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President Jonathan is a true democrat at heart’

Atedo Peterside, CON,

Atedo Peterside, CON, is the President and Founder of ANAP Foundation. He is also the Chairman of both Cadbury Nigeria Plc and Stanbic IBTC Holdings Plc. He is a member of both the National Economic Management Team and the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) and is also the Chairman of NCP’s Technical Committee. He spoke with Ajibola Amzat on the achievements of President Goodluck Jonathan and other national issues. Excerpts:

I like your reference to “believed to be close to President Jonathan.” As far as I know, it is a professional relationship based on mutual respect. I never knew Mr. President until he became Governor of Bayelsa State. Indeed, if the whole truth must be told, I did not even know him when he first became governor.

It was after he became the Vice Presidential candidate in 2007 that the professional relationship started and it came via an unexpected source. It was late President Umaru Yar ‘Adua that put me on the National Economic Management Team, which was then headed by the Finance Minister. It was also the same late President that put me on a Task Force that was given 30 days to submit an Interim Report on how to accelerate the improvement of the electricity supply situation.

I believe it was my forceful contributions (vocal and written) in private and in public that caught the attention of President Jonathan. He offered me appointments at various times but I declined them while promising to assist 100 per cent with any effort on his part to introduce certain long-overdue economic reforms.

I think this also informed his invitation to me to join his own Economic Management Team after the 2011 elections and also to join the National Council on Privatisation (NCP), where I was also appointed the Chairman of the Technical Committee.

Our power sector was already a total mess after several decades of leaving it at the mercy of a failed state monopoly. Jonathan’s Power Sector Roadmap made a lot of sense to me.

He promised to conclude the unbundling of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and to privatise its entire constituent parts except the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) in respect of which the plan was to appoint a world-class management contractor. This was the priority assignment that I agreed to undertake in my capacity as the Chairman of NCP’s Technical Committee.

With all due modesty, when the President and Vice President gave me the power sector privatisation assignment, I think it was a signal to investors that they wanted to do it properly and to follow due process. If they wanted to rig the process they would never have appointed me because my antecedents were well known to the President and Vice President.

We were reforming the entire power sector by embracing privatisation. I am tired of telling people that all of the gains were never going to appear overnight. We were trying to stop the bleeding first and we made considerable achievements there. We handled the privatisation of the generation companies (GENCOS) and the distribution companies (DISCOS) transparently and also selected a world-class company to serve as a management contractor to the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN). Even the political enemies of the President and the Vice President called me to ask me if it was true that they could participate in the privatisation programme without fear or favour. I gave them my personal guarantee to that effect and promised all and sundry who enquired that I would be fair to all even at the pain of death.

Suffice to say that we have already privatised the entire electricity distribution sector and so nobody in government can steal money again by inflating the cost of transformers or cables linking my house to the electricity pole on the street. The power sector reform programme is akin to a journey of a thousand miles and so only a fool will expect a miraculous outcome overnight. That notwithstanding, there are some early visible gains. Goals are better aligned generally and the privatised DISCOS respond faster to local faults because it is also in their own interest to speedily rectify a fault so that they can restore electricity to your meter and continue billing you. The weakest links in the interdependent chain were always going to be gas supply shortages and political interference at TCN.

Some people, particularly the opposition have described the President as lacking the necessary leadership traits to move the nation forward, particularly his inability to combat corruption and security challenges facing the nation. Do you subscribe to these positions?

No I don’t. You cannot divorce a leader from his personality. If you expect President Goodluck Jonathan to go barking around like a military dictator then I can assure you that you will be disappointed. He has a consensual style and if you watch him closely you will realise that he wants to carry people along. He is a true democrat at heart. However, that can be both a blessing and a curse. I believe it is more of a blessing though. Nigerians will not tolerate a dictator any longer and the President knows that.

On corruption, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) will tell you that they have achieved many more convictions under President Jonathan than they did under former Chairman of the EFCC, Malam Nuhu Ribadu.

The problem is that the really big fish always manage to keep their own cases dragging in court forever and that is a function of our criminal justice system, aided by corrupt judges.

Globally, rich defendants who can afford the best criminal lawyers often turn the tables against the state prosecutor. With thieving and conniving judges aplenty in Nigeria, the tables have been turned in favour of the Big Man who steals and then bribes our corrupt judges.

Security

ON security, the insurgency is concentrated in the North. The insurgents claim to be Moslems even though I disagree with them – they are mad “dogs” with no moral compass. The President put his trust in several key aides to help him solve this problem: – Chief of Defence Staff, Inspector-General of Police, National Security Adviser, Defence Minister and others. It took too long for a consensus to emerge between all these people that the only thing to do was to go for all out war against Boko Haram. We needed to do three things; re-arm our soldiers in spite of the efforts of misguided Americans to refuse to sell arms to us, get our neighbouring countries to also join this war and, convince the Nigerian Northern elite that the only answer was all out war in their back garden.

Now that all of these three critical success factors are in place, our army is now slaughtering insurgents every day and the elite are saying “fire on.” When the Americans shot Bin Laden, why did they not read him his rights first? A right to remain silent, anything you say might be used against you bla bla bla?

Economic mismanagement is one of the campaign themes against the administration of the President by the opposition. Do you think the government could have fared better in this area?

If the President wanted to mismanage the economy he would not have gone to the World Bank to beg the World Bank President to release Dr (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to come back home to become the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Finance Minister.

He would not have appointed Dr. Akin Adesina to revolutionise our agricultural sector. He would not have appointed Senator Idris Umar to restore rail services in the country. He would not have privatised the power sector. He would not have sent a Petroleum Industry Bill to the National Assembly – he would have been giving oil blocks to his personal friends instead like past military presidents did. I could go on and on, but I won’t. It is not my job to defend the President and that is not the purpose of this interview. His opponents say that he did all these things because he is clueless. It is for Nigerians to open their ears and eyes and decide what kind of future they want and to ask his challengers for details of their own economic reform agenda if they have one.

Since the two candidates presented by the two major parties have been perceived in some quarters to have failed to demonstrate excellent leadership, what would be the fate of the nation in the next four years?

Excellence is very rarely attained and so we should not aim to have a political system that only function properly if the leaders are excellent. There are many countries around the world that have achieved phenomenal strides at various times in their history without having excellent leaders at the helm. The priority is to build lasting institutions that can help propel the nation forward even where the leaders are not so excellent. We need activists and change agents who can help propel even errant political leaders in the right direction.

Over 50 per cent of government revenues are disbursed at the State and Federal Government level. I am amazed when I watch the elite in several states of the federation sit idly and watch thieving and insensitive governors and Local Government Chairmen embezzle the bulk of the scarce resources and deliver close to zero to the citizenry even in terms of qualitative primary education and basic healthcare.

There are states in this country where the cut-off mark for the common entrance exams, which are required to gain entry into the Unity/Federal Government Secondary Schools, is as low as 3 per cent and yet all that the majority of the elite in those states do is criticise the President and the Vice President alone.

Primary education is within the remit of State and Local Governments. You would think that the Governors of those states must have hypnotised the elite there and/or rendered them speechless.

Anambra State has the best examination results and students there attain over 70 per cent in the same examination where other states score 3 percent. It frightens me because the 3 percent and the 70 percent scorers belong to the same country and have to compete for the same jobs.

Some people are mooting the idea of further postponement of the elections beyond March 28, what is your take on that proposal?

I could not believe my ears when I heard the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fraudulently claiming that they were ready to conduct elections on February 14, 2015. If the elections had been held on that date no less than one-third of the electorate would have been disenfranchised because they were not able to get their Permanent Voters Cards (PVC).

I believe that the elections will hold and that the postponement was a blessing in disguise for INEC. They should aim to use the time between now and 28 March to significantly improve their state of preparedness.

What should be the priority of the next government to stabilise the economy?

Our economy has been growing steadily and impressively over the course of the last five years. The problem is not at the level of GDP growth. When you disaggregate the numbers, some worrying signs surface. For instance, the unemployment rate is relatively low in Osun, Lagos, Kwara, Benue, Kogi and a few other states, but very high (approaching 40 per cent or higher in a few cases) in Bauchi, Zamfara, Borno, Yobe and others. This has little to do with oil revenue because if it did, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers would have the lowest unemployment rates, but they don’t. Instead the unemployment rates of the oil producing states are clustered around the national average.

At the end of the day it is about jobs and it is private sector investment activity that creates jobs. We therefore have to attack all the impediments to investment activity and these include poor infrastructure, insurgency, poorly educated work force, smuggling, counterfeiting/fake goods and various grey market activities. I mention these because the Federal and State Governments can do something about these items. I don’t know when Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states and others will be able to attract significant investment inflows from the private sector.

Sadly, their loss in the North East zone on account of insurgency is partly the gain of some of the other zones in the country because many investments/projects can be located elsewhere in the country. Investors and businessmen will gravitate towards those states that were never over-run by insurgents and it is already happening.

Do you subscribe to the view that this presidential system of government as run in Nigeria is too expensive?

Yes, it is far too expensive. I wish we had stuck with the Parliamentary system that we had in the 1960s and specified a maximum single term of six years for the Prime Minister. I think that both the four-year election cycle and the maximum of two terms that we presently operate are needlessly disruptive.

I also wish that we did not have both a Senate and a House of Representatives. A single parliament would have been cheaper and perhaps even more productive or should I say less unproductive. Do you know what the Senate and/or the House of Representatives have done with the Petroleum Industry Bill? Please go and ask their leadership and also ask their leadership to tell you the true cost of each legislator to the nation’s treasury.

What is your assessment of the quality of political campaign by major political parties?

It has been terrible. Most of the politicians in the two major political parties are irresponsible. I always hoped and prayed for a vibrant opposition because it helps keep the government in check at both the Federal and State level. I never imagined that this would very quickly degenerate into a dysfunctional two-party system like we currently have. They spend 90 per cent of their time abusing each other and/or telling lies.

The same shady characters run from one large political party to the next. The two large political parties have several gangsters in their midst near the top. It is a disturbing spectacle. My prayer is that they will have the ability, inclination and wisdom to restrain the excesses of their supporters if/when they lose the elections.

The opinion polls show them running neck and neck and yet some of their dumb leaders have the temerity to threaten the nation that they will not accept defeat. The true test of democracy is whether the loser can accept defeat. It is not whether the winner will accept victory. During the last National Conference, I was a delegate and in one of my contributions I stressed that the mistake of 1965/66 was not the very bloody coup, which young military officers staged on January 15, 1966. It was the failure of the political leaders to restrain the excesses of their followers after a close election in the Western Region in 1965. Have we really learnt that lesson?



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