Sentenced to six months in prison for taking part in a banned demonstration, lawyer and activist Michèle Ndoki of the opposition Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) faces the death penalty in other cases.
Interview: Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s minister of information and communications
Leaving the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and
Control, where she fought the scourge of counterfeit drugs, Dora
Akunyili has been trying to re-brand Nigeria while serving in the
government of President Umaru Yar’Adua
THE AFRICA REPORT: What do you say to those who argue that there’s been no democratic dividend in the last ten years?
DORA AKUNYILI: The fact that our democracy has been unbroken for ten years without any military incursion is something to celebrate. We have had two presidential elections. Even if they were flawed, they were successfully completed. We have also had development in many states. Whatever successes are recorded by state governors, they are our collective successes.?
People point to poor infrastructure like roads and electricity, which has not allowed the economy, and particularly industry, to run, and say that the civilian government has not been able to deliver on its promises.
In January this year, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua announced that he would fast-track government activities. That statement is very clear. We’ve given more road contracts in the last two months than all the road contracts in the last ten years. We are also working very hard on electricity because it’s a sore point in Nigerian society. It hurts everybody, the rich and the poor. The highlight is that by the end of December 2009 we are going to have 6,000 MW. We are going to have more than that, but this is the figure that we are 100% sure of.??
Comparing the civilian political elite with the military, some say they are no better than the military in terms of their behaviour, dictatorial tendencies and the urge to rig elections. Do you share this view??
I believe that the worst civilian regime is better than the best military regime because no matter how much we talk about these electoral flaws and vote-rigging, rigging is possible when people allow it. When candidates are very popular, rigging does not work because you see people risking their lives to protect their votes. I don’t want to hold a brief for politicians who are being perceived by the people as no better than the military. We cannot be honest if we come out and say that all politicians are good or that all military people are bad. While we have honest politicians, we also have those who are performing below expectations, whose behaviour is not what we expect of them. It’s like that in all countries. When it comes to what the politicians are doing and what the military did when they were in power, I can tell you that the politicians are doing more work because the politicians, no matter what anybody says about our elections (which I’m not now saying are perfect), still want to impress the people so that they can get back to power.?Whichever way we look at it, civilian government is better. The first handover from one civilian president to another took place in 2007. It is not a small feat – we achieved it. Right now, we are looking forward to having a better election in 2011.?
Let’s talk about your re-branding project. How does it move us closer to our Vision 2020 process?
Re-branding Nigeria is critical and fundamental to our achieving Vision 2020, because if we remain the way we are today, we will not make it. Unfortunately, right now we don’t even believe in ourselves. And how can you become one of the 20 biggest economies when you don’t have that belief in your country? We have not even been able to define ourselves to the world. Most of the time people define us to the world the way they want it. We have not strategically used any platform in the past to tell the world those positive things that Nigeria has been doing and is still doing. Or to tell the world what we have here in Nigeria, or generally positive stories about Nigeria that can command an international audience and responsibly manage our negatives. All these things we are going to do under the re-branding platform?If we just relax, things won’t work because silence is acquiescence. If we listen to people who say “Nigerians are criminals, they are fraudsters, they are 419ers, in that country nothing works, in the internet Nigeria is unsafe”, if we say nothing, it means that we have accepted it. And for too long we have accepted that stigma. Through the re-branding project, we are saying that we can no longer continue to wear that label of criminals because we are not all criminals. Most Nigerians are good people. Nigerians are hard-working, resourceful and hospitable to a fault. All over the world, Nigerians have excelled in their various areas of endeavour. What of the ordinary Nigerians in millions who work round the clock unsung, unrecognised, not celebrated? Most of them are not living comfortably and yet they don’t steal, they don’t cheat, because it’s not in our culture.?The Nigerian government is honest enough to accept that corruption is a problem. Too many people will not even accept that. But we have accepted that to the point of establishing two anti-corruption agencies. Even if we don’t believe that they are doing enough, the important thing is that something is being done against corruption.??
Some critics say that the amnesty that was offered to militants in the Niger Delta is just a bait and does not address the fundamental problem of underdevelopment of the region.?
Government has shown a lot of good intention towards our brothers and sisters in the Niger Delta. Government has been engaging them. Already we have the Niger Delta Development Commission. And government in addition created a ministry of Niger Delta – the only region in the country with a ministry solely for the development of that area and ensuring that government is brought closer to them. Actually that ministry is supposed to maintain constant dialogue and not just the provision of infrastructural facilities so that that troubled area will be calm. Eventually government came up with amnesty. What is wrong with the president making peace with people of the Niger Delta? We’ve given them this olive branch of saying: please lay down your arms, you will not be prosecuted.??
What do you see as the future of Nigeria? ?
Nigeria of the future will be brighter. Why not? The Nigeria of today is more developed, despite all the challenges, than Nigeria of ten years ago. The Nigeria of ten years to come will be much more developed than the Nigeria of today. Not just in the area of infrastructure, but in all areas. Ten years ago, how many of us knew how to use the computer? But right now if you see the hands of seven- to ten-year-old children on the computer, you will think that it is a machine moving. You can imagine what these children will be in ten years time. So I have hope in this country.