The Publisher of Ovation magazine, Dele Momodu, speaks about President Muhammadu Buhari’s government and other issues in this interview with ’NONYE BEN-NWANKWO and GBENRO ADEOYE
What is your view on the state of the country?
The state of the country now is a bit volatile. Don’t forget that a very strong political party was voted out of power last year, so naturally, the tension is still there. But my attitude to it is that the tension can be tackled by the government. There is nothing happening in Nigeria that has not happened elsewhere. In fact, we have had worse situations. In South Africa, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years and when he came out of prison, he could have prolonged the disunity and the tension but he was smart enough to know that the only thing that could bring about progress in a nation is an atmosphere of peace. So that is what I recommend but unfortunately, some people in Nigeria feel that the tension should continue and that we should fight to the finish. But I believe that I am a good student of history and my attitude is that every Nigerian, whether in the Peoples Democratic Party, the All Progressives Congress, the National Conscience Party, the Labour Party or whichever, must join hands with President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue Nigeria and he too must join hands with them.
Do you also feel that this government is slow and that nothing is really happening in spite of its promise of change?
I won’t use the word slow. I’d say we could do better. I’m not on the hot seat; I’m not the President of Nigeria, so there are things he would know that I don’t know. He would have access to more information than the ordinary man on the street. But I believe that Nigerians are very agitated at the moment. I’m seeing a lot of complaints on social media and all kinds of caricatures. You would think the government has been in power for four years. In less than one year, people are already abusing us. ‘You guys are idiots; you brought Buhari on us’, ‘Shame on all of you’. I don’t know if all of these are getting to the government but this is the feedback that we are getting. If you have been reading my articles in a national newspaper every Saturday, you must have seen that I’ve been reflecting that mood. What I know about government and power is that people (who are close to him) hardly tell the leader the truth. They tell him what they think he wants to hear; they tell him everything is under control. “Oh! Don’t mind the disgruntled elements.” In government, everybody is always disgruntled. This time last year, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s boys were busy abusing us thoroughly. There was nothing they didn’t say. But we knew we had to carry on with our mission, based on principle. I’m not a member of the APC or the PDP, but people don’t know. I was just a volunteer. Our generation, I believe, is different. These days, nobody thinks that anyone can do anything based on principles. They think it must be based on political affiliations, religious fraternity and so on. I’m just a Nigerian who wants Nigeria to be good. I’m already 55 years going on 56 and I’m just worried. When the Wole Soyinkas were describing their generation as a wasted generation, I was so sure that mine would not be wasted. But at this rate, if care is not taken, we have virtually joined that generation. No electricity, no water, bad roads, nothing. If you listened to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s songs in the 70s and the early 80s, you can still replay the songs today and they will be relevant. The same old story! It is troubling for some of us, which is why I said we must join hands with Buhari because if he fails, we are in trouble. The President should also reach out to everybody; it does not matter whether you are a Christian or a Muslim or animist, whatever you are, we are all Nigerians at the end of the day.
Are you saying you could have done any better if you had been elected when you contested Presidency?
Me? Well, it is a matter of conjecture. The Yoruba have a saying: ‘Enu dun ro efo’ (It is easy and convenient to cook vegetable soup by mouth), so you never know until you get there. But if you asked me, naturally, the answer would be, ‘Yes, I would perform’. This is because there are basic lessons I’ve learnt, especially from the lives of some people like Chief Obafemi Awolowo- a life of service. What was the secret? He was able to assemble the best brains around, listen to them and act on whatever quality advice they gave him. Any leader who wants to succeed must do that. Your team must be able to reach you, have access to you, respect you but not be afraid of you to the extent that they cannot talk, take risks, take decisions.
Are you saying that Buhari’s ministers are afraid of him to that extent?
I wrote an article about that recently that Sir (Buhari), you need to free your ministers from this cage. What I see presently is a regime where ministers are afraid, maybe because they have not been able to get over Buhari’s first coming. But this is a democracy, so things must change. We cannot have a dictator. One of the ministers actually called me because I compared this cabinet to that of former President Goodluck Jonathan. In his time, say what you will, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was talking and reassuring the nation. You’d see her on Aljazeera, CNN, defending Nigeria, their policy and so on. But that is not the case here. What we have now is a preponderance of media operatives for the government. Garba Shehu says his; Femi Adesina says his; and then you hear from the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. There have been a cacophony of information but this information has not been able to coagulate to reassure Nigerians, who are rightly anxious, that things are okay. I wrote an article titled, ‘Buhari and the burden of expectation’. To whom much is given, much is expected. People saw Buhari as a magician, either rightly or wrongly. So they expect so much from him. So those who are getting angry and asking ‘why are people saying he should do this or that, he has just started? People expected what I call Talismanic results. So they expected him to perform miracles. I told him that Nigerians expect you to perform the miracle of Jesus Christ raising Lazarus from the dead because Nigeria was virtually comatose. So my mind has been oscillating between, ‘Are we fast enough?’ or ‘Are we too slow?’ I just believe that we should jazz up some things quickly and urgently because we don’t have the luxury of time. By May, a year would have been gone. We will enter the second year by May 29 and by the third year; politicians are already jostling for the next elections. So there will be no attention paid to governance again. Now, some people are already talking about 2019. In fact, part of the battle right now is about 2019 when we have not even passed the first budget. So the executive and the legislature must bury whatever differences they have and come together for the sake of Nigeria. The judiciary must assist but what I see now is a fight between the executive and the legislature. People are abusing the judiciary of being corrupt and if we bastardise all our institutions, there will be nothing left at the end of the day.
So are you one of those pleading for more time for this government?
I always tell people that leadership is not about politics but about managing people and resources. A leader must be ready to adjust accordingly. If you are not making enough money from oil, so what do you do? Agriculture is not an overnight thing but you can set things in motion. We should begin the process of making sure we move from a mono-economy to a diversified one. Two, Chief Moshood Abiola used to tell us that when you want to cut your coat, you look at the available material. If it can give you a three-piece suit, fine. But if it can’t, reduce it to a two-piece suit, and you don’t make it too wide. Right now, I’ve not seen any sign of austerity in Nigeria. If you asked for my honest opinion, I think that Buhari should reflect austerity measure in Nigeria, especially in government. The bulk of our resources are going towards funding the politicians. I read last week that government officials should no longer fly first class. That is minor; anybody can fly anything. I fly a lot and I know how to get the best bargains. But you know in government, it is not like that. There would be an agent somewhere who is related to someone in government and he is the one writing tickets and he is writing the most expensive ones. So these are things that the government does not realise.
Do you think that the President should have pruned the size of the Presidential Air Fleet?
I think we have too many presidential jets right now; that is my opinion. I believe that we have too many and even Buhari himself had criticised that before he became the President. So I don’t know what they are waiting for. I think we are spending too much money flying round. Each time they fly, they tell me they have reduced the entourage but I don’t think so. I was in New York on my own but stayed in the same hotel with them last year July during the United Nations General Assembly and I could still see that a lot of the people were just roaming and roving around with nothing to do. I don’t see why the President should travel every time with a full entourage, especially for a country like ours. You may say that Tanzania is a small country but a broke country is also a poor country. We are very wealthy in terms of our resources and assets, but right now, we lack cash flow. So we have to show that we are serious. If my company is not making money, I can’t go and be spending money on expensive lifestyles. It’s about how you manage yourself and I don’t see that yet. We have returned to the days when people think government is about enjoyment.
Pruning the presidential air fleet was one of APC’s campaigns, so do you think all the other promises the party made were a mere gimmick to attain power?
I don’t know. There is a book I like to quote. It was written by a Brazilian author called Paulo Freire. It is titled, ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’. There are two things I picked from the book. One is that the oppressed man respects and fears only one person- his oppressor. The second one, which is relevant to what I’m talking about, is that the oppressed man is waiting for an opportunity to become an oppressor. The only dream he has in his life is: I just want to be great. I want to get to power. But when he gets to power, the reality is different. President Buhari, I believe, is a man of modest means, humble, easy going, and I don’t think he is overtly crazy about money or primitive accumulation of wealth. I once described him as a man who is like Jesus Christ, but without disciples. If your followers don’t share in your philosophy, then everything will spiral out of control, which is what I think is happening in Nigeria.
Some people have attributed your open letter to President Buhari as a sign that you are still sulking for not being made a minister. Is that what it is about?
I know the number of people who were begging me to do everything possible to become a minister. And I told them: the only reason you want me to become a minister is so that I can go and steal on your behalf. You are not saying it because you think I’m qualified or because you love me. They told me it’s their own opportunity; that I worked for these people. And it got to a stage that even my wife said people did not allow her sleep; they would call her in the UK and say ‘Madam, talk to your husband, he is too arrogant and foolish. How can he work for Buhari so much and not get anything?’ If I was going there for service, nobody would worry me. So the mindset of an average Nigerian is still that government is the easiest way to make money. And with that kind of mindset, what can Buhari alone do?
Were you not disappointed that your name was not on the list of Buhari’s ministers?
No, I wasn’t disappointed. I actually wrote an article before the list came out on why I believed my name would not be there. People were circulating some names. But to start with, I’m not a member of their party. Anybody who wants to be a minister, an ambassador, the first prerequisite usually is to be a member of the political party. It is even almost a constitutional thing. Till today, I have never left my party, the NCP. So if I was desperate for an appointment, I would have left my party. Nobody would drive me away if I want to join the APC. As a matter of fact, my good friend, Rotimi Amaechi (Minister of Transportation), has asked me many times why I have not joined the APC. I said no, I’m not interested. I don’t know how people do it when they jump from party to party like frogs. Maybe it is because I come from a background of intellectualism. I was supposed to be a lecturer but I couldn’t get a job in the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) when I finished my Master’s degree in 1988. That was what brought me to Lagos. So I was already 28 years old by the time I arrived in Lagos in 1988. That ‘village boy’ mentality has not left me till today- ignore all the glamour. I am just who I am. I am happy contributing my quota to the development of my country. I’ve appointed myself as a global ambassador. I’ve been negotiating with rebels in Sierra Leone as far back as 2001. I would go there to visit our soldiers. You see, I read a lot and I’ve watched the lifestyles of the rich and famous elsewhere and I see how they contribute to their societies. You don’t have to be in government to contribute positively. Princess Diana used to go to Angola to campaign against land mines. You see Prince Harry going to Afghanistan to fight alongside British soldiers. Would you see the child of a Nigerian President or king ready to do all those things? That is me. But people don’t believe it because what they see is that he is the publisher of Ovation, he hobnobs with the rich and famous. Yet, I write my columns every Saturday and I’m able to tell President Buhari what nobody would tell him. I was able to write and tell Jonathan what nobody would tell him. When the late Umaru Yar’Adua cabal was holding Nigeria to ransom, I went on the street and I was not a member of the PDP and I never sat with Jonathan one on one. He is probably the only President in recent times that I never took pictures with. I’m just who I am. I’m more of a scholar. My dream is to return to the university and teach the young ones. All the experience that we have gathered should not be wasted.
Speaking of your open letter to the President, it is widely believed that it is when you are unable to get anything from the government in power that you start bad-mouthing it.
Was I a friend of Jonathan in power? I just told you that I went on the streets to fight for his right when he was being oppressed by the cabal. Did I go to them? If I was a friend of everyone in power, won’t I be a member of a big political party? People just talk. Fortunately for me, I learnt from MKO Abiola. When I came to Lagos in 1988, Abiola was probably the most hated Nigerian. Even when I was going to work in Concord Newspapers, it was because I couldn’t get a job in The Guardian. I had wanted The Guardian. When a friend suggested Concord to me, I was reluctant to go there. I told him people said that Abiola was an Islamic fundamentalist; they said he was a millionaire fanatic. But I got to Concord and everything was different. We had a bush canteen in Concord where we could drink beer. Would you drink beer or smoke in an Islamic empire? People were smoking. So I have learnt from the lives of great people that people must talk about them. What matters is for you to be true to your beliefs, philosophy and principles. Go and check if there was any government that I didn’t know and I was bold enough to tell them the truth. The secret is that I don’t abuse people. When I write, I critique and I proffer solutions. Go and read my articles. When I met with President Buhari, I had a copy of my forthcoming book, which contained some of the articles I wrote in the last five years on Jonathan. I said ‘Sir, I appointed myself Special Adviser to the President and these are some of the things I wrote about him, but he didn’t listen’. I said I hope you won’t mind, I’m going to be playing the same role. I’ve not gone back to Buhari. When I went to see him, I was invited. Thereafter, I have never gone near the place. I’ve not met Lai Mohammed since he became the Information Minister, you would not believe it. And this is a man who has been my friend for over 20 years. I’ve not been to Amaechi’s office. We may have been together when he is in Lagos and in the same hotel or at a function. I don’t run around. Journalists are treated like poor specie in Nigeria; I respect myself. I’m older than most of the political actors on the stage today. And where I come from, we value seniority. If you don’t respect yourself, nobody is going to respect you. So when people talk and say you are defending this and that, I say I defend principle.
Were you paid by the former Minister of Petroleum, Diezani Alison-Maduekwe, to launder her image with the interview you recently had with her?
That is why some people will rather leave this life of activism because whether you do it or don’t it, people must abuse you. What did I do wrong with Diezani? This is a woman that every reasonable journalist in the world would love to interview. People interviewed Osama Bin Laden. If it was in Nigeria, people would say they paid you to promote terrorism. They would change the word reportage to promotion. That is what they do anytime because Dele is not supposed to be a poor person, he is a flamboyant man, so everything he does must be for financial considerations. What insult! I’m older than Diezani. Look, I’m the only one who knows how I gain access to people. When I contacted someone that I would like to speak to Diezani, the person told her and she said, ‘Ha, no no no, Dele is our enemy.’ That was the first thing she said and the person told me. I said I was nobody’s enemy; whatever she says is what I would reproduce. A journalist must be able to give his word. People are abusing me for interviewing Diezani; what crime have I committed? Did I write in the interview that Diezani did not steal money? Where did I write it? Did I write that Diezani was the best minister in Nigeria? What did I write? Just questions and answers! Is it true that you have cancer? I took pictures with my phone and they accused me of doctoring pictures.
People said you went out of your way to try to launder her image for money.
Oh! Are you also trying to launder my image now by talking to me? No! What are you doing here? If I interview James Ibori now, people will say that I’m trying to launder his image. Is Ibori not a human being? Does he not have a right to express himself? In fact, all the things we fought against under dictatorship are what we are preaching now. It is called censorship. People have gone on exile or to prison for censorship. I was a victim. That is why I go against censorship. If somebody kills my mother today and I have an opportunity to interview him, I will ask: why did you kill my mother? But Nigerians will say you are a bastard, how can you sit and talk with the person who killed your mother? They don’t understand that it is a job. That is the nature of the job. There is no journalist who can be successful if he doesn’t have access to his subjects.
But we heard that you are being sponsored to write some of the things you write and that your open letter to Buhari was particularly sponsored by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. Is that the case?
I haven’t heard that in recent time. Before, I used to hear that. When he was taken to the Code of Conduct Tribunal and I wrote in his support, some people who were his political enemies abused the hell out of me. But Tinubu is my big brother. We were comrades in exile. We have come a long way together. I fight against oppression. So did Jonathan pay me to go and demonstrate for him in Abuja? So Tinubu paid me to write that he was being victimised? Jonathan paid me to write that the cabal did not want to hand over power to him when it was obvious that the then President was not well. Some people called me a bastard for supporting Amaechi at the Senate, even to my face. I did not mind them, I carried on with my campaign. Some people are attacking me now for supporting Saraki. Why? Because I said we must resist the impunity of a man suddenly becoming a villain only when government is fighting him. And it happens every time, right from Obasanjo’s time. If a governor was not in support of Obasanjo, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission would go and pick him. I resisted it at that time. I wrote an open letter to Nuhu Ribadu that it was impunity and that it was not good to set fire on an entire village to catch a few rats. His guys came back at me seriously. I almost sued This Day Newspaper because it was used to libel me for speaking the truth. But at the end of the day, Ribadu himself became a victim of impunity and he had to flee the country. So if they are fighting Tinubu, I don’t talk. They are fighting Saraki, I don’t talk. The day they come for me too, there will be nobody to talk.