In an interview with State House Correspondents, Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, reviews the achievements of the present administration in 2012 and the projection for 2013. Abati, who bared his mind on other national issues, declared that President Jonathan cannot be forced to become a bully or a dictator under a democratic government because of criticisms. George Agba was there for LEADERSHIP SUNDAY.
People, especially in the opposition camp, have considered president Jonathan to be slow in carrying out his duties. What would you single out as the things that have been done differently since he became president of Nigeria?
Since President Jonathan became president, a lot has changed in the country and a lot is still changing. You should have asked specifically what has been done differently. I think principally, Nigerians have seen a change in style of leadership. For many years, even after the military rule and return to democracy in 1999, Nigerians have been used to a dictatorial style of leadership.
They have been used to the idea of a leader as a brute. Because of the circumstances that attended the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration, Nigerians didn’t quite have the time, the opportunity to comment on his style. But what you can see is that with President Jonathan, the kind of criticisms that people are putting across, simply indicate that many Nigerians still have a military hangover. Nigerians are not yet used to the fact that a leader can be a gentleman.
They are not yet used to the fact that a leader can respect the rule of law. They are not still used to the fact that a leader can observe and respect due process. Now, under this president, there is a new reality. The age of impunity in terms of the style of governance has since ended. We have seen in this country for so many years a situation where government goes out of its way to break the law. I once read a book about how government breaks the law.
But under President Jonathan, you see the president and his administration respecting the rule of law every step of the way and where you can find this demonstrated more graphically is in the conduct of elections and bye elections since he assumed office. Under President Jonathan, free and fair elections have become well established and transparency in elections has become well established.
When last did you hear of lorry loads of policemen being sent to any state on the orders of anyone in Abuja to go and force the issue in a particular election? It has not happened under this president. Have you ever heard of President Jonathan sending soldiers to go and remove a governor or to go and sack a State House of Assembly? That has not happened.
So, significantly, there has been that change and I think that with time, Nigerians will begin to get used to the reality that when you say you are running a democracy, there are certain principles; there are certain ethics that are foundational and fundamental.
And what this president has done in terms of the structure and process of government is to ensure that democracy is consolidated because, for him, that is the basic foundation.
So, I don’t know whether some of the people who are still saying the government is weak or slow take weakness to mean that the president listens. Maybe what they are saying is that they prefer a dictator to a leader who is humane and purposeful. If that is what they are asking for that would be unfortunate because once you are elected to run a democracy, you should abide by the principles and ethics.
What is the level of the implementation of the 2012 budget and how does the president intend to improve on it in 2013, including policies programmes such as national tax policy, housing among others?
There are policies that have been introduced in 2012 in terms of taxation, housing, job creation and even the real definition of the foreign policy orientation and processes of the federal government. If you look at what I have said earlier about the aviation sector, the whole policy is to transform that sector. Earlier in 2012, the president had a seminar on the foreign policy process of Nigeria to strengthen the focus on citizen diplomacy, if I may borrow that term, and on the investment side.
Now, if you look at all his trips in 2012, these two issues had been in the front burner and Nigeria now has a more productivity driven foreign policy process. Each time the president travels, he is looking for business and investment opportunities for Nigeria and he uses the opportunity of his travels also to engage Nigerians in Diaspora. There is no country that he visited that he didn’t squeeze out time to meet with Nigerians there to know what the issues are.
All that came out of the quality reorientation. And you can go like that from one sector to the other: solid minerals, the policy of greater productivity, the petroleum sector, the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). This government has sent the PIB back to the National Assembly and it is optimistic that under this administration, that piece of legislation will be passed. Reform of the justice sector, a lot has been done by the ministry of justice to fine-tune the justice delivery system and to strengthen Nigeria’s place in the world. It was under this president that Nigerians got appointments into major international legal institutions.
So, what we have seen demonstrated in the year 2012 is that in terms of quality, this is a government that is capable, and determined to formulate policies and see them through. And you can be sure that in 2013, that is going to continue. The budget for 2013 has as its theme such issues as ‘fiscal consolidation and inclusive growth,’ which means that most of what has to be done in 2012 will be done and a lot more will be done to even make growth more inclusive.
You talked about budget implementation. People ought to know that it is a process and that is why some Nigerians have been recommending a situation whereby we have budget cycles rather than this yearly thing because once you start a procurement process, the procurement process is a process so defined. So, it doesn’t mean that when a ministry is embarking on a particular cause of action, it will just collect money and spend it like that. No. Processes will be followed.
Nigeria has had over the years many abandoned projects and unfulfilled dreams. It is because the processes were not followed and because there was no discipline in budget implementation. Under this president, that discipline is being enforced and that is why this year alone, President Jonathan did something novel in Nigeria’s history. He got the ministers to sign a performance contract, to state their key performance indicators. A ministerial appointment as the president has made clear is not an opportunity for you to come and moonlight.
And the assessment is still continuing. It is one of the first major things that would be concluded in the New Year: taking a look at what has been done, if there are challenges and how can they be addressed. You minister A, how much were you given? This is how much I received; these are the things I said I will do in my performance contract and this is what I have done.
These are the challenges I faced. In the coming year, my ministry will do this. I don’t think there has ever been anytime in the history of Nigerian government that ministers were subjected to this level of rigour in terms of accountability. And I think that Nigerians should note that, because this is one thing that happened in the year 2012 and it was very well reported in the public domain. It is an innovation that President Jonathan has introduced that should be copied even at other lower levels.
Why is the president yet to appoint the ministers of power and defence; some say he might just be waiting to do that in a major cabinet shake-up in January 2013 and there had been reports to this effect that this informed the emergency Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting that was eventually cancelled?
Yes, some clarifications will be in order here. There was no reason for any minister to panic about the emergency FEC that you referred to. I just told you a few minutes ago that the last few meetings in the end of the year were devoted to performance review. As at early December 2012, some ministers had already done their own presentations: The ministers of agriculture, aviation, communication technology and a roster was drawn up, all the way till January for different ministries and the ministers to come and make presentations based on what I defined earlier; to tell us what they were able to do, how much they got and what challenges they faced.
During that presentation, which will be discussed by the entire cabinet, other ministers will offer suggestions and make comments. President Jonathan made it clear when he said that performance assessment was necessary for two reasons: one, to carry out an audit - a peer review if you like - of what each ministry has been doing; and two, to make government open and to create a necessary pool of knowledge within government about how government is operating in different departments and agencies. In other words, if you are minister in charge of portfolio D, whatever you are doing is not hidden from the minister in charge of portfolio F because on a regular basis, Council will meet and give you an opportunity to report what you are doing.
So, there is no room for anybody trying to run a one-man show. It is team work and I think that that strategic approach to governance is very important. So, all the ministers who were to come to that emergency meeting knew that it had been called so that those who could not make their presentation at the last Wednesday meeting and who had been scheduled on the roster could then do so. But then you know as it turned out, there was a case of serendipity.
There was the helicopter accident and there were several developments in the country; the whole country was in a very sad mood and even the Wednesday meeting that followed that particular Tuesday was devoted to the mourning of the six that died in that helicopter crash. And after the tribute session and the statements and all that, the president asked Council to adjourn till January 9, 2013. So, that is that.
Now, you were talking about the appointment of minister of defence and minister of power. The thing to note is that when people ask that question, they give the impression that maybe because those two ministries do not have substantive ministers yet, there is a vacuum. But the truth is that there is no vacuum in the real sense because the ministers of state that are there are running those ministries.
If there is any vacuum that people are looking for, people are probably saying certain states are to get those positions or the quota and they want it filled so that those states can benefit. All of that is coming out of this our federal character approach to appointments. But in terms of the functioning of those ministries, the running of those ministries, nothing has been lost and sacrificed. But I can assure you that the president in his own time will fill those positions because it is not just that you fill positions, a lot goes into it. I have not had the opportunity to appoint anybody, but from watching the president at work, I know that you don’t just wake up and appoint people.
There is a lot that goes into it and once the time is ripe, you can be assured that the president will do it. So, people should stop putting him under pressure. Those ministries are functioning; if you look at power, since the minister of state for power took over, that ministry has been functioning. In fact, progress has even been made. If you look at defence, the woman who is there has been running the ministry. So, it is not as if because two slots have not been filled that anything has happened and in any case, people must also realise that ministerial positions are delegated positions.
Under a presidential system, all authorities draw from the top, at least within the executive branch. So, the president delegates authority to ministers and he can delegate authority to whoever he so wishes for the smooth running of government because he is both the head of state and head of government.
Recently, one of the president’s kinsmen and leader of the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, Mujahid Asari-Dokubo alleged that President Jonathan will not rule beyond 2015 because he has chosen to surround himself with greedy people who are blocking other people from getting access to him. He said these greedy people are the ones causing the ongoing rift between the president and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. What is your take on this, sir?
I think I read that interview granted by Asari-Dokubo and I was quite surprised that he would talk like that, because as he admitted in that interview that he is close to the government. And his interview was full of proverbs. So, I don’t know whether it is a wise thing for you to be a member of the house and then for you to stand outside and urinate into that same house.
Doing so may serve the purpose of sensation and it may please some mischief makers, but the truth of the matter is that wise people may think that that is not really the right way to go. In spite of the content of his interview in which he was saying the president has a rift with former president Obasanjo, I keep saying it; there is no rift between President Jonathan and former President Obasanjo. The president has the utmost respect for the former president whom he regards as his father.
He even calls him Baba. And I don’t think anybody can say he has any evidence anywhere where the president has been disrespectful to the elderly man. So, some of those things that you see in the newspapers about people saying President Jonathan and former President Obasanjo are quarrelling are exaggerated. They do not reflect the truth. He (Asari-Dokubo) claims that there is a rift between President Jonathan and former President Obasanjo. So, you can see that the whole of that commentary is based on a wrong premise.
There is also a comment from him about people who surround the president whom he says are greedy and who have cut him off from his roots and all that. What you take from all that is this crab mentality of human relationship and I think that there is a lot of this crab mentality at play in Nigeria both in terms of interpersonal relationship and in terms of how people respond to public issues. What is that crab mentality all about? If you put a number of crabs in a bucket and one of them tries to go to the top, the others will be struggling to pull that one trying to go to the top down.
They will keep reminding that top crab that you are one of us; this is where you belong and you cannot leave us; we are together. When you translate that crab mentality into the governance arena, you find that it puts people who are in leadership position under enormous pressure because there are too many other crabs saying they don’t want progress because they all want to be at the same level.
But I want to believe that the interview granted by Asari- Dokubo is just consistent with the principle of freedom of speech and that it doesn’t quite reflect his innermost feelings about the Jonathan administration and about President Jonathan in particular.
I believe that having been a very strong supporter of the administration and who is on record as having said a lot of positive things about the administration, having made whatever point he has made, will also see the need to remain consistent and to see the big picture and to worry less about greedy people who are preventing other Ijaws, as he seems to be making out, from reaching the president because at the end of the day, President Jonathan is not running an Ijaw project. He is running a Nigerian project and I keep saying he is a man who is very conscious of his place in history.
At the end of the day, whether the people say they are being blocked from having access to him or even those of us who work for him and even everybody, whoever it may be, the only person that will be called to come and give account is President Jonathan.
That is the man Nigerians voted for and all of us, whether we are his kinsmen or we are his members of staff or we are his friends, I think we should focus more on the Nigerian project, the Nigerian assignment that President Jonathan has been given and worry less about all the feeling that these people are blocking me from having access, he has forgotten his brothers and he is arguing with a particular person. And I repeat again for the purpose of emphasis, President Jonathan has no problems at all with former President Obasanjo.
He is a man for whom he has the utmost respect and they have an excellent relationship. But of late, we see in the media a situation where people are just bringing things up to set up the two leaders against each other and I believe that both leaders are experienced enough to know that sometimes people use the media just to create drama and you know drama is a very important element of politics and governance.