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.
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?
I was shocked to find out that Nigerians spend a billion dollars to educate their children in Ghana every year. When you add the cost of educating their wards in Europe and America, you are looking at a further $1 billion. I am assuring you that if we invest in our education sector and make it as good as Ghana’s and definitely even better, that $2 billion will no longer leave Nigeria. It will circulate internally and boost the quality of our education and the value of our Naira.
Recently, you were said to have promised to devote 21 per cent of your national budget to education. Tell us, how you will do this because we actually need a concrete plan of action and specificity in this regard?
Yes, I did make that commitment and I make it here again. I pledge that if I am chosen by my party, the Peoples Democratic Party, to be its presidential candidate, and if I am subsequently elected as the President by Nigerians, I will go above and beyond the United Nations’ recommendations and ensure that a minimum of 21 per cent of the federal budget is devoted to education. Beyond that, I will reserve 10 per cent of that amount to further and continuous education for our public school teachers. Nigeria’s education sector must progress from creating job seekers. We must train our teachers to train our children to be job creators as well.
As for the specifics, for the last 10 years, Nigeria has budgeted the equivalent of $30 billion at the federal level, give or take. Twenty-one per cent of that is about $6.5 billion. I already mentioned to you that if elected as the president, I would sit with the heads of the legislature and the judiciary for the purpose of coming to an agreement on how we can scale down our overheads.
On the side of the executive, there are so many things we can cut down on. Recently, I wanted to go to Azerbaijan and I found out that they don’t have an embassy in Nigeria or any other country near Nigeria. To get a visa, you apply online to their foreign office.
Nigeria maintains literally hundreds of embassies and foreign missions in multiple nations that we really do not need. We can close down two-thirds of these missions and have one embassy service as many as four nations in the geographic vicinity. We can use technology to provide consular services.
In 2018, we budgeted N63 billion for recurrent expenditure in foreign affairs. Under an Atiku presidency, we would spend only a quarter of that. The rest will go to education.
In the same budget, we are spending N1 trillion paying salaries for our military and paramilitary officers and men, and less than half of that paying salaries in the education sector. As an educator, I see the problem immediately. The less you spend on education the more you have to spend on security. The more you spend on education the less you have to spend on security. It is interconnected. We are having to spend so much on defence because over the years we have not invested enough in education. Beginning from my first year, I will reverse that. The money will be re-channelled to education.
In the 2018 budget, we have N112 billion going to the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. To do what? Award grass cutter contracts? Under an Atiku administration, whoever is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation just has to find a way to manage 10 per cent of that money. The rest will go to education. I am serious about this. This is not rhetoric. I have achieved it in my private capacity as an educator and if given the chance, I will replicate it in Nigeria’s public sector.
Nigeria nationalised education in 1975 and that has been the root of the crisis in the education sector. How would you resolve that particular issue of centralised control of education that has destroyed the educational system? Would you allow states to have total control over education, limiting federal intervention to the barest level? And how would you use the increased budgetary allocation to education you have proposed to ensure our education is more relevant to the economic and scientific growth of the country?
I believe I answered the first part of your question when I said I would use Executive Orders to devolve some powers. To be more specific, by Executive Order, the President can hand over universities to the states in which they are located. By Executive Order, the President can also hand over all unity secondary schools to the states in which they are located. Where these schools were taken over by the Federal Government from religious bodies and missions, they should be returned to such religious bodies and missions.
As to the second part of your question, the bulk of the 21 per cent sectorial allocation will not go towards paying salaries, as is currently the case. Almost half will go towards infrastructure and capacity building. I will set up a fund for the compulsory training and continuous education of all Nigerian teachers. I will issue an Executive Order mandating that all Nigerian schools must be WiFi-equipped at federal government expense. We will work with the private sector to take in students as interns so that they can learn on the job during their holidays and the federal government will be responsible for paying these students a learning bursary.
Our research and development agencies will be retooled. They must deliver. How could the Buhari administration be considering importing grass from Brazil when we have research agencies like the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, and the non-government owned International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan? I would order our research agencies to work with fully Nigerian-owned businesses, like Innoson Motors. Because of the immense successes we have had at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, I know that Nigeria as a whole can have similar successes.
Are you going to devolve responsibilities for education to the states? And how will you engender competition among the states to ensure that the educational system is merit-driven?
I already answered this question and in some detail too. As to the second part of your question, the federal government will retain ministries and agencies, like the ministry of education and the National Universities Commission and other agencies for other levels of education to ensure that minimal national standards are in force in institutions. As long as these institutions maintain these standards, the federal government will continue to intervene in those institutions through the initiatives I already outlined.
Some people are worried about your age. Many also say that you don’t have the cult-like followership that Buhari has, to be able to win the election. The belief is that even though you have national support, winning the presidential election is still going to be a tall order. What is your reaction to this?
How old am I versus the incumbent? I know when I was born. This is my exact age. I do not have a football age. But the issue is even beyond age. It is about fitness. I am fit. I am ready to publish my medical records and I challenge all those who are running, including the incumbent, to give that same assurance. As to the cult-like following, yes, you are right, I am not a cultist, nor will I ever be. The history of the human race has shown that personality cults do more harm than good. But if this cult is so powerful, how come it could not help elect Muhammadu Buhari in 2003, 2007 and 2011? How come Nasir el-Rufai, my former protégé, said on October 4, 2010 that Buhari is ‘perpetually unelectable’?
The truth, which you and I know, is that without the support of Bola Tinubu, Buhari would not have been elected as the President, his cult followership notwithstanding.
Some have also said that your chances of being president would be enhanced if you commit to only one term so that you will be the bridge between the old and the future. Would you commit to one term only?
Of course, I would! I have said this before on my own initiative. I believe in it. If I am elected as the President in 2019, I give an undertaking that I would only do one term.
Having said that, let me remind Nigerians that Buhari also gave such an undertaking in 2011, but he is not living up to it today. My own case will be different. I am prepared to sign an undertaking to do only one term.
Are you not just saying this to get the ticket and, ultimately, get elected after which you would feel no obligation to honour your words? But how do you make us believe you, since Buhari, as you have said, failed to honour his own 2011 pledge?
I am not Muhammadu Buhari. I do not make promises I cannot keep. I am assuring Nigerians that I will keep this promise. I am making it out here in the open. I am willing to sign a written document. If you or any other Nigerian can come up with an iron-clad legal document that binds me, I am willing to publicly commit to it.