In this interview with JOHN ALECHENU, National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, speaks about the challenges of managing the nation, President Buhari’s policies and other national issues. Excerpts
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party has accused your party of being responsible for its leadership crisis. How do you respond to this?
All I can say is that they cannot eat their cake and have it. When their factional chairman left us, they were celebrating, they were happy saying oh, we’ve got a big fish. Now that they see the kind of man he is, they are crying wolf. We have nothing to do with the travails of the PDP because in reality; we want a virile opposition. We want an opposition that is responsible, that has ideas to contribute. They have failed to do this so far. So, it is not of any value to us that they are heating up and that they are losing the little bit of the sense of direction they had left. They are just looking for a scape goat. We have absolutely no interest in what is going on in the PDP. If you recall, we once urged their members who were trooping into the APC -as soon as we won the election- to remain in their party to give us the kind of opposition that will strengthen our democracy. This shows we mean well for them. We asked them to go and re-engineer themselves and be as we were- a responsible opposition party. I just pray for them and hope that they will be able to rediscover themselves, to be able to start the process of rebuilding themselves. Maybe, it is even good that what is happening is happening, because it will give us the time to take the tough decisions that the country which they ruined requires.
The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, recently said the APC-led government has fulfilled its campaign promises to Nigerians. Is this the position of your party?
What we promised to do we are doing. I don’t think we ever promised that in the first two months; everything will be okay. If only because we did not also predict that the price of crude oil will collapse the way it has collapsed, neither were we aware that the resources of the nation were in fact, diverted for electioneering purposes to the extent that even our troops who were fighting life and death battles in the North East were being deprived of the resources needed to carry out their assignments. In fact, their (troops) lives were out at unacceptable risk. To come back to your question, what we promised to do was -to be honest with the people, to do things that will improve their lives in the long run and in the interim, to have a social net which is already going into operation. A lot of the things we promised, we are doing. We promised improved security in the North East, we’ve delivered on that. We promised a reshaping of the economy so that we can provide jobs, we are delivering on that. At present, the police is recruiting 10,000; there are also 500,000 teachers being recruited and the various other programmes are already in place to retrain and re-motivate youths to become self employed and of course, in the interim, they will get some payment that they can rely on whilst they are being retrained and reoriented. All these are going on.
Then there is the issue of the President’s foreign trips which has become a talking point among Nigerians …
Oh that. The President’s foreign trips have virtually locked down the construction of a new standard gauge railway system that will go all the way from Kano through Lagos to Calabar. Things are happening; it’s just that these things take time to mature and have the desired effect on individual lives within the society.
There are insinuations that the leadership of your party has preferred candidates for the Edo and Ondo states governorship primaries. Don’t you think this can lead to a loss of members?
No, no, no. The party does not have preferred candidates anywhere. We are not in the habit or in the trade of imposing candidates. We want to win elections and you can only win elections when you have popular candidates. We won the 2015 national elections because we had a popular candidate in the person of President Muhammadu Buhari. That is something that we want to replicate all over. That does not mean of course, that individuals, not the party, cannot have their preferences and give help to these people in what manner they consider fit so long as the party itself whether in the state, in a senatorial area or in a federal constituency, does not come out to say this is our anointed candidate. That will not happen, not under my watch.
The Federal Government has denied being selective in its fight against corruption, why has none of your members even at the state level been prosecuted?
Prosecution depends on evidence. Once there is evidence, if anyone has evidence, let him provide it. This generalised rumour is not basis for serious action of that type. And in any case, there are a few APC leaders who are being called to question. It is not as one sided as it seems and it is not something to be apologetic for. When the then National Security Adviser was disbursing funds from his Automated Teller Machine, he did not call an opposition person to say take money. So, it’s a natural course of events. This administration- if anybody can read; the President will not mind whose ox is gored so long as justice is done. It just happens that as at now, those whose hands are found in the till happen to be preponderantly in the PDP. But you can see that a lot of other investigations are ongoing and quite a few involve some APC leaders.
Can we have some names sir?
They are already in public domain and I’ m sure even your paper has published them.
It is not the same as hearing it from you; you may have more names than what is in the public domain.
Do your investigations.
It has been said that your party has no firm grip of its members- especially at the National Assembly. Why is this so?
We didn’t have time to really melt things together; that is one aspect. But the reality that everybody knows is that the party came together from three main parties and fractions of others with interests, differences in visions and perception, ambition and the rest of it and what we suffered, as serious as it was, was natural and we are getting out of it. The good thing is that, it has not hampered the operations of government. It has implications for the operations of the party which we are watching very closely, managing very closely and tying to make sure it does not cause serious disruption now or in the future to the party itself. It’s unfortunate but that is the situation and that is the reality and we are working within that confine.
A lot of Nigerians are unhappy with the way things are especially in the area of development. Do you think Nigerians are being too harsh in their judgement?
Yes, it is harsh. But it is understandable. Harsh because when you talk of power, everybody is aware of the activities of the so-called Nigeria Delta Avengers, everybody knows that the minute you cut off gas supply to the power plants, we have a problem that has prevented the stabilisation of the power sector. A lot of work has been done; consultations are going on. Apart from the presence of the military in the Niger Delta, consultations are going on behind the scenes. We hope that things will be brought under control speedily. Criticisms are there but we have always said, we empathise and regret the anguish that the general population- particularly those living at the margins are going through. Change is painful but at the end of it, everybody will be happier because we will have a stronger economy; an economy that is creating jobs, an economy where industry is getting back into its stride. We are going through this painful stride which is not being made easy by the fact that corruption is actively and massively fighting back. Not to mention the eruptions in the Niger Delta or the ones in the South East, all of which are still vestiges of corruption fighting back. But this is not a struggle that this nation can afford to lose; we must and cannot go back to business as usual.
Senator Dino Melaye said recently that the APC should be grateful that it didn’t lose the National Assembly leadership to the PDP instead of persecuting Saraki. Is the party grateful or still displeased with that development?
I think the thing that rankled us most was the election of Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President. Saraki is a member of the APC, much as the main line of the party would have wished a different result and a different scenario but we all find it very, very difficult to accept the emergence of a PDP person as his deputy.
The Federal Government has been investigating PDP over its campaign funds. How did the APC raise its Presidential campaign funds? Why is nobody investigating this?
That is not the issue. There is a great misunderstanding. We are not investigating PDP campaign funds. We are investigating records as to how public funds were hijacked for illegal purposes which were not budgeted for by the National Assembly. Nobody in business who contributed a lot of money has been dragged to any tribunal because he gave PDP funds. Public funds, public resources, money that belongs to you, me and the people of this country were stolen and diverted. Crude oil was being illegally sold to fund the campaigns and other political activities. Not just the campaigns, people just shared money and pocketed. It’s not company XYZ limited giving PDP X amount and about being dragged before EFCC, that is not what is going on. Anybody who steals from the treasury either to fund campaign, or to put in his pocket or to buy an estate in every part of the world would be asked questions. It must not be allowed. Nobody must be allowed to get away with that. It is not the same with campaign funding. We are not investigating PDP campaign funds.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed said recently that he spoke too much before the 2015 election and that the backlash he has been receiving was like paying the price. Did your party make too many promises?
What promises did we make? The President promised security; he promised the people jobs. He promised the people revitalisation of the economy and strongly promised the people the taming of corruption. A lot of things are under this and up till today, we still stand by this and we stand behind because these are the things he promised and he is determined to do them for the people. The results are already showing all over the place. The President did not make too many promises. A lot of other things people are saying are neither here nor there; people are saying things he never said. Things like: he will make the Naira equivalent to the Dollar; he never said things like that but people just manufacture and read what they want to read into these issues.
This brings us to issue of the fuel price. Remember during the campaigns, your candidate said there was no subsidy on petrol; that the whole thing was a sham. How come we now hear that subsidy has been removed?
When the President said there is was subsidy on fuel, all he was saying is that, the inefficiency of the system, the corruption of the system was being visited on the people and the government was being made to pay huge unacceptable sums that ended up in people’s pockets. If all these things are corrected, you will find that there is no subsidy in the real sense of the word. That was precisely what the President was saying; that is precisely what it has turned out to be. It is now being corrected and the price of fuel is beginning to drop gradually all over and there is no subsidy. The market forces will now determine just like what has happened in the Foreign Exchange Market in the last few days. Let demand and supply be the determinant of the price of anything whatsoever in the market.
During his time as governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola once said any serious government would fix the power situation in six months. With benefit of hindsight, was your party not unfair and unrealistic in its criticisms of Jonathan’s government?
We were not unfair. It was not just about Jonathan but the PDP as an institution. Sixteen years of the PDP administration and $18 billion was spent on the power sector, we haven’t got a single additional kilowatt of power. So, any such criticism is very, very deserving. Of course, in the interim, a lot of other issues like we discussed earlier, cropped up like the Niger Delta Avengers, otherwise, power was stabilising already but the minute the power station cannot get gas to power it, then you are in deep trouble and that is what is happening now. Otherwise, what he said was correct. We were firstly going to stabilise the system, strengthening the transmitting and distribution network, build captive power plants in areas of high intensive use like industries and so on, bringing on stream power stations that were virtually ready. Some were waiting for connection to the gas station, some were waiting for final installation of turbines that were imported and were already in the country. All of these were being done, then came the Niger Delta Avengers. You cannot but escape the impression that there is a powerful group intent on sabotaging. I want to assure them that they won’t succeed.
Your party also criticised the presidency under Jonathan for running the largest presidential air fleet and the APC promised to cut down on this. What have you been waiting for?
I think this has largely been cut down. Besides, I think they are even available for hire in case you want to use any of them (general laughter). Don’t forget, from the very first day, even the vehicles being used by Mr. President were exactly the same vehicles used by his predecessor.
Do you agree with those who say that APC’s popularity has waned because of the harsh economic reality Nigerians are facing since it took office?
All governments worldwide in between terms lose some degree of popularity; no question about that. We are having harsh economic times, no question about that and that does not increase the popularity of any government. It only diminishes it to some extent. What is different is that, in our case, in spite of the harsh economic realities, the people still have full confidence, trust. I think that is the proper word, in President Buhari, that he will do his very best to improve their lot and I think the proof of that was the reaction to the threatened strikes by the labour unions. You can see that even though people are unhappy, they refused to come out because they understood. They are in pain but they understood why the pain was there and they trusted the President that he was doing everything within his power to ameliorate their pain. So yes, there is a lot of grumbling all over the place, but also there is a lot of trust in Mr. President.
Your party is also having its internal crisis at some state chapters. States like Kano, Bayelsa, Kogi and the like, what happened to the various committees you set up to deal with these issues?
We are attending to each and every one of them. In virtually every case, we are making progress. Bayelsa should be concluded in a matter of weeks, Kano is basically a personality thing and we’ve got everybody to sheathe their swords for now. And I think that has happened. Kano has cooled off. We also have issues in Kogi State which we are also attending to. That is the only way you know a government that is in power. If we were in opposition, there won’t be skirmishes in these states because there would be nothing to skirmish over but since we are in power, people are still struggling for relative importance within the system with an eye on tomorrow. These things are normal, they are expected but we’ve developed that habit of democratic consultation and reconciliation and it is working.
Some have said the country would have been better if the President pursued other areas such as the economy with the same vigour he is pursuing anti-corruption. Don’t you agree?
The President is somebody who multi-tasks, he can work on different issues at the same time. The only difference is that corruption attracts headlines. Mr. X stole N20 billion, ha! Headlines, you people in the media make it headlines. When you hear that there is a project in XYZ place, you say, well, it’s one of those things and you give it small space but when a major elite is accused of stealing X amount of money, it is headlines. This has nothing to do with the importance which the President is giving to different issues that face the nation.