INTERVIEW: Too much Government in the Economy- Atiku Abubakar

Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was Nigeria’s Vice President from 1999 to 2007. He is a very influential personality as well as controversial figure in the political circle. After leaving the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to contest for the Presidential Election in 2007, he has returned to the same party in 2010 with more vive. In this interview with the Economic Confidential he bares his mind on economic and political issues including his aspiration… Excerpts

 

How can the Nigeria’s economy be tackled for development?
I still believe that the government is too much in the economy. Government has to scale down its involvement in the economy and allow the private sector to move the business. There is too much government in our lives. I want to reduce that and also to create an environment for investment. I can tell you we don’t have the money to develop this country. The only way we can develop this country is to open up this country to foreign investors to develop and give them all the incentives that they need to invest.
 
But masses always argue against privatisation exercise, just as they protested against privatisation of education during last regime of Olusegun Obasanjo?
How many private universities or schools are there in America? Most American schools about 90% of them are private. All the government does is to give grants, set standards, and ensure that these qualities are implemented. Unfortunately, I was not the president. I was only a Vice President. And I was not on the driver’s seat. But I believe the president tried as much as possible in terms of education, because we budgeted more in education than the previous governments in this country. I in particular was and still so passionate about education. I organized the northern education summit, drew up blueprints for northern education so that they can as much as possible catch up, and gave guidelines of what minimum percentage of their budgets should go to education. But all these efforts of mine were derailed the moment we started having political disagreement just after 3 years. I believe both the president and I tried to do our best, I only wished we did not have that disagreement. If we had continued with governance the way we started in the first 3 years, Nigeria would have been a different country today.
 
How can the problem of electricity be addressed?
We may adopt captive power station as a policy, because, it is going to be the shortest way to get sufficient power and also the shortest way to get foreign investment into the power sector. When you have captive power stations they are either small or medium and private sectors can easily come in and fund them without government getting involved. Believe me, government does not have money to adequately fund the project. You can see that recently the National Assembly appropriated N87bn to INEC, but the government didn’t have a kobo, they are funding it by bonds, and that is borrowing. Our entire capital expenditure is being funded by borrowing. The only way we can do it is to create the enabling environment so that the private sector from all over the world will see Nigeria as a destination for investment after removing all the obstacles. This will bring money, investment and do business.

With many Nigerians travelling abroad for medical treatment, can’t we do something about it?
The only thing I can say is that we need to create an enabling environment for effective and efficient healthcare service in the country.
 
How can we eliminate corrupt practices that give the country bad names?
We already have enough laws to tackle corruption. I think government is required to work with the judiciary and establish special courts to try corruption cases, the faster the better. You know that justice delayed is justice denied. If you prosecute those cases very promptly and dispose of them either way, confusion free, I mean people will sit up. But now, people have corruption cases hanging on for years but going about their normal businesses, sometimes, the people even forget that they have corruption cases, and they begin to talk as if they are angels. I would like to see some measure of independence for the anti-corruption agencies through legislation. The head of the anti-corruption body should refuse to take telephone calls from the president asking you to go and do this or that. The culture of impunity has so permeated the society that you may sometimes have to consider legislation in order to curb it. 
 
Do you have a blueprint on how to solve the problems in the Niger Delta region?
In 2003, I had a blueprint on Niger Delta, part of which was the creation of the Niger Delta Ministry, which is now moribund, it is just there as an office. I had also the issues of amnesty and the retraining of the militants; I have also the proposal to set up what I called the coast guard for Nigeria, which I believe Nigeria needs. Right now, we have a security situation in the Nigeria where the army is not particularly trained to handle security in swamp and the coastal areas, neither is the navy trained to handle security in the swamp and the coastal area. There is a buffer that buffer needs a body specially trained to handle it. That’s where the coast guard comes in. So all these militants, you can retrain them and convert them into members of that coast guard, while the navy is on the deep sea, the army is on land, the police and then you have the coast guards on the coast and also the swamps. So after the amnesty, you would have redeployed everybody into productive venture. These are some of the things I want to implement and the development or implementation of the master plan of Niger Delta, infrastructure, education, healthcare delivery etc. That was why in our policy document we advocated for a G-4 programme, when we say G-4, we mean the coming together of the Federal Government, State Government, Local Government, oil companies and the private sector. So far the amnesty issue is shabbily handled so far.
 
Is it true that because Halliburton case, you now travel to Dubai instead of America for holidays?
The United States is not Nigeria. If you have a case you have a case. They will call you wherever you will be. More so if you are their citizen because my wife is a citizen of the United States of America. I was going to the United States because my family was there: my family took up a job in Dubai, moved to the American University in Dubai as an Assistant Professor, so I moved. I went to meet my family in Dubai. And if the United States was looking for me or my wife, about two or three weeks ago we were at the United States Embassy here in Abuja to renew the passports of my children who are American citizens, if I have a case to answer they would have arrested either of us. If anybody has a case let them bring the case. Nobody has even interviewed me (on the bribery scandal). There are no evidences against me. This is just the work of political opponents who will stop at nothing in order to destroy your political career.

Now let us go into politics. Why are you always interested in contesting for presidency?
It’s my right as a Nigerian to run for the Presidency, for as many times I feel I can offer my services. I still believe that I have quite a lot to contribute towards the development of this country. What actually prompts me the more is that the more I travel abroad and see other countries move ahead, the more I get the impetus to want to see how I can also give Nigeria that kind of direction or vision. It is more of patriotic zeal than persistence.

How do you view the leadership in PDP with former President Obasanjo as the Chairman of Board of Trustees (BOT)?
We have a new leadership in the party which is obviously different; we have a new leadership in the country which is obviously different. BOT (Board of Trustees) is an advisory body, so, it has not hindered my return.

But there is this controversy over your return to the party…
There has been crisis in Adamawa PDP before I returned. They had a crisis that was more than two years old; major stakeholders of the party on one hand and the governor on the other. And every effort made by the leadership of the party at the national level to resolve that crisis did not work. It was within that timeframe that I returned to the party and naturally, because of my position and because of my local support, some people in the PDP are jittery. I didn’t have any problem at my ward in returning to the party. I didn’t have any problem of any sort with my local government on my return to the party, that’s basically what the constitution provides. Although my ward executives were threatened with dissolution, persecution etc, yet they stood firm and said, No!

What are the problems you have with those against your return, especially in Adamawa State?
Honestly, I don’t think I have any problem with most of the major stakeholders in Adamawa in terms of political differences or anything. I don’t know what Nyako is doing, he alone knows why he is doing what he is doing, but I get along very well with the rest of the major stakeholders in the party, and we relate very well. I have in all these years since I was forced out of the party; I had never taken on anyone of them individually or personally. Of course many of them have insulted me several times; I don’t that think that is how politics is played, I don’t play politics that way. Because I know sometimes we might come back together again and work together, which is evidently happening now, so I really, honestly can’t explain to you now rather than what I read in the papers a few days ago, Nyako saying conditions for my return to the party is that as long as I don’t take over the party, but how can I take over the party? My response to him is that the party does not belong to anyone of us. I don’t believe in handing over party to individuals like my big boss did.  I cannot compromise internal democratization within the party.
 
Is it true that Obasanjo is against your aspiration to get the PDP ticket?
You see, I have a different attitude and a different culture. I don’t take on my seniors particularly in age, I don’t take them on publicly and I also don’t take on my bosses publicly, but on one-on-one, I confront them.
 
What is your take on the intense debate over zoning?
I stand on zoning, because that is the only thing that can bring about unity and stability in this country. Zoning is not an issue of regional interest, because Nigeria is multi-ethnic and multi-religious and we have seen it in the First Republic, the practice of winner takes all led to the collapse of the First Republic. Zoning provides fair and equitable distribution of power at all levels. It is not something new, it is not something undemocratic and it is not something uncivilized, because western countries practice it, developed democracies like Switzerland practices it, Switzerland has how many nationalities? French, Italians, Germans, about four or five nationalities, and they rotate their presidency every year. Belgium does it, zoning is in developed democracies, and it is in Europe.  Let me ask you a question. In an election that is going to be determined by numbers, could the President have won an election? Up till now, in this country whether we like it or not, because of our developmental stage, we vote either based on ethnic, regional or even religious sentiments, they still determine the way our ordinary people vote, because, the bulk of our voters are in rural areas about 70% of them. So, some ethnic group will never (gain power to rule) but with zoning they can.
 
What is the position of Northern governors on the issue?
I believe that their position was based on consultations, they have made and consultations are still going on. There is something I think Nigerians need to know about the north, as diverse as we are, we have the capacity to come together in less than 12 hours. In 2003 convention, it was within few hours that we decided that let us give it to this man within 12 hours, even at the convention ground states were calling to ask; should we still vote for this man or that man? I will say yes go ahead and vote. So do not underestimate the capacity of the north to come together within 12 hours.
 
How do you see other likely contenders like Ibrahim Babangida (IBB)?
We work as a group; don’t you see me together with IBB (Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida) and others? We work as a team. And this is a marriage of conviction, not a marriage of convenience.
 
Will PDP machinery support your ambition?
Whether the PDP machinery supports my ambition or not is not within their control. Yes, I need the ticket of the party. The party is not PDP machinery. The party is for the people. Look at the new electoral act which has strengthened internal democratization within the party, there are only two options; you either go for a direct primaries or indirect primaries.
 
Do you see Jonathan as a threat to your ambition?
Incumbency is usually stronger than opposing parties, of course why not? Don’t look at me as individual. I know of some governors in the north who went to consult the older people, they were told that if you don’t keep to this agreement, we will vote you out and vote out even the Jonathan that you are going to bring, and they will do it.

But many groups have come out to endorse current President Jonathan for the next election. What can you say on that?
Well you know that most enlightened Nigerians are sycophants, they always go along with anybody in power or in office. If there is anything I have prepared my life for it is to make sure that I don’t compromise my principles because of patronage, so that’s why I make sure I plan and pattern my life to stand up to government and say NO!, to stand up to a dictator and say NO!
 
Does it mean you don’t support a Presidential candidate from the Southern part of the country?
Many times in my political career I have proved that what is more important to me is the unity, stability and progress of this country, I have done that in 1993 when I stepped down for MKO Abiola, even in 1998 for Obasanjo when the entire PDP structure was being controlled by me. If I wanted a presidential ticket I would have taken it on a platter of gold I didn’t do it. In 2003 it was all there for me to take on the table, but my major concern was the unity and stability of this country, so I didn’t.

Do you expect the Igbos to support the zoning arrangement?
I urge the people of the South East to warm up to present the president of Nigeria in 2015 under the zoning arrangement of PDP, which was designed to ensure that every part of the country has equitable access to the presidency, regardless of their status as majority or minority ethnic groups. Apart from the issue of power sharing which threatens the existence of the country, the issue of youth development is also urgent and critical. Absence of well-formulated programmes of youth development has created an army of uneducated and unemployed youths who pose serious challenge to the growth of the country.

What is your major regret in your eight years as Vice President of Nigeria?
My only regret is the termination of my cordial working relationship between me and my boss to the disadvantage of the whole country. I think there was over bearing influence of advisers.

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