Ahead of the presidential primary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), holding today in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, one of the aspirants, a former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, featured in a media chat organised by the United Nigeria Group (UNG) in Abuja. JACOB SEGUN OLATUNJI, who was there, presents excerpts from the chat.
Why do you want to be president?
I want the job of the president of Nigeria because more than any other time in the history of our democracy, I think we need a leadership that has the experience, the capacity and the know-how. And our most challenging issues in the country today are unemployment and creation of unity in the country and in states. I believe I am more suitable to handle all these. As a civil servant, I worked in the federal bureaucracy for 20 years. As a politician, I served successfully for eight years as the vice president and in that position, I chaired the economic team and brought so many innovations which led to creation of jobs, thousands of them, and creation of wealth and prosperity and relative peace and stability by our administration. Again, if you look at my private sector experience, I have been a farmer and an investor. If you put all these experiences together, that gives me the advantage over some of my contemporaries. Not that they don’t have something to put on the table – each and every one of them have something to put on the table – but some can put more on the table than the others.
I believe the country requires all of these that I enumerated. In fact, since the civil war, I have not seen Nigeria in such a bad shape. Our unemployment rate is the highest. Over 12 million men and women are unemployed. Our growth is at its lowest. When this administration took over, we were growing at the GDP rate of six per cent to seven per cent. They took over and crashed it and dragged the nation into recession. We are trying to come out of recession at about 1.6 per cent growth, considering the growth of our population. Any country whose economic growth is below its population growth is in a danger. That is the danger facing our country today. So, anybody who can lift our economy to a level where our GDP growth will surpass our population growth, I think, is the leader we should choose at this point. We should seize the opportunity to take our country out of this crisis, and that is what I stand for.
Why should PDP delegates vote for you?
As I said, currently, the country is doing very badly in terms of jobs, in terms of economic growth, in terms of prosperity, in terms of the unity of our country, in terms of security. I believe I have the experience and the capacity to deal with these issues more than any one of them, because I have dealt with such issues before. I assembled the best economic team and everybody attested to what we achieved in those eight years. We liberalised the economy, expanded private sector participation and tried to limit the focus of the government on the necessary issues. If the policies we started were continued, today, we would be in a better situation. We need somebody who can continue with these policies so that we can bring back our prosperity and create more jobs for our unemployed youths. The most important thing is to choose the person who can put this country back on the path of growth. I am so sure that I am that person.
If you get the mandate, how will you rally the 12 other aspirants to support you to run the country?
There is no single aspirant that I have not visited to ask for his support. Fortunately, each and every one of them brings something to the table and one is different from the other. I believe it will not be a problem for me bringing them together to participate in government or support it in whatever capacity they can. Government is such a very big deal in Nigeria even though my dream is that by the time I leave office, the government will be smaller. There is room to accommodate every one of them, so I am talking to them and we are interacting.
How will you manage the economy and create more jobs for Nigerian youths?
When we came in in 1999, a barrel of crude oil was less than 10 dollars. We met less than $5 billion in our foreign reserve. With all that, we were still able to manage the economy of the country to the extent that we paid all our foreign debts and became debt-free. In terms of managing our economy, we must formulate economic reform policies. Part of it is opening up the country to foreign investors. It is extremely important to open up the country to foreign investors. Management of the micro economy policies is also very important. We were able to turn around the economy then and I don’t think is an impossible task to do now. If we are given the opportunity, I believe it is doable.
What do you make of the clamour for restructuring?
There is the need to restructure the polity. Unless we restructure the polity and give more power and resources to the geopolitical zones, we are not likely to see much. If you concentrate all the powers in the federal government just like we are seeing now, you are going to stifle growth and initiative. I think the best way to get the geopolitical zones developed and prosper is to give more powers and resources to them. Definitely, we need to review our political structure to ensure diversification of the economy and growth across the country.
It is obvious that this restructuring cannot be achieved without the involvement of the National Assembly, how will you go about it?
It requires political sagacity. I have done it before. During our administration, I was in charge of dealing with the National Assembly, and we did not encounter any challenge as we have today. There were different political parties and other differences were there and they will continue to be there. It requires me to get someone with the skills and experience to deal with the National Assembly to achieve the restructuring agenda. I will work perfectly with the National Assembly to achieve those fundamental issues like restructuring, economic growth, diversification, unity and security.
You talked about getting someone with the skills to handle the National Assembly, what skills?
Well, it all depends on how you relate with the members of the National Assembly. I have done that before for our administration. Even when the president was faced with an impeachment threat, I negotiated with the National Assembly members. We have our own ways of handling issues and they make us outstanding.
What do you have in store for youths and women?
What I have for the youth is jobs and education. Our education has witnessed serious setbacks in the sense that we are producing graduates who are not employable in the labour market. We should have entrepreneurship as a fundamental issue in our syllabus. I have seen it work in my university. Whatever course you are studying, you must also do entrepreneurship. That is why graduates from my university are the biggest job creators. As soon as they come out, they create jobs.
To employ about 12 million youths, there is the need to bring investors into the country so that they can absorb these graduates. But we also have to train them on how to be self-employed. Today, I see the government giving people N10,000. How can someone set up a business with that? I own one of the most successful microfinance banks in this country. I work with people from Bangladesh because they are best when it comes to the microfinance system. We have moved about 45,000 families out of poverty.
And what is the best way to move a family out of poverty? It is to empower the woman. Because of this, I directed the bank to give 80 per cent of its loan to women. They have been implementing that policy and today, we are one of the most successful microfinance banks in Nigeria. Because women repay, take more and look after their families. I am a product of a woman. I lost my father at a very tender age and my mother was doing all kinds of businesses to look after me and I became what I am today. So, honestly, the best policy to move families out of poverty is to empower the women. If you do that, you will see how fast you get out of poverty, particularly now that Nigeria has been decimated as the capital of poverty in the world. We need to engage our women to turn our fortune around for good.
What will you do about the issue of insecurity, especially in the North East?
The general security situation in the North East is regrettable. Honestly, I cannot understand the reason. I always try to look at our history even though we have abandoned history, which is very important for us to grow. I always try to compare what is taking place in the North East and when we fought the civil war. The civil war lasted for 30 months and we have been fighting untrained militants for nine years. I want to know why. I really want to know why and I cannot know why until I am inside. During our administration, between 2001 and 2003, such a thing tried to come up in Yobe State but we crushed it immediately. I really want to know why we have been fighting a group of untrained youths for nine years. A whole powerful Nigeria, it will be difficult to say this is what I will do until I go inside and find out why we are fighting this war for more than nine years. The situation is completely unacceptable. It does not even make sense. Look at the huge number of the men of the Nigerian Army, well trained, with all the sophisticated equipment and look at the young men, untrained, with AK 47, yet we cannot defeat them. I really want to know why. Something must be happening.
With all these great ideas, what is that which is wrong with Nigeria that stops someone like you from getting elected?
It is what I call the conspiracy theory of the political elite if you are not going to be used, if you are not going to satisfy their personal aspirations. Part of the problem they have with me is that they say I am independent and principled. Honestly, it is the conspiracy of the political elite and unfortunately, the Nigerian public is not politically sophisticated to override the conspiracy of these political elites. They rely on the political elites to direct them.
You have moved from one political party to another, how do you hope to prove your faithfulness and consistency?
Tell me one political leader who has been consistent on a political platform; none of them has not changed parties. But changing parties is not the issue. Have you been consistent in what you believe in, your policies? I think that is the most important thing. Changing parties is part of our political development process.
Why has there been no ministerial appointment for any Abuja indigene?
In 1994/1995, when I served in the Constitutional Assembly to draft the present constitution, what would make provision for FCT was a mayor. But when it was reviewed under General Abdulsalami [Abubakar], they dropped the areas we recommended and substituted them with what you call area councils. So, as far as I am concerned, it is an error that can be corrected. There is absolutely no law that says you should appoint the FCT minister from among the indigenes of Abuja. But he should be a resident of Abuja. If we want to build a nation, we must remove this issue of indigene. So, any resident of Abuja can be elected as a mayor when we correct it.
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