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Atiku Most Experienced, Tolerant, Nationalistic Among All Presidential Aspirants – Otunba Gbenga Daniel

By Eric Elezuo

Otunba Gbenga Daniel, The two-term Governor of Ogun State and presently the Director General of Abubakar Atiku Campaign Organisation, is someone who needs no introduction. He is sound, humane, down-to-earth and can easily be referred to as one of the pillars of modern Ogun State.

In this interview, OGD, as he is fondly called brings to the fore his many enviable qualities, his stewardship in governance and entrepreneurship, and why Atiku Abubakar, who is running for the presidency of Nigeria come 2019 is the best candidate for the job. Excerpts:

Since you left office, what has been happening in your political life

Well, I reckon that if you have had an opportunity to serve for all of 8 years, and another person is serving it is important you give room for other people to serve. Since I left office, I have been doing more than just observing and keeping as quiet as possible. But of course, that silence will soon give way to more active participation because of the scenario we have found ourselves in the country today.

It’s rare for politicians to stay quiet, even though their voices are not heard, they are busy underground. What have you been busy doing underground?

Not a lot, but as we move towards 2019, and considering people’s voices; it is clear to me and to discerning minds that our people feel they could do better with the kind of leadership we have in the country at the moment. Our people feel unhappy with what has happened to our economy. Our people have been duly surprised with what is going on in terms of security and many other areas. Therefore, whether we like it or not, we are on a spot. And as people who have participated as some point in time in the governance of this country, we have to come together and jointly find a solution to the crises.

You talked about going to the senate immediately after your 8 years in office as governor, did anything truncate that ambition, and what was it?

Yes I was determined to join the senate. But what was important for me was firstly to sit back and see what was happening in the polity. As a matter of fact, having served for 8 years, it was important for me to take a break. Yes! There are a lot of people who wanted me to go to the senate but it was basically my decision not to go to the senate.

You defeated a sitting governor to become a governor, what is the pedigree that made Ogun people chose you?

The hall mark of my being has always been relating with the masses. We started the Gateway Fund Foundation before I went into government, and it was supposed to be a response to the level of poverty we perceived in Ogun state and other states; that the poorest of the poor are becoming hopeless. What we found out then which is still the same today is that a large number of people do not require a large amount of money to earn subsistence living, and we set out to give them that leverage. It was easy; people found us trustworthy even before the idea of becoming governor was muted. So, when eventually I stood out for the governorship seat, I was already a familiar person in the positive light.

You polled the highest number of votes in the history of Ogun State governorship election in 2003, because the people believed in you? Can you itemize those wonderful things that made your tenure most memorable?

It would look like eulogising myself, but if you ask the people of Ogun state, they will tell you we met Ogun state as a sleeping giant. We met a state with no potential, and our biggest ambition was to open up the state. And quite a good number of people will agree that we did a lot in terms of opening up the state. We opened up the educational sector; we created additional tertiary institutions, secondary schools, primary schools, and all of them are striving today. We feel proud that at the last count, we were able to establish seven tertiary institutions; the polytechnic in Igbesa, the polytechnic in Sapade, the polytechnic in Ewekoro Local Government, the polytechnic in Ijebu-Igbo, the Gateway Petrochemical Institute in Oni, and many others.

Most people thought it was impossible when we were doing these things, but I am happy that all of them are running smoothly today. They are turning out quality products. In the sports sector, we created the Gateway Games in 2006 and that was used to open up the state. Till date, Nigeria has not hosted better games. We did a lot of work in healthcare. In terms of road construction, we introduced innovation; we created Ogun State Road Management Agency, which is in charge of all roads in the state. We did everything we could possibly do. I guess the biggest thing the people give us kudos was industrialising the state and make it attractive for business and industries. Today, the state is known as one of the most industrialised states in the country. And I think I built on the foundation I found, and I guess the man who is there today is building on what I added.

Shortly after your tenure, you left the party that made you the governor. What was the reason sir?

Quite a number of people have misunderstood what happened. I did not leave the party. There was crisis in the party; we had primaries, people won their seats under the Peoples Democratic Party, and through some litigations, all the people who won the primaries became party-less, and all of them happened to be my people. About 40 of them had no party to run from, and there was a party that presented an opportunity, and that was it. But I did not run because I was the South-West coordinator of the Jonathan Campaign Organisation in 2011. My responsibility went beyond party primaries. I have responsibilities that cut across party lines to ensure that even after the primaries, people in other parties vote for the person I was working for, which was President Goodluck Jonathan in PDP. Lo and behold, I spoke to virtually other parties, they voted and we won. I guess that is what people saw and interpreted it to mean that I left for another party. That didn’t happen. Same thing came up in the build-up to 2015 election. Again in 2013, some of my people felt the party was not doing well and they wanted to go to another party to make good their ambition – but we came back, and we told everyone to return to PDP so that we can do our best in the 2015 election, and that was what happened.

Consider his networking ability; he is a Northerner, but he is one vibrant leader who cuts across the East, West and South. He can be described as a true nationalist; he is at home and comfortable anywhere in Nigeria

The story today is that you are the Director General for Atiku Abubakar presidential campaign…

It is not a story; the reality is that I am the Director General of the Atiku Abubakar campaign organization. Yes, I am.

As the DG of that organization, would you be able to run again for political position?

 The important thing in our country is not about haggling for positions; we have a challenge in the country at the moment. We have a government that is not doing well to the satisfaction of the people. And under this circumstance, patriotic people must come together and find ways and means of effecting the change. That is what we are doing. It is not about contesting for a position now. The population majorly believes the presidency should go to the North, and we have looked at all the people haggling to become president from the North, and found out that Atiku Abubakar is the most qualified, given the situation of the country presently. Although they are all qualified, we think he is most qualified among all. With this, I am very excited to be the Director General for his campaign organization.

As a DG, you must know what Atiku is bringing to the table. What is he bringing to the table that will convince people to vote for him?

Well, let me start from the party because in the course of my chairmanship bid towards the end of last year, I had the opportunity to visit virtually all the states in the federation including the FCT, and what I found out in all those locations was that the party in the grass roots area is the PDP, and I am quite excited that Atiku Abubakar is back to the PDP, and he came at the right time.

He was one of the founding fathers of the party and if you survey, you will know Atiku Abubakar is the most experienced. He’s had the opportunity to be in governance in this democratic dispensation as Vice President for eight years during which he was virtually the economic manager of the nation. And that was the years of golden economic management in Nigeria, and I am not aware of anyone who has the experience and capacity of Atiku; not even the current president. So, in terms of exposure and experience of people who are in the race; he is the best.

Today, we are faced with loss of confidence in the system; we still have the IPOB challenge. We have challenges in the South-South. We have challenges of South-West talking about restructuring. And even in locations were agitations were not there before, somewhere like the middle belt, we have had large number of people who have become dissatisfied.

It is on record that of all the leaders of this country, one person that has remained consistent toward the issue of restructuring outside the South-West is Atiku Abubakar. I was very surprised when I saw some of his books, his writing, dating as far back as 14 – 15 years ago where he has been consistently talking about restructuring. So, if there is anybody who feels the beat like those of us in the South, it is Atiku Abubakar because of his posture on restructuring.

In addition, that issue also cuts across the length and breadth of the country, and that for me is key. Consider his networking ability; he is a Northerner, but he is one vibrant leader who cuts across the East, West and South. He can be described as a true nationalist; he is at home and comfortable anywhere in Nigeria.

When you look at the challenges we have today in terms of religion, for the first time in the history of our country we are witnessing religious dissatisfaction. He is a Muslim but a liberal one. If you look at his staff you will see Christians and Muslims. The biggest challenge in this country is unity; and one man who has all it takes to unite all the forces in the country is Atiku Abubakar.

The present government also campaigned with restructuring but as at today has not been able to do anything about it. When Atiku comes in, how possible will it be?

First, let’s talk about the incumbent administration and what they have done, or said, which has gone a long way to show the level of credibility they have. Economically, they didn’t do enough research and didn’t attract the right people who can give them the right advice. Part of what they said is that the naira will be equal to the dollar, although some of us who are vast economically knew that was a tall order. We knew they said it without knowing what they were saying and didn’t have the capacity to handle it, and the naira fell to about N500 to a dollar, and now, it is hanging around 360 doubling what it was when they came in. Somebody will tell me that is an achievement, but they messed it up. And that is how it is with virtually all the promises they have made. So, today, what we need is not just the question of people making promises. We have seen politicians making promises they cannot fulfil; you look at people from what they have been able to achieve; not what they say they are going to do. If you look at the profile of Atiku, while he was the number 2 man, he was running the economy. He demonstrated capacity to attract intelligent people to provide advice and a number of those things were duly executed.

I am beginning to see that this race is going to be between Muhammadu Buahri and Atiku. Buhari was once the military head of state, and despite being a dictator, he couldn’t achieve much with such enormous power. It becomes a problem when you are now limited by the legislature, and the rule of law. You will be shocked to note that there was nothing to write home about in terms of achievements when Buhari was a military head of state. People were jailed 200, 300 years; that doesn’t make sense, and that was the tragedy he brought with him. People have spoken about PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund), that there were so many can of worms that were swept under the carpet under his watch. He was Petroleum Minister, and there was nothing he did that was outstanding. When he said he was going to reduce the price of fuel, they didn’t do it. Practically, nothing has happened.

Compare that resume to Atiku Abubakar who is so competent in managing businesses as an entrepreneur. He was very competent in managing government as a Vice President. I was even told that as a customs officer before he came into politics, he voluntarily retired ahead of time to face his business. If you know the compulsion of custom department in those days, nobody resigns from that kind of position because of what comes with such position. Therefore, you can see he is someone who is determined, focused, and that is the kind of person we are looking for in our country today.

There is a general conception that he is corrupt, how is he planning to kill that notion?

There has been no evidence to prove the allegation. The tragedy of our country which I am praying we would not repeat its mistake is that people create a notion of someone without proof.  Sometimes, it is what they heard in the bus, street or anywhere that forms their opinion, and consistently we have failed in making rational decisions because of speculations that cannot be substantiated.

Buhari was once the military head of state, and despite being a dictator, he couldn’t achieve much with such enormous power. It becomes a problem when you are now limited by the legislature, and the rule of law. You will be shocked to note that there was nothing to write home about in terms of achievements when Buhari was a military head of state. People were jailed 200, 300 years; that doesn’t make sense, and that was the tragedy he brought with him

It is also based on this kind of notion that the current presidency was fostered on the nation, and barely six months after, people started complaining that they made a mistake. Whereas I accept that there is no human who is infallible, there is no allegation against Atiku that has been substantiated. He has been cleared, up to the Supreme Court. Our country is a very funny place, they can go to the market and declare you as a murderer, and before you know it, people will start running away from you; when you ask, they will say they heard it from someone. We have gone beyond all these political speculations deliberately created to destroy people; this is the reason we have not elected the best leaders. If you recall, at the point Chief Obafemi Awolowo was contesting, everybody knew he was capable. But there were also some things that were said against him. And see what those errors of judgment has cost us over the years.

What if Atiku does not pick the PDP ticket?

I have never started anything in my life that I don’t succeed in. So, it’s not on the card. I am a positive person and I am persuaded he is the best that we have in this circumstance, and I believe I’m rational. And I must assume and believe that people have seen that we have made mistakes in the past, and that in picking in 2019, they won’t want to make another wrong choice. What else are we looking for; if you have seen a better person let’s discuss it.

There is a Markafi, Sule Lamido, Kwakwanso and others that have shown interest…

They are very eminently qualified people, but let’s look at the parameters involved in terms of experience in governance. Who among them have been in government at the Federal level? Which of them has the kind of immense network that we have just discussed? Which of them has the religious and tribal tolerance we are talking about?

Many are saying desperation is pushing Atiku Abubakar. Is he actually desperate to become the president?

I don’t think so. To some extent, he’s fulfilled; he has wealth that can take him a lifetime; his children are doing fine. But I think what is pushing him is the fact that he is unhappy because something he started is going the wrong way. He’s appalled at the level of violence, and the many ills we have in this country today. And he is shocked that things that should be ordinary are turning to a big deal for the present government. We have said it times without number that the biggest problem we have in this country is over centralization of power. If you ask anything that is pushing him, I would say it’s not desperation but an urge to see that our country becomes a better place.

Don’t you think the new Not Too Young To Run law will affect his chances?

The incumbent president is 74. He is older than Atiku. So, when you compare him to Buhari, there is no doubt in my mind that he is a much younger person. Apart from that, when you look at the health status, Atiku is fitter. I can assure you that several young people don’t have the energy he has to do the work. When Yar’dua was the president, he was not as old as Buhari. However, among the political leaders today, the most energetic is Obasanjo (Chief Olusegun).

Officially, people think he is 82 and some said he is older than that. It is not really about age, it is about health status, the capacity to do what is right. Don’t forget that this is a very critical stage in the life of the country, we cannot afford to experiment. For it is an evolution, I became a governor at the age of 47, and at 55 I was no longer a governor. I think the people should just go and do what they have to do, work hard and they will get whatever they want. I don’t really see any effect in that bill.

The President recently signed an executive order, what can you say to this?

Well, according to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, that is totally illegal, and it is unconstitutional. Look at what has happened to the Senate President, who at the end of the day, was declared innocent by the Supreme Court after torturing him for about 3 years as a result of people not doing their investigations properly. That’s one thing that clearly faulted the trial. Why are we in a hurry to demonstrate we are working? For political reasons, you pick somebody up without concrete evidence because of hearsay? We should have gone beyond all of that. I think that Executive Order is against the rule of law, and I would be shocked if people don’t go to court to contest it. The order doesn’t make any sense. It is a vote of no confidence in the judiciary, and I have always said that in a civilized environment, we have the legislature, the Executive and Judiciary sharing power. To the best of my knowledge, the ruling party has the highest number in the Senate and House of Representatives. All they need to do if they are not happy with the existing law, is to go to the legislature and ask for amendment. This is just in line with what he did when he was a military head of state. Where new laws were created, and how do you create a law by violating a law. These kinds of orders should have no place in a democracy. I believe it is the attorney general that is not doing his work properly.

On many occasions, the EFCC has accused you of financial misconduct, and on many occasions amended their charges. What is the present situation?

Legally, when a case is in court, you can’t make public comment on it. But how can they say I misappropriated 58 billion, and later checked the file and said it’s 200 million. They said 200 million or so entered my account, and I was asked to come defend it in court without any investigation. It is strange! This is the eighth year that I have been charged to court.

As I speak, I have gone to court more than 50 times, and prosecution has not closed its case. Just three weeks ago, they came and amended the charges again, and I am aware that the investigation started even when I was a governor, and I tell people that this is persecution. I think someone just said let’s find a way of locking this man up so that he cannot be politically active. I don’t know what else to say, I am persuaded that I ran a good government. I ran one of the most credible governments in the history of governance. I am proud with what I achieved. And I am proud that as I speak to you, nobody has traced any fund that belongs to the government in any account that belongs to me. I don’t know what they are talking about and that is why I am at peace. Now, the executive order has come and they want to seize assets, which asset do they want to seize?

For example, I moved into this place in 1998; even before I became a governor. I have built my office 27 years ago, all of these happened before I went into government. With due respect, I am not a poor man and if all you can say is that 8 years in government; 200 million is missing, this is ridiculous. 200 million will not buy the land my house is built on today. It is a tragedy that some of us that are supposed to be receiving honour in this country are enmeshed in the drama EFCC is performing. I am at peace with myself, and I am not going to beg anybody.

But if you defect to the ruling party, you may have a soft landing…

I am not going to defect, and I won’t stop doing what I am doing. I was told that it is because I am Atiku’s campaign DG that is why they are now looking for more things. And that the reason my name must be on the executive order list and many other charges; eight years after being governor; that’s so ridiculous. Anyway, let the law take its course but God is on the throne.

Photo credit: Koya Adegbite and Ken Ehimen

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