that joint task force. That shows seriousness and I think July 21 has been picked as a date for that force to swing into action. Nobody can fairly accuse this government of not doing anything about Boko Haram. It is doing a lot and, eventually, we will see the end of insurgency.
Let’s also look at the appointments so far made by the Buhari government. The government has been accused of lopsiding appointments. It has been people from the North. That’s the impression out there.
Those people from the North, are they Nigerians? So, if they are Nigerians, they have the right to be appointed and then I am sure there could be up to 500 appointments still ahead. Federal Boards that just got dissolved alone had 601 appointments. They are going to be filled. The cabinet is going to be constituted. Other persons and aides are going to be appointed. As at the time they began to talk, only nine appointments had been made and they said eight northerners and one southerner. They forget that some of those appointments are statutory, the next in rank. They just have to be the ones that will take those positions and some of those again are security chiefs. Security is an area where you take the very best. It is not something you subject to emotional considerations or other primordial sentiments. Take the very best who can deliver particularly at a critical time like this. So those who have started counting, I think it is premature. There are about 500 appointments left to be made and, when those appointments are made, that is when they can begin to analyse. Doing it after nine appointments, I think that is hasty and fault-lines in our country, Nigerians are too suspicious of leadership, other ethnic groups, too suspicious of many things. If we are less suspicious, then this wouldn’t have come up yet.
There are still these feelings from the members of the public that President Buhari and his political allies in the South-West, people like Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, have fallen apart; that, in fact, the President has disappointed the South-West that massively voted for him at the polls. How do you address this sentiment?
I am glad that you used the word “these feelings” which is different from reality. Just a couple of days ago, Bola Tinubu himself came out to say there was no rift between him and the President. I think things that are unfolding are part of our political experience, political development. You will see that in the next dispensation, most of the things that happened now will not happen because the actors would have learnt. If the President in the next dispensation wants to leave the leadership of the chambers of National Assembly to elect their own leaders as President Buhari has done, the party will need to play its own part. Everybody involved will play his or her own part so that what has happened now will not happen again. It is part of the learning curve, but for anybody to say the West is disappointed, it is not true. A lot of people who voted for President Buhari in the West have been loyal to him. Even those who didn’t vote for him are beginning to see that he is a leader worthy of their support and they are giving their support.
Do you really believe in the Presidency of Buhari to radically move this country away from what it used to be, judging from the fact that he is an old man now? Won’t his age really affect him?
You have heard the saying that old wines are tastier. Buhari is like a wine that gets better with age. I said this earlier and, I repeat again, he gets better with age; sound, sober, contemplative, not rash. You see what is happening now, Boards have been dissolved. There are terminations and new appointments. You know he could have done that in the very first week and then he could have made mistakes; but this is the sixth week and he is doing all those things and I think, at the end of it, all Nigerians will be glad that they elected him. I don’t foresee failure; no, it will not happen, but it will demand that Nigerians will give him support and work with him. But I believe in the change that was promised to this country.
Just before current appointments, you were a practising journalist and, ordinarily, you would have been worried that this government, after six weeks, hasn’t appointed even the Chief of Staff. We are talking about the time it has taken, yet no Chief of Staff, let alone Secretary to the Government of the Federation and then Ministers. But I remember, before now, they repeatedly said they will hit the ground running after inauguration. What has happened?
One thing is clear, it is constitutional to have a cabinet because the Constitution says there must be a Federal Executive Council and Ministers must be appointed from at least one state each. I said earlier that the President respects the Constitution. So, that shows you that he is going to constitute a cabinet. Now, you can’t compare one administration with another. Obasanjo appointed his Ministers in July. Yar’Adua also in July, but that is not a reason for any other government not to appoint earlier than July or even later than July. Each government responds to the situation and circumstances in which it finds itself. What this administration met on ground is an Augean stable and it needs to be cleaned up. I can tell you that Nigeria was left in a mess by the last administration and it needs some clean-up and, without a clean-up, you continue to build on a wobbly foundation and, one day, that structure will come down. So, why don’t you then take your time to lay a fresh foundation and build up on that foundation? That is what President Buhari is doing.
The cabinet has not come but it will come and, when it comes, it will be building on a freshly-laid foundation. You see that in the past few weeks, he has been taking briefings from Permanent Secretaries in different ministries. When the Permanent Secretaries conclude their own, chief executives of parastatals and agencies will also come to brief, so that we have a complete picture of what is happening in government and then, after that, anything can happen. When the Ministers themselves come, they will be glad that they are coming into a system that is cleaned up for them. If they had come immediately, this house cleaning won’t have been done because they would have occupied space and continued in the old fashion. So, let Nigerians, who trusted this President and gave him their mandate, continue to trust him that he is working for them and he is doing the best for them.
Some people in the South-East aren’t happy at the appointments of Service Chiefs because they feel that none of their sons was there. If we are talking of engaging the best hands, couldn’t you have found some of the best hands in the South-East?
Mark the word of Mr. President, all the Service Chiefs he appointed he never met anyone of them except the Chief of Army Staff that he met casually in Chad. He was the Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force. So, all of them got appointed based on their service records. Now, are we going to say that we will subject efficiency to ethnic and regional balances? I am not saying that it is not constitutional. There is federal character in our Constitution, but there are some areas where you can’t sacrifice efficiency for ethnic or regional balancing. Get the very best that can do the job particularly at a time of crisis like we have in security. So, I don’t think it would have been proper shopping for people to fill positions as critical as Service Chiefs if they aren’t the very best we can get.
The President is going to the U.S. Let me say it is the mother of all visits. What should Nigerians expect from that trip?
Three key things are going to be on the table in America. They are more than three but these three will be key. First is the fight against insecurity. Nigeria is going to be asking for America’s assistance in terms of intelligence and in terms of equipment. If this succeeds and we get all that we want of course, we know it is going to make an impact on the war against insurgency; so that would be a key achievement of that trip. Again, something that would be on the table in America is the anti-corruption war. If we have money outside in billions of dollars, you know what that means in Naira. That is more than an annual budget. If we recover that money, it is to the benefit of our country. Then the third thing will be the Nigerian economy. America used to buy 30 percent of Nigeria’s oil. Now, it is less than five percent because they discovered Shale oil and gas. So, in what way can America boost our economy? This will be a major thing and, at the end of it all, this will be to the benefit of Nigerians and, of course, a visit to America, like you said, is the mother of all visits and the fact that the American President has invited our President shows that they believe in what is happening in Nigeria. Don’t forget that the same Obama came to neighbouring Ghana and never came to Nigeria. The fact that he invited the Nigerian President shows that the acceptability rate of Nigeria has gone up in the international community.