In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ben Ezeamalu, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, spoke about his time as an opposition spokesperson, the war against insurgency, and the government’s proposed 2016 budget.
PREMIUM TIMES: For years, you served as the spokesperson for the opposition party. But now you’ve moved to become the spokesperson for the ruling party. What’s the major difference between the two positions?
Lai: Of course there are major differences. As the opposition’s spokesperson, you speak majorly for the opposition and you speak, also, within the information available to you. And you speak with the perspective of how you’ll do things better if you were there.
Now as the government spokesperson, you’ll be speaking not just for the government but the whole of the country. And you are expected to know everything about everything and whatever you say, the government could be held accountable to it. So it has its challenges. It could be quite exciting but it’s also full of challenges. In other words, you must at any given time be very abreast of the government’s policies, programmes, and you must be able to explain to the average Nigerian why things are being done in certain ways or why some things are not being done at all.
Yes, it’s a much more onerous responsibility in the sense that even the outside world will rely on you for information and news about your country. So it means then that you must know exactly how government works, what is happening, what are the reasons for what policies government is taking.
PT: But with you now being on the government side, when you look back to your days as the opposition spokesperson, do you feel there were things you unfairly criticized the then government for the way they handled them?
Lai: No, I don’t think so. Because I’ve gone back, we criticized based on information available to us. Even today I often revisit some of my positions. As at the time those issues were addressed, even with my position in government today, if the opposition today should raise the same issues, I wouldn’t fault them. Unless you can be specific and tell me that look ‘during Boko Haram you said this, today are you not saying a different thing?’ And you find out that there’s nothing I said all through my years on the position of Boko Haram that cannot be defended given circumstances on ground then.
PT: In your time as opposition spokesperson, you had people who admired the way you carried out your duties, as well as those who criticized them. Why is your party, the APC, finding it difficult to get your replacement?
Lai: Well, I think, on one hand, it’s flattering to hear that one is missed at his former position. Again, I believe that there are many Nigerians that can do better…
PT: (Cuts in) Like your deputy, Timi Frank?
Lai: …However, the fact of the matter is that positions in political parties are not usually on ‘merit.’ Or put this way, are not usually entirely on merit. There are other factors. They are not usually based on qualifications and, at times, it might be based on expediency or balancing. So it might be a bit difficult if you are now sourcing for your replacement. By the time you juggle the various political factors and all these things, you might not be able to find the right person.
Let me give you a practical example, and I want to look at it from this perspective. We have an 18 member National Working Committee, there are three from each geo-political zone. So if one resigns from one geo-political zone, because he has been a minister or a commissioner or he takes another political office, he must be replaced by somebody from that same geopolitical zone. You can see where the problem lies.
Yes, my deputy can act for me only until the next national convention of the party. But at that national convention of the party, my zone north-central, which is now left with only two members will expect that the next replacement must come from that zone. So that creates problems a bit.
Two, the occupier of the office also brings a few things to that office. And with all sense of humility, I think I’ve been in that office for quite a while. I was the pioneer national publicity secretary for the AC in 2006, in Benin, Edo State, I was elected. And for almost 10 years I held that office. So think it helped a lot. From the AC to the ACN and to APC. So whoever is going to succeed me may not necessarily have that kind of experience, but he could have some qualities that might even make him better.
PT: As spokesperson for then opposition party, a lot of people saw you as a Master of Propaganda. Some even said your first name ‘Lai’ was synonymous with ‘lie.’ How does it feel being seen in that light?
Lai: I think the democratization of the media space has brought a lot of changes, a lot of developments. Today you must have the capacity to absorb a lot of irritation. You must have the largeness of heart to tolerate a lot of insults. But the important thing is for you to remain focused. Most people react to you based on emotions. Because I’ve always challenged those who called me a propagandist to come out with just one of the thousands of press interventions I have made and say ‘this is propaganda,’ ‘this is not true.’ I’ve always challenged them.
PT: But the last time, you said the fuel scarcity would last for a “few days.” It ended up lasting for weeks…
Lai: No. Number one, I did not say that in my position as the spokesperson for the opposition, I said that as a minister. And what I said was that the payment would be made in a few days time and that will improve the situation. And the payment was actually made a few days after. And I’ve had occasions to explain to the world the complex issues surrounding fuel scarcity. The immediate cause was the fact that we owed marketers lot of arrears and we went to National Assembly and we asked for supplementary budget of N674 billion. Out of it, N532 billion was dedicated to payment of arrears. Nobody can deny these facts, they are there. You see, people react to you based on emotion. And the truth of the matter is that these arrears date back to August 2014. These facts are there but you see people can’t handle hard facts.
Two, I’ve explained that in addition to the backlog of payments which actually led to marketers to the fact that marketers refused to bring in products because banks also refused to extend their credit facility. We’ve always had challenges with the distribution network. We have 5,120 kilometres of pipeline, 24 depots, 21 pump stations, with this network we ought to not to have any problem with administration. But unfortunately the pipeline vandalization has rendered our pipeline networks ineffective. Before now if you are in Ilorin, Ibadan, Mosimi, Satellite, or Ore, you did not need to bring your tankers to Lagos to get products. But because these pipelines have been so vandalized, trucks from Ilorin, from Ibadan, from Mosimi, from Satellite are all now queueing up at the Atlas Cove jetty. It is only about a week or so ago we were able to secure the pipeline, that is the Atlas Cove, that you can see a lot of improvement.
Again, another factor why the queue has been lingering is that the tackney is not good for this kind of scarcity. Because as you approach the winter, most refineries in the world, they would have switched over to LP not PMS – they are approaching winter so they are now refining more of the heavy oil for the heaters and for the homes and they are refining less for PMS for automobiles.
Again, we need to address the issue of enforcement and implementation by the regulatory authorities like PPPRA and DPR.
So to go back, I did not say fuel queues will disappear in days. I said we’ll resolve the matter in a few days time. And we did. Because the budget was passed and we were able to pay all the arrears. But then it’s like resetting your television, it takes a while because it’s a chain of supply and distribution.
PT: On this issue of petrol, it appears the government is hell bent on removing fuel subsidy, but they don’t want to come out to say ‘we are removing fuel subsidy.’ They’ve used words like ‘price modulation’ and so on. Is the government going to remove fuel subsidy?
Lai: I think the president answered that question. That with the present price of crude today, the issue of subsidy does not even arise. Because the cost of crude is the major component in arriving at the cost of PMS, and as of today if the price of crude remains at under 40 ($40 per barrel), then you can sell petrol at N85, without any element of subsidy. Of course we are not praying that the price of crude will remain as low forever, but while that is happening, there are two things we need to do. First is to revamp our refineries, make them to work. If our refineries are working, no matter the cost of crude we will be able to sell at a much more competitive price because everyday 445,000 barrels of crude are allocated for domestic consumption. That’s about 60 percent of our total consumption, even if you use 40 million litre as the benchmark for daily consumption.
So we are going to do three things throughout this period. One, is to really get a realistic and accurate data of supply and distribution. Right now we are not comfortable with the 40 million litres that we were supposed to be consuming everyday. Two, within that period, ensure that our refineries are working optimally. Thirdly, clean up all the rent-seeking components in the template that is being used by the PPPRA at arriving at the landing cost of fuel. So that irrespective of whether the price of crude goes up or down, we’ll be… But I think the key really is, one, making sure that our refineries work. Two, all our pipelines are firmly secured. And thirdly, make sure that PPPRA, DPR, and other regulatory agencies also live up to their responsibilities.
PT: Will this government consider using groups like the OPC to help secure pipelines?
Lai: Well, I do not know. But what I can say is that when we were faced with these challenges, we turned to the Nigerian Corps of Army Engineers and I think we were quite satisfied with their performance.
Two, the Minister of State for Petroleum had also assured the nation that we are also going to look into more of high tech surveillance, rather than manual surveillance. 5,120 kilometres of pipeline is quite complex and long for you to manually monitor. But I think he also even spoke of drones being used to monitor these pipelines. But I think we’ll probably go the way most countries are going to, that is leveraging on technology to monitor pipelines.
PT: You held a press conference last month where you said the government had already met the December deadline on combating Boko Haram insurgency. Days later, the terrorists struck with series of suicide bombings. Do you still believe that the December deadline had been met?
Lai: I have no iota of doubt in my mind that government met the deadline. You see, at times, I’m worried and quite shaky by the sheer amount of deliberate distortion, mischief at times, at times even ignorance, by many commentators.
Number one, what did the government mean by meeting the deadline? What the government meant by meeting the deadline was that by December 31st, the Boko Haram insurgents would have been so decimated, they would have been so dispersed and so weakened that they would not be in control of any territory in Nigeria. Now cast your mind back to a year ago – where at least 30 local governments, 20 in Borno State, four in Adamawa, six in Yobe, and they were operating from Bauchi, Gombe on the side also – to today where they cannot say this local government is in the control of Boko Haram. They might be operating from one or two in Bornu, but it’s not the same as six months ago when they had their headquarters in Bama, and from Bama they were installing and removing Emirs, collecting taxes, dispensing justice in those areas where they are in control, to today. So when you look at that, you will understand what we mean by the army having met the deadline.
Two, I said clearly that meeting the deadline does not mean the end of Boko Haram attacks, not the end of suicide bombings, not the end of attacks on soft targets. Because these are not things you can stop overnight. But, Boko Haram today has lost the capacity to stage cavalry attacks like they used to do before. Before they marched into Abuja and blew up the United Nations building. Before, they went to the headquarters of the police, our barracks, and our garrisons. They’ve lost that capability and that capacity.
Now, as for the attacks on soft targets, no military in the world can secure all the soft targets – markets, parks, churches, mosques, cinemas, restaurants. Even France that officially has no insurgency, it’s security was humiliated a month and half ago by terrorists. Columbia that was supposed to have dealt with insurgency more than a decade ago still has occasional attacks by terrorists. You see what happened during Christmas does not take away from the fact that Boko Haram has been dealt with and decimated. I would have been more worried and concerned if for instance during this Christmas period, Boko Haram was able to retake one single square metre of territory from the Nigerian army. That is when I would have been worried. And like I explained to some of your colleagues, the fact that armed robbers ambushed you on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, does that mean that the armed robbers are in complete control of that road? These are cowardly attacks, and we expected it, that as the deadline approaches they want to prove to you that you have not succeeded. They want to prove to you that they are relevant. But these are cowardly attacks, like the one that was detected even by the civilian taskforce where on the Mawlid an-Nabi which is a religious day, for any Muslim what we do on the day of the Prophet’s birthday, we all go to the mosque and everybody will send food to mosque and then we all call children to eat.
Now when you decide to go and put IEDs in food flasks and you now take them to mosques, that is a cowardly attack. That does not mean that you are still relevant or you are in control.
That’s why I said I hope people will understand when this deadline was given, where we are today and let them make an informed judgment, hasn’t the army met its objective.
PT: As opposition spokesperson, you vehemently criticized the then government’s attempt at Internet surveillance/spying on citizens. Now that you are in charge, will you dismantle that?
Lai: You see, I want people to be specific. What we criticized was their engagement of an Israeli firm that will pry into my email and your email. We said no. And we don’t intend to do that now. We criticized specific attempts…
PT: (Cuts in) You don’t intend to do use a foreign firm to do that? What you criticized was the use of a foreign firm?
Lai: No. What we criticized was the attempt, whether it’s foreign or local. We said no. My privacy must be respected. And I’m saying we still stand by the same thing today and I’m not aware that this government is thinking of tampering with anybody’s privacy.
PT: Part of the issues we had during the previous government was a seeming disconnect between government policies and public perception. We had a recent example of that during the social media bill debate. Is there a possibility of re-inventing the National Orientation Agency to have more grassroots visibility, just like the MAMSER of those days?
Lai: I think the NOA would be the flagship this government is going to use to change, not just to popularize and make sure that the grassroots know government policies and their intentions which is what they do now. But even the government’s change mantra would leverage heavily on the NOA to re-orientate the way we do things. Fortunately, the structures are still there for the NOA. They have structures in each local government of the federation, but unfortunately they are very poorly funded. What we met were, in some of the local governments they did not even have a laptop. That particular agency would be revamped and would have to meet its mandate which is to bring to the grassroots information about government activities and also act as a vehicle to let the government know about the feelings of the people.
Today, I receive regular weekly reports from NOA as to how people perceive not just the policies of government, I receive from NOA on a weekly basis today the pulse of Nigerians about virtually every issue that has to do with the economy, policy, and social issues.
PT: In November last year, you came out to criticize the Nigerian Television Authority, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, News Agency of Nigeria, and other government owned media organizations for their “lack of profesionalism,” particularly the role they played in the run-up to the general elections. How are you going to ensure the independence of these government-owned media organizations?
Lai: I think I have said it several times. When I addressed the DGs of government owned media, that is NTA, Voice of Nigeria, FRCN, NAN, I told them very clearly that the opposition must be given equal access as the government in any of their medium. I told them very clearly that a situation where government owned media companies will see themselves as just giving bulletin about government would not work. And that many of them have lost credibility because of the way they carried about and that many of them are not viable today simply because they don’t have credibility. I told them that in this business content is key, content is king. That people will rush to where they can get credible information.
So it’s left for the opposition to take the gauntlet. Nobody today, either at the FRCN or NTA will have any reason not to allow the voice of the opposition to be heard. So let the opposition approach them, on programmes like Good Morning Nigeria. I was in opposition I went to NTA, on two or three occasions at least I was allowed to have my own say too there. So I think the ball is in the court of the opposition. But for me as minister, under my watch, by the grace of God, I will not allow the opposition to be shut out. And even in terms of survival of all these government-owned, that they must be credible, and they must become the first station of choice by everybody, including the opposition.
PT: Are you saying that even when these media are used by the opposition to consistently criticize the government, you are going to tolerate it?
Lai: If I don’t allow them to criticize me, how then do I know how to react to what the people feel about us. You see, if for instance, I say NTA, FRCN, NAN, VON, don’t take the views of the opposition, does that save me from the other media? Does that save me from the social media? For me, the way I look at these platforms, they are just platforms, available to everybody. Nigerians are not very stupid. They can know who is making sense and who is not making sense. For instance, I was reading one of these blogs today, a young man criticizing the budget. I was quite ashamed by the level of ignorance or mischief, I don’t know. Saying that why would the federal government allocate N39 billion to the Ministry of Information. I said these are the kind of critics, the kind of commentators that because they have a smart phone then they become experts.
Anybody who goes through the budget will know that my ministry have only N5.9 billion. The N39 billion he’s talking about refers to the salaries of all the workers in the ministry, which is not even domiciled in my ministry. And these are the people who are influencing the minds, so it’s important that we are not found missing also in any of these platforms. But I will not, no matter the reason, I’m not going to clamp down on the opposition’s use of government media as long as the editors use their sense of judgment and their editorial independence, that’s all that is important.
PT: On the budget issue, we are seeing that the present government is proposing to spend more on the State House than the previous government. A lot of people have criticized that, that it’s not the change they had expected.
Lai: You see, when you take issues out of context, it’s very misleading and very confusing. I heard the president, when they asked him about the cars he wanted to buy, the president made it clear that when he was given… the State House asked him to approve N400 million budget to replace his cars, that he told them that the vehicles he is using, they are the vehicles he has inherited from his predecessors were good enough. And he turned it down. He did not only save Nigeria N400 million, but I can tell you today that there is no minister who has been able to purchase new vehicles either. We all inherited the vehicles that our predecessors were using.
But I had the privilege and honour to have been appointed the chaperon to the Ghanaian president in the last ECOWAS 40th anniversary and meeting of Head of Governments. And as the chaperon, my duties included receiving the Ghanaian president at the airport, and seeing to his welfare all the time he was in Nigeria, ensuring that he does not get late to these meetings and the like. And I know that he was riding a Mercedes Benz which is the standard thing for heads of states. So like the president explained, the vehicles they were probably referring to were the vehicles they needed in the VIP Protocol Unit of the presidency. I can tell you one thing, no government in the history of Nigeria can be as prudent as this particular government. We do self-censoring ourselves. By the time this matte is going to be defended at the Senate, it will be clear what is, the cars you are referring to…
PT: I wasn’t talking about the cars. I was talking about the N18.1 billion State House feeding budget…
Lai: (Cuts in) Until and when this matter is defended, you will never be able to justify it one way or the other. You see, for those who have not been in government before, they don’t even understand the sheer number involved. Every minister for instance today, has a minimum of about six policemen and SSS – which we did not ask for, but were given to us. And we’ll have to be responsible for their maintenance also…
PT: (Cuts in) And you can’t review that? Cut down the number?
Lai: Well…. these are things many of us even want to reduce but they said security does not allow you to do so. But what I’m saying is that before people go to town making criticisms, let them… because this budget is a zero based budget. Which means you don’t just give a figure, if you say I need N10 million and you say I’m going to feed x number of people per day, x number of people at this cost, so let us see what exactly is the budget.
PT: Premium Times had done several stories about corruption in Radio Nigeria, especially the present Director General, Ladan Salihu. Is the government aware of that and is there any plan to investigate further?
Lai: Nobody has given me, as minister of information, any document as I’m speaking to you today. You can go and check your office. I don’t want to act on the basis of an online story. But there’s no petition on my table, with documentary evidence I can act on.
PT: Let me go back to the issue of Boko Haram, I know that the president spoke about not yet having any credible intelligence as it relates to the Chibok girls. So there is nothing?
Lai: I think the president was quite frank, he was forthright, and there’s nothing you can add to that. That does not mean the government has given up on the search but he was asked, you heard him, where they are… because we have been unable to even identify the authentic leadership of the Boko Haram, and he said that if today he identifies the authentic leadership of Boko Haram, he would give no condition, that he would negotiate with them unconditionally, just for the purpose of these Chibok girls. There’s nothing more I want to add to that.
PT: After the presidential media chat, a lot of people criticized the president on how he responded to questions about the continued arrest of former NSA, Sambo Dasuki, and the Biafra agitator, Nnamdi Kanu. Didn’t his response take us back to the military era?
Lai: Well, you see, I read it in a different light. My reading is that people are also not reading the real import of the president’s response. In the case of Dasuki, he was talking about human rights. Which one is more important? Is it the human right of one individual or the human of right of hundreds of thousands, millions of Nigerians. That’s the import. And I think that’s the conclusion many of you fail to arrive at. He said somebody gives approval to give another person N40 billion. That fellow is now before a court of law, and the lawyer says we want to know how you spent that N40 billion. This N40 billion was meant for purchase of arms, we found out that you had given the money for other things. In the process, many people, soldiers could not be provided for, many lost their lives in the process, many deserted in the process, we lost territories in the process. And you are now saying that that man should be given a bail, and if that guy is given a bail and he doesn’t come back, my case collapses. Now is that person’s human rights, is it bigger than the human rights of hundreds of thousands of people that have suffered. That’s what the president was saying.
PT: But he’s still presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Lai: I have asked you a question, you have not answered me. What is the end of justice? The end of justice is not just the jurisprudence, the end of justice is to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice. And the question you should ask yourself is that would there be a miscarriage of justice if one person who can explain how my own right, your own right was abridged, is allowed to escape justice? I’m not passing any judgment, I’m just saying that this is the import of what I read from Mr. President. That’s all I’m saying. Because we’ll reach different conclusions from the same thing but that’s my own conclusion. Will the end of justice be better served by giving him a bail? I might be wrong, but that’s my reading.
PT: Does the government have any plan to engage the Biafran agitators?
Lai: He said it, he said whatever is happening anywhere in Nigeria the government has an obligation to engage them. But you see, these issues have become so emotive and in the process we are often blinded by emotion. My personal opinion is that you can ask for your right, but you must ask for them within the context of the Constitution. Otherwise where my own rights stops might be where your own liberty begins. We can all make demands. Agitation in democracy is an accepted norm but it must be done within the Constitution and the legal framework of the country.
PT: The Information Ministry has been merged with that of Culture and Tourism. Do you have any specific plan on how to showcase Nigeria’s culture?
Lai: Of course, I do. You see, culture today has gone beyond showcasing. The world today has gone beyond showcasing of culture. What people do with their cultures today is that they turn their cultures into veritable ways to provide employment for their people. What people use culture to do today is to look at the cultural industry and leverage on them to create a viable economy. How do you do this? There is no community in Nigeria today that does not have a craft or cultural industry. It could be cloth, dye, fishing, drumming, pottery…. What I intend to do, and I have made my consultations, is to ensure that each state gives me at least 10 communities with their cultures and festivals, including the Federal Capital Territory. So I’m going to have a calendar of 365 festivals and cultural activities. So at least there will be one festival or cultural activity per day throughout the year. Do a compendium of that calendar and post it on the Internet, in our embassies and everywhere so if you are coming to Nigeria you’d know this is the festival I’m going to meet.
Two, on the back of that, I want to see how we can revive the cultural industries in those communities. In Ikorodu, for example, what are the cultural industries in Ikorodu. What are the crafts and arts that people use to make? Is it mats? Is it cloths? How can we help them to revive it? Fortunately, in this year’s budget, the government has made available about N500 billion which it called Social Interventions. How can these people be trained? How can they access this fund to start this kind of business. And I’ve been told that some of these businesses, you can start with as little as N20,000. Basket weaving, raffia mats weaving, you don’t need N10,000 to start this. And then create markets, enabling environment for them, get in every centre an auction centre, an exhibition centre. That is what we intend to do with our culture.