Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, spoke to newsmen on the defection of Senate President Bukola Saraki and other leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, presents the excerpts:
What will be your immediate reaction to the gale of defections in the APC? Was it an event you expected or did it take you by surprise?
I don’t think anybody who has been a close watcher or observer of this political landscape should be taken aback by the defections. I think that it even came so late, we shouldn’t be surprised. A Yoruba adage says, ‘If we build a house on spittle, the first fog will demolish it’. The foundation for what you see today was laid the day the Senate President forced himself on the party as Senate President.
That was the day the day the foundation for what you are witnessing today was laid because traditionally, it is the party’s prerogative to decide who becomes the presiding officers in the two houses. Here we were met with a fait accompli when Dr Bukola Saraki, against the wishes of the party, did the unthinkable by aligning with the opposition and making them an offer they could not refuse.
I can’t quite remember the number but in a situation whereby almost the entire 40 plus senators in PDP voted for him, he needed only a minority from the APC. We were all waiting for Mr. President to come and address us on this issue at the International Conference Centre, when when it was announced that he (Bukola) had emerged as the Senate President.
From that day, we know we had two problems. Number one we had a Senate President who imposed himself on the party; and to make it worse, as an insurance, he arranged for an opposition person to be Deputy Senate President, and that makes it impossible for us to remove him. ‘If you remove me, you are going to have a PDP Senate president’. I think from that day, we had a problem. I think this is not a surprise at all. Of course you could see the behaviour of the National Assembly since then. We have a National Assembly in which we had a clear majority in both houses but which treated the executive with contempt and which actually slowed down the work of government. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, our budgets were delayed. We can understand 2015 budget because we came in, in the middle of the year, but 2016, 2017, the earliest we got our budgets was June. Key appointments, nominations and confirmations for key organisations that could move the government forward like the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), like the Nigerial Deposit Insurance Corporation, were delayed. Really, it couldn’t had been worse if the PDP had a majority in the National Assembly.
Some are also blaming the APC for its refusal to zone those positions before and after the elections were won and lost. Some believe that those who are members of the APC today arranged with former Speaker Aminu Tambuwal to go against the party’s decision in 2011. You should have expected what happened in 2015.
It is not exactly the same thing. In 2011, there were two aspirants from the PDP. Each of them knew that they needed the opposition to emerge. So, the kind of horse-trading that took place in 2011 is normal in any democracy since the party did not succeed in getting one candidate. Now, when they approached us, we looked at the offer and we believed that the other party didn’t do as much. What we did in 2011 in helping him to come to power was a normal thing in democracy because once you don’t have absolute majority, you would need the support of the other smaller parties. And in 2011, we were the biggest minority in the House of Representatives.
The difference is this. Tambuwal did not destroy his party in the process. He didn’t offer Gbajabiamila, deputy speaker. That is the difference. I don’t know what took place in PDP then. In our own case, we tried to get all parties together. We called meetings which were boycotted by their group, and at the end of the day, when we realised this thing was getting so bad, Mr. President was to address all of us. We were waiting for Mr President to come with majority of our Senators there when it was announced. So it is not the same thing.
Is the government pushing for Saraki’s removal? I think the chairman of the party has spoken and he has asked him to resign. So, what is the difference between Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal’s defection in October 2014 and that of Saraki in 2018? Your party the APC, welcomed Tambuwal at the time?
You see in 2014, the political climate was completely different. By 2013, three major political parties and factions of two had collapsed into a new party. We had All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP), Congress for Political Change (CPC) and Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and a faction of All Progressive Congress that came together to become a new party. In 2014, there were internal wranglings within the PDP and they decided to defect to meet us in APC. Even now nobody is saying people can’t defect. Mr President said it that many of the people who defected did so for selfish purposes because many of them want to come back to the National Assembly. But many of them too when they were coming reached understanding with their local people as to the arrangement. You know a senator sometime represents up to eight local governments, sometimes 10; and there are some unwritten rules that if this side of the senatorial district produces a senator for four years, it has to go to the other side in another four years.
So many of them are facing re-election problem because they can’t go back to their constituency and say they want to run again. At the party level, they know themselves. If you are going to do a primary to be a senator and you have agreed that it has to come from Shomolu this time around and Mushin says it wants it, they will tell Mushin it can’t get it and they won’t vote for it. So, there are so many reasons some of them defected and probably they can get the ticket in another party. Defection is as old as politics itself, even in the First Republic.
The fundamental thing is that for us, it would have been better that they left mud, they have stifled this government for too long. When you are now being betrayed by your own party, it is more painful because we can’t fight back as much as we would want to fight back. I just want to establish that the foundation of what you are seeing today was laid as far back as the day he became Senate president.
The 2019 elections are close by, what would you tell Nigerians should make them renew your party’s tenancy?
You see, we have delivered all promises we made. We came in and we promised we were going to fight insecurity. At that time, the major threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria was the Boko Haram insurgency; and despite what anybody says, we have decimated Boko Haram. We brought Boko Haram under complete control because when we came in on May 29, 2015, 24 local governments in the North-East, an area three times the size of Lebanon, were under the effective control of Boko Haram. What this means is that they were running the administration. As a matter of fact, once we got to Maiduguri, that was the end of Bornu State. If you move outside, either to Kaure, Konduga or Bama, they were under the control of Boko Haram. By 2014, 2015, nobody in Abuja could sleep with their two eyes closed. They came and attacked ThisDay headquarters with casualties, they attacked the United Nations Headquarters. They attacked the office of the inspector-general of police, Nyanya park was bombed twice, they were active in Suleja, Kaduna, Sokoto, Plateau, Nasarrawa, Kogi. As a matter of fact, there was hardly any state in the North that Boko Haram was not operating. It was nipped in the bud in Kwara.
But today there is relative peace. We have been able to recover all territories and today no single inch of Nigerian territory is under the Boko Haram control. Yes, there have been suicide bombings, that is what terrorism is all about. A couple of weeks ago in the US, we saw terrorist attack. About a month or two months ago, we saw what happened in Texas. Terrorists killed many children. This is not a sign of renewed threat; rather, it is a sign of desperation and weakness.
Look at the regularity it used to occur and now, it is all about intelligence gathering. Yes you would talk about herdsmen-farmer clashes. Was it not something we inherited? The first farmers-herders’ clash was in 1947, even before Nigeria became independent, but over the years, we have been able to manage it. What has aggravated the farmers-herders’ clash today is the government’s position, its stand on fighting corruption.
We found out that in Benue State in particular some people facing corruption charges are the ones that have armed militia. Is it not interesting that Terkula that was arrested is actually a government appointee? And since his arrest, these killings have gone down. The suspects arrested for killing those priests were not Fulani herdsmen. They are militia men from Benue State. Now we have politicians who are afraid that if Buhari is reelected, they would end up in jail and they are now fuelling this herdsmen crisis, especially in Benue State.
What about Zamfara?
Zamfara is a very interesting state. It is a clear example that these killings are neither ethnic nor religious in nature. It is pure criminality because the cattle rustlers are Muslims and Fulanis themselves and the victims also are Muslim and Fulani. So how can you talk about ethnicity or religion here? The truth of the matter is that when there is trouble along the Sahel- Mali, Libya, Chad, Niger, you can just go across the border and buy AK-47 for about maybe $200. So these criminals are now very well armed, well equipped. It is about the economy, cattle rustling. Zamfara is a very good example that this thing is not religious, ditto in Kebbi. In Kebbi State, the governor said 70 per cent of all the inmates in Kebbi prisons are there because of farmers-herders’ clashes, yet the farmers in Kebbi are Muslims and Fulani and the herdsmen are Muslim Fulani.
There are other reasons, apart from sheer criminality and political instigation, which are even more genuine. What about demography? What about Climate Change?
Nigeria had 45 million people when we became independent in 1960. Today, we are 190m people. So, it is about struggle for resources. Secondly, Lake Chad was 25,000 sqm surface area in 1963. The same Lake Chad has shrunk today to 2,500 sqm yet Lake Chad was supporting 35 million lives from Nigeria, Central African Republic, Benin, Chad, Niger and Cameroun.
Those 35 million people were using that water to fish, farm and do irrigation. There used to be about 3000 different types of fish in Lake Chad, it has now shrunk to about 500. So, it is about resources that are dwindling combined with population explosion and of course criminality. The good thing is that we are looking at this problem in a more holistic manner than people want to know, and that is why Nigeria has hosted twice the Conference of Lake Chad Basin countries.
The only solution is to reflate the Lake and we are talking to all the countries. It is very expensive but it is the only way out. Until more water is brought back into the Lake Chad, we will continue to have this problem. When you look at farmer-herder’s crisis, it is not restricted to Nigeria, it is in Ghana, it is in Southern Sudan; it is in Kenya. The good thing is that while we are looking at the long term solution. We are also looking at the short-term solution, that is why we set up this quick response wing of the Air Force to tackle herdsmen-farmers’ clashes in Zamfara, Taraba and Benue State. The military has established two new Battalions in both Zamfara and Birnin Gwari in Kaduna. Just recently, 1000-combined force of security agencies are tackling the matter in Zamfara, and every day we are recording successes.
In Zamfara, one of the senators, accused the government of sponsoring the attacks. What is your reaction to that?
I would not know the validity of that allegation; it might be purely political and it might be real. It just confirms my position that in Benue State in particular that corrupt politicians who are facing trial are also aiding and abetting this. When you look at Benue State, this is a state where civil servants have not been paid any salary for 11 months. So, it is quite easy for the governor to focus people’s attention on the herdsmen-farmer crisis so that they would have no time to think about the fact that they have not been paid.
What future for the Kwara APC following the defection of Senate president, the governor and members of the national and state assemblies?
What we have today are some members of APC defecting to the PDP. I say some members because many members have refused to go, but we have gained more from those who say rather than stay in the same party with Bukola Saraki, they would rather come to APC. I was home last weekend primarily to reassure our people that there is no cause for alarm. I was amazed at the kind of reception I got. At the time I went home, Dr. Bukola Saraki was yet to announce his resignation from the party. As far as the people of Kwara State are concerned, it is as if finally, the state is being liberated. The excitement today in Kwara State is akin to how Nigeria felt on the eve of independence.
I have received and consulted with delegations. As a matter of fact, I am meeting on the 19th of this month (if it is convenient for me) with about 200 leaders of Kwara PDP ranging from former speaker in the Second Republic and community Leaders across the state. To answer your question, I think APC can only get stronger in Kwara State. People have forgotten that Saraki joined APC after the merger. The merger took place 21st of July 2013, they came in 2014 to join.
The moment he joined the APC, the former ACN, former ANPP, former CPC members who were in APC, many of them left APC because they could not be in the same camp with him. So what we are witnessing today in Kwara State is like a liberation; and from the support I have received so far including the entire leadership of the party led by the chairman, Akogun Oyedepo Iyiola who met with me and the national chairman with 17 other leaders including Professor Oba Abdulraheem, Senator S.S Ajibola, all the three senatorial district chairmen of the PDP in the state, gives me confidence that Saraki’s days in dominating Kwara politics are limited.
I also met with the 16 PDP candidates in the last local government elections in my home town in Oro on Monday, and those 16 candidates actually claimed they won the Local government elections; but something is clear, they changed the status quo. They had a rally on Wednesday in Ilorin and everywhere was locked down. You see, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Already from the back channel, some of the so-called defectors are reaching out to us. It is on record that some of them can’t go back to their constituencies in Kwara especially in Kwara North.
The truth of the matter is that the APC in Kwara today can only be stronger; the era of one man dominating the party is over. Kwarans, young and old, male and female are itching to take possession of the party, and I am very confident that we are going to rout him in the next election.
The Senate president said out of 200 appointments made, he and Dogara were not allotted anything. Tambuwal said he cannot find anything the Federal Government has done in his state.
How do you defend President Muhammadu Buhari on these allegations and do you see the President winning in Kano, Kwara, Sokoto, Benue states?
I think it is a blatant lie that Kwara State was not considered in appointments. There are 26 appointees to boards, parastatals, either as members or director-general to Kwara State and of these 26, I recommended only two. The other 24 were done by Dr. Bukola Saraki.
Who did you recommend?
The director-general of Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation NBC and the general manager of the National Theatre. We are not even talking about Ambassadorial posts which I absolutely had no input into. When I give you the list, you will know that all other appointees are his people.
In terms of development, the arterial road of Ilorin, Jebba, Mokwa, Birnin Gwari road is 80 per cent completed. It is one of the major roads that link the state. On the other hand, it is this same government that awarded the contract for Lokoja-Omu Aran-Ilorin road.
In terms of housing, we are building many two-bedroom houses in Ilorin. Again, in terms of appointment, one of the chairmen of parastatals is the out-gone chairman of APC, Ishola Balogun Fulani. So, it is a blatant lie.
On whether we can win in Sokoto, Kano and Kwara, people forget very easily that in 2014, in Lagos Buhari roundly defeated both Atiku and Kwankwaso at the primaries here. Now in Kano, any contest today between Buhari and anybody, Buhari is going to win. I am not in doubt about it.
In Sokoto 12 out of 30 House of Assembly members refused to go with Tambuwal. That is very significant. These include the deputy Governor, and you can see that the next day people went on the streets in Sokoto sweeping them out. Benue is dicey but people forget that it was Senator George Akume that brought Ortom. When the whole of the North-Central was in PDP, Akume fought and won election on the platform of APC. In Kwara, I am very confident. The only thing that can make us lose Kwara is if we don’t manage the situation well – ego and ambition and that is why the first thing I said was that I am not contesting for anything so that I can be a honest broker.
PDP is harvesting people from your party. What are you also doing to poach their members?
I have just told you now that I have harvested even without any struggle.
Still on Kwara some PDP members including the deputy chairman, former Deputy governor Joel Ogundeji, former Speaker Babatunde Mohammed, and even former Minister of National Planning welcomed Saraki and said they are ready to work with him, what do you make of that?
What is the electoral value of those people?
All politics is local. I watched them on television many of them look so terrified. They were even afraid they were being shown because these are the same people that have been talking to me. I don’t want to mention names. I laughed when I saw them because they were uncomfortable they were being televised.
We are very confident that we are going to win election in Kwara State because we have the numbers. Compare those people on television with the crowd that received me, the enthusiasm, the air of liberation. And let me tell you on record that the epicentre of liberation from Saraki is in Ilorin itself. As I speak to you, the PDP in his ward, Ajikobi, defected and I think by Monday or so, the entire Local Government in Ilorin West is going to defect. So where is his base?
Don’t be deceived. No matter how big a tree is, it can never make a forest, and the people of Kwara State are saying today no longer will anyone person have control of the political landscape.
Selective implementation of the anti-corruption fight?
This allegation of selective fight is not correct. The former governor of Plateau State who has been sentenced, was he not in ACN? You forget one thing that the executive is quite independent from the Judiciary, we can only prosecute, we can’t convict anybody. It is left for the court to convict. So this thing about once you become a member of APC, are free. Tell me one member of the APC whose prosecution has been stopped because he crossed over to APC. Those who have charges before the court, there is no way the executive can instruct the court to stop that case.
What do you say about the Police siege to the residence of the Senate President?
It was fake news, it didn’t happen. I called the IG and the Police PRO went on television that it was not true. In this age of fake news, you could manipulate picture in a manner that something that happened somewhere could be transported here.
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