The Action Congress of Nigeria spokesperson, Lai Mohammed, spoke to PREMIUM TIMES.
In an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Lai Mohammed, spokesperson for the Action Congress of Nigeria, sheds light on his party’s merger into All Progressives Congress, President Goodluck Jonathan’s recent visit to Lagos, and his likely role in the new party.
PT: How is life after acting as the ACN spokesperson?
LM: I think we must correct the impression, ACN is still very much alive, ACN is not dead. What happened on Thursday, which was a special convention called to start a special revolution that ACN should join the merger group, was a necessary step for any party that wants to merge with another party. Section 84 of the Electoral Act states that two or more parties that want to merge must inform INEC of their intention to merge. That must come in a form of a written request which must be accompanied by the special resolution of that party at a special convention which must be witnessed and observed by INEC. After Thursday, ACN will now write a letter signed by the National Secretary, National Chairman, National Treasurer, attaching a copy of that resolution, the logo, the constitution, the manifesto of the All Progressives Congress to INEC. CPC, ANPP will also have to hold similar conventions as we held, will also have to write similar letters as we are writing to INEC. And within a month of INEC receiving the last letter, it must make a decision one way or the other to say ‘yes, we have approved the merger, or we have not.’ If we hear nothing from INEC within one month of our letter, we will deem that the merger has succeeded.
Therefore, as at today, ACN remains alive. The moment that INEC approves our letter, then they withdraw our certificate of registration as ACN, withdraw that of CPC, withdraw that of ANPP, and replace it with APC. As at today until probably the next one month or so, ACN will continue to function as ACN.
PT: How many parties are actually involved in this mega party?
LM: There are many parties involved, but because of the various factions within the other parties, only ACN, ANPP, and CPC can meet the electoral requirements of going for a convention at which their resolutions will be passed. And only those three political parties would end up losing their own original identities to become APC. A faction of APGA is involved, so also is a faction of DPP and many other groups. And also a lot of political associations that are not parties like the PDM who have also expressed interest.
PT: Assuming INEC finally approves the merger, do you think the issue of power sharing among parties might be a problem in the future?
LM: If you look at what has fired the imagination of the promoters of the APC, it is very clear. It is a mission to rescue Nigeria…. Let’s roll back the years a bit. 1999, we were having three political parties in Nigeria. There was AD, there was APP, before it became ANPP, and there was also PDP. 1999 elections, AD won six states, ANPP nine, and the rest was won by PDP. But come 2003, AD lost five of the six states, ANPP lost two. By 2007, ANPP further lost another two of its states, and then new arrivals like PPA and APGA, PPA had two states, ACN had only one state, but it took the courts to restore our mandate in Edo and Osun. If you look at this trajectory, you would see that opposition parties, either individually or together, were getting defeated by the day. It was only ACN, out of strength or conviction that was able to overcome in 2007 and 2011. By 2011, ACN won from one state to six states, ANPP won from five states to three states, PPA won from two states to one. So it’s clear that unless we come together, the hope of dislodging PDP would be real. People have said that APC are going to fight over position sharing, even the success we have achieved so far, for us, it has been quite amazing. We didn’t open serious talks until probably the first week of February. And between then and today, we have been able to achieve commonly: a logo, a constitution, a manifesto. It will not be difficult to achieve the ultimate goal of APC. And I must let you know that we all got to those negotiations without any conditionality at all. At the merger talks, there were no senior parties, there were no junior parties. Every party has equal representation at the merger committee except those who are coming as factions or groups or political associations.
People have asked me: Why do you think the merger is going to work? Two reasons, it’s for the survival of the individual parties themselves. And what is happening is akin to what we witnessed in the last couple of years in Nigeria in the banking industry…. The beauty of it all is that at the end of the day nobody lost his investment, they became part of a bigger and stronger bank.
PT: Will parties with higher number of governors and National Assembly members lead the way in the merger?
LM: Absolutely incorrect. I’m a member of the merger committee, and at no point in our discussions that that has ever been an issue. Like I explained to you, we have about 23 members from ACN, CPC, ANPP and APGA, and I think a smaller number from the political associations in that committee. We have five co-chairmen, one from ACN, one from ANPP, one from APGA, one from CPC, and one from DPP. When we set up committees on constitution, manifesto, publicity, INEC and constitutional requirements, we asked every party to bring five members each. When we had that constitution and that manifesto, copies were made available to every member to go and give back to its own committee of their party and go through and return to the merger committee. When they were returned, a harmonization committee made up of equal numbers from all the parties was set up. So I did not see in this arrangement so far how a particular party can be able to dominate.
PT: The crisis in APGA should be a source of worry to the mega party because a unified APGA would make a stronger APC. Has the mega party tried to wade into the crisis?
LM: I do not see the crisis in APGA being a threat in any way to the merger. It is people that make up political parties. If we have followers mainly of Governor Okorocha who is coming to join us, why should we go and intervene? We don’t need to have everybody in the alliance. We are not asking for a one party state. We sincerely hope that APGA will be able to resolve its internal crisis. But as far as the merger is concerned, it’s neither here nor there. If it is resolved and the entire APGA decides to come to the merger, better for us. But if it’s still the way it is, I think we are quite unperturbed with the situation.
PT: The Presidential Spokesperson, Doyin Okupe, said that you don’t engage the government on issues such as the economy and the like, instead you just fabricate allegations. How do you react to that?
LM: I hate very much to talk about people. I talk about issues. I have never issued a press statement against any person. Since Okupe became spokesperson to Mr. President, I challenge him to bring out a single press release which was about any person. It’s all about the economy. We are all Nigerians. That the economy is at the brink of collapse and we gave reasons. We said one, that in 2007, it costs only $12 to produce one barrel of crude oil. That today it costs $35 to produce the same one barrel of crude, now $16 of that $35 goes to security of the crude. We warned the government that oil theft had reached an alarming rate and we were losing between $6 billion and $10 billion a year. We warned the government that with the discovery of a fracking technology, Shell Oil and Shell Gas is setting the price of our own crude; that the government should please start investing now in the price structure. We also warned that the Nigeria government should invest more in exploration, and we gave example, that while Brazil added 20 percent in reserves last year, Nigeria was only able to add two percent. How are we personal there? All we do is to advice the government. But you see – the role of opposition is not to spoon feed the government. Matter of fact, it is to make the government uncomfortable and keep government on its toes. We don’t engage in name calling. Our language is very refined and we operate from a higher moral level than they. I will urge Nigerians to please judge us by the facts we present not by the emotion of people that feel uncomfortable by what we are seeing.
Last Wednesday, I caused a letter to be written to the governor in which we advised the governor that we have learnt that the president is coming to Lagos on a private visit, but the time of that visit is, to say the least, very inauspicious. That if the president is coming to Lagos on Thursday, at a time we are going to have our national convention, and we are expecting about 10,000 delegates from all over Nigeria to come here. And since the experience in the past that anytime the president or his wife is in town the roads are closed, and the kind of traffic chaos will be better imagined. We asked the governor to please advise the president that if that visit cannot be rescheduled, he should please use a mode of transportation, such as a helicopter, that would lead to the least traffic disruption. Because if people come from Gombe, Akwa Ibom, and all the rest and they could not access the venue of their convention, it could lead to a breakdown of law and order. And also that if they could not get to their convention, that emotion would be now that the party wants to merge, it would now fit into the popularly held perception that probably the PDP and the president do not want the merger. That’s all we said. And we asked the governor to please prevail on Mr. President that if he must come to Lagos on Thursday, he should please use a helicopter…
PT: But critics would argue that, that was in line with the opposition’s tradition of trying to heat up the polity. Because the president was only passing through Lagos…
LM: Let me ask you a question. Until we issued our press release, did anybody know the itinerary of Mr. President? And if Mr. President decides to pass through Lagos, and he lands at the airport and blocks all the roads? Or can anybody stop Mr. President from visiting anywhere in Nigeria? All we are asking is if you must do so sir, please use a form of transportation, which we know you have, to cause the least disruption.
Let me come back to a more serious issue. For God’s sake, we are running a democracy. Our presidents are not oracles that cannot be talked to. Our presidents are not deities. We voted for them. They are accountable and responsible to us. All this sycophancy about you cannot talk to the president. The people of Nigeria have the right to tell their president what they want and what they do not want. Have you never seen some cases in America where the president comes and they say you are not welcome here? So what is all this nonsense about…? The institution of the presidency we respect very much. But we have the right to talk to our president… we are saying please Mr. President, if you are coming to Lagos, don’t oppress the citizens. Don’t make life uncomfortable for them. Let there be traffic flow. Is that too much? Those people who say it’s the tradition of ACN, have we ever in the history of the ACN ever issued a statement about the mode of transportation of the president before? Even though we are disturbed every day by the presence in Lagos, we have never issued a statement about it. But we said you can’t come on the day of our convention when there will be an influx of about 10,000 people in Lagos in the same venue and not expect chaos if all the roads are blocked. We have no apology for that letter.
PT: Your new book ‘Witness to History,’ why did you decide to write it at this time?
I didn’t sit down and write this book, because it would have been impossible to write this book. It would have been impossible for me to capture what I said every day of the year, year after year. This book was commenced the very first day by the very first press release on behalf of then AC. What has happened is that many of my friends came to me and said ‘Mr. Mohammed, please for the sake of posterity, it will be important that we have these releases as a document.’ For more than two years I’ve been pestered to do this, I didn’t take them seriously. But when the call became more persistent, I realized that what I’m being asked to do is actually a document that’ll chronicle history from the viewpoint of a politician, which I have been privileged to be a spokesperson for so many years. So I went into my archives, I went into my laptop and said which of the press releases could be arranged in a format that could make comfortable reading. And I was quite amazed that I had over 1,000 press releases and had to pick and choose. It is actually a witness to history because it is history that was happening on a daily basis. It is history from the perception and perspective of the opposition. It is history as we responded and reacted to acts of omission or commission of government on virtually every issue under the sky. It is a compendium and collation of what has been the role of opposition in the last six years based on the perspective of the Action Congress of Nigeria.
PT: What are your plans for the future?
LM: I’m basically a lawyer and I have been in politics, like most things in life comes with many opportunities and you look at the challenges and you are fortunate to find the passion and vocation to have been the spokesperson of the ACN for the last couple of years. I’m very confident that the new party will work and I’m ready to contribute my quota in any capacity to ensure that the new party….until APC wins this election, then we will not have not begun on the journey of true democracy in Nigeria. Because democracy is where, at that point in time, when the opposition in a free and fair election via the ballot box is able to market itself and displace the ruling party. That is when democracy has come of age and that is my sole ambition.
PT: So if you are called to continue as the APC spokesperson, would you gladly….
That is a leading question. I won’t answer it.