Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who has officially declared his intention to contest the presidency in 2019 on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in this exclusive interview with Olawale Olaleye and Bayo Akinloye lays out his plan to reposition the country to realise its full potential. Atiku speaks on a wide variety of issues, including youth unemployment, the troubled education system, insecurity, and restructuring. Furthermore, for the first time, he committed himself to doing just one term of four years. Excerpts:
You officially joined the race for the PDP ticket ahead of the 2019 presidential election two weeks ago. What exactly is your agenda for Nigeria?
My agenda is centred on jobs. That is what I have been doing for the past 40 years. I am first and foremost an entrepreneur. A job creator. My group of companies has a workforce of about 50,000. This does not include the hundreds of thousands that are indirectly employed. I believe in creating jobs, providing opportunities, being united as one Nigeria, and securing it all with a military-industrial complex whose raison d’être is ‘Nigeria First.’
It is a fact of life that you cannot give what you do not have. In December of 2017, the government-owned and operated National Bureau of Statistics officially revealed that 7.9 million Nigerians had lost their jobs in the 21 months immediately preceding the Buhari government. The current government cannot create jobs because it is headed and peopled by men and women who have never run successful businesses. They ran their own private businesses down. So how can you expect them to run the public’s business up? What I am assuring Nigerians is that if they elect me, I promise them that everyone who wants to work will be given opportunities.
Even this thing they are doing, called N-Power, is a product of their poverty mindset. Nigerians do not need handout. Nigerians need a leg up! Our people are not lazy. Quote me anywhere; Nigerians are the most intelligent people on God’s planet. The reason our people are living in poverty today is that our current leaders have a poverty mentality. I will give you a very good example. How can I be president and criminals will attack my people and I will tell them that the only thing I can do is pray? Then, in that case, I should be a clergyman, not a president! How can a leader open his mouth and tell his citizens that it is better to give land than to die? That is as good as telling the people that they have been conquered.
What do you think puts you shoulder above other aspirants and more so, the current president?
The number one problem facing Nigerians today is not insecurity. It is not corruption. It is not even lack of power. The most pressing problem in Nigeria today is unemployment. We have more unemployed people in Nigeria today than the combined population of the Republics of Benin and Togo multiplied by two. Two months ago, Nigeria overtook India as the world’s headquarters for extreme poverty. Not poverty, mind you, but extreme poverty. That is the highest level of poverty. It is almost as if I was born for this challenge. You may even say that the challenge is tailor-made for the unique abilities that God has given me. Atiku means Jobs.
President Buhari can’t say that. In fact, under him, the situation has deteriorated so badly. None of the other aspirants can say the same thing. Most of them have spent their entire lives being either employees of the government or employees in the private sector, which in itself is not a bad thing. However, I have created more jobs than any other person in the race.
Let me ask you a question: If you are at an airport with your private plane and you notice that the weather conditions are bad, would you go with a pilot who tells you, ‘I know how to pilot a plane’ Or, will you go with one who tells you, ‘I have piloted a plane in bad weather and here is the proof?’ The current Nigerian economic climate can be likened to bad weather. Even the government cannot pay salaries. Even the government is not employing. Yet, with all that they have done to make things difficult for me, I am still employing. I am still paying salaries.
I recently brought the Chicken Cottage franchise to Nigeria and created hundreds of new jobs. I am currently building a hospital in Abuja with the Saudi-German Hospital. Just the construction and planning alone is already providing jobs. Imagine how many jobs it will provide when it is completed. Not to mention the huge impact it will have in making healthcare accessible and affordable for Nigerians.
You have become the champion of restructuring even more than Bola Tinubu, who no longer speaks of it. President Buhari described those clamouring for restructuring as parochial. What is your reaction to that? In addition, how do you really plan to restructure the country if elected in 2019?
With all due respect, it is the refusal to even discuss restructuring that is parochial. Nigeria either restructures or it withers away. And the sad thing is that the man who made that comment does not even know the meaning of the word parochial. To be parochial is to have a limited mindset incapable of seeing reason with others. Now, who is parochial between him and those advocating restructuring?
Take something like insecurity. The other day there were killings in Plateau State and the President said the situation had got so bad there was nothing more he could do than pray. Even that statement itself is a cry for restructuring. The man is admitting that there is nothing he can do, within the current structure, other than to pray. That means the current structure, by his own admission, is not working.
If we restructured and had community policing, the man would not be in such dire straits. The Imam of Nghar village, in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau State saved 300 Christians by hiding them in his mosque during the recent crisis. By that singular act, Alhaji Abdullahi Abubakar saved 300 lives. That was a community solution to a community challenge. Now put your thinking cap on. Imagine how much safer that community would be if they practised community policing, which relied on community leaders like Imam Abdullahi Abubakar?
Even in revenue generation, I came up with the idea of matching grants when I gave a speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, on April 25, 2018. Matching grants would motivate our states to be less dependent on federal allocation and more dependent on internally generated revenue. Today, both the Federal Government and the states are broke. They depend on loans to even pay salaries and in the midst of that, someone is saying that we do not need restructuring. Reality departed from such a fellow a while ago!
How do I plan to restructure the country if elected? Restructuring is a process, not an event. However, I have said it that I would restructure Nigeria within six months of being elected. First of all, no state will get less than what they are currently getting from the federation account. In fact, they will get more. That is what my initiative of matching grant is all about. I only need a constitutional amendment if I want to take power and resources away. I do not need to amend the constitution to give power and resources away.
Let me give you an example. There are several federal government-owned assets and projects wasting away in Lagos and other states. I do not need a constitutional amendment to call the Lagos State government or governments of the other states and say take over these assets and projects and whatever monies they generate. I do not need a constitutional amendment to transfer universities from the Federal Government to the state government. I only need an Executive Order. Ditto for returning schools to the missions and religious organisations, which once owned them. The most vital part of restructuring is the devolution of powers, not the accumulation of powers and it is easier to give powers away than to take them from the federating units.
As you know, restructuring is not particularly popular among the northern elite. How are you going to convince them that this is the best way to realise Nigeria’s economic and human capital potentials?
That is a myth. Unfortunately, this presumption has discouraged many true proponents of restructuring. Those who perpetuate this falsehood are attempting to rewrite history. Let me tell you, when General Aguiyi Ironsi came up with the controversial Unification of Assets Decree No. 34 of 1966, it was not the West or Midwest that resisted it. It was not the East. It was the North that rejected it and for good reason. Northern Nigeria is capable of feeding not just the whole of Nigeria, but the whole of Africa. That was why the Sardauna was so happy with the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in the East. He was not threatened by it. He was overjoyed. His vision was that the North would grow more food that the other regions would be in a better position to buy. Is that not genius? Does that sound like someone who would be against restructuring?
Now coming back to the present time, even though Nigeria did not become the world football champions at the World Cup, I am so glad that our Russia 2018 World Cup Team was constituted the way it was. Ahmed Musa, a northerner, was the Most Valued Player on the Super Eagles squad. He delivered goals. Ahmed Musa has proved some people’s fears to be unfounded. Through his talents, he has demonstrated that there is no part of Nigeria that is without talents. He has shown that we can run our government and our civil service based on merit, instead of ethnicity and religion.
Just last week, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board revealed that the best overall scorer in this year’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination came from Borno State. Borno State! Think about that!
Stereotypes are dying. Let us give them a proper burial and move on without them. There is support for restructuring nationwide and there is resistance to it countrywide. Let us not make northerners a convenient scapegoat just because Buhari, who does not want restructuring, is a northerner.
The entire educational system in the country has collapsed. We now produce fourth grade graduates. Nigerian universities are hardly among the top 500 universities in the world. Our public schools are in a sorry state because leaders like you have not done what you ought to have done. Now that you have broken with that class of leaders and you tell us that you want to solve the problem, tell us where you are going to start from and how you are going to do this?
Well, you can only hold me vicariously liable as a member of the political class, but you cannot hold me personally responsible because when our administration came into being in 1999 the situation was already bad. However, by 2007 when we left, we made it better than we met it. Our administration increased the salaries of teachers and lecturers. We committed a higher sectorial allocation to education than what was the norm before us. And when you look at what I have done in my personal capacity, you must admit that, perhaps, no other individual or group of individuals has committed the quantum of investments I have committed to education.
I did not found the American University of Nigeria, Yola, to make money. It is my biggest community development project. Chibok girls are there on scholarship. I was an indigent student. I was an orphan as a child. So I know what it is to struggle. As a result, the American University of Nigeria, Yola, has opened up its doors to those who would not ordinarily have been able to attend. If we want to fix education in Nigeria, we must do the same thing. We must commit to investing in education because no other investment yields a greater interest.
If I am elected as the president, I would sit with the heads of the legislature and the judiciary and appeal to their sense of nationalism. We must all reduce our recurrent expenditure so that we can collectively increase our investments in the education sector. The fastest way out of Third World status for any nation is by educating youths and women.
The whole purpose of the National Youth Service Corps was to improve national cohesion by involving Nigerian graduates in the development of the country. If I am elected as the president, all members of the National Youth Service Corps would have only three options on where to serve. You either teach, or you farm or you treat people in a hospital or clinic. No exception, even if you are my own biological child or grandchild.
Courtesy: This Day newspapers