Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammmed, in this interview speaks on the recent defection of members of the ruling All Progressives Congress to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and developments in Kwara State politics, among other issues. FELIX NWANERI reports
How would you react to the gale of defections that recently rocked your party? Was it an event you were expecting or it took you by surprise?
I don’t think anybody who has been a close watcher or observer of this political landscape should be taken aback by the defections. I think that it even came so late, we shouldn’t be surprised. A Yoruba adage says ‘if we build a house on spittle, the first fog will demolish it.’
The foundation for what you see today was laid the day Bukola Saraki, forced himself on the party as Senate president. That was the day the day the foundation for what you are witnessing today was laid because traditionally it is the party’s prerogative to decide who become presiding officers in the two houses.
But, we were met with a fait accompli, when Saraki, against the wishes of the party, did the unthinkable by aligning with the opposition and making them an offer they could not refuse. I can’t quite remember the number, but almost the entire 40 plus senators in PDP voted for him. So, he needed only a minority from the APC. We were all waiting for Mr. President to address us on the issue at the International Conference Centre, when it was announced that Saraki has emerged as the Senate president.
From that day, we know we had two problems. Number one, we had a Senate president, who imposed himself on the party and to make it worse, he arranged for an opposition person to be Deputy Senate President and that makes it impossible for us to remove him.
His thinking was ‘If you remove me, you are going to have a PDP Senate President.’ I think from that day we had a problem. Of course, you could see the behaviour of the National Assembly since then.
We have a National Assembly in which we had a clear majority in both houses, but which treated the executive with contempt and who actually slowed down the work of government. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, our budgets were delayed. We can understand that of 2015 because we came on board in the middle of the year. But for 2016 and 2017, the earliest we got our budgets was June.
Key appointments, nominations and confirmations for key organisations that could move the government forward like the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), were delayed. Really, it couldn’t have been worse if the PDP had a majority in the National Assembly.
Does your government want Saraki removed or is it just a party affair?
I think the national chairman of the party has spoken and he has asked him to resign.
What is the difference between then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal’s defection in December 2014 and Saraki’s defection this time? At that time you issued a statement as APC spokesman that it was justifiable and he needed not resign, while the party is asking Saraki to resign…
In 2014, the political climate was completely different. By 2013, three major political parties and factions of another two had collapsed into a new party. We had All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and a faction of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) that came together to become a new party.
In 2014, there were internal wrangling within the PDP and they decided to defect to meet us in APC. Even now, nobody is saying people can’t defect. Mr. President said it that many of the people who defected did so for selfish purposes because many of them want to come back to the National Assembly.
But many of them too, when they were coming reached understanding with their local people. You know that a senator sometimes represents up to eight local governments, sometimes 10 and there are some unwritten rules that if this side of the senatorial district produces a senator for four years, it has to go to the other side in another four years. So many of them are facing re-election problem because they can’t go back to their constituencies and say they want to run again.
At the party level, they know themselves. If you are going to do a primary to be a senator and you have agreed that it has to come from a particular area this time around, they won’t vote for you. So, there are so many reasons why some of them defected, and probably, they can get tickets in other parties. Defection is as old as politics itself even it happened in the First Republic.
The fundamental thing is that for us, it would have been better that they left a long time earlier because they have strangulated this government for too long. When you are betrayed by your own party is more painful because we can’t fight back as much as we want to fight back. I just want to establish that the foundation of what you are seeing today was laid as far back as the day Saraki became Senate President.
Going into the 2019 election, what do you want to tell Nigerians that you have done that would warrant them to renew your tenancy?
We have delivered on all promises we made. We came in and we promised we were going to fight insecurity. At that time, the major threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria was the Boko Haram insurgency and despite what anybody says, we have decimated Boko Haram.
We brought Boko Haram under complete control because when we came in on May 29, 2015, 24 local governments in the North-East, an area three times the size of Lebanon, were under the effective control of Boko Haram and what this means is that they were running the administration. As a matter of fact, once you got to Maiduguri; that was the end of Bornu State.
If you move outside, either to Konduga or Bama, they were under the control of Boko Haram. By 2014, 2015, nobody in Abuja could sleep with his two eyes closed. They came and attacked ThisDay headquarters with casualties, they attacked the United Nations headquarters, they attacked the Police headqueters, Nyanya park was bombed twice, they were active in Suleja, Kaduna, Sokoto, Plateau, Nasarrawa and Kogi.
As a matter of fact, there was hardly any state in the North that Boko Haram was not operating in. But today, there is relative peace. We have been able to recover all territories and today no single inch of Nigerian territory is under the Boko Haram control. Yes, there have been suicide bombings; that is what terrorism is all about. A couple of weeks ago in United State, we saw terrorist attack.
About a month or two months ago, we saw what happened in Texas. Terrorists killed many children. This is not a sign of renewed threat rather it is a sign of desperation and weakness. Look at the regularity it used to occur and now. It is all about intelligence gathering.
Yes, you would talk about herdsmen-farmer clashes; was it not something we inherited. The first farmers-herders’ clash was in 1947. That was even before Nigeria became independent, but over the years we have been able to manage it. What has aggravated the farmers-herders’ clash today is the government’s position, its stand on fighting corruption.
How did you arrive at that conclusion?
We found out that in Benue State in particular that some people facing corruption charges are the ones that have armed militia. Is it not interesting that Terkula that was arrested is actually a government appointee? And since his arrest, these killings have gone down.
The suspects arrested for killing the Catholic priest were not Fulani herdsmen. They are militia men from Benue State. We have politicians, who are afraid that, they will end up in jail if Buhari is re-elected and they are now fueling the herdsmen crisis, especially in Benue state.
What about the killings in Zamfara State?
Zamfara is a very interesting state. It is a clear example that these killings are neither ethnic nor religious in nature. It is pure criminality because the cattle rustlers are Muslims and Fulani and the victims also are Muslim and Fulani.
So, how can you talk about ethnicity or religion here? The truth of the matter is that when there is trouble along the Sahel region – Mali, Libya, Chad and Niger – you can just go across the border and buy AK-47 for about maybe $200. So, these criminals are now well armed. Zamfara is a very good example that this thing is not religious ditto in Kebbi.
In Kebbi State, the governor said 70 per cent of all the inmates in prisons in the state are there because of farmers-herders’ clashes yet the farmers in Kebbi are Muslims and Fulani and the herdsmen are Muslim Fulani.
There are other reasons, apart from sheer criminality and political instigation, which are even more genuine. What about demography? What about Climate Change? Nigeria had 45 million people when we had independence in 1960. Today we are about 190 million people. So it is about struggle for resources.
Secondly, Lake Chad was 25,000sqm surface area in 1963. The same Lake Chad has shrunk today to 2,500sqm, yet Lake Chad was supporting 35 million lives from Nigeria, Central African Republic, Benin, Chad, Niger and Cameroun.
Those 35 million people were using that water to fish, farm and do irrigation. There used to be about 3,000 different types of fish in Lake Chad, it has now shrunk to about 500. So, it is about resources that are dwindling combined with population explosion and of course criminality. The good thing is that we are looking at this problem in a more holistic manner than people want to know and that is why Nigeria has hosted twice the Conference of Lake Chad Basin Countries.
The only solution is to reflate the lake and we are talking to all the countries. It is very expensive but it is the only way out. Until more water is brought back into the Lake Chad, we will continue to have this problem. When you look at farmer-herder’s crisis, it is not restricted to Nigeria, it is in Ghana, it is in Southern Sudan, it is also in Kenya. The good thing is that while we are looking at the long term solution, we are also looking at the short-term solution.
That is why we set up this quick response wing of the Air Force to tackle herdsmenfarmer’s clashes in Zamfara, Taraba and Benue states. The military has established two new battalions in both Zamfara and Birnin Gwari in Kaduna. A 1,000-combined force of security agencies is tackling the matter in Zamfara and every day we are recording success.
In Zamfara, a senator accused the government of sponsoring the attacks, what is your reaction to that?
I would not know the validity of that allegation, it might be purely political, it also might be real. It just confirms my position that in Benue State, corrupt politicians who are facing trial are also aiding and abetting the killing.
When you look at Benue State, this is a state where civil servants have not been paid any salary for 11 months. So, it is quite easy for the governor to focus people’s attention on the herdsmen-farmer crisis, so that they would have no time to think about the fact that they have not been paid.
What is the future of Kwara APC following the defection of Senator Saraki, Governor Abdulfattah Ahmed and members of the national and state Assembly?
What we have today is some members of APC decamping to the PDP. I say some members because many members have refused to go and we have gained more from those who say rather than stay in the same party with Saraki, they would rather come to APC. I was home recently primarily to reassure our people that there is no cause for alarm. I was amazed at the kind of reception I got.
At the time I went home, Saraki was yet to announce his resignation from the party. As far as the people of Kwara State are concerned, it was as if finally, the state was being liberated. The excitement today in Kwara State is akin to how Nigerians felt on the eve of independence.
To answer your question; I think APC can only get stronger in Kwara State. People have forgotten that Saraki joined APC after the merger. Merger took place in July 21, 2013, he joined in 2014. But, the moment he joined the APC, former ACN, ANPP and CPC members left APC because they could not be in the same camp with him.
So, what we are witnessing today in Kwara State is like a liberation and from the support I have received so far from the entire leadership of the party in the state led by Akogun Oyedepo Iyiola, Saraki’s days of dominating Kwara politics are limited.
The era of one man dominating the party is over. Kwarans, young and old, male and females are itching to take possession of the party and I am very confident that we are going to rout him in the next election.
The Senate president said out of 200 appointments made, himself and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, were not allotted anything, while Sokoto State governor, Aminu Tambuwal, said he cannot find anything the Federal Government has done in his state. How would you react to these claims and do you see President Muhammadu Buhari winning in Kano, Kwara, Sokoto and Benue states given the developments in these states?
I think it is a blatant lie that Kwara State was not considered in appointments. There were 26 appointees to boards and parastatals either as members or director general to Kwara State and of these 26, I recommended only two. The other 24 were done by Saraki.
Who did you recommend? The Director General of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the General Manager of National Theatre; we are not even talking about ambassadorial post which I absolutely made no input. When I give you the list, you will know that all other appointees are his people. In terms of development, the arterial road of Ilorin-Jebba-Mokwa-Birnin Gwari road is 80 per cent completed. It is one of the major roads that link the state. On the other hand, it is this same government that awarded the contract for Lokoja- Omu Aran-Ilorin road. In terms of housing, we are building many two bedroom houses in Ilorin. Again, in terms of appointment, one of the chairmen of parastatals is the out-gone chairman of APC, Ishola Balogun-Fulani. So, the claim is blatant lie. On whether we can win in Sokoto, Kano and Kwara, people forget very easily. In 2014, Buhari roundly defeated both Atiku and Kwankwaso in Lagos at the APC primaries. In Kano, any contest today between Buhari and anybody, Buhari is going to win. I am not in doubt about it. In Sokoto, 12 out of 30 House of Assembly members including the deputy governor, refused to go with Tambuwal, that is very significant and you can see that the next day people went on the streets in Sokoto sweeping them out. Benue is dicey, but people forget that it was Senator George Akume, who brought Governor Samuel Ortom. When the whole of North Central was in PDP, Akume fought and won election on the platform of the ACN. In Kwara, I am very confident that the only thing that can make us lose is if we don’t manage the situation well and that was why the first thing I said was that I am not contesting for anything ,so that I can be an honest broker.
PDP is harvesting people from your party, what are you also doing to poach their members? I have just told you that we have harvested even without any struggle.
Still on Kwara, some PDP members including former deputy governor, Joel Ogundeji; former Speaker of the state Assembly, Babatunde Mohammed and even former Minister of National Planning, Abubakar Sulaiman welcomed Saraki and said they are ready to work with him. What do you make of that? What is the electoral value of those people? All politics is local, I watched them on television and some of them look so terrified, they were even afraid they were being shown because these are the same people, who have been talking to me. I don’t want to mention names. I laughed when I saw them because they were uncomfortable they were being televised. We are very confident that we are going to win election in Kwara state because we have the numbers. Compare those people on television with the crowd that received me, the enthusiasm and air of liberation. Let me tell you on record that the epic centre of liberation against Saraki is in Ilorin itself. As I speak to you, the PDP in his ward, Ajikobi, decamped. So where is his base? Don’t be deceived. No matter how big a tree is, it can never make a forest and the people of Kwara State are saying that no longer will anyone person have control of the political landscape.
What is your take on claims of selective implementation of the anticorruption fight by members of the opposition? This allegation of selective fight is not correct. The former governor of Plateau State who has been sentenced, was he not in APC? You have forgotten that the executive is quite independent from the judiciary. It can only prosecute, it can’t convict anybody. It is left for the court to convict. So, this thing about once you become a member of APC, you are free, tell me one member of the APC whose prosecution has been stopped because he crossed over to APC. Those who have charges before the court, there is no way the executive can instruct the court to stop those cases.
How would react to the siege on the residence of the Senate President by the police? It was fake news, it didn’t happen. The Police spokesman said on television that it was not true. In this age of fake news, you can manipulate picture in a manner that something that happened somewhere could be transported here.
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