Last Sunday (March 4, 2011), Dr Abati, sat down for the March 2012 session. Below is the first transcript covering Ojukwu’s burial, SURE-P program and news of a World Bank Office in Aso Rock.
Good day everyone, this is Ajibola Robinson welcoming you to the second edition of our monthly Question and Answer sessions with the spokesman for the Nigerian President, Dr. Reuben Abati.
Some of us have followed him from his days at the Guardian Newspapers; his appearances on Patitos Gang and also his various articles posted in our village. Dr. Reuben Abati, welcome back to the Nigerian Village Square.
Joining me today for our question and answer session are, as usual, Zainab Usman from the United Kingdom and Anwulika Emenanjo from Canada.
Our session today is split into two, first, questions that have been posted by members of the village directly on the forum, in Facebook and on Twitter for your response, Sir, and later we will open up the discussion to callers who have joined us in the podcast.
To our callers, we appreciate your keeping your microphones on mute until you are asked to join in the discussion to minimize call interference. Thank you.
Dr. Abati we want to get your initial reactions to the just concluded final ceremony for retired General Ojukwu who passed away, and we, members of the village, are really happy to see the way the federal government honored the memory of Ojukwu, and gave him a state burial, so to speak. We appreciate….
Abati: You’ll recall that the last time we spoke on this platform, the same issue came up, and I disclosed in that discussion that Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu will be given full military honors and that a federal government delegation would be at the burial, to be led by the Vice President. What I held back was to announce that the president himself will be there personally.
What has happened this time around is that the president was there personally, in fact before he attended the burial, the corpse of the late general was brought to Abuja, and it was received in Abuja by both members of the executive and the National Assembly, and you know, the First Lady and the Vice President, and was also given full military reception.
And then of course a day before the President was there, the Vice President led the delegation of the federal government. And then on the day itself, the President was there, we went to Nnewi, and the president made it clear he was there in dual capacity. One, as the President of Nigeria going to honor a very distinguished Nigerian, a national icon, a man whose very existence defined an essential part of our national history. And secondly he was there as a personal friend, as a son of the late Ojukwu, as someone who admired the late Ojukwu greatly, as someone who was very close and who is still very close to the Ojukwu family. And when he spoke in the church he made it very clear that Ojukwu is a legend, Ojukwu is a national icon, Ojukwu is a national treasure. And he also used the opportunity to remark upon the humanity of Ojukwu, not just as a military leader but as a human being, as an individual.He had pointed out that when his father died that Chief Ojukwu infact came to his village to attend his father’s burial, in spite of the fact that he was not feeling too well at the time. And he had been close to the family all along, and he made it clear that Ojukwu had been somebody who had always been guiding him in his position as President.
So the President went there to pay tribute to a nationalist, to a patriot, to a man who people describe as an Igbo icon, but who is in the real sense a completely detribalized Nigerian. And if you read many of the tributes to Ojukwu, you will see that many of the tributes come from Zungeru, they come from Yoruba land, his mates in secondary school, his friends in Yoruba land celebrate him as the true son of Nigeria and as a human being whose humanism is to be recommended to others.
NVS: Well thank you very much, several members of the village actually hold same views and like I said, the community very much appreciate that the federal government followed up just as you had promised us that he will be given a full military burial.
And now without further ado, I will hand over to Zainab to set forth the first set of questions we have for you sir. Zainab…….
The SURE-P Program
Zainab: Thank you Ajibola. Good evening everyone. Good evening Sir, it’s a pleasure to have you here again. I’ll get down to business straight away. The first set of questions that I have is on the SURE program…
NVS: It was reported last week that SURE/SURE-P program had been withdrawn/scrapped by Mr. President and then we got to find out that it hasn’t been scrapped but was simply being reviewed. This is all a bit confusing. Could you please clarify and inform us on what the real situation is?
Abati: Ok thank you very much for this question, because I have issued a press statement to offer a clarification. I think the confusion came from a headline in a newspaper, and the headline did not match the body of the story, but people just took the headline and they jumped to conclusions. If people have taken the pains to read the actual content they would have seen that the story was different from the headline, hence I issued a press release to offer a clarification.
But I’ve seen that since the press release people are still insisting that the president said this, the president said that, that the SURE-P has been withdrawn, its been scrapped, whereas the President never said so. I’ve also gone on television, AIT specifically, to offer further explanations.
The situation is as follows- the President attended the 58th national executive committee meeting of the Peoples Democratic Party, on that occasion, copies of the SURE-P document was being distributed to members, and then the president said No, these copies should be withdrawn, and that later a revised document will be made available. This was essentially what the President said, and I think that there shouldn’t have been any problem with this.
Because the truth of the matter is that that document was based on specific statistical calculations. The SURE program is based on the calculations that average crude oil price would be $90 USD per barrel. And that the total re-investible fund for the year will be about 1.134 billion. Out of this, the federal government will get 478.49 billion, the states will get about 416 billion, the local governments about 203 billion, the FCT 9.8 billion, and then 31.137 will be left for derivation, ecology stabilization fund.
So the SURE document deal essentially with the federal government’s share of the re-investible funds. Now it was also based on the principle that there would be full deregulation. But with the pump price of petrol being reduced from N141 per litre to N97 per litre it means that the re-investible funds that will be available to the government will be completely reduced. So if you now push out a document that is based on the calculation of 478.49 billion, with specific projects tied to that figure, then it means that later the calculation will no longer be realistic.
This was essentially what the President was drawing public attention to. He was being transparent, he was being accountable, he was being truthful, and he was saying simply that this document will have to be reviewed, and of course the president could not have said that the program is being ‘truncated’ to use and expression that was used by a labour chieftain, when only a week earlier on February 13, the NEC meeting was on February 13, only a week earlier he had inaugurated the Kolade committee which has a mandate to monitor the investment process. And the whole idea of that Kolade committee also is to ensure there is transparency, is to ensure that the representatives of the Nigerian people monitor how the money is spent.
I’ve had the view expressed that SURE-P, as a lot of people now call it, was meant to fail, and that the amount that had been earmarked will not be enough for most of the programs that were outlined. What people must realize is that the SURE-P is not a replacement for the normal business of government.
Government has this program specifically budgeted for. What will come from the removal of fuel subsidy or reduction of fuel subsidy is mainly additional. By setting up the Kolade committee, what the government wants to show is that look, this is what the money is being used for, this is how it has been used, either in a contributory sense or in a specific sense, but there is a lot of propaganda that has been generated against the… around this, by cynics, people who just want to use this to discredit president Jonathan.
So I put it to you that clearly the SURE program is an attempt at transparency, and you’ll recall that this is the first time that any administration will come forward and put in black and white an outline of what it intend to do with money saved from the removal of fuel subsidy. And government took that decision in other to address the confidence gap that exists between government and the governed.We all know there is a confidence gap, there is a trust gap. Because you’ll see that during all that conflict, if I may say so, over the removal of fuel subsidy, many Nigerians including Labour, including the opposition, said that, look, they have no problem with deregulation, which is the appropriate term for the intent of government, but what they have a problem with is that they’ve heard the same promises over and over again, and that they were not sure that this time around government will keep it’s promises, hence government prepared this document to say ‘give us the benefit of doubt’, this is what we will do, this is a committee representing the interest of the Nigerian people to monitor it, and hold us accountable. I would think that is something, that openness is to be commended rather than to be condemned.
NVS: Thanks for the explanation. You made mention of the trust and confidence that exist between the public and government and also that cynics are kind of capitalizing on this to embark on propaganda and pessimism. Maybe you might agree that, should I say on the side of government, there hasn’t really been much efforts to kind of carry the public along when these programs are being decided upon. I think the thing is a lot of Nigerians show that they are not well informed. So this… creates friction and tension that creates all these conspiracy theories and gives room for this cynics to kind of spread the “propaganda” around.
Abati: Well, one thing I can say immediately is that the Jonathan administration did not invent or create the problem of alienation between government and the people, or if you like, we return to our initial phrases- confidence gap and trust gap. This is a cumulative effect of the nature of relationship between the Nigerian people and government. So its an inherited problem.
But the challenge that we face at this particular moment is that we need to change all of that. And to change all of that we need to keep explaining to people, to the Nigerian people the good face, the good intention of government, its programs, and to reach out to the people. And this is what government tried to do with the subsidy removal program. But I’ve heard the criticisms that not enough was done, that people were not well informed enough.
But I’ll repeat the same point I made in our last interaction, which is that the whole of that experience brought us many lessons, and we have learnt our lessons, and one key lesson that we have learnt is that we have to continue to explain to the Nigerian people, and just keep explaining, keep communicating, keep making issues clear, and that is a major challenge that we cannot shy away from.
So I take the criticism while making the point at the same time that we appeal for understanding, that people cannot hold President Jonathan responsible for things that has been there all this while. He is there as a transformational leader to effect changes, to move Nigeria forward, and all he is asking for is the support and understanding of Nigerians.
WORLD BANK OFFICE IN ASO ROCK
NVS: Ok, thank you. Moving on to the next set of questions, this is on the World bank office in Aso Rock. President Jonathan recently announced that a World Bank team would be invited to act in an advisory capacity to the Presidency to ensure due process is observed in awarding contracts and in procurement. Can you confirm (as reportedly stated by President Jonathan) that the World Bank would be having it’s own office in Aso Rock?
Abati: I think that this is something really that needs to be clarified. This is one of those issues again, that has been misrepresented to the public. I think we need to go back, to step back a bit in history and to note that the due process office which was set up by the Obasanjo administration in 2001. Well, it was introduced in 2001 and then the bill was sent to the National Assembly in 2003, and it was passed into law 2007, and president Yar’adua signed it into law in 2007.
It was that due process office that now automatically transmuted into the Bureau of Public Procurement. And the whole emphasis, the whole essence of BPP is to ensure due process, its to ensure transparency, and all of that.
Now, when the President refers to the World bank, he was doing so in two senses. One, to emphasize, to reiterate, to underline, to reiterate the point that his administration is committed to this original objective of ensuring due process in procurement processes, transparency and accountability, that all of these will be respected, and that his administration is committed to strengthening the process.
Two, it is important to note that the World bank was actively involved in the establishment of the due process office, now known as the BPP. In fact due process BPP came about as part of a global agreement that the federal government signed in 2005, which was part of a whole package of general reforms, and incidentally it was signed by the present Minister of Finance who at that time was Minister of Finance who at this moment is coordinating minister of the economy and minister of finance.
Now, right from inception the World Bank had been working in collaboration with the Bureau of Public Procurement. But in a specific regard, because you know that there are World Bank projects in Nigeria, as part of this multilateral relationship… and the World bank is actively involved in the monitoring of World Bank projects, World Bank financed projects, in water, in irrigation, in infrastructure. And when the President referred to World bank desk in the Presidency, he was essentially drawing attention to this. In fact the national standard bidding document for World Bank financed projects were put together by both the Bureau of Public Procurement and the World Bank.
So the World Bank has always been actively involved in monitoring World Bank financed projects. Maybe that was one point that didn’t quite come out clearly in the interview in the process of editing, because all of this came out of the interview that the President granted. You know in the process of editing the editor may have edited out a specific sense of the message. But this clarification is very important, and it’s good that you have brought up this question.So, it is not about compromising the sovereignty of Nigeria, because that is the view I have heard a lot of people expressing. That if the World Bank seat in our offices this will happen, that will happen… The Bureau of Public Procurement is an agency under the Presidency, to start with. And the World Bank had always been working in collaboration with the BPP. So there is no contradiction here, ok.
NVS: So just to be clear, the World Bank advisory body will only focus on World Bank financed projects or…. just to be clear.
Abati: Yes World Bank financed projects, yes, specifically, because there are national standard bidding documents and also in the preparation of those documents the World Bank as I said earlier also played a role. And you cannot argue with this because part of the objectives is to ensure international best practices in our procurement processes.
NVS: Ok ok, so if may ask, just to be very clear, because like I said there’s always a lot of confusion. As you said, if the World bank has always worked in tandem with BPP, then I guess a lot of Nigerians will want to know what is the reason behind making this recent statement about establishing this World Bank advisory body if it has always been in existence?
Abati: No, that statement was made in the sense of strengthening that desk further. I have a letter here before me, for example which was written on September 22, 2011 by the World bank. Well let me not go into the details, because that will be like reading to you an official document. But what the document says essentially is about the deepening the partnership for the procurement reform agenda in Nigeria.
Now what the President was trying to draw our attention to is about deepening the procurement reform agenda in Nigeria. And as I told you earlier, the role of the World bank in all of this, also in relation to World bank financed projects, and in revising the national standard bidding documents, just to make sure that international standards, best practices, are maintained.
And we must realize that we are living in a global community, all of these international things about finance and procurement, there are protocols, there are existing protocols. So what the President was talking about does not amount in any anyway to ceding Nigerian sovereignty to World Bank- to quote some people who have been saying so. Definitely not.
NVS: Thank you for that. So in this regard then, are there other kind of similar partnership with other government agencies and foreign organizations, perhaps maybe the IMF? Do they also have this kind of advisory desk……?
Abati: Well you know, really, in the normal course of government business, there are bilateral relations, there are multilateral relations. And there are government departments that are actively involved in multilateral relations, that are involved in bilateral relations. I mean Nigeria has bi-national commissions, for example, with many Countries. We have with the United States, the Nigerian/ German bi-national commission is to be set up. Now, under such issues as health, agriculture, and MBG, we have multilateral partnerships.
What people must realize is that Nigeria does not exist in isolation, we are part of an international community, an international community, we now live in a global community where there are expectations, where there are standards about the human development index, and Nigeria is engaged in partnership with so many organizations, and groups in the World.
But doing this does not amount to Nigeria subordinating itself to other countries or to other organizations. That point must be made very clear. Nigeria is an important Country, and its probably only Nigerians that are not aware of the importance of their own country. But we are a very important country, and one of the things that President Jonathan has done is to strengthen our relationships at both bilateral and multilateral levels. But that does not amount to ceding the authority of Nigeria as a sovereign entity, rather it amounts to getting opportunity for Nigerians, it amount to building relationships for Nigeria, it amount to promoting Nigeria on the World map.
You can find the second part of the Interview with Dr. Abati focusing on Boko Haram, Petroleum Industry Bill, Power Generation etc HERE