Two candidates further apart would be hard to find. Opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar is a multimillionaire barn-storming politician who, having changed his party allegiance four times, is running on the ticket of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party. His rival, former military ruler and sitting president Muhammadu Buhari, is reserved, with an obvious distaste for the manoeuvres of partisan politics. Buhari’s main concerns are pushing out state-backed investment projects and taking down grand corruption.
At the centre of Atiku’s campaign is his promise that he will make Nigeria work again – both its system of government and its people. His remedy is deregulation and privatisation: getting the government out of the way of full-throated capitalism and attracting billions of dollars of investment from international conglomerates.
Information minister Lai Mohammed concedes that Atiku is the strongest candidate the opposition could put up against Buhari. “But their best won’t be good enough,” he adds. For Buhari and Mohammed, Atiku is the epitome of the big-money politics that has haunted Nigeria since its return to civil rule back in 1999.
Based in a 10-storey building in Abuja with a team of top Nigerian and international strategists and pollsters, Atiku has been preparing for the past 18 months. A week after securing the nomination in early October, he picked as his running mate Peter Obi, a former governor of the south-east state of Anambra with a reputation as honest and efficient. Atiku’s next move was to orchestrate a high-profile reconciliation between himself and former president Olusegun Obasanjo, a decade after their very public falling out.
Although this election will be about jobs and money, the rival campaigns will be mobilising big regional voting blocs. Buhari will start ahead in the north-west and north-east; Atiku has the south-south and south-east behind him. But in the volatile north-central region and the south-west, home to the commercial capital of Lagos, there’s everything to play for.
Q How do you see Africa faring amid an international trade war?
Ans It is certainly not a good moment for Africa. The West colonised Africa, set up all the institutions in Africa, and eventually granted independence to Africa. Now it has been withdrawing from Africa over the years. First, they started with establishment of the European Union (EU). The moment the EU was established, the British started withdrawing from Africa, the French started withdrawing. So they left a vacuum. Africa has never been a US destination. So Africa was left on its own, whether for good or bad I don’t know. In one sense it is better for Africa to be independent. Of course, for the purposes of international cooperation, trade and investment Africa has to look elsewhere.
Q Are you happy that China is filling that vacuum?
Ans Loans from China have [fewer] conditionalities [than] loans from the West. When you have less conditionality, there is the tendency that the money you borrow is likely to be misapplied, misused, misappropriated. And when the money borrowed is not invested in a sector that can make profit, then you are likely to default. With the West, they lend you money, and it has to be based on an investment schedule and there must be returns. In the case of China, they are just giving you money – “Okay go and build an airport,” or “Go and build a railway station.” Where are the feasibility studies? What is the return on investment? How long will it take you to repay the money?
Q You have called President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic policy archaic. On what grounds?
Ans It’s not market friendly and because of that we have not been getting much foreign investment. If anything, in fact, we have witnessed a flip of foreign investment out of Nigeria. Many foreign companies have closed shop in this country simply because the wrong economic policies have been implemented.
Q You say you would let the naira exchange rate be set by the market. How would you deal with the resulting inflation?
Ans I would prefer to float the naira because I believe that will bring about a more stable exchange rate. Therefore, foreign investors are more likely to return to Nigeria and invest as much as possible. We have to create more incentives for foreign investment and relax conditionalities, remove regulations as much as possible.
Q In an import-dependent economy, surely that will drive up inflation?
Ans But what you forget, it has two side effects. There could be devaluation and there could be a lot of inflow of foreign currency into the country. The devaluation that is likely to result can be balanced with the relatively huge [sums of] foreign currency that will be coming into the country.
We had that situation prior to the departure of [former president] Goodluck Jonathan. At that time, we had a pile of foreign investment in the country, and there was stability of the naira. So people did not have to go to the central bank to look for foreign exchange because there was foreign exchange in the market and in the banks. So it could turn out to be a win-win situation.
Q You are calling for restructuring of the federation, which means the oil-producing states will get a bigger share of the revenue. How much?
Ans That will depend on negotiations between them and other parts of Nigeria. But I know they can get more because in the First Republic the regions had 50/50. I don’t mind giving even 100% […], but I would tax those states to maintain the federal government.
Q You are in favour of giving all the oil-producing states in this country total control over their resources?
Ans For now, it’s not advisable at this stage of our development. Even during the First Republic there was this derivation sharing between revenues and resources, or between the regions and the federal government. So I think we could have a middle course. It would be unfair to ask me for specifics; that will depend on negotiations.
Q There is an education crisis in Nigeria, with growing numbers of children outside school. How would you fix it?
Ans There is no will on the part of the Nigerian government, at federal and state level, to see that the standard of education is improving. We introduced free primary in 2004. We omitted to provide penalties for state governments that did not meet [those demands]. If I had the opportunity again, I would introduce a penalty clause, to make it not only compulsory, but if you don’t meet the target then you are penalised.
Q The numbers of children outside school are particularly high in the north. Would you impose special measures?
Ans You make education compulsory – if you don’t send your child to school you are punished for that – and you increase your educational budget to train more teachers, build more classrooms. I tried to do it as a vice-president because I realised how backward the north was. You know that we have an educational tax?
If you import goods in this country we charge you educational tax. We collect billions at the federal government and distribute to these states to enhance education, but they misuse and misappropriate all this money. So if you tell [these states] I will go and directly build the schools, they will sit up and do something about it.
Q On security, you would give state governments the power to run their own police forces? What would happen if some state governors were to abuse those powers?
Ans I want to devolve policing as well to the states. They’ll be free to run their own police forces. If they cannot, they can come together, two or three states to do it, depending on how they want [to do it].
We have the same thing. The federal government is misusing the police, is misusing the military. So if you are talking of abuse, every level of government abuses.
Q How would you tackle the clashes between herders and farmers, as well as banditry and cattle-rustling?
Ans In each province in the north, we used to have a grazing reserve. During the season, the cattle are in the reserves. When it is off-season, when farmers would have cultivated all their crops, then the cattle move out to the areas where the farmers have cultivated, allowing the grass in the grazing reserves to grow. These grazing reserves have been abandoned over the years.
One way is to make sure that we give local leaders the power to resolve disputes between farmers and grazers.
Q What role could economics play in resolving the crisis?
Ans I have decided to set up a factory to produce livestock feeds in each of the zones in the northern states. I have set up one in Yola, one will be completed here in Abuja this December and another one will be done in the north-west. There, you have all types of animal feeds. You can leave your cattle in one spot and buy enough livestock feed and feed your cattle.
You get better meat and more milk. If this business model gets you more income, wouldn’t you go for it? There are cattle rustlers all over. Even in my own herd. I have more than 1,000 heads of cattle, and cattle rustlers came and took over 200 of them and drove away into Cameroon.
Q Although the Boko Haram militias no longer control swathes of territory, they still launch terror attacks. How would you counter them?
Ans I happen to know how Boko Haram came into being. They were offshoots of political thuggery. Politicians used those boys in Boko Haram to win elections and then abandoned them and then there were no jobs for them. It was the same thing with the Niger Delta. In 1998, I saw it myself and I warned people.
It’s going to be a multifaceted approach. It will involve negotiations. It will involve military action.
Q Reform of the oil and gas industry has stalled. You have been advocating the wholesale privatisation of the state oil company. Wouldn’t that make things even worse?
Ans Without a stable regulatory framework, the oil and gas companies will find it difficult to invest more in Nigeria. At the time, we pushed for the passage of the new law. We expected that Nigeria would be able to export up to about 4m barrels per day, but here we are still at less than 2m per day.
Q You’re now saying you would sell the entire state oil company? Or that the government should keep about 10%?
Ans Yes, I would want to go ahead, there is no doubt about that. [The government should have] a very minor shareholding. Nigeria is in dire need of funds to develop its infrastructure and other sectors of the economy.
Q Your own company, Intels, which provides logistics to the energy industry, is under pressure. Is it – or are you – being targeted politically?
Ans Intels has always suffered because I have been involved in the fight for democracy since the 1980s, when the military was in power. [Governments] will pounce on Intels – refuse me one licence or the other, close me down. Even the government that I served as a democratically elected vice-president, the president closed Intels for six months when he had a disagreement with me. […] He never found a fault with it and eventually opened it again.
The last three years have been the worst in the history of Intels because our turnover dropped by 70%. Oil companies and gas companies are no longer investing in that sector because of the absence of laws that can guarantee their investment.
Q Aliko Dangote was able to build his cement production empire after your government banned imports. Would you impose more such bans?
Ans I am one of the people who promoted Aliko Dangote, but I’m never for monopoly. Import bans to some extent, but certainly not for a monopoly.
As long as [a ban] is going to develop industries, which means creating jobs, as long as it is going to develop our infrastructure. I’m prepared to privatise the development of infrastructure in the country. That will create millions and millions of jobs.
Q You criticise the government’s anti-corruption strategy. What would you do differently?
Ans You can’t deploy only punitive measures to fight corruption. One way of trying to reduce corruption to the barest minimum is also to introduce e-governance. If you are applying for a permit, if you are applying for a passport, why not apply online? Why can’t we also employ preventive measures to stop corruption?
Q What about the grand corruption? Billions of dollars of oil money have been taken from this country.
Ans If we have evidence against you we arrest you and prosecute you, and take away the money.
Q Are you concerned about the fate of Nnamdi Kanu, the pro-Biafra activist?
Ans I don’t want to be individualistic on this issue. I reject any illegal detention, any detention that is not based on law and order.
Q What about former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki?
Ans Dasuki is being detained illegally. It is only a court that will say whether he is guilty or not.
Q Would you favour a referendum for the people of the south-east, offering them the chance to leave the federation?
Ans When we get there. We are going to have a conference to discuss reconstruction. Then we will see. I don’t think there is any part of this country that wants to leave this country. All what they want is fairness, equity and justice.
Q Are there any situations where where rule of law could be waved aside for national security?
Ans No. The rule of law itself is a guarantor of national security.