It is exactly one year since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Ahead of the official commemoration of his ascension to power, Buhari spoke with some journalists on the issues that have dominated his reign. Excerpts:
Looking at the last one year, how would you assess what has happened in terms of your expectations when you took office, the challenges you met and the progress made or lack of it?
I am sure you will recall that during our campaign, we identified three problems for our country. First was security — the situation especially in the North-East then. Second was the economy — unemployment; and third was corruption. I am sure you can recall that these were what we identified.
The third one was on corruption, I would speak about that in two days’ time (Sunday) and also on subsequent attempts to prosecute where we have found evidence; about where the monies have gone and the different banks either here or outside the country, we would let you know.
We know that your party did not support the idea of a national conference when it was held, but one year after, it is like the clamour is rising again, given some of the challenges such as security and the economy, and people say all these issues were addressed by the National Conference report. Would you have a rethink by going back to see what is good in that report?
No, I don’t want to tell different stories. I advised against the issue of national conference. You would recall that ASUU was on strike then for almost nine months. The teachers in tertiary institutions were on strike for more than a year, yet that government had about N9bn to organise that meeting [National Conference] and some [members] were complaining that they hadn’t even been paid. I never liked the priority of that government on that particular issue, because what it meant is that the discussions on what the National Assembly ought to do was more important than keeping our children in schools. That is why I haven’t even bothered to read it or ask for a briefing on it and I want it to go into the so-called archives.
The progress that has been made in the fight against Boko Haram is widely acknowledged not only in Nigeria but outside the country. But as we have made progress with Boko Haram, other serious security challenges have arisen. You have the issue of the herdsmen and the killings; you have the Niger Delta Avengers; the Biafra agitation; and incessant kidnapping. Can Nigeria’s security infrastructure deal with these multiple fronts that are opening up?
To speak in the order the question was asked, on the herdsmen, note that Gaddafi ruled Libya for 43 years. During his 43 years, Libya was a small country in terms of population, but very big in terms of resources. They have oil reserves, light crude like Nigeria’s crude. But he was quite generous to some of the countries in the Sahel. He took their young men and trained them. But unfortunately, he didn’t train them to become electricians or plumbers, bricklayers or mechanics. They were trained to shoot and kill. When that administration was removed, of course, those who removed it knew that he stabilised his country by using these people from the Sahel, so they pursued them and they went back home. You know what happened in Burkina Faso, Mali, and a few of them we believe are around the North-East. I am sure you know that here in Nigeria, our border with our northern neighbour, Niger, is at least 1,500km-long; it is such an open country that you cannot stop donkeys from crossing; you cannot stop camels neither can you stop people from crossing the borders. Only God can effectively guide these borders. So, some of them found their way here. Even on the recent herdsmen [killings], I asked one of the governors if the herdsmen were fighting perennially with the farmers and he said there was a difference, which means that these people were either hired to come and fight and worsen the ethnic relationship in Nigeria or they have no profession other than fighting for a fee. But these are just reports that still have to be confirmed later. So that is what I can answer about the herdsmen and I think the law enforcement agencies are working very hard to identify them. Now about the militants in the South-South: when we came in, I got one of the senior officers [in the army], a major-general, and asked him to revisit the agreement the late Yar’Adua signed with them. I said he should get a copy of the gazette so that we could see the agreement to know what stage we were in. I haven’t received a comprehensive report on that yet, but I believe the officer is working hard. I saw him responding to some of your colleagues [journalists] a couple of days ago in the papers. Meanwhile, I have told the military and law enforcement agencies that the promise this government took was that this country had to be secure before it could be effectively managed. So we can’t wait for that report before the military re-organises itself and secures the Niger Delta area. So I think very soon they would do some serious operations there. But for Biafra, those looking for Biafra have a tough job. A lot of them that have participated in the demonstrations were not born and didn’t know what people like us went through (fighting Biafra) by walking from the northern border to initially Abakiliki, then coming back and starting from Awka to Abagana and to Onitsha.We lost our friends and relatives; about two million Nigerians were killed. They thought it was a joke, so I think they have a problem. Kidnapping is a very serious thing because like the operations of the militants where they are destroying installations (in the Niger Delta) — I was going round the world telling people that we are going to secure Nigeria and by our performance in the North-East, they believe us and people are prepared to come and invest in Nigeria. But nobody would invest in an insecure environment. Those who had been in Nigeria for so many years can conduct feasibility studies. But why do they put money into paying militants or paying for corruption? This means with all the goodwill we are winning, we may not be able to benefit in the long run because of the kidnapping and the actions of the militants. So, it is a top priority for this government to address. Once we settle down to make sure that we deal with militants, we will deal with kidnappers also.
There have been so many pronouncements by your government that once the budget is passed and assented by you, that we would see progress in the economy. But even the budget assumptions today are threatened; from where do you expect to get your revenue to implement your projects and even the N500m needed for the palliatives? For instance, oil production has dropped to almost half due to militancy; even revenue coming from taxes is declining. How are you going to assure Nigerians that this budget, which the government is hinging its programmes on, is going to be implemented in such a way that it trickles down to the masses?
That is a major challenge for us. It is not going to be easy to complement the revenue as we promised in the budget. I think I mentioned initially that the market plummeted from an average of $100 per barrel for crude oil from 1999 to 2014, and suddenly went down to $30 per barrel and now it is between $40 and $50 per barrel. I was constrained to approach the Governor of the Central Bank to find out how we spend our foreign exchange. When he went and checked the records, he found out mostly that it was spent on food bills such as wheat, rice, flour, bread and toothpicks — Nigerians are so sophisticated that they only use Chinese toothpicks. I was shocked.
Looking at the anti-corruption fight by the EFCC and how the probe of the arms funds has shown that some of the funds were allocated to the PDP campaign. But your critics have accused you of probing the PDP campaign funds while not probing your own campaign funds and that you have people in your government that allegedly used state resources to sponsor your campaign. How will you explain this?
I don’t know whether I have some official protection. If I don’t have it, why haven’t you started the investigation?
…because the constitution gives you immunity?
I see, very good. But then, it doesn’t extend to all the executives and party leaders and the party leaders are there. If anybody has received $100m to give to the party, I think he should be asked to tell us where he got the $100m. I know those we would eventually successfully prosecute; they wouldn’t leave it, neither will they let their friends leave it. We do not believe if we were so reckless, we would get away with it. I don’t believe it. Do you remember the three and half years when I was in charge of the petroleum ministry, have you forgotten the $2.8bn (issue)? If you have forgotten, I haven’t. Have you forgotten the PTF [Petroleum Trust Fund]? In the PTF, at one stage, we had more than N53bn at a time, we planned and spent it. It was investigated subsequently. So I assure you that I feel perfectly safe. But nobody is perfect, only God is perfect. But let me tell you, from being governor of the six states (the old North-Eastern State), which was only for seven months, to the petroleum ministry, to Head of State, and to PTF, I tried not to expose myself, and I hope God will continue to help me.
You were a military Head of State; you contested elections several times, and became president last year. What are your thoughts on your administration in the last one year?
We came into power at a very difficult time. We discovered too late that we had put ourselves as a nation in a mono-economy, depending only on petroleum. From 1999 to 2013, the average cost of Nigeria crude oil per barrel was $100. Unfortunately, when we came in, it had reduced to an average of about only $30. We suddenly discovered that we are depending on petroleum; we import virtually everything, including food.
On the issue of insecurity, it was there during our campaign and we knew about it; we knew about the saboteurs in the South-South, and then the unemployment. We have a huge number of unemployed persons. I’m told the population of the unemployed youths is about 65 per cent. And for a country of our size, this is something for which we must be concerned. We campaigned on insecurity, unemployment, bribery and corruption, which have done much damage to this economy.
Nigeria is said to be difficult to govern. Did you find it to be so?
There are a lot of problems in the country. You have insurgency in the North-East. But how did Boko Haram start? If you could recall, it was like a group of political thugs, and along the line, a young charismatic leader called Mohammed Yusuf emerged. That young man assumed that reputation in the North-East because of the way he preached.
One afternoon, the group wanted to go and bury one of their own. Most of them were on motorcycles; some wore helmets and some did not. Then, there were the military patrol vehicles. The normal thing was for them to wear helmets, but the group had a way of wearing their headgears, which made it difficult to wear helmets. Instead of arresting them and taking them to court to pay a fine of some N250, the patrol team just shot six of them, hell was let loose. The situation went out of control for the police, and the military took over. Mohammed Yusuf went into hiding; the military looked for him, arrested and handed him over to the police, and he was murdered.
That’s why we now have Boko Haram. I know all these because I was once a governor in the North-East and I follow the political developments there closely. For unemployment, things became clearer and compounded when we became a mono-economy. We abandoned agriculture, left solid minerals, and everybody rushed to the town to get oil money. Now, we’ve found out that that oil money is not available. Then, corruption is what we are going through now. How can you take $2.1bn meant to fight insurgency and share among yourselves and think that nothing should happen? Not to talk of when political money is being raised for elections and the Central Bank, NNPC, Customs funds where the funds were collected from. We’ve made some progress in recovering this money. We’re giving the people the opportunity of fair trial. They take the money and pay into some persons’ accounts, and there are signatures of some persons who admit that they had taken the money. Somebody comes and calls another, saying, ‘you’re a member of this party?’ The other person responds by saying ‘Yes’. Then, he’s told, ‘take a N100m to go and keep,’ and the other person doesn’t ask any questions. You take N100m and disappear, and subsequently you complain that you have received money for doing nothing?
Considering the hike in the price of fuel and the devaluation of the Nigeria, which have led to hardship, what would you tell Nigerians to give them the hope that things will be better?
In 1984, we were advised to devalue the naira and withdraw subsidy, whatever their perception of subsidy was in Nigeria. We even had subsidy on flour. The IMF and World Bank talked about subsidy removal. My argument has been that those who devalue their currencies have developed economies, where there is local production and they export the excess. They have good infrastructure. So, they devalue their currencies to sell their products outside their shores, and employ their people.
We claim to import food, but this is a lie. People just take the money out of the country. How many factories have we built? So I refused to devalue the naira. They talk about petroleum subsidy. I say what do they mean by subsidy? They say Nigeria’s petroleum is so cheap that it encourages smuggling into our neighbouring countries: Cameroon, Chad, Niger. But I know the four refineries we built can produce 450,000 barrels, we have 20 depots… we didn’t borrow a kobo. So even if we put something on top and pay the cost of refining and travels to filling stations and small overhead, we’ll still be selling at a good price. But they say there’s a lot of smuggling. I said these countries where they claim petrol is being smuggled to, they can’t consume more than what one city in Nigeria does. I was asked how I knew, and I said, for three and a half years, I was Commissioner for Petroleum under Obasanjo. At the time I was removed, naira exchanged for $3. Now you need N350 to get a dollar! I challenged Nigerian economists to tell me what benefits Nigeria has earned from the devaluation so far. How many factories have we built by killing the naira? I had to reluctantly give up because the so-called Nigerian economists come and talk things to me, and when I raise issues, they talk over my head instead of inside my head. For us to lose over N300 (every year, we’re losing the value of the currency by N100), what for? Let them tell me how many factories they’ve built. I find myself in a very difficult state because the economists cannot tell me why we should continue to devalue our naira. People say import, and we find out that we are just importing food! We’re now planning to stop importation of rice, wheat, maize in three years’ time. On the value of the naira, I’m still agonising over it, that the naira should be reduced to such a disgraceful level over the last 30 years. I need to be educated on this. But I’m not ruling this country alone. I’m under pressure and we’ll see how we can accommodate the economists.
What are you thinking about privatisation of refineries?
I believe in privatisation, but I believe before you do it you have to look at your state of development as a nation. The first refinery in Port Harcourt was built to refine 60,000 barrels per day. It was upgraded to refine 100,000 barrels per day. Another one was in Port Harcourt to refine 150,000 barrels per day. So Port Harcourt alone has the capacity to refine 250,000 per day of Nigerian crude. So, you’re not importing anything. As Commissioner for Petroleum, I signed the contract for Warri to refine 100,000 barrels per day; Kaduna, 100,000 barrels per day. We laid pipelines up to Maiduguri, Gusau, all over the country. We took tankers off the road, and then some greedy people in this country took over and now all the refineries are not working. Nigeria has to go cap in hand, like a non-oil-producing country, and buy fuel and bring into Nigeria. With this background in mind, do you want us to privatise our infrastructure as scrap? So, we’re just starting to get them repaired. We want to make them work so that we don’t sell them as scrap. We can’t spend so much money to put up the refineries, just to sell them as scrap. I think that will be disservice to the country. Let’s repair them and negotiate to sell them at good prices. We don’t want them to dictate how much we sell fuel in this country after we’ve sold the refineries to private investors.
Are you satisfied with the performance of your team and do we expect changes?
I expect to hear from you. But look at what has been happening: after the election, I went to thank Jonathan for what he did — conceding defeat. A former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), told me he had an experience in handover and asked if he should advise me. I said, yes. He said committees in the ministries met and wrote handover notes and Obasanjo set up transition committees to work with each ministry and at the end, Obasanjo took whatever he wanted from the reports. I agreed. Jonathan agreed. When I came to sit down, Jonathan’s ministers complained, saying, ‘Why would Jonathan allow Buhari to take over government before he is sworn in’. They refused to cooperate. So I took over without knowing what Jonathan’s government contained.
After we were sworn in, I began to debrief the Permanent Secretaries, taking two ministries per day, to just try and find out what they had. They had 42 ministers; the economy had collapsed. We reduced 42 ministries to 24 and we had to ask some permanent secretaries to go on several grounds.
Note: This interview was sourced from one of the media organisations present at the event.