The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Doyin Okupe, in an exclusive interview recently described the spokesperson of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, Lai Mohammed, as a ‘liar’ with no vision and very little understanding of what the role of the opposition is supposed to be in a democracy.
Mr. Okupe also said that the Federal Government was not disposed to handing over former Bayelsa State Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha to the U.K. for trial.
Below are excerpts of the interview
Q: Did the president issue a directive to ensure APC is not registered, and opposition elements hounded?
A: There is no truth whatsoever in that assertion, they quoted a memo which I am very sure is a fiction. It is not in the character of President Jonathan to do something like this. He is a liberal democrat, who is tolerant and magnanimous in his attitudes towards the opposition. This is a man that went about and campaigned in Edo state, and proudly accepted the outcome that an opposition party won. The same thing happened in Ondo state.
President Jonathan offered himself to be the guinea pig of a sitting president that could contest election in Nigeria and lose, fortunately he won. He made it clear that no one should do anything untoward in that election.
So the allegation is totally untrue and is out of character with President Jonathan.
Q. Where do you think the memo emanated from if not the presidency?
A: Why should you worry where it comes from? We are used to fabrications and lies even from the elite class. Many people have been doing everything possible to misrepresent this administration, to distort information and deliberately malign the president. Everything is geared towards 2015. The only sin that President Goodluck Jonathan has committed in this country is not lack of performance, it’s not lack of dedication to duty, it’s not lack of commitment, and it is just that he won the presidential election in 2011. There is no any other offence.
Q. But he has not come out to say he is running but is he?
A. He has not told me, but if he wants to run, it’s legitimate; it is allowed by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and this is why there shouldn’t be any hue and cry on whether he is running or not. He said recently that anybody has a right to vote, so if you don’t like a particular person, just vote him out of office. There is no need to blackmail or malign people’s character and integrity, to destabilize the country, to destroy institutions and lives and properties of Nigerians just because some people want to grab power in 2015; it’s not worth it.
Q. Last week you issued a statement saying the Federal government will not remove subsidy on fuel, but I am aware that the President has stated at the Nigeria Summit in Lagos that the government cannot continue to carry the burden of subsidy payments, so which is which?
A. He said subsidy payment is a burden and if you look at my statement I said there is no responsible leadership who preside over the economic affairs of a country like Nigeria and not worry that we are spending up to N1 trillion and above on subsidy that goes to a few companies, benefit a few importers to the disadvantage of millions of Nigerians. People are being goaded into accepting subsidy and they only derive marginal benefit from it. So any responsible leadership is bound to be burdened, and that is the limit and that is how far it goes.
It is also an evidence of a sincere leadership. The people do not want fuel subsidy to be removed, the government has complied with the wishes of the people, but that does not undermine the credibility of government’s position. The thing is; is this sustainable? If this government does not do it, another government that comes will they not consider it? Or shall we continue like this? All over the world subsidy on hydro carbons are being removed, it is not just peculiar to Nigeria. But in this particular case, it is not on the agenda. A prove of that is the fact that about nine hundred and fifty something billion has been provided for in the 2013 budget for subsidy payments, and not to do that is to commit a criminal act. So the issue does not arise at all.
Q. When government attempted to remove the subsidy completely, it met stiff resistance from Nigerians. Some palliative measures were announced by the president. One of such measures, the SURE-P is now at the centre of allegations by the ACN that the president is using it for campaign?
A. The ‘Lai’ in Lai Mohammed’s name can actually be replaced with ‘liar’. He has distorted the terrain of political activity in the country. He is totally a person that has no vision. He has a total misunderstanding of what the role of opposition is in government. The role of opposition is not just to over-dramatize or even over-politicise every issue. If the president sneezes today, Lai will say that he is not sneezing well and that this is what the ACN has always been saying. But that is not the issue. I am disappointed in the opposition. They are supposed to take us on policy issues. For instance when we say fuel subsidy should be removed, you should give us reasons why fuel subsidy must stay, come up with rationale positions. Take us up Education, Health Insurance, Infrastructural development and the role of the private sector. These are the things that the opposition should do.
Opposition is not just to make a mockery of everything. If he says SURE-P is being shared by the PDP what about the money being used now to complete the East-West road? What about the money being used to complete the Benin-Ore road? What of the money being used to improve maternal care? Are those PDP people? This is nothing but crass nonsense. But for the fact that you have asked, I have decided not to comment on these menial things anymore. This is the only thing that Lai Mohammed understands. He belongs to a school where people are not thinking. They just react off the cuff. That is not the business of opposition. I expect them to go back to the drawing board, assume they are in power and tell the people what they would do differently. We are not hearing that from ACN.
Q. Is it true that the president is thinking of reviewing the list of pardon recently granted some ex-convicts?
A. No, it’s not true
Q. Is it true that Britain has written to the Federal Government asking for former governor Alamieyeseigha to be extradited to Britain for trial and the Nigerian government refused?
A. I am not aware, but even if the FG refuses I don’t see any big issue in that. We don’t take our country seriously. There were some Russians that came and stole Nigerian crude oil. There is absolutely nothing that the Russian government did not do to ensure that the people were not tried here. They applied every diplomatic force and efforts; and these are criminals, thieves who stole our oil.
I also remember some years ago I think in Malaysia or so where a Briton was prosecuted for a serious offence and there was going to be a capital punishment; even the Queen of England went to campaign for the transfer of that person to go and serve his jail term at home. This happens all over the world; why should Nigeria release a Nigerian citizen, who committed an offence in Nigeria for which he has been punished, to Britain? What is the interest of Britain? The offence was not committed in the U.K.; it was committed against the people of this country for which our laws have punished the man and he has served his term.
Countries such as Britain go out of their way to ensure that their citizens who commit crimes in other lands are not punished. They will use every diplomatic effort to make sure that they are brought to Britain to serve their punishment. Why should we now submit our own person, it does not make sense to me. But I am not aware if they made any demand to anybody, but if they have done so and Nigeria refuses, I don’t see any problem with that.
Q. I recall you saying that some of the factors the president considered in granting pardon to Alamieyeseigha is the role he is playing to stabilize the country’s economy especially with regards to oil theft; But I don’t know if you are aware that ENI recently announced they are shutting down their operations in Bayelsa because of oil theft and Shell also announced they will have to stop operations for some time to repair a ruptured pipeline that will reduce about 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil from their operations. How do you now reconcile the role that the former governor is playing in terms of reducing oil theft and what is still going on in the Niger Delta?
A. The situation could have been worse, but for the intervention of various people including Alamieyeseigha.
Q. But at a point, incidences of oil thefts appear to be going down until all of a sudden…?
A. No no no I don’t think oil theft can be attributed to the militants in the Niger Delta; that would be a gross error. Recently, the Navy and NIMASA arrested a Russian ship carrying Nigerian crude oil. What has that got to do with the militants in the Niger Delta? It is not correct to equate the activities of militants in the Niger Delta with oil theft. Right now the Navy has told us that even the oil theft has reduced by over 60 to 70%, from 60,000 barrels a day to 23,000 barrels a day.
The point I am trying to make is that it is difficult to equate oil theft to the activities of militants in the Niger Delta.
Q. Let’s talk about the insurgency in the North now. A group of elders from the North said they visited the president and submitted a proposal detailing how to end the insurgency, but 8 months down the line, the president did not deem it fit to consider their proposal. What do you have to say about that?
A. I was not in this office when the report was submitted, but I am aware that the report was submitted to the presidency. There are many reports that are submitted to the presidency and I am sure the president and his team must have studied the report and I am sure if they find anything in the report that is useful, not just self-serving prescriptions they will implement them.
Q. It appears the general cry from the North is for the president to grant amnesty to the insurgents and the president keeps saying no to that request?
A. I don’t think that is correct. The president is not saying no. What he is saying is that there could be amnesty but there has to be some pre conditions. Amnesty cannot be granted to just any group of persons. What we are seeing in Nigeria is not unique. 80 per cent of Thai people are Buddhist worshippers, they have a small part in the Southern region whose population are mostly Muslims, and they also have Islamic fundamentalists. Insurgency started there about twenty something years ago. For most part of twenty years they have been engaged in use of force, but today they are discussing, but the discussion is between the government and the leadership of the five or so insurgent groups operating in the area.
Who are the leaders of Boko Haram? Nobody knows them.
…A lot of them are arrested
Q. That is not true, a lot of Boko Haram operatives are arrested and they are different from leaders of Boko Haram. Nigeria is a funny country. You take everything on the empirical level, look at Al-Qaeda for instance, if somebody bombs somewhere in Baghdad and you arrested him and you asked him where Bin Laden is, you think he is going to tell you? What type of crap is that?
Insurgency is a heavily secretive and modulated arrangement that operates at different levels. Beyond your level you cannot know what operates at another level.
So those that are arrested are not the leaders of Boko Haram, they are just operatives who don’t know anything about their leadership and the danger is this if for instance 1000 persons are under detention and you grant them amnesty what have you achieved?
Q.I think the first step would have been for the government to say come out nobody will arrest you, let’s talk?
A. That has already been given when the government said they are ready for dialogue.
The leadership of the north should also help the north and help the government by doing exactly what the leaders of the South South did during the militancy in Niger Delta. Leaders in the region such as Chief Clark, Alabo Graham Douglas, Alamieyeseigha, and our current president who was the Vice president at the time and various other Ijaw leadership went into the creeks and convinced the militants to accept to dialogue with the Federal Government, drop their ammunition and come out.
They then came back, briefed the president that they have spoken to them and if amnesty is granted to them they will drop their weapons.
There is no person or group from the North that has come to the government to say we have spoken to our people. In fact, the leadership in the North is even saying they themselves do not know them, so who do you grant amnesty to? People are not being honest or truthful, and there is no need to divide the country on this issue. If the whole of the north should agree, what happened to the other people in the country? The president does not govern the north alone, but the whole country. Dividing the country along regional lines is unhealthy. After all people like Bola Tinubu are not northerners but they support amnesty.
It should be a national decision, not just a northern decision. This issue of confronting the Jonathan presidency every time on every subject is unhealthy.
Q. Let’s talk about the relationship between Nigeria and the U.S. The counsellor in charge of political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Abuja was in your office. What was his mission?
A. It was just a routine courtesy call. The man was just appointed; he resumed office in September last year.
Q. But he did not convey to you the displeasure of the U.S. government over the pardon recently granted some ex- convicts?
A. It’s not his business to convey to me the displeasure of the U.S. government. They have already made that open through its spokesperson. But in spite of that displeasure, The U.S. government itself agreed that it’s a sovereign issue. The issue of pardon has nothing to do with any other country in the world. It is a Nigerian affair. Other people may approve or disapprove, but it is a sovereign matter. It’s not everybody that approves what the US does politically or otherwise. There are many areas where people don’t agree or disagree, but then it is their sovereign matter.
The visit of the counsellor today simply shows that despite everything, the relationship between Nigeria and the United States is intact and it is solid. The greatest evidence of that is the Bi-National Commission which deals with a lot of things including security, power and Energy, good governance, transparency and all that.
There is an irrevocable commitment on both sides, and it is one of the greatest assurances that our relationship is solid.