This was meant to be the first “presidential media chat” with President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian media, in which a chosen few from the press got the opportunity to ask the president the questions on the minds of most Nigerians.
Buhari had a tendency of granting interviews to the foreign media and ignoring the Nigerian press. This is not surprising since he is said to have travelled abroad 17 times in seven months. So many Nigerians tuned in this evening expecting some searching questions from the four journalists on duty. They were Kayode Akintemi, the moderator, Ngozi Anyaegbunam , Mannir Dan-Ali and Ibanga Isine.
If Akintemi, with his annoying habit of referring to Buhari as “Excellency” (none of the others did this), brown-nosed the president any further than he did this evening, he could have ended up all the way up the presidential rear end. Anyaegbunam, the only woman on the panel, did not get the memo that this was a question and answer session. She must have thought viewers tuned in to hear speak. She kept making long-winded statements instead of asking questions. As the president had a habit of not answering the question asked, the situation was made worse by no one knowing what the question was in the first place from Anyaegbunam.
Watch the session here:
The session kicked off with softballs lobbed at the president about how he stood out as “a man of integrity, took a stand against corruption” and how he thought the fight against corruption was going. This was hardly the Spanish Inquisition! Did the interrogator expect him to say it wasn’t going well?
Buhari responded saying that 30 years ago he found himself “here as Head of State”. It wasn’t actually “here” since “here” is Aso Rock in Abuja and the seat of power then was Dodan Barracks in Lagos. He said that then he locked up people and they were “guilty until they prove themselves innocent”. But now things have presumably changed.
He claimed that money had been returned by corrupt people and they would still be prosecuted. But he refused to say how much.
In response to a question on how far he would go up the chain in pursuing corrupt people, the president claimed that he would prosecute anyone they had evidence against, and it was up those people to “prove themselves innocent” in court. It appears Buhari was not quite sure how the criminal justice system works. The accused doesn’t have to prove themselves innocent. The onus is on the prosecution to prove the accused guilty.
Another questioner prefaced a question on asset declaration with the claim that the president is a “man of impeccable integrity”, and then asked when he was going to make a full disclosure of his assets. The president claimed that he had declared his assets four times. But that was not the issue. He claimed during the campaign that he would make his declaration public. He has not provided a full public declaration. He tried to fudge the issue by claiming anyone could go and ask to see his declaration. This is not true. He then resorted to asking why it was just “me alone” that people wanted to see their asset declaration. Mr President, maybe it is because you promised to provide it during the campaign. You are meant to be a “man of impeccable integrity”. It is time you started acting like one and keep your promises.
When asked about the perception that there were corrupt people in his cabinet, Buhari replied that he would not pick “anybody to embarrass my government” and none of his cabinet members had a case in court on corruption. This is a very interesting defence since it is the government that brings charges to court against corrupt individuals and the government is very unlikely to prosecute cabinet members.
The president chose to pass the buck when asked how many ministers had declared their assets. He said they were supposed to do so, but nothing on whether he has ensured they have done it.
After much prompting from the moderator, the president ended up admitting there was no reliable intelligence on whether the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram were still alive. It appeared there was no intelligence, reliable or otherwise, on Boko Haram.
Anyaegbunam asked about internally displaced persons in refugee camps suffering psychological damage and whether asking them to go back meant exposing them to danger. Buhari went on a ramble about “orphans, their parents have been killed” (Mr President, we know orphans are children without parents), but didn’t address the question.
On the massacre of Shi-ites in Zaria by the army, Buhari said that the president of Iran spoke to him about it. He appeared to take sides with the army on the issue, suggesting it was provoked. He then went on a ramble about different inquiries by the army and the Kaduna State government, and as president, he had to wait to read those reports. At one point, he said the police could not investigate the army. This exposed the level of lawlessness in the country. He should have been reminded that Nigeria is not under military rule. Soldiers killing civilians is murder and crime should be investigated by the police. But the military are untouchable in Buhari’s view.
Buhari repeated his claim that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated” and said this was because they no longer had the capacity to “conventionally attack institutions” like army barracks. The fact they rolled up in trucks with rocket-propelled grenades a few days ago at the outskirts of Maiduguri did not figure in Buhari’s imagination.
When asked about the moderator’s inability to withdraw £200 from his bank account due to currency restrictions, Buhari deflected it with “I will ask the governor of the Central Bank” and “I will ask the governor of the Central Bank to make a statement”.
He made a reasonable point about how Nigeria had four refineries in working order and was exporting refined petroleum when he left office in the 1980s. He said all this has been destroyed in the last 16 years. This begged the question why one of those “destroyers”, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, is one of Buhari’s key advisers.
All Buhari had to offer when questioned about corruption in the judiciary was “it takes two to tango”.
When asked when the government will collate the numbers of employed people in order to be able to fulfil the campaign promise of paying them 5,000 naira ($25) a month, Buhari said it is a job for the Ministry of Labour. He claimed agriculture (land) and solid minerals would create employment and alternative sources of revenue. He said little about manufacturing.
The most interesting parts were saved for last when he took questions from the public via Twitter. One was about his plan for tertiary education. He said something along the lines of using money well but nothing about any plan.
On his government ignoring court orders to release detainees on bail, he talked about the “atrocities these people have committed against the country”. He talked about the possibility of them jumping bail. He made reference to the allegations against the former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki and the fact that a judge said he could go abroad to receive treatment and “we have 2m in IDPS, which kind of government do you want to have?”
Sir, we are trying to have a government that shows respect for the rule of law and where the courts are left to decide on matters of law, with no interference from the president.
On the detained pro-Biafran activist Nnamdi Kanu, Buhari, sounding angry, said: “the one you call Kanu, do you know he has two passports, British and Nigerian and entered the country without any of them”. So did he come in with a Biafran passport? Buhari didn’t explain, only saying, “there is treasonable felony against him and I hope the court will hear the case”.
While it is commendable that the president agreed to subject himself to this exercise, even with his tendency to fail to answer questions, there is probably more value in getting rid of the selected hacks in the panel. Little of their questions added value and they were not skilled in asking searching follow-ups. They also took up too much time.
As a way forward, the next session should just be with the president and one questioner, who should take questions from the public via Twitter or email.