The Interview spoke with Femi Adesina, Special Adviser (Media) to President MuhammaduBuhari on the journey thus far...
How would you describe the first four months of the MuhammaduBuhari administration?
Is that another word for “slow”?
If you want to say “slow”, there is still a lot of wisdom in the saying; slow and steady wins the race. It is well-proven over the years.
Recent figures from the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that the economy has contracted from 6.5% in the first quarter to 2.4% now. What is going on?
There is a problem with figures. I am not saying they are fabricated. At times, figures are not reality. Sometimes, they can also be a work in progress. Figures at any given time should not be alarming. Because if it is work in progress, it can read something today and in another three months, it will change and read something else. Do not also forget, particularly under the last administration, we had a lot of figures that told us of how the economy was growing. We even had the rebasing but did that touch the ordinary man? What I am suggesting is that we should not be bothered by the figures but to believe in the person steering ship and believe that he will steer it to a safe harbour.
The economy does not seem to matter so far to this government. That is the impression everybody is getting. There appears to be only one voice on the economy and that is the voice of the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor. Why is that?
An economic team has not been put in place. Soon, that will emerge. But do not also forget that the Vice President is the Head of the Economic Council. So you can’t say it is only the CBN governor that we have as the economic voice. Don’t also forget that when the first Buhari administration (a military one) came in December 1983, things were that bad. But before he left involuntarily 20 months later, things were a lot better.
You once described critics of the government as "wailing wailers," and recently the president described ministers as "noise makers." Does the government have a light skin for contest of ideas? Does the president see bureaucrats as more important than policy makers?
Unfortunately, too many are too young to know Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers. Yes, I stand by that description. The uninformed Wailing Wailers are there in their millions. Don’t forget that during the election President Buhari won about 15 million votes and Jonathan won about 12 million. Those 12 million (who voted for the former president) will not disappear. All of them will not cross over to Buhari in one day. They are the Wailing Wailers. To pretend they are not there is to live in a Fool’s Paradise. It is our hope that as we go along, they will get converted, so to speak. It is typical of Nigerians to take part of what the president said and twist to suit their purpose. I was at that interview in France when he spoke about the ministers. When he was asked about the delay in forming a cabinet, he said he needed to lay a foundation and there is even no vacuum in government because the bureaucrats are working. They are the ones that really do the work and they are the memory of the public service, so to speak.
They have the institutional memory of the public service and oversee transitions from one government to the other. He said Ministers come and make all the noise but then he also acknowledged he must appoint ministers. That even when he came as a military leader, he had ministers. That is what he said. But certain Nigerians have just decided to take that small fraction of where he spoke about noise-making. People should consider the latter part of what he said; that Ministers must always be there. That balances it out.
In response to criticisms regarding how he chose his personal staff, the President inferred he did so partly to reward their loyalty. Some have read this to mean that he is running a government of cronyism. Do you agree?
Rewarding loyalty is not the same thing as cronyism. Cronyism is relating with only those who salute you; those who say you are the next thing to God. But rewarding loyalty is different. If somebody has been loyal to you, loyalty begets loyalty. If there are opportunities to reward that person, you do. Like they say, one good turn deserves another. That is rewarding loyalty. Cronyism is pandering to all sorts of praises, adulation, praise-singing and all that. When they tell you that you are the best thing that has ever happened to Nigeria; that after God, you are the next person. In fact, that you and God are on the same pedestal! That is not what is happening there.
In terms of personal staff, you start from the known to the unknown. When (US President Barack) Obama first emerged as president, who constituted his personal staff? Mostly his school mates and personal aides he had before he became President because those were the ones he knew. The same thing with the president’s staff. He has to appoint people he knows and can trust.
Staying on the matter of the president’s personal staff, it appears that the he wants to manage himself. If he is busy managing himself, managing his own Presidency, rather than allowing his Chief of Staff to do it, how will he have time to manage Nigeria?
Where are you getting that impression from?
His actions are creating the impression. For example, while the Presidency as an institution searches for ministers, the president appears to prefer handling that task personally. He should be managing a half a trillion dollar economy but he rather micro manages and focuses on the 70 million naira expended on the independence anniversary. How will his style impact on government?
You have expressed a personal opinion. You have a right to it, though, but it does not mean you are right. It also does not mean you are wrong. If somebody says the president is the one managing everything himself, he has to bring justification, which I have not seen. And to say he takes all the decisions is inaccurate. The problem we had with the last administration was that the man at the head was too weak. He couldn’t take decisions and he was being tossed around. Now you have a strong personality and it becomes a problem again. If he is going on a trip and he says this is the maximum number of people I want on my delegation, what is wrong with that? The buck stops at his table. And don’t forget that when this administration would have exhausted its tenure and left, it will be called the Buhari administration. Managing the Presidency as an institution is part of what he has been elected to do. If he cannot manage the Presidency, which is a microcosm of Nigeria, he can’t rule the country.
The Senate President, BukolaSaraki, recently said some powerful people outside the Senate were after him. He's the third most powerful man in the country. Was he referring to the vice president or the president, who are considered the first two most powerful personalities in the country?
He would be the one to answer that question because he was the one who said it. I wouldn’t know what was on his mind when he said it. And power is not about the number of the position. There are people in society who do not come within the Precedential List but are very powerful.
Are you suggesting there might be godfathers who are above government officials?
No. You know there is no godfather. You know the president you have. How can there be a godfather? But I can say confidently that neither the president nor the vice president has anything to do with whatever are the travails of the Senate President.
What really happened last June 9 when the National Assembly elected its principal officers? While the statement your issued then said the president did not know anything about the meeting which held at the International Conference Centre (ICC), your deputy's statement said he knew. Was the president aware? Did he authorize the meeting?
Let me tell you what happened with that meeting. On the morning of that day, the president came in from Germany that very morning. There was a meeting called by the party leadership so that they could iron out the party’s position on who would be Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Now, the president still lived at Defence House then. The meeting was scheduled for, I think, 9.30 am. As a party man, he was in the picture. He was invited. Remember he just came into the country so he couldn’t have called the meeting. The party hierarchy called the meeting. Naturally, when a meeting is holding, you wouldn’t expect the president to be there before a quorum is formed. They will form a quorum and then signal for him to come. He was in the house waiting for a signal to come and then suddenly he saw on television that the election was already holding. One thing I want to add is that Nigerians have been lied to so much they find it hard to accept the truth. What I said and what GarbaShehu said were not radically different. It is just the choice of words.
The opposition has described the government's anti-corruption campaign as a witch-hunt, citing the investigation of ministers in the previous government. What do you think?
If the opposition had been applauding the anti-corruption battle, begin to suspect that something is wrong. Anyone that has no skeleton in his cupboard has nothing to fear. Those that have skeletons in their cupboard have every reason to fear.
There are allegations of corruption hanging over the heads of some All Progressives Congress (APC) members. Yet the government appears to be ignoring the allegations?
Where is the charge? You don’t just slap someone with a label of “corrupt” when there is no charge against him or her. We live in a decent society, where the Rule of Law reigns supreme. They say English law is primarily the law of evidence; bring the evidence of the corruption. Let there be a charge. With no charges filed against a person, it will not be fair to call such a person corrupt.
Some APC members have actually been charged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC). One of them even recently won the APC governorship ticket for Kogi State. Is the ruling party or government oblivious of all this?
Have they been given appointments? That is democracy. It is his democratic right to run. Nothing precludes him from running. If party members have elected him, it is his democratic right. Is it government that has done anything with AbubakarAudu? He went through the party process and he won. You would be abridging his democratic rights by shutting him out of the race, since no court order or judgment precludes him from running.
It is estimated that close to 1800 people have been killed by Boko Haram since Buhari came to power, yet the government has vowed to defeat the insurgents by December. Only last week, insurgents attacked Abuja with multiple blasts, the first in months. Is this a battle government is winning?
1800 people reportedly killed since he became president? Did you know that over 20,000 people had been killed before he became president?
Is that your defence?
No. What I am telling you is that if you want to base the insurgency on those figures, you are not being fair to the president. More than 20,000 people were killed during the previous administration.
People in the North East, particularly those from Maiduguri, have lost someone to Boko Haram attacks or, at the very least, know someone who has been killed in the insurgency. That is why they wanted Jonathan voted out. Has this government proved to be a viable replacement in this regard?
Your reading of the polity is faulty. If your reading is correct, you will see the president is doing everything to end the insurgency. If people are dying, does it mean the president is not doing anything about it? Does it mean the insurgents are winning? The president is winning. By all standards, he is winning. Before he came, Boko Haram was seizing territory and planting their flags. Since he came, they have not seized a single territory. Before he came, Boko Haram was in pitched battle with the military; face-to-face combat. That has stopped. What they are doing now is the one they call asymmetric war, bombing soft targets. They have been virtually degraded and almost decapitated in terms of physical combat. Can they face the military like they used to do? Under the previous administration like we heard, some soldiers would even flee the battlefront. Even the territories they had held during the previous administration have been liberated from them. And then you want to say the war is not being won. Then you need to redefine what winning a war is. I am not a security person but the military have said they stand by the December deadline given by the president and that they will rout the insurgents by then.
Does this government know those funding Boko Haram?
Check the statement the president personally issued and signed on Saturday. He said he would go after the sponsors of this Boko Haram monstrosity. I do not know them. I am not a security man. But the president is the Commander-in-Chief. He has access to information that you and I do not have. But knowing the nature of this administration and the will of this president, if he knows them, whoever they are, they will answer for it.
There has been so much talk of body language, the president's body language. When will action, engagement and concrete policies replace body language?
Body language is part of it. It is very crucial. I grew up in a home where my father was very tough. He only needed to shoot you a look and you would freeze. It was body language. It was part of it. So the fact that a new sheriff is in town is part of the difference we are seeing. By the time everything will coalesce, policies and objectives will complement body language, and this will not be far off.
The president said he waited four months to appoint ministers because the transition was shabby and he needed to provide a framework for performance. But the outcome of the delay has only hardened his critics, who say given the names on the list, the president did not need to wait one extra day after his swearing-in before making the appointments. Was the wait justified?
There will always be critics. In fact, woe be on those that do not have critics. They should always be in every system. And what do critics do? They dig holes. No matter what you do, critics will always dig holes. You should not be bothered, or at least unduly bothered. But the long wait was not just about the persons who have just been unfolded. It was about the system. For instance, they say you hit the ground running. When you hit the ground and you hit solid ground, you can run. But when you hit the ground and land in mud, can you run? If you want to run immediately after that, you begin to sink in that mud. That was what happened. The president needed to clear the rot that he met and create solid ground for a new structure. If he hadn’t waited and ministers came into that system, forget concrete change or change that will stand the test of time. That is a critical reason the president waited that long.
The president and his deputy have declared their assets publicly. Will the president insist on the same for his ministers?
It depends on what the law says. What does the law say? We stand by the law. The law does not say ministers must declare their assets publicly. The president and vice president doing it were just instances of moral persuasion. They were persuaded to do it by their sense of moral fairness and the strength of moral suasion. It is not law. The president just went the extra mile by declaring his assets publicly.
The public has a right to know about their public officials. It is even enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act. Why would public officials make access to such records difficult?
The president has even challenged the media on it. He said he has always declared his assets since 1975. Four times he has declared his assets. Now you have the Freedom of Information Act. Why don’t you invoke that law and find out what he has declared since 1975? When the ministers declare their assets and report to the Code of Conduct Bureau, individuals and members of the press should invoke the law and go and ask the Bureau what each minister declared.
There have been concerns that the CBN's policy of defending the naira will only increase the gap between the official and black market rates, especially since oil revenues are unlikely to go up in the near future. How long will the CBN continue? Do you think the hands of the CBN governor are tied because President Buhariappears to have the impression that currency devaluation is bad economic management?
Defending the naira is good economic policy. When this government came, the naira exchange rate to the dollar was in the 265/270 range. Today it is around 220. Defending the naira, is it working? Yes. And it will get better. The CBN governor; has he been forced to do that? Did he complain? The CBN governor himself came out to say there will be no further devaluation of the naira.
A number of international financial and ratings agencies have been critical of the alleged lack of transparency and interventions in the currency trading market. Is the President influencing the CBN to intervene?
If they work together, which they do, one person will influence the other. That is the meaning of teamwork. It is either the governor will be the one to influence the president or the other way round.
Let me come to the bailout. Constitutionally, money that does not appear in the budget is illegally spent. This caused a lot of friction between the previous CBN governor and the National Assembly. With this bailout to the states, where did the CBN governor and the president get the powers to spend the money used in the bailout?
I will say two things. What has happened is not a bailout. It is a welfare package. In that welfare package, there are three components. One was the NLNG accrual, $2.1bn that came. It was shared between the states and the federal government according to laid-down procedures. That is one component. Two, the CBN opened a window of between N250 billion and N300 billion for states to draw from, so they could meet some of their immediate needs. The third one was, their debts were rescheduled for the next 20 or 30 years, so that if their allocations came in today, instead of paying debts immediately and they have nothing else to run their states, those have been rescheduled re-payment over 30 years. Those are the three components of that welfare package. To call it a bailout would be wrong. It is the media that calls it a bailout, which is a wrong term.
So you are saying the money did not come from the CBN’s coffers?
No. In every budget cycle, the federal government has what it calls the borrowing limit. It has been using that and it recently came to the peak of its borrowing limit. It was the Debt Management Office that was managing it. It got to the peak of its borrowing limit and the president has now written the National Assembly for approval of a supplementary budget.
The president set up a committee headed by Governor Adams Oshiomhole to investigate allegations of financial mismanagement at the NNPC. The committee's tenure is overdue. When will the government disclose the findings?
Oshiomhole was at the Villa today. 3pm today, he was with the president. Let us wait. It could be that they have finished the work. If they have not finished, they will ask for an extension of time. And if they have, they will submit the report. But that committee was set up through the Economic Council. I believe they will be reporting to the Economic Council.
Is the economic council not an advisory body to the president?
Yes, but it is still the Council where the Committee was set up that will get the report and they will pass it to the president.
There was a recent report that US officials gave a list of corrupt Nigerian officials to the president during his July visit to America. Governor Oshiomhole, who was on the president's entourage, referenced it. Share the content of that list with us.
No. He did not say there was a list. Oshiomhole did not say they gave a list to the Nigerian president. I read what he said. There was no list.
Not long after Buhari became president, the British High Commissioner suggested that corruption could be fought by following the budget. It appears the president concentrates more on revenue generating agencies and not how money is spent. Is the president likely to closely monitor budget execution?
Do you know what could help how money is spent; it is the Treasury Single Account. Because with the TSA, you have a picture of what comes in. You also can keep track of expenditure. TSA is not just about taking in money. It is also about accounting for money that goes out.
What does the government plan to do with the report of the National Conference?
It has not been discussed. If it had been discussed and I was privy to the discussion, I would tell you. If the president had told me anything about it, I would tell you. He has not mentioned it.
Right from the very beginning, the APC had been against the Conference. But the report is already there. Where does it stand now?
Lai Mohammed has been nominated as a minister but he is still APC spokesman till a successor is announced. So, you ask him.
At the last count at the end of September, only 300 out of the 600 Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs) had complied fully with the requirements of the Treasury Single Account. Why have the others not complied?
I know there was a deadline of September 15. Yes, the deadline has passed. The TSA is a work in progress.
In some states like Kogi, some members of the public have asked the Federal Government not to release the salary bailout funds until after the election. Is there a way to monitor and ensure states use the funds to pay salaries?
No, in a true federalism, the centre does not begin to monitor the states. When the latter get any money, it is their responsibility to use it. In one breath, we like true federalism, in another breathe, we want the federal government to begin to supervise the states.
Based on your answer, I want to take you back to the president’s inaugural speech. Even though he admitted he is somewhat constrained by the constitution, he did say he will do what he could to monitor how resources are managed, even at the state level. Isn’t that enough justification?
No. The president will do whatever the constitution allows him to do. When he said “even at the state level”, he was talking about the relationship between the states and the local government.
The president and former president OlusegunObasanjo seem to enjoy a special relationship. Obasanjo has visited the presidentially villa at least three or four times since Buhari took over in May - more than any other former president. Some say he's lobbying for his candidates to become ministers. Is there something the public should know about Obasanjo's frequent visits?
You should know that the two of them were in the military. And you have espirit de corps in the military. Obasanjo was the senior, Buhari was the junior. In the military, a junior will always respect the senior. Buhari will always respect Obasanjo. Don’t forget that Obasanjo supported Buhari during the election. He even campaigned for him in the market in Abeokuta. It is part of loyalty too.
IBB (Former military president, Ibrahim Babangida)was also in the military but he has not gone to visit. Or has he?
The president was senior to IBB in the military. The president was his commander-in-chief. But he is welcome at anytime if he wants to visit. IBB has said in an interview that Buhari was his senior. You would know if he visited. But he was at the inauguration, you saw him. And you know he has some health challenges. He often goes abroad for medical check-up and all that.
In France and the US, officials involved in bribing top Nigerian officials in the Halliburton scandal have been jailed. Will this administration take action on the Halliburton issue?
If action is taken, you will know. I principally speak for the president on what he has done, not what he has not done. But no foreign government has made any request on the Halliburton matter. If one had been made, you would have known.
How did you receive the message inviting you to join this government?
I will go back in time a little bit. I had always been a Buhari person. When he was a military head of state, I was a third year student in the university. The day he was overthrown, I think I was then in the final year. It was one of the worst days in my life because I knew that Nigeria had just made a mistake. I believed he was leading the country in the right direction. It just needed patience and Nigeria would have never been the same. So, when he was overthrown, I was quite sad. When he came into partisan politics in 2002, by then I was editor of a national newspaper. I used to write a column; I began to write, pointing Nigerians in his direction, that this man can make a big difference in our country. I believe after some time, he began to read me and, curiously, one day he just phoned me. He phoned me to say he read my article; he said thank you for your support and all that. In 2003, I supported him. In 2007, I supported him and in 2011, I supported him. Before 2015 when the debate came on whether he should run or not, I weighed in and said you can run; he can change his mind if he wanted to. That was my position.
He did change his mind, he ran and he won. All through the campaign, I supported him in my column. The first inkling I had was from ThisdayNewspaper which published that I might be appointed. I remember the day, it was precisely May 20; the report said I was going to be named Special Adviser for Media and Publicity. I didn’t know anything about it until that report came. But since I had not been contacted formally, I kept my cool. Then on May 31, it was a Sunday, about 5pm, and someone called me. He said you have been pencilled down for this position; will you take it because we want to announce tonight. Because Thisday had given me some notice, I also had been able to consider if I would I take it or not. It was a very difficult decision for me to make. I was Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of Sun Newspaper. I was president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. I just enjoyed what I was doing. And going to serve in government was just not on the radar for me at all. I had never believed in serving in a government. I didn’t want to serve in government. If you still ask me, if it were not for the president, I didn’t want to serve in government. But when it was him and that call came asking, “we are announcing tonight, should we go ahead?”, I said “go ahead”. That was how it was announced on May 31 on the network news. The next day, I came to Abuja to meet the President and I accepted the offer.
Did you know he was going to win?
I was an optimist. In 2011, I canvassed for a coalition. I wrote then that if we were going to get rid of the PDP in Nigeria, there must be a coalition. So, in 2011, I wrote and argued for that coalition and we know that the coalition almost worked. ACN and CPC almost had one but it didn’t work until they went to the election. When APC came, I knew it was a strong possibility that he could win and he won. Moreso, Nigerians had become dissatisfied. And because he contested on a stronger platform, he was favoured to win.
Your predecessor, Dr. Reuben Abati, wrote a piece after he left office, saying his phone had stopped ringing. Do you think you might suffer the same fate after office?
No, I will not. I have been asked this question on television before. I quoted a scripture. That scripture I will quote again. The bible says when some people say there is a casting down; other people will say it is a lifting up. So what some other people went through and they were cast down, other people will go through it and they will be lifted up. I will be lifted up.
How has your former position as Managing Director of a major media house and president of the Guild of Editors helped you in your new job?
Tremendously, I would say. Because I had contacts, I had good will, which I still use on this job. I spent 29 years in active media practice. Over that period, I have built a network. I have friends and colleagues. Anybody that is somebody in the media now, I would know somehow, particularly at the top echelon. Now that I hold this position, they will also say he is our man.
You admired the president from afar, but never worked up close with him. What major surprises have you noticed seeing him and working with him daily?
Well, what I have seen in him now is that he is a temperate person. The Buhari of 1983 is different from the Buhari of 2015. Now he is all about maturity. He himself told a story one day when the Peace Committee came to meet him and they were appealing that he should follow due process in the anti-corruption war. The Sultan of Sokoto was there. The president told the story about a German sentry. He said, in the military they used to have a joke. He said the Sultan would remember the joke because the Sultan is a soldier. He said when a sentry is on duty in the evening and the sentry hears some noise, he carries his gun and says,”who goes there? Advance to be recognized”. When that person comes forward and identifies himself and the sentry is satisfied, he tells him to pass. But with the German sentry, the joke they used to have is when the German sentry hears some noise, he fires and immediately after he fires, he says, “who went there?” He knows he has killed the person.
When he first came as a military leader, he was like that German sentry. He packed everybody, politicians and locked them up. And then he began to look for evidence to try them. He said this time he will not do that. Anybody that has stolen the country’s money will tried but they will not be arrested until evidence has been secured. Everybody will have his day in court. But the evidence will be solid before they are arrested. That shows you the difference between Buhari of 1983 and Buhari of now. Remember the day he was inaugurated, some Jonathan ministers wanted to travel and some people were stopping them at the airport. He said “no, let them go”. Because he knows the world is like a village. There is nowhere they will hide. If it was the 1983 Buhari, he would pack them and lock them up immediately. There is a lot of difference between the two Buharis. But there are some things that are still the same, like discipline, integrity and accountability.
I remember one day, we were at a meeting and some people opened another meeting within that meeting. They were distracting that meeting. He kept quiet and told them, “when you finish your meeting, let me know”. And immediately, they kept quiet. He is a very disciplined man. When you give him an appointment, he is always on time. You had better be ready for him when you give him time. That is the time he will come
The president is 72. Do you think he'll have a go at a second term?
It will be his democratic right and it will be his decision. Nothing like that has come up but if he wants it, it will be his democratic right. The president of Senegal left office at 84. Mugabe is still there at 91. Tunisia elected an 88-year-old man last year. Mandela was there till eighty something.
You were Buhari's first appointee. Does that come with any special privileges?
No exactly. But Senator HadiSirika calls me the most senior. What he means is the most senior adviser to the president. It is because others are coming in four months after. I have been there for four months. It does not confer any special privileges but it feels good that he considered me for an appointment at the time he appointed me.
Given what appears to be coming out about the Jonathan administration, are you surprised that he lost the election?
I am not. I had always wanted him to lose. Three or four weeks ago, I was talking with a staunch Jonathan supporter. He told me that it was good that Jonathan lost the election. He said the truth is that if Jonathan had won the election, at a point, Nigeria would have shut down. It is good for our country.
Just today a Buhari supporter on social media said he was so disappointed with the ministerial list that he was withdrawing his support. What do you say to that?
It is his democratic right. But you will see that one day, he will come back. When he begins to see achievements, he will come back.
Looking at the press from the "outside," do you feel sorry for the previous occupants of your office - or you feel that editors are not sufficiently demanding?
Nigerian editors are perhaps the most vibrant set of professionals we have in this country. They are alive duties and responsibilities. Nigerian press is very vibrant. I do not believe there are any sets of shortcomings in this area. On the previous occupant of this office, the eras differ. What obtained in the last administration may not be what is obtaining now. The atmosphere in which they operated is different from the one with which I am operating. You will find that Jonathan, for instance was there, having about 80% goodwill. By the time he left, he had frittered it to perhaps 20 per cent. That means at the beginning of that assignment, Reuben Abati had an easier work than he had towards the end. Now, this is a government that has 70-80 per cent approval rating. If that approval rating continues to go up, my job is easier.
President Buhari appears to have greater confidence speaking with foreign journalists. Why is this so?
It is so easy for media people to agree that the world is a now global village. But when it comes to where the president says something, they say he has gone to say it abroad. The simple explanation is that when he is travelling, we have what we call a trip-planning meeting. In that trip-planning meeting, we usually reserve a minimum of one hour for engagement with foreign media. Every trip, before he goes, he knows that session will be there. So that is why it seems he speaks more abroad than he does here. When he is here, he so busy, very busy but I am sure we will get to a point where we can engage the local media.