The Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Lai Mohammed, in this interview, gives reasons, he described members of the Bring Back Our Girls, BBOG, as opposition, the Buhari’s administration insists on probing the immediate past administration, and the need for Nigerians to appreciate the defeat of Boko Haram, saying that it would translate to serious developments. He also spoke on other issues of interest.
What’s your response to Dr. Oby Ezekwesili’s comment that this government lacks direction, that it is confused and implementing anti-people policies?
I will rather people be specific in their assessments or allegations of criticisms of government. Every government needs a very viable opposition. In other words, we need views from stakeholders to sometime even assist us in the arduous task of governance. But when such criticisms are not well formulated or specific, it becomes a bit difficult for government to react. Well, if you say government’s policies are anti-people, there is no government that will set out to hurt its people because one of the cardinal principles of governance aside security is about welfare of the people. So, really no government will set out to have policies that will be anti-people but it’s quite possible that some of the policies of government may in the short term create some hardship for the people. But you don’t see that temporary hardship as being anti-people, that temporary hardship is to allow the government restructure and give back to the people long term gains. You cannot say this is one particular policy of government that is anti-people in this administration. But you must look at it again in context, people will come and tell you that when this government came in, a dollar was N200 but today, it is N400.
When this government came in, a bag of rice sold for N5000, N6000 but today, it is between N17, 000 and N18, 000. But they conveniently forgot to tell you what the price of crude oil was when this government came in?
Yes, we are not the only country facing recession but unfortunately we are the only country in recession with no cushion, no savings and no investment in infrastructure. But governance is a continuum, you inherit liabilities and assets, but in our case, we inherited more of liabilities than assets. But clearly what we know is that the best way to get out of recession is to spend out of recession but that spending must be on infrastructure like railways, roads, power.
Some Nigerians believe that your ‘change begins with me’ campaign appears not to be working. And they use President Buhari’s desire to seek medical care abroad, as a ready example. What is your take on that?
I think anybody saying that is just stretching it too far. Look, anywhere in the world, you give priority to the health and security of the President. You do not say because of ‘change begins with me,’ your President is going on a leave, therefore, he cannot take the opportunity of being on leave to go for medical checkup, especially when he has been doing this even before he became Mr. President? And when you look at it critically, it is not Mr. President we are talking, but it is about an institution, is the office of the president. Anywhere in the world, the security of the president is 10 times more than that of any other person. Besides, when you say ‘change begins with me’ it is about attitude, attitude to life, to punctuality, to honesty, to integrity. Yes, we also campaigned that we must buy made in Nigeria goods, wearing made in Nigeria clothes, of course yes, but it does not mean that if the President of your country goes on vacation he cannot take that opportunity to have medical checkup.
Don’t you see it as an indictment of the medical institution of this country?
You know people are being dishonest. How long has your health care system been where it is? Will it be changed in two years time? What you can do now, is to lay the foundation for that change. And that is why we believe that what is important for our medical system is the primary healthcare and that is the one we are fortifying.
The question being asked is, did you as an opposition understand the dynamics of governance before coming on board. Nigerians are insisting you promised change before you came but things are getting more difficult rather than improving?
Let’s look at it, number one, we promised change and that change has come. There is change today from impunity to accountability and it means a lot. There is a change today from corruption to integrity, it means a lot. There is a change today in the way people view corruption than the way they use to view it before. You will never live your flamboyant lifestyle again. In 2014 or thereabout when the former President went to Kenya, there were about 100 private jets that went with him, what were they contributing to the economy?
What we did not know was the level of dirt and rottenness, the level of dirt and corruption is what we did not get. We knew things were bad but we did not know things were these bad. We did not know before we came in that there was no savings at all, we did not know before we came in, the madness and scale of indiscipline and impunity. So if anybody says we are overwhelmed, yes we are overwhelmed but not by the work but by the level of rottenness and we want to clean this rottenness and this is what we have been doing. It doesn’t matter what vision you have but if you don’t have the money to execute it is as if you are doing nothing.
Rightly or wrongly, some Nigerians believe your anti-corruption war is a vendetta against the Jonathan’s administration. Is that correct?
I think we have gone through this several times. How do you fight corruption? You can start by looking at the activities of people who were in government before you. Was money meant for Project A spent on Project A? Was it overvalued or not? We are yet to start probing corruption. All that happened was that when the President came to power he was very concerned about the activities of Boko Haram and the insecurity in the country and he decided to ask what happened. How come that our army which use to be brave, so professional had lost its steam? Was money not allocated to fight insurgency? It was in the process of finding out that it was discovered that money was actually allocated but was spent on political ends. Let me tell you, nobody that has been accused of spending the $2.1 billion defence contract scandal has denied it, but they have all been giving excuses. If you are going to probe who will you probe? PDP has been in power for 16 years, are you saying that that fact should be discountenance? And this government does not even micro manage who EFCC investigates. Apart from the $2.1 billion defence contract scandal most of the cases EFCC are investigating has been on for years even before this administration came in. But when you look at the share magnitude of what we are uncovering, you will shudder and ask how any economy would have survived this?
For instance, as minister of information, I have been accused of spending N3.4 billion on ‘Change Begins with Me’, I just laughed. What is the entire budget of the
Ministry? The entire capital budget for ministry of information is under N2 billion and a reputable newspaper published that we have blown N3.4 billion already and it became the subject matter of even columnists and you begin to wonder what kind of thing is this. So I am not against anybody in government being probed but I’m saying, you don’t run down government based on unfounded allegations which are meant probably to just distract you. I know many petitions have been written about many of us and they are investigating them.
I think again that we are trivializing corruption by saying it is one sided. Even if it is only two people that are corrupt, is it good for two people to be corrupt? Is it a defense to say I am corrupt but he also is corrupt? Why the country is in this state is because there is no consequences for being corrupt, if there is punishment for corruption, we won’t be where we are today. There is nothing peculiar about Nigeria’s situation, Nigeria is the same like any other country in the world but why those people have survived or succeeded is that there has been punishment when people do bad and there has been incentive when people do good.
In this country we have lacked the courage to punish those who are not doing well. In any office now if a guy does not do well we post him elsewhere will that solve the problem?
Towards the build up to the 2015 polls, the Bring Back Our Girls Group were your allies, but today you are referring to them as opposition, because you are in power. Some Nigerians believe this is not fair. What is your take?
Honestly, I think people are not being fair. The Bring Back Our Girls is an advocacy group and they are playing a very good role in reminding the government that this matter is still not resolved, which is good. However, we believe that it is not fair on their part not to take a holistic picture of the situation and it is because we wanted to give them information, we wanted to carry them along that I invited them to Yola and from Yola, we were flown to Sambisa, both in the morning and night. We went to the entire area to see what the Army and the Air Force do on a daily basis in the search of the Chibok girls.
We were together for more than 24 hours with them, we took briefings. At the end of that trip, they admitted that, yes, the federal government, especially the military is professional in its conduct and that they are committed in finding and rescuing these girls. When we talk about Sambisa , it is not Jabi Park, it is 60,000 square kilometers, which is 18 times the size of Lagos State. But despite that, the military has been able to secure the entire Sambisa forest today. When we came back they now issued a statement in which they said they will not tolerate any delay nor will they tolerate any excuse from government of Nigeria. It was at that point that I said wait a minute. You can’t start talking about delay or excuses from government. These girls have been kidnapped 400 full days before we came in, if anybody dilly-dallies; it was the other administration, not us. Negotiations are very delicate, negotiations are not something you can invite somebody to come and join you.
You need to establish confidence building and trust. It took us a greater part of two years to be able to establish that trust and say look, these are the right people to talk to. The dividend of that was the release of those 21 girls and who knows we probably would have gotten more than that if not because the party we were negotiating with felt that we breached some of the agreements. That is why we cannot even tell you the stage we have gotten. There is the issue of national security in some of these negotiations and that is why it is important for us to be careful in the way we go about it.
So we believed that after what we did, we took them along, they saw what the military is doing and we explained to them that negotiations is a different thing, negotiation is ongoing and is a 24/7 job but is very complex. For instance, when you are meeting these people, don’t forget this is not a conventional war; sometimes when you meet them they give you a window of four or five days to get some things done which is virtually impossible. So what we are saying is that as an advocacy group, you must show some understanding especially when we have been transparent with you. That was why I said if you want to do advocacy, stick to it and if it is opposition, stick to it, otherwise you cannot come back two days later and start issuing ultimatum. When you say go and bring back our girls, it is as if we are keeping them in the Villa. If we knew where they are we would have brought them back long time ago. Again, even in negotiation, what would be paramount to your mind is the safety of those girls.