Malam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, says, in this exclusive interview, that the budget passed by the National Assembly was not accompanied by details, hence President Buhari will await the details before giving assent. Shehu also speaks on Nigeria’s membership of the Islamic anti-terrorist coalition, Buhari’s foreign trips and other issues.
Q: The National Assembly has just passed the 2016 Appropriation Bill. How soon should Nigerians expect the President’s assent?
A: That would be done as soon as the National Assembly presents the details to the President. Yes, the National Assembly has passed the budget and sent the bill to the President but the details did not come with the bill. Of course, the President cannot sign something without seeing the details. The normal practice is that the details would have accompanied the bill. When the President presented the Appropriation bill it was accompanied by the details. So that is what we expect and I hope that in less than a week they should be able to conclude whatever work they are doing on the details, and when they do that they would convey to the president for assent. Donât forget that the Executive would look at it. I am not saying that we are not in a hurry ourselves; everybody wants to see things start moving. The country had N3trillion in the Central Bank from the TSA money that would be spent in improving the economy of the country. We are waiting for the details and we will look at it in the hope that there are no major differences that would warrant the President going back to the parliament to ask for changes to be made. Going by the Constitution, the President can even withhold assent; he can veto but we are not expecting that. But as I earlier said, you cannot talk about what you have not seen so let the budget come in details and the president will look at it and decide whether to put his signature on it or withhold it if it calls for clarifications.
Q: The President has made quite a number of foreign trips to the extent that tongues have started wagging over the propriety of such trips. What would you say are the benefits of the President’s foreign trips?
A: As much as we can we have tried to offer explanations on this matter. Since his inauguration the President of Nigeria has never embarked on a visit just for the fun of it. They are trips or visits that are majorly ceremonial and leaders do this. In the case of President Buhari, the visits he has undertaken are always driven by purpose. There are objectives for each trip and as much as possible, upon his return explanations are made as to what objectives had been achieved. There are meetings that are UN meetings which are put on the calendar every year and the President of Nigeria has a duty to the country and the international system to be present. Nigerians would themselves not like their president should he be missing from the United Nations Assembly while other leaders are seated. Visits to other countries have been driven largely at the initial stage by his attempt to gain a very strong solidarity among the neighbours in order to counter Boko Haram terrorism and I think much of that has been achieved. The multi-national Joint Task Force which had existed on paper has come into place. It is not 100 percent yet and, of course, you can also understand that the neighbours we have are not as well-endowed as Nigeria. If Nigeria would commit 8000 troops and supply weapons and other logistics, our neighbours are offering 1800. We would be challenged to raise money unless somebody is willing to pay. By and large I think, like the president himself has said, by the middle of this year the multiânational Joint Task Force would be fully in place in every country that would have taken their own position. But the Boko Haram terrorism threat has been minimized. As I speak to you, an important football match between Egypt and Nigeria is playing in Kaduna. Who would have imagined that anybody would take a soccer match to Kaduna some time back? So normalcy has resumed. No city in the the country is under a curfew. Roadblocks have mostly been removed except in exigencies or otherwise those roadblocks that have been routinized. Even in Maiduguri, as we speak, there is nightlife. That has fetched us a lot of results and international support has come in from the Europeans, America, France and the United Kingdom. Countries have been supporting us with intelligence, equipment and training. In terms of business, we have gotten so much commitment and we are still getting more from foreign countries, especially with cash reserves. We just came back a few weeks ago from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that rank among the highest in terms of foreign currency reserves. They have money that they can bring to Nigeria. It is now up to Nigeria to decide the projects that we want to prioritize are. Sadly enough, every negative thing about the Niger Delta is back in place now. The crude oil theft, kidnapping, pipeline vandalism and piracy on the high sea are in full swing. Nothing has changed from the days of pre-amnesty. So the President said, âlook, letâs go to our neighbours and talk to them and see how we can jointly police the Gulf of Guinea, which is between ourselves. They have become the exit way for criminals with a lot of damage to our economy, including piracy on the high sea. So, quite a lot has been achieved.
Q: That brings to mind the recent decision to join the Soudi Arabia-backed Islamic anti-terrorist coalition which has also generated a lot of criticisms. What is the true position of Nigeriaâs membership of this coalition?
A: Before I go into the merits or demerits of the coalition, I think the President of Nigeria needs the support he has gotten from religious leaders in the country, be they Muslims or Christians. It is enormous and nobody can take that for granted. Yes, we have had outcries, but let me say that on the day the President said we are going into the Islamic alliance against terror he said, âI am doing this for the national interest; overriding national interest is what is warranting this and I donât care what bigots would say.â He didnât rule out the possibility of opposition; he expected that it would come from people who are unable to see the bigger picture. Culturally speaking, we have a proverb which says that your enemyâs enemy is your friend. So logically speaking, whoever is fighting terror in the world should be your friend. We donât have to look at their background. The President, earlier in the administration, went to the G-7 which, with due respect, is not a coalition of Islamic countries. In terms of religion they are majorly Christians. The G-7 does not comprise black people like us, they are majorly whites, but because they want to assist Nigeria to achieve its objectives, he went there and placed his cards on the table seeking for help. He went to the United States of America and without looking at ideological or religious orientation, he said, I need your help.
So, isn’t it curious that the Muslim countries are the ones who suffer the worst terrorism? Look at Syria now, they have an understanding of the so-called Islamic terror, perhaps more than those who have already offered to help us. They want to sit down with us and share intelligence, may be give us weapons to help fight terrorism and more than any other thing, to even help us rebuild the Northeast. If all of the budget that we have this year is pumped into the Northeast alone, it canât repair all the schools that have been damaged, all the hospitals, the Churches, Mosques, markets, bridges and the roads. So you need international support to even feed the more than 2million people in IDP camps. For goodness sake those who criticize should go to Adamawa and Borno states and visit IDPs camps, I can bet you are going to find more Christian charity organizations supplying free food and donating tents to the victims who are Muslims. Those people are in need of help and will appreciate whoever will give them bread to put in their mouth. They need rice, water and shelter, and education for the children. And when such help comes they donât ask whether you are a Muslim or Christian; they just need it. So people are just being petty in their thinking when they begin to introduce elements of religiosity into this matter. The President is looking well beyond that; he has a larger view of things and he thinks that all we need is peace in our country. Whether the Chibok girls are brought home by Christians or Muslims does not matter to the parents. All they want is, Can I have my daughter back? That is the vision that the President has.
Q: In specific terms, what does Nigeria stand to gain from this coalition?
A: We stand to gain knowledge and insight into what has largely come to be known as terrorism, coming from radicalized versions of Islam. We stand to gain intelligence, because these people are networking. Before we realized it Boko Haram was in alliance with the ISIS. They were the ones who said they were going into partnership with ISIS and the ISIS immediately responded by saying they welcome Boko Haram. Therefore, it has been internationalized and you cannot lock yourself up around Lake Chad and say you don’t want to listen to what is happening. Do you know that some of the arrests that had been made or the victims who had been shot and killed in this war, are not even black men? Where are they coming from? And the sophistication of their weapons, where is it coming from? If you don’t network in the international system you are unlikely to know where their resources are coming from. Jordan, as small as that country is, supplied tanks to Nigeria. So we expect support in terms of weaponry that will come. As I said, we need international support in order to rebuild damaged Nigeria. Everybody is saying the local councils of the affected states are liberated from Boko Haram and people are saying, leave the IDPs camps and go back home. In terms of troops deployment to the coalition, what is the extent of Nigeriaâs involvement?
People who are thinking of Nigeria contributing troops to the coalition are going too far. Nigeria needs help now, and given the situation of the country, will anybody be reasonable in thinking that we would be sending troops to Syria and Iraq? We recalled our troops from Mali because we need them and our military is recruiting in order to fill the vacuum so that there would be enough men out there. So it is Nigeria that needs support in this regard. Without being too nationalistic you know that the military itself has done this country a lot proud because this minimization or what the President calls technical defeat has all happened in the hands of the Nigerian Army. We have been waiting for the multiânational Task Force to be in place but the Nigerian Army, the Navy and Air Force are not even waiting for that to come, they have pushed the war to its final moments now. We can even say we can finish it up without the other multinational partners. But the multinational task force has shared responsibilities in the region; you donât defeat terrorists and go back to sleep. Nigerians should be prepared for a long-term strategy that would ensure that we don’t go back to this same point.
Q: What would you say to those who view this coalition as a prelude to Nigeria assuming full membership of the OIC?
A: Nigeria is already a member of the OIC but the membership has not altered Nigeriaâs diversity in terms of religion and so on. In fact, the OIC, which is much distrusted by people who donât have the larger view of things, is a positive force in terms of moderation when it comes to the sharing, creation of knowledge and awareness or the practice of Islam. I believe that if Nigerians are fair as we have always been, with more accommodation towards the OIC, there would be a lot of benefits that we can even gain. For example, the OIC can help us to modernize Islam; our Koranic school system would move towards integration with the modern school system so that this artificial division, people who have only learnt the Koran and are not integrated, would go away. Alienation leads to predisposition to recruitment to extremism, which in a major way would be removed from the country. So the OIC is thinking of giving this country a blueprint towards that integration.
Q: What is the update on recovered loot that had been stashed outside Nigeria?
A: The President recently said that the government would put the numbers together and make a pronouncement on it. However, people are returning money even without the courts asking them to do so but at the right time the president would make a pronouncement on that.
Q: The President was reported to have said there are saboteurs in his government. Could you throw light on this?
A: I am not sure if that is exactly the word that he has used, but there are problems in every organization and I believe that was what was on the president’s mind. This government had shown the greatest form of accommodation towards people out of power and I will give you one example. You know the one they call John Kennedy Opara, without meaning to embarrass him, he is the Chairman of the Christian Pilgrims Commission. Everyone knew him as one of the closest persons to former President Jonathan, but the man has been on his seat carrying on with his job as if no government has changed in the country. The President gave eight months to the chief executives of government parastatals before he decided to remove 26 out of nearly 400. At the time some of them were asked to go, it was clear that they had become irredeemably unchangeable, that they were immune to the change mantra. That was why they were asked to go but those who have accepted the change mantra and have adjusted to the new political environment are getting on with their jobs. I am sure a lot of our party people would be disappointed, but that is the way the President is, he wants to give everybody a fair chance bearing in mind that you are a Nigerian first before belonging to any political party. And that if you are contributing to the country in your place of work, you don’t have to be fired simply because you don’t agree that the APC should be in place. So that is where we are now.
Q: Would President Buhari probe his predecessor, Jonathan?
A: I don’t think there is a government plan to single out Jonathan for probe. The investigations that are going on are not personalized; they are institutional. The last time you heard from the National Security Adviser’s Office, which is at the head of all of these things that are going on, it was about the malfeasance in the office of the National Security Adviser itself. They had to put the office right in order for it to go back to its original schedule of duty, which is to advise Mr. President on securing and making this country a better place to live in. This office had transformed into sharing money out to politicians, relations and themselves. You can see that the magnitude is so massive that money in billions of US dollars and in Naira terms was being collected in the name of security, and I hope that Nigerians draw lessons from it. The former Chief of Defence Staff is someone whose country home came under attack. In fact, his own community had been seized by Boko Haram up to three times. Then they gave you money to go and buy weapons to secure your own community, but you would rather build palaces in Abuja. So this country has got to change because it cannot continue to be like this.
Q: What is President Buhari doing to settle Gov Ganduje / Senator Kwankwaso once and for all?
A: If you draw out the sword it would take you time to put it back into the scabbard. I believe that the President is respected and well loved by the two combatants and more importantly by the people of Kano. Kano gave the President the highest votes in the country. Nobody who is a servant of Kano people would like to do anything that the President would not like. So I believe the dust would come down and they have no option but to work together.Â But from government, nobody is forcing anybody to go home. Logically, they should decide on their own that it is safe enough to go. But when they go back they will find out that they have no schools because the schools have been destroyed, no places of worship and no markets. So you need help and it has been offered. The United Arab Emirate (UAE) President, represented by the deputy commander-in-chief, immediately said they were dispatching the equivalent of their own Red Cross to come and assess how much damage has been done in order to assist in reconstruction. So it does not matter wherever help comes from.