President Muhammadu Buhari in a special interview with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), explained why he did not sack service chiefs and why he is pleased that his cabinet has not suffered any major scandal since it was constituted in November 2015. The interview was monitored and transcribed by Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye.
You came to power in 2015 promising to address Nigeria’s fundamental challenges of security, economy and corruption. Looking back, what would you say you are most happy about?
I think it is the relief to the people of North-East especially for degrading Boko Haram. Before we came in, 17 local governments were occupied by Boko Haram, now they are not holding any local government. They have resorted to holding some islands in the Lake Chad and indoctrinating young people especially girls, wrapping them with explosives and then sending them to soft targets such as mosques, market places and motor parks. So really, our first identified assignment of securing the country, we have achieved some success.
The economy, we are very lucky God has heard our prayers; the rainy seasons were good. We made fertilizers available and some of the inputs and we have virtually achieved good security.
What have been the regrets, frustrations about your actions or in actions as president?
Well, my frustrations are that we cannot move faster in prosecution and punishing the big corrupt persons. We have made some progress, we have recovered a number of fixed assets, money in banks including in Europe and America. But under this system you cannot be too much in a hurry even if you see, including whistle blowers. You have to go to the Police and go through the rigmarole of full investigation before prosecution. This is my biggest frustration really.
What lessons would you say you have learnt so far dealing with politicians, political office holders in the course of discharging your responsibilities as president?
Well, everyone is first of all mindful of his immediate constituency that he or she continues to impress his constituency that he is doing very well. But the frustrations like I said is the fact that it is taking too long to see that people are punished for frustrating the economic development of the country. Because, what resources we have been getting in terms of revenue, ought to have been put into the infrastructure – the roads, the rails, power and even enable Nigerian entrepreneurs to go about their businesses. But when the infrastructure is lacking there isn’t much they can do.
In the build up to the 2019 elections, the ‘so called Nigerian elites’ as you use to call them, campaigned vigorously against your re-election. Did you feel betrayed?
No. I always knew that the so called Nigerian elite want to impress on the population, on majority of Nigerians that they dictate terms to government at all levels – center, states and local governments. But we understand very well. And don’t forget, I contested three times before I won the fourth time. And in each case, that is 2003. 2007 and 2011, I ended up in Supreme Court. I understand Nigerian politics. But I found out that the elite are just for themselves and this is why I feel no one bother about what they threatened they could do. And I am very pleased that I proved myself right. I hope they will appreciate what sacrifice Nigerians have been making to make them to continue enjoying the position they have achieved whether materially or politically. I think they should be thanking the rest of Nigerians because majority of Nigerians have interest in me, they voted me overwhelmingly. When I visited all the states, 36 of them including Abuja, the people turned out to listen to me, to see me. And to me that is more than what anybody could buy or force to come and see me. So, I felt that Nigerians really understood me and were backing me and that was proved subsequently during the elections.
During the electioneering, you never for once expressed doubt over your chances of winning the last election and you won with 15.1 million votes. What gave you so much confidence?
I am confident because as I told you I saw the signs that Nigerians understood me and I reminded you just now that I tried three times and it was only the fourth time I won. And there was no local government I haven’t visited in this country not to talk of state. The 774 local governments between 2003 and 2011, I visited all the local governments and most of the time I went by road and very few places I went by air because I was on my own.
Your relationship with the 8th Assembly wasn’t the best. Why?
I think a culture was developed in the National Assembly that they should dictate the terms. I think it was wrong, I think it is the executive that dictate the terms and take it to the legislature that will examine it and agree or disagree with it.
But when they go around posing as the government, I think there is a problem. I spoke personally to the Senate President, Saraki and the Speaker of the House, Dogara, they could not deny it. I asked them how they felt holding the country to ransom for seven months without passing the budget. I told them personally they are not hurting me they are hurting the country. So really in terms of patriotism I rate them very low.
Has that affected the performance of your government?
Yes. But it is the constitution that says we have to go through them, there is nothing I can do. But to hold a budget for seven months cannot be justified if you really bother about your country.
Security is still a major challenge despite the fact that you have degraded Boko Haram. Kidnapping for ransom is still an issue that is now threatening the peace of the country. Personally, how do you feel about that?
I feel very bad indeed because there is a failure of neighborhood security in the sense that those who are perpetuating these atrocities against communities and against the state and the country, come from somewhere in Nigeria, their neighborhood knows them and we have traditional rulers. And then the Police of course are in the front line, they are in every major town or city in this country. I think they were not given the uniform and the rifle to impress anybody but to secure the people. I think the community leadership and the Police to some extent have failed this country.
So what assurance can you give Nigerians on that?
The assurance I can give to Nigerians is that I will continue to do my best.
So in the face of prevailing security challenges, how would you describe the performance of the service chiefs and other enforcement agencies?
You see, all my life I have gone through all these. I did virtually all the staff and command appointments from platoon of 32, 36 or 40 people or whatever it is to division. It was on record that I was the only officer in the Nigerian Army that commanded three out of the four divisions then. The first division in Lagos, second division in Ibadan and the third division in Jos. So, the security relative to the time I was in command has really gone down. I cannot claim to know what was happening after I left the military. All the service chiefs I picked, I depended on records and reports. And when we have a case of emergency I don’t think it is the time to start disorganising or organising the military or any law enforcement agency as such. You have to take your time to do it because these are institutions that they know their security more than anyone. Every Nigerian depends on a strong center. We have no state Police; we have no state Army, Air Force or Navy. So those people know more than ordinary Nigerians that the center has to hold for them to have security, both material and physical security. If they allow the center to collapse, automatically they are the ones leaving.
So are you satisfied with their performance? We understand you have given them all that they required.
I am still expecting more but I am thinking of what happened between 1999 and 2014, I suspected a lot of things went wrong including accountability and efficiency of the military and law enforcement agencies.
Last year, you promised National Working Committee of your party that you are going to expand your cabinet, which is yet to happen. Are you likely to do so in the next level?
I have addressed my cabinet, I said goodbye to them at least for the four years. I still haven’t discussed it with anybody and you will not be the first person I will discuss with.
What kind of ministers are we likely to see in your new cabinet in the next four years?
To begin with, when I addressed the cabinet, I said I was very pleased we didn’t have any major scandal. I think this is a major achievement. And anybody who hasn’t got any evidence against any of my ministers, then, people have to trust me with which of the ministers I will retain, which ones I will say goodbye and very sincerely to. I don’t go beyond that because I haven’t discussed it with anybody yet.
Is there anything you intend to do differently as you begin your second term in office?
I will try to make the Police and the judiciary much more efficient. As I told the Police and a lot of people, the Police are at the front line as I said; there is no town where you do not have a Police station. They are supposed to be on the front line for law and order. The only thing closer to the people than the Police are the neigbourhood itself, people know in some communities if people steal, they know from which family the person is from, or the criminal elements. This is what I expected the Nigerian Police to achieve, absolute community security, to know the criminals around so that they can straight ahead arrest those who commit certain crimes and get them prosecuted.
I asked that question because some people have started speculating that you are likely to be more ruthless against those that do not mean well for Nigeria. Are we seeing more of General Buhari in the last lap of your administration?
It will make sense. We are making noise that we want more people to come invest their money, who will bring his money when his general manager or so will be kidnapped. So all those screaming for lack of jobs and so on because we are not attracting capital investments, should blame themselves for not cooperating with law enforcement agencies to get the criminals among us, the abductors and the 419ers. They live with them, they know them, and they can’t accommodate them and then blame government for not building factories. The government cannot build all the factories required and employ all the people and produce all the goods and services. What the government should do is provide security and convince entrepreneurs both from abroad and within to invest and employ people to produce goods and services. What the ordinary people should do is expose the people, the kidnappers and the thieves.
So is it a confirmation that we are more likely to see more of a General Buhari?
Well, I don’t know what you make of me…
That you are going to be more ruthless?
Well, all those who call me Baba go slow they will see whether I am slow or fast.
What does that mean sir?
It means that I will persuade the Police and the judiciary to be hard and where I discover that they are not hard, I will try and trace who is responsible for the slowness in terms of commanders of the Police upward. The IG alone cannot do anything, he has to depend on commissioners, and the commissioners have to depend on DPOs.
One of your praise singers from Kano said ‘those who want to run should run,’ is it time?
Well, it is up to them. If they stay they know what will happen to them. They better stay and behave themselves or they better run.
What is your message to Nigerians as you start the last lap of your administration and what do you expect from them?
My message for them is that they should please expose the criminals in their neigbourhood to help the government clear the country and attract foreign entrepreneurs to come and invest in the country, established factories, employ people and produce goods and services. This is what will move Nigeria forward. You cannot accommodate criminals in your neigbourhood and start blaming government glibly believing that nothing is being done. People are deliberately stopping government from doing anything.
You have been described as a man of integrity, man of honour, incorruptible; some simply say you are phenomenal in Nigeria’s political landscape. How will you describe yourself?
Well, I will like to start by praising teachers of my generation; I spent nine years in boarding school. Three years in primary and six years in secondary school but now I think they do five years or four, I don’t know how many. The teachers then were treating children and students like their own children. If you do well as a student in the classroom they praise you and in the assembly hall which is held daily, six times a week. If you misbehave you will be flogged in front of your class or on the assembly hall. So the best is brought out of you physically and academically. You have to do well to survive. I was a class monitor, a junior prefect, I was a senior prefect, I was a head boy. I handled all those and I know what I went through but without good teachers I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
I think I went through hell throughout my career in the military; I was lieutenant in Lagos during the first coup, 15 January 1966. If you have read about Nigeria’s history you would have read about coups and counter coups, civil war, I was all in it including in detention for three and a quarter years. So I am fully qualified as a suffering Nigerian.
What is the secret behind the remarkable way and manner Nigerians show you love, respect and trust consistently since joining partisan politics in 2002 for free?
Well, I thank Nigerians for putting me under the microscope and seeing the way I came through. They knew I was a governor of a region now six states, I was in petroleum ministry for three and quarters years, I was a military head of state and then I joined partisan politics. I tried three times ending up in Supreme Court three times and then I won in 2015 and constitutionally I won the last time, the fifth time. So really, for somebody who has been in the field for 20 years, from bottom to top, I think if Nigerians show respect or love for me I’m grateful they are appreciating my efforts.
So there is no secret about that?
There is no secret about it. The secret is that I tried to survive. So all those who are trying to survive they better continue trying harder, eventually they will succeed. It is a question of trying harder and harder.
Finally, you got some people confused when you visited Saudi Arabia…?
Confused about what?
They saw you running?
Yea. Try and understand the performance of Hajj and Umrah. There is a certain place where you have to jog that was what I was did, I am complying with the religious terms of doing the thing and I am begging God to lead me and make me succeed. That is the place to do it and I was doing it very hard.
They were wondering how the president could be running like that?
Who is the president before God? He is just as ordinary as you; we are all ordinary before God.