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It was a chronicle of some sort last Tuesday evening in Abuja as Vice President Atiku Abubakar spoke to a team of journalists, including senior editors of The Sun Newspapers.
It was a chronicle of some sort last Tuesday evening in Abuja as Vice President Atiku Abubakar spoke to a team of journalists, including senior editors of The Sun Newspapers.
The vice president went down memory lane to the first time he ever broached the issue of succession with President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the president banged the table.
ďI walked up to him, either in 2000 or 2001,Ē recounts Atiku. ďI said, look, Mr President, I did not plan to be a vice president, all I wanted was to be a governor, and now Iím vice president, my feeling is that after two terms, we should all go.
And he banged the table and said, look, donít tell me that. I made a mistake in 1979 because I handed over to somebody who was not part of the administration, who did not know our vision, who did not know our programmes, and at the end of the day, when I came back 20 years later, I found some of the things I started still on the ground. I believe that after I finish my two terms, you should be able to continue so that you can consolidate what we have done, and I believe after 16 years, it will be impossible to reverse the march, we would have gone very far.Ē
And on the infamous third term gambit, meant to elongate President Obasanjoís tenure before it was shot down by the National Assembly, Atiku said he knew of the plot in 2003, the same year The Sun broke it to the Nigerian nation.
Said Atiku: ďI knew of third term three years ago. Yes, three years agoÖI told them Iím not for this, and I will fight it.Ē
In the very frank interview, Vice President Atiku Abubakar bared his mind to MIKE AWOYINFA (Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief) DIMGBA IGWE (Deputy Managing Director/Deputy Editor-in-Chief) FEMI ADESINA (Editor, Daily Sun) and ERIC OSAGIE (Editor, Northern Operations).
Itís a special Democracy day package.
Now that the National Assembly has thrown out the constitution amendment bill, we wonder what your relationship with the president is.
My relationship with the president remains cordial. We have a cordial working relationship.
Well, what we saw outside wasnít cordial at all. What we saw was a lot of heat. Are things going to be better or weíll have more heat?
I donít know the heat you are talking about. I didnít feel any heat outside anyway.
What are the things that have been left undone by the Obasanjo administration that you will correct if you become president.
You see, this administration has done a great job, and governance is a continuous process. There is no particular government that finishes governance, itís always a continuous thing. I believe in the programmes we have implemented so far, I believe we need to sustain them, build upon them. So, I think the fear of reversal of policies does not arise as far as Iím concerned.
Are you offering anything new apart from whatís on the ground?
Certainly, youíve got to offer something new. Of course, I will unveil that in my formal declaration.
Thereís nothing wrong in aspiring to be better than Obasanjo. Do you think youíll be a better president?
Itís up to Nigerians to judge. Itís a matter for history. It will depend on your performance, and will be left for Nigerians to decide whether one administration has performed better than the other. Everybody looks at a different perspective of an administration. Somebody who is in say industry or manufacturing, if he does better in a particular administration, he will say it was the best. Somebody else in another sector of the economy, either in telecoms, or a trader, if he does better, he looks at the administration from his own perspective. But I think itís for Nigerians to judge.
What could have happened if the third term thing had succeeded?
What would have happened was that elections would still have to hold, and Nigerians would have the opportunity to elect a president, there would not have been only one presidential candidate because we have as many as 30 parties, if not more. Therefore, these parties would field candidates and Nigerians will have to elect their president.
You say the relationship between you and your boss is cordial. But the president came out late last year to say you were not loyal to him. Is there really anything you and the president would not want the country to know?
I think we have overflogged this issue. Itís a dead issue as far as Iím concerned.
Is there a truce now?
Was there a fight? (laughs) We are human beings. Donít you disagree with your wives? And donít you settle your disagreements? So, if the president and I disagree on an issue, that does not mean the end of the day. I donít want you to blow it out of proportion.
I asked this question because at the last Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, it was said you greeted the president twice and he did not acknowledge it.
I did not notice that. Maybe you noticed because you are a journalist.
And when he invited you for lunch, you said you were fasting.
Yes, I was fasting. We even cracked jokes. He said should he follow me to fast, and I said how can you follow when I just saw you eating. You better go back to your food, while I go back to my office (laughter).
Sir, can you match the vigour and vision of President Obasanjo?
What do you mean by vigour and vision. This vision is a joint vision. Itís not just one personís vision. Government is run as a group. Yes, heís the president, eventually he takes credit for everything, but itís a collective thing.
What are the areas you think your administration has done excellently well, and what are the areas you have not done well?
I believe most importantly, stabilising the polity is one thing we have achieved. You must also remember that in the history of this country, this is the longest democracy we have ever had. That alone is an achievement. You have to give credit to the National Assembly, you have to give credit to the presidency, the judiciary, all Nigerians, for supporting and allowing democracy to last this long. Itís the longest democratic governance we have got in this country. That alone is an achievement. We also have other areas we have done very well. The economic sector, we have made significant improvement as far as the macro-economic indices are concerned. We have stabilised inflation, exchange rate, we have built up a healthy external reserve. You may say yes, there was increase in the price of oil, but we could have also blown it: I think these are all achievements.
I think in the next phase of this administration, we have to be able to translate the macro-economic improvement we have achieved into a micro. That is, to make sure that it impacts positively on the lives of the ordinary Nigerian in terms of his standard of living. I think that is a very important challenge.
Is that why you are planning to retain the economic team if elected?
I donít know from where you got that. I believe Nigeria has tremendous manpower available inside and outside the country. Yes, the economic team has done very well, and we can continue with policies and institutions, but that is not to say there are no other people who can do the job.
In all honesty, did you think President Obasanjo wanted to continue?
I donít know how to be dishonest in my remarks (laughs) Please read the remarks I made on April 5, this year. Go back to your library and read them up.
As things stand now, are you saying you can emerge as presidential candidate on the platform of the PDP?
But you say the party has been hijacked.
So what? If it has been hijacked, so what? I said it was hijacked to achieve a purpose, and the purpose is no longer there. You must not forget we are going to have nearly 5,000 to 6,000 delegates at the convention. And some of them are not even elected yet.
Do you think youíll be president without the support of President Obasanjo?
I think the important thing in an election is the support of the generality of Nigerians. Even incumbents have lost elections before. We have had incumbents who lost elections in this continent. For a sophisticated country like Nigeria, the last constitutional debate has strengthened my faith in this country more than ever before. I believe the most important factor in an election are Nigerians.
Do you think Nigerians have had a fair deal from this government, particularly from policies like privatisation?
The privatisation policy has gone very well as far as Iím concerned. Yes, NITEL is still in trouble, but it is just one enterprise among the several we have privatised. Of course, itís a big enterprise.
Some people believe some of the enterprises were sold to your friends
I believe itís been transparent. Itís really been transparent. I donít believe itís been skewed at any point in time to favour any so-called friend of this government.
It is said some of your business fronts bought some of the enterprises?
Well, name them
Sadiq Oil has been divested. The Federal Government has taken away the shares from Sadiq Oil. But who is my friend in Sadiq Oil?
What about Pentascope?
I donít know anything about Pentascope. I donít think I ever met anybody from Pentascope from the beginning to the end.
The presidentís son, Gbenga, was reported to have indicted you on that matter
Let him prove it, if he has evidence, let him prove it. We are prepared to subject ourselves to public scrutiny.
Those who hijacked the PDP are waving the olive branch. What are your terms for reconciliation?
Iíve not been contacted yet. If Iím contacted, I will respond. But itís a welcome development.
What are your terms for reconciliation?
Why would I tell you domestic issues between me and my party, when Iíve not even been contacted?
On the day the president accepted that the third term agenda was dead and that there should be reconciliation, what was your feeling?
As far as Iím concerned, I felt it was a welcome development. We will see how it is actually handled, but the most important observation I want to make on that is that they say a reconciliation committee has been set up. But if you are saying some particular people have no mandate, and the same people are made to reconcile the groups, I donít think that will bring about the kind of reconciliation we desire.
What will you really like to see?
I thought they could rely on members of the board of trustees to undertake the reconciliation. But bringing in either members of national or state executives, whose mandates are being questioned by other members of the party, I think is a faulty start.
It is believed that you have made plans for an alternative platform
Iím a politician, I have friends virtually across all parties. And remember Iíve been in politics for almost 20 years. And in those 20 years, we have interacted with all the individuals in one party or the other. Many occasions, we have been in one party, we found ourselves separated again. I admit I have friends in all these parties Ė AD, ANPP, APGA Ė I have friends in them. With my friends in other parties, I got this president elected in 1999, because I remember an occasion where he called on the governors of ANPP, and asked for their support. And they told him, as long as you are with Turaki Atiku, weíll give you our support, and we donít even need anything from you, because heís our political associate.
Did you get the president elected in 1999, or the president did you a favour by choosing you as running mate?
We did each other favour. Everybody brought something on the ticket.
In 2003, you also played a role in the presidentís re-election. Did you have any regrets after things fell apart?
In life, you go through a lot of experiences. But every experience you go through is a lesson. Whether it is negative or positive, you gain something out of it.
What are some of the lessons youíve learnt?
It enriches your experience. You become more experienced
Does the president want you to succeed him?
At a point in time, yes. I remember during the first term, if there was anybody who prompted me actually to be interested in the presidency, it was the president himself. I walked up to him either in 2000 or 2001, and said, look Mr. President, I did not plan to be a vice president, all I wanted was to be a governor, and now Iím vice president, my feeling is that after two terms, we should all go. And he banged the table and said, look, donít tell me that. I made a mistake in 1979 because I handed over to somebody who was not part of the administration, who did not know our vision, who did not know our programmes, and at the end of the day, when I came back 20 years later, I found some of the things I started still on the ground. I believe that after I finish my two terms, you should be able to continue so that you can consolidate what we have done, and I believe after 16 years, it will be impossible to reverse the march, we would have gone very far. That was the beginning of my actually being interested in the presidency. And at a point in time, when we had misunderstandings and senior members of the administration brought us together to resolve the issues, I asked him the same question, Mr President, have you changed your mind about what you told me, he said no. I then asked, whatís all this problem about?
At what point did something go wrong in a relationship that was so cordial?
You know, relationship can go wrong at several points. Disagreements can occur. Of course, I disagreed with the president on the issue of constitutional amendment. Itís a mere political disagreement. I had cause to disagree with him on how elections into the national executive of the party will be conducted. I remember that day, I said even if you wanted us to elect these people, we should go for elections as provided by the constitution of the party. Let Nigerians see us going to vote for Ahmadu Ali, for Ojo Maduekwe, and the rest. And he said Mr. Vice President, there are different forms of election. It can be by acclamation, or by affirmation. And that was the end of it. Of course, some aggrieved members of the party went to court, and the court gave judgment against the decision of the party, which again the party did not obey.
These are disagreements and you could resolve them at any point in time if people realised that they have made mistakes. But if they donít realise they have made mistake, itís too bad, unfortunate.
Apart from political disagreements, were there also policy disagreements?
No, we had no policy disagreements
Are there things you consider obstacles in your bid for the presidency?
Obstacles are meant to be surmounted. In life, if you say you donít want to encounter obstacles, Iím very sorry for you, you must be a lazy person.
You have a formidable opposition
I have always had very, very formidable opposition in my life. From childhood to where I am. And God has always helped me to overcome these obstacles.
Is Babangida a threat?
Nobody is a threat to my presidency
How about the president himself!
I said nobody is a threat to my presidency. Only Nigerians and God.
Can Babangida beat you in an election that is free and fair?
There is nobody who is a threat. Whether Babangida would beat me or anybody else would beat me depends on Nigerians.
There is a great deal of fear that you cannot get a proper election in this country. The electoral law, for instance, is not there.
We are trying to make sure we get a proper election. We should be improving from one election to the other.
What are the kind of things youíll like to see. As it is, the Electoral Act has not been passed.
Actually, the Electoral Act has been passed. I think the houses are trying to harmonise their positions on that. We would have prefered to see a more independent electoral body in terms of composition, powers and appointment. For instance, I would have prefered to see an electoral body which has representatives, appointed by government, but also representatives of the major political parties, the NGOs, and other interest groups so that they can serve on the commission.
I would have prefered to see an electoral commission that is independent in terms of its funding. If you strengthen that institution, you would also help to sustain democracy in this country. These are some of the things I would have prefered to see.
It is alleged that some political jobbers created a wedge between you and the president
Well, we always have this kind of people. It is up to those involved to ensure that they do not come in to strain relationships.
Did you identify them, and who are they?
No, I did not identify anybody (laughs)
Prior to the 2003 elections, majority of the PDP governors were with you. Now, you are saying some of them are traitors
No, I donít want you to take that comment out of context. I made it when a delegation paid me a visit from Taraba. They complained about misgovernance, and I thought Jolly Nyame had enough time to transform that state. It was in that context that I said I was disappointed and regretted backing him.
Are there other governors like that?
I wouldnít know. It was not until I had audience with this delegation from Taraba, and they consisted of very prominent people whom I did not expect would tell a lie against the governor. And that was my reaction.
Is it true that you sold the Mandela option to Mr President before 2003?
I never had anything to do with Mandela option. That was a creation I didnít know of who. God knows that I did not propose Mandela option for anybody.
You have been described as a master strategist. So, how did you mastermind the rigging of the 2003 election?
I donít think itís a fair thing to say that I masterminded the rigging of the election. I did not conduct that election, it was conducted by INEC, and Iím just one individual. I was in my home state in Adamawa, so how could I have masterminded the so-called rigging. Was I in Rivers? There was rigging in Rivers.
Did I rig there?
What do you make of the argument that power should shift to the South-south for equity and justice?
All I know is that the PDP took a decision at an enlarged caucus in November 2002, that power should rotate between the North and South. That is the decision of the PDP till today. We wait until they change it.
But do you think power would shift to the North?
Itís a party decision, and there were those of us who founded this party, and the issue of rotation of power between North and South actually started in the 1994/1995 constitutional conference, where I was a member. That was where the idea was first mooted. Eventually, those of us in that conference came to be some of the founding fathers of the PDP, and we also entrenched that in our constitution. Power rotation and power shift, that is what is in the PDP constitution. We still believe in that, and by the time every geo-political zone would have produced the president, the thing can be thrown open.
If the PDP decides tomorrow that the presidency should go to the South-south, will you sacrifice your ambition?
I will wait until that decision is taken
What was the real story behind the removal of your aides by the president?
Believe me, perhaps only the president can answer this question. I would not know, all I know is that the president called me and said, Iíve fired this, Iíve fired that, Iíve fired that (laughs). I said you are the president, you can fire anybody you want to fire, the only person you canít fire is myself.
You were satisfied with the services of the people fired?
Very much so
But, it is said some of them were planting stories in the media against the government you serve
I was not aware of that
Most of your associates have left the PDP. You are still there. Is it so that you can play a spoiler?
No, Iím never a spoiler
As the chief financier of the ACDÖ
Iím not. There are so many wealthy people in ACD
What are you still doing in PDP when your associates are not there?
But I still have associates in PDP. Very many. I have associates in PDP.
Do you regret not contesting against Obasanjo in 2003?
No regret absolutely. I did that in the best interest of the country. What was uppermost in my mind was national stability, national unity. We are moving towards the right direction.
How do you see Gov Orji Kaluís opposition to third term?
Of course, heís a hero
After your outburst of April 5, how did the president react? Did he ever ask you?
No. We havenít discussed it.
Is that not rather curious?
Very curious (laughs)
But in the letter you wrote to him, he replied that he will go by the decision of the party
He is the president, what do you expect him to say? He should be seen to be neutral. Just as he said he was neutral during the debate on constitution amendment (laughs)
Outgoing presidents usually support their deputies for the race. We saw Bill Clinton doing that to Al Gore.
Wait till I get the nomination of the party. And weíll see whether he will not present me to Nigerians.
Some of the presidentís associates have claimed that if you become president, you will squander all the resources saved over the years. Implied in that insinuation is that you are corrupt; and itís a very widespread allegation.
Itís propaganda, a very negative propaganda for that matter. Secondly, spending governmentís funds has a process. You just donít dip your hands in government treasury and bring out money. And fortunately, this administration has really worked hard in institutionalising those processes. So, I do not see how I can squander this nationís wealth just by dipping my hand into the treasury and taking money. I have challenged anybody who has anything on corruption allegations against me to come out and face me with it. And up till now, nobody has done so, either in the administration or outside. So, as far as Iím concerned, this question of corruption is a well packaged propaganda just to smear my image.
Because Iíd been a successful businessman before coming into government, should that make me corrupt? And in this government as a vice president, I donít have a vote. Even a minister has more power to spend money than I do. A minister can give contract up to N50 million, I cannot give contract even up to N1 million because I donít have a vote. My vote is being controlled by the president, so how do I steal the money?
Were you ever frustrated?
Definitely, I have gone through quite a lot of things, but I donít allow frustrations or obstacles to determine my objectives.
These men with military background angling for power again, is it a minus or a plus?
I donít want to talk on the military. It will be unfair to brand a whole group of people. But I think Nigeriaís experience in military governance has not been the best.
Your associates that crossed carpet during the third term bid, if they come back, how will you react?
They are just mere political differences. They can always be resolved. One good thing about political differences is that they are sometimes the most easy to resolve.
But it is more of betrayal
Even socially, you must have had friends before, and you fell out. It happens. Even maritally, you marry a woman, you divorce her, so thatís it.
If the president had come out before the debate to say he was not for third term, do you think that would have lifted him in the history books?
In fact, he would have really acted to the expectation of most Nigerians and international observers of Nigeria. I was almost bleeding in my heart because I never thought that this president, whom I have elevated to the highest level in this country, would be deceived into this kind of contraption. Believe me, itís sad what human beings can do to others
When Mandela was warning that Obasanjo should beware of third term, and Daily Sun carried the story, did you think we were just making noise?
I knew of third term three years ago. Yes, three years ago. When the president called me in the morning, and said Iím sending Prof Jerry Gana and Kanu Agabi to you to discuss constitutional amendment with you. They came, and it took us two hours to go through the amendments, and here was the issue of third term in it. I told them, Iím not for this, and I will fight it, take the message back to the president.
There is the perception that after the issue of third term, Nigerians will never trust leadership again.
I think leadership will have to rebuild confidence in Nigerians. This takes time, but it can be done. Subsequent leadership will have to reassure Nigerians that when they say something, they mean it.
Is the danger of third term clearly over?
I donít think so. We must be very watchful.
What are the danger signals you see?
We must make sure we have a credible transition, one that is not made to falter. We must get the National Assembly to come out with the new Electoral Act immediately. And we must also make sure that INEC clearly has the capacity to conduct the transition programme so that it is not used to sabotage the transition.
When the president said he was ready to die for Nigeria, how did you interpret it?
I donít know about this ready to die. I donít know whether it means a higher sense of patriotism, but I think I want to live to serve this country (general laughter).
When he said Godís business must not be left unfinished, how did you interpret that?
I really donít understand that. Maybe you need to ask him what he meant by it. You know that God sent prophets, and there was none who accomplished all what he came to do. Disciples continued after them. Even Methuselah did not complete what he came to do (laughs).
So, how do you think history will remember Obasanjo, particularly in the last part of his term?
Letís leave that to history.
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