This story has been updated to reflect a change in the headline. The initial headline quoted the interviewee and Minister of Transportation, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, out of context. The error is regretted.
The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, served as the director-general of the Buhari/Osinbajo Campaign Organisation for the two successful presidential campaigns of President Muhammadu Buhri in 2015 and 2019. In this interview with Daily Trust, the former two-term governor of Rivers State spoke on what he feels are the major strides of the Buhari administration. He also spoke on the internal politics of the All Progressives Congress (APC) ahead of 2023 elections.
This government has some 21 months to leave office. As a key figure in the administration, what would you say will be your legacy?
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We are leaving quite a lot. When I talk to people, they mention railway, but I tell them to study the government to know that we have more than the railways.
The first legacy, as a former chairman of the Governors Forum, I want Nigerians to be honest; can you openly take money in this government? I am not saying whether we are corrupt or not. Let us assume we are corrupt, can you openly take money in this government? In the past governments, what happened? You can take money in the streets. Corruption was so pervasive that nobody was talking about it. It was not hidden that people completely and openly displayed their wealth. Most of those who did that had nothing to do to show for it. They did not have a carpentry shop, but they were billionaires. They did not hide it; but here, if you are stealing, it is done quietly. I am not saying it is good, it is a sin punishable. In the previous government you could steal and you won’t be caught. If you were caught, there won’t be consequences. But in this government, if you steal there are consequences.
The next legacy is that the Obodo-Bonny road will be completed next year, check the roads. I am from Rivers State. When we took over, it was just one bridge and it was awarded under Obasanjo. Rivers is an oil-producing state and there was nothing done. People will say the administration has done nothing; what about the roads, airport? When we came, the Port Harcourt airport was named the worst in the world, but he completed it. He completed the terminals in Kano and Lagos. What about the Kano-Kaduna road that is under construction and will be ready by 2022? What about Enugu-Onitsha, Port Harcourt-Enugu? What about power?
They blame us for insecurity, but they must not forget that the reason there is insecurity is that the economy does not empower Nigerians. As a governor, I would say that if a government can’t produce a legitimate economy, Nigerians will produce for themselves an illegitimate economy. People are poor.
I ask people if they honestly believe the President Buhari government brought poverty. It does not happen one day; it is a gradual process that cumulatively climaxed in our government. If anybody thinks he can solve it in a day, the person is joking. The next government will not solve it in their eight years. What people expected was for us to bring out the money to share, which was the norm before, but Buhari said “no, it is not sustainable.”
If we had a productive economy, the man is certainly sure that empowerment is far important than living on money given as a gift. That money will not sustain the person for a month, and when it finishes, the person will come back to the streets to beg again.
All the areas we are constructing railways, people are competing in the purchase of land because the value of land has increased. If Buhari has done nothing, he has improved the value of land in your village; the same with roads.
What the president is saying is: let us create infrastructure. The president would ask how we feel when we get to Cape Town. You will be ashamed being a Nigerian because the political elites have burnt our resources and not able to put infrastructures on ground. The only thing you will hear of Nigeria is that you should come to Abuja; that it is a fine city. But Abuja does not feed anybody. If we are not careful, we will be chased out of Abuja.
In the past, when I was the speaker and later, governor, I said we would wake up one day and the young boys we deprived would chase us out of town. How many big men are still living in their states? They have all run away. Everybody is here in Abuja, which is protected because the president is here. One day, the boys will be courageous and we will be on the run.
If we don’t follow what the president is saying by not only diversifying the economy but also putting the necessary infrastructures in place, there will be no need to stay together as Nigerians.
People are saying that secession is the problem, but it is not. There are two reasons for secession —economic deprivation and injustice. Did the injustice start from this government? I was there, so we need to address it.
The North has people who are deprived, just as the South is also deprived, as well as the westerners and easterners. I pray to the Nigerian elite that are leading this crisis of insurrection to be careful because the day the poor people of these regions come together as a people, all of us will run. They can try as much as possible to divide the country, but the day the poor men come together, we will run. They tie ethnicity to everything.
I am assessing what the president is doing through my ministry. I see him always asking me what I have done in Lagos-Ibadan and when I will finish it and not when I am going to do it in Kano. No, he is happy that I am working in Lagos because he knows that someone from Ogun, Lagos and Ibadan are all Nigerians, so the deaths of these Nigerians impact his emotions.
The reason we are hurrying up on this rail is due to the number of people we are losing on the Lagos-Ibadan road. The more we use the rail, the more we reduce the carnage we have on the road.
I will give an example, and I hope the president remembers it. When I went to him to say he should allow me to reconstruct Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, with a request for approval to build a narrow gauge line, he refused. He said I should do a standard gauge. He doesn’t want to see a narrow gauge anywhere in Nigeria. I had to plead that we didn’t have enough money and time. I doubt that we can raise N11.1billion from Lagos to Calabar and raise about N11bn to N14bn for Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. We can’t; let us be realistic. The difference is just few kilometres because one is 80 to 100 kilometres while the other is 120 kilometres. But the two perform the same function, aside the difference in speed. If the man who is in standard gauge gets to Maiduguri in two hours, the other one will get there in two hours, 50 minutes. So what is the difference?
I had to plead with the president before he said we would do two things – I should do the paperwork for the standard gauge and bring the narrow gauge and he would approve. But there would be no rehabilitation, instead it is total reconstruction.
I was also mindful that if I waited for the standard gauge, supposing it doesn’t pan out, people will not be happy, so I took a part of the standard gauge extension to Owerri and Yobe. Now we are taking it to Abakaliki and Enugu.
In case it takes time to get the loan or money to construct standard gauge to Maiduguri, at least there is something existing. When there was no standard gauge, there was a narrow gauge.
I used to convince the president that I am from Port Harcourt and should be the one complaining, but he would say he wants the standard gauge, after all, Lagos to Kano is standard gauge, central line is the same, so why should my people’s own be narrow gauge. But I was realistic for him to let me have something on ground that takes cargo or goods and people to Maiduguri. It is more than 1500 kilometres and close to 2,000; and it is the longest track in Nigeria.
You said that all the problems afflicting the country did not start from the Buhari administration, but people have the opinion that this government is the worst in terms of managing our diversity, which is fuelling ongoing agitations. What do you say to that?
I once told someone that politicians are not good people. When the British government was here, did Nigerians stop criticising them? The same thing we are doing. When Jonathan was here, we criticised him, so was Obasanjo. There is no government that comes that is not criticised. Be careful that we will not criticise the next administration when they come.
It doesn’t bother me. What I feel bothered about is: Can I sleep and feel satisfied that I have done something, such that when I die, my children will be very proud that their father contributed to the history of Nigeria? I think so.
When people tell me that I am doing well in railway, I tell them that is what they told me as the governor of Rivers State. Then another governor emerged and did not do anything and they joined him to say I did not do anything. Meanwhile, you are seeing the roads, bridges, power and peace when I was governor. Then somebody came and said I did nothing and they agreed. When people tell me, I tell them I am not encouraged by what they tell me I am doing in the railway sector because tomorrow, if the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrests me for stealing $1million, they will say I am a thief and did not do anything.
What guides me is that I can sleep well because my conscience tells me that I have done well. I go to Lagos now and hop into the train and they can’t say stop, the minister is coming.
Punctuality is the essence of economic growth. It affects everything in economics. If a man is going to Ibadan to catch up with a meeting he will get $2,000, then you delay him because you are waiting for a minister. If the people get angry and leave without him getting his money; he will curse the minister. But if the minister did not come by eight as stated that the train would leave, that is his problem. Where did that come from? It is a discipline from the Catholic Church, there is nothing like wait, the governor is coming. The mass at 9am will hold when it is time, if the governor comes late, he will wait outside.
As a key APC figure, would you tell us if there was a pact between President Buhari and the former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to hand over power to the latter?
I would not like to answer this question because I am neither Tinubu nor Buhari. I don’t know if they held a private meeting in that regard. As the director-general of APC Campaign Organisation, I never witnessed such decision.
Beyond being the director-general of the campaign organisation, I was the chairman of the Governors Forum. Most of the decisions on who would emerge as party chairman in 2014 were done by the forum, so I should know those ones. But if there was a private meeting between President Buhari and our leader, Tinubu, I wouldn’t know.
If it was a public APC meeting and I was not there, then something must be wrong. I was not told that there was an agreement that power should be handed over to Tinubu.
Would you run for presidency in 2023? There were reports that you attended a secret meeting in Taraba to kick-start your campaign.
I am a minister and I don’t want to get sacked until the president is satisfied that I should go. Anyone that said I was in Taraba for a meeting is lying. I got to Taraba by accident through a friend whose daughter was wedding. I went there and came back. Mischievously, one of the Nigerian newspapers wrote that I went for a political meeting. I like the way Muslims organise their weddings. Five minutes, it was over, 10 minutes we were eating and in 30 minutes, we were at the airport. How can a political meeting take place in 30 minutes? The event was so well organized. After the event, a vehicle took us back to the airport.
There are insinuations that the APC will not go beyond 2023 because it was brought together because of interest?
No problems, the next interest will bring us back together. The problem is that there are no strong political platforms for elections in Nigeria. You must deal with the issue of ideology, the same thing with the PDP. The party is a conglomeration of business people who wanted to capture power and get wealth and they produced a lot of Nigerian rich men through that. The APC is a conglomeration of Nigeria’s opposition group that wanted to capture power, they did that, so, why did you think it will not continue?
In Nigeria and most political platforms, it is interest that is permanent, not friendship. If the interest is that we must capture power, it has not waned. So I don’t see the APC disintegrating as a party. There will be cracks and disagreement but they will still be together until a time when Nigerians will say they no longer want us.
What are your plans for 2023?
I will sleep.
When you wake up after your sleep, what will happen?
I will do a PhD programme. I have a master’s degree and I am doing a Law programme at the Baze University, so when I wake up I will do my PhD to teach in a university.
By Suleiman A. Suleiman, Abdulaziz Abdulaziz & Faruk Shuaibu