Acting President's spokesperson, Laolu Akande, tells Pulse that the Buhari administration has laid the foundations for a better Nigeria.
Anti-corruption, security and the economy formed the basis of the All Progressives Congress campaign in 2015. Almost two years into the four-year mandate, Nigerians are yet to see an appreciable level of success in the economy.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse, the Senior Special Assistant on Media & Publicity to the Vice President, Laolu Akande, speaks on efforts of the Buhari administration in getting Nigeria out of economic recession.
What's a typical day for the Vice President like?
Hectic, busy but very exciting. Hectic because our schedule depends on that of the President. And so, we're prepared and always ready to make changes as quickly as we need to. Also because of the amount of what has to be done.
Exciting because it is indeed a privilege to work for your country and under the leadership of two gentlemen that come with a lot of integrity and who knows exactly what they are doing.
As spokesman to the Vice President, do you regret taking this job in your quiet moments?
No regrets. One of the things that this job has taught me is patience and a little bit of endurance. In the public service, when you deal with some of the internal contradictions, it will call up your patience level.
When you serve under people who are honest, whose motivations are right, and who know what they are doing, regardless of the challenges, it is very clear to me that we will prevail.
As VP's spokesperson, what gets you very angry and frustrated while discharging the responsibilities of your office?
There is a level at which you begin to expect a greater demonstration of outrage about some of the things that have happened in the past in governance. The kind of mind-boggling facts, figures about corruption, the sheer wickedness of people that have been entrusted with power; when you deal with such information, one gets a little bit concerned and begin to feel like there should be a much higher level of outrage. In terms of people who were entrusted with power and basically raked this country. Once in a while, you get frustrated about it.
Like we've said several times when you are fighting corruption, corruption does fight back. Just like the Vice President said last week, corruption is very rich and influential.
But we have come in with the right motivation and with people of integrity, whose only mandate and desire is to fix what is wrong knowing that we will get this country to where it truly belongs - a great nation.
Looking at the cases of corruption from the previous administrations, is this government putting in place measures to prevent a re-occurrence?
One of the most important things to do is to end impunity and ensure that consequences for bad behaviour. That is some of the things that have been absent in the past. People do the wrong and get away with it. People basically get away with blue murder. If you misbehave or engage in something that is against public trust, there should be consequences and those consequences should be enforced.
That for me is the most important thing that we need to do to prevent going forward, the kind of heartless and sometimes wicked acts of corruption that we have witnessed in this country.
Are these measures in place?
That is why we are calling to question some of the things that have been done in the past; that we have the EFCC reinvigorated; that is why you have a man like acting chairman, Ibrahim Magu at the job; you have a National Prosecution Team that has been formed to deal with some of the high-profile corruption cases; the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption.
These are some of the things that we're putting in place to try to end impunity, challenge some of this misbehaviour in court and bring some of these cases to a logical conclusion.
Has this administration delivered on its campaign promises in your estimation?
Well, it is an ongoing assignment. This campaigned on three things - security, anti-corruption and economy. If you look at the issue of Boko Haram, they have been sufficiently degraded and can no longer launch military-style attacks.
On anti-corruption, this administration has continued to expose some of the high-profile corruption, aggrandisement, embezzlement, and we also have cases in court that are being prosecuted. Right now, Nigerians have gotten the message that it is no longer business as usual, that signalling is a very critical aspect of it.
We have stopped the bleeding of this country. The Treasury Single Account (TSA) that was introduced immediately President Buhari took office has stopped a situation where government income was hidden in all kinds of different accounts.
We have been able to discover over 40,000 ghost workers on the payroll of the federal government alone saving us N4-5 billion every month since we set up the efficiency unit.
Why the economy is taking more time is because of the sheer level of spoliation and corruption that has happened in this area. Initially, when we came in, we had about $30 billion foreign reserves and somebody was able to take $15 billion in one instance from the economy. There is no place where such a thing happens and the country doesn't go into recession or face some form of recession.
Also, compare that to the fact the oil prices have dipped and the resurgence of vandalism in the Niger Delta militants. At some point, our oil production went down by about one million barrels less meaning that we are losing about 60% of our revenue.
Then again, you have people who are leading and they know exactly what they are doing on recovery of the economy and they have also put some palliative measure in place. We have the social investment programme designed to address a number of the places where the shoe pinches.
We have the N-Power that will hire 500,000 unemployed graduates. 200,000 have already engaged and in a couple of months, another 300,000 will be engaged and paid as teachers, agricultural extension workers, public health officials in states and local governments; thereby dealing with the problem of unemployment as a government. 100,000 non-graduates will also be trained and acquire some skills in technology, building, artisanal work and so on.
While we are working on the economy on a broad scale, we understand that people have to be provided for now.
For the first time in Nigeria, we have a sort or social safety net programme - the Conditional Cash Transfer of N5,000 - which will reach one million very poor Nigerians in the first cycle. We have started the payment of N10,000 to cover for two months in nine states. More states are coming in and we hope to do 18 states within the year and reach about a million Nigerians in the first year. Going forward in 2017, social investment project is compellable to the N500 billion budgeted for in the 2016 budget.
The Home Grown School Feeding Programme designed to serve one hot meal daily for 5.5 million primary school children which have started. The federal government has released money for the implementation in seven states and more will join.
There is also the Government Economic and Enterprise Programme where 1.6 million market men and women can get interested free loans between N10,000 to N100,000 for their businesses in 13 states and the FCT.
We're not only planning to take care of the economy, we're taking care of immediate problems. Our socio-economic programmes are also strategies to reflate the economy by putting money in the hands of people. The N500 billion budgeted for social investment programme is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria.
Why not create the enabling environment for Nigerians to do businesses rather than the conditional cash transfer of N5,000 monthly?
We are giving them fish and teaching them how to fish at the same time. Some of the testimonials that we get from those receiving the conditional cash transfer said that the N5,000 will help them enlarge their businesses.
The government enterprise programme also provides interest-free loans of between N10,000 and N100,000 for small scale business people.
Nigerians are groaning under a biting recession and double-digit inflation. When are we emerging from this recession? What's the government's time frame for getting us out of our economic troubles?
First, I have found that Nigerians do trust Mr President and this government and that's a good thing. To a reasonable extent, people also know that what we are going through now is not the handiwork of this government.
Well, the most important thing is that we are working assiduously to ensure that Nigeria comes back and I believe that this year, Nigeria will come out of recession. We will also grow this economy.
If you compare what we have been able to do with the lean resources available to what was done when oil was being sold for over $100 per barrel, you will see that we have spent more on infrastructure. N800 billion was budgeted for infrastructure in 2016.
It is all about planning, having the right motivation and people at the highest level of governance who have integrity and are committed to doing the right thing in a diligent manner. In terms of the management of the economy and resources, this government is doing a way better job and even cleaning up some of the mess of the past.
We're verifying and paying a lot of unstructured debts that nobody even knew they existed. We are paying contractors owed by the previous government and even started the social investment programme which is the first of its kind in Nigeria's history.
If we continue this way and with the recent visits to the Niger Delta to try to end the vandalism of oil installations in that region, things will get better.
Serious efforts are going on towards diversifying the economy - Lagos and Kebbi states have done very well in terms of rice production. We're also trying to become self-sufficient in tomato paste production and other initiatives aimed at diversifying the economy. I can ensure Nigerians that going forward, things can only get better because you have a president and vice who cannot be compromised.
The only reason they are in government is because they want to serve. Both of them have nothing to prove neither do they want to make money. Their only desire is to fix things. Without any doubts, They have changed the direction of Nigeria and we're headed in the right direction, integrity and we will get to greatness.
You speak so highly of President Buhari and his Vice, Prof Osinbajo, but do you think the people in his cabinet and members of his economic team are capable of carrying the vision to ensure its achievement?
The composition of the Economic Management Team presents a balance of people who have succeeded in the public and private sector. The budget and national planning minister have excelled in the private sector with a distinguished career in the public sector especially in the National Assembly. He is the right person for the job.
The finance minister is a First Class Economist, did wonderfully in Ogun state. Every member of the economic team is competent and they interface regularly with independent economists and private sector people every quarter to exchange ideas.
The important thing is that we are confident of the plans that are in place and they will be implemented. When there is damage, it takes time to repair and it is easier to build than repair. We're building and we're making progress and soon, Nigerians will begin to feel it.
Can you talk us through what the economic management team has achieved so far in terms of policy proposals and action?
The economic management team is responsible for the design that says the government will spend more strategically. Despite the lean resources, the team sees to it that more money is budgeted for infrastructure - about N800 billion for 2016- greater than what was happening in the past when Nigeria was making more money; the social investment programme of about N500 billion is also the job of the economic management team; the Efficiency Office in the Finance Ministry has been able to cut waste by removing ghost workers from government payroll.
There is the Presidential Enabling Business Council headed by the Vice President which seeks to improve the business environment for local and foreign investors.
We went to the Eurobond Market, we wanted a billion dollars and we got almost 7-8 times more than what we wanted. That goes to show that people outside have confidence in our economy, market and President Buhari's leadership.
The Vice President has been visiting the Niger Delta. Can you take us through the reason for these visits and some of the successes?
For the first time in Nigeria, in February 2016, we were able to ramp up power generation to about 5000MW but shortly after that, we had the resurgence of pipeline vandalism that cost us a lot in terms of power and revenue generation. And so, we were unable to do as much as we expected - 2.2 million barrels per day. At some point, we lost one million barrels per day - that's huge!
The President called Niger Delta leaders to Aso Rock last year and they made a presentation and he [President] asked the Vice president to take that meeting forward to meet the oil communities; and begin to do what is right for the region.
It is not right for a part of the country that is producing this much wealth for the nation to remain in this way. So we're saying let's get it right because it is about the future of the people of the Niger Delta and Nigerians.
What the Vice President is doing is engaging the people in these communities to look at ways in which we can fix the wrong and stop the damage on our resources. We should not cut our nose to spite our face because we need the revenue coming from the Niger Delta to fix and develop the region. This government is ready to do what is right for the Niger Delta.
How soon will contractors get on the site to begin the clean-up of Ogoniland?
First, there has to be a right structure on the ground because this is not a Nigeria thing alone, the United Nations is also involved due to its global implication. There is a board of trustees, an executive structure in place and at the appointed time, we will begin to see people on the site to clean up Ogoni.
Do you think VP Osinbajo and President Buhari are on the same page on policy and implementation? Do they really have a healthy working relationship behind the camera?
Their working relationship is excellent. What you see is what happens privately. They are a formidable team. There is mutual respect between them. The Vice President told me that he finds President Buhari very inspiring. President Buhari's commitment to the average Nigerian, his commitment to do things right, correct wrongs, inspired the Vice President even before he was picked as the vice. They both have the right chemistry and I have seen that in the way they work. They have the same vision, purpose and motivation.
President Buhari is not trying to prove anything, he's not trying to make money - he has never been a businessman. The Vice President is a man of integrity, his records are clear so is that of the President.
It was reported that the VP was under pressure to resign. How true is this?
There is no such thing. The Vice President said there is absolutely no truth to those rumours. Nobody has made any such move at all. Nigerians elected the President and Vice on the ticket. Calling them to resign by some alleged and baseless rumours is nothing to write home about.
Both the President and Vice know exactly what is going on, what should be done and they will deliver the promised they have made to this nation.
Why have the social investment programs taken forever?
Well, the programmes have started so we're not trying to decide what we're going to do because we are already doing them. The N-Power has already engaged 200,000 of the 500,000 Nigerian youths. The National Home Grown School Feeding is also being implemented in eight states. The Conditional Cash Transfer is being paid in nine states. The micro-credits for market men and women is already being implemented in 13 states and the FCT with over 23,000 beneficiaries so far.
Although it took a little time to get it going because some of the estimate in the budget didn't pan out well, but we have started. This presidency is committed to the social investment programme and it's going to get better.
The President and VP often complain of how bad the economy was when they took over. Did they envisage such situation?
I don't think anybody could have imagined the extent of the damage. We all had a fair idea of what might have gone wrong but in terms of the damage, it's mind-boggling. What's important is that we will ensure that there is punishment for bad behaviour and consequences for misconduct. By that, we are sending a message that public trust should not be abused.
Considering your busy schedule, how do you unwind? How do you maintain a balance between work and family?
Well, my children are both grown up now. They are pretty much on their own in school. So, it's me and my wife - we get along very well. It's good to have a good wife so when you get home, you can truly recreate.
As a pastor, I read the scriptures and pray. I also like to dance a lot.
We do understand that it is a unique opportunity to serve your country. For me, to be able to serve under such honourable men is not just a privilege but also an inspiration.
Do you consider taking any other political position after this?
[Laughs] We have a job to do and we're squarely focused on the job. When I was appointed, I told the Vice President that "you have given me the job of my life and I'm going to put in everything." That is what our nation deserves. We need to do the hard work that is necessary to bring this country to where it belongs and that is what inspires us all - that commitment and knowledge that Nigeria is made to be a great country.
We have found ourselves privileged to be a part of a team to fix what is wrong and that is our focus. We don't think about anything else. The Vice President is committed squarely to supporting Mr President to do whatever needs to be done to attain the goals and objectives of this government for which the Nigerian people reposed confidence in them. By God, we will achieve it.
What's your final word for Nigerians?
I want Nigerians to remain optimistic and patient. The damage of sixteen years can't be fixed in one year. That is the truth. Under this administration, there is only one way for Nigeria to go and that is forward and upward by the grace of God.