President Muhammadu Buhari during his recent four-day official visit to the United States spoke with journalists in Washington DC on how he intends to run his government
Boko Haram has killed over 400 people in the first half of July alone, and managed to further expand its reach beyond its core areas. You were elected on a promise to destroy the insurgency, what’s gone wrong?
Boko Haram is on the run. We are beginning to turn the tide against Boko Haram. Yes, we have seen a recent increase in civilian deaths, but that is because Boko Haram members are now desperately changing tactics to avoid confronting a renewed and more effective military effort. Instead, they are now targeting civilians. It is a sign of their weakness, not their strength. Defeating Boko Haram will not happen overnight – it needs a combined military and social answer that will defeat and address the underlying social issues that are driving it. I am putting these measures into place step by step.
First, I have moved the centre of military operations from Abuja to the heart of the insurgency in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, so that the military leaders are on the ground to lead the effort at the frontline.
Secondly, I have revamped the nation’s military leadership with a new team that has the skills, experience and commitment to defeat the terrorists on the ground.
Thirdly, I am working to improve the professionalism and accountability of the armed forces, including clamping down on the misappropriation of funds that has led to serious lack of resources and equipment in the battle against Boko Haram.
Lastly, I am seeking to work with Nigeria’s partners, both our neighbours in the region and internationally such as the United States to develop a package of measures to tackle the entrenched marginalisation in North Eastern Nigeria and the surrounding areas in neighbouring states – where poverty levels are over 75 per cent.
We need a marshal programme for the Sahel region to be able to prevent further radicalisation and insecurity in the long-term.
The shocking truth is that Nigeria’s cupboard is bare. Despite receiving $400bn in oil revenue in the last 40 years, Nigeria’s treasury is almost empty. Partly, that is because of falling oil prices; it is also because money has been stolen – shipped out of the country by corrupt officials into foreign bank accounts.
Some of that money is here in the United States. One of the things America can do is help recover those stolen funds so that we can reinvest them in Nigeria to combat the poverty that is driving insecurity.
It’s been over a year since the Chibok girls were kidnapped and there has been no real progress made in recovering them, what measures are you taking to bring the girls home?
The kidnap of the Chibok girls is a stain on our national honour and my government will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to rescue them. However, I will not lie to the Nigerian people. After the time that has passed, it is increasingly difficult to know whether we will be able to find all of them as they are likely to have been split up and married off or hidden deep in the forest or countryside.
Nonetheless, my government will not give up. We will do everything in our power to bring back our girls.
You have said that the solution to the Boko Haram insurgency will not just be a military one; does that indicate that you are prepared to negotiate with the group?
Yes, we are prepared to talk to the more moderate elements of Boko Haram. We are prepared to address the legitimate concerns over unemployment, poverty and marginalization that have driven the insurgency.
We are even prepared to consider some form of amnesty, similar to what is in place in the Niger Delta, for the rank and file who lay down their arms and commit to the peaceful reintegration into society.
However, there can be no forgiveness for the barbaric leadership that has pursued a deliberate policy of diabolical war crimes and terror against the innocent civilian population of Nigeria.
Last week, you replaced the service chiefs and the chief security adviser over the failure to defeat Boko Haram. However, there is some concern that you have replaced many of them with your own supporters from the North. Are you using the pretext of Boko Haram to politicise the leadership of the Nigerian armed forces?
I am the Commander-in-Chief. It is my job to ensure that the best and most qualified leaders are in charge of the armed forces, so that we can keep the Nigerian people safe.
We will only defeat the military threat of Boko Haram if we have the right leadership team in place leading from the frontline.
Having the right military leadership in place, who know and understand the local terrain, together with the counter-insurgency team in the North, is vital to winning the military battle.
These new officers have been selected strictly on merit, on the basis of their record and skills. Other than the new Chief of Army Staff, of whom I have prior experience, I have no prior relations with the other heads before I appointed them – it was their track record that recommended them.
Turning south to the Niger Delta, the amnesty for former combatants which has helped to keep the peace in the Niger Delta is due to end in December this year. What measures do you propose to replace it?
The amnesty still plays an important part in ending the insurgency in the Niger Delta and I am committed to continuing it as long as it is necessary to do so. However, it is not a long-term answer to the problems there.
Just as in the North, the Niger Delta requires long-term investment in both economic and social infrastructure – from roads and railways, to schools, hospitals and housing. That is what people want, a fair share of the resources that their region is producing.
But you have already said that Nigeria’s cupboard is bare – how can you afford such programmes?
Nigeria is not a poor country: we have the natural resources and ingenuity to be an economic superpower. It is our people who have been made to be poor because of incompetence and corruption.
If we can recover the stolen money, attract private sector investments, and tackle corruption, then we will be able to provide the economic growth and development; that is the long-term answer to insecurity.
An NGO, Global Financial Integrity, recently calculated that $150bn was illegally shipped out of Nigeria over the last decade, what measures do you intend to adopt to clamp down on the industrial scale corruption that has bedevilled Nigeria and held back its economic growth and social development?
Corruption is one of the top three issues facing Nigeria, along with insecurity and unemployment. We must act to kill corruption or corruption will kill Nigeria. I am determined to lead that fight.
My government is already taking several steps to cut out the cancer of corruption that has been eating away the state for so long.
First, we are reorganising the existing plethora of anti-corruption bodies into a single powerful agency that will have the focus, power and budget to clamp down on corruption at the federal and state level.
Secondly, I have already acted to remove political control over awarding of contracts from ministers who use them to get favours and kickbacks.
Thirdly, I will introduce a new system of plea bargains, that will allow those who have stolen assets and funds to return them – but if they do not take that opportunity, we will pursue them through the courts.
Fourthly, I am reforming the oil and gas sector, breaking up the NNPC (the state oil company) into two parts – the first will become an independent regulator for the sector, while the second will act as an investment vehicle for the country.
I will also end political control of the awarding of drilling and exploration rights by introducing a system of independent, transparent auctioning for licences.
Lastly, we shall be asking foreign countries, including authorities here in the United States, to work with us to return stolen funds that are now sitting in private accounts in their banks and rightfully belong to the people of Nigeria.
But you have also said that you will “draw a line” under past corruption – doesn’t that mean that some of the worst offenders will now go scot-free?
We will vigorously pursue any and all anti-corruption cases and investigations that are currently ongoing, but the government has to be realistic; we are not going to mount a new wave of prosecutions over historic cases.
So, yes it is inevitable we will indeed draw a line under some historic abuses, but there will be zero tolerance for corruption going forward.
Does that apply to everyone; will you take action if it is found that your supporters, leading members of the APC have been involved in corruption?
You cannot cure a sick patient by only treating one half of them. There will be no political interference in the fight against corruption – and no political favours to protect the corrupt from justice.
There is some concern that despite spending 14 years trying to become president, you did not exactly hit the ground running and that you will not now be appointing members of the cabinet until September. Why is it taking you so long to get started and put your team in place?
We cannot clean up 16 years of mess in a few months of frantic activity. I know that people are impatient for change, but it is far more important to take your time and take the right steps and appoint the right people than to run around pretending to be doing something, yet achieve nothing.
First, I will make sure that the right rules and management structures are in place to ensure good government.
Only then will I appoint credible ministers, with the track record of delivery and probity in good time. After all, President Obama did not complete the appointment of his first cabinet until five months after he was elected and America did not cease functioning in the meantime.
Nigeria’s economy is heavily over-dependent on the oil and gas sector, accounting for over 80 per cent of GDP and 90 per cent of government revenues. What measures are you putting in place to diversify the economy?
Nigeria is blessed with a rich array of natural resources, not just oil and gas, but abundant solid minerals and huge tracts of arable land.
Forty years ago, Nigeria was a net exporter of food; today we are an importer. We should not only be self-sufficient, we should be the bread basket for Africa.
We have only become over-dependent on oil because of the incompetence and corruption of government that concentrated on how best to steal oil revenues instead of how best to use our oil windfalls to invest in a modern, growing economy.
However, we cannot be content to just export raw materials and commodities abroad: we must become a manufacturing giant. I will not be satisfied until the label “Made in Nigeria” is as common globally, as the label “Made in China.”
My government has a clear plan to diversify and rejuvenate Nigeria’s economy. We are shifting our economic focus to expanding and modernising our agricultural and mining sectors by attracting new private investment – moving away from the overdependence on oil.
We will use our oil revenues to upgrade our decaying infrastructure – boost electricity generation and build new road and rail networks while upgrading our ports.
We will also focus on improving education and skills training so that we can take advantage of the growing global trend for new sources of labour and tackle the crisis of youth unemployment and create a new value-added manufacturing sector.
We are reforming the out-of-date and bureaucratic land laws, giving title deeds to millions of ordinary farmers, so that they will finally be able to use their land to raise capital to invest in modern agricultural equipment and transform production throughout the country.
The global fall in oil prices has hit Nigeria hard, with the Federal Government losing up to half of its revenues in the past year. How is this affecting your reform plans?
Nigeria cannot spend what it doesn’t have. However, given the previous levels of waste and corruption, if we spend what we have more wisely and effectively, we can achieve a great deal more.
One step I have already taken is to pay the salaries of civil servants, some of whom had not been paid for over 10 months.
In the long-term, we must sort out Nigeria’s chaotic finances – we have to diversify government income – both by increasing the size of the non-oil economy and by expanding the tax base, so that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.
However, we must also sort out spending – we cannot have a situation where half the government’s expenditure goes on the salaries of just two per cent of the population. That said though, we must first pay people the salaries that they have earned.
What about the fall in the Naira, how will you prevent another run on the currency further depleting Nigeria’s reserves?
Nigeria has to win the confidence of the markets; we will only do that by demonstrating our commitment to probity and prudent public spending.