INTERVIEW: 2023 Presidential Campaign Most Vicious, Malicious I’ve Seen — Tinubu’s Adviser, Onanuga

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Bayo Onanuga

Mr Bayo Onanuga is the Special Adviser to President Bola Tinubu on Information and Strategy. He had previously served as the Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria under the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari. Before he took up appointments in government, he was the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The NEWS, TEMPO, and PM News, publications that championed the pro-democracy stance of the media in the days of military rule. In this interview with Tribune’s General Editor, TAIWO ADISA, he declared that the 2023 presidential campaign is the most vicious he has seen in a political setting. He also stated that all the problems Nigerians are currently encountering are teething problems that would fizzle out in months and that Nigerians would soon sing a new song when President Tinubu’s policies start yielding fruits. He said in a matter of months, Nigeria would stop importing fuel for domestic consumption. He speaks on politics, democracy, and other policy thrusts of the administration. Excerpts:

Let’s take it from the judgment of the Supreme Court that recently validated the election of President Bola Tinubu. During the campaigns did you ever envisage such a “vicious” campaign, some people call it vicious battle with your opponents?

Let me say that I have been involved in national campaigns before but I have never witnessed the kind of campaigns we had, especially from the opposition against the person of President Tinubu. In fact, it was the most malicious campaign ever waged by the opposition against the candidate of the ruling party. That was why after Tinubu won, I said his election was the handiwork of God. The victory was not based on Tinubu’s political strategy alone and what have you. After the election, we thought the vicious campaign had ended, but to our chagrin, it has been intensified. They are still in attack mode. My belief is that in an election, one person must win. INEC declared Tinubu the winner, and he won fair and square. It was very clear he won. If it had been a two-horse race, and the opposition had combined forces, maybe he would have been beaten because everything was against him. Even though our candidate is a member of the ruling party, there were all kinds of things that some officials of the former government did that ought to have worked seriously against us. Like the sudden currency change, in an election year. We’ve been having fuel all over the country, and all of a sudden, we had fuel scarcity. The worse of the two was currency change. People were complaining everywhere. There was no money. Some people said they were paying as much as N20,000 to get N100,000. Nigerians were buying their own money. Public resentment built up against the APC and its presidential candidate. Things were so tough, such that even on election day, in many of our states, the party didn’t have money to pay agents. So, for me, it was God’s handiwork that made Bola Tinubu win the election, despite the mudslinging most especially from the Labour Party mob – those uncouth members of the so-called Obidient Movement. We always call them a mob as they always respond unthinkingly to a kind of stimulus. Once somebody throws something out, no matter whether it is fallacious, they gobble it and start sharing. And they keep repeating, circulating the false narratives, the false stories, misinformation, and rumours, such that if you don’t respond to them at times, people believe they are telling the truth.  Look at the Chicago University controversy for instance. There was a deposition in the US by Caleb Westberg, registrar of the university. Nowhere in the deposition did the man say that Tinubu forged the certificate. What the man said was that ‘because we don’t have the original, we cannot authenticate the certificate they said he submitted in Abuja.’ They tried to make the man say he forged the certificate but the man said no. In fact, the school even produced two other certificates similar to the one Tinubu submitted to INEC. Westberg made it clear that Tinubu was an honours graduate and that once a student graduates, and wants a replacement certificate, the certificate is not issued by the school. It is issued by a third-party vendor. The Tinubu attackers ignored this salient fact and kept bombarding their zombie audience that the university declared Tinubu’s certificate a forgery. This is not true.

But why was he the target of the opposition?

It is because both Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi knew that the man to beat in the election was Bola Tinubu, a candidate of the ruling party, whose party controls 21 states, a man whose party was not divided unlike the PDP, which had broken into four factions. What mud did they not throw at him? They said he was ill; that he could not string two sentences together and so on. But eventually, God and the people of Nigeria gave Tinubu victory.

If we go back to some of the mudslinging that preceded the election proper, was the President actually sick?

No, he was not sick. We made this clear to Nigerians. Tinubu was as fit as the fiddle in the run-up to that election. Before that campaign began, I think a year before, he went for knee surgery, which was not a secret as President Buhari even went to see him in London when he was recuperating. So, that was what he went to do – knee surgery. That was why he could not walk properly. When you do knee surgery, you cannot be walking like a 25-year-old man. He is still nursing it up till now because it was a major surgery. It is not that he has any other ailment.

 So, why were we having the occasional slips the opponents dwelt on?

What people saw were symptoms of a candidate who over-flogged himself during the campaign; a candidate who did not keep a normal sleep schedule. Sometimes, he would not sleep until the wee hours. Sometimes, he would go to sleep at 3a.m, 4a.m and someone would still come at 5a.m and he would wake up to hold a meeting with the person. So, he was punishing himself. And to the glory of God, all the punishment he gave himself was not in vain. What are they saying now when the same man goes out to events and speaks fluently, extemporaneously? They are surprised and shell-shocked about the brilliance of the same person they pilloried during the campaign. A lot of people did not understand what the man went through. Tinubu was the frontrunner in that campaign and he was under all manner of pressure. He didn’t have the support of some people in his party. For instance, the party chairman nearly gave a so-called consensus ticket to Senator Ahmad Lawan. Then, there were fuel scarcity and currency scarcity problems, deliberately thrown on his path by the governing party. In my opinion, the election was Atiku’s to win, but God has a way of doing His things. Atiku had the support of some people in our own party and some even said that he had the support of some people in the Villa. The currency change by the masterminds was expected to give Atiku some political windfall. In fact, some people told us that Emefiele was boasting that he knew what to do to make sure Tinubu did not win. Unfortunately for Atiku, God did not want him to win. That was why his party broke into four factions and he failed to benefit from the advantages given to him on the platter. Rabiu Kwankwanso took away possible PDP votes in Kano. Peter Obi swept away possible PDP votes in the South East and part of the South-South. The G-5 governors undermined him. For Obi, how could he have won when he did not have the national appeal? His appeal was limited to the South East, parts of the South-South, Lagos and Abuja, and some parts of the Middle Belt, where he rode on religion and ethnicity to win votes. He should have known better that Nigeria is a vast country.

Despite all the challenges, what gave Tinubu the conviction to say that he was destined to win?

It is his belief. In politics, you must believe that a particular thing is doable and possible. If you don’t believe, you are going to fail. Even when you are facing daunting problems, you just have to continue to struggle and hope that God will clear the obstacles on your path. That was what happened. It was a message he needed to pass to his supporters to build their confidence, and not give up. I think the messaging helped. The message resonated across the country. It’s like you want to do an exam; you cannot be preparing to fail. You have to have that willpower, that positive attitude to say ‘I am going to be successful despite all challenges.’

The Tinubu government ran into what I will call some self-inflicted bad weather by announcing ‘subsidy is gone’ from day one and following that up with the foreign exchange unification policy. Some people believe these policies were aimed at pleasing the Western world, the IMF and World Bank, bodies that have been pushing such policies. Don’t you think the policies are responsible for some of the economic challenges we are contending with now especially the fall in the value of the Naira?

We need to provide context for President Tinubu’s action. Since 2015, the West, the IMF, and the World Bank have been telling Nigeria to stop the wasteful oil subsidy policy. They were alarmed by the huge resources Nigeria was committing to subsidy at the expense of other necessary social spending on education and health, housing, and infrastructure. Under President Jonathan, we saw the massive looting of Nigeria’s treasury in the name of fuel subsidy. I remember that in 2015, they advised President Buhari to abolish the subsidy. Buhari refused to do so. Midway in his tenure, he removed the subsidy. But with the rising cost of crude, the subsidy came back. In his last two years, he knew that the subsidy must go. That explained why he signed a law that by the end of June 2023, the subsidy must go. The 2023 budget did not provide for subsidy beyond June. As we all know, the bulk of the subsidy was not being enjoyed by Nigerians. Smugglers were making a lot of money and even up till now, Nigeria’s fuel is still the cheapest in the West African region. And till now the smugglers are still taking the fuel across the border. The only difference is that, unlike before, when the Nigerian government was paying NNPC, the sole importer, now we are not paying anymore, so the country is able to save some money to do other things. During the campaign for the election, all the candidates, the PDP, Labour Party, and APC, agreed that the subsidy has to go. Not that they don’t want to give Nigerians freebies, but there was consensus that because the subsidy we were operating was very corrupt and financially wasteful, it had to go first. Before Tinubu came, for several years, NNPC was not able to remit a dime to the national purse. We cannot continue that way. President Tinubu did not want to wait till June to cancel the subsidy, which had become a financial albatross. Nigerians should not forget that our finances were in the red before Tinubu took over, with the Buhari government spending close to 97 percent of revenue on debt servicing and payment and borrowing heavily to finance the government’s recurrent and capital expenditure. President Tinubu needed to take that bold step from Day One. On the currency matter, before Buhari left, the gap between the official and parallel market was more than N400. There were reports of well-connected people round-tripping, and doing arbitrage and it has to stop. People will go and buy money at the official market, take it to the black market, or some people will take it abroad and bring it back. We cannot have an economy where some people will be making cheap money just by doing arbitrage and all of that and the rest of the people in the country are suffering. The positive side of it is that these reforms are still ongoing. Our own local economists have applauded them, saying they are the best for the economy. The World Bank and everybody have said these are good steps being taken. I think the people have to praise President Tinubu for taking those bold steps because if he had failed to take the steps, maybe by now we would be buying petrol at N1,000 per litre. Look at the unregulated diesel, its price has gone up. Maybe that could tell you the price we could be buying fuel.   There are other things that could have gone up, like the cost of electricity. President Tinubu has applied the break. So he is doing so many things to ensure that people don’t suffer unnecessarily. But the reforms are showing positive results. The stock market is enjoying a historic upswing, a boom never witnessed before. The market has reached several milestones since May when President Tinubu came into office.

The All Share index crossed the 70,000 mark, the first time in decades, and this year alone, since May, the stock value has increased by over 30 per cent. These are the positive sides of it. Investors have not yet rushed in, but they will come. If you go by Fitch ratings and all that, investors will come when they see our exchange rates being stabilised, so that the gap between the parallel and official market is not wide. The government is trying to bring in a lot of forex so that the market can have enough forex liquidity and stabilise. We can see the dividends of the reforms in the recent trip to Riyadh and India. Saudi government promised not only to invest in our refineries but also boost forex inflow.

One thing people blamed the government for was failing to put in place some measures, that could cushion the effects of the subsidy removal before going ahead to implement the policy even now the government is still in tango with the Labour, NLC, TUC over what should constitute Federal Government’s own exclusive palliatives besides what the states are doing…

Initially, when the subsidy was removed, the FG wanted to handle the issue of palliatives directly but they felt they should go to the states. The states were supposed to get N4bn but so far they have got N2bn. The states are closer to the people and some states have done it very well. Borno State did it very well. Lagos has tried and some other states too. But some states too have not done anything serious but a lot of things are being done at the state level. In addition to that, the government is awarding N35,000 wage to Federal workers and it will last for some months. It is giving N25,000 monthly to some 15 million vulnerable homes and that would go on for some time. All those mitigating measures are ongoing. Government is in the process of importing buses and tricycles that will be powered by Compressed Natural Gas, which is cheaper than petrol and conversion centres are being established all over the country. This is a matter of chicken and egg, which one should come first. We are facing a very serious economic problem. The economy was really in shambles by the time Tinubu took over. The government was owing the NNPC over N4trn. Debt servicing was eating up the entire revenue of the government. The CBN reportedly spent $1.5 billion monthly to support Naira to keep the value artificially low. The government borrowed a lot of money. So, there was no way we could have continued along that trajectory. The Tinubu government is trying to put a lot of things in place to make sure the economy is put on a sounder footing.

Somehow, the turbulence I mentioned earlier appeared to have denied the people the benefit of interrogating what the manifesto of this government is all about. Now that we are getting a bit of stability, what are the key developmental objectives of this government?

We have a manifesto, which has been further distilled into an 8-point programme including the economy, agriculture, industrialisation, technology, and inclusivity, making sure that no one is left behind – the women, children, and the dìsabled. All are carried along. Achieving food security and adding value to the agricultural chain, these things are what the government is doing. Recently, Vice President Kashim Shettima travelled to China and the United States and some of the takeaways he brought back home was a pledge by the AfDB and other investors to support over 20 agricultural hubs in Nigeria. With all these things, we will be able to produce food and process our food so that we can improve the economy and add value to what we are producing. In the manifesto, we also promised to create industrial hubs in the six geopolitical zones. Also, at the last ministerial retreat, the manifesto was also in focus. The ministers were asked to state their priorities, in line with our Renewed Hope eight-point agenda. I can assure you the Tinubu government will fulfill the promises made to our people. As President Tinubu always says, he asked for the job. I have no doubt he will deliver.

As I said earlier, this government came in a turbulent manner, by the first anniversary of the administration, next May, what song do you think Nigerians will be singing about this administration?

One thing I know is that what we have seen in the last five months are temporary pains, like the pains of childbirth. The future will be rosy and the people will praise the government for taking those bold steps to rescue our economy. I believe we shall begin very soon to see the benefits of the tinkering he has been doing. We are already seeing improvements in some areas, in the small things that matter. This government has eased the problem of procuring passports. The Ministry of Digital Economy is about to train three million Nigerians on ICT not just to provide the personnel to power our economy, but also to produce talent for export. The Ministry of Trade is also doing something like that, trying to train as many people as possible in various trades and it may not be strange to see us exporting bricklayers, and welders who will bring money back to this economy. We only need to enjoin Nigerians to exercise some patience because things are going to change for the better sooner than later. What we are witnessing are temporary pains and there are signs that Nigerians are going to start enjoying soon under President Tinubu.

When does the government envisage it will stop the importation of refined petrol which is one thing that has been eating deep into our earnings all these while?

I can tell you that it will soon stop. The Port harcourt refinery, according to the NNPC Limited, should be ready by the end of this year. Also, some modular refineries are ready. The last time we heard about the Dangote Refinery, it was test-running its machines. So, we expect that in the next two months, Nigerians should be able to produce enough fuel for domestic consumption and stop importing. I see this happening very soon.

You were at the forefront of what some critics termed adversarial journalism, the struggle against military rule, also called guerrilla journalism…

What we were doing at that time was not adversarial. It was pro-democracy. We were fighting a cause and what we did was what the nationalists did before the independence in 1960. Our journalism was for democracy. We believed that military rule was an aberration and that Nigerians should have democracy. Don’t forget what led to what we did – there was a free and fair election held on June 12, 1993, which was annulled and we felt this was not good enough and that the winner should be given his trophy. So we were not doing adversarial, we were fighting for democracy in the country.

As a Nigerian, do you feel fulfilled that you are part of the pro-democracy media struggle that birthed this democracy, looking at the way democracy is being run in the country today?

Well, I am happy that democracy is developing. It is not yet perfect. We now have 24 unbroken years of democracy in our country and we hope that military adventurers will stay back and allow us to enjoy the democracy. We have our problems. These I consider as teething problems. But I am sure, we shall see improvements. To me, no other form of government is better than democracy. It is better than military rule.

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