The clash between the military and the Daily Trust over the newspaper’s edition of Sunday, January 6, this year, has continued to attract reactions. In this interview, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed insisted that reporting insurgence requires caution and professionalism in order not to undermine national security. He spoke on other issues, including the ‘marching order’ to deliver Kwara State for the All Progressives Congress (APC), the chance of President Muhammadu Buhari in next month’s election in view of outcry of hunger in the land and job losses.
Soldiers’ invasion of the premises of the Daily Trust in Abuja, Maiduguri and Lagos has strained the military-media relations. Why is it difficult to foster enduring collaboration among these critical segments of the Nigerian society?
There is nowhere in the world where a newspaper or a media outfit will reveal the military strategy in an ongoing war, because by doing so, you expose not just the lives of the soldiers to unnecessary risks, but also endanger the lives of civilians.
It is like saying that Book Haram is there and the military wants to go and capture them and you hint them that soldiers are coming after them. All they need to do is wait for the soldiers to come and they would lay an ambush and massacre all of them and then come back and kill all of us. So, let us be honest with ourselves: That was a real danger to national security.
The military wanted to invite the editors over the story, but the good thing is that immediately, the federal government ordered them (military) out of the premises. It is very unfortunate that the media is not ready and willing to give credit to the government. Whatever happened, the federal government was mindful of the bigger picture, the constitutional guarantees and freedom, and as painful as it is to government, it still ordered that the military should leave.
It does not mean that the government did not realise that what Daily Trust did was a danger to national security, I would rather say that we in the media should realise that there are people who are daily putting their lives on the line for us to be safe in our respective places of work. The least we can do is to give them support. We should not further endanger their lives.
That is why we are launching this national campaign for support for the military very soon and we want all Nigerians, including the media, lawyers, etc to support them. It is because they are in the battlefronts that we are here.
In 2013/2014, my wife insisted that I should never sleep in Abuja any time I came for our party’s National Working Committee (NWC) meeting. You all knew that coming to Abuja then was dangerous, as even the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) headquarters was attacked, the United Nations (UN) building was attacked and lives were lost, Nyanyan Motor Park was bombed twice, ThisDay office was attacked, there was massacre in Kano and 10 states were being daily pummeled and we lost many soldiers then.
But because you want to have an exclusive, you now endanger other peoples’ lives? I think we should be fair to this government.
In cases where the military is not forthcoming with vital information, such as losing some towns to the insurgents, what should the media do?
In everywhere in the world, patriotism should come first. For instance, in the height of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the United Kingdom (UK), all media resolved that they would never make IRA story page one, because news coverage, publicity is the oxygen that the insurgents use to collect more money from their sponsors, encourage and embolden their adherents and get more converts.
I think the media should understand that if there is choice between lack of information and national security, the choice is very clear. Even when you lose towns to Boko Haram, you don’t have to create panic, as the soldiers will not abandon the place, but must be there to defend it. So, how will you feel if your son or your brother is in Baga and you hear on radio that Baga has been overrun? Won’t you panic?
In every war, you manage information and even when there is casualty, the military holds the responsibility to first inform the relatives of the victims before the public. It is rare to get this kind of information during war situation. In Kenya, the US, Syria and Afghanistan, etc, terrorists are wrecking havocs. It is a global issue and the media are managing it as such. They portray insurgents as bad guys, whereas in Nigeria, our media make the military looks like the bad guys.
When Boko Haram goes to a village and massacres innocent people, nobody condemns them. When soldiers now make a mistake, all the human rights organisations in the world will condemn them, which is demoralising. We must strive to create this balance.
What is even special about a town being lost? I am not saying we should deny the media, but we should appreciate the fact that news from fighting insurgence is not like news of playing football. There is need for reorientation and training on covering war situation.
It appears there is a ‘marching order’ to you to deliver Kwara State to APC. How did you come about leading the campaign?
I think it is almost automatic, being the most senior government appointee in Kwara State today and as a matter of fact that Kwara State, after that tsunami, cannot boast of any elected official at the federal level. Even at the state level, out of the 24 members of the state
House of Assembly, only one refused to join them to the PDP.
Politically, I am the most senior surviving member of the party. So, I believe the mantle of leadership, by default, fell on me and I think I owe the party, the people of Kwara State and Mr. President the duty that the APC comes out victorious in the presidential, national assembly, state assembly and governorship elections.
Of course, I am not alone in this; the loyal members of the party who are fed up with Dr. Bukola Saraki and also many who feel they can no longer stay in PDP are assisting to realise this goal. But more importantly, we are enjoying massive support from the people of Kwara State.
What we see today in Kwara is a revolution. The people simply have made up their minds that enough is enough. Everyday, we receive a lot of people coming to join APC.
I believe the pointer to this actually was November 18, last year’s by-election into the House of Representatives. That was the first time in almost 40 years that the people of Kwara said no to Bukola Saraki’s candidate. From then on, we have been witnessing more decamping and more encouragement to our party and more support from the people.
But analysts still see Kwara as a battleground between the APC and PDP?
Those who still consider Kwara as a battleground ground are doing us a favour, because this means that we cannot be complacent even though on our part, we actually believe we have won the election.
Everything points to the fact that APC would have overwhelming victory at the poll, because if you look at the various local governments, stakeholders and political leaders, everyday I receive tips, encouragement, alarms from people and honestly speaking, what is happening today in Kwara cannot be attributed solely to the effort of one person.
When the time has come, everything comes easy. I am glad that we have been classified as a battleground, as that would make my team to work harder. But you know in this business, it is never over until it is over.
What could be responsible for your decision not to take a shot at the governorship of the state again?
It is for many reasons. I don’t think it would be fair for me to go and aspire for governor of Kwara at this point in time, given the fact that I come from the same southern senatorial district of the state with the present governor, who is in his eighth year. I believe it would not be fair to other parts of the state for me to aspire at this point in time.
I also believe I won’t be able to provide the necessary leadership if I am a contestant. I believe that it was a good decision from the viewpoint of equity, fairness and justice.
Why do you believe Senate President Bukola Saraki’s influence is no longer a key factor in Kwara politics?
What is happening today in Kwara is amazing. I have never seen anywhere in my political history where a three words slogan, O to ge has made the kind of impact as we have seen in recent times. It is like wild fire.
That slogan sums up the history of frustration of the people of Kwara, their sudden realisation that they have been deceived for so long and the determination that never again would they allow anybody to deceive them. The reports we hear and what we see urge for a revolution by the people who were afraid of the authorities.
About a week ago, the PDP was coming back from a rally from the northern part of the state and they got to a particular town and all the men and women lined the two sides of the road and raised their brooms. As soon as the PDP convoy emerged, they got up and chanted O to ge! E maa lo. Whether it was Okada rider, butcher or market women and farmers, this has nothing to do with ethnicity, religion or location.
This is what gives us the confidence that if we can ensure there is no violence and the election is free and fair, we don’t see how we cannot win, because people have simply made up their minds. This is the first time I see Saraki actually coming out to lead the campaign.
But everywhere he goes, they have been told they are not wanted any longer.
Honestly, they are terrified because everywhere they go, they hear O to ge! A ti gbon, which means enough is enough, we are now wiser.
But the O to ge campaign is perceived as an attempt to move Kwara back to the sphere of influence of political godfathers in the Southwest?
It is the height of desperation. The first desperate act on their part was to deliberately peddle some falsehood about me and some statements I made. In my victory speech on November 18, last year, after we won the election, I said with that victory, we had destroyed the Berlin Wall of the dynasty that held Kwara in bondage for many years.
They went and twisted it to say that we are to destroy the Berlin Wall of the emirate in trying to exploit the ethnic and religious factors in the state. A week after that, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was in Ilorin to launch the tradermoni and come and see the crowd that came to receive him, who besieged the venue, the enthusiasm displayed by our people.
Why that falsehood cannot work is for the simple reason that the two leading candidates of the two major political parties are from the same emirate. So, they are looking for cheap, emotive, divisive campaigns because they are desperate. They can’t understand the gale of rejection.
Like I told people, I am from Kwara, my two parents are from Kwara, I was born in Kwara and my ancestry is not in doubt, ditto the candidate of the party. So, where is the Southwest influence here? Of course, they are referring to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
But the truth of the matter is that he is the national leader of our party. As he is campaigning for us in Kwara, he is campaigning for us in Zamfara, Delta, Enugu, Akwa Ibom, etc. Didn’t we see him when he went to Akwa Ibom? Why didn’t Akwa Ibom people say, ‘oh, they want to take us to Lagos, Southwest?
Unfortunately, this is not working, because Kwara is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community and many of us also trace our ancestry back to the same Southwest.
Why are you are so optimistic about the election?
Honestly, I have never doubted that Buhari will win, not because I am in APC, but because I am a realist. Where is APC weak? I will tell you, South- South and Southeast? Is APC weaker in South-South today than it was in 2014? The answer is no, because certain things have happened between 2014 and now in the South-South that have given the APC a fillip, notably in Delta and Akwa Ibom states.
So, if APC scored three marks out of 10 marks in Delta in 2014, this time around, we are going to score four marks. And in the Southeast, the PDP is even complaining that some of the governors are not working for their presidential candidate. I have no doubt that our campaign has been made easy for us because of our performance.
We promised Nigerians that we are going to tackle insecurity and every sincere Nigerian can attest to that. Mr. President on January 16 on television asked people from Northeast about what we have done to Boko Haram.
I have another example, Dr. Abari, the DG of NOA, was the head of research in ACN and we had a meeting in Benin in 2013, but he called that he would not be able to come and asked him why? He said the customs officer and the son killed by Boko Haram were his uncle and nephew and that the painful thing was that they couldn’t even go home to bury them. I said, why? He replied, ‘Alhaji, I am from Yobe State, nobody goes home now, Boko Haram has overrun the entire place.’
That was the situation before we came. I have first-hand knowledge of this. Then, how many roads were open in the northeast? How many banks were operating in the northeast? How many schools were operating? Boko Haram had destroyed all telecoms facilities.
I went to Bama, Konduga, Kaore and Maiduguri on December 5, 2015. Between Maiduguri and Bama, it is about 17 kilometres, we did not see any vehicle on the road. I dared not tell my wife I was going to Bama. We all lied to our wives. We said we were going to Kano. One of the service guys told me that I must be one of the reckless guys. I asked why? He said, ‘you went to Bama? I respect your courage.’
When we got to Bama, you would think we were in Tunisia or Algeria. All the signboards were in Arabic. Also, no building out of over 6,000 was standing; they were all rocketed and destroyed before they left. Soldiers were sleeping in the open. At the IDP camp, I almost broke down.
In Bama, I saw children under two years who were in critical condition. I told one of the aides that certainly, those children wouldn’t survive till the following day. The soldiers with us were hurrying us to leave as overstay could be dangerous. The following week, one of the soldiers who were with us on the trip was killed along Bama-Maiduguri road.
Today, a league match was played in Maiduguri. Before, all matches were relocated to Bauchi. I have held town hall meetings thereafter in Maiduguri and I have seen the difference now. Also, when I was going to Dapchi, I visited Maiduguri and saw a lot of difference.
The truth is that within three and a half years, we can show record of our performance. We can tell Nigerians that today, the government is feeding over nine million school children, one meal a day every school day in 26 states of the federation. And for some of those children, it is the only meal guaranteed for them.
The multiplier effect of the feeding project on the economy is unquantifiable. For instance, those children consume 6.8 million eggs, 594 herds of cattle and 13 metric tons of fish every week, not to talk of rice, soya and so on. We can point to what we have done.
Even with the complaints of too much hunger in the land and job losses?
When people come to make statement, they never back them up. How many millions enter the job market every year? The truth of the matter is that every year, people graduate from universities and other tertiary institutions. Those are the new entrants to job market; those are not job losses.
Also, are jobs only white-collar jobs? No! When we came in, we met five million rice farmers. Today, the figure has increased to over 11 million, meaning we have created six million rice farmers. We met 13 integrated rice-processing mills, but today, we have about 25. For fertilizer, we met seven blending plants, but today, we have 12.
There is nowhere in Nigeria today that we are not constructing one road or bridge. People are working on those roads. Construction companies that have packed up before have come back, equipment is in use, and the people are consuming materials.
I don’t agree with the ranting of the opposition. Yes, I am ready to concede that at a time when oil was selling at $100 per barrel, the government then failed to invest in infrastructure and power. You don’t create jobs by fiat; we are creating jobs by the efforts we are taking, such as awarding contracts to build roads.
Look at the Mambilla Hydro Electric Power project, which is the largest project in the world as at today, a 3,050MW, a $6billion contract that will need 18 million metric tons of cement to build. Can you imagine how many trailers will carry 18 million metric tons of cement?
The economy we are generating is enormous. Look at the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, which they abandoned. Ditto Lagos-Ibadan standard railway, which will be handed over in February or March this year, do you know how many people are employed on that alone?
Recently, I took a trip from Enugu to Onitsha to see the 2nd Niger Bridge. Along the line, we saw people working because of the proceeds of the N100billion Sukuk Bonds we took, which were divided into the six geo-political zones of the country. A total of 25 critical infrastructures are being undertaken by the funds.
We left Onitsha back to Enugu to Lopatan to Umuahia Bridge to Abia to Port Harcourt and we saw contractors working in all these locations. This government has also put aside $1.6 billion (Presidential Infrastructural Fund) to ensure that five special projects do not suffer paucity of fund- East-West Road; 2nd Niger Bridge; Lagos-Ibadan Expressway; Abuja-Kano Expressway and Mambilla Hydro Power. The first contract for the Mambilla Power has been awarded at last FEC meeting.
Job losses means you had been working before and you are no longer working. They should not confuse us.
Refusal of the President to sign into law the Electoral Amendment Bill is being seen as a sign that the government is jittery about defeat?
Nonsense! The question we ask them is, what is wrong with the electoral law used in 2015? You don’t change electoral law a few weeks to election, because it means you need to re-educate the public.
America will say, ‘if it doesn’t spoil, you don’t fix it.’ Is there something they know that we don’t know about this amendment that they are taking the campaign to the US, Britain? What is it that is in that law? They have refused to answer the question. What is the mischief from the old law they are trying to cure?
We will continue to ask what is so imperfect in the old law that must be changed now? Everybody hailed the 2015 election as free and fair with the use of card reader and PVC.