Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed in this interview during his visit to the headquarters of Media Trust Limited, said most of the signature projects of the federal government are ongoing despite funding shortfall from China. He also spoke on the double standards of some world leaders while reacting to protests in their countries as against the position they took during the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria. He said government will not directly involve itself in dialogue with bandits but will allow states to take decisions they felt could bring an end to the issue. Excerpt:
Your recent comment relating to the protest of truck drivers in Canada about the EndSARS protest attracted different reactions, why did you evoke the memory of the event?
What I want to point out is the double standard involved. I was not talking about the merits or demerits of suspending the operations of Twitter either, as I was dwelling on the EndSARS protest. What I was trying to derive at, which was largely misunderstood, was that when we had the EndSARS protest in Nigeria, which was largely a protest against police brutality, the way the Western world treated the government’s handling was different from the way they handled the invasion of the Capitol Hill or what is happening today in Canada.
You will recall that during the EndSARS protest, Canada, among other countries, lampooned the Nigerian government and said that we were curtailing freedom of association; that dispersing the protesters when they got violent was undemocratic. Twitter, in particular in Nigeria, not only supported the protest, but raised money for them.
But when a similar thing happened in the US, the same Twitter suspended the account of a sitting president and they labelled them insurrectionists and terrorists. The same thing happened in Nigeria.
Now, look at what happened in Canada, the truck drivers, they have a right to protest, but immediately they started the protest and they found out that the protest was going to inconvenience other people, the economy and threat to safety, the same Twitter suspended the accounts of the truck drivers. The platforms that they used to raise money were immediately frozen, as well as their accounts, after which the government declared a state of emergency. Note that in all these instances, not one life was lost before they took these actions.
In the case of Nigeria, we lost 37 policemen, six soldiers, 517 civilians, 81 warehouses were looted, 164 police vehicles were destroyed, 134 police stations were razed, 243 public and private buildings were burnt to the ground, 200 brand new vehicles belonging to the Lagos State Government were burnt. Yet, the verdict of the Western world was that Nigeria and the government had no right to disperse the protesters even when they went violent. It was this double standard that I was trying to draw the attention of Nigerians to. No country in the world will standby and allows protesters, in whatever form, to destroy its economy, unity or threaten security. That was the point I was making. I have no intention of evoking the wound of either Twitter or the issue of EndSARS.
Court cases of suspects involved in killings, especially in the case of Hanifa, often face issues of technicalities, what is the federal government doing to ensure swift justice for victims?
At times, something happens and we all feel very bad and want the government to react. Government at times will not react the way you want because there are rules and regulations. There are constitutional constraints sometimes. For instance, which court has jurisdiction over what matters; in some cases, it is the federal high court, some, state high court while others it is the magistrate’s court. If you do not follow those regulations, you will end up having whatever decision or judgement in your hand.
I think it is clear the federal government condemned the act immediately. Do not forget, this is not a federal case as it did not happen within the jurisdiction of the federal government, but the state, so we have to allow the rule of law to take place. But clearly, the federal government condemns such things.
Part of what we can do at the federal government level is largely on policy and advocacy, which is why we decided that one of the first things we are going to do when we find these ritual killings going out of proportion is to start advocacy campaigns by asking the support of the media to join us.
On our own, we have asked the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to liaise with traditional rulers, NGOs and religious leaders to bring up a campaign to nip this scourge in the bud. Don’t forget that the NOA is present in each of the 774 local government areas of the country. They are better suited to lead this campaign because every day they meet traditional rulers, market women and religious leaders. That is why we put that advocacy and assignment in their laps.
Of course, we also know that the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) has the responsibility to look at every film; whether it is wholesome or not. We have drawn their attention to that. More importantly, we have asked them to engage the major stakeholders in the film industry; the producers, directors and writers to see what damage this is doing.
You mentioned that NOA is in the best position to sensitise Nigerians to counter ritual killings, but the agency has been in comatose for a while now, do you intend to revive its activities?
Regrettably, many people are very ignorant of what NOA is doing, extremely ignorant, but if not for NOA, the situation we face could have been much more explosive. I receive, every two weeks, the daily report of activities of NOA and you will be amazed to see what they delve into, including raising alarm in the price of onion, pepper, because these are things that people do not know will easily cause riots.
NOA works closely with traditional rulers and religious leaders in their domains, but they are not supposed to announce their effort. They send their reports to various agents of the government to take note. Cases of ritual murder, people fighting over land, you will be surprised that most of the boundary disputes have been waded into by NOA and prevented them from flaring up and becoming something serious. They are supposed to educate people, reorient them and at the same time prevent issues from snowballing into unmanageable proportions.
The police and the National Drug law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) recently engaged in a spat when the suspended Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Abba Kyari, was accused of engaging in drug trafficking, with claims of cover up, how do you think government can ensure synergy among security agencies in fighting crime?
I look at it from a different perspective. I look at it from the perspective of a government that is working, that the NDLEA and the police can cooperate to bring in senior police officers who are suspected of alleged crimes. For me, I think it is commendable, otherwise, given the calibre of people involved, it would have been swept under the carpet. What I think we should all do is to wait for what happens next. NDLEA has its own mandate and the police have their own, but you can see the two of them working together to ensure they get to the bottom of this matter.
The minister of transportation disclosed that the government is searching for a new country that will lend Nigeria money to finance some of its projects when China stopped giving us loans; how did we get into that situation?
When we started, we found the Chinese government more willing and their terms were much more acceptable and the speed with which the loans were completed and the speed with which we started working were good. Unfortunately, along the line, I can remember the minister of transportation complaining that the entire world takes its cue from what Nigerians say about their government. The issue of reports that the government will soon go bankrupt, I think made them stop. Yes, we are not getting the loans again as we would have wanted. What we have done is that we now go to other sources and also try to raise these funds from within. What we are using now for the Kaduna-Kano rail is actually money from our own budgetary provision, but we are very confident that we will get enough funding to execute this project.
When your lenders are difficult, there is little you can do than to ensure you look for other sources to fund your project. We have not abandoned any particular project because of that, the one we are still working with the Portuguese company; that is the Kano-Katsina-Maradi rail, is still on course.
Yes, we have problems with funding with the Chinese, but we have tried to look for other sources both locally and from outside to complete the projects. These projects are signature projects for the government and they will really not only improve the infrastructure ecosystem but create jobs and wealth.
The issue of press regulation has led to court cases between the federal government and media stakeholders, why can the government not look for a middle ground to resolve the issue and other brewing issues in the media?
What I did recently was that I called the major stakeholders to allow us resolve this matter as it has been in court for so long. At the end of the day, whether judgement is in our favour or their favour, we still have to work together. I must say that I have not succeeded as I expected, but I have not given up, and I have started the conversation.
Nigerians had hoped that the coming of the present administration would solve some persistent problems in the country like fuel scarcity and power, but seven years down the line, these problems are far from being resolved; what did the government get wrong along the way?
I want to ask, between 2015 and today, how many times have we had fuel scarcity or even the incident of bad fuel? This is the first time; the government does not import fuel and the NNPC has tried to explain what happened this time around as other efforts are being made to ensure that the scarcity challenges are overcome. But it is a pity that you run a government for seven years, not once was there fuel scarcity or imported bad fuel, but the first time it happened, we are not spared, that is the burden if running a government. We are not saying we should be spared, but what we assure is that we will get to the bottom of the matter to make sure that it does not repeat itself.
More importantly, we are now importing daily for more fuel. But in all this, what would have happened if we had our own refinery. I am not blaming any administration for where we are.
Nigerians have forgotten that by the time this government came in, power generation and distribution had been privatised. The federal government does not generate power or distribute it. It is only the transmission it holds onto. I know as a government how much we have put in to stabilise distribution and transmission. We are doing very well in this process because there was a time that the entire thing collapsed.
For instance, people say power generation has gone down, but the government does not generate power, because it had been given to the private sector before we came in. The only supervisory role we have is the agency that supervises the DisCos and GenCos.
Please, we are doing our best, including improving the transmission. The truth of the matter is that today, we have an installed capacity of 12,500, but what actually gets to the houses is much less than 5,000 megawatts. That is because we have a very poor transmission infrastructure and the federal government recently waded in to improve transmission by having portable transmission stations to improve on our transmission.
It is not as if we inherited a very robust power situation, it is not like 20 years ago when we had NEPA, ECN and you could blame the government on generation and distribution. It is now largely privatised. Also, this government has gone out of its way to ensure better distribution of power by providing loans to DisCos. I know there is a N902bn facility that was made available to DisCos. We have also restructured the DisCos in the manner that when they make their money, they will first pay for generation and transmission before they are allowed to take any money out. We are doing a lot to turn around the power situation, and very soon we will see the result.
The president’s refusal to sign the Electoral Bill into law is generating a lot of comments, among which is that the general elections in 2023 may not hold as announced by INEC. Are we going to see his signature anytime soon for adequate preparation for the elections?
What I can assure you is that there will be elections in 2023 and a new person will come in. As for the Electoral Bill, the president looked at it and saw certain aspects that will likely cause a lot of confusion and he sent it back to the National Assembly and the assembly made a counter offer. I think we should allow Mr President time to study it, but I can assure you that there will be no constitutional crises of any sort.
There are killings in the country daily, with the military doing its best, what other measures is the federal government making to bring solve the insecurity in the country?
It is a pity that the federal government is being lampooned for the insecurity of the country. Of course it is our responsibility, but a lot of the problems stem from lack of governance, especially at the subnational level. I am not trying to criticise either states or local governments, but I am saying that if there is more presence of government in the rural areas and the states, I think it will also be a way to address the non-kinetic aspect of addressing the banditry issue and that of Boko Haram.
On the effort of the federal government, when you talk about Boko Haram, when we came in, about 13 local governments in Borno State alone, out of 20, were under the complete control of Boko Haram. In the North East, most schools and hospitals were closed. But today, we have occasional forage from the Lake Chad fringes. This is not what it used to be before. Not to forget that Boko Haram was very active in other states like Adamawa, Yobe and Kano, but it is all a thing of the past.
In the area of banditry, Nigerians have forgotten that banditry is not a new phenomenon. The first reported case of banditry was in 1891. Unfortunately, it goes to the issue of deepening governance in the rural areas and states. If we do that, I am sure we will buy less bullets and be able to address the issue.
When we look at the issue of out-of-school-children, I think there are supposed to be more than 10 million children who should be in school, but out, it is contributing immensely to the insecurity in the country because this is where the pool from which terrorists actually fish their adherents. That was why I said it is not just a matter of just bullets but of you having good governance, education and health care system and people employed. But when we talk about employment, they all look at the federal government. No, the federal government cannot alone employ, let the states also tell us how many people they have employed.
If there is an enabling environment, which the federal government has done all through by creating fiscal and monetary policies for industries to grow; if we focus on the employment responsibility of the federal government alone, employment opportunities won’t be much.
However, we have done our part with N-Power that has employed almost a million people, the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) is catering for about half a million people who receive stipends every month from the government. The one meal a day programme is also catering for about 12 million pupils, and this has really increased school enrolment in many areas. These are the federal government’s initiatives and we need them to be complemented by the other strata of government.
I am not criticising state or local governments, but I am saying their support will help, because at the end of the day, governance is local. There is very little we can do from Abuja and can’t wipe out unemployment in the states. You need the cooperation of states and that of local governments.
That was why the president signed the Executive Order 10 which gives autonomy for state legislature, judiciary and local government. It has been found out that many times, funds for local governments do not reach them, and part of the mischief that the order was to cure was; if it is found out that the previous month, money meant for local governments was not given, it would be deducted from allocation of the present month of the state. Regrettably, it was struck down by the Supreme Court as an overreach. But you can see that the federal government is concerned that governance should penetrate down.
Some bandits have expressed willingness to dialogue with government, will the government dialogue with them?
Dealing with bandits is a very complex issue. Remember that many of the governors agreed at the beginning to interact with the bandits but they went back and became more vicious. Sometimes, they will agree that if they are given an amount of money, they will stop, but when they are given, they will use it to buy arms and ammunition.
I think we should leave it to individual state governments to decide on whether they are going to enter into any agreement with bandits or not. The federal government cannot decree by fiat. Unknown to many people, there are lots of things going on behind the scenes where bandits are surrendering. If you look at Boko Haram, I think about 3,000 adherents have surrendered in Borno State. Some we make public, but especially their leaders, we don’t make public, because if you make that public it will lead to mutiny within the leadership of the terrorists or bandits. We are doing everything to bring these things under control.
The federal government recently tagged bandits as terrorists, will that change anything in the fight against them?
When I was drawn into this controversy, I said whether it is a terrorist or a bandit, you do not spare any of them. But I think when you now term them terrorists, it gives they military and the security authorities more latitude on how to deal with them. It is just like when students are protesting, you have to handle it with a kind of care and not using live ammunition and things like that.
If they remain bandits, there will be a lot of restraint on the part of the police and the military, but when they become terrorists, then there will be less restraint. I think that has helped a lot. Even some of the platforms the air force has acquired, before they could not use it against ordinary bandits, but now that they have been declared terrorists, they can use them (platforms) against them. That is why you can see improvements in the fight against bandits.