Against allegations of highhandedness, and intolerance to criticism, Femi Adesina, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, says many Nigerians have said they prefer President Muhammadu Buhari as a military ruler because he is too tolerant. In this interview with TheCable, Adesina also shares what Nigerians should expect in the ‘Next Level’ across sectors.
TheCable: Can you speak more on this ‘Next Level’ agenda?
Adesina: I would be very surprised if there are people who say they do not know what the ‘Next Level’ entails because it has been trumpeted. It has been said everywhere. It has been said at campaign grounds. It has been said through newspapers. It has been said on radio and television. Everywhere, this has been said: the ‘Next Level’ is a level of consolidation. The agenda remains the same. The priorities remain the same. Secure the country, fight corruption, revive the economy, and under reviving the economy, provide jobs for Nigerians, particularly the young generation.
Under the ‘Next Level’; it is a level of jobs, it is a level of power generation; it is a level of education. The curriculum is going to be tweaked with emphasis on science and technology. It is a level of healthcare because it is a healthy citizenry that can compete in the country and beyond. So it is a level in which there is going to be empowerment of the different strata of society. There is going to be a people’s money bank to take care of the lower rung of the ladder. There is going to be an entrepreneurs’ bank to take care of people at the middle rung- SMEs and all that. So these things have been said over and over and over.
If anybody says he still does not know what the ‘Next Level’ entails, I then doubt if that person has been listening all along.
TheCable: You said, ‘Next Level of consolidation?’ Some Nigerians would expect that there are things on the ground to be consolidated on?
Adesina: You see, if you want to be cynical and skeptical, there is nothing anybody can do about it. Those who have made up their minds to be cynics and skeptics that is where they have decided to sit. They do not want to see anything positive, when we know that positive things are happening. Talk of security. When the government came in 2015, can you compare what was happening in the country then to what is happening now?
As at 2015, we did not know what lay ahead of the country because Boko Haram was running riot in all the geopolitical zones. They were even about entering the south-west. Boko Haram had gone as far as Kogi. It started from north-east; it took over north-west, it took over north-central, including Abuja the capital, and it was in Kogi and going to south-west before it was stopped – beaten back. At a point, it became circumscribed in Jos, Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, and at a point it became even located just in Sambisa forest till they were chased out. Now, it is like the rump of it that is left. That rump is still deadly enough but you cannot compare 2015 and 2019 in terms of that insurgency. It is only somebody who is being unfair to the government who will say there is no difference. There is a lot of difference and if you ask those who live in the north-east, they will tell you that there is a lot of difference. That is on insecurity. That is just one part of insecurity which is the insurgency.
Other challenges have arisen- farmer-herder clashes- but do you want to tell me that today that challenge is the same as it was two-three years ago? No. No! It is being curtailed. It is reducing and there are promises that it will be completely curtailed. Then kidnapping, banditry. Banditry, six months ago in Birnin Gwari, in Zamfara, in different parts of the country. Do you want to say the same way it was six months ago, one year ago, even three months ago, is what we have today? No, you would not be fair if you say that.
So all the challenges of insecurity are being tackled and they would be decisively and conclusively tackled. It is a work in progress. In any country of the world, the security situation is a work in progress and this government is working at it and working on it.
Then the economy, of course. Nigeria has always run a bubble economy- an economy that was just predicated on oil. Therefore, if all prices crash at any time, Nigerian economy crashes with it. And that was what happened in 2014-2015. Oil prices that had reached as much as $100 per barrel, even up to almost $140 per barrel at a time, crashed and came to $39. It came to $37. Of course, Nigeria simply crashed with it, and this government is determined to now diversify our economy, so that we are not solely dependent on oil again. Since I was in primary school, and that was well over 40, almost 50 years ago, I had heard about diversifying the Nigerian economy. Nothing got done. But this government is doing it.
TheCable: In what areas?
Adesina: Of course agriculture; particularly, agriculture. As we speak, we have almost attained self-sufficiency, particularly in rice and in other grains. There was a time we were importing beans from Burkina Faso, under a previous administration. It does not happen now. Other West African countries even come here to load trailers of food products and drive them out daily. So, this government is working on diversifying the economy through agriculture, through solid minerals exploitation and even manufacturing is inching up gradually. So, this government means business with diversifying the economy. It is not just lip-service.
TheCable: The recently appointed ministers, a few of them have corruption cases or allegations…
Adesina: Case is different from allegation. If there is an allegation; there is no prima facie case against anybody that has been charged …if there is no case that has been charged…. Allegation is different from a case. If any of those ministers have a prima facie case that has been charged, mention that person’s name and mention the case. Anybody can allege anything.
TheCable: Do you not think with the stance of the administration against corruption, optics matter in this regard?
Adesina: No, no, English law is law of evidence. That is what we also use in Nigeria. That is what we practice. When you have evidence against a man, and that evidence is iron-cast, then you can begin to accuse him. But when there is no evidence, anybody can sit anywhere and make allegations. Allegations are the cheapest and easiest things to make.
TheCable: Some Nigerians think, going by the reactions on social media, that it took a while for the government to respond to xenophobic attacks on citizens in South Africa, and that its response was feeble?
Also, the APC national chairman asked that MTN be taken over by the government. Other persons have made similar calls. What is your reaction to this?
Adesina: Governance, diplomacy, international relations are different from mob mentality. Mob mentality is what some Nigerians want, not a majority of them – the vocal ones. There are people I call the vocal minority. Because they have access to social media, they have access to other forms of media; they talk loud and you think that many people are talking. It is just because they are vocal. They are a tiny minority; tiny minority.
The mob has just one head. They have just one brain rather. The mob has many heads but one brain. If there is a mob now, and one person says, “burn down the house!”
The mob says, “Yes!” That is the brain that is controlling the mob.
But diplomacy is not done like that. If you say it took a while to react, how do you define a while? How do you define it? Because when it happened, our president was in Japan with the South African president. They met. And discussed and fixed a time for a visit by our president to South Africa. But then, few days after, things spiraled out of control and those burning and looting and arson began to happen. So, how then do you define ‘a while’? Because it started on August 29. By September 2, or thereabout, the president sent a special envoy.
TheCable: That is another issue. Should the bereaved be the one to go to…?
Adesina: So you expect the South African president to come here?
He who feels it, knows it. The Nigerians that are facing fire in South Africa would be grateful that a special envoy has come to show the displeasure of Nigeria and to ask for a guarantee for protection of Nigerians. So all those things you are saying are theories. There are some people who would think that we should have taken ‘Ogbunigwe’ to Pretoria to drop them there. No, it does not happen that way.
TheCable: Why does it take the president time to respond to issues – even when there is outrage on social media?
Adesina: You think social media represents the country? That is the mistake you make. That is the mistake of the vocal minority, because they are making noise. You think that is the country? Let me tell you one scientific study we did before the last election showed us that social media was going to be responsible for just between nine and 11 percent of the votes. Just between nine and 11 percent.
People following the social media would think the election was already lost. But we knew from that scientific study that it was going to be just between nine and 11 percent. And that nine and 11 percent would not be for the opposition. Even the government had its percentage in it. So when you hear that noise on social media do not think the entire country.
TheCable: But they are the voices of the country?
Adesina: The voice of the country are those 15 million people that voted this president. You cannot discountenance them.
TheCable: Why does it appear that the president is inactive sometimes?
Adesina: It’s your opinion and you have a right to it. The president is the father of the country. He must seem to be methodical and painstaking. He cannot just go charging into situations thereby exacerbating them instead of mollifying people, who are aggrieved and all that. Our president is a man of experience. He has been military head of state. He is in his second term as president. He needs to be painstaking in addressing matters.
TheCable: Is the president aware of all that is happening in the country? Are updates given to him? Is he really aware of all that is happening in the country?
Adesina: You are asking for an omniscient president. No one is omniscient.
…Wait, you have asked your question…. Let me answer. No man is omniscient. Only God is. But because he is the president of the country, he has access to security reports. He has access to reports from all over the country so he is aware of most things that you and I would not even be aware of. But talking of, “does he know everything?” You are asking for an omniscient president and it is only God that is omniscient. Sure, he gets daily reports, daily security reports.
TheCable: The perception is that he is being shielded from knowing what is really happening in the country?
Adesina: When security reports go to him, and he studies them, who will shield him from knowing those things? It is not possible. It is just a…
TheCable: So can I quote you, “Buhari is aware?”
Adesina: It does not even arise. That statement you have made does not arise. Because he is a president, he lives in this country. He directs the affairs of the country. He gets daily security briefings. He follows the media. So that issue does not arise. So, if you have that mindset that he is not aware, then it is a wrong mindset.
TheCable: Detention, arrests, abductions of citizens by security agencies; the case of Omoyele Sowore. There is the perception that the administration is highhanded, what do you say to this?
Adesina: I am glad you used the word perception. Perception is not necessarily reality and in the case of Omoyele Sowore, it is backed by a court ruling. So when there is a court ruling, what can anybody do?
I have not seen anybody being held without a justification. There must have been a reason for arrest and there must have been a justification for holding that person. I have not seen anybody being held without justification.
TheCable: So there is a justifiable reason why Sowore is in detention?
Adesina: Do you live in another country? The case is before a court so we should not even discuss it; it is before the judiciary, so let us leave it.
TheCable: Some Nigerians think the government is highly sensitive to criticism?
Adesina: Those people have a right to their opinion. Do you know that some other Nigerians, a lot of them think the president is over tolerant?
Adesina: Yes. A lot of people say, ‘’we want General Muhammadu Buhari. We do not want this President Muhammadu Buhari. We want the General Muhammadu Buhari we knew in 1984 and 1985.” A lot of people say that, so that shows you the president is quite tolerant now.
TheCable: Will the president be travelling soon on health grounds?
Adesina: Are you wishing him evil?
You as a young man, if you need to attend to your health, will you not attend to it?
TheCable: So, there is a possibility there will be such a trip this year?
Adesina: No, that is a question coming from an evil heart. It should not arise.
TheCable: On Leah Sharibu. What is happening?
Adesina: Yes, yes. To the best of our information, Leah Sharibu is alive and negotiations continue. You know those who are holding her are using her as a bargaining chip, but I believe that, by the grace of God, Leah will return one day. She will return one day.
TheCable: What has been your toughest day on this job?
Adesina: No, well, I have learnt to take things in my stride. You see, if you know me, I was a journalist for about 30 years before I came here. I rose from the bottom of the ladder to the topmost rung of that ladder. So, I have seen so many things. I have passed through numerous breaking news. I have been a sitting editor in times of crisis, so I learned to take things in my stride. When people see me they say, “You don’t show stress”, because I have learned to pace myself. Anybody that does not know that kind of style could say, “That one is laid back”. No. I know how to pace myself and so things that people do and they fall over themselves, they fall down, they rise up, they faint, I just will do them calmly. That is one thing I have learned from being a journalist for over three decades and that is one thing the grace of God has given me. So, I learned to take things in my stride no matter what.
TheCable: You have not had a challenging day?
TheCable: Every day is challenging. Every day on this job is challenging, but when you have operated in a news room for so long, you can anticipate anything. If anything happens, I know how to respond to it, just like a newsman would do.