Atiku Abubakar was the Vice-President during the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo's administration between 1999 and 2007. The founding member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party shares his experience in the party and the privatisation exercise under his leadership in this online interview with LEKE BAIYEWU
As a founding member of the Peoples Democratic Party, why did you leave your party for the opposition Action Congress in 2006?
I had to leave because I was pushed to the limit. You know what happened during that period and we don't have to go through it all over again. A scheme was introduced, by which I and my supporters were removed from the party under the guise of re-registration. Of course, the bigger scheme was to ensure that I did not succeed my boss (Olusegun Obasanjo). You saw how the cards were stacked against me to pursue my presidential aspiration under PDP. They had me suspended from the party, even beyond the length of time permitted by the PDP constitution. The party rejected and flouted all courts orders in respect of my rights as a party member.
Events were unfolding rapidly and I had a deep conviction that with the help of the courts, we could establish a precedent to ensure that no one trampled upon the rights of citizens – not just I – and got away scot-free. I was eventually compelled to seek alternative platform to prove this point and to advance my aspiration. That was how I joined others to found the Action Congress.
Why did you later dump AC to go back to the PDP, despite your vow never to do so?
Don't forget that I was among the founding members of the PDP. I was forced to leave the party and I joined AC then because forces in the party (PDP) were ferociously determined to frustrate me at all costs. However, when the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was elected as the President, he initiated the policy of reconciliation and appealed to aggrieved members to return. The committee for this purpose was headed by former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme.
I invested energy, time and political capital in the formation of the PDP and, therefore, because of that sentimental attachment, I responded to the policy of reconciliation and returned to the fold. Should you blame a child for reconciling with his parents after he ran away over disagreement? The circumstances of my departure from PDP are well known to Nigerians. When I returned, I did so to promote the growth of what I helped to build in the first place.
Basically, the destruction of internal democracy in PDP made me to leave the party against my will. You are aware of the policy of de-registration of certain party members by the former President. My supporters and I were the target of this hostile and anti-democratic policy. I was between the rock and the hard place and, ultimately, I was technically expelled from PDP by the hand-picked party national executives. It is, therefore, unfair for anybody to describe my departure from PDP as opportunistic, considering the insurmountable and deliberate obstacles laid on my path by the former President (Obasanjo) and the party national leadership.
When you were the chairman of the National Council on Privatisation and also as former Vice- President, you were accused of selling major public corporations to political office holders, including yourself. One of such is Pentascope. How true is it that the privatisation process was shady?
These allegations are not new. The interesting thing is that those spreading these allegations couldn't come forward with any iota of proof against me. You forgot that I was accused of selling African Petroleum to myself, using a front. However, when the facts eventually emerged in respect of this particular allegation, my traducers were disarmed and were forced to retreat. Indeed, I was the most investigated public office holder under the former administration and, if this allegation was valid, it could have been conveniently used to bring me down and tarnish my name. Thank God I survived this smear campaign, just like others before it.
The Senate conducted a public hearing on privatisation under my leadership as the chairman of the National Council on Privatisation. That was the best opportunity for those accusing me of selling public assets to myself to come forward to prove the allegation. Surprisingly, they never did because they relied mainly on hearsay. A cabinet member in Obasanjo's government, who was promoting this idle rumour, was eventually left looking small because he didn't have the facts to substantiate his allegations against me.
On Pentascope, one would have expected your paper to direct the questions to El-Rufai himself. The Pentascope scandal was one of the issues investigated by the National Assembly and it accused El-Rufai of ignoring wise counsel by imposing the company on NITEL. Despite proven allegations that Pentascope was not financially capable and technically competent to handle NITEL management contract, the former Bureau of Public Enterprise Director-General ignored public outcry and forced the Dutch company on NITEL. Before the coming of Pentascope, NITEL was making an estimated N100bn profit annually. However, as soon as Pentascope took over, NITEL's profits were nose-diving incredibly. With telecom stakeholders, the National Assembly and the Nigerian public insisting that the imposition of Pentascope on NITEL was ruinous to national interest, the Federal Government eventually cancelled the management contract against El-Rufai's desire. I had no hand, absolutely, no connection or knowledge of how that company was brought into Nigeria. Curiously, El-Rufa'i avoided the Pentascope issue in his book, "The Accidental Public Servant." Therefore, if there is anybody to explain the details of the Pentascope scandal, it is El-Rufai himself. The fact of the contract are like this: Obasanjo agreed with the NCP that the former BPE DG was wrong not to have disclosed his interest and that he had failed the test of transparency by not disclosing that his brother was on the board of Motorola. I know you are very familiar with the laws of the federation. You know, for instance, that it is a very serious offence to fail, refuse or neglect to disclose your interest whether directly or through someone else, in dealing with such an important transaction. But, the President in his wisdom decided that the contract be split into three, with each of the contenders, Motorola, Ericsson and the Chinese company – I think Huawei – taking a portion. As if to vindicate the NCP, by 2007 when we left office, the two others apart from Motorola had completed their own contracts. You can go and find out if they (Motorola) have finished.
El-Rufai, has challenged you to explain what happened with the NITEL GSM contract that Motorola lost to Ericson, despite the American company submitting the lowest bid? What is your explanation?
Personally, I dislike the idea of exchanging words with the former FCT minister over this issue. But for the sake of your question, I would like Nigerians to be smart enough to read between the lines. Why does the former FCT minister treat the Motorola issue with such persistent personal bitterness? Why is he making it a heavy matter? Anybody can play to the gallery and deceive the people. Transparency is a key issue of conducting any business, including privatisation. Conflict of interest is inconsistent with transparency. If you are a privatisation head and you have a relationship with a particular person connected with one of the companies making bids, it is a moral and legal duty to disclose that relationship or interest. Pretending that you have no relationship with the person who is rooting for a particular bidder is not altogether tidy and transparent. If he had no interest in a particular company for sentimental reasons, why is he making too much fuss about Motorola losing the bid? Did El-Rufai accuse me of promoting Ericsson because I had any connection with the company directly or indirectly? If, indeed, I had promoted Ericsson for personal interest, Obasanjo wouldn't have let me get away with it. He would have exposed me and disgraced me, and even ordered my prosecution.
Why is it that these corporations have relatively failed, despite being run by private investors?
I don't agree with you that privatisation has failed altogether, despite the challenges some of the new investors are facing. The GSM operators in the country are doing well, despite their challenges caused by infrastructural problems in the country. Look at banks and ports, they all are doing well. Some of the new investors are finding difficulties, maybe as a result of the scope of the challenges or ill-preparation. Some of them have resorted to asset stripping rather than restoring the companies to functional state and start production to create jobs, such as the Ajaokuta Steel Plant. Large-scale privatisation is relatively new in Nigeria and some of the new investors appear to have swallowed more than they can chew. But the privatisation exercise under me was a narrative of huge success, not of failure.
How could the proposed amendment to the PDP constitution seeking to make President Goodluck Jonathan the sole presidential candidate in 2015 affect your ambition?
As a loyal PDP member, I am keenly watching this development and could do anything within democratic means and internal mechanisms of conflict resolution to tackle this challenge. As the ruling party that boasts to be the largest in Africa, the PDP should set standards for internal democracy which should be a template for other parties. In fact, they (members) should not only be proud of its size but also of its credibility in the eyes of Nigerians. Promoting the principles of democracy is the bedrock on which the PDP was founded in 1998 by like-minded Nigerians. Therefore, any attempt to stifle internal democracy, make level playing field impossible and imposing a candidate on the party before the elections would damage the perception of the party. I am happy that the National Chairman, Bamanga Tukur, has been speaking along these lines. President Jonathan is entitled to seek the party ticket but that doesn't mean others should be shut out completely through a party constitutional amendment. This amendment is unnecessary because it would set precedents that would undermine the democratic principles to which the party declared to be committed. Nothing gives us psychological satisfaction and ease better than winning fairly. With this amendment, however, can the PDP improve its public perception and convince fellow members that it is committed to fairness, transparency and a level playing field in the conduct of its internal affairs? If we don't reject this amendment now, it would produce problems in the future that the party may find too embarrassing to handle. This effort to amend the constitution to please the ambition of any individual is in bad faith. In fact, it defeats the whole purpose of the policy of reconciliation and re-uniting aggrieved former members.
If the PDP goes ahead with the amendment to make Jonathan the sole candidate in 2015 without primaries, would you be tempted to join the All Progressives Congress as you recently applauded the merger of opposition parties which aims to oust your party?
Provided PDP members are free to vote according to their conscience or personal convictions of what is right, the amendment may face tough opposition. The sanctity of the democratic principles on which the PDP was founded should not be sacrificed on the grounds of expediency to gratify the ego of individual leaders. Should we mutilate a whole legal document by which a party is run for the sake of anyone else's ambition or ego? President Jonathan can throw this hat into the ring, if that is what he wants. It is important, however, that the process of his nomination by the party should be open, fair, just and transparent. The contest should be conducted through open primaries. Other party members should be allowed to participate in the primaries. If they ultimately lose to Jonathan through a fair contest, they will embrace and congratulate him. What is wrong with open primaries or level-playing ground? Amending the PDP constitution for the sake of making President Jonathan the sole candidate is absolutely unnecessary. Exclusion in the nomination of candidates amounts to imposition which is inconsistent with democratic practice. I have read all manners of arguments by proponents, saying that the American system gives the option of first refusal to the incumbent and that the PDP should do the same. That is very misleading.
In the first place, it is not true that American incumbents are not challenged at party primaries; there is no such rule in the United States. The late Senator Edward Kennedy mounted a vigorous challenge against the then incumbent Jimmy Carter. Although Carter won, the contest went down to the wire. It was resolved through a vote at the nomination convention of the Democratic Party. On the second aspect of your question, I wish to make a clarification. As a loyal PDP member and as one of the founding fathers, I couldn't have said the emergence of APC is good for the death of PDP. What I said in Ibadan was that, with the emergence of APC, a two-party system seems to be unfolding in the country and that this development is consistent with my advocacy for a two-party system in Nigeria. I never said the merger of opposition parties as you alleged is good for the ouster of PDP from office.
Can you shed more light on the controversy surrounding your membership of the PDP Board of Trustees?
On my alleged removal as a member of the Board of Trustees of PDP, I do not wish to engage in speculation. No one has communicated such decision to me yet. It would, however, be unfortunate if it turns out to be true. As I said, it would be a setback for the policy of reconciliation embarked upon by the Alex Ekwueme-led committee. This move is like undoing the positive outcome of what Dr. Ekwueme had achieved in that respect.
Is it true that President Jonathan signed a one-term agreement with the North?
With the zoning policy of the PDP virtually dead, talking about agreements at this point is somehow a tricky issue. I am not sure I am in the right position to talk about what you call the one-term agreement. Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State recently referred to that agreement or understanding. A gentleman's word should be his bond. I contested against Jonathan during the 2011 PDP presidential primaries and, therefore, anything I say now might be subject to misinterpretation. Because of this fact, I don't want to belabour the points about agreements or understandings. I am, however, primarily concerned about the image of my party in the eyes of Nigerians. Changing rules or the constitution of the party for the sake of expediency is not my idea of honour. If we conveniently live in denial or pretend that the party didn't reach any understanding on anything, then who would take us seriously? How can you be a beneficiary of something and later pretend that the policy that put you in office is no longer relevant? The emergence of (House of Representatives) Speaker Aminu Tambuwal against the party insistence on zoning was a consequence of abandoning principle for the sake of expediency. With the election of Tambuwal as the Speaker, following the party's declaration that zoning was dead, the PDP leadership was morally disarmed to prevent the emergence of Tambuwal as Speaker in the so-called breach of zoning policy – the same power sharing formula, which the party declared dead. Such is the consequence of hypocrisy.
The election of Tambuwal was a most embarrassing moment for the PDP. If you rejected zoning for the nomination of President Jonathan, what moral right do you have to tell lawmakers to elect their Speaker based on zoning, which you discarded?
When people are blinded by expediency, they hardly foresee the consequences of opportunism. Today, the President is from the South-South geopolitical zone; Vice-President, North-West; President of the Senate, North-Central; Speaker of the House of Representatives, North-West; Chief Justice of Nigeria, North-West; Secretary to the Government of the Federation, South-East; Deputy Senate President, South-East; and Deputy Speaker, South-East. This wasn't the intention of the abandoned zoning policy, but we have to live with this unpleasant reality because of the myopic attitude of some people. The South-West is today crying very loudly about marginalisation, thanks to the abandonment of zoning for the sake of expediency. This issue is not about Atiku but about the imperative of sustaining arrangements that would guarantee every section of Nigeria access to the nation's highest public office. We have been called names by people that benefitted from this arrangement. Zoning had successfully achieved the objectives of equitable power sharing. If anybody now says zoning is not good, that wouldn't change the reality of its benefits. The arrangement had significantly reduced the fear of domination by any section or group over others.
Would you, as a president grant amnesty to Boko Haram?
If I were the President, I would have no hesitation to throw the ball into the court of the Boko Haram leaders. As was case with the Niger Delta militancy, I would declare amnesty for the sect members with a deadline within which to surrender their arms. With the expiration of the deadline, if the sect members don't lay down their arms, then my government would be in a better position to face its critics that accuse it of not taking the initiative. The deadline for the surrender of arms would show whether the Boko Haram fighters want peace or not.
Do you see the revived Peoples Democratic Movement as strong enough to stop Jonathan from winning election?
I have nothing personally against President Jonathan. The issue here is about principle and internal democracy. This is not about PDM; it is about a struggle to entrench internal democracy. Should we destroy everything internal democracy stands for just for the sake of forcing anybody into line to support only one contestant? The PDP, like any political organisation, is a convergence of various political interests and forces that came together to form the party, as it is today. I would work together with all stakeholders within the PDP to bring about positive change from within PDP. This issue is not merely about PDM. The principle behind my struggle is beyond the PDM.