In an interview by Sunday Vanguard newspaper, Aremo Taiwo Alimi, a former Director-General, Voice of Nigeria (VON) and founding Chairman, Nigerian Elections Debate Group (NEDG) gave an insight on his role in the controversy that characterised the debate in the build up to the last presidential election, the place of the media in nation-building, his confidence that President Muhammadu Buhari would deliver on making Nigeria better, the local government system, among other issues.
The Full interview by Bashir Adefaka of Sunday Vaguard is below. Enjoy it.
While some say Nigeria is a place where things don’t work, one also calls attention to the fact that there was a country called Nigeria where things once worked. What would you say is the missing link between Nigeria of the past and Nigeria of the present?
What is critical in Nigeria of today is that, it is not how much those who found themselves in the corridors of political power don’t know about Nigeria but how much they think they know about Nigeria. We need to think about Nigeria yesterday, today and tomorrow? You cannot have a successful Nigeria where things work without the past. The situation today in Nigeria is that those who have the opportunity, either in business or in the political class, do not think about history and the success of any nation is that you must know about the past for you to plan today for tomorrow. This is where the mistake heavily is, the missing link between Nigeria of the past and Nigeria of today.
Therefore, we need to take a look at the yesterday of Nigeria. If, for instance, you ask quite a number of people in Nigeria today, “What do you know about Sir Ahmadu Bello?”, they will say, “Who is he?” If you ask out there, “What do you know about Chief Obafemi Awolowo?”, they won’t be able to tell you. Whereas the past leaders in Nigeria, when they got into political office, saw political office as public office. Today, let’s say since 1999, those who get into political office see political office as personal office. That is the big difference. When you see it as public office serving the public, you will be dedicated to the people, you will be committed to what will bring good to the overwhelming majority of the Nigerian people. That essentially is what we must really go back to.
Let’s take a look at when things worked well. When you then see that and you study it, then you will know how to now start planning and making things to work well. That is what many people don’t know today.
Even with Muhammadu Buhari as President, all he is saying is that, if you want to be in public office, certain values must guide it; One, commitment, two, hard-work and then you must be truthful in whatever you are doing and you must be honest. This is what President Buhari is trying to tell Nigerians that we must have a value system that will guide whatever we are doing. That has been absent in Nigeria and that is why a lot of people would always say that we have forgotten about our values. And it is simply the value of hard-work, honesty and commitment to public office on behalf of the people.
Would you then say it is because President Buhari has been able to restore this value system that Nigeria is now being respected by the international community?
What I was trying to explain is that, what overwhelming majority of Nigerians and the international community are saying and they are seeing is that President Buhari came into office with the history of the past in his way of life.
So, when you take a look at the way he works, even for about two years when he was military Head of State people realised that there were no corrupt practices of any sort and that is why the international community is confident that, with him, Nigeria will become a highly respected country in integrity, progress and development. Therefore, with President Muhammadu Buhari coming into office now, he brought in the value system: the first value is discipline.
Whether we like it or not, and many don’t even analyse it, indiscipline leads to corruption. It is as simple as that and it is not something you want to research. Therefore, you now find in President Buhari a disciplined citizen and so, if you want to associate with him, if you want to work with him, you must be disciplined. First and foremost, for you to be disciplined, you must have self discipline, which is what many people don’t understand. Self discipline is very critical and there are certain things a disciplined person must not do. That is why, when he was military Head of State, he introduced a project called War Against Indiscipline (WAI).
You are here with me. If you are going back to Lagos, you will begin to see acts of indiscipline, vehicles moving against traffic, passing through where they are not supposed to pass. It is indiscipline. The same thing in governance. Those who hold public offices, whether as permanent secretaries or ministers, because they lack self discipline, they now go to find out how they must steal public funds. The President now wants to make sure that there is discipline in Nigeria. And once you have discipline coming out of self discipline. then we are moving towards the path of success. Governance is simple as long as you are honest in the position you hold.
Meaning that we can now say that we are moving positively towards overcoming our problems as a nation?
With the present administration, Nigeria has now started to go on a journey it had had to pursue, the journey where governance will make the common man the centre of all its development initiatives, where there will be what I would call integrated rural development in the country, where overwhelming majority of the citizens will be catered for. Once we are able to do that, we are on the right path with the President.
Essentially, what you must realise is that in Nigeria, governance is very simple as long as you are honest, disciplined and focused in what you are supposed to do for the people, not for your individual self. What do the people need? Food, electricity supply must be constant, education for the children, healthcare, housing, those are the basis major components of the services government at the centre, at the state and at the local government levels should be concentrating on. Those are the major areas of concern of the people of Nigeria.
Therefore, once you are honest and you are pursuing the food they will eat, provision of health facilities for them, education for their children from primary to university, affordable and must be of good quality, affordable housing for the overwhelming majority of Nigerians, with electricity supply, we will be on the path to overcoming our problems as a nation.
Let us realise one thing, and we don’t need the international community to tell us, the average Nigerian is industrious. The average Nigerian is honest. The average Nigerian has integrity, whether he is a farmer, a market person; even in our field, if you come out as a media person at six o’clock everyday in many parts of the country, you will find the ordinary Nigerians already carrying what they are going to sell by the road side or in the market. They are not being asked by government to do so. No. That is our sub-culture in Nigeria.
So, the overwhelming majority of the Nigerian people are hard-working and resourceful. Only a few are putting together practices that are corrupt. You can’t say they are up to one million. If you take a look at what is going on even lately in Nigeria where newspapers are publishing those who are owing banks, how many of them? Where do you find an average farmer there? Where do you find an average trader there?
Therefore, once you have President Muhammadu Buhari concentrating now on what I would call ‘development from bottom-top,’ Nigeria will change for good forever.
You were found in the midst of controversy that greeted the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) in the build up to the last presidential election. What really happened?
Well, firstly to the media, we must always know that whatever we are going to do, publish or broadcast, we must research. There is what I call unintended laziness by media practitioners in Nigeria.
First and foremost, the concept of having election debates in Nigeria, the concept of even having exclusive political personality interview in Nigeria was started by me. I began the initiative in 1979 in this country and strengthened it in 1983.
In 1979, I was able to convince those who were running to be President, five of them, that they needed a panel of journalists to ask them what they intended to do. They then said they would do it on individual basis, not together. And we did that. I borrowed a place at the Federal Palace Hotel, VI, Lagos because I was then with NTA, Nigerian Television Authority, and then we brought Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ibrahim Waziri, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, one after another on certain dates. The presidential candidates were individually asked questions: “If you become President, what do you intend to do?” I initiated that. In 1983, I did exclusive political interviews; that time, I was with Lagos Television. That was the beginning.
When I became the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria (VON) in 1999, I then said, ‘This is an opportunity to bring this election debate together’ . Then I became the Chairman of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) and I sold the idea. They bought it and we then established the Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) in 2003. When we did that, we had Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), all coming together to constitute the Nigerian Election Debate Group. We registered the group and we did what we called representation through the chairmen of the various political parties in 2003. I addressed them and they all accepted, and, with that, we were able to stand under Nigerian Election Debate Group with me as Chairman in 2003. What was really good was that we had about 23 presidential candidates, who wanted to debate in 2003 and we were able to do that essentially.
Now, the best thing that happened to us at that time, was that, for the first time even in any country outside the United States of America, no sitting President participates in debate. President Olusegun Obasanjo was the first sitting President that participated in the debate in 2003. So, people must be careful! Gani Fewehinmi participated. Pat Utomi participated. Several of them were there.
What of General Muhammadu Buhari as he was then called?
In 2003, we invited Muhammadu Buhari to come for the debate. He told his political party leadership that he would participate and his delegation, led by Prince Tony Momoh, came ahead and they were in the hall already. At the minute, Buhari did not appear. What they thought would happen, for which I am respected throughout the world, I went on with the candidate that came, which just happened to be President Obasanjo, and he debated.
It is important, because you raised this question, to say it here that, in 2007, NEDG again invited all presidential candidates approved by INEC, Independent National Electoral Commission, and we told them that they must arrive one hour before going on air. Surprise, two hours ahead, General Buhari had arrived to debate.
Did he give any reason for that?
Yes. They called me and I went to meet him and I said, “General, you are too early.” He said yes, that he had realized what he lost by not participating in 2003. We went on with the debate in 2007 and he participated. He debated with Pat Utomi and it was the two of them.
In 2011, we invited all of them again and we invited the sitting President (Jonathan). They all said they would come but, at the end of the day, General Buhari did not come. Others came and we went ahead very successfully.
What then happened that the 2015 election debate by NEDG went exceptionally controversial?
What happened was that the leadership of BON, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria was changing. I am the one who initiated the debate in Nigeria in 2003, like I said. Therefore, in 2015, we did the exact thing again. We invited all that ought to come and those who could come came and those who couldn’t come didn’t come.
What is essential is that, in Nigeria, we don’t seem to sit down to analyse what the political party would give as an excuse for something, without knowing that it is just an excuse. For instance, as the organizer, they knew that I am a man of integrity and a professional to the core. And throughout the period, till this moment, no political party pays a penny to the Nigeria Election Debate Group. No Federal or state government pays a penny to NEDG. We don’t receive a penny from any political class. It is a decision because, I had said no. Government, party, any politician, no. We got support from donor agencies like NDI, IRI and a few other agencies.
And the beauty of what many people don’t seem to understand why ours is very successful and America is saying it that if they had known, they would have copied what Nigeria did in creating Nigerian Election Debate Group. We used BON; when I was Chairman, that this is a social responsibility for broadcasting, that every four years, we would give free air. This led to why many ran away from it because we don’t pay for airing of debates. It is a social responsibility of each radio, each television station in the country to air it to the world and that is where people run away from the cost. The rest is, if we invite you as a panelist, the donor agencies will pay for your hotel, your transport and that’s all.
This is how we run Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) and this has nothing to do with any political party at all. The only thing you would see as a journalist is that, whether it is deliberate or not deliberate, it does happen that the two times that General Muhammadu Buhari did not come to debate were the two times that we had sitting Presidents who wanted to debate.
And what did you find out to be issue with that?
What is found out is that, whether a sitting President or a sitting governor is good or bad, he will have a lot of things to say to any opponent that he is debating with and the opponent many not have any reason to fault him because he has not reached the office to know what obtains currently. You cannot really tell what is happening in an office until you get there. So, the person, who is in office, will be saying things to protect himself. In election debates, we allow that to be the decision of the electorate. They will listen to how this candidate wants to do it, how that does not want to do it and so it is for them to make up their minds.
And what we have found out, through polls, is that those who don’t appear on the debate lose more votes than they gain. That is it. So, I always told them: “It is for you. You are not paying a penny for coming to tell the world how you intend to rule. And this is not a campaign rally where you sing, dance and abuse. No. In the area of education, how do you want to get the money?” It has nothing to do with political party.
I am very happy that no political party, no individual can say Taiwo Alimi is this or that. No. I have integrity and it is something that I initiated and it works and several other countries have copied what we did. For instance, it is after we started that UK started to do debate. They started their own around 2010 and we started our own in 2003.
There is this talk about three professional groups required to be spoken to if Nigerian must get better: journalists, lawyers and accountants. As retired Director General of Voice of Nigeria, where would you say journalists stand in the business of actually making Nigeria better?
First and foremost, in Nigeria, for those who want the truth, the media represents the foundation, the past, present and future of Nigeria. No other professional represents that, only the media does.
One example, Nigerian independence was fought for and won by the media. But for the media, Nigeria wouldn’t have been independent in 1960. It was the media that focused on the need for Nigeria to be independent and they were doing it to the extent that quite a number of journalists, including Anthony Enahoro, were arrested and jailed. But the media continued that “We need to be independent.” It was the media that fought that war for Nigeria to become independent.
After the independence had gone few years, it was still the media that pursued the fact that the military must leave governance. During the same period, some newspapers went underground, but they were still publishing. They were closing down several newspapers offices but the media stood and said, “We want democracy in Nigeria, not military government.” And they won.
Then the third example is that, we had a sitting President that, after two terms, wanted third term. But for the media that said no (Obasanjo would have got a third term). The totality of the media fought against the third term agenda of that President.
Therefore, you must never bring other professions in line with the media. They don’t come in. All other professions rely on the media. Without the media, radio, television, newspapers, nobody will listen to lawyers and nobody will know anything about accountants. Only the media give them the platform to be heard. No other. The media is the number one profession that is committed to the Nigerian nation.
Meanwhile, some people want to separate the media of your generation from the media of our own still growing generation…..
(Cuts in) Fine. We don’t have perfection in life. The only perfection you have is in the Almighty God, who is the only perfect Being and guide for us. There would be little mistakes here and there. If, for instance, I ask you, what will happen, and it will be terrible, if the media should black out all the other professions including government for one week and that all we are then publishing or seeing on the television are the rural areas and everything and you black out all the professions including government? Nigeria will collapse. Whereas if other professions say they don’t have business to do with the media, it doesn’t matter.
Therefore, yes, the media needs to do what I would call a redirection of the noble profession. A redirection is what we need today.
Having once served as Commissioner in Ogun State, you have also got a lot to tell about the problem with the local government system in Nigeria. It is not serving its purpose and so should it be scrapped or what do you think?
Even where I mentioned that the media should do redirection in terms of the noble profession, it is so simple and that is, if it is a newspaper, radio or television station, but let the media sit down and say we are going to take a look at the whole country from local government to state and federal. And it may take them six months researching where agriculture should be and how it should be done. This is a major assignment that the media can do through research and, at the end of the day, they will present that, “This is the way to revolutionise agriculture in Nigeria.”
The media must be leading those who want to run government with the reality on the ground. We don’t do that. Let the media begin to set agenda for government. It is then we would move faster.
As to whether we should continue to have local governments or not, the solution is not by scrapping institutions. What has happened to the local government structure in Nigeria is that those who become chairmen are handpicked by politicians. With President Buhari now, I believe that will not happen. In local governments, they don’t do elections.
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