As the National Publicity Secretary of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Alhaji Lai Mohammed needs no introduction. To him, the challenges facing the country could be traced to the First Republic when the crisis in the defunct Western Region was hijacked by the Federal Government. When the editorial team of Freedom Online met him, he also spoke on the controversy surrounding the May 24 election of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), insisting that Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State is the authentic Chairman of the Forum.
As the National Publicity Secretary of the Action Congress of Nigeria, after about 53 years of independence, why do you think this country is like this, a country so blessed by God?
I think it is conventional wisdom to blame it on leadership. The country has been unfortunate to have very good leaders at critical juncture of the journey to nationhood. I think to some extent that is quite correct. What makes a difference between a good nation and a failed nation is, most times, the absence of strong leaders. But these strong leaders by themselves are not enough. They also need to develop strong institutions. It is these institutions that they develop that would live after them and would carry the nation forward. There has been an absence of great leaders in Nigeria. Even the institutions that were left behind by the founding fathers have mostly been destroyed. I was not too young in the 60s, for instance. Then the system worked. The institutions then worked, and were respected by everybody. I always give an example of the common entrances to secondary schools in those days. In those days, you sat for common entrance into Kings College, Government College, Ibadan, Government College Keffi, you buy forms, you fill your forms, you send your forms by post. Where are the Post Offices today? And to say that the conditions of the roads then were by far worse that they are now. There was a rail system that worked. I laugh today when somebody said this administration has revamped the rail system. I think the first rail system was around 1909 or so. I was surprised to hear that it took 20 years for instance to get the rail from Lagos to Kano. Since independence, if we had been adding just 100 kilometres per year on our rail system, we would today have about 5,000 kilometres of extra rail. Before I digress, it is the absence of these institutions and the ones we met that were destroyed. Of course, you might decide that you want to trace it to the First Republic and then the coup, but basically, I think it is the absence of great leaders at critical times.
Could you please explain that?
Let me give you an example in Ghana. In 2008, if I am correct, there was an election. And the party of the incumbent President lost narrowly. The candidate of that party actually wanted to go to court. But the President then said nonsense. The election was actually won by a hair’s breadth, and there was actually a rerun. If you remember. But it took a great leader, like the then President of Ghana, to say ‘Yes, there would be a rerun’. You cannot declare that my party has won. Though we have all the instruments of power, but ‘No, this is democracy.’ It also took a great institution, like the Ghana Electoral Commission, to have the courage, to say that the party of the incumbent President lost election. And because it was not the first time they did it. The same electoral commission was set up by former President Rawlings government. His party lost election. So, it is the absence of great leaders at critical times, and absence of strong institutions, that have led us to where we are today.
Talking about development, at what point do you think Nigeria missed it because it has been argued that during the First Republic, we had good leaders, like Awolowo, Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello?
I think we missed it in the First Republic. Simply because we did not allow rule of law. In the First Republic, we did not allow rule of law to govern our affairs. I look at the crisis in the First Republic, what happened in the Western Region, from my understanding, was basically an intra-party affair, which should have been allowed to have been resolved by the party. But because the Centre at that time was very uncomfortable with the Western Region leadership, it actually subverted the authority of the leader of the Action Group. The Centre, because they had the police and the power to declare emergency, actually didn’t allow a matter which was basically an internal affair of the party to be resolved according to the party’s constitution. And from there, it escalated. A State of Emergency was declared, elections were called, the Federal Government used the police and the military to rig elections, and from there, the centre could no longer hold.
If they had allowed an internal problem of the party to be resolved internally, there would have been no need for ‘Operation Wetie’. There would have been no need for the violence and instability. There would have been no need for the military coup.
Given the rot in the system for about 50 years, do you now think President Goodluck Jonathan is the problem of the country, because he is just two years in office?
I think it would be very simplistic to say he is the problem of Nigeria. But the thing about governance is that it is a continuum. If I am today the owner of this house, and the past landlord had owed ground rent, the authorities would come to me. And they would withdraw their services until I pay. If I can get the former landlord to come and pay, all well and good. But they are not going to relate to the former landlord.
As the President of a nation, the buck stops on your table. I do not subscribe to the defence that ‘I did not know there was so much rot on ground’, and still I vied to be President. Or that ‘you have to start judging me from what I do’, No. Of course, nobody has ever held him responsible for probably 50 years of bad governance, or 50 years of lack of good leadership. But, of course, today he is in charge. And who else are we going to challenge if there is insecurity in the country, if there is power failure? Are we now going to say, ‘Oh, No, No, this thing had been there before he came in? And that is why when presidential aides argue that this is how he met the country, this is the number of kilomtres he met, … that is not the issue. It is believed that whoever is on the seat inherits both the assets and the liabilities of the government. For instance, there are many things the President is doing today that the foundation was laid by other people. If the President today should go and commission the East-West Road, he would take the credit. But I am sure that he did not start it. To that extent, I don’t think it is unfair to hold him responsible for the current problems of Nigeria.
Generally, how would you rate the performance of President Jonathan in the last two years?
Our position is very simple. You are here now, and our generator is on. And I am sure back in your homes, your generators are on too. We have to rate him sectorally. That is one. Two, I just came back from Ibadan yesterday. You know there is only one road to Ibadan by road. The Lagos – Ibadan Expressway. The condition of the road is awful. As a matter of fact, a diplomat said the state of that road is an affront to human rights. I drove out this morning, I got to traffic junction and I saw able bodied men, lurking around and begging. I got calls this morning from people looking for jobs. So, when people ask, how has he performed, you don’t need a rocket scientist to tell you he has not performed well.
What are the indices? Security of lives and property. What do you have today? Boko Haram insurgency in the North. I have just shown you the photo of the National Vice Chairman of my party, a former Deputy Governor of Anambra State who was kidnapped. They took ransom and still killed him. Kidnappers and killers are on the rampage. In education, we are told that less than a certain number of students scored more than 300 in the recent JAMB examination. Really, we are not being partisan by saying this government has not done well. He asked us for the Marking Scheme, and we told him, we don’t need any Marking Scheme. When the President and his ministers talk about improvements in the country, about the GDP, I begin to wonder whether we live in the same country. Do I live in this country? Do I go through the same hardship that everybody goes through? Starting from lack of electricity, to bad roads, to insecurity, to unemployment, to lack of medical facilities. So, what is the value of an economy whose GDP has grown, without translating into jobs? Our factories have all become churches and mosques today. How many companies that left are relocating back to our country? What is the operating capacity of manufacturing industries?
But, according to renowned international rating agencies, Nigeria is said to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. And they are saying a lot of investment is coming into Nigeria. How do you juxtapose that to what you are saying?
I have utmost respect for any organisation. But I am saying that the investment that are coming into Nigeria, I have not seen them. I am close enough to Lagos State Government to know that if there is any investment in Lagos, I will know. But, be that as it may be, I am saying that the indices around me, in terms of electricity, security, employment generation, in terms of infrastructure, do not say the same thing. They don’t tally at all. I don’t know what yardsticks they have used, but the yardsticks I am using is the quality of life of the average Nigerian. How many Nigerians had access to potable water five years ago, how many have access today. How many of them were employed five years ago, how many are today. What was the level of security in this country five years ago, what is it today. If anybody can answer these questions in the positive, that they are on the ascendancy, then I’ll agree with them. I live in this country. I have relations and I interact with them. I know there is a lot of poverty, there is a lot of hardship. So, how do you now marry that kind of glowing report with what I see on ground. I don’t know where you stay, I don’t know whether you go through what I go through, but I have mentioned Lagos – Ibadan Expressway…, interestingly enough, the government said today that they have revamped the rail system, and that you can travel now from Lagos to Kano for N1,500. In how many days? That train does not go at more than 72 kilometres per hour. And the last time, people just walked away from the coaches and went to take buses. So, what kind of lies are we telling ourselves? If the government is good, it does not need any Marking Scheme. And in any event, if he had been given superlative rating, would he have asked for that Marking Scheme? Afterall, Jesse Jackson came and gave him superlative rating, what was his Marking Scheme?
The President also said at that forum that regardless of what he does, some people would not acknowledge that he is doing anything. The Minister of Finance reeled out statistics, how inflation rate is coming down and all that. Is it because you are in opposition that you have…?
(Cuts in) Let me ask you a question. The price of what product have they been able to bring down? Ask your wife, how much does a basket of tomatoes cost today, how much did it cost last year? Ask your wife, how much did a bag of rice cost last year, how much does it cost today? I don’t know how they got this thing about reduction in inflation. Because my understanding of it is that there has been soaring cost of goods. Is it a bag of cement that the price has gone down from what it was last year, to what it is today? Or a tin of milk or sugar? I don’t know. So, where is the inflation that has gone down? What figures are they using? I used to buy diesel at N90 a litre about two, three years ago. I buy at N170, N175 per litre today. Is that not a product too? Let them tell us, probably we are going to the wrong shops. And in any event, there is no way that a country like ours that is import dependent and the strength of our currency fluctuating every time, I do not see how you can bring down inflation. Because even if the prices remain the same over there, by the time the goods get here, coupled with the corruption and the inefficiency at the ports, and most of our staple products like sugar, rice, dairy are imported, the story will change. Honestly, I would like to know what prices have gone down and where I can get those goods.
On the scale of preference, which one do you think the President should tackle first? Some have said, tackle security and every other thing would follow. Some have said it is power. Of all the challenges, which one do you think the President should make topmost priority?
I believe that a good administration would not necessarily abandon one for the other. Some of these issues we are talking about are one-off. It is not the kind of problem you are supposed to be encountering everyday if you can correctly diagonise it, and address the issues. That does not stop you from concentrating on power generation, or stop you from infrastructure. But I agree that where you have insecurity, in that particular area, development becomes a bit difficult. But I don’t think we should have a one-track mind President, that can only tackle one issue at a time. There are several challenges in Lagos, and the governor, in the midst of these, is still attending to other social issues. Borno State, for instance, which is very challenging, and everybody knows, yet the governor has made inroads in the areas of agriculture and education. Ditto in Kano. So, I think it has to do with the kind of leadership at the head… We are not in a state of war, for instance. Even when countries are at war, governance does not necessarily have to stop. There are certain things that have to continue.
The most topical issue now is the Nigeria Governors’ Forum election. There are two factions laying claim to the leadership of the body. Which of the two factions, in your opinion, has the right claim to its leadership?
Which are the two factions?
The Amaechi faction and the Jang faction.
No. We only have the (President) Jonathan’s faction, and the Governors’ Forum faction, honestly.
But Jonathan is not a Governor, and the President’s spokesman, Reuben Abati, has issued a statement that the President has nothing to do with the election.
Rubbish. Absolute nonsense. Let me ask you, in any sane situation, is it possible to suspend a governor from a party, without the leader of the party, who is the president of the country, not knowing? A governor of a state is too critical, too key a person in the party for you to remove him without the leadership of the party or the President knowing. Afterall, the President is regarded as the leader of the party in Nigeria. If the governor is the leader of the party in a state, the truth is that the Presidency staked, very unwisely, on the Governors’ Forum Election. He gambled and lost woefully. Who does not know in Nigeria that Amaechi’s problem is with the President and the PDP, not really with his mates in the Governors’ Forum? As to faction or no faction, there is only one authentic Governors’ Forum and that is the one that Amaechi is heading. I have watched the video of the election. I have listened to (Governors) Mimiko, Orji, Akpabio, and they are all sounding so ridiculous. Take Orji, he was on television yesterday, and he said that the Northern Governors’ Forum had endorsed Jonah Jang, that the South-East had endorsed Jang, ditto South-South. When they got to the venue of the meeting, everything changed and they walked out. Bloody lie. One, is endorsement the same thing as election? If their endorsement was there, then what happened? From what we saw in the video, and they have not produced a contrary one, elections were held, Jang lost.
In the same breadth, the same people that said there was no election, are also saying that the election is faulty because Amaechi did not step down as Chairman of the Governors’ Forum before the election. Let us ask them, did Jonathan step down as President of Nigeria before we conducted the election in 2011?
The argument against that is that in this instance, Amaechi seems to be the INEC,…
(Cuts in) No, that is not correct
He printed the ballot papers…
(Cuts in) Do you know that there is a Director-General for Governors’ Forum?
They said the man was appointed by Amaechi
Let me tell you, Okauru had been DG since when Saraki was the Chairman of the Forum. Why are they telling lies, do they think we are all dead?
What about his printing the ballot papers?
Who appoints INEC Chairman?
But it was not the President that prints ballot papers.
Sir, who appoints INEC Chairman?
Who nominates all the members?
Who prints ballot papers?
So, if the Governors’ Forum secretariat printed the ballot papers, what is wrong with that? Now, that takes us to another question, why didn’t they walk out at the point where they said Amaechi did not step down? They had three opportunities to have walked out of that meeting. The first was when they got to that meeting and they said we want show of hands, and it was said ‘No, we want ballot’. They had opportunity of walking out there. When the ballot paper was shown to them and they found out that there were no serial numbers, they could have walked out… I saw it…, they counted 35 and they agreed that that was the number of people there and they started counting them. Nigerians are not very stupid, we might be living under a lot of poverty and hardship. Why didn’t they walk out?
Governor Obi said that, according to the Constitution of the Governors’ Forum, Amaechi was not eligible for re-election. That the Constitution does not provide for a second term.
So, why wasn’t that issue raised? This issue of Governors’ Forum election ought to have taken place since April, if you remember. From April, we have been hearing ‘this is the President’s candidate, this is the PDP candidate’. Did anybody raise the issue of Amaechi’s eligibility then? Why are they demeaning themselves? And how many terms did Saraki spend as Chairman of Governors’ Forum? That was 2007. He was a governor then, and until 2011…
The Constitution wasn’t in place during his tenure, it was because they were having problems with him that the Constitution was made…
I am just asking you, when did Governor Obi discover that Constitutional provision, before or after election?
We leave that to him. When he reads this interview, he might decide to respond.
Another thing he said was that on the basis of that Constitution, 12 members of that Governors’ Forum form a quorum and could elect a Chairman. And what that means also by implication is that if 12 of them vote against a candidate, he cannot be a Chairman.
Is that Obi’s postulation?
That is his own position. So, invariably, neither Amaechi nor Jang could lay claim to the Chairmanship.
Okay. In other words, by the Constitution of the Governors’ Forum, simple majority is no longer 19, out of 36? Simple majority must be 24, right? Does that make sense to you?
Have you forgotten that the first time they came out of this election, Jang claimed that he had 19 and Amaechi had 16? So, if Amaechi’s 19 cannot qualify him to be Chairman, how does Jang’s 19 qualify him to be Chairman? One thing about a lie is that if you tell one lie, you would need three to cover that one lie, and you would need 10 to cover those three. That is why they are looking so ridiculous. What other arguments are they putting forward?
It would appear something is wrong with us as a people, because 35 people entered a room for an election…
Once people are not ready to be honest, it creates problems. What has happened in the Governors’ Forum is a foretaste of what we should prepare for in 2015. That if a particular does not win, there would be war. That is what it means, and it is quite sad. And let me tell you, this NGF election is actually a referendum on the leadership of President Jonathan.
The PDP and President Jonathan are not addressing the issues they ought to address. Which is that there is a serious rebellion within the President’s party. Otherwise, what happened between the time they left the Northern Governors’ Forum, and when they got there, just after a few hours?
If they cannot think, we will help them think. All the APC (All Progressives Congress) governors are 11. One of them couldn’t come, so we were left with 10. Where did Amaechi get the nine other votes from? And the nine others are all PDP. That is what he should worry about. Why did 23 governors in that Forum, who are PDP, could not get a simple majority? How come?
WATCH OUT FOR PART 2