Nigeria's first female Minister of Education, Professor Chinwe Nora Obaji, has explained why some Nigerians are not happy with President Muhammadu Buhari's government. In this interview with Editor-in-Chief CELESTINE OKAFOR, Prof Obaji talks about her policy legacies while as Education Minister under ex-President Olusegun Obadanjo's government among other issues. Except:
What is your appraisal of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) under President Muhammadu Buhari in the past five years?
Thank you very much. Our problem in this country is that we tend to forget the past. We don't remember the future. We are only living for the day. And any country that does not remember the past, can never move to the future. There have been a lot criticisms of President Muhammadu Buhari's government. But we forget where we are coming from and where we came from. And because we forget where we came from, that's why anybody can jump up and criticize this government. I want to go back a little bit. There was a time when every Nigerian was interested in our local football clubs. We were interested in clubs like the Rangers football club of Enugu, in IICC Shooting Stars, in Mighty Jets of Jos, in Racal Rovers of Kano, etc. Then we were interested in made in Nigeria items. But today, many Nigerian youths particularly don't know these Nigerian football clubs that dominated our local football leagues then. Now everybody is talking about Juventus football club, Manchester United otherwise known as Man-U, Chelsea football club, etc. And people are ready to bet their lives over these clubs sides in the English football league. Suddenly, we acquired foreign taste in everything: in education, in our clothes and in everything we are doing. But with the sharp drop in oil price, we could no longer maintain our foreign taste. That was the position of things in Nigeria when President Muhammadu Buhari took over the mantle of presidential leadership of the country in 2015. What the Buhari presidency has made us today is to rediscover ourselves in this country. What do l mean by that? For the people who are still interested in farming, they're smiling to the banks. They're not complaining like every other person. States like Kebbi state with their Lake rice are making so much revenue from rice local production. The same with Ebonyi state with their famous Abakaliki rice. There is Anambra rice, Kano rice, Lokoja rice and Ofada rice, etc, are all in the market today. By consuming these local rice, we are patronizing our local rice farmers. This is unlike before when we were patronizing foreign rice produced by farmers in Taiwan, in Bangok Thailand, in China and other Asian countries. We were bringing in through import, tonnes of expired rice into this country. So by doing this, we have rediscovered ourselves as a people. Therefore we must give president Buhari credit for this initiative.
But it appears it is only in the non-oil sector of Agriculture that Mr President's administration has made a significant impact.
No! How about the education sector? Take the case of the school children from kaduna state who travelled abroad sometime ago for an educational competition and beat students from China and America. It didn't happen before. Those children were not the children of this and that in the country. They were not the Senator's or minister's children. They were the children of the ordinary citizens from kaduna state. As if that was not enough. Children from ordinary citizens from Anambra state, girls for that matter, went to America and came back first position in their competition in the area of Technology recently. These are not children that attended Federal Government College or the schools of the rich where they pay One million Naira as school fees. These are accomplishments by ordinary Nigerians who president Muhammadu Buhari came for. Again, we are talking about made in Aba clothes and shoes, etc. The governor of Abia state (Dr Okezie Victor Ikpeazu) has people, a choir group in the television advertisement that sings about made in Aba shoes and clothes. Did they sing about it before four and a half years ago or when former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan were presidents of this country? No! This was because there was free money in the system at that time and everybody acquired the foreign taste. In the days of the military government in this country, Aba, the commercial city of Abia state was bubbling. Made in Aba shoes was reigning. Aba people will make the shoes, sow clothes and attach the Gucci label on it, pretend that they're bringing them into this country and sell in Aba and everybody will come to Aba and buy. But we have forgotten that four and half years ago, Aba was known for incidences of kidnapping and robberies instead of that local production hub that Aba was known for. Now because free money is no longer there, all those people that were making the shoes have gone back to rediscover themselves. The NYSC corpers are now wearing boots made in Aba. And these are credits that must go to president Muhammadu Buhari. Our tie-and-dye material including the Akwete clothing materials are now being produced. Last year when the former UK prime minister, Theresa May, visited Nigeria, she wore our local Akwete material and sown by a Nigerian. How many people still remembered that we had something called Akwete clothes? If president Buhari did not come on board and say that we need to look inwards, we would remained where we were. In that area, l think he has achieved much.
Despite all these laudable achievements of president Buhari as you have enumerated, why is it that some vocal Nigerians are still hostile and highly critical of the president's administration. It's has even become worse after this 2019 elections?
Like we all know, there is no way one man can please everybody. For the people who are waiting for mana to fall from heaven, they are there criticizing Mr President. But the farmers that l have given you example of, they're not criticizing him. One of my security men from kaduna saw my ginger plants at home recently and asked me "mummy, do you also plant ginger? He said in my place they call it ATM (Automated Teller Machine)" because ginger product today is like a money spinner. He said that a bag of ginger in their place sells for N35,000. There are some people l know who have left Abuja here and gone home to plant ginger or rice or whatever. Those people are quietly making their money. They are people who are ready to die for president Buhari. They are in the majority and they are not even on social media. Those people who are on social media are the idle ones. If you are indeed busy, you won't be seen everyday on social media all the time. For these people that are busy making shoes or working in their farms, they are busy and have no time to go on social media to be criticizing Buhari.
With all the criticisms and opposition to President Buhari before the 2019 elections, did ever think that he would win his re-election bid?
Sincerely speaking, l have never foreseen him lose that election. Of course, anyone following me on social media before that election knew my position about Buhari coming back as an elected president for a second term. You see, it is never over until it is over. Now we have many political parties in the country but the truth is that we have two major political parties that one could say actually stood for the 2019 general elections. There was no way president Buhari could have easily lost that election. It was just a victory foretold.
Over time, people like you have shown serious commitment and consistent support for president Buhari in the South East zone but despite that, it still appears that the APC is battling with the challenge of getting mass support of the Igbos?
l think l will answer your question with a small story. I remember those days in University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) when some people were being interviewed for the job of chief security officer of the university. And the question that was put to most of them was: assuming thieves were coming from a particular direction to attack the university by so so and so time in the night, what will they do to repel the criminals from gaining access into the university campus. Every other person answered how they will launch a counter-offensive against the thieves, but there was this particular candidate who eventually got the job and who answered the question differently. He asked the panel of interviewers whether they want him to expose his strategy to them so that they will go and leak the information to the criminals? So what l can assure you is that there are some of us APC stalwarts in the South East who are not noise makers but who have a sense of what to do about how to make the APC acceptable to the people of the South East. You know, most big names in politics don't control the grassroots and they do not win elections because the lack the capability to convince their people. Most of them have stepped on one big toe at one time or another and therefore they have lost the trust of the People. But for those of us who don't talk much, we know where we are going to, how to connect to our people and we can not leak such strategies on the pages of newspapers.
What does it feel being on the receiving end of public attacks even on social media for being a firm believer in president Buhari?
For me, it is very exciting. If people are criticizing you and they don't have the facts, it only means that you are doing what is right. It is the person that is holding the ball in a football field that other players tackle. Isn't it? So we are all entitled to our own opinion and l don't fault other people for holding their own contrary views. If my attackers or critics can not sway me, it means l am sure of my own position and that is where the excitement comes. If they could draw me out from what l believe in, then they will not be talking. It is a game. And at the end of the day, we will see who convinces the other or more people for president Buhari.
How do you see president Buhari's leadership style and his capability in governance?. I ask this question based on the fact that some of the president's critics within and outside the APC often accuse him of demonstrating leadership incapability? Is he actually incompetent as your former boss, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo once said in his letter to Buhari?
You see, every government has its strong and weak points. The important thing is about Nigeria and not about any particular individual. I don't see president Muhammadu Buhari as somebody who is there as president of Nigeria for what he can get. And he does not have any ego about it. You understand? Like all human beings, he has his strengths and weaknesses. But we can only look at him and ask ourselves which one is more beneficial and important to the country. Is it his strength or weakness? And we look at it objectively and critically before we make our judgement. To me, l think he has his weakness but his strength far outweighs his weakness. Yes!
Why do you think some of the former leaders appears to be in the forefront of the opposition and criticism of president Buhari and his leadership style?
Honestly l wouldn't know. I have never been a former head of state or president, so l wouldn't know.
But you were a former minister of education who worked with Obasanjo and who should be in a position to know what we ordinary citizens do not know?
(General laughter) l said l wouldn't know. Many of these leaders also came from military background and sometimes, people could carry over old prejudices over the years. So l wouldn't know. I have never been in the military and l have never been a former head of state, so l wouldn't know why. May be as a Journalist, as a senior editor of a newspaper, they (leaders) would be disposed to grant you an interview to that effect.
Your performance as minister of education sometime in 2005 was very remarkable. We never witnessed any strike action by university lecturers. You introduced very bold and commendable policies that were eventually dismantled by succeeding regimes in the ministry but most of which have now been re-introduced. You also appointed capable and efficient university professors like former INEC chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega, as vice chancellors, among other achievements. But you were forced to leave based on some of your principled stand on certain issues. One therefore would expect that people like you should serve as raw materials to drive the government of president Buhari. Are you hiding yourself or something?
Let me tell you something. You don't have to be in a position in government to contribute your quota to national development. And when people are saying such things, it could be for their selfish reasons. But for me, l don't believe that you must hold an elected or appointive position in a given government before you can contribute your own quota. I believe that what you do when you have left public office or when you are not part of those serving in government could be encouraging. You can be a role model to others based on what you're doing outside the government corridor. I know a lot of people look up to me as their role model. They come to my house or my office or when l travel and learn a lot of things from me. I don't think that governance should be about us as individuals, it should be about the country. We should first of all think of what we can do for the country and not what the country can do for us. And l have always advised that everybody in government or in politics should always have another address. There is nothing about being a politician. So that if you are not in government today, you will be in your corner in your other address and do what you know how best to do. Presently, l am usually busy 24/7. And even before l became a minister, l was very comfortable. You can go to Owerri, the capital of my home state Imo and you will find out. So l have a lot of things that l am doing. It is when people don't have what they are doing, when they don't have a solid background that they think they must remain in power or jump into politics. Therefore, when they leave government, you see them still hanging around the whole place looking for one thing or the other. But if you have something else you are doing, then whoever comes in there as president and if you're lucky he is in your party, you can support him from where you are. You don't have to run your country down by abusing your president simply because you're not in that government or because you couldn't get what you're looking for in that government. The president is the face of your country and if you keep abusing him publicly before the International community, you are indeed abusing your country. No person or country is perfect. So if we go about writing all these abuses on our president on social media which is an open place for anybody to read anything, we are running our country down indirectly. No American or British man will have regard for us when we abuse our president and run him and our country down publicly.
How would you put your party APC on the scale and assess the performance of its leadership under Comrade Adams Oshiomole so far ?
In Nigeria, we are always quick to criticize. When you go into a contest involving so many people, it is not everybody that will emerge winner. We don't have good losers unlike places like America. I was in America during the election between former president Barrack Obama and late Senator John McCain. Even before the full results came in, McCain had already called Obama to congratulate him.
But former president Goodluck Jonathan did the same in his case with president Muhammadu Buhari in 2015?
That is the spirit. We must learn to be good losers in elections and similar contests where we are clearly losing. But most times, it is not like that in Nigeria. When power is about to change hands here, the people that it didn't favour always criticize. So for the current leadership of the party under Adams Oshiomole, l say let us give them a chance. They have tried their best to return the party to power in 2019 and they have helped the party to win more states like they did in Bayelsa state recently. When Oshiomole and his Executives came on board newly, some of us already started criticizing them even before they start. The criticism came even before they were inaugurated and even continued afterwards. It is therefore necessary to give people chance to prove their ability before you start criticizing them for failing in their responsibility.
What is the level of women's support for the APC in the South East zone such that people like you can galvanize for the party?
You see, the problem we have is not only in the South East, we equally have them in other zones of the country. Most times, galvanizing the women in the zones or states is usually done by wives of state governors. But one thing that is very clear is that when some party members come across fellow members who have more to offer, they will start feeling inadequate and therefore resort to hostility and antagonism. Rather than include people, they try to exclude them or cut them off any political involvement for the progress of the party. That is a major problem in politics. And when you look at the whole thing and you equally don't want to be rubbished by them, you may chose to go solo and do your own thing because you're not doing it for a particular person but for the party and for the country. For me, having been a former minister, there is no way l can run this country down, particularly for thinking it wise to give me the opportunity to serve her in the capacity of a minister. So l must always defend this country and whoever is the president of this country. And that's why l must defend president Buhari. Bandwagon effect is not necessarily for the right reasons. It could be for something negative. In the 2015 general elections, how many people could go out publicly and defend Muhammadu Buhari and if they're talking, how many people will listen to them? How many people could they convince. So the important thing is to do your own bit in your own way. At the end of it all, what we are looking at is results.
President Buhari has always been taken to task by critics for not initiating new projects but always trying to complete old ones abandoned by the previous government. Is this right or wrong?
Such critics are very ignorant. They are ignorant in the sense that they fail to realize that governance is a continuum. Whether it is an APC or PDP government that is in place, what is important is that it is a government of Nigeria. If somebody is completing projects, that means the person has the interest of the country at heart. The person does not want to leave uncompleted projects littered all over the country. Let's take the case of uncompleted projects in the ministry of education and how it has affected us in this country. When l came in as minister of education, there were certain policies that we introduced like the one-meal-a-day which we called the home-grown school feeding and health program. The project was about meeting Education For All (EFA) by 2015 and this was in 2005. We also had the UBE (Universal Basic Education) law which gives equal access to schools for children of nine years. We had quality education that will be free. That means that from Primary one to JSS 3, they were going to have free education including free uniforms and text books. It was also part of our UBE law of 2004. When l came in as minister for education, l now asked why should we have children who will come home from school looking hungry? Don't forget that a lot of children have been orphaned in this country as a result of HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculous, etc. These children are coming to school hungry and they are going back home from school hungry. We therefore decided to initiate the school feeding program which we called home-grown in other to mitigate the problem. I added the health aspect of it to enable us do some routine health management of the children like de-worming them and checking of their eyes because at that age, they needed it. The essence of the one-meal-a-day was to attract the children to school. We wanted those policies to be retained so that by 2015, we would have achieved that education-for all policy. But when l left as minister in 2006, that was the end of that school feeding program. Imagine if we had continued with it uptil 2015 when president Buhari came to power and re-introduced it, it would have been our culture by now. Mind you, this program was school based but community driven. It would also have taken care of post-harvest loses and all that. The community would have bonded into it and by now, it would have been part of our culture. When you go to America and places like that, they have one-meal-a-day program for children in their High schools. Again, there is no way you can cook without a borehole and no way you can maintain a hygienic condition in the place without water and toilet facilities. So part of the package for the home-grown school feeding project is also that the MDG (Millienium Development Goals) at that time would have sank in boreholes for us in the schools and build toilets because part of their goals were also part of the Education-For-All. The initial plan was to have ten boreholes and toilets in ten schools in each local governments of the federation. If that project was continued, by now, all the primary schools in this country would have had boreholes and toilet facilities. And when you look at why l thought of boreholes, it was because people were still dying of water born disease uptil today in many communities.