In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, conducted before President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn-in, respected American-based Nigerian journalist, Laolu Akande, says former President Goodluck Jonathan was never competent to rule Nigeria.
He also speaks on how he coordinated the Diaspora campaign of the Buhari/Osinbajo ticket, his expectation of the new government, Okonjo-Iweala’s management of the nation’s economy, terrorism in Nigeria and other issues.
PT: Why are you here in Nigeria?
Akande: I am here to follow up on the build-up to the inauguration. I am known publicly to support the Buhari/ Osinbajo ticket. I was the campaign’s Diaspora liaison and I am also on the media team. We are here basically for the build-up to the inauguration.
PT: Are you participating in the inauguration?
Akande: Well, I will be at the inauguration.
PT: Are you a member of any of the committees?
Akande: No, I am a member of the media and I am also the liaison for the Nigerians in Diaspora.
PT: So, are you now a member of the APC?
Akande: No and that is why I have also said that this is beyond APC. It is a movement and I volunteered to work in the media. They also asked me to be the Diaspora liaison on a voluntary basis.
PT: Is the role you are playing in this whole campaign not affecting your journalism career?
Akande: When I endorsed them (Buhari/ Osinbajo), it was public. I wrote an article saying that I am going to be supporting this ticket and I am going to do more than just supporting them. It was not just by word of mouth that I will be supporting them. One of the reasons why I did that was because I saw an opportunity that this ticket should win and I did not want to stay on the fence. I said that too, that a time for fence sitting was over. Now how does that affect my journalism? I created Empowered Newswire when I started doing other things, for instance, when I became a pastor and I did not want to give up my reporting.
I started Empowered Newswire which is a collection of just a few freelance reporters in the US to be doing stories so that my own personal name can be removed from it. And then I am not a hired reporter for anybody. Basically, I freelance for Guardian; I used to be the Northern Bureau for the Guardian in the US. If I am a journalist that is working full-time with a media organisation I will have to take leave from that organization to be involved in this. But as a freelance journalist, I am on nobody’s payroll. I pay myself and that gives me the leverage.
PT: What are the things you did to support the APC ticket?
Akande: Well, most of my work is in the area of media advisory. Then in the Diaspora, we organised the town hall for the vice presidential candidate then. We gave them the idea that ‘see, you guys should come and talk to Nigerians in Diaspora; they are a very important part of the whole thing.’ 0ver $26 billion is formally remitted from Nigerians in the US alone. This does not include money that somebody will say ‘please can you give my wife five thousand and so on.’ So, I said this is a very important part of the Nigerian populace. Even though they are not voting, they have a lot of influence. So they came and we organised it. We set up a committee. I was the moderator of the event. So that was the main thing that I did for them.
PT: During this time too, you were doing a lot of writing in support of the campaign…
Akande: Empowered Newswire was reporting once in a while and it is not only me. That’s why I was telling you that there are times when I put my name and at such times I want it to reflect but a lot of the times when I have the story I send people out to go and investigate. There was never a time my reportorial job, which was freelance, affected me. And that was again why I made it open. I said I was going to be supporting these people. Many of us should not be on the fence. And honestly, I think it paid off.
PT: So why did you support this ticket?
Akande: The reason I got involved beyond support is because of my activities in the Christian Association of Nigeria American (CANAN). As the Executive Director of CANAN, I have met with a lot of victims of Boko Haram. It is ridiculous. I met some victims even before the Chibok situation and that is why I tell reporters in the US that they are now shouting because of the Chibok girls. Before that time, there had been kidnappings and abductions. Up till now, the first thing that I got personally involved with, we don’t even know what has happened. They kidnapped this guy who was in Bible school – a study teacher – in Maiduguri. I’m trying to remember his name now. His wife narrated this story. The man was a bible study teacher. In 2012, the Boko Haram terrorists came into the house and told the man, “Are you prepared to give up your Christian faith today? Or we are going to kill you.” And the guy was preparing for bible study. He started to pray and said today I’m going to meet my maker. And they shot him, killed him in the presence of his wife, and two of her daughters, 7 and 9 years were there screaming from the trauma. Guess what these terrorists did. They kidnapped those two girls and took them away just because they screamed.
And then three months after they went back to that same house and killed the only son of this man. I have dealt personally with several of such stories, and I put the blames squarely on the government. And the thing has become impunity – doing as they like and they will come in and go out without any kind of resistance from government. And I said the only way we are going to stop this is to change the government. And I said that if these people do not pick Buhari, I will personally play my part to ensure that there is a change. So that was how I got personally involved. That was actually the trigger to get involved.
PT: Before then did you have any personal relationship with the vice president-elect even as a pastor?
Akande: No, my first meeting with him was in December 2012. He came to New York. He was honoured by the Nigerian Lawyers Association which holds an annual dinner. That was the first time I met him. But you know he is a public intellectual, one of the best public policy persons that have been produced in Nigeria. He is certainly one of the best.
PT: What essentially is your view about the Jonathan government?
Akande: Now, Jonathan is not, in my view a bad person, but Jonathan is comprehensively incompetent. The guy never wanted to be president, to be fair to him, at the beginning. He never wanted to be president. He was just happy to be the deputy governor and then the governor; it was not in his plan or his aspirations; he had no preparations. The governor or president of any country let alone a country of 170 million people is not a joke. It’s not a joke. So, I understand he was incompetent because it was never in his plan.
PT: But he has a Ph.D.
Akande: He has but do you think it actually prepared him? The fact that he had a Ph.D. does not mean it prepared him for the job of becoming a president of a complicated and diverse country like Nigeria. I had an interview with Nigerian Tribune newspaper last year and they asked me if I will support Jonathan for a second time? My answer was that he first of all had to find out where those Chibok girls were.
How can you be president and these girls were abducted like that. We know that there have been several abductions but these girls must be found first. And I think Jonathan should have actually bowed out. He did not want to be president but became president, six years in office. He has nothing else to offer Nigerians. So apart from the insecurity, the Boko Haram situation, apart from the fact that corruption has become the order of the day, apart from the fact that corruption has become even an institution in Nigeria, Mr. President does not really have anything else to offer.
And then you compare that to Buhari and Osinbajo. The major problem of the country is security and Buhari can deal with it; he can deal with corruption. Now, what people do not know is that when Bola Tinubu was going to bring out Osinbajo in 1999, they did not have a relationship before that time. People did not know that. Tinubu said to his lawyer friends and associates, ‘look, find me a lawyer who cannot be corrupted.’
That was what happened; that was how they brought Osinbajo. And think about it, why did he support Osinbajo who is not a regular politician and he did not support some of the governors, why? This is because of Osinbajo’s personal integrity. He is cerebrally sound. The guy is brilliant. When he came for the town hall in the US – Maryland, I was the moderator and at a point I said it was enough. But the man said, “No, I am going to answer everybody’s question.” And he answered virtually all the questions. I don’t think there was anybody that left that place that had a question that was not answered. We need that level of competence and preparedness. A professor tweeted thus, “We hope that Nigerians will let the people who can do the job, do it” This was a guy that was very prepared to serve put beside Buhari. For me, we have not had it as good as that. So, I was not ready to let that opportunity pass. Yes, we could have lost but I made up my mind.
PT: How did CANAN break away from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which was backing the president (Mr. Jonathan) to pursue this?
Akande: The leadership of CANAN took a decision that as a group, we were not going to use CANAN for political ends. And we stood by that. Everything I did was in my personal capacity.
PT: You are not affiliated to CAN?
Akande: Our relationship to CAN is a free one. Most people make the confusion thinking that we are CAN in America. No, the American law does not allow that. So CANAN is independent but we recognize CAN as a brother association. They have a platform in Nigeria. We want to offer humanitarian services and we thought that CAN is there. Yes, our relationship has been sometimes tested because we do not agree on many things. On the N7 billion allegation of inducement I think they denied the inducement. And we asked the people who made the allegation to give us more evidence and the guy basically backed out. We made a statement that if these allegations are true, CANAN condemns it. We said that but there was no proof. And I think if somebody comes to the public place and makes an allegation and he cannot back it up, we have to rest it.
PT: What do you think are Jonathan’s achievements?
Akande: I think Jonathan has contributed to the expansion of Nigeria’s democratic space. He was bold enough to appoint somebody like Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman. That was a bold decision. And I think Jonathan has some democratic credentials. I think we should give him that credit. I think also Jonathan was able to appoint someone who has brought a significant change in the agricultural sector. I think that he was also very right in bringing back Okonjo-Iweala although she has really messed up our reputation big time. I was there in 2003 when El-Rufai midwifed the coming of Okonjo-Iweala.
PT: You mean El-Rufai is responsible for Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment in 2003?
Akande: You can quote me. El-Rufai was the man that facilitated how Okonjo-Iweala became the Finance minister. It was El-Rufai that did the ground work.
PT: How did he do that?
Akande: Maybe you should tell that story (laughs). The point I was trying to make is that the excitement Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment elicited is no longer there. Remember that when she came, Obasanjo made sure that Nigeria’s debt was cleared off. Where is Nigeria’s debt now? Do you know that Nigeria now owes more money than when Okonjo-Iweala came the first time? Do you know that Nigeria is now paying 21 per cent of its income as debt servicing again and she is there? Don’t even talk about the devaluation of the naira. But if you look at those, I’m actually concerned for her reputation. Yes, you know, Yale (University) gave her an award but I think Yale was totally misled. Okonjo-Iweala is a big disappointment.
PT: So, are you saying Yale should be pressured to withdraw the award?
Akande: I do not know whether Yale will ever do that. You know they are sufficiently self-assured. But I think we should call Yale out that Yale has acted in a way that does not edify it. That is not in line with the ideals that we know Yale for. Giving Okonjo-Iweala this honour at this time is not only insensitive by Yale, but also a show that they can do whatever they like with Nigeria. They did not do a good job; they totally demonstrated their ignorance for their outright unfair attitude.
PT: Looking at Nigeria’s past leaders, how would you rate Mr. Jonathan among these past leaders?
Akande: Yes, like a said, I think Jonathan’s obituary is going to be, “The guy who handed over power to another political party for the first time in Nigeria.” And that is good for him. As a matter of fact, the vice president of America, Joe Biden in his public statement said that Jonathan should consider picking up some international role. The international community will embrace him. By conceding that election, he did very well. Now we can talk about a lot of other inconsistencies and stuff like that but we have to give him that credit. So I think his place is secured and I hope his hand is not going to be caught in the jar.
PT: What do think about his political future? Can he run again?
Akande: I know that his party will not present him again; Ebenezer Babatope, one of the BOT members has said that will not happen. Of course, some of the BOT members have said they will not present him. But I think he is trying to reorganize the party as he has said. What he has just done recently is very unadvisable – you remove the northern chairman of the party, I think removing Adamu Mu’azu was a wrong mistake. It was a wrong move. You have about 19 states in the North. Whatever you want to do I think you should have taken your time to think. I don’t see what Mu’azu did was responsible for his failure so much as what Jonathan did not do! Jonathan must be the one to take the blame for the loss of PDP in the presidential and generally in the election. I’m not saying that Mu’azu has no blame but it is not really about Muazu. We all know that the president is the leader of the party and so he has greater influence. If I were the president I would not advise them to remove Mu’azu, certainly not now.
PT: You said that the party would not present Mr. Jonathan again, why would they not present him again?
Akande: Why would they present him again?
PT: Jonathan is still very young, how come you don’t you think he still stands a chance?
Akande: Jonathan has the right to contest again but it would be foolishness.
PT: Are you saying he does not have electoral value?
Akande: I told you that this is my own personal opinion. I think it would be foolishness. What would he be campaigning now? What would he be offering the people that he could not offer them now? He came to Lagos and was sharing money to people in his hotel room as president.
PT: Can’t he share money again or are you saying he would be out of money?
Akande: I am saying that hopefully they should have gotten the act of this country right to know that the way to win election is not by distributing money. You know there was a story in the Punch newspaper that said that Jonathan was asking them to please bring back his money. That was indicting, very comprehensive story. It is not about the money. You had six years to prove conclusively that you deserve another four. The guy did a woeful job.
PT: So by that you are saying the party should just forget him?
Akande: I think ultimately it is either PDP reinvents itself or if Jonathan wants to comes back then……. If he has a plan to reorganize the party it just shows that he has some democratic credentials but not for him to come back.
PT: Do you think he would have a place in the international community?
Akande: Oh yes! I would not be surprised if the UN offers him something good. They always have opportunities for people to be special envoys for the Secretary General. I won’t be surprised at all, because it is important to encourage what he has done. It is important to let people know that is how things are done.
PT: But what would he have done in an election he was defeated, especially with the warning from the International Criminal Court?
Akande: I share that sentiment but at the same time I still think we should give him the credit that is due to him. And I see your point -somebody elected in a position and you do what you are supposed to do and everybody is rejoicing. Come on, that’s what you are supposed to do. You did the right thing but should be acknowledged for doing the extra – ordinary thing. In a country where doing the right thing has become so unpopular, so out of the way. People do not even get to do the right thing anymore. Someone builds a 10-kilometre road and you think he should come back as the governor? Come on, he only did the right thing. Way beyond that, Nigerians deserve better.
PT: So, what kind of changes do you expect from Buhari /Osinbajo?
Akande: We expect that there will be consequences for corruption; that is so important for people to know that if they catch your hand in the cooking jar, you are going to jail. When you are caught, you go down with it. Number two: the insecurity in the North East. This Boko Haram thing has to be totally and completely degraded. The terrorists holding territories must come to an end.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted shortly before the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari as president.