Thsiday Online, October 26, 2010
Chuks Okocha, Tobi Soniyi and Onyebuchi Ezeigbo
He’s been accused of many things and called many names, but nobody ever accused Chief Femi Fani-Kayode of not speaking his mind. And nobody ever accused him of not being strong-willed. Lawyer, politician and now, gubernatorial aspirant Fani-Kayode who shot into national, if somewhat controversial, prominence as Media Special Assistant to President Obasanjo and later as Minister of Tourism and Culture, then Aviation turned 50 two weeks ago. And shows no sign of turning down the heat… He spoke with CHUKS OKOCHA, TOBI SONIYI and ONYEBUCHI EZEIGBO in Abuja, last week…
You are one of the governorship aspirants in Osun State. How is your campaign and what is your relationship with Senator Iyiola Omisore? Are you stepping down for him?
Why on earth will I step down for Iyiola Omisore or anybody else? I have been in this game for twenty years now. It will surprise me for anybody to think that I will step down for anyone – unless of course, the party itself decides that everybody out of the 15 aspirants for the governorship should step down for somebody. That will be based on some kind of understanding; but as at today that is not the case. I am so deeply interested in it and I am doing my very best.
In terms of what we are actually doing – I mean the campaign – there’s a lot of internal caucusing going on. We are trying our best to come to some sort of understanding in terms of who the candidate will be so that we do not end up dividing the party.
What is paramount in my mind and in minds of most people from where I come in the state, Ile Ife, is that this time around a son of Ife should be Governor. Of course Omisore is a qualified son of Ife, just as Gbenga Owolabi who is one of the Local Government Chairmen, just as Ambassador Baju Bamigbetan and a number of others; that is what many of us want. But of course there are candidates from Ilesha as well as other candidates from other senatorial districts. We are all working together, we are all meeting, we are all talking. But the issue of stepping down has not arisen.
There is an allegation that you are in the Osun governorship race as a bargaining chip
Do I look like a bargaining chip to you? I’m very strong-willed, you know! I’m surprised you are asking that question! I have been in politics for twenty years. I have operated at the federal level as a Minister twice. As spokesperson for the President, I probably have more exposure and experience in terms of executive office than any other candidate. Why would I be a bargaining chip? I take this matter very seriously. I am very mature and I am taking this matter of governorship very seriously.
If circumstances unfold that would suggest we should support someone else, if it is in the interest of the party, why on earth won’t I do that? We are in the same party; we are working together. The key to understanding this is that all the governorship candidates in Osun are talking to each other and are working closely as at now; it was not so before. This is so because we want to ensure that there is unity within the party. We are also trying to ensure that we have a free and fair primary. No imposition of candidates.
As at today there is no credible voters register; is a free and fair election still feasible?
I certainly hope there will be, because we need to ensure that there is certainty in the system and we have a change of power or depending on what the people want. A new mandate is to be given so that we have a new government in power according to the guidelines. I don’t think it will be healthy for us to have an extension. It sends wrong signals and it will encourage some people to do the wrong thing. We don’t want that. But I agree with you it seems to me that it is going to be very, very difficult for us to operate within that time. But let’s just pray it happens.
Some people are saying that if May 29 is not feasible as handing over date, having an interim system in place will give everybody equal footing. How do you look at that?
I feel that is something that will be put in place as a last resort. That is not the best thing but it may well be the necessary thing depending on the circumstances. Whichever way you look at it, for me, I just think that democracy should be practised in the way it should be practised and that we should operate within the guidelines. We should also ensure that we do our best to do the right thing at the right time. For me, the issue of interim government, as interesting as it might be, is not the best. I’m sincerely hoping that we do not have to go in that direction; but if it is necessary then it is necessary.
You said that you have experience having served in the Federal Executive Council, we assume you are referring to the time you were Minister of Aviation?
Not necessarily. I was in government for four years. I was in Aviation for six months.
How will you relate your experience as Minister of Aviation to issues of governance at state level?
The first thing is that operating at the federal level is extremely far more complicated than most states because you are dealing with the whole nation in that situation. You are catering for the needs of 150 million Nigerians. You are operating at a cabinet level discussing complex national and international issues.
Operating at the state level for me is a lot easier especially since you will be the chief policy implementer; you will be the one to drive the policy and move the execution. Once you are familiar with the challenges of the state, once you have a firm blueprint of what you want to do and once it is clear to you that your people have a greater challenge and these are your people, your constituency, then it stirs up the passion and the desire to really do the right thing and deliver the people from a lot of the challenges they are having at the local level.
For me, politics is about service and if you are talking about experience, the best experience you can possibly have, is working at the Villa, at the Presidency and working as a Minister, in a number of Ministries and not just in one.
When you were at the Villa you were known to be outspoken defender of your principal, President Olusegun Obasanjo. Do you think that the incumbent President has such a defender like you in government?
It is a very different system and style that he is operating compared to what we operated. When President Obasanjo came in 1999 I was not with him then, I came in 2003. He told me that he had discovered that in any given day he would have about 15 verbal attacks against him. Because the country was just moving out of military dispensation to a democratic setting it was a very difficult time and the order of the day for the first four years was to totally attempt to discredit the President and tear him down and also tear down the whole system, regardless of the fact that this could have implications for the presidency and for the ability of the President to perform. Some people just decided that they were going to mess him up, and that they were going to pull him down. He went through that for four years. Even people within his own government chose to do that.
I think by 2003 he determined that he needed to have a more combative style and a stronger team in term of information management and in terms of defending his own person and explaining the policies of his government which is why he assembled a few us and encouraged us to join him. The situation then was very different from what it is today. At that time in 2003, we were surrounded with people who were extremely hostile to us; there was a sea of hostility we needed to deal with. Everything this man did was misconstrued, misunderstood and misrepresented. Some people were just malicious towards him.
I felt that it was important that if people raised issues, we needed to look at those issues, analyse them and argue. That is how participatory democracy is practised in most Western countries. Maybe by virtue of the fact that I was trained by the British and within the British system, for me as a politician you need to analyse issues, look at issues and explain issues. Not just say this is the policy, you people can say what you like, you can misunderstand it if you like, I don’t care. I believe the people have the right to be told the truth about any situation. So when you have people that rise up to misinform and misrepresent Mr. President, if it is your job to represent him properly, to inform people properly and to join issues properly. I think it is better to do it and that is precisely what I did at that time. Chuks was very much involved as a professional journalist at that time. You would find that the attacks on the person of the President and government’s policies were more measured. Because they knew that whatever you say, these people are going to come back with facts and figures. If you want to be difficult or you want to be hard and rude, you must make sure that you have covered all your fronts and you know how to respond to things that would be said to you. That is for me how it should be. As a consequence of that policy, the number of attacks on President Obasanjo completely diminished. Not that people were sacred; no, not at all. People were simply more enlightened.
Were you more of an attack dog?
No. I don’t think you can say so. I certainly don’t think you can say so because if you look at my arguments, I argued as a lawyer, which is my primary constituency. My arguments are based on logic. Maybe by the time I finished arguing with somebody he felt as if he had been bitten all over his body by a dog! Well, I certainly did not mean to do that. For me, at the end of the day, it is to argue issues with facts and figures, not personality, facts and figures. What most people are used to here is to get up and say the President is an evil man and expect you to stay nothing. If you now say please expatiate, let us look at what you have just said, or they criticise a government policy, if you now say you are wrong and that this is actually the situation, if that is what people interpret as an attack, well they are entitled to do that.
I believe I did a professional thing given the fact that I was not a journalist and had never been one. I did appreciate your job. I think I did a pretty good job based on conviction and not based on doing it just for the sake of doing a job. I believed passionately in what this man was doing. I believed he needed to be defended. I believed his policies needed to be explained. At the end of the day, I believed we did a pretty good job in doing that.
If you look at what is happening today, I believe most Nigerians have given this President the benefit of the doubt and therefore you don’t see the kind of aggression we had to deal with on a daily basis. I don’t quite know why that is, but that is precisely the situation. We don’t have a situation when people are getting up everyday misinterpreting government’s policies, attacking the person of the President. Those days seemed to have gone and thankfully, because it is like people are more far more respectful. They give the President the benefit of the doubt. If anything, people are even very accommodating and patient and sympathetic indeed especially with Goodluck Jonathan.
With Yar’Adua it seemed to me that there was a strong attempt by the government of that day to literarily suppress, people were being muzzled. That is the truth. It may not be fashionable to say so but that is the truth. At that time the government attempted to muzzle people, and people did not say much for fear of some kind of retribution or the other from one of the government’s security agencies. That was the order of the day under Yar’Adua.
Under Obasanjo, nobody, no media organisation ever got charged with sedition, simply for saying that the president was ill or something like that, like the Leadership newspaper faced. People could say whatever they liked. The worst thing that could happen was that someone would respond on behalf of the government in order to explain. Under Yar’Adua it was slightly different; people were muzzled. Under this dispensation, people are able to talk but they are giving the President and the government the benefit of the doubt in spite of the fact that there are some very real challenges on the ground.
Looking back, do you have any regret working for Obasanjo?
Why will I have any regret working for President Obasanjo? If I looked at the performance of that government, Nigerians have short memories. Look at what the situation was when he came in 1999. Look at what the country was going through and suffering then. Look at what he left in 2007. Let me give you just two examples. When he left government in 2007 we had USD20 Billion in the Excess Crude Account. When he left in 2007 we did not owe a penny to any foreign monetary institution or government, not a penny! No other African country has achieved that.
Three years later, by the time President Yar’Adua had been in government for three years the excess crude account had gone from USD20 billion to USD450 million. That is quite a depletion of the excess crude account! Number two, our foreign debt had gone from zero to USD9 Billion. I could go on and on. There are so many sectors, so many achievements, so many things that President Obasanjo’s government achieved which people do not want to look at today because they think it is fashionable not to do so. They would rather focus on some of the challenges or mistakes that he made. If you ask me again I will say I do not regret working in that government, I do not regret anything! I do not regret defending the President. I do not regret supporting the government. I’m glad that today, President Jonathan seems to have tremendous respect for him and I’m glad that someone like former President Shehu Shagari said the other day that Obasanjo was a blessing to the nation and that we are glad to have had him.
Talking about the mistakes of the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, one of them, people believe, was his third term bid in which you played a prominent role.
I have to be frank with you. If you look back, you would find out that some of us played a very, very measured role in that whole issue. I believe that at that time I had become a Minister. I did not say anything other than issues affecting my Ministry. You know the people that played a key role in the whole thing including President Yar’Adua including James Ibori and Andy Uba and a whole lot of others. But you also know el-Rufai, Ribadu, Okonjo Iweala, Obi Ezekwezili, Osuntokun, myself and a few others. Our roles were a little bit measured. I would challenge you to look for any statement at all that I issued in respect of the third term bid at that time, whether on television or in the newspapers. That is not to say I was against third term because I was in a government that believed or many people within that government believed that President Obasanjo should continue in office and they attempted to ensure that but it failed because the Senate, the National Assembly and the people said they did not want it. Fair enough. I don’t think it was a crime or a sin to say that the President should continue especially given his record at that time. But if the Nigerian people said no, no it is; end of story!
But that was against the Constitution?
That is a misconception. It was not against the Constitution. They were not trying to extend tenure against the Constitution; what they were trying to do was to change the Constitution, amend it in order to accommodate it.
Let me tell you, what a lot of people don’t realise, I’m sorry, I need to go back a bit, There was some time I had a debate with somebody from the White House on the issue of time limit . What I said – because the Americans were making a lot of noise about it, and I’m saying the same thing now – is that American Presidents themselves, it was no more than 50 years or so perhaps even less, that time limits were imposed in America. Great presidents like Roosevelt, the very strong ones, the real changers of American society, those that really established democracy in America and made the country what it is today, were there for a very long time. They were there because continuity was important. They were there to establish democracy and stabilise it. It was after the country was fully established and routed in democracy that time limit was introduced. It was a relatively late development. If you look at it like that you will find that there is an argument in that.
Was it the right and proper thing to do? Given what had happened between 2007 and 2010 in this country I think, for me, I leave you to make that choice. Given the kind of degeneration we have had in every sector. I will allow you to answer that question and make the choice.
This interview will not be complete without asking you this question: you are standing trial for alleged corruption. How will that affect your chances in politics?
The case is in court and as a lawyer, I would not want to comment on it. I don’t want to do anything that will prejudice the mind of the court. Can we have the next question?
As a lawyer you appear to prefer politics to law, why is this so?
Not really that I prefer politics; no, it is not a matter of choice. It is more of what your calling is. My calling is to serve my people and to participate in politics. It is as simple as that. I practised as a lawyer when I was called to bar in 1985 in Chief Rotimi Williams’ law firm and my father’s law firm, up till 1990 when I was appointed full partner in my father’s firm. My role in law was very peripheral and I decided to focus on making my contribution. That is when I ventured into politics, and I have not looked back since.
Do you believe that the criterion for service should be previous performance?
Do I believe in performance? Of course it should be, that is part of it. It should be experience. Not only experience though, it is a democracy, you may have your own set of criteria and other people have theirs. But of course, I think experience matters. I also think trust comes into it. I think whether the people know you well enough to entrust their future into your hands.
Bearing in mind that this is one of the criteria that can play out in the choice, how do you rate your self as a past Minister, especially as Aviation Minister? What can you look back to as your achievements in this ministry?
I rate myself pretty highly and it is not for me to blow my own trumpet. Before I came in there were five crashes within the space of one year. When we got there, we put everything in place. We ensured that safety was our watchword and we put everything in place to make sure that crashes stopped. And crashes stopped. That was my main objective. All the international air routes that are being plied today by Arik, we are the ones that made sure that they were granted when I was Minister.
We also established TRACON, the Total Radar Coverage system for Nigerian airspace, which was commissioned just last week. The system was introduced and initiated a number of years before I came in by Kema Chikwe but it was stopped by my predecessor in office Professor Babalola Borisade who sought to replace it with something else. Consequently by the time that I got in Tracon had been shelved and was at a standstill. We ressurrected it, re-introduced it, re-funded it and ensured that the monuemental work that was required to complete it began. It took a number of years but thankfully we can now see the fruits of our collective labour because for the first time in our history today, as at last week, Nigeria finally has full total radar coverage. Again still on radar, when I first came in as Minister we had no radar in Nigeria at all. Since Obasanjo left power in 1979 all the existing radar systems in our country had broken down and we had been relying on radar systems from neigbouring countries such as Ghana to chart our course. The first thing I did when I came in was to re-establish and make functional the old radar systems that Obasanjo had put in place and left behind when he was military Head of State, and I introduced the same system to Abuja. We did this in a matter of weeks after coming to office after Ado Sanusi was appointed D-G of NAMA and as a consequence of that Nigeria at least had limited radar coverage in Lagos and Abuja for the first time since 1979. Our view was that half bread was better than none and we then concentrated on putting Tracon, which is the most modern and sophisticated radar system in the world, back on course. I can also cite the consolidation and increase in asset base of local airliners as another of our achievements. The consequence of this was that the era of having tiny airline operators with a small asset base which were not properly funded, not well run and not very safe was brought to an end. Such operators were not only weak and archaic but they were also endangering the lives of Nigerians with their shabby, old, decrepit one man, one pilot, one plane airlines which would have not been allowed to operate in any other country in the civilised world. We put a stop to all that. Another achievement was the fact that we insisted that foreign airline operators acted in a lawful, reasonable and responsible way in Nigeria and that they treated Nigerians with the utmost decency, politeness and respect. This seemed to have worked quite well especially after we put our foot down and threatened sanctions if this was not done.
Another of our achievements was the fact that we granted NCAA (the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority) greater automony from the Ministry and we supported them in their vital work. As a consequence of that, irresponsible and reckless airline operators who simply refused to pay any compensation to the families of the victims after their planes crashed and killed many were grounded and remain grounded till today because they have refused to honour their obligations to those families. I am talking about defunct carriers like Sosoliso and ADC.
Another of our achievements was getting presidential approval for and setting in motion the process which led to the eventual privitisation of SAHCOL, which was a parastatal under the Ministry, a few years later. When I appointed Chike Ogeah as Managing Director of SAHCOL the company was priced at a paltry N1.5 billion. He turned the place around and by the time the company was privatised it was sold for N5.6 billion. Then there was the infamous N19.5 billion Aviation Intervention Fund. You will recall that N8.5 billion of that fund was released to and spent by my predecessor in office, Professor Babalola Borishade. After he was redeployed and I was sent to aviation the balance of N11 billion of the Aviation Intervention Fund was released to me by President Olusegun Obasanjo to help repair the decaying infrastructure at the airports. I spent N3.8 billion on three major projects (which included the Port Harcourt runway and the second Lagos runway both of which we completed) and I left N7.2 billion out of the N11 billion that was given to me to use in the Intervention Fund account for my successor to administer. Not a penny of that Intervention Fund went missing under my watch and neither has anyone alleged that it did, all the three contracts that I awarded and funded with the fund went through due process and I left plenty of money in the account for my successor to utilise and administer. I consider that to be an achievement too.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we signed a series of international agreements that allowed Nigerian airline carriers to begin to fly lucrative international routes and benefit from them. Up until that time Nigerian carriers and airline operators were being treated very unfairly and were shut out of all these routes by foreign governments and the international community. We entered into extensive negotiations with a number of countries and foreign governments on this matter; we regularised the agreements and ensured that Nigerian carriers could utilise those routes as well. That is what most Nigerians are enjoying today and as a consequence of that Nigerian airline operators like Arik have become big players on the international scene. I am very proud of that.
Not only that, before I went to the law school I was educated at some of the best schools in the world. I assure you, I have enough experience to be able to run a state.
In my state, I’m seen as a leader and not as someone who is still looking for experience. I am one of the leaders of the party, I’m a stakeholder. I am close to all the key people there. I challenge you to go and look at the criteria of all the others and let’s measure it and see who had more experience and who has less. Some people are running for the state governorship that are Local Government chairman and there are others who have never been in government before. There are some people who have been Senators and there others who had been Ambassadors. All of them have experience in one way or the other. All the PDP aspirants have something to offer. On the other side, Action Congress of Nigeria, they have a candidate who was a Commissioner under Bola Tinubu in Lagos State. You have in some states Governors who had never been in executive position before. Really, if you are looking for experience, I have paid my due in that respect.
Have you been following the debate on zoning?
Yes, I have.
What is your view on this?
It is really a very difficult. My party has taken a position. It is better for me to take the party line. Under the constitution of the party, zoning was there. However, the party also said that under the country’s constitution anybody who wants to run for office should do so. These two apparently conflicting principles have been espoused by my party. Who am I to say one is right and the other is wrong?
Would you like to tell us about your family?
Sure. I have a wonderful family, a wonderful wife. I have been married to her since 1997. I have five children. My oldest daughter is about to become a lawyer in the United Kingdom. She has two degrees.
What about the wife of 1987?
No 1997. But I know where you are going, I will come to that. I married my wife in 1997. Not my ex-wife. Let us start from the positive before we go to the negative. My second daughter has just finished her first degree in the UK. Then I have two other daughters who are in school over there. And I have a fifth daughter who is also in school abroad.
I come from a loving family and I love my family very much. My extended family is also a family of lawyers. My father was a lawyer of distinction and a politician. My grandfather was a lawyer and a judge. Both of them went to the Cambridge University, just like I did. My great grandfather was a pastor, one of those that brought Christianity to Ile-Ife.
I’m a family man. My family is very important to me. I believe in continuity. Our time is almost over. At the age of fifty, you now have to start thinking about the succeeding generation. They are rising up and by the Grace of God they will continue to fly the flag.