In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Festus Owete, the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria, Osita Okechukwu, speaks on his new assignment, the Buhari administration, Igbo presidency and others. Excerpts:
PT: What are the challenges you encountered since your assumption of duty as director general?
Okechukwu: On my assumption of duty at Voice of Nigeria I actually saw what we have all been talking about for a long time, the rot in the system. I didn’t know it was that deep. It was only when I got there that I saw how deep the rot is. This is the external broadcasting corporation of Nigeria which is supposed to enhance our foreign policy and promote Nigeria’s image to the outside world. It was established by an Act in 1961. Along the line a lot have been invested. We have eight transmitters and studios but today out of the eight, six are not working. We are supposed to broadcast 24 hours in a day but today we only broadcast for six hours to the world. That is the extent we can go. So on our own we have shut out some regions of the world that used to source the formal and official opinion in Nigeria through VON. While we were canvassing for votes for the election, yes in the merger committee of the APC we agreed that the war against corruption should be number one, and national re-orientation but we didn’t know the depth. And that is what Mr. President has encountered in all the nooks and crannies of all the Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies in the country. But I still maintain that Nigeria at the fullness of time will not regret voting for President Muhammadu Buhari.
PT: You met these challenges quite alright. Are there things you are putting in place to overcome them with a view to actualizing the mandate of VON?
Okechukwu: What I have done is that I have called some experts and some volunteers and friends who were part of the struggle and we sat down. We have decided to create an online platform to actually meet the demands of the moment because in the whole of North America our research showed that very few people use shortwave. In the African sub-region some few people use shortwave. In North America, Europe, Japan, China, Brazil very few people use shortwave. Our plan in order to revamp VON is to create a modern online platform to stream all the information on social media. People listen to radio on their smartphones, FM Stations and shortwave. So we want to meet up with that challenge and then also to digitalise our transmitters. Digital communication is the in thing. We want to graduate out of the analogue where the previous VON administrators have left us. This is where we are depending on Mr. President and the National Assembly. This is because we cannot do that empty-handed. We need the new equipment to be captured by the 2017 budget because it is not in the 2016 budget. Those are the things we intend to do. Methinks if we are lucky that by the grace of Mr. President, we will revamp VON. I said thank you sir for the assignment but these are my challenges. And as you asked, Mr. President also asked me what the solutions are because he is tired of blame game, but solutions. He asked for the solutions and I told him we want to go into modern online platform where we could reach the world on their smart phones but without pushing out the shortwave and we have to digitalise. We can also be on FM in many countries of the world because going by Section 5 subsection 3 of the VON Act 1961, our basic objective is to enhance Nigeria’s image and promote our foreign policy. You cannot promote our foreign policy or enhance Nigeria’s image if you cannot make VON the point of reference in news gathering. If anybody reads anything online about Nigeria, to verify, VON should be there for him. That is what our objective is and that is our plan.
PT: What you are saying is that there are regions of the world that cannot listen to VON as of today.
Okechukwu: Yes, because we are transmitting only for six hours out of 24 hours. We are not specific where we will go at each hour, it depends on the zone and news that we think is germane. But if we are on a wider platform we do not need to rotate antennas to reach certain regions. All we need is to beam to the whole world. Even if you wake up in North America when it is midnight in Nigeria you have the same news. If you wake up in Brazil when it is midnight in Nigeria, it is the same news. You wake up in China, Japan and Europe, it is the same news because that is exactly what the rest are doing. If you don’t do that it then means you are competing with BBC, VOA etc. so people listen to the news midnight. We want to reach you in the midnight, we want to reach you in the day time and we want to reach you in the prime hours but let it be a reference point of external broadcasting of Nigeria. That was the intendment of the Act.
PT: Before now, was VON able to broadcast to all parts of the globe?
Okechukwu: Yes, that is given as well when it had all the transmitters working. And also the world then was on shortwave. But the whole world somehow has transmitted out of the shortwave. People have smart phones and FM in their cars. The world now does not have as much radios as it used to have. But there are radios in the cars especially that it is now difficult for people in Europe and in North America. We are the only sole agency that has the right to tell the world what is going on Nigeria, radio wise.
PT: Given this shortcomings, is the foreign ministry also complaining? Has it affected their mandate in any way since VON was basically established to enhance Nigeria’s image?
Okechukwu: What we did was that we held a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his officials. We set up an inter-agency ministerial committee so that we have updates on their policies and their news. We have good collaboration.
PT: Will these challenges amount to a reduction in the staff strength of VON?
Okechukwu: What we said is that competence of the staff is a priority. Luckily we have some old staffers who are passionate to train others and we have consultants who are ready to train in-house. For instance, we cover only eight states in terms of offices and in my discussion with Mr. President he has agreed that we expand to other states. So what do we do? We train the staff and send them as state correspondents. Our business is to collate news about Nigeria and broadcast it to the world. What they were using in the past was stringers and I said if you have over 1000 staffers, why are you using stringers? Train your staff and upgrade them. The programme department is also undergoing training on their own. When you have 24 hours to be in the people’s hands you need to be upcoming in order to avoid stale news by covering the events in the country. If the man comes back to get the next news about Nigeria, we are not only reporting Mr. President, Vice President, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives but also the important news which took place in Ugep, Obudu, Gusau, Akure or Owerri. There are news that are taking place outside what Mr. President, Vice President, Senate President have said. But a lot of people don’t want to border about that. That is where the news is. We want to let the world know that there is a change in Nigeria, that there is a new political will with integrity quotient. These are the takeaways. We should tell our own stories. So we are not looking at the news from the old perspectives. We are looking at the new and innovative ideas from talented Nigerians who abound from north to south and east to west.
A lot of people just think it is only what President Muhammadu Buhari said that should be reported. No. President Muhammadu Buhari has brought changes in the system. We went to Asaga Ohafia to bury late Chief Ojo Maduekwe, former minister of foreign affairs, and I was happy when I saw that the pump price of fuel of N150 is what is happening there in such remote village. It is unlike before. The last time I went with Ojo Maduekwe it was about N250 per litre. But today there is a price parity. That is what we are saying. A man with integrity quotient of Mr. President has brought some dividends unannounced. Nobody believed we can remove subsidy on fuel, which saved government some money without anybody on the street. Nigeria was almost sliding into a failed state. Today, what is happening is more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) attracting foreign entrepreneurs and investors who believe that in the transparent regime, you can invest your money and close your eyes. The World Bank, the Chinese and Japanese are trying to lend money to Nigeria again because of the political will, transparency and integrity quotient of Mr. President. It is surprising that because of the false propaganda of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leadership, a lot of Nigerians forgot that the hunger in the land, abject poverty and decayed infrastructure were as a result of the mismanagement of our resources by the PDP.
No one wants to reflect on what could have happened if Buhari had lost. Today, the world respects us because Buhari won the Presidency. The world is aware of the fall in oil price and aware that we can manage better the little in our coffers. We allowed the PDP to milk us dry; indeed it can be termed conspiracy, for we did not fight enough. So, immediately you feel that public money cannot be utilized for public gain you have conspired without knowing, by omission or commission. Now these are the core values Mr. President is trying to bring on the table. Yes, we have small money now but if it is prudently used will produce better result. Now oil is selling below $50. When it was selling between $90 and $100, we were not prudent. Now it is smaller but we are going to be prudent. We must look into what everybody is doing, that you don’t see your councilor failing to fix the culvert on your street or in your village and he is building a mansion and you are clapping for him. You know that the councilor just left school the other day and now is a millionaire and you are happy with him. So those are some of our mistakes and the gains of Mr. President’s integrity quote.
PT: Now you have mentioned some gains of the Buhari administration. You have been close to the president since 2003 from your ANPP days and later in CPC and now APC. Can you say emphatically he was prepared for this assignment? Was he prepared to be president? I ask this because one year into his presidency Nigerians are crying. Did he prepare to meet this kind of situation?
Okechukwu: I will say yes hundred times that he was prepared to be president. I remember vividly that it was late Rt. Hon. Chuba Okadigbo who said then said “we were going to leave the PDP”. We asked him, is this not sour grape? You did not say you will leave until you lost the position of the senate president. He said “no”, and that why we are leaving was that the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was constructing a one party state and that the man that entered defunct ANPP (then APP) called General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) had the political will to build the opposition and that he is a man with steel heart who can endure because it is not going to be a 100 meters dash but it is going to be a marathon race and that for such a man, even his (Buhari) traducers believe that he had never made a choice because of personal interest and that he had always put public interest above personal interest and that for that sake we will join. Incidentally the late Okadigbo became his first vice presidential candidate. President Buhari had since 2003 Presidential Campaign maintained that first and foremost you have to secure the country in all facets because if you don’t secure the country it will not prosper. He has always talked about fighting corruption.
What happened to President Buhari which a lot of people lose sight of is that as military head of state he fought what is called the “Washington Consensus” or in some places “Chicago School” and in Nigeria “IMF conditionalities.” They told him then to devalue the naira, remove subsidy, move government out of business and the man said no and that what you are calling business is critical infrastructure and that nobody had ever done it in anywhere in the world. He insists that without public funding those public highways in the UK, US. China could have been were built with utopia. He was overthrown and the following year the naira was devalued. Conditionalities of the Washington Consensus was brought into place. You ask yourself – did we advance in the first decade after the introduction of the conditionalities? No. Did we advance in the second and third decade? No. Why did we fail? We failed because we adopted a nebulous economic policy which relied on only private sector, source of whom have no factory. The answer is that government expenditure must be prudent. The private sector is blending public ownership. So, he was prepared. What happened is that yesterday was the architecture. If like a farmer you do not invest during planting season, when the drought comes you will suffer. If we had good savings and good investments, the years of drought nobody would have suffered. There is nothing President Buhari would have done in this circumstance than what he is doing now.
So the hardship was envisaged. If President Buhari did not win the presidential election, do you think we would have been here? Assuming President Buhari didn’t win the election the international community would not have come. If Jonathan came back to say he will remove subsidy, nobody would have listened. So it would have been katakata. His victory returned hope that there is a country called Nigeria. Nigeria was sliding to a failed state before his coming. I tell you a small example in VON. There is a lady VON awarded a job of N130 million. She quickly ran to the bank, borrowed money and finished under four months. They paid her only N40 million, owing her N90 million up till today. The bank now wants to cashier her properties. She ran to us and luckily she came with Senator Binta Masi. I normally call my directors when such issues arise. And they asked her why are you harassing the new DG. Some say why are you harassing the new DG and that he is just here less than two months. I said gentlemen, this lady that took the pain to come with her is a senator of the Federal Republic and she was the foundation chairman of our great party, APC, in Adamawa and that she can sack me unless you give a good explanation why the woman was not paid. So, in the course of the matter I asked that they should give me the records of revenues allocated and released to VON. In that 2013, the Jonathan regime released 55% of the capital project totaling about N732 million. I then said between God and man, a lady that finished her project and there is certificate of completion that she has finished, how come you are owing her this kind of amount. Do you know that from records some of those big companies like Julius Berger Plc have not been paid since 2014? That even the JVC which was supposed to augment the exploration and exploitation of oil from the oil majors were owed since 2012. These are debts hanging on our necks. I remember when Balarabe Musa, leading us in CNPP, told Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to utilize $12.4 billion to invest in critical infrastructure to generate employment and pay gradually the loans but she refused. The second mis-adventure with Okonjo-Iweala. Luckily or unluckily, the then President Jonathan brought her because of her so-called pedigree and said you are not only minister of finance but also coordinating minister of the economy.
See what an honest and innocent young man can do to a big sister that he feels knows well. The debt they have piled is astonishing. But because President Buhari is not the talking type you will never get to know this. When you match what we are owing the major contractors, you can imagine the squander mania that took place in the power sector which even the late President Yar’Adua touched before he fell sick, it was over $16 billion, which could have transformed the horizon. The people are not happy with the management of the privatization. The privatization was warped. And it is falling on our head. These are the challenges President Buhari is facing. Do you tell Shell that you are not owing Shell and that it is President Jonathan that is owing Shell? It is the government. Do you tell Mobil so? Do you tell Julius Berger that over N200 billion owed is not debt? Do you tell the small contractor that drills borehole or the one that supplies textbooks to libraries in ABU, UNN of UNILAG that you are not owing him? Those are the gangatum of unsolicited debts hanging on Mr. President’s neck.
So, it is not about being prepared. It is about what you thought you were going to meet was about a one kilometer hole but met about a hundred kilometer hole which required more concrete or sand to fill up. That is where we find ourselves. What do you say about the paradox of a group called the Niger Delta Avengers? This group was there when by providence their brother Jonathan became president on May 6, 2010. I was one of those who were on the street as a member of Save Nigeria Group (SNG) to make sure he was confirmed as an Executive President. Were we partisan then? Were we regional? Were we ethnic? Were we a divided religious group? No. We said the constitution says since unfortunately Yar’Adua had passed on, this man should be president and he became president. Even the East-West Road, one year after, I expected the Avengers to tell President Jonathan, ‘this is 2011, we won’t vote for you because you have failed us and we are now coming to avenge?’ They joined the rest of Nigerian people, gave the young man another chance. He was elected. And the same May 13, 2010, the same Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made a public pronouncement that they had awarded the contract for the building of three Greenfield refineries for $23 billion. One was to be located in Bayelsa, one in Lagos, one in Kogi.
At that point in time we had $17 billion in Excess Crude Account, which if he had plunged into, the National Assembly couldn’t had complained. Had National Assembly complained, we could have moved people to support it. That could have created over a million employments and also saved us wastage in the importation of petroleum products. The Avengers did not wake up then to say ‘oga president, where are our refinery you promised us? Even if you don’t want to do Kogi and Lagos, do Bayelsa, otherwise we will avenge.’ Guess what! The Chinese came back and said let’s bring 80 per cent, give us 20per cent. That 20per cent was not paid and the Greenfield refineries died.
PT: Given this disturbing scenario you have just painted, what is the way out? Do Nigerians have any hope of living well again?
Okechukwu: Yes. In the course of the next two years, like the vice president said, you will see a litany of foreign direct investments and even change in our legislative process.
PT: You are from the South East. The Buhari administration is going to two years. What is the political calculation of the South East for 2019? Is the zone waiting to take over from Buhari?
Okechukwu: I think I have covered the five South East states since I was appointed. I have gone round the five Igbo states and there was even a meeting at Uturu (Abia State). The problem of the south east is the collapse of infrastructure. Anybody telling them he wants to be president, the first thing they ask you is – do we throw away these four years, these four years, nothing happened? They voted for PDP since 1999 passionately. They voted for Jonathan two times with all the risks. You cannot move from one point to the other without repairing your vehicle. There is no water, the social infrastructure like education, health have also failed and there is no electricity. If you say you want to be president they will first ask you about the coal. Can’t you revamp the coal before you start telling us you want to be president? There is gas in Ugwuoba, in Oguta and the Anambra North axis. Don’t forget the south east produce more graduates than other zones and majority of them are not employed. So, if you tell them about who becomes the president in the next four years, they will say that is not our priority now. We know that there is a zoning convention in place. We think that the Nigerian people will embrace zoning convention and by 2023 when Buhari must have done eight years, we can then persuade others that it is our turn. For now I have not heard anybody talking about who becomes the president next. Somebody might have a different opinion. If what they are telling me is about telling Mr. President which I did, it is about critical infrastructure.