From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Senior Special Assistant (SSA) on National Social Investment Programme to President Buhari and a member of the Tinubu-Shettima Presidential Campaign Council (PCC), Ismaeel Buba Ahmed, has built himself into political relevance.
The former Youth Leader and Spokesperson of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Caretaker/Extraordinary Convention Planning Committee, reacted to several burning issues in this interview with Sunday Sun.
He x-rayed the chances of the APC presidential candidate, the implication of a Muslim-Muslim joint ticket, threats from the candidates of other political parties, and the derogatory speculation that the cabal has hijacked power from President Buhari.
Does the confidence radiating reflect the assurance that APC is ready for next year’s election?
We are, of course, very ready for this election. The election is unlike other previous ones in the sense that there is a lot of scrutiny coming into bear. The electoral umpire, INEC, gets more sophisticated every election cycle. This APC administration has made INEC more confident, more independent, and more autonomous. We have signed a new Electoral Act into law which has created a watershed moment for elections in this country. For the first time in a few years, there will be no incumbent president seeking re-election. And there will be no Muhammadu Buhari, a political phenomenon, seeking election. That makes the presidential election wide open. The front runners are serious people and veterans in the game. The PDP candidate has run for presidency God knows how many times since 1992. It is not new terrain for him. The NNPC candidate, former governor of Kano State, has also run two or three times. He has been a deputy Speaker and the governor of the largest state in the country in terms of population. The Labour Party candidate is also a former governor as well. He may not have the experience that others have at the national stage, but he has run as a vice presidential candidate in 2019. They gathered lots of votes as well compared to other opposition parties in that election. And then our own candidate, a veteran politician with vast experience has a national network and groomed a lot of mentees. This is the first time he has thrown his hat into the ring on the national stage. But, he has built a web of supporters, admirers, prodigies, mentees, and friends across this country. So, the election itself is going to be exciting. It is going to be an interesting election, a contrast of ideas, reputations, and formidable forces of people that understand the rudiments of this politics. It is something we are looking forward to. As APC, we are confident that we have the best product for the position in the person of Bola Ahmed Tinubu. We are also confident because he understands this game very well. APC is still a lot more popular than the other political parties. Structure-wise, we are more on ground. And we have more people willing to do whatever to ensure we win this election. Now, is it going to be easy? No. Do we expect it to be easy? No. Should it be easy? No. The presidency of this country is so important that getting it should not be a cakewalk for anyone. We don’t expect it to be a stroll into the park either. We are willing to roll up our sleeves, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, get to work, and deliver our candidate.
What do you tell most Nigerians feeling that the APC government has nothing to campaign with?
I don’t think that most Nigerians feel that the APC government has failed. Many Nigerians appreciate the fact that we found ourselves in very difficult circumstances. Just a few weeks ago, within the span of about a month, the United Kingdom consumed two Prime Ministers. What was the cause of it? We saw what happened in the United States: the Democratic Party has the presidency and majority in the House of Representatives and even in the Senate. Gas prices have gone up because the war in Ukraine worsened the energy crisis around Europe and the rest of the world. The pandemic of 2019 and 2020 has caused serious economic havoc around the world. The main foreign exchange earner for Nigeria, crude oil, has dropped propitiously since APC got into office in 2015. But it started picking up after the pandemic. We were dealing with a serious internal war against insurgents and terrorists. We are dealing with separatism, different people, and different agitations coming from different parts. Just a few days ago, the Ghanaian president, on his Twitter platform, admitted that there has never been a worse time in the history of Ghana than right now. In fact, many Nigerians appreciate the fact that this administration was able to keep expanding infrastructure development and paying salaries of workers even during the pandemic when countries like Venezuela which has more oil reserves, kept folding up. Countries are wondering how we were able to purchase all the military firmament and hardware to give gusto to our military personnel to go after the terrorists. They wonder how we were able to do all that amidst such a chaotic situation. But, is everything fine? No. Are there costs and consequences to some of the profligate life and false living that this country has had under the 16 years of PDP to catch up with, haunt us, and hold future governments? Yes, there would be consequences to those things. Former Finance Minister and President of the World Trade Organization, Okonjo Iweala, said in one book I read that when she was talking about savings, people stood against her seriously. In her prediction, she said the next government after Jonathan will face many crises. She saw it coming. Former Governor of CBN, Lamido Sanusi, warned repeatedly that we are heading for the cliff. It is normal for people to forget where they are coming from when they are in a pinch. But, contextually looking at what we have been able to do with the resources available and the situation we find ourselves in, the APC government has not done badly. In fact, if it was not for APC and Buhari with his pecuniary discipline and frugality, I don’t think Nigeria would have been able to pay salaries at some point. I don’t think we would have been able to do the railway lines we reconstructed. At $100 to $120 per barrel on average, for five straight years, during the Jonathan-led government, we were still borrowing money to pay salaries. You don’t borrow to spend, you borrow to invest. That is what we did in this government. We borrow to invest in infrastructure, and growth plans and have consistently set a benchmark for our budget every end of the year, December, which was like a mirage to many Nigerians. We have many things to campaign with and our candidate is going to bring a new vista to the table, renewed hope, our manifesto. Of course, we will take a lot of flakes. Nigerians are going to ask us questions based on how they are feeling right now. We will have to answer them. There are responsibilities we have to take that were not our fault, but we have to answer for it because the bulk stops at our table as we speak. But ultimately, the people that walk into that polling booth on the day of the election are going to make a decision about the kind of president they want to see. They would be comfortable that Tinubu would be a better candidate and a better president to build on the successes of Buhari and overcome some of the challenges.
Which of the presidential candidates poses the biggest threat to Tinubu?
I don’t think we are threatened by any one of them. But I think it is going to be exciting. We are not going to underestimate anyone. As a politician, I regard everyone as a potential threat until the election is over. We are not going to dismiss anybody just like that. PDP has been around since 1998 as the oldest political party in terms of name and logo which have remained the same. As the oldest political party, they have governed this country for 16 years. The PDP candidate has contested multiple times. He has been vice president for eight years and has gone through several political battles as well. We gave him a platform in 2007 to run. We gave him another platform in 2015 against Buhari, who defeated him at the primary. Taking into account that PDP has a structure with a veteran politician as a candidate, we have respect and look forward to a fair fight. As for the NNPP candidate, he is a formidable political personality as well. It is such a new political party. He does not have a formidable political structure across the country as a new party. He is not somebody we can dismiss easily. Peter Obi is the new kid on the block for many people on social media. I have listened to him a couple of times. He is an enigma to me. What people say about him on social media, is not exactly what I hear when he talks. I don’t see that substance that a lot of people seem to be gravitating toward him. Some people say he is a Southeast candidate. Some people say he is a religious candidate. I don’t believe that. I think he is a man of his own. But his political party does not have the spread and structure on ground. He does not know many people across the country. He does not have political relationships across the country, and no formidable player in the political field, stumping for him. Like others, we are not going to dismiss him. But I don’t see him posing a threat like that. As for our candidate, he is formidable with structure by every strand of imagination. But I don’t want to sound cocky, overconfident, or condescending. As a member of the PCC, my job is to solicit votes. Sometimes the best you do is to appear weak when you need people to help you. So, we need people’s support. What we are saying is that our candidate is better.
Don’t you think that APC got it wrong going for Muslim-Muslim ticket?
I think the media have over-flogged this Muslim-Muslim ticket issue. Nigerians are not as concerned as the media portray them to be. Nigerians are in a situation where they just want a good president. That is what matters to them ultimately. And they know they can get it in Asiwaju. People can microscope any kind of differences with the identity of religion, ethnicity, region, custom, or creed, but ultimately, what matters is who is going to drive us in the direction we are going. Tinubu stands tall among his contemporaries. I don’t think this issue of Muslim-Muslim is as pervasive as the media tried to portray it.
Do you agree that the North will be the battleground for the presidential election?
APC will win most parts of the North, precisely because of the backing of the governors. Without a doubt, the North is going to be the battleground. With the electoral map in my head, I can almost predict who is taking where in some parts of the South. Of course, some states are going to be a battleground as well. We are going to play a big role and pick up lots of votes there. In reality, the North is where the game is going to be played. We have 19 states in the North, 14 governed by APC. And they are very strong governors. But, we are not only relying on the governors. Some of these states, like Buhari State, are not necessarily APC states. People need to know the difference. In those states, we need Mr. President and he is going to come fully for us. In the states where we need our governors to play a critical role, they are going to do so in all the states they govern. But where we need to go granola, they will do that. Where we need additional help from other people, we will get them to deliver for us. APC will ultimately win the North. The North is no longer monolithic in terms of voting patterns. We don’t all go one way. We have different strands of our own political ideology. The northerners, especially sophisticated political persons, pay attention to details. That is why Bashir Tofa, for example, lost to MKO Abiola in Kano and that is why Shagari will struggle in some parts of the northern states in 1979. So, the North is no more monolithic like that, but I believe that APC has what it takes to get most of the votes in the North to help us during the election.
Don’t you think that the aggrieved presidential aspirants may sabotage Tinubu’s chances of winning?
We need everybody on board. It is the responsibility of our candidate to ensure that no stone is left unturned towards ensuring that everybody gets on board. I do know that we have the full support of most of the aspirants. But, more needs to be done to get the assurance that it is their game. Their hearts and minds are here with us in APC. They can only play the role they are given. Most of them are in the campaign council. But our candidate is a strategist in his thinking. He is going to sit down with most of these aspirants to dialogue with them on the way forward. Most of them have been given opportunities to nominate people to the campaign council and they have. Their people are in the campaign council. Some of them that can hold positions were given direct positions in the campaign council. I don’t see it as a problem, but our candidate will visit them again. It will not only be the aspirants, but their formidable known supporters as well. People we believe need to be brought into the fold would be brought in. Our candidate is the true unifier, not people who claim to be unifiers yet they have other people granting press conferences against them every day.
As SSA to President Buhari, how do you feel when people describe him as president cabal hijacked his government?
People can say all sorts of things. But the president has repeatedly said that he is in charge and for whatever thing that went wrong, he should be held responsible and equally takes credit for whatever is right. There is no cabal in charge of his government. I am not aware of anything that I needed to do and I was told to speak to someone who was outside the government. Every one of my communications to the president was through the official channels of the government as it should be.
What are your fears for the 2023 election?
I don’t have any fear. I have hope that there will be an election and that the election will be free and fair and my candidate will emerge the winner.