Buhari ignored restructuring, thinks it’s South-West agenda – Abdullahi, ex-minister

In this interview with SOLOMON ODENIYI, a former Minister of Youth Development and Sports, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, who is also a former National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress, speaks about national issues ahead of the 2023 elections

Since your participation in the Kwara State governorship election in 2019, you seem to have kept a low profile, what have you been doing?

Everything has its own season; there is time for politicking, there is time to be visible and there is time to keep a low profile. When the time for politicking came, I participated at that time and when it turned out the way it did, we had to go back to what we know how to do best which is reading and writing and doing business. We have been doing this to keep body and soul together. We remained in touch with the people, believing that there would be another opportunity.  What has happened in 2019 was an opportunity to allow the people who had won the election to show to the people that gave them the mandate what they could do differently.

For the first time since 2003 in Kwara State, the Saraki dynasty was thrown out of power after the APC won the election in the state, did you regret moving to the PDP after the APC won the election?

I have no regrets whatsoever. My moving to the PDP was contextual as it was circumstantial. The obvious explanation is that the political group which I belonged to, that is the Saraki Political Group, was moving into the PDP and as a loyal member, I had to join them. There were specific things happening within the party, and as a national officer, that made my continued stay in the party that time untenable. Those reasons were valid and one won’t really look back and wish to stay. Talking about what happened in Kwara, they were epochal moments that pushed our politics in a different direction. But again, it has not put us in a position where we looked back and wished we were part of the APC. Rather the development, if it had anything at all, presented us a teachable opportunity like the former President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, would say for both the winners and the vanquished. Three years later, the two sides have had opportunities to reflect on what happened and be able to articulate it properly.

Do you foresee the possibility of PDP claiming back the state in the next election?

Absolutely, it is possible and it is for different reasons. In any battle, there can only be two possible outcomes; you rather win or lose. Beyond that theoretical basis, there are things happening in the state that can make one conclude that even those who are part of the agitation for the revolutionary change in 2018 did not feel their expectations have been met. The driving philosophy behind what happened has more or less been betrayed by what we see and hear every day and the most important evidence is the chaos within the ruling party in the state. That’s the one leg of it. The other is the evidence of governance itself. I think the people of the state would be the best to judge that but the state that I know is not the same as what we see today. I go to the state and I listen to the people and see for myself and I know that if the reason we were chased away in 2019 was that we were not delivering enough, certainly no one would look back and say what the APC government is doing is better. On the basis of this, it is possible people would vote for us in 2023.

Are you saying the current APC government in Kwara State has not done well?

It depends on what you mean by that. I have been part of the government since 2003 and I know the work we did, from the administration of Dr Bukola Saraki and Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed, they did quite a lot. It is not about political talk. We did everything we should have done, although there are a couple of things we would have done better. The state was heading towards a particular direction. When you go into Ilorin today, which is the capital, what you see now is that Ilorin is like a dump site and I fear for my people because I am from Ilorin town, in Ilorin West which is the heart of Ilorin where the population density of the place is competing with that of Ikeja without the economy and infrastructure of Ikeja. Only a few cities have toilets. Managing solid waste in that kind of environment is a major challenge.

So, when there is rain, what you see is that flood just takes all the waste and moves it to the other side. When I see this, I am so scared that should there be an outbreak of disease, we are going to be in trouble. I go to those kinds of places and I see children who are what children experts call ‘child wasting’, you see children who are malnourished, when a child is malnourished, it definitely affects the mental capacity of that child and won’t be able to learn and grow. You ask yourself, what is going on here? But what do you expect when the local government administration has disappeared completely? Because if there is local government administration, you will expect that waste management at least will be one thing that they will undertake.

The second one is the general feeling when you speak to any civil servant. They (civil servants) have never felt alienated from the government as they are now. We are politicians, we come and we go but the civil servants remain. When these sets of people are not involved in policy making, you would find out that the government exists only without any basis of foundation. We have lot of these problems but like I earlier said, the people of the state will judge if their lives have been better, if they have experienced development in the education sector, whether water supply is better, road infrastructure is also better. What you will see is that the government is busy taking loans from left, right and centre without recourse to the viability of those loans in relation to the economy of the state. What you would see is the government building what they tagged legacy projects as we approach the election year but I don’t think that kind of investment is what Kwara State needs.

You spoke about some of the deficiencies of the current APC government in the state. However, they would argue that they came in without meeting money in the treasury to work with, do you think it would be fair to criticise this government?

It’s easy for any government to come and say they didn’t have any money in the treasury to work with; that is an excuse. What I would like to say is that if there is a legitimate basis, if this government believes that things have happened that should not have happened with the finances of the state, stop talking about it and go to court. I don’t have the details of what happened and what did not but what I am saying is that if you know for a fact that things which ought not to have happened with the state’s resources have happened and you know that is why you have been unable to perform and you need to recover that money to perform, then stop talking about it and take action. The most important investment that the government needs to make is in the people. If you are not doing this, there is no explanation that is good enough.

You were part of the APC committee on true federalism led by Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. Four years later, it has not been implemented. Do you have an idea on why it has not been implemented?

I don’t have an idea but I think I understand to a good extent the challenge at the time. Like you rightly noted, I was a member of the committee and we travelled round the country and the take-off point was that the APC government promised devolution of power in its manifesto and it got to a point where Nigerians began to ask questions. We felt obliged as executives of the party to take action at that point in time regardless of the position of the government, hoping that we would start the conversation around it and be able to get the government to respond appropriately and that was why the leadership of the party at the time led by Chief John Oyegun set up a committee led by El-Rufai. One of the things we tried to do then was to disaggregate what people mean when they say true federalism. You would agree with me that the definition of restructuring has been caught up in all forms of political baggage to the extent that it means different things to different people.

After our report came out, our hope was that we would be able to get the Federal Government to take the needed actions because apart from the report that made specific recommendations on what to do on constitution amendments, we even went to the extent of including draft amendments. I think what happened is that the manifesto of the APC had long been disowned by the government itself. The government felt it was the South-West wing of the party that inserted this into the manifesto of the party and the other wings didn’t believe in it; that was where the breakdown happened. So it was seen more or less as ACN South-West agenda, rather than the Buhari government agenda. That dissonance was a major challenge that report had. I don’t think anything would come out of the report for now especially as we head to the last lap of the administration.

Was there any reason attached to why it was called a South-West agenda?

Don’t forget the party made a lot of promises in the build-up to the election. I was part of the campaign team as the Deputy Director of Strategy and Policy. We came up with all kinds of ideas on how we could change the country at the time and we made all kinds of promises as a result. I remembered we made a pamphlet titled ‘My Pact with Nigerians’ which contained what the President would do for the country. I remembered that one of the first things the government spokespeople did after the inauguration was to say some of the promises were made by overzealous members of the party. Some of those agendas were disowned by the government. I think it was the nature by which the party was put together. You had the CPC, ANPP, and the ACN. So, it was a special vehicle put together for winning the election.  And it was the first time a progressive party was coming to power at the centre and some of the progressives’ agendas were coming largely from the ACN. Those primordial groups still remained intact even after winning the election and were still able to locate the boundaries of their own commitment within the general framework of the party. The attempt to mould the APC into a one unified party regardless of where they were coming from has not succeeded as well as it should as at then. I am no longer in the party; so, I don’t know what is going on there now.

APC seems to be facing its deepest crisis since it was created, you have different factions in many states, you were a member of the NWC, how is it that in the build-up to the 2019 election, there wasn’t this much tension?

In 2019, you had a sitting President and you would agree with me there had been no president not even the former President Olusegun Obasanjo  that has been so dominant that everyone was willing to surrender to. I saw it as a NWC member. When Buhari speaks, even if you don’t agree with him, you would say yes. He is coming to the end of his eight years and there is going to be a vacuum and many people want to step into that, this itself would create an internal disequilibrium. Even though it is natural to politics, it would be exacerbated by the contestation for power. So, if you are looking for a generic interpretation of what is going on now in the party, that is where we would start from. I think where the APC got it wrong was not allowing Chief Oyegun to continue. Bringing in Adams Oshiomhole widened some of the gaps that were in existence in the party because of his own kind of personality. He was someone who came in and believed he had scores to settle, people to fight compared with the reconciliatory approach that someone like Oyegun would bring in.

You were a minister during the Jonathan administration and you were removed because of your loyalty to Bukola Saraki. Hasn’t your loyalty to Saraki cost you a lot?

What I keep emphasising on is that there is loyalty to an individual and I think when you agree to exist in a political group, you have to be loyal to the leadership of that group. But more important to me is loyalty to a principle. There are some things the reality of my upbringing would not allow me to do. I will not suddenly become a different kind of person because I play politics. When I was the minister of Sports under Jonathan, and the then President and Saraki were having issues, until I left, in fairness to Saraki, he never asked me to quit my job. What happened was that after he left, I became the most senior political appointee from Kwara and I was supposed to lead Jonathan’s campaign train to my state. I had the intention of continuing with my work because we were doing well then and had the World Cup ahead of us and we had mapped out our plans. I think I was naive to think I would be left alone to continue with my job.  However, when the former President came to campaign in Kwara, I was expected to be at the forefront of that campaign which had one central message which was to bring Saraki down, and I was supposed to lead that? But Saraki hasn’t offended me. As a result, I turned down the request to do that. That would have been incompatible with my upbringing and I think my family would have been disappointed if I had done that out of the desire to keep my position. Of course I knew what the consequence was and if I were Jonathan, I would have sacked such a person. At that point I had become politically useless to him. Even if Saraki had called me to start saying bad things about the president, I would not have done it, I would not because I don’t want to be used as a tool in a battle I didn’t understand.

Would you be running for office in 2023?

I was going to but there is still so much uncertainty now. My plan was to contest the governorship election but my party has taken a decision to zone it elsewhere. At this moment my political future is not clear. I have left everything in the hands of God.

In 2019, you stepped down for Rasak Atunwa who ended up losing the election. Are you making another sacrifice?

As long as I have not decided to leave the Saraki camp, I have an obligation to abide by a decision that has been taken by the leadership of the group. If I am no longer able to abide by the decision, then it means I would have to go elsewhere. Although, I must admit that sometimes it is difficult to make these sacrifices but as I earlier said, I belong to a group and I must abide by whatever decisions they make.

You were a minister the last time Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations. Do you think Nigeria has what it takes to win AFCON 2022?

I watched our match against Egypt and I saw something that is not usually present in Nigeria’s national team. The last time I saw something like that was in 2013. It is the fighting spirit. These current players are ready to fight. I think if everything remains the way they should because from experience, I know things can change quickly. When we lose or win, it is often dependent on things that happen outside the pitch. If those things do not crop up, I see this team going far. These current players look fired and determined to succeed.

Many times when Nigeria ends contracts with coaches, we hear complaints that they are being owed salaries. How can this be resolved because this does not give the country a good name?

It has always been a problem of management and it has been a perennial problem of the Nigerian Football Federation. The paradox is that the NFF at least in my time depended on the Federal Government for funding but they do not want to be accountable to the Federal Government in the management of the funds. That created tension that generated politics that proceeded to affect the performance of the team. When I was there, the late Stephen Keshi was owed money. I think we still have a lot of work to do. We started work on that but we were not as successful as we should have been. How do we build a marketable brand out of the Super Eagles to generate independent funds? I know there is participation money from FIFA, CAF, there are grants they give to federations across the continent and there are also budgetary allocations but that would never be enough because we have about seven or eight national teams the federation is managing. I am not defending anybody but as someone who has been there, I know the enormity of the challenges they are facing. We have to get businesses to invest in the team, and then this kind of problem would be addressed.

You launched a foundation. What was the motivation behind that?

When I left office, one of the lessons I took out of there is that there are many people who are looking for answers to many questions. They are looking for people who have more experience than them to hold their hands and help them to navigate what is arguably the most difficult part of their lives. This was one of the motivations for wanting to be governor in 2019. For those who are familiar with my manifesto, I said my first priority is youth development because I know the greatest development you can make is in the youth. When you are able to invest in the youth in terms of job creation, skill acquisition or value orientation or access to credit, then you would have solved the bulk of the problem we are facing and they constitute the majority and whatever they do impact on home across our state. I was determined to focus our government on youth development leveraging on my experience and contact both national and international level. So when that did not happen, I told myself this is my commitment it should not be incumbent on me being governor. PUNCH

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