It has been very refreshing! I have been able to pick up some of the things I couldn’t really do much when I was in government. So, it has been a more spiritual and fulfilling life than when I was a public servant.
You got into the Presidency in 1999 as Senior Special Assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. You must have seen the reality of governance in Nigeria.
Our institutions are very weak! This is because the decision making process is dependent upon the individuals. This gives room for whimsical and capricious decisions. What the country needs to do is to strengthen the institutions so that the decision-making process would be less dependent upon the motion and the personal wishes of the occupants of the various positions, but will be more dependent upon due process and democratic decision.
Critics have assessed Obasanjo’s eight-year Presidency in pejorative terms…
It is too early to have an objective assessment of the Obasanjo administration. I think that his mistakes and the defects of the system are the things that loom large right now. As time goes on, it is possible that Nigerians have a broader perspective of some of the good things that he did.
What exactly was your schedule of duties as acting Chief of Staff to President Yar’adua?
It was to coordinate the activities in the Presidency. The office of the Chief of Staff is like a clearing house for the correspondence, activities and engagements of other ministries, departments and agencies for Mr. President. Also, when the President is taking decisions, it is the duty of the Chief of Staff to ensure speedy implementation of those decisions.
The scrapping of the office of Chief of Staff by President Yar’adua took many by surprise. Could you give an insight into why he took that decision?
You would recall that before the advent of the democratic government, we did not have the office of Chief of Staff. It was the creation of the Obasanjo administration and I think there was a feeling in some quarters that the office was too powerful and influential and later, there was a plan for the decision to revert to what used to be before 1999.
How powerful and influential was the office really?
It was merely a feeling. Maybe, some people were not comfortable with the role played by the office. In the American model which we more or less copy, the Chief of Staff is sometimes referred to as the alternate President because he has acquired enormous power in that system and I don’t think that Nigerians would be comfortable with the aggregation of such power in the hand of any other individual than Mr President himself.
Do you agree that the Nigeria’s democratic dispensation has not been so far fruitful?
The nation’s democracy is very rudimentary! A lot has to be done to strengthen it. Democracy goes beyond elections. It also involves checks and balances in the system, and for better or worse, we do have the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. So, the groundwork has been laid, but it has to be strengthened. This is a decision that has to be taken by every stakeholder in Nigeria that democracy is a frame of mind. It is an attitude of knowing that the people’s wish should be supreme. Until the political leaders accept this, we cannot have democracy.
How would you assess President Yar’adua government in the last two years?
I think I will speak as a one-time insider of Yar’adua government. The problems are enormous in Nigeria and some of them have to do with a backlog of problems we inherited in the past. The greatest problem is the weakness of the institutions. None of the nation’s institutions is worth being proud of. For instance, the Nigerian university system is gone today. The university system that produced me and where I worked in the 70’s and 80’s was much better than what we have today. Nothing would probably have given me the greater joy than to be able to go back to the university now to lecture, but it is not there. It is gone, and that is replicated in every bit of our life. The police are not equipped and the attitude of the men of the force is nothing to write home about. Also, if you are seriously ill and you go to the hospitals, God help you. The basic facilities are not there. So, there is almost systemic failure. This is not created by Yar’adua or Obasanjo. It is cumulative. Now, to revert that process requires herculean super-human efforts, and the leadership that we have at the moment is not up to the task. I am not talking about the President alone. I am talking about all of us who are in government. We have to change our attitude that leadership is a challenge, calling and responsibility. During Obasanjo administration, we had a bit of this with the injection of some people from outside who had gone to other established democracies and institutions and brought a different perspective to governance, but the collective leadership that we have in the country at the moment, I am afraid, is not up to the task of getting the country approaching the challenges that we have. There is so much finger-pointing and blame. It is very hypocritical! People criticise the PDP a lot, saying that the part is undemocratic. But who are those criticising it? Is the AC or the ANPP better? Although the PDP has its problems, there is no party which is better.
From the little time I spent with Yar’adua, I can say that he is very committed to Nigeria. He has a personal philosophy that makes him a good leader, but he needs a lot of help from his immediate lieutenants, the general leadership structure and the civil service hierarchy.
But now that some governors and politicians alike are canvassing for Yar’adua second term, do you think that he actually deserves it?
I think that is something that the nation would have to decide. What I would like to see is for us to evolve a system that can return power to the people so that the people’s vote counts and their opinion about whether Yar’adua deserves a second term or not would matter. Personally as a PDP leader, my inclination is yes; let the PDP rule for 50 years or more, but as a statesman and somebody who loves this country, and as an old man, what I would love to see happen is that everybody’s voice counts.
If Yar’dua accepts to run for a second term, what factors do you think might work against him?
I think you are asking for a more personal assessment than I am prepared to give. It depends on who is looking at those factors. If you are an ANPP or AC supporter, of course, you would prefer your own candidate and your decision would be based on where you are coming from. Equally, some of us in the PDP would tell you that our candidate is the best. One of the things that have bothered me really was the tragedy of the 2007 elections which is discredited generally. That has created all sorts of problems for Yar’adua. I knew upfront that Yar’adua would have won the election without any of those things that discredited his election.
From every objective analysis that we conducted, the PDP was in control of the country. Our support base was the biggest across the nation. We did more work so that if a free and fair election by any standard could have been conducted, Yar’adua would have won, but because of the Nigerian factor and things that had nothing to do with Yar’adua himself, the elections were undermined. Now, Yar’adua and his government are bearing the brunt of the discredit of the elections.