Having inherited a nearly comatose economy, occasioned by dwindling oil resources and rampaging terrorists in the country’s Northeast, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, is faced with an arduous task of putting the largest economy in the continent, back on its feet. With a reputation of zero tolerance for corruption, President Buhari, has continued to attract global support for his commitment towards ridding the country of corruption, which has been described as one of the country’s greatest challenge. However, his efforts towards clearing out the “Augean stable” have been criticized by leading opposition figures in the country, describing it as selective and aimed at stifling opposition.
In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine, President Buhari presents his administration’s strategy towards restoring the country back on its path of growth and development. He also spoke on other topical issues in the country. Excerpt:
It’s about a year since you assumed office as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; how would you describe the performance of your administration so far?
I would say it has been generally positive. Given the amount of both social and financial deficit we inherited from the former administration, it has been an arduous task getting out of the woods. We have been moving in the right direction though, and thankfully, things are beginning to look up. I believe that the most difficult times are now behind us and the country can go no other way but upwards. We have made progress in fighting insurgency, corruption and reviving the economy. Remember our country depended solely on oil for many years. My government has mapped out strategies to look beyond oil and diversify our means of generating revenue through other sectors. We are determined to make significant achievement to make power and fuel available to all Nigerians on regular and continuing basis. We are trying to put an end to the suffering that Nigerians go through to get fuel and power a thing of the past. If you take a careful look at the budget we presented to the National Assembly, you can decipher a determination on the part of the administration to provide infrastructure and increase the purchasing power of our people, as well as reduce inflation.
You were elected President of Nigeria by an overwhelming majority of Nigerians, in a historical election, that recorded one of the largest voter turnouts; however, a recent survey by a non-governmental organisation shows that there has been a slip in your public rating. Do you see this as a true reflection of the mood of the nation?
Yes, I was elected by an overwhelming majority of Nigerians, and I am ever grateful for the opportunity I have been given to serve. However, I don’t consider the result of the so-called survey a slip in my public rating and acceptance. I appreciate the high expectations of Nigerians and as an administration we are working assiduously to deliver. We came in with a mantra of change and the zeal to give a new lease of life to governance. Our zeal has remained the same and we are always prepared to make the difference. You will recall that when I was being sworn in, I emphasised that as a government, three key areas will be the priority. The first is the need to rebuild the economy. I also pledged to fight insecurity while the third and equally important area is the fight against corruption. Now let me say this, there is nowhere in the world where the process of change, which is a transition from old order into a new one had been easy. For instance, those who were stealing from government for years and who are now being stopped from doing so will mobilise people to condemn the change process. Those who took the law into their hands to commit heinous crimes with little or no checks from the government will join many who will condemn the change. Before now, we have been having sleepless nights in Nigeria with Boko Haram having field days in tormenting people, most especially in the north eastern part of the country. So far, we have shown resilience in stopping these people and yet many criticize the approach we are using. What I think our people should know is that a process of change is difficult as it requires endurance and patience. China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and other great Asian countries had at different times passed through processes of change. They are far better off today. And some of these countries were at par with Nigeria in terms of development some five decades ago. We are attempting to do the same here to say let us stop building individuals, let us stop making those who serve in government get stupendously wealthy at the expense of ordinary Nigerians they had sworn to serve. Rather, we should concentrate on building strong institutions. Let us introduce economic prosperity by bringing in more investors to catalyse a sense of competition to grow our economy. Let there be law and order in our ways. Change is not only about the President initiating ideas; it should involve everybody such that anyone with better and tested ideas should come forward to present such. We will welcome them. At our individual levels, we must be seen to be changing our bad old ways while we commit ourselves to the task of building a new Nigeria of our dreams. I will use this opportunity to appeal to Nigerians to continue to exercise patience and let them know that we will not rest on our oars until we be bring succour back to them and to the country. From our efforts so far, Nigeria will soon be back on track.
Boko Haram maybe gradually fading into history, but there is a need to address some of the root causes of the rise of the sect; what is your administration doing to tackle some of these problems?
Violent extremism is a scourge facing many parts of the world today. In Nigeria, we have had our own share with the latest being Boko Haram. Although we have virtually routed the group from our territories, we are now facing the challenges of managing the repentant extremists and re-integrating them into the society and dealing with the factors that made Boko Haram ideology attractive to the youth and others that joined them. Consequently, we are developing comprehensive strategies which will provide dis-engagement and de-radicalisation support programmes to members of the extremist group. In doing this, we shall be collaborating with other members of the West African sub-region and other international stakeholders. Working with this network we shall explore how and why people radicalise or de-radicalise, and on the roles played by, for instance, ideology, social pressures, internet-based recruitment techniques and role models. We shall provide exit strategies for violent extremists while developing our understanding of the process of radicalisation and how to respond to it. By so doing, we shall be tackling violent extremism as a whole and thus be preventing re-occurrence. We are putting in place strong, grassroots preventive measures to counter violent extremism in all its forms. But these tasks cannot be accomplished in a one-off battle but we will eventually accomplish them.
Your administration has done very well in advocating and supporting the production of goods and services that could be produced locally; how well do you see this working, considering that there are factors that impede the growth of local industries, like stable power?
We really have limited options in the choice of supporting local production or not because this is what is at the heart of our economic diversification program. We are talking here about all sectors of the economy, from agriculture to manufacturing even to the oil sector. We are determined to drive import substitution and ramp up productive activities to conserve our foreign reserve, diversify revenue channels and ensure food security. By so doing, we will be engendering economic self-sufficiency with positive impact on the people.
As we proceed, we are determined to turn challenges into opportunities in all ramifications. This is one reason we are focusing on upgrading and providing infrastructures across the country. We are determined to ensure provision of infrastructures sectorally and for general use on the philosophy of leveraging infrastructures to facilitate local production and enhance industrialisation within the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost.
Let me assure you that we will surmount the challenge of power supply; we have mapped out a mix of electric power generation sources inclusive of thermal, solar, hydro, nuclear, coal and windmill. The idea is to adapt and embed these sources to areas that they are easily adaptable to. But more than that, we will reinvigorate and conclude the power sector privatisation process and thereby ensure the whole value chain in the sector is populated by the private sector.
At the monetary policy level, the Central Bank of Nigeria has evolved different intervention programmes to drive and encourage productive activities. Specifically, we are encouraging commercial banks to support the active sector with loans secured at single digit interest rate.
In view of the successes of the military in its fight against Boko Haram, would you say you are satisfied with the latter and its level of professionalism, in view of your openly- stated intention to restore the institution to its lost glory?
The military holds the key to the stability and security of the country. My government is therefore committed to ensuring that members of our armed forces perform their constitutionally defined roles creditably. Professionalism is the key to sustaining the image of the military. They should be insulated from politics, which dilutes the fervour of their professional commitment. My administration would ensure our armed forces are trained, re-trained and properly motivated to perform those roles for which they were signed up to do. A return to professionalism would protect our armed forces from the negative influences of politics. The military had ruled for many years, and the return to democracy makes it imperative to make them stick to their primary role of protecting the territorial integrity of the country. My administration would give them all the motivation to make them serve with pride.
You are renowned internationally as a President that would reposition Nigeria, especially as regards her corruption perception index; however, some analysts have argued that more time have been spent tracking down government officials who are believed to have stolen government funds, with very little attention on actual governance. What is your view?
The most important thing is for Nigerians to know the magnitude of corruption that was in place when we took over. I do not need to over-stress this, given the startling revelations about how government’s monies were being taken and shared by those we trusted to lead us. From what had been on the ground, corruption was already threatening the very existence of Nigeria and it was that bad when governments at all levels could no longer pay salaries whereas, some individuals in government continued to lavishly enrich themselves. I still want to say again that we must collectively fight corruption and kill it before it kills us. That truly is the only alternative we have if we must survive as a nation. I am focused on governance and for those who follow what we are doing keenly; they will know that we have allowed different agencies constitutionally assigned to fight corruption to do their jobs, while we do not interfere. The truth is that if someone is being investigated for misappropriating government’s money in billions and almost in trillions and he is being charged in accordance with laws and procedures, people should appreciate that rather than urging the government to stop the process of prosecution because of the calibre of individual involved, the latter should be given all the support it needs. Corruption has assumed a frightening dimension in Nigeria such that we cannot afford to close our eyes and pretend that all is well. Indeed, we are not distracted by the pressure from different quarters and from those who wanted us to be fighting corruption with kid gloves. Our desire is to ensure the strengthening of the anti-corruption agencies to enhance their capacities to effectively fight corruption. So, to answer your question, it is not true that the fight against corruption is distracting my attention from the task of governance. You can sit back and review what we have done in the past one year and come up with your judgment. That will certainly assist you and other concerned Nigerians to reach the right conclusions.
Your administration has shown interest in the creation of the North East Development Commission, which is aimed at reconstructing the region after the destruction and devastation caused by Boko Haram. How do you assuage the feelings of other regions who also complain of poor infrastructure and social amenities?
Let me ask you something, have you ever been to the Northeast? You see the insurgency (Boko Haram) did not just come up in a day. It was a result of a long period of neglect by the preceding governments at Federal, State and local levels. There was virtually no Federal Government presence in the region either through infrastructure development or social amenities. The economy of that region was long grounded before the insurgency started. Now the insurgency made things not only to get worse, but the area became almost uninhabitable for people of the region. Basic necessities such as shelter, schools, markets, roads that link the States in the region were destroyed almost completely.
We have a situation where there are almost 2.5 million IDPs that urgently need relocation back to their respective homes and communities in that region. What we should ask is what will the people going back do? We should as a Government ensure they are going back to some level of stability, to have some semblance of life known to other regions. Even with the proposed Northeast Commission, the region will still take many years of work to reach anywhere near where the other regions are. Let me also tell you that if the socio economic deficit in the Northeast region is to be left unaddressed, that will have a direct and indirect impact on all the other regions as we have witnessed already. The trade between the Northeast region and other regions used to boom in the past and now, it is only a shadow of itself. Now, I am not saying that the other regions’ deficit of infrastructure and social amenities wouldn’t be addressed. It would be given same consideration and attention; no one region is greater than the other or should be neglected.
The other reason to have this Commission in the Northeast is to have some level of coordination by Government on the activities that is either on-going or that will soon commence. Do not forget we have a situation where we have various aids and assistance in form of money, technical expertise, etc., coming from countries and agencies to help rebuild the region. We need a body to harness and co-ordinate all these, hence the reason to create a Commission that will be central and responsible for the reconstruction process in the region.
Your party the APC, and more recently the Minister of Information has said that there is a need to downsize some of the promises made during your campaign. Some analysts especially the opposition have argued that, your party did not fully understand the pulse of the country it sought to govern; how would you react to this?
Perhaps you are referring to promises made not by us but for us during the campaign some of which were very unrealistic and unrealizable. So, we will not keep any promise we did not make. Our Party, as the government in power, will never renege on its pledge to the people on the tripodal campaign promises to curb corruption, secure the country and fix the hitherto depressed economy. Despite the years of rapacious pillaging of the nation’s commonwealth, we are working the clock to stem the tide of insecurity, reposition the economy positively and generate jobs while creating more infrastructures nationwide.
But the cynics, who belittle our accomplishments so far, do have a right to free speech but are entitled to their opinion. Nonetheless, an ideal adversary should be thorough in understanding the compelling global economic situation of dwindling oil prices and worldwide recession; plus the many years of little or no plans for today’s rainy day by previous governments.
Some analysts have maintained that your administration is yet to come up with a clear policy direction, months after your inauguration. Kindly react to this?
We came into government from being an opposition party and we never had all the facts and figures about the state of decay in the system until lately as inherited from the immediate past administration. We have since made staggering discoveries of rot and ruins in almost all facets of government, and have begun in earnest the task of rescuing and repositioning our nation for greatness once again.
My administration’s economic policy has been clear from the start: we are focused on plans to invest in the Nigerian people, on diversification of the economy with priority on infrastructure and ultimately creating a secured and business friendly environment for Nigerians and foreign investors. The 2016 Budget will play a foundational role to make these possible. These facts have always been in the public domain.
That economic direction has not changed. We might have hit some hitches due to some realities we met on ground, particularly to do with the dwindling revenue due to oil price crash, a near empty treasury, an internal revenue generating system that was not transparent. But we have put measures in place to address these concerns like the Treasury Single Account (TSA) whose implementation has addressed some of the concerns raised. Our Economic Policy Direction remains clear, to diversify the Economy. We are doing everything possible to achieve that through largely the development of the agricultural and mining sectors.
There has been no single period in the economic history of this country that we have had a plethora of economic policies working to achieve the single objective of diversifying our economy at the cheapest possible cost as we have now. This also includes increasing the capacity of our labour capital through relevant training and facilitating the opportunity for our most vulnerable and poor to circle out of extreme poverty through our dedicated social security programme.
Some Nigerians are worried over your administration’s decision to join the Saudi-led Coalition against ISIS; some have cited the secular nature of the country as their reason, while others maintain that Nigeria is ill-equipped to confront the fallout of such coalition. How would you assuage the fears of your citizens on this particular issue?
We were looking for solutions to our myriad of problems in the area of security posed by Boko Haram which has pledged allegiance to ISIS and the Saudi-led coalition against ISIS was set up to confront and eradicate ISIS. Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to this terror group and I don’t see the reason why we should isolate Nigeria in any effort to eradicate global terrorism. It is all about eliminating the menace called Boko Haram. Having said that, Nigeria remains a multi-religious nation where there is freedom of worship, as prescribed by our constitution.
Our interactions with some Nigerians in Diaspora have shown that a number of them are truly looking forward to a time they can join their family back home to also cast their votes for the desired candidate(s) of their choice during elections; is there a possibility of this happening anytime soon?
We wish to reassure those Nigerians that they have nothing to fear. We shall create conditions that would encourage them to come home to contribute to the development of the country. The key focus of this administration is the economy, security and corruption. I am committed to addressing these issues, and we are already on course in this regard. I want a Nigeria whose citizens would be proud to serve wherever they are. We welcome Nigerians from abroad to come home and play their part in our development endeavours and my government would ensure that they would be able to do this in a secure environment.
The President of Namibia has spoken to us about his dream for a “new Africa”, where leaders do not perpetuate themselves in power. An Africa that would not need the influence of others to do what is right; do you see this coming to reality in the near future?
I believe so; I believe we are making progress on democracy in Africa. If you recall, there was a time when military rule was fashionable in the continent, when people no longer raised an eyebrow when they hear someone has overthrown the leadership of a country. The story today is different. The situation is no longer the same. You throw a democratic government out and you become a pariah nation even within the continent.
What would be your parting words to Nigerians, home and abroad, who are itching to see the change that your administration represents?
I wish to appeal to my countrymen to be steadfast in their support for our reforms; the war against corruption, insecurity and efforts to rescue our economy. As I said before, I am deeply pained like every Nigerian by the hardship we are all experiencing. You do not abort a pregnancy midway because a mother is in labour. Once life is not threatened, we must encourage our wife to gracefully go through pre-natal labour to safe delivery. The joy of a safe delivery often overshadows the pains. Our country is going through the same phase. I can assure you, we shall all celebrate the redemption of our great nation together. For us to see the change we all deserve, we must be ready to constitute ourselves into change agents. We must know that the man in the mirror is you and me. Meanwhile, I appeal for patience, understanding and patriotism. The world wants Nigeria to succeed how much less Nigerians! We will succeed, if we collectively resolve to do so, God willing.