interviewBy Goerge Agba
Ahead of May 29, a day set aside to mark democracy day in the country and a day President Goodluck Jonathan will be marking his one year in office since he was democratically elected as president in the April 2011 presidential poll, Dr. Reuben Abati, presidential spokesman and Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity speaks extensively on the president's score card within the one year period. He also cleared the air on some controversial issues heating up the polity in this interview with GEORGE AGBA.
President Goodluck Jonathan mounted the saddle of leadership last May 29. As a member of his kitchen cabinet, can you give an overview of the administration's performances in the past 1 year?
I think that the question you have asked draws attention to only one particular issue which is that, perhaps, those of us who are involved in the business of informing the public about what the administration is doing, maybe, are not doing enough and I think this kind of question should compel us to learn certain lessons. One of the lessons is that we cannot shy away from continually talking to the public, which is to tell us that we have a responsibility and a duty to continue to bring the achievements of the Jonathan's administration to the attention of the public.
We can take them sector by sector. First take the area of foreign relation. President Jonathan served until recently as chairman of the ECOWAS. One of the gains for Nigeria has been that during his tenure as chairman of ECOWAS, President Jonathan discharged his responsibilities with distinction. He played a major role in resolving the crisis in Niger, in intervening in Guinea Bissau, in intervening in the famous Cote D'Ivoire crisis, in providing support for South Sudan and their independence process. Now, all of these brought a lot of respect to Nigeria. Under President Jonathan's watch, Nigeria regained solid respectability in the international community. I have travelled with him to many countries and you will see that while some Nigerians at home play politics with whatever he does by criticising him, people wait on the streets, including foreigners, to receive him and this are not people who have been planted there. You cannot say an 'Oyinbo' man will go and rent a crowd to welcome an African president because he is a man that is admired and respected within the international arena. But I know also that many Nigerians will say why is he admired within the international arena? His business is here at home, but at the end of the day, this admiration he gets from an objective externally distance audience is a plus for Nigeria. It is instructive that President Jonathan is one of the 100 most influential people in the world selected by Times Magazine. Don't forget that Times International is a serious publication. That particular selection was based on a poll by both Nigerians and other people and at the end of the day, it came out and, in fact, President Jonathan was the only African leader that was so selected. This means that when you look closely at some of these criticisms against him, they are really mythical and emotional and that deep in their hearts, President Jonathan enjoys the goodwill of many Nigerians. That is the first point, but I know that the first point about the international arena is something that Nigerians will say, "Yes, he is doing well, he is projecting Nigeria very well but how about at home?" I think that the major challenge we have at home is security; let us concede to it. In Nigeria, if you hear that a bomb went off there, you are rightly to get emotional and it is very clear that the people who are throwing those bombs are seeking to discredit the administration and the average Nigerians knows this. Most people complain about the challenge of security, but if that was not there many Nigerians will be more objective. They will be able to see more clearly. The cassava bread we are asking them to embrace to create jobs for Nigerians and to grow the agricultural sector will have more effects in terms of the earlier point I made about cassava and eyesight. Anyway, I am just trying to make a joke (laughs).
But I have also made it clear that President Jonathan and the various security agencies are doing a lot to address this challenge. Every nation has its own moments of crisis and this may well be a special moment in the history of our nation, but President Jonathan, while working hard, is also an optimist. He challenges every Nigerian to support his administration, to be optimistic and to give credit to what the administration is doing so that a lot more can be achieved and he also makes the point again and again that securing the Nigerian environment is ultimately a collective responsibility. Every Nigerian has a role to play. We would not overcome if we keep demonising the efforts of the administration. We would overcome if we all come together and place a greater emphasis on those things that bind us together and rise in unison against those who want to distabilise this country.
President Jonathan is one of the world leaders in the forefront in the campaign against the eradication of polio. There was a time this country had eradicated polio 100 percent but there are about 5 states where polio is an issue and President Jonathan has earmarked special funding for the eradication of polio.
When we went to Australia, he was one of the leaders who stayed in the forefront of this campaign and he has even been honoured by Rotary Foundation for his commitments in this regards. Rotary foundation even acknowledged the progress that has been made under President Jonathan in the fight against polio and this is consistent with his commitments to ensure that every Nigerian child has a future that is secured.
Also, President Jonathan is the Co-Chair of the UNICEF Initiative on Women and children's Health and this, again, is an acknowledgement of the efforts of his administration. In terms of investments in this strategic areas- the health of women and children- he is addressing the challenges of infant mortality, infant morbidity, maternal mortality and maternal morbidity. So these are some of the areas. In terms of infrastructure which is a strategic plank of the human development index, roads are being built across the country, transportation is being addressed and all of these things are being done but President Jonathan also appreciates the fact that Nigerians are impatient.
Power is an area the people feel the President is being tricked by the people he has appointed to speed power generation, transmission and distribution in the country, having promised to make a change in that direction. Do you feel contrary to the views of these people?
The same people who claim there have been problems in the power sector will also, if they want to be objective, readily admit that it is the Jonathan administration that has been able to raise the level of power supply and power distribution from a fixated 2000 mega watts range to 4000 mega watts. And the fact is we recently got to a point where many Nigerians were beginning to testify that there had been a considerable improvement in the power sector. But I think there was a problem with two power plants and around February, there was a drop back to 2000 and Nigerians began to complain again, but that has since been rectified. There has been an improvement in many parts of Nigeria.
You know the thing about Nigeria is that the power issue is so sensitive. Many Nigerians will tell you that if President Jonathan is going to solve any problem, let him just solve the problem of power supply. If he solves the problem of power, they will be okay. So, in that particular sector they will find it very difficult to accept a situation whereby an improvement is made and then it drops again. Because the expectation is that the situation should continue to improve and Mr. President understands this and has therefore placed a lot of priority on the power sector. Indeed, when he went to Germany recently one of the things he did was to visit a factory, the Siemens factory, to ensure that the MOU that had been signed with Siemens to supply three turbines to assist the power sector to re-engineer the power sector in Nigeria is something that comes to fruition, that there is delivery on time and that the job creation objective of this administration is also met in that regard. I was there; so, I am not reporting a reported incident. I was there with Mr. President and he went there with a number of Ministers too. He even wore the factory helmet; and went round the factory, to inspect the turbines, that is how honestly dedicated he is to this assignment.
One of the things that are being planned also is a special session on power. You know, of course, there is a power sector road map on which a lot of efforts has been made, progress is being made and the ultimate objective of that power road map is to ensure the complete privatization, except in one regard, I think transmission where the federal government will still have a stake, to ensure that the private sector is brought in and the expectation is that the various distribution companies, otherwise known as DISCOs would have taken charge of that sector, and this can only translate into improved power supply. And I think that when that happens and improvement in the level of power supply is sustained, the cynics who are making the negative comments will be the same persons to come forward and say well, the administration has kept its promise.
Transportation and employment are key elements to development in the short term. Yet, the country has fallen short in these areas against the expectation of the people. I will be surprised if you do not subscribe to such an argument and why shouldn't you?
May I state very clearly that one of the major platforms for the campaign of President Jonathan was the creation of jobs and on every occasion and at every opportunity, this administration has remained focussed on this. I will give only a few examples of how the President is addressing this issue of job creation. The job creation issue is linked to manpower development. One of the major programmes President Jonathan has launched is what he calls the YouWin Programme. The YouWin programme is targeted at developing youth entrepreneurship. Many scholars of the subject have pointed out that one way of deepening the quality of education in Nigeria is to change the orientation of the education system from rote learning and from a knowledge based process to an understanding-based and skills-based process.
In other words, one of the issues we now have with our education system is that people go to schools, they learn, they acquire a lot of knowledge but they do not learn the application. They do not move from the level of knowledge to the level of understanding. The level of understanding is where you have apply skills and where you demonstrate entrepreneurship, both at the intellectual and material levels. The whole point I am trying to make is that this has been an area of engagement for President Jonathan and he has entered this matrix through the promotion of entrepreneurship. The YouWin programme is the initiative in this regard, which is targeted at Nigerian youths.
The objective is to take Nigerian youths, the ones that are gifted amongst them, the ones that are enterprising, the ones that are involved in small and medium scale enterprises and to provide support for them and as we speak, that programme has identified many young Nigerians across the 36 states and the FCT, over 1000 of them are enjoying the support of government and the idea is to catch them young and empower them. The Federal Government is saying: you don't need to wait for government to give you a job, you don't need to wait for government to give you a white-collar job, once you have been given education you can move from the level of the knowledge that you have and demonstrate understanding and skills in terms of the application of your knowledge. And this government, the Jonathan administration is there to support you. That is the whole idea of You Win. And it is working and it has the buy-in of the state governments. And the whole idea is that if you support the small scale enterprises, you give them more resources the businesses will be able to expand. When they expand, they will absorb more people and create jobs.
That is one example. The second example is the Public Works programme. The Public Works programme is designed to create as many as 370, 000 jobs per annum both for young people and women, particularly those in special categories.
I give another example, take agriculture. When we talk about agriculture, people say cassava bread. You know at one event that I attended one man was saying "Cassava; they say we should eat cassava". Well, I was not given a chance to speak. I would have told the gentleman that the good thing about cassava I have heard, is that it is good for the eye-sight and many of these people criticising the administration may correct their eye sight problems if they eat cassava bread and they will be able to see clearly for them to be able to speak more from a position of strength rather than mischief.
However, that is by the way. What the president has been doing with agriculture shows that, with agriculture, we can create jobs, we can diversify the economy and we can re-engineer the economy.
Also, when the president travels anywhere, he always travels with members of the National Assembly. He travels with members of the private sector, and he goes there personally looking for opportunities for private sector investment in Nigeria and when he meets with people who want to come and invest in Nigeria, he tells them very clearly upfront, look if you want to come to Nigeria to come and sell your goods, we are not looking for traders. We are looking for people who will come and invest here. That is why anytime he travels, trade and investment is always a strategic part of the messaging process, whatever it is that he is going to do in that country. And there have been successes recorded. If you ask the Minister of Trade and Investments, Segun Aganga, he will be able to give you the specific figures - over trillions of naira worth of investments that have come into the country in the last 10 months and all of these is to create jobs.
More than this, you know you cannot talk about creating jobs if you also don't give people the requisite skills and this is why this administration has also been concerned about the education sector. I have read some reports in the papers in which some people are saying the education sector looks like one of the areas where there is a lot of hope, effort and achievement. And that is precisely the vision of Mr. President. If you listen to President Jonathan clearly enough you will see that two words he likes to use are vision and philosophy. And when people come to him with all these funny things with many words and statistics and all that, he says "no, can we reduce these to vision and philosophy backed by action; this is not about words but about philosophy and vision and performance?" He tries to do this in the education sector as well- the Almajiri phenomenon and the creation of schools for the almajirai. I have read quite a number of criticisms, but it is a noble initiative. Many people criticising it are saying why don't we have almajiri schools in other parts of the country? But the truth of the matter is that this idea of empowering the young Nigerians- the out of school children- is not restricted to the Northern part of the country, but there only seems to be a greater concentration in the Northern part. And it is not even an exclusive Federal Government project; it is something the federal government is doing in collaboration with the states. So, across the country, the Jonathan administration is working also with the states. But you know the way it goes. The Federal Government gets blamed for things that go wrong and then when things go right, people give credit to the state governments, not knowing that all of this is part of the grand vision that is policy driven from the top.
As it bothers Mr. President, what are the immediate actions he is taking or planning to take to rectify the developments which are coming at a time he had directed MDA's for self appraisals?
This is a straight forward question that deserves a straight forward answer, which is that when the president assumed office one of the things he did was to address the ministers and other appointees and to make it clear. You can go back to that speech again. It exists. When people make comments, they should try to take a look at some of these things the president said that look, all the appointees in the MDA's will be measured, will be monitored, be assessed on the basis of their performance and that if any department is found wanting, people would be sanctioned because the transformation agenda, for him, is not a phrase. It is an action plan. It is a campaign promise and the administration must deliver and that everybody who is part of the team must be committed to this delivery process. So when the president asked for appraisals of MDA's, he is keeping to that promise and he is being consistent. Don't forget also that the same president, in order to ensure quality performance, set up the Oransanye committee which has submitted its report. The committee's main objective which was to look at areas of duplication, overlap and cross purpose functioning are also an evaluation process to ensure performance and to eliminate waste. Three, in the office of the President, there is also a monitoring and an evaluation arm whose primary objective is to monitor programmes, evaluate them and give reports to the president. So, all of these in this regards shows serious commitment on the part of the president to deal with areas of inefficiency or leakages or wastages in terms of the performance of the MDA's.