Former President Goodluck Jonathan, in a media chat with members of the Swiss Journalists Union in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was honoured by International Diplomats Association, Cercle Diplomatique, last week, spoke on the probe of his administration’s by President Muhammadu Buhari, alongside other issues. The AUTHORITY on SUNDAY presents excerpts of the ex-president’s responses to the international media and visiting Nigerian editors, as reported by Deputy Editor/Group Politics Editor, LOUIS ACHI.
You wanted to know if I am in touch with some other leaders in Africa over my passion for the need to deepen democracy on the continent. I will say yes and even go ahead to state that there is another area of intervention that is of equal importance to me; and this is the area of wealth creation through special programmes to encourage men and women to get involved in medium and small scale enterprises.
We intend to be doing this by assisting them through training to acquire capacity in their areas of interest as well as help them with access to funding. There are good investment areas that are beckoning to them like food processing, light manufacturing as well as exploring the agriculture value chain. We did this in Nigeria during my time in office and it was quite successful.
These are areas that are of interest to me and we will be intervening through my foundation. In terms of consultation, it is an on-going process. I have been to the United States, where I visited some former presidents and the foundations of former presidents, especially Virginia, which is home to many former presidents.
Back home, we are also doing a lot of consultations, talking to other African leaders on what we intend to do. So, we are actually on track such that by the time we take off, we would hit the ground running.
How much has the terror threat, especially with Boko Haram, affected security in ECOWAS?
On the issue of security in Africa, especially the specific issue of kidnapping in Nigeria and other West African countries, this is of concern to all of us. I just left office yesterday and I knew what we had done as ECOWAS leaders to combat the ugly trend, especially during my time as the Chairman of the regional bloc.
Then we had challenges in many countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and others. I personally visited these countries in search of solution and we executed intervention programmes that worked. Yes, we still have challenges but definitely progress is being made and we would get over it.
There is the issue of terrorism, which Nigeria and other countries are facing like we recently had an incident in Ouagadougou. On this, I will say that there is an effective collaborative mechanism being evolved in the region and I believe that we will get over it too.
Nigeria is an economic power house. Do you see it joining countries in the BRICS bloc soon?
In Africa, there are only three countries with GDP above three billion dollars: Nigeria with over half a trillion dollars, followed by South Africa and Angola. You also have Egypt, Algeria and Morocco in the northern part of the continent. In terms of manufacturing, South Africa is ahead of Nigeria, although there is this contradiction of the country showcasing a world class economy while majority of its citizens still struggle to survive like others in other parts of Africa.
South Africa I know is categorised as belonging to the BRICS, which is a coinage with the initials of the four countries. I guess the issue of Nigeria belonging there does not arise as that will mean changing the name by adding ‘N’ to accommodate Nigeria. I believe a more practical one is the evolution of another bloc, which is now known as MINT of course with Nigeria and three other emerging economies that are seen to be on a reasonable part of growth.
For me, the issue is not really about getting into any of these emerging economic blocs. It is really about what we can do to create wealth and create employment for our people. That is more important than merely being identified as members of BRICS or MINT. We need to move our economies forward to a developed status through value addition to our primary products, manufacturing and the stoppage of this age old commodity trading.
In ECOWAS, Nigeria controls about 65 per cent of the market and it is only Nigeria that has industries that are adding value to our produce and the primary commodities. I encourage Nigeria and other countries to continue in this path towards boosting the real sector and manufacturing because the era of just exporting primary commodities is gone.
There is a serious probe back home in Nigeria alleging diversion of the $2.1 billion arms purchase fund. What’s your take?
I would have loved to speak extensively on this issue because even back home, I had read in the papers, where a few people are saying that President Jonathan should add his voice to this controversial issue. But you know, in our country, there are laws. When a matter is already in a court of law, the people who had one thing or the other to do with the matter are not expected to make comments because such would be considered as subjudice.
As a former President, any comment I make at this point would affect the witnesses and ongoing proceedings in court and I would be going against the law of my country. So, I will not make any comments at this point until all these are sorted out. But definitely, I will speak on it.
But one thing I will want Nigerians to know is that we had issues in the country. On my part, I tried to build institutions. I strengthened the judiciary and that is why I wouldn’t want to go into areas that are not in line with standard judicial practice.
I encouraged the separation of powers among the three arms of government because that is the standard practice in any true democracy. I reformed the electoral system by strengthening the electoral body, INEC, making it possible for it to seamlessly conduct the 2011 and 2015 elections. Subsequently, the election was adjudged transparent, free and fair by local and international election observers. Some of you still remember the tension that had built up before the 2015 elections, so much so that doomsday predictions emerged from many quarters including from agencies in the United States that Nigeria would disintegrate in 2015.
The country became even more polarised along the North and the South divide and also between Christians and Muslims. Don’t forget that we still had issues of terrorism then. So, to conduct election along the whole length and breadth of the country, given the circumstances was going to be difficult. But still, we were able to conduct a peaceful, free and fair election. So, to answer you directly, I would not want to speak on the controversial $2.1 billion issue, but I will speak my mind on the matter at the appropriate time.
Tell us why and how Boko Haram gained so much strength that the military couldn’t defeat it?
Boko Haram started in Nigeria about 2002, not really quite recent. It started off initially as a religious group. Although they were fanatical about their belief, they were not terrorists from the very start. But over time, just like any of the other terrorists groups the world knows about, they became radicalised may be through some local and even foreign interests and influence. We just discovered that a group that was just being fanatical about their belief started resorting to extreme cases of violence and assuming all the characteristics of terrorism.
As a government, we worked very hard to combat them. It started when I was vice-president. The first major clash that happened between the Boko Haram agents and the Nigerian military was in 2009. Then, the first leader of the sect was killed by the Police. From that time, we started having more challenges and don’t forget that the country’s security architecture was not designed to combat terrorism at that time.
You and I know that combating terror requires different approach with new technologies. This is because they are not ordinary criminals like armed robbers, who would not want to die. Terrorists are a strange group of people that are not afraid of death. They are not frightened by the sight of the gun and other weapons. The security forces can manage armed robbers and other criminals better because the criminals are also being careful not to lose their lives.
But for terrorists, they even have suicide bombers who have already made up their mind to die, especially after inflicting maximum damage and killing as many people as possible. So, given this challenge, you need different security architecture with superior technology. At that time, Nigeria had not developed that superior technology.
When I became the president, we had to start by building the capacity of various security outfits in terms of intelligence gathering, monitoring and interventions to enable them develop the capacity to take preemptive actions. We built that capacity over time. That was why we were able to push Boko Haram back and degrade them to a level that we were able to conduct elections in all parts of the country. And I believe that with commitment of the present government, we will be able to get to a level when Boko Haram will no longer constitute any obstruction to our social and economic life.
What is your thought on the migration of Syrians and Africans to Europe and your message to Europe?
This is a serious and unfortunate situation that needs to be tackled. If you look at Africa for instance, you can divide the continent into three key areas: the pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence. Of course, during the colonial period, Africa was designed for commodity trading. Then, the independence era. During this time, there was not so much progress recorded also because of instability occasioned by the military through frequent coups and counter coups.
We have now moved to the post-1990s which can be classified as the democratic era where most African countries are governed by elected representatives. There is more stability now and the economies of these countries have begun to grow. There is also a lot of urbanisation going on, with unrelenting pressure from a teeming population requiring jobs. And as you know, economic activities are still too low to cope with the pressures. So, this also speaks to the issue of many young Africans wanting to leave home for the West. I think the solution lies in the West working with us to ensure that we create more wealth within the continent. If we don’t, the tendency for people to move will continue. Africa cannot be a continent that will be perpetually encouraged and prepared for commodity business. Africa must evolve and be supported to go into manufacturing to be able to add value to the raw materials they produce.
Currently, the condition for global trade is not controlled by Africa. It is controlled from outside the continent and I can tell you that the conditions are not favourable to Africa. And that is not helping in terms of wealth creation. Africa needs to get to the stage of having robust economies, not necessarily to compete with any other part of the world, but to get to a stage, where the economic needs of the people must be taken care of. Africa needs policies that will encourage growth and investments. If you have such policies in place, the pressure of Africa wishing to migrate to Europe and other places will indeed reduce. A number of people migrating are mainly unskilled people. But, we have also many well educated young Africans with skills leaving the continent. If we don’t build the kind of economy that will create opportunities to absorb this category of people, the migration train cannot then be slowed down as we wish.
Don’t you think Africa needs to align its education curricula to economic needs of the people to lift the continent out its economic difficulties?
I agree with you that the curricula and teaching methodology needs to be revised in line with the economic needs of today. Even at the African Union level, the educational strategies up to 2025 place emphasis on science, technology and innovation. Back home in Nigeria, within the period we were in office, we realised that we needed more skilled people. You will be surprised that when we promoted policies to encourage young people to go into agriculture to become people we identified as nagropreneurs.
We encouraged people to go into commercial and large scale farming, not at the subsistence level we were used to. We wanted them to embrace the value chain by adding value to what was being produced before export. As a result of our efforts, young professionals including lawyers, doctors and other well educated professionals decided to embrace farming. But we then realised that a country as big as Nigeria, constituting about 55 per cent of the population of West Africa don’t have well-trained farm managers.
Some of them were going outside Nigeria to get the kind of farm managers they needed; people that could maintain tractors and other farm implements, but they were not readily available locally.
Even as I agree with you on the need for reforms on the basis of need and relevance, I will also add that any well educated person shouldn’t limit himself. He should always aim for the skies, even outside his area of training.
During my time as president, we had a programme to adjust our various school curricula to ensure that people were trained according to the economic needs of our people, especially for the students in the polytechnic institutions, offering mainly science and technical-based courses. When I took over, the issue of power was a very big problem to the economy as supply was quite epileptic. But rather than sit down in lamentation, we embarked on a comprehensive privatization programme of the power assets.
The power problem in the country is not over yet but we believe that we have laid the groundwork for solving the problem. It was the first of its kind in Africa which is already being copied by some African countries. The aim was to ensure power supply not only to the cities but also to the rural areas. We believed that when you have power in the rural areas and empower them to communicate, using ICT platforms, especially even for the rural farmers, their operations would be greatly enhanced.
That was how we created the e-wallet platform for farmers for easy access to agriculture information and to enhance their financial transactions to boost financial inclusion. The idea was that when young people can live semi-urban lives in their villages, the pressure to migrate to the urban areas would be reduced.
Will you be willing to work with the present government back home?
I am a former president and I cannot throw myself on the new government. It depends on the assignment the current president decides to give me and also depends on if I have the capacity to carry out such assignment. He is our president and can decide to send people on assignments based on national interests. When I was in office, I used to give assignments to former presidents and that is how it has always been. I am free to work for my country and in deed for any other African president that considers my service valuable.
There have been claims by the Buhari administration that your government negotiated with Boko Haram. What exactly happened?
We did not negotiate with Boko Haram. I agree that within that period, especially whenever there was a problem, people would volunteer all manner of assistance. It is just like what, my successor, President Buhari said in a recent media chat that if his government gets credible leaders of the sect, they would be willing to discuss with them.
People will come to you with all kinds of names. But my government never set up a team to negotiate with Boko Haram. We found out that the activities of the terrorist were coming from a section of the country, the North East, and they were more active in two states, Borno and Yobe. If you relate this with the issue of education, you will discover that these two states have the worst cases in terms of children school dropout rate with more than 50 per cent dropout rate. So you can see that this high rate of out-of-school children speaks to the issue of the prevalence of insurgency in these states.
We then felt that there may be local issues involved in the matter. What we then did was to set up a committee of senior people in the states to hold conversations with all stakeholders including community leaders, religious leaders and all other interest groups. Their mandate was to hold conversations with these groups towards finding a local solution to the problem. There was never a time we negotiated with Boko Haram. I think this whole idea is all politics.
The world over, people do and say all kinds of things in the name of politics. But then it is wrong for people to play politics with very serious national issues. The only group we negotiated with which started when I was a deputy governor was the militants in an area called the Niger Delta. I believe that if we had negotiated with Boko Haram, we would have come out with an action programme in that regard. When we negotiated with Niger Delta militants, we were able to do that because you could identify them and they had a clear position on all the issues.
In that case, we were able to come out with what we called the amnesty programme, which ended militancy in that part of our country, where crude oil is being produced. We asked the militants to surrender their weapons in exchange for their rehabilitation. We engaged them with relevant training and placed many of them on a monthly allowance.
Some of them were trained outside Nigeria and some were encouraged to set up businesses and so on. For a negotiation to take place there should be certain expectations from both sides. We just couldn’t negotiate with the terrorists because such expectations could not be established. Anybody who says we negotiated with Boko haram during my time is merely playing politics.
Some of your achievements have recently been acknowledged by principal officers in this government, but in the run up to the election, the impression was that you did nothing. Why were your achievements and legacies so under-reported and are you not afraid that the institutions you claimed to have built will be destroyed?
When I set out to reform INEC for instance, I had in mind building the kind of democracy that is sustainable. Democracy is not just about conducting elections and announcing the winner. Elections must be credible and transparent. They must appear free and fair to all the interest groups. There are many elections that are held and won without any iota of credibility. Such elections will not lead to stability in the polity. And when there is no stability in a country, people find it difficult to come in and do business. That is the difference between Africa’s independence period, when we simply won our freedom but there was no stability and now that our societies are maturing into stable democracies.
We also ensured that the judiciary was independent. There was no interference from the executive which I headed. We ensured that the parliament operated within its mandate without any hindrance. We strengthened INEC because without a strong and independent electoral body, you cannot conduct a free and fair election.
I can go on and on to enumerate all we did but that is not why I came to Geneva. The truth is that we cannot claim to have solved all of Nigeria’s problems. No president can safely make such a claim as no individual can solve all the problems of a nation. But I can say that we tried our best. But when you ask me about what is happening to all my legacies and what is happening in the government today, I will tell you that you are being unfair to me.
You do not expect a former president to begin to speak of his successor, especially knowing that I have just left office. It is not standard practice anywhere because any comment I make now, whether positive or negative, could be misinterpreted. I will tell you that you are not helping me; you are not showing me love if you continue to insist that I should run commentaries on the activities of my successor.
But I will still thank you for your commitment in following up on most of the things we did in office. Don’t forget that we also began a programme of revamping the narrow gauge rail network we have in the country. We intended by this to be able to move goods across the country freely without the disruptive effect of such activity on the roads. We knew that the narrow gauge was no longer suitable for human movements. But we were convinced it was still good enough to move our goods within the country.
It will shock you to know that moving goods from the northern part of Nigeria, say from Kano to Lagos, could be more expensive than moving the same goods from Lagos to Europe. With rail you not only reduce cost of transportation but you also save your roads from frequent damage. Our roads collapse very fast because they are constantly carrying heavy loads – the weight of which they were not designed to support. That was why we decided to begin a programme of reviving the narrow gauge rail network across the country which was built by the colonial masters.
We also encouraged women to participate directly in governance and in entrepreneurship. Everybody knows that in the area of women empowerment, we performed relatively better than my predecessors. For instance, I was the one who opened up the Nigerian Defence Academy to begin to admit women as students. That opened the way for women to aspire to any level in the military, including the highest level of becoming service chiefs. I did a number of other things I don’t need to bore you with.
You are right that these achievements were not known by all our people. It is not because my people did not try to publicise the programmes, but you know, good news don’t spread fast. It is only bad news that requires no push to spread. I was told that even the current transport minister, who was the governor of Rivers State, said not long ago that he didn’t know that trains still run in Nigeria. That was how bad it was. I also heard that the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, who also was the governor of Lagos State, had commended our achievements in the area of power infrastructure and roads.
These are testimonies coming from members of a political party that used to be in opposition. I agree with you that probably we didn’t use the media the way we should. But even if we did, only negative stories, like the amplified cases of corruption, would instantly go viral once they are mentioned, even without anybody giving it a push. But news about positive achievements hardly register in our minds.
There was even a time our minister of information took journalists round the whole country on a tour of all our projects. Yet, the spread of such information remained limited, in line with what I have just said that news about achievements probably requires a lot of force to spread. It is only negative news that spread on its own.
Why didn’t you contest 2015 electoral loss at the tribunal?
I did not go into politics because of what I stood to gain as an individual. I went into politics because I see it as a responsibility to serve and to help my society grow. My reason for going into politics may be different from that of other politicians. I also believe that it takes the sacrifice of individuals to build a society. Most of these societies that are very well developed were built by the sacrifices of individuals. Some people even died in the process of defending their people and fighting for their wellbeing.
As African leaders, we must now be ready to set standards so that other people would begin to emulate us. In Nigeria it is almost taken for a given that anybody who contests for any office would always go to the tribunal to challenge an outcome that doesn’t favour him. What that suggests is that nobody loses election in Nigeria. That tradition must also change. As a sitting president, I presided over an election in which I contested, but I lost.
INEC is an independent body but you and I know that the activity of any agency is under the supervision of a president. Some people were telling me to go to the tribunal or even stop the elections, citing cases of irregularities. But I rebuffed such advice. If INEC that was under me, and assuming the officials allowed cheating during elections as was claimed, why will I go to the tribunal to complain?
If I did that, I would not be setting the right example. It would then mean that all I suffered to build would come to nothing. The point I am making is that people should always be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of their country. We need to evolve that culture and imbibe it in our consciousness that we don’t have to go to court each time we lose elections.
Let me tell you a story that will shock you. When the results of the elections were declared and I got almost 13 million votes while the incumbent president won with over 15 million votes, I recall one African leader telling me that if I decided to leave office, it would only be because I must already be tired of remaining in office. The implication of that statement was that many other leaders in my position would have stayed put, but that is just not me.
My place in governance was to do my best and quit and not to sit tight and destroy everything I had built. I believe that sometimes, one will have to make that kind of sacrifice in the interest of his people and nation that God had graciously allowed you to lead.