The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed has declared that the Federal Government has about 97 ongoing major road projects in the South East. Mohammed, who said he went to Enugu and from there to Lokpanta, Aba, Umuahia and then to Port Harcourt, before going to Asaba enroute Enugu on a personal visit to see all the construction works, wondered why somebody would come out to say the zone is not developed. He made the declaration while fielding questions from the Managing Director of the Sun Publishing Limited and his team of editors during the minister’s working visit to the company’s Ikeja City office last week. He spoke on arious issues.
Honourable Minister, your party, the APC, rode to power on the crest of insecurity, corruption and economy. There was an election early this year and your party still held on to the three mantra; now with the benefit of the fact that you are the one driving these three issues as the minister of information, what would you consider as the greatest achievement in those three issues that you can beat your chest and say that you are proud of?
Honestly, I will say I can beat my chest in all the three issues. I am not saying this because I am the minister of information; I am saying so because I am involved. Two weeks ago, I was in Katsina State for Town Hall meeting on banditry, kidnapping and cattle hustling. At that meeting, we invited the governors of Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kaduna; Kaduna could not make it but the other three governors were there. And we also invited the Ministers of Defence and Interior to join us to discuss what progress has been made in fighting banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling and everybody will remember that it has come down because of the efforts of these governors and what the Federal Government is doing to support them. So, I try to be on top of the issue of security, the fight against corruption and the economy, by not just sitting in my office for information to come but by personally going out there and I know what it was. A Director General in my office told me how bad he felt because he could not go home to bury his father and I asked him why. And he said because they couldn’t get to Biu because it was unsafe and that what they, the elite from Biu who live in Abuja used to do was to collect foods and clothes and send them back home regularly. But, today, you can drive to Biu and back. As I said earlier, we have not defeated global terrorism but we have defeated Boko Haram. I read yesterday about the Borno State governor who went to Damasak for a retreat to let people know exactly what work needs to be done in terms of rehabilitation. You see, many of us sit very comfortably in our homes in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja and we don’t even know what Boko Haram has actually wreaked on Nigerians. We don’t even know the epidemic ravaging the refugees internally within Nigeria, but because we are hands-on, we have better and fairer idea and we appreciate our military much more. I have visited them in condition that many of us will not survive and they lay down their lives daily so that people can sleep safely in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Enugu. So, I will say, yes, we have succeeded in the area of insecurity.
In the area of the economy, I take it upon myself as the minister of information to visit every major infrastructure project of the Federal Government like the Second Niger Bridge, East-West Road and others. Work on the Second Niger Bridge was suspended because some people came up with the issue of compensation and stopped Julius Berger from doing anything and that is why the Federal Government said henceforth, if any state cannot take control of the local problems, we move our development elsewhere. I have been out; I went to Enugu and from there to Lokpanta, Aba, Umuahia and then to Port Harcourt. Then, we took the other way round from Enugu to Asaba, visiting all the construction works, so that when somebody now came out to say his own zone is not developed, I said no, that is not true. We have been there and there are about 97 major road projects going on in the South East alone, but it takes quite some time before you see the fruits of these efforts. For instance, in the rainy season you can do nothing apart from just the line maintenance. So, in the area of the economy, even recently, we were named as one of the best 20 performing countries by the World Bank in the ease of doing business. But, we have to continue with our reforms everywhere.
In the area of fighting corruption, of course if anything, corruption has been driven under the table. Before, it used to be out on the table, where people used to sit down and negotiate on corruption. But, today, it can’t be business as usual. Why are ministers so unpopular today? Ministers of today cannot do what the ministers of yesteryears used to do, because where are you going to get the money from? Sorry, I don’t want to say that the ministers of yesteryears were corrupt, but what I am saying is that today, there is more accountability and all of us know that it is not what it used to be. In 2014 in particular, crude oil was sold for $140 or $150 per barrel; in 2016 it was sold for $38 per barrel. Even today, the benchmark is $57 per barrel. Now, can you compare what you can do with $57 with what you can do with $140? We have real issues.
Borders have been closed for some time now and it is beginning to look as if it will be indefinite. Is closing the border the only way to fight smuggling? What are the gains so far, and when will the borders be opened?
The government has always said it will not be indefinite. However, the closure will continue as long as our neighbours do not meet their own obligations. What is happening is that there is an agreement between nations to help the economy of each country. For instance, I am aware that there is an agreement within the ECOWAS states, especially with our neighbours that goods coming into Nigeria must be containerized and they must be taken through ports where you can access what is being brought in. Now, this has not been obeyed by our neighbours. We know it is inflicting some collateral damages to many people but in the overall interest of Nigerians, I think we need to persevere and bear with government so that our neighbours will be responsible and responsive. You can’t turn Nigeria into a dumping market of substandard goods or even harmful goods just because some of our neighbours are not meeting their own obligations. We all know that Benin Republic does not consume parboiled rice but the volume of parboiled that cross through Benin Republic every year is what comes to the Nigerian market and this comes to our market and nobody is paying any duty. But even worse than that is the fact that it is a disincentive to our local industry and local manufacturer.
Apart from billions of Naira that the closure has brought to the coffers of government through the Customs duties, I have heard personal testimonies of Nigerians in poultry and rice farming. I know that the rice farmers are very glad with the border closure. But for the border closure, probably there would have been a glut in the rice market this year because there was a bountiful harvest. Our local rice is not only helping the economy to employ more people, it is also healthier than the foreign rice. Yes, there is no gain without pain. Nigerians, especially those who have made smuggling their way of lives, are very uncomfortable with the closure, but when you look at the overall gains for the government, I think it was a step in the right direction. I can assure you it will not be forever. Just as you are seeing the outward manifestation in terms of gains, we are also engaging our various neighbours on quick end to border closure.
NACCIMA said the border closure has hurt the free trade agreement. IMF said we can’t continue to close our borders. Where has the closure left us as a nation? Is government actually working with the operators to know the effects on the economy?
It depends on the way you look at it. First, there is the issue of national security; and here, we are not just fighting wars or repelling wars, we are also talking about survival of a country. The country must survive first before it becomes a member of any intercontinental body. So, for us, it is because there is a Nigeria that we are a member of ECOWAS free trade. So, we believe that there is existential threat to our economy through smuggling. We will resolve the issue of the Africa continental free trade agreement but the government is saying that as of today, Nigeria has become a dumping ground for smuggled and substandard goods. We are losing revenue massively through smuggling. Our poultry and agriculture have become uncompetitive; other countries subsidise rice in their own countries and they dump them in Nigeria. For me, let’s resolve those issues first and then we can take care of the free trade agreement.
Critics believe that the government’s approach to tackling hate speech and fake news is very draconian and a mere ploy to gag the media. They are also saying that some of what the government is crying about are largely domiciled in the New Media and most of them are individuals who use those tools like the Youtube, Facebook and others. What are these hate speeches and fake news that government cannot use the window of right of reply to address?
I think it is mischievous and misleading to think that fake news and hate speech actually concern government alone or that the new reforms are actually aimed at stifling freedom of the press; that is not correct. I was on a Television Continental (TVC) programme this morning, and one of the contributors, a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly said these reforms are coming late. He said he was a victim of fake news and hate speech last week. He said he was contributing on the floor of the House and a newspaper went ahead to quote him as saying that all politicians wear charms, and amulets and that they all patronise traditional medicine men. He said it took him almost three days debunking the story. The media house eventually removed it from its site but the harm has been done. I think we need to look at fake news and hate speech far beyond the government. It does more harm to society. I am sure you are witnesses to what fake news has caused in this country.