Indeed, he still answers to the name W-O-R-K-A-H-O-L-I-C and has evidently stayed faithful to the credo of ‘knowledge and service’ emblematized by the “Awo” cap he dons.
The unique hull-shaped cap, itself a metaphor of plumbing and navigating the depths of intellectual waters and ideas for direction to the way out of the national conundrum was popularized by the great thinker, sage and statesman, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, of whom John Kayode Fayemi is a second generation disciple.
The interview appointment with the Mines and Steel Development Minister was billed for after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on Wednesday, October 18. Although the FEC meeting reportedly normally lasted till about 3.00pm, it was concluded early on this occasion, due to a scheduled trip by President Muhammadu Buhari to Turkey on that day. Fayemi was thus back at his office in Wuse II by 1.00pm.
The Saturday Sun arrived the Ministry shortly after the minister came back from the Aso Villa. You would think with his boss off the scene, he would seize the opportunity to let down hairs and relax. Not Fayemi! He returned only to bury himself in work, extinguishing the tiny hope of an early day beginning to glimmer in the reporter’s mind and rekindling memory of a similar experience he had with the Ekiti-born scholar years ago, when he was governor of the state of Fountain of Knowledge. Then, Fayemi had serially shifted granting an interview, initially scheduled for the morning till 6.00pm and again 12 in the night. The interface eventually held at breakfast, the next morning because of his busy table!
Back in Ado Ekiti then, he was also reported to have often, when, travelling filled the booths and backseats of his official vehicles with files, which he treated in transit. With his industry and resourcefulness, the Political Scientist and Security expert was actually believed to be leading Ekiti on a path of progress that may have been irreversible if it had continued. As Minister, aides said Fayemi had not really changed much. He is dubbed the “triangular minister” as his daily itinerary revolves round the villa, his office and home in Maitama part of the federal capital, always working and retiring late, without room for leisure!
Perhaps, the Spartan life of Fayemi is both understandable and justified. Here is a minister with, arguably the most challenging portfolio in Nigeria’s drive to diversify and steer its economy from long albeit precarious dependence on oil revenues. Situation in the industry was foggy when he assumed office in October 2015, there was lack of accurate geological data as to the quantum, quality, locations, etc of solid minerals, record of volume of export, while illegal operations were rife in the business. Due to this and the artisinal level and haphazard nature of operations therein, the sector only contributes 0.3 percent to the nation’s GDP instead of an estimated N8 trillion in annual income it should fetch.
It is Fayemi’s lot to overhaul the sector and make it another major, if not the chief money spinner for Nigeria, as well as turn around the stories of states owing workers salaries and abandoning work on development projects sites due to piling contract debts.
The reporter’s mission to Fayemi on this fateful day, however, was not about his ministry or the economy. It was to sound him out on a number of political issues concerning him and speculated moves to draft him to contest the 2018 governorship election in his home state, Ekiti, or so the reporter thought. He had been happy when the minister consented in a telephone conversation to a more-than-a-year-old request for an interview. On the reporter’s mind were sundry issues including Fayemi’s famed remark on some “unfinished business” in Ekiti, alleged strained relationship with his political mentor and All Progressives Congress (APC) leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, President Muhammadu Buhari and 2019, as the president’s confidant, the minister’s probe by the Ekiti State House of Assembly and later Governor Ayodele Fayose’s government over alleged financial misappropriation among others. Imagine the shock when his Special Assistant on Media, Yinka Oyebode during a pre-interview briefing incriminated these among other culprit questions on politics that are “no-go areas”!
The reporter was already wondering how he would justify the expenses for the trip to Abuja, for this threatening flop, more so as Femi Babafemi, the Saturday Sun Editor, had, during a phone call shortly after he arrived the minister’s office, reminded the news reporter to “grill him (Fayemi) very well,” on agreed issues; when all persuasions fell on Oyebode’s deaf ears. Adamant, the media aide explained: “No political questions please. We will appreciate it if you ask questions about the ministry’s activities and the economy, which are within the immediate purview of the minister. That’s the important job he has at hand now. We have found that when you grant interviews on politics, you’re likely to be misconstrued. Different people will read different meanings to what he (Fayemi) said, or did not say. Besides, from experience, we have found it’s a source of distraction, because the people, (apparently referring to the Peoples Democratic Party and government in Ado-Ekiti), will latch on what was said and use that to engage you, issuing statements, that we are forced to react to, to which they again react… and before you know it, you’re locked in controversy for the next two, three weeks. We don’t have luxury of the time for that. It is said that you don’t fight with a pig, because if you do, you will get muddied, but the pig will enjoy it.”
Dr. Fayemi would not help either. When the journalist was finally ushered before him at about seven in the evening for the interview, he gave a ‘sorry, brother, can’t help you’ look and shrug after exchanging pleasantries and explaining why he backed his spokesman’s position, against the reporter’s protestations.
Despite his reserve and cautiousness, during the interview, which began on the agreed precints, a seemingly innocent and innocuous question on the APC/PMB administration’s apparent failure on the economic front to lift Nigerians out of the pit of misery and suffering more than two years down the line ‘fortuitously’ launched the conversation on the path of The Sun’s journalist’s original mission. The reporter had wanted to know if, against the backdrop of Nigerians’ wails of anguish at not seeing the impact of the government’s ‘change policy’, the minister felt his boss and party would still be embraced in 2019?
The question appeared the needed bait to get the tiger in Fayemi to leap out of the cage. He bristled up in fierce defence of the APC, Buhari and his government, declaring that Nigerians don’t have a choice in 2019, but to stick with the president, if he elects to run for a second term. According to him, it would be monumental tragedy if, just when the nation is about to come out of the wilderness into the promised land through President Buhari’s effort, Nigerians should demand a return to Pharaoh’s Egypt. He admitted knowing that Nigerians still experienced hardship, but blamed this on massive looting and the previous spendthrift PDP government, noting that things couldn’t be expected to be rosy with a $30 per barrel economy under Buhari, as against over $100 per barrel economy of the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
The discussion having effectively turned political, the reporter pushed his luck to ask more and more questions, watching Oyebode where he sat in a corner, in observer’s status, wince, as his boss damned his earlier reservations and unrestrainedly fielded the questions by SATURDAY SUN’S YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE.
Your counterpart in the Works and Power Ministry, Babatunde Fashola recently explained the focus of this government’s economic policy, as being to invest in infrastructure to stimulate growth in and have multiplier effect on the productive and other critical sectors. In what way is your ministry keying into maximizing the actualization of this promise?
We’re already actualizing the promise; we’re working with the Federal Ministry of Works, Power and Housing to identify who are the quarry owners in areas where roads have been earmarked for construction and linking them to the ministry. So, that it’s easier for them to make their services available to the contractor who has been successful in getting the particular road, ditto for cement products, ditto for other raw materials that are produced by people in our sector. But we are even taking it beyond that. We’ve just given out two critical concessions on bitumen for asphalt production to two companies in Ondo State. And also gave them 18 months deadline to put the processing plants in place. So that, that market that we have lost to imports- (because 80 per cent of the bitumen in this country comes from outside, yet we have bitumen reserve here), now stays in Nigeria and we substitute that import. This will reduce the amount of foreign exchange going into that and we make money for our own people locally. Those are the kinds of steps we are taking to take advantage of what minister Fashola was talking about.
But, Nigerians’ trust in President Buhari and the APC would seem to have ebbed, if not totally gone, with government’s apparent failure to make positive meaningful change in their lives. Despite talks of exiting economic recession, wails of frustration, suffering, distress and pangs of hunger are still in the air. What do you say to this?
Well, I hear this from a lot of people. But at least for those in the mining sector, I don’t think it’s a fair commentary. The bulk of the expenditure that this administration has undertaken, if you were to take last year, 2016, for example, this country spent 1.2 trillion on infrastructure- Ministry of Power, Housing, Transportation. If you really disaggregate that expenditure, you’ll discover that a significant portion of it has gone to miners in one form or another. Cement from LAFARGE, Dangote, BUA, limestone from different parts, quarries supplying the road construction efforts, bitumen and so on and so forth. And that is money that has come out of no money.
Let’s face reality. I’m not gonna bullshit you. President Buhari’s most attractive quality is his integrity. That is what most Nigerians voted him into office for. I don’t think he has lost that. But the reality that I was referring to is, President Buhari is no magician. You cannot move from a $100 per barrel economy in a mono product economy to a $30 per barrel economy, (That is almost 60 per cent off), and if you have a 60 per cent drop in a revenue base, what are you supposed to do? But look at how he has shored up this economy. We are spending more now on infrastructure than the Jonathan administration that had a $100 per barrel economy spent on infrastructure. So people should do the numbers and not be emotional about it. Yes, I know that oftentimes you can fall victim of propaganda or gullibility or all manner of things, but people should really reason it out. Our President with his team; we’re squeezing water out of stones! That is what this administration is doing. Yes maybe there was exaggerated expectation of our ability to turn things round. Maybe we even over promised. But, I didn’t think we did. I was in charge of policy for our campaign. I cannot tell you that we over promised anything. We always said that things were going to be tough. I recall my debate with Charles Soludo in the heat of the campaign. And these were the issues that we highlighted. We didn’t say that things would overnight change for us in the country. There were clearly things that we could do a lot better, but we cannot be accused of lack of sincerity of purpose. This administration cannot be accused of lack of effort. We cannot be accused of misappropriation or mismanagement because the little that we have we are putting it to great use. We are increasing revenue to the coffers of government, there’s greater accountability in this administration, people are not pilfering resources the way they used to. And we’re delivering. Let’s just look at the numbers. Confidence has returned to this economy. Fitch ratings are now encouraging investors back into Nigeria. Security has returned to the Niger-delta. What this administration has achieved in the North-east was almost unimaginable two years ago.
I think Nigerians should by and large see the effort this government is making. But you are always going to have a few who either out of mischief or ignorance that has really prevented them from really knowing what to do decided to resort to propaganda that is ultimately self-defeating to them.
But with the prevalent sentiments among Nigerians do you see them still embracing your party and President Buhari if he decides to seek reelection in 2019?
Well, indeed I’m not so sure Nigerians have a choice in that. Because when they look at the evidence before them and you see the mess the party on the opposing side is in, Nigerians would be doing a huge disservice to themselves, if they were to leave certainty for uncertainty. Because it is clear that this pathway is going to lead to greater resources available to Nigeria over the long term. Yes, Nigerians may be impatient. I do see strength in that, but Nigerians also need to be careful not to put themselves in a situation where they would regret taking a step that would ultimately be self defeating, if they were to fall for the propaganda, that ‘ah things are so bad’; I don’t believe so. Yes, things are tough for our people, but we need to step back and reflect on where this country would have been if the Jonathanians were still in office. Let’s even check the records. We are being unfair.
When we came into office, 33 states were not paying salaries out of 36. I was a governor under the Jonathan administration. The Jonathanians were selective in the management of this country. You are either with us or against us, that’s their dictum. If you’re with us you get ecological fund, if you’re against us you don’t get. If you’re with us you get agric support from Central Bank, if you’re against us, we don’t give you. That’s what they did.
Under President Buhari even the character who calls himself governor in my state gets bail-out funds, budget support fund, gets Paris Club fund from a president that he abuses daily. That is a value- driven leader, that’s what you get when you run a government based on ethical values, you may not be able to put a tangible benefit to that. But ultimately it gives for an enduring democracy.
You alluded to Governor Ayodele Fayose just now. The governor seems to have taken the initiative away from the APC with respect to the governorship election coming up in the state next year and 2019. He’s the face and number one voice against the APC both nationally and his domain. And your APC would seem to have conceded the free run to him. Worse still APC in Ekiti State appears divided as it were. Now 2018 will soon be here and next 2019, how do you wean the state off his influence with such scenario?
First and foremost I think it is important to be factual in what one says and not become a victim of misperception. When you say APC is divided; I don’t know what you mean by that. APC in Ekiti is united, focused and has a clear direction. We have only one executive. We have a lot of people with ideas…, if that is the reason why you refer to it as divided…
(cuts in) Multiplicity of power centres…
No, there are no power centres. There’s only one power centre in Ekiti. We have an APC executive, that’s the only power centre we have in Ekiti. We have many people, who, because they know this is the party to beat in Ekiti and this is the party where you can exercise your democratic rights and freedom to express yourselves, are expressing themselves; expression of opinion and dissent is not division. It’s only in Nigeria that we see expression of dissent or opinion as division. There is no faction in Ekiti APC. We have several people who have expressed interest that they want to be this or that. Even that is legitimate. And as I have argued consistently, you cannot talk about wanting to be governor when there is no race. You can have your hidden intentions, but you cannot be an aspirant if you have not formally picked a nomination form and met all the necessary relevant requirements, at best you are great mobilizers for our party and we have several mobilizers in Ekiti. We don’t have aspirants, to the best of my knowledge and understanding of the law guiding electoral practice, which was why in Ekiti, the Resident Electoral Commissioner had to come out to warn those who are parading themselves as aspirants, pasting posters and all that to stop it, because the whistle has not been blown. So if that’s what you see as division. I’m afraid you’re wrong.
But this was how a similar thing that cost the party the previous election began to build up when at the end of the day you get to a point of irreconcilable differences.
Would you rather we shut people out, like they are doing in the PDP in Ekiti? And impose a candidate? Is that what you would prefer? We are APC. I sit here on the credibility that I built as the person who conducted the presidential primaries for this party, that produced candidate Muhammadu Buhari. And you would never see our president support undemocratic act; he said it not once not twice, that he would not be associated with imposing anybody anywhere. Let a thousand flowers bloom; we are not Fayose. We would not impose anyone in this party. If you’re 40 vying for this or that, it may not be the best. But who even said that we’re going to have 40 people vying for governorship in Ekiti? Frankly what you have are pretenders to the throne. Until people pick up nomination forms, I do not consider them aspirants to this party. So don’t misconstrue robust debate, expression of interest, dissent, different and diversity of opinions as division in the party. It is not the same. That’s one.
Then your second issue, about Mr. Fayose having a free run; I don’t know what you mean by having a free run. Mr. Fayose has had a free run entertaining himself and entertaining Nigerians, but most discerning Nigerians can see the difference between the hype and the product. That’s what I believe. Again it is an extension of those values that I say are the guiding principles driving APC as a party. Yes, you’re right there are enormous powers at the federal level. If our President were to choose to behave the way Mr. Fayose behaves to the opposition in Ekiti, harassing, intimidating, illegally locking people up, he wouldn’t have anywhere to run to, because he had no capacity to confront the enormous capacity of the powers at the federal level. But President Buhari would not even behave as if whatever Mr. Fayose is saying is relevant. Fayose says he wants to be president of Nigeria. It’s his legitimate right, but let him first go; as I say, there are pretenders and there are real people. The matter is his party, PDP to deal with. If they find him most qualified to produce a platform that would win them presidency, good luck to PDP. But look at what is happening to him in Ekiti now. Overnight you say you have a candidate for the office of the governor in Ekiti. You just go and check what he has done to his party in Ekiti. But then, for us our eye is on the ball. And I can assure you that Fayose can try everything he wants to try. He can make all the noise he wants to make. His party would be history in Ekiti. And this is not empty boast, it is not aimless boldness. We will rescue Ekiti from him. APC would take Ekiti from him legitimately. And I can assure him that he would end up in an appropriate place also legally and legitimately.
Now there are talks that you’re being pressured to run for 2018. How true is that and what’s your reaction?
(Laughs) Being pressured. What does being pressured mean?
That you are being persuaded to contest
Well, clearly there are Ekiti members of the APC who recalled what government used to be like when I was in office. Who recalled what I did for every single community in Ekiti State. What I did for teachers, civil servants, the universities and all of the various aspects of our 8-point agenda. People recall what we did for infrastructure development, for education in the state, for health care, for agriculture in the state, people have fond memories of what we did within the space of four years we were in office. And if such people choose to reminisce and believe that having encountered what our people would call water and oil, they clearly know the difference, they’ve seen the difference, between the time when salaries were paid 25th of every month without fail and a time when they don’t even know when salary would come. They’ve seen a difference between a government that prioritized the welfare of the elderly and give them a stipend every month, and a government that does not care a hoot whether they lived or died. They’ve seen the difference between a government that said ‘this is Ekiti; regarded as fountain of knowledge. No more miracle centres here, we would be a product of our own hard work’; placed a laptop on the desks of each and every student; made the school atmosphere much more conducive than it has ever been in the state; recruited teachers, doctors, lecturers, fixed virtually all the roads in the state; started a youth and commercial agriculture programme. So do you think it’s wrong if such people then express an opinion that ‘we think our lives would be better served if we were to have this person returned to office to help steer the ship of the state in a much more positive direction’. They are entitled to their opinion. But I have a job and I am busy. I’ve been saddled with a major responsibility of government; with regards to diversification of the economy. And it would be unthinkable of me to walk away from that job midstream without any justification for doing that. I love Ekiti. I am an Ekiti man. And I will make myself available for the service of Ekiti. However that would only happen with the concurrence of my principal.
The chummy relationship between you and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was believed to have been strained at a point and even lingered after that. How true was that speculation and what’s the situation now?
I think normal news don’t sell. And what I mean is, news that is not sensational, not excitable and all that. What sells is negative news. Asiwaju and I have no problem. What you defined as chummy is not less chummy except for the fact that Asiwaju tends to spend considerable amount of time outside of Nigeria now than he used to at that period you referred to. And also I have a responsibility to the Nigerian nation. Asiwaju is one person who understands what this job entails. He has been involved at the highest level so he knows that out of sight is not always out of mind. And we too cannot accuse him of forgetting us because he is attending to maybe his business interest or other interest by working round the clock outside the country. I don’t think people should read meaning into what is not. Frankly Asiwaju is somebody of repute in our party. Asiwaju is somebody-those of us that are close to him have the highest regard for and that’s not going to change by the vicissitudes of political life and even if it ever got to a point of any disagreement, Asiwaju is one person I know who cherishes robust debates. It’s natural for people who don’t have any story to hold on to speculate, to conjecture, to assume that some things are not right. But to me there’s no story there.
How do you compare your experience on the present seat with when you were governor?
Well, I get asked this question pretty often. As governor I was minister for everything. I was minister for works, power, housing, education, health you name it, because I had to supervise everything my commissioners were doing in that regard. But do not forget that I was dealing with one tiny state of 2.3million people. The flip side of that was that yes, I had a portfolio now to cater to the expectations of 180 million people. So if you compare 2.3million people to 180 million people there’s a mismatch there. But don’t forget that governors are heads of federating units. They have enormous powers. They can make things happen. I am part of a team as a minister. So one of the things you must learn to do as a minister is be a good team player, because if you’re going to succeed, you have to take your memorandum to the federal executive council, debate it, enlist the support of your colleagues, ensure that there’s a rational argument to justify what you want to do before you get it approved. I didn’t need anybody to do that with me as governor. Whatever I want to do as governor, I could do. And then direct the relevant officials to go and implement. There are processes systems and procedures in place; there are at the state level too but I’m sure you get the point I’m making. It is different terrain and a different institutional framework.