WHY JONATHAN DUMPED UNITY GOVT -OKUPE

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•Okupe
There is no gainsaying that the misfortune of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the South-west in the last general elections has denied the Yoruba a fair share of the power equation in the present dispensation. And for its predicament, Dr. Doyin Okupe, a Senior Special Assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo on media and publicity, feels strongly embittered by the perceived injustice done to the geo-political zone and wants a redress.

Barring his mind on the issue in this interview, he described the development as a monumental reversal of function for the South-west and insisting that President Goodluck Jonathan must look into the situation given the support of the region in his re-election bid. Excerpts…

What is your assessment of the new cabinet of President Goodluck Jonathan?

I think the president has done very well with the team he has put together. Given the circumstance of this country as of today, I doubt whether anybody can actually raise any complaint about the team. I personally watched at least 70 or 80 per cent of the nominees during the screening exercise at the National Assembly and I was proud as a Nigerian seeing the level of competence, knowledge, composure and intellect displayed by the nominees. Nigeria can only be ruled by Nigerians. And if you look at the vastness of resources available to this country today, I think this assemblage of men and women is quite encouraging. I don't want to start to mention names, but I am impressed by the majority of the nominees.

The real question now is not the ability of the nominees to perform, but the structure with which they have to work and the environment in which they will work. I am saying this because I have been in government before and I know that even with the best of intention, the most enthusiastic patriot can be frustrated due to civil service regulation, bureaucracy and all sorts of things. So, it takes more than being knowledgeable or being vast in a particular field to be successful as a minister.

The statement made by the President during the inauguration of the cabinet that the ministers would be on probation for six months is already being criticised by the opposition.

What do you think is the implication of this statement on the transformation agenda of the administration and the enormity of developmental challenges facing the country at this time?

I think that statement is quite in order. It is obvious that these gentle men and ladies have been chosen by some people, including the president himself based on advice and we have evidence of their capability in their CVs. But the real taste of the budding is in the eating.

So, if you are determined to be successful as the leader of the country, I think the idea of giving the ministers probation is not out of place. Like I said earlier, all the qualifications and capabilities as presented in the CVs and their composure at the screening may still not amount to real success in terms of service delivery. Some people may be very good academically, but they may not be able to administer or function as a team player. These are things that over the next six months, the president and his team will be checking out so that the overall agenda of the president is not derailed. At the end of the day, if your performance is not up to standard, you may be excused and somebody else is invited to take over from you.

You did mention that the performance of any public officer is a function of the environment and the structure with which to work.

Do you see the president having the political will to reform the system in a way that will guarantee a more effective service delivery?

This is one president Nigeria must learn to believe. You have to understand that people's character and opinion are different from one another. For instance, there was President Yar'Adua who was very quiet but very tough and resilience inside. There is President Obasanjo who is very aggressive and openly very pushful. There was also President Babangida who was a more congenial fellow, difficult to predicate but nevertheless quite focused on whatever he was doing.

And now is the president Jonathan who is extremely simplistic, humane and natural. There are no pretences about him. But he does what he says he will do. At least, we have had one or two examples of that. When he said, 'I am going to run a credible election in which I am going to contest as a participant, some people complained at the beginning that the two things were mutually contradictory. But today, it is not only in Nigeria that people are clapping for the success of the election, the whole world too is clapping. In this country today, this government has received very important world figures.

Recently, the German Chancellor has just left. Former British Head of State was here too. So also the Head of the United Nations (UN). These are signs that the world is in support of the administration. And, of course, this is because they approved what he did in the conduct of the elections. So, we should delete the issue of political will from our dictionary when we are discussing President Jonathan. We have already seen that the man has the will; we can only pray that he will achieve whatever he set for himself to achieve.

People will quote you for this question if you predict wrongly.

Can you vouch for Jonathan that he will run for only one term as he said during his campaign?

How can I vouch for him?
But you said he would always do whatever he says he would do.

I cannot vouch for him.
But I know President Jonathan a little bit, I believe what will be uppermost in his mind now is how to achieve his set targets. He is an extremely focused person. He is very much concerned about putting his footprints on the annals of Nigerian history. And I believe him when he says I want to do one term. I believe he genuinely meant it and I believe in this one term, his main focus will be to achieve the goals of his transformation agenda which he has set for himself. But in the affairs of men, there are more things that meet the eyes and which guide and control what we do in life. When Yar'Adua was elected, he was supposed to run for four years, but he died because of an act of God. This gentle man has come in and has promised one term.

If God is with him and he performs very well, who knows what Nigerians will be saying in 2014? I really think it is unnecessary speculation and diversionary gimmick to begin to debate now whether he is going to spend one term or not. Let us wait and see what this gentle man will do in this four- year term.

The Conference of the Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) has accused the president of reneging on his promise to make his cabinet an all-inclusive one but instead resorted to winner takes all syndrome.

How do you see this agitation?
Nigeria is an emerging democracy. And I believe we are not yet fully integrated into the system we are running. We are running a presidential system where the President is the numero uno and the leader of the party. But at the same time, some of the things we do are in consonance with a parliamentary system. In the US, once the president is elected, he nominates the Chairman of his party in the same way he appoints his ministers. So, the Chairman of the party is subordinate to him as president. But by the PDP's constitution and the constitution of other parties in Nigeria, the chairman of the party is elected in an open convention of several delegates. So, in that way, he has the mandate of party people.

In Nigeria, the influence of the party is very strong. So, there is a conflict in our own presidential system. I am very certain, this president made the promise based on his affinity to the Nigerianness of his government which he wanted to form. He wanted an all-inclusive government; he wanted a platform where every Nigerian has a sense of belonging; he wanted a cabinet where nobody is left out. But the party that just came from the throes of death, so to speak, kicked against it. Before the election, the anticipation and prediction of stakeholders was to the effect that the PDP would be roundly defeated. And there were schisms and disagreement nationwide. But in spite of that, people still came together and fought for Goodluck Jonathan/Sambo to emerge as President and Vice President of this country respectively.

So, after the election, they said no to an all-inclusive cabinet. You don't start a government with a division even in your own house. That explains why it was impossible for the president to carry the opposition parties along with him on the issue of ministerial nominees and presidential advisers. But government is very large. That is not the only face of government. I believe that if it is something desirable and acceptable to the opposition, there is still room for them to contribute their quota to the running of the affairs of the country. A president, in his term of four-years, makes over 10,000 appointments. So, I believe that should not be too much of a problem.

Could it also not be because the parties didn't take the carrot hook, line and sinker?

The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) got it right. You can in fact cooperate with a government without necessarily being in that government. People may not like this statement; the presidential system is a winner takes all system. And it is not even in the interest of the opposition to be in government because if the government, the president and the party achieve the success, they take all the glory. But if it fails, the opposition parties that participated in that government cannot extricate themselves from that failure. In such circumstance, how can you now go back to the electorate four years later and say you can do it better? The electorate will tell you that you were also part of that team and therefore you cannot do better.

Over the years, none implementation of budget has always been a recurring problem in this country and this is often blamed on the prohibitive cost of running the government.

Do you agree with this position?
There is no doubt that the cost of running a government in Nigeria is prohibitive. And I believe that everybody concerned is trying to do something about it. We've heard about the legislators in the House of Representatives trying to prune down their allowances by over 60 per cent in the cost of running their own affairs. That is quite encouraging. I cannot myself understand how 75 per cent of income of a state government or Federal Government goes on maintaining less than five per cent of the population. It doesn't make sense. We have got it skewed somehow. Something fundamental is wrong with that. But I believe this is going to be part and parcel of the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan.

That we do not exceed 40 per cent of budget implementation is not surprising because the National Assembly wouldn't pass the budget until the end of the first quarter or middle of the year in most instances and there will be no expenditure on it until four months to the end of the year. And we have been doing this for the past 20 years. So, how can you then complete the budget? In the US, by now, they will be in the process of passing the budget for 2013. We must reach that level of efficiency.

The way our bureaucracy is structured is wrong. In Nigeria, the budgeting procedure is nonsensical. The usual practice here is to pass the papers to each department and what each department does is just to look at what they did last year, what is not yet done and just simply copy it down with a margin of increase and puts it back in a pool and then pass it as a budget. The implication of this scenario is that the minister who is appointed does not have an input into the budget he is going to sit on and administer.

Even the president does not have direct influence on the budget because there is no central team to do the job. These are some of the things the new transformation agenda must encompass. At present, the budget is from below the organization to the top. That is not possible. The president and the government must determine what he wants to achieve, for instance, in the ministry of Agriculture and send a memo to that effect to the ministry to prepare the budget for that year. A situation where the heads of departments prepare the budget based on what they do and what they did not do last year can no longer work. It is impossible.

But do you realize that there is now already a paradigm shift from top-bottom approach to the bottom-top approach all over the world?

It depends on what area you are talking about. In terms of this budgeting, it must be from top to bottom. It cannot be from bottom up because we do not vote for the Assistant Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Finance or a Director in the Ministry of Water Resources to come and tell us what he wants to do in that ministry. Rather, we voted for the president or the governor. So, the deal is for the president and his ministers to agree on what programme they want to run for that year. The Minister then takes the brief to the ministry to dictate the budget proposal. That is the only way it can work.

Heads of Departments are not grassroots people. I agree with you that the grassroots people are very crucial to budget formulation because they are the ones that know the peculiarities of their localities and their specific needs. For instance, in South Africa, government does not decide what specific project to site in a particular locality. It is the community that decides the priority project. All of this is then incorporated into the budget and passed to the authority at the top. That is what you mean by bottom-top approach to decision making process. But in this scenario, the head of government is the one that has the conception of what he wants to do because he has the mandate of the people. But for the civil servant to generate a budget is a contradiction.

It is the political head that generates the philosophy of government and where the government is going for that year which the ministers now take to their various ministries and design the budget based on that brief and then brings it back to the authority at the top for approval. If we are going to have transformation agenda, the remaining six months for this year must be spent on budget preparation so that by November, the budget for 2012 can be signed into law by the National Assembly for the full take off of the administration in January next year.

Don't you think what the government needs to do to reduce the increasing cost of running the government is to reduce the over bloated retinue of aides attached to public functionaries?

How much do aides earn? The budget of Nigeria is in trillions. Just last week, the whole federation shared about 1.3 trillion naira in one month. That means for twelve months, we are looking at a minimum of twelve trillion. Out of that amount, let's say that the president has 50 ministers, 30 advisers and 20 assistants, making a total of 100 advisers. Put annual emoluments of each of these at N1.5 million. How much is N150 million a year for God's sake? If that is what you need to get things done, is anything wrong with that? I have just told you now that the president must be able to put together three budgets to achieve his transformation agenda.

This has to be done by people. To transform Nigeria, we must have a paradigm shift from a situation where the budget emanates from the lower level civil service to the top to the position where it emanates from the presidency to the civil servants and back to the presidency. It is human beings that will do this job. So, people are just being spiteful. The President can have a hundred aides provided they are productive and working in tandem with the overall development agenda of the administration. That is not where our money is being spent. I have worked in the presidency before, all the aides put them together. They don't amount to any significant figure in terms of how our money is being spent.

Even the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives also have their own long list of special aides and assistants down the line like that to all levels of government?

How many senate presidents do we have?
We have just one. How many Speakers do we have? We have only one. Look, if these people do the work they are supposed to do, Nigeria will not be losing much. I am not supporting frivolities in any way. But that is not where we are supposed to be looking at. Let's give them what they need to do their job well. Then, when we have acquired the proficiency to do the job, we can then begin to think of how to reduce the number of aides and assistants. By that time, we would have been able to build institutions to sustain the process, break new ground and foray into new avenues.

Given your position as a spokesperson to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, how challenging could the task of managing the image of a government at this period in time when there is crisis of insecurity in the country?

Managing the image of the government is the ultimate job because perception is 90 percent of reality. Whatever the government is doing or about to do must be on hourly basis communicated to the people that are being governed so that they can follow their leader. Managing the image of the president from my own experience is the ultimate job. And it is so tasking that if you do it the way it should be done in those four years, you will have no family, you will have no life.

The fulfillment you can only get is that things go well. It is a job for a serious minded and knowledgeable person. And I am glad that the president has chosen a fantastic man-Reuben Abati. He is a fantastic fellow; he is resilient, strong, intelligent, knowledgeable, courageous and has an avalanche of experiences with which to stand the storm because storm will come. He also has the respect of majority of his peers in the media who he would need to do this job well.

Yet, some cynics believe that he is out to risk his hard earned reputation because they believe you can't do the job and come out a clean person.

But I did it and came out clean.
And you did not need to tell lies to do the job? There was a time the president almost had a head on collision with the legislature on the declaration of public holiday. That was when President Obasanjo declared Democracy Day. I knew the executive did not have the right to do that and I sat down with the president and said, 'Mr. President, we are wrong. So, I went to the air and said that without any iota of doubt, the arm of government endowed with the power to declare public holiday is the National Assembly but that this holiday had been declared after due consultations with the leadership of the National Assembly. And that satisfied the condition. I didn't lie, I only embellished the fact. If you give information on a regular basis, you will not need to lie.

Would you say the Yoruba has had their fair share of power sharing in this dispensation?

Not at all; we have been dangerously and inimically short changed. It is a monumental reversal of function in the South-west. In fact, it is very unfortunate and sad. Where this fault comes from cannot be immediately diagnosed. But the truth of the matter is that the South- west has been short changed and we do not deserve it. The South-west PDP was the first to stand out and support the president in his re-election bid. Again, in spite of the fact that the opposition is in firm control of the region, the people jettisoned their political tendencies and voted for the person of the president. In Lagos, the president recorded 1.4 million votes, one of the highest in the country; so also in the rest part of the region. We take the misfortune in good fate, but we expect some redress in the nearest future.

How did Ogun state chapter of the PDP find itself in its present predicament?

It was purely failure of leadership. It was poor and bad leadership, poor management of crisis, selfishness and undue recalcitrance on all sides.

Have you jettisoned your ambition to govern Ogun State?

In the last dispensation, there were some tendencies that were prevailing as regards the zoning arrangement. The gentleman that was on the seat then, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, was from my area and we have agreed in the state that the governorship should go to another area. But with the emergence of Ibikunle Amosun, the zoning arrangement has been completely scattered. At the appropriate time, I will decide what to do.

But you are still interested in the race?
The race is open. And I am a professional politician; I don't do anything else. So, the race is open.