Garba Shehu is the Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to President Muhammadu Buhari. In this interview, he spoke on how the President chose the ministerial nominees, the events the UN General Assembly, among several other burning national issues.
….Why their names are being sent to the Senate in batches
….President will give ministers targets
….He used the last four months to block leakages in civil service
….Why Buhari called for audit of CBN, FIRS, other agencies
….Reclaiming stolen oil funds is tedious, but…
During his Independence Day broadcast, the President appeared to have given himself a pass mark when critics are saying the economy is at a standstill. How do you explain such a position?
Critics will always be there. Without opposition, democracy will not be complete. Therefore, we must consider opposition to be a necessary requirement for good governance. It will keep government on its toes and check excesses by any incumbent administration. But it is helpful if opposition is informed by facts. In a normal situation, perhaps, President Buhari doesn’t need to read the kind of speech that he read on the Independence Day.
He is usually a very modest and quiet person. He is very self-effacing. He has been forced to come out and say these are achievements recorded. It is obviously necessitated by the ongoing and consistent attempts by the opposition to show the government in a negative light. I will give you one clear example. If you look at a string of opposition and attacks lately held onto by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spokesman, Chief Olisa Metuh you will agree with the president that he needed to explain some of the things he has done.
The PDP has maintained that because the ministers have not been appointed, President Buhari was veering toward dictatorship. How can there be dictatorship in a country where there is an independent parliament? There is a parliament that has been in turmoil from its inauguration up to now. We have a President who has held back that he would not dabble into what they are doing. This is a country that has a judiciary that is operating independent of the two other arms of government.
This is a country in which investigative agencies, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Code of Conduct Bureau, and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) are operating for the first time in the history of their existence in line with the laws that have established them without the President saying, ‘arrest Mr. A, release Mr. B.’ So, we have an opposition that needs to know what opposition itself is. I guess Alhaji Lai Mohammed made a lot of sense. He was very graceful when he offered to train the PDP leaders in the area of public communication in opposition. But they turned down his offer.
They said they didn’t need it. But look at them, they are bungling it. They are not getting it right. Maybe it is time for them to really accept the offer Alhaji Mohammed made and see whether they can benefit from it because the country stands to benefit from an opposition that is competent, vibrant and able to keep the government of the day on its toes.
So, this administration has achieved so much. Perhaps, it has become necessary for these achievements to be trumpeted. Who doesn’t feel that the environment is more secure now than it was a few months ago?
You can look at what has happened in the power or energy sector, especially the issue of fuel. Look at what has happened about the state of crude oil; the export of Nigerian crude oil has grown. With the kind of efforts that President Buhari has put in place and with the international support his fight against crude oil theft is getting, the markets overseas are turning their back against stolen oil from Nigeria. So, increasingly now, there is no incentive for someone to steal crude oil from here. Even if they can, the challenge is where do they take it for sale? So, the country is gaining in so many ways that could not have been spoken in the duration of that speech that the President gave.
Apart from the issue of oil theft that has reduced, many manufacturing companies are complaining that their access to forex to import raw materials is a bit difficult. Has there been any effort to address this issue which has slowed down their production?
Let me say this, what did the government do through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)? You know that our earnings from crude oil have come down. The oil that was sold for $140 per barrel is down to between $40 and $50 per barrel. This means two-third of our earnings has been lost. We cannot continue to live a lifestyle that is no longer sustainable. Otherwise the economy would have crashed in the hands of government. President Buhari would not allow that to happen under his watch. What did they do?
They brought out a list of 150 items which they said we can do without. Government does not ban importation because we have our commitments and obligations under the World Trade Organization and all of that.
Therefore, they just limit it to things like toothpick and rice which we have in abundance. Rice is produced in many of our states: Niger, Kebbi, Sokoto, Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, Ebonyi, Osun. There are so many states producing rice. Yet, you are dumping on this country cheap import that is killing local production.
So, government is saying that if you must import those luxury items that are not necessary, go and source your foreign exchange through means other than the CBN. I was present when the President met the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). He said to them: if you have disagreements with what the CBN has done, go and sit down together and agree on those things that are essential for manufacturing, creating jobs, setting up of industries, and training, including school fees and medical treatment, the CBN will then ease it for you.
So, those people who are complaining don’t fall into the category of those who are in the productive sectors of the economy, who genuinely need foreign exchange for activities such as job creation, training, overseas education, medical services, spare parts acquisition, procurement of plants, equipment and all materials for the manufacture of basic goods. Under the new rules, all these things must be made easy for the Nigerian producer by the CBN.
It is certainly hurting certain sectors of the economy that are driven by luxury and unnecessary test which the economy cannot pay for, given that we have much reduced earnings than we have had in the past. You must then give credit to the President because at the time when oil price has crashed and the earnings have substantially come down, our foreign reserves are increasing because money is being used wisely.
The President has submitted the ministerial list to the National Assembly. Why did it take Mr President a long period of time before presenting the list, considering the calibre of people believed to have been showcased on the list?
As I speak to you now, no list has been released officially to the public, either by the President himself or the Senate. All names being bandied about, from our own point of view, they are speculations. Unless they are read on the floor of the Senate as coming from the President, we don’t consider these names as being authentic. Secondly, people, who say that it takes the President a long time because he has been looking for saints, are not being fair to him. Nothing like that comes from him.
The President was concerned about the systematic decay; the rottenness in the system which he inherited and didn’t want to build upon. He said it would have been a grave mistake to have appointed ministers two, three days or one week after he had taken over. That would have meant a continuation of business as usual and unacceptable foundation that he found in place.
The period of time was not used in looking for saints or people of high moral calibre. Probably, he is looking for such kind of people, but more importantly, he doesn’t want to operate a system in which revenues will be stolen and transferred to private pockets in either the crude oil sector or other revenue generating agencies that are allowed to keep accounts that they themselves don’t know how many existed. So, he is blocking all these leakages and trying to scrape the floor in order to make sure that if we are building something new, it must be something that would stand the test of time. We don’t have to build on the rotten foundation that was found in place. So, it is a cleansing process that takes more of this time than any other thing.
Why is the list coming in batches?
What is wrong with the list coming in batches? Let me be honest with you, in your own memory of this democracy, was there any President who gave you all the names of prospective ministers on day one? Former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’adua and Goodluck Jonathan – they all presented ministerial nomination in batches. So, President Buhari is not doing something that has not been done before.
The appointment of ministers itself is not just as easy as appointing a new head boy for a secondary school. There are so many interests to balance in addition to the kind of quality that would measure up to the high standard that he has set for the administration. There are equally other challenges.
Consultations need to be made with governors, who are very strong in their own states. Who would feel good if people, for instance, who worked against the interest of the party in the state come to Abuja and get ministerial appointment? They will not be happy back in their states. Some chieftains of the party have labored at the center. But people from somewhere else are being considered and seen. Who will be happy? So, all these interests must be balanced. I believe that that the President has been doing quite a lot of that. He is quite conscious of the sensitivities of the entire population. He is doing as much as he can to give that sense of belonging to every part of the country.
There is this perception that the permanent secretaries would be more powerful even when ministers are appointed. Are we expecting that situation?
In this country, we have always had a public service system. That is the backbone of administrations. This is a system that provides for continuity even when political leadership suffers a deficit or there is a break in that kind of leadership. It happened in the first republic when they carried the burden of the country and ensured that the young military officers, who took over, were well guided.
The country was back on the path of sanity. It doesn’t really help this country if this system is destroyed as we can now see greedy political elites that ran the system on the basis of self-interest rather than the interest of the nation. It is not President Buhari’s idea that he will create super permanent secretaries all over again.
But the system should be made to work. That is the reason why accountability broke down in the entire system. Looking at every ministry and their accounting methods, you don’t need external people to come and say the EFCC should come and tell ministry of labor or agriculture that there is wrongdoing. Internal mechanism has been built to stop wrongdoing. But the systems were not allowed to work.
This is the reason why we have found ourselves where we are today. Government revenues are generated. But instead of going into the coffers of government, they end up in private pockets of people because they are in position of authority in the country. So, I think what we are seeing is a revival of the system to ensure that it works for the country. The ministers will come and become political heads of their own ministries. They will exercise full authority.
Let me tell you, if you allow me speculate, I will say, perhaps, ministers under President Buhari will be the most powerful ministers this country has ever seen because he is not the one who will interfere in the day-to-day matters of government.
Quite unlike what obtained in the past, President Buhari would not shortlist contractors for ministers. His wife would not say this land should be given to anybody. He will not get involved in all these things. He will not have contractors fronting for him.
So, if the ministers follow due process, they will realize that Buhari is the leader that everyone would love to work with. But at the same time, they will also find that he has no tolerance for breaches of due process. If a minister comes in and starts looting money, President Buhari will know. You know that such minister will not last one day in office. Otherwise if they are doing the right thing, they will realize that he doesn’t stand in the way.
Are we going to have something like the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings, where contracts are awarded as was the case in the past?
I cannot tell you that now. Maybe when the cabinet is in place, the President will say this is how it would run. You know that this weekly meeting, which we had witnessed in this country, perhaps represents a feature of particular administration(s). President Barrack Obama had first meeting of his cabinet one year after he took office. If the president wants to direct any minister, he will do so and they will deal with it. So, wait for the cabinet to come and Buhari will set his own modus operandi. Will he do weekly cabinet meetings? I will not know this time. But change is happening all around. I won’t be surprised if there is a change in that regard.
Could you shed more light on what he meant when he said that ministers are noise makers?
That was a joke actually. You know Nigerians, like I keep saying, need to understand the kind of President that they have. President Buhari is a man with a lot of humor. There is no dull moment when you are around him. He likes to crack jokes, makes people laugh and relax. That is his style and you can’t change him. So, when he speaks like that, it evokes laughter all around and it eases tensions. He was also once a minister.
He was a very serious minister who was responsible for petroleum. He was committed to doing the job. I remember when they said the then Head of State, General Obasanjo called him and said “there is a war college admission for you in the United States of America, but I like the job you are doing. Would you like to continue as minister?” He said “no, Mr. President, my professional career is more important for me” So, he stopped being the oil minister and went to US War College.
So, like I said, there would be more of these things. Nigerians should begin to appreciate humor in public speaking by our own leaders. Elsewhere in America and other places, leaders are trained to imbibe humor. When he ran for presidency, Clinton hired humorists into his consultancy so that his speeches were laced with humor. President Bush himself, look at the way he made a joke of himself; that is President Buhari. Sometimes, he deprecates himself. He opens newspaper cartoons and looks at the caricature. He laughs at himself and says “look this newspaper, why did they draw my leg like this? Why did they do this to me? Am I the only thin person? So, Nigerians should get used to his sense of humor.
Why is the President insisting on handling the portfolio of Petroleum minister? Does it mean there’s no other Nigerian is competent to handle that portfolio?
I will speculate on two reasons. Besides the army in which he served and rose to the highest rank of a general and military head of state, the next sector which Buhari is knowledgeable about is the oil sector. Don’t forget that he built the country’s major refineries; Kaduna, Port Harcourt. He expanded Warri refinery and other major oil networks from the depots. This worked very well for the country.
So, he is knowledgeable in that sector. This country should not be denied his competence. This is an area which is the most important revenue earner for the country. Can we afford to joke with it as had happened in the past when unserious people were in charge? They were lifting crude oil to the high sea.
They changed shipping documents, went to different countries where they sold the crude and put the funds in the private accounts of some powerful Nigerians. His trademark is honesty. This is his biggest selling point. So, if Nigerians are assured that they have somebody in whose hands our money is saved, then that is a favor to the country. I see it as a sacrifice that he will be making to ensure that the sector runs well. For instance, when he initiated the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) as petroleum minister, it would have realized its full trails by 1990. As we speak now, they are the sixth. That is the vision that he set for that sector. So, I believe he is driven by passion to head that sector.
Wouldn’t it have been better to scout for someone else to handle the ministry, bearing in mind that the President would be overburdened by other state matters?
Yes, but if a system works even at the level of minister, there is so much that can be done by way of delegation. If you are talking about the system, it is a self-revolving mechanism. If it doesn’t work, a minister can also find out that there would be so much that he would be doing and he can’t get anything done in the end.
There would be a minister of state. I believe that the President is conscious of his responsibilities to the nation in all respects. He is the chief executive officer of the country. He will drive the country in line with his own vision.
Are we expecting any particular targets for the ministers in the Buhari administration?
I believe that they will be driven by targets. What are these targets? I don’t know. But I believe that the President will in due course determine the targets. But like he did with the insurgency war in the North-East, he didn’t just say go to work. He said this is what I want. Happily for the country, that vision is about being realized. We are almost there.
One of the issues in public discourse is probes. We learnt that the CBN, Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and other agencies of government would also face probe. What is the philosophy behind these probes without prosecutions?
Let me say that this is not a government of probes. To use the right word, what the president has ordered in these revenue generating agencies is audit so that their systems will be audited in order to see whether they are checking fraud leakages. This is to ensure that money is not being lost. This is coming from experience that he has gained over a period of time. You know that in the briefings that the ministries and departments gave to him throughout the period he painstakingly listened to them, no government agency came to him with up-to-date audited account because auditing is not being done.
It has been abandoned. Some ministries are back by up to four, five years in their own audit. So, what kind of system are we running? By the time they are bringing audited accounts to the National Assembly, they say they are four, five years old. How can you arrest wrongdoing? How can you fix it? The President wants a system in which due process lies at the heart of everything. Without a review of revenue expenditure and spending, you cannot know whether there is wrongdoing. So, it is audit that he has directed.
To say that no prosecutions have been made, I think that we have to check the records again. As we speak now, there are ongoing trials of high profile political actors in the country either by the EFCC or the Code of Conduct Bureau – the kind of trials that we have not witnessed in a very long time. It is very clear that the president has no intention to undermine those processes but allow them to run their full course. If you are speaking with the oil sector in mind, especially with regards to stolen crude oil and funds that have been taken, I listened when he was addressing this issue on a question by a journalist.
The processes involved require that we, the Nigerian government, establish prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. For instance, if ship ABC lifted crude at Warri terminal, and instead of taking it to London, it was diverted to maybe a Canadian country, there should be documents to indicate that after it was diverted the proceeds were taken to this account that belongs to a private Nigerian citizen or an international conglomerate and not the Nigerian government. This will require the cooperation of shipping companies, insurance companies and the cooperation of the banking systems in those countries; whether in China, the United States, UK or anywhere. It will also require the political backing of the leaders of these countries which we are beginning to now see. So, by the time these processes are completed, the President will now be certain that the proceeds of such practices would be repatriated to the country. That would be used as evidence for the prosecution of those people who have engaged in that illicit trade.
Don’t you see an impossible scenario?
Like he did say in that interview few days ago, he said that the prosecutions would begin very soon. He didn’t want to say more than that because he said disclosure would have effect of jeopardizing the progress that we are making in terms of those recoveries. So, we leave that to him. I believe that in due course, Nigerians will be satisfied that they have a government that will ensure that wrongdoing is checkmated. The major aspect of his speech at the United Nations was the advocacy he was making for the repatriation of stolen assets with the support of key players in the world.
This implies that the President is already looking beyond the shores of this country. He is taking his crusade on anti-corruption war to the international community. As a matter of fact, it was thought initially that the Nigerian government would be tabling a UN resolution in spite of the fact that there are so many UN resolutions that exist which should assist. But he wanted something more direct that would compel countries that harbor illicit assets of countries such as Nigeria to release them so that the assets would be brought back home for the purpose of development.
The Presidents addressed the UN General Assembly during his recent visit to the US. What would you consider as the major gains of that visit?
You know that the President was privileged to have addressed world leaders two times in that short visit. One, you know that the Millennium Development Goals had come to an end by 2015. They are being replaced by a new set of goals: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So, he had a first opportunity to address world leaders where he stated his vision for the country. In spite of the fact that those goals were clearly articulated, President Buhari saw the need for an addition to those goals which he laid to the international community. They do not have peace as one of those goals.
But coming from Nigeria which is engaging in a major war against extremism and other conflicts, he saw the need for the world to also include peace among the SDGs. He also had the chance to address the plenary of the General Assembly. As a President, who is loved by the entire world, this is the luck we have in Nigeria as a country because everyone wants to embrace him. If you see the long list of countries that have indicated interest to hold bilateral meetings with him, it was not humanly possible to take all the requests.
So, he chose carefully those that would balance the interest of Nigeria and our overall goals. These meetings were so many that he met virtually every leader who mattered on the planet. It is very important for Nigeria. Some of us have been around in this country when we were classified as a pariah nation. Nobody wanted to be seen talking to a Nigerian leader. But we have moved away from that. It is important that this country has achieved this milestone.
The President missed the meeting on the plight of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). He was also not among the world leaders that had this symbolic handshake with the Pope. What actually happened?
Beginning with the Pope, President Buhari arrived on time for all the engagements that he was involved. On Friday, September 25, in which His holiness, the Pope addressed the UN, President Buhari was in the room and listened to the Pope. We don’t know where the story that he was late, he was led to a wrong entrance or missed handshake, come from. As far as the Nigerian delegation is concerned, that story is a fairy tale. The President honored this country and his obligation as a leader by being present at the time when the Pope made his address. But beyond that, President Buhari did something that past Nigerian leaders did not do.
On the day he made his address, which was last Monday, he sat and listened to leaders of other countries who spoke before him, all of them. Even after he had delivered his speech, he was not in a hurry to leave as he was ready to listen to leaders of other countries as they spoke. That is a show of international statesmanship. On the issue of this meeting on Boko Haram, which a particular news medium has been harping upon, there is no evidence that the Nigerian government had been called to attend that meeting. We have challenged the news medium to produce evidence of such invitation. Who was it written to? Who was the recipient of that invitation? At what time was it sent?
Where was the invitation? It was not on the schedule of the Nigerian mission at all because we did not receive such invitation to attend the meeting. If we had, the President may not have attended, but a delegation would have been sent. I am not trying to underestimate the significance of any interaction, be it on Boko Haram or anything. But the UN events are in two categories. They are United Nations high level events which are put on a calendar by the secretary general. This meeting that is causing so much controversy is not among those meetings that are listed on the calendar of the UN. It was a side meeting.
There were so many other side meetings that were called by civil society groups or people with clout who think that the United Nations should get together because it is an important event that they can also bring. Therefore, to say that we missed a high level event is not true. It was not a high level event, neither was it a UN official event. Did we receive an invitation? We have received confirmation. I can copy your newspaper the list of all the invitations and engagements that the President received even before he left Nigeria for New York. That particular meeting was not listed. So, he could not have been absent at an event to which he had not been called. That is not to say that it didn’t matter.
It was a good initiative that people would come around the New York and discuss Boko Haram. But that is exactly what the President has been doing with all his engagements in New York. He had a long list. Some countries gave offers to assist, having dealt with or are dealing with such groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Al-Shaba in the Maghreb. They came and offered to share their experiences with President Buhari. So, he never failed to utilize the opportunities available to him, especially on Boko Haram which is his number one agenda.
Is the President worried about the instability in the Senate?
The President keeps saying that the structure of this democratic government rests on a tripod; the executive arm of government, the legislative arm and the judiciary. Given the constitution that we have, each arm is an independent unit that has powers of checks and balance over the others.
None of the three is allowed to interfere with the internal happening of the other. Surprisingly, until recently, people were accusing the President of being aloof to the happenings in the National Assembly, asking why he was not intervening. I have attended meetings where even governors were saying none of us could afford to have a Speaker who didn’t come from his pocket in their states. But the President said I am different. In my own case, I believe in the independence of each of the three arms of government. I will not meddle in what others are doing.
So, his attitude has remained like that. Therefore, he obviously wants a Senate he can work with and a House of Representatives that is in partnership with government. It is not all about personal interests.
But it is about this country Nigeria that has given the mandate to all those in positions to help the country out of its present predicament. So, he has said from day one that he is willing to work with the National Assembly. Whosoever happens to be their leaders, that is their own choice.