Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed is respected for his calmness, humility and ability to pay attention to all. With a calm mien and listening ear, Mohammed, has been able to serve at different levels.
A few weeks back, Mohammed, earned accolades right in front of his boss, President Muhammadu Buhari and other prominent Nigerians when he presented for about 20 minutes the multi-media campaign, tagged “Change Begins With Me”, which he created to change the attitude of Nigerians and stamp out indiscipline from the polity without using horse whip or setting up any enforcement body to drive the campaign like the previous “War Against Indiscipline” WAI.
However, since the campaign launch, some have emerged to claim that the campaign idea originated from them and not Muhammed. But in this interview, Mohammed describes as liars those who are laying claim to the fact that the ‘CBWM’ idea was not mooted by him and speaks on other burning national issues.
Let us start by clearing the air on the allegation that President Muhammadu Buhari and his party, the APC, were not prepared for leadership given the challenges that are currently confronting Nigerians since he came on board and that PDP could have even done better. Your comment, please.
Those saying that are just being mischievous. If we were not prepared for leadership, would we have been able to free no fewer than 14 Local Governments Areas in the North East from the hands of Boko Haram?
There are more questions to put to those who are making such malicious claim.
You need to ask them: If we were not prepared for good governance and transparent leadership, how are we able to stabilize what could have been a runaway economy and creating and sustaining a Treasury Single Account, TSA, and instilling fiscal discipline that has prevented massive looting of public funds with impunity, which was the case with the previous government?
Yes, we were not aware of the extent of the rot in the system and that was simply because the handover notes were not given to this government until four days to handover. I want to remind Nigerians that we shouted, we never sat down once with the out-gone government to work on transition. Let me tell you that I was a member of the transition team.
We met twice or thrice ceremonially and we never sat down to say this is the team of the out-going government and this is the team of the in-coming government, let’s look at power and see what has been done and what is needed to be done when the next government comes in and so on. We never had the opportunity to look at Nigeria’s debt or the state of the economy they are now talking about. We were not given the opportunity to see how much Nigeria had in the reserve and so on.
It never happened. It is like you want to buy a house and you are not allowed to even inspect the house and you then entered the house and found out that the whole ceiling is down. But again we have moved away from there.
Like I explained some weeks ago, in 2007 this government had $62 billion in its Reserve but by 2015 it had been depleted to $30 billion. In 2007/2008 this government had over $9 billion in its Excess Crude Account but by 2015 it was less than $3 billion. We inherited $88 billion domestic debt within the same period but by the time they handed over to us in 2015, domestic debt had ballooned to $2.1trillion. But most disturbing is the fact that when oil was selling at $110 a barrel, they refused to pay contractors from 2012 till they left office.
However, since governance is a continuum, we inherited both assets and liabilities and we are working with that. So, you see why it is annoying and completely mischievous for anyone to say that we were not prepared for governance. They created the atmosphere for what we are passing through today and should at least own up for God’s sake.
Many well-meaning Nigerians were worried that the government was more concerned with launching ‘Change Begins with Me’ than fixing the economy first? And is this campaign only going to run in the media without any enforcement agency like what we had during the WAI campaign?
If you were at the launch of the CBWM campaign, you would have realized that I was allotted only 20 minutes to give excerpts of our multi-media campaign. As I speak to you now, we have more than 102 TV commercials, radio jingles, bill boards and press materials ready to go.
It is a campaign which is going to last the entire life of this administration and hopefully beyond because the concept of the campaign is simply that we need everybody from the leadership to the governed to change the way they behave; it is about behavioral and attitudinal change.
It is based on persuasion and appealing to the patriotic and nationalistic instinct in us. It is a campaign that you will begin to appreciate better when it rolls out because it is going to affect every stratum of the society and it is going to be a daily thing.
Some people have asked us why we are bringing this campaign without even fulfilling our own promise of change. And our answer is very simple: If for instance, this campaign had been on before now and the tenet of the campaign had been imbibed we would not be where we are today. If Nigerians had imbibed the spirit of the campaign, I am sure the kind of corruption, stealing, mindless destruction of assets, and the huge appetite for imported goods would have been checked and we would have probably had a healthier balance sheet than we have today.
Two, without this campaign and the tenet of the campaign being assimilated by Nigerians, it would be impossible to end corruption and revive the economy even if oil rises to $110 per barrel a day and we produce up to 3 million barrels per day and miraculously come out of the recession which mindless corruption had pushed us into.
Without ending corruption via this campaign, our growth would still be artificial because it would be based on consumption not on production. Corruption will still loom large, embezzlement will still loom large and within a short time we would come back to the sad story. So there is no better time than now to launch the campaign.
Thirdly, to the critics who say why not wait till you have delivered on your promise; we ask them if you take this country to be a small family, would you say that you would not counsel your son to be of good behavior simply because you don’t have money to buy him a bicycle you promised him? Would a good father not counsel his children not to steal or lie just because he does not have money to buy them the luxury they need?
This is the situation we find ourselves today and we must rise above our challenges and think ahead in the direction that will bring progress and stability. In any case, it is good that this campaign is beginning at the moment of adversity so that when prosperity comes they will be able to manage.
Is the campaign only media-based?
Yes, it is media-based but let me say that by the time this campaign is full blown and becomes part of our lives-when people are orderly, time-conscious, diligent and are patriotic enough to patronize made-in-Nigeria goods, there will be no need to persuade them anymore. But the easiest way to persuade them is by leading by example and this is why I believed that this campaign will succeed because already there is discipline within the leadership of this government.
Unlike many other governments, this is a government that is very disciplined; there is no flamboyance in governance because ministers and other top government officials queue up at airports and other public places to be served just like any other ordinary citizen. That is good for Nigeria and its people.
When you look at the example being given by the President himself, it is difficult for any minister not to fall in line and I am sure that those who cover the State House know that every Wednesday meeting starts on time and I can assure you that the financial discipline introduced by this government, is exemplary. So we have no problem that this campaign will succeed. We don’t have to flog anyone to comply because we are appealing to the innate goodness in every Nigerian.
But do you really believe that this government is sincere with Nigerians?
I don’t know why you ask this question but my reading of this government of which I am a member, is that we have only one agenda which is how to improve the lot of Nigerians. We are concerned about how to improve the battered image of Nigeria, how to return the country to its lost glory and place it properly among the comity of nations.
Are you worried that a few days after the birth of the ‘Change Begins With Me’ campaign someone has accused you of copying the idea from the concept he presented as proposals to you. How do you react to these claims?
Look, let me tell you that once you are in leadership position in life, especially public office, you should expect these kinds of allegations. But you see once people accuse me of any wrong doing, I ask myself just two questions; one, is it true? Two, would people believe it? Now once it is not true, 80% of my problem is solved, 20% is to provide proof that it is not true.
I am going to give you proof that anybody that says that CBWM is his own idea, is lying and he is being very dishonest. The truth is that the day I was nominated as a minister, I conceived of this idea of change begins with me. And by the 14th of October, 2015 when I was confirmed as a minster, I had already completed every work for change begins with me. So how could anybody claim that this idea was his own idea?
By 31st of October 2015, I had also completed the first draft of theme songs. Don’t forget that ministers were sworn in on the 11th of November 2015. So if anybody claims he saw me with any proposal, it was after I had become a minister and at that time I had completed the whole concept.
No fewer than four persons are claiming this thing and I just laugh at them. I have enough proof to show that the campaign is my brainchild and not taken from anybody else. I started working on this campaign the day I heard my name had been submitted to the Senate for confirmation as a minister. From that moment, I called my team and I said we must hit the ground running.
It is so sad to see people trying to run down another person and take the credit for what they did not create. It is true that since I came here there have been over 20 proposals on a matter that I had already concluded before being made a minister. But I am looking at the new proposals to see if any of them fits into what we are doing, we try to work with them for the interest and success of the campaign.