As an only child, he grew up without a father and learned to fight his own battles from an early age. Atiku Abubakar, Turaki Adamawa, rose above the challenges of his early life to enjoy an enviable r in the Nigeria Customs Service. But it is politics that brought him into national limelight since he first took a shot at the Nigerian Presidency in the early 1990s and narrowly missed becoming the standard bearer of the Social Democratic Party. Since then, he has not looked back, at least politically. He was elected Governor of Adamawa State in 1999 but was never sworn in as fate smiled on him with former President Olusegun Obasanjo picking him as Vice President. That choice was a turning point for Atiku who quickly grew into perhaps the most powerful VP Nigeria ever had before things literally fell apart between him and Obasanjo. In the midst of the chasm, Atiku’s persona went through a major metamorphosis. He literally became the ‘face of corruption’ within the Obasanjo administration. With allegations of graft swirling around him, Atiku wrestled his principal in a byzantine game of intrigues until they both left office. But the story of what went wrong has never really been told, at least not in the no -holds -barred tradition of Zero Tolerance.
For many months, we made efforts to make him grant us an interview to tell his own story, but it had been one excuse or the other. But on June 1, 2016, the opportunity came and the team of TONY ORILADE, KAMILU GEBI, AISHA MOHAMMED and POLYCARP SAGA, took him up on sundry issues. Excerpts:
The name Atiku Abubakar cannot be ignored in Nigeria, what makes Atiku tick?
I don’t know, maybe because I’m straightforward, plain and always speak my mind. You see, I’ve been in politics for the last 25 years, and in those years I have fought the military to restore democracy; and after democracy was restored, by the grace of God and support of Nigerians, I was in government for eight years as Vice President. I believe I did my best as a Vice President though there were turbulent political moments; I came out of it and I have continued with my political career and business activities.
I think anybody who has been in either business or politics in the last 25 years must have come across me one way or the other.
From 1999 to 2007 you were the Vice President and it is on record that you fought many judicial battles.
I have always fought injustice since my student days and therefore if I believed I was pursuing a right, just cause, I give it all my strength and courage to make sure I get justice.
Considering the battles that you fought in government, not a few are surprised that you have maintained a respectable relationship with your boss, former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
I still thank God and him for nominating me as his Vice President which gave me the opportunity to experience governance at the highest level. We had political disagreements, quite rightly so. I never shied away from political disagreements; we quarrelled and where we couldn’t make up, it became public knowledge. But I still respect him as my former boss. The fact that we disagreed politically is no reason why we should be at loggerheads all our lifetime.
In any case, as far as politics is concerned I don’t have any enemy; I could have an opponent. Enmity is too strong a word to use in a relationship that is purely political.
Allegation of corruption was your albatross in the race for the presidency in 2006. Is Atiku Abubakar corrupt?
Well, if Atiku Abubakar was corrupt, he would have been found guilty of corruption by all the panels and probes and cases that were brought before the courts. I remember the only corruption indictment against me was a white paper which was cooked up by our own administration overnight including the very EFCC that I helped found, and other cabinet ministers, which I challenged in court. The court rightly dismissed all those indictments as being mere political; and till today nobody has ever indicted me of corruption.
You just mentioned the EFCC as an agency that cooked up a white paper that indicted you of corruption. At that point in time, the Commission was headed by Nuhu Ribadu; how will you describe your relationship with him today?
Well, I recall when he came to ask for my forgiveness, I said if you want me to forgive you Nuhu, go to the same television stations where you said I was corrupt and say you now realize that I am not corrupt. Then he said sir, ‘you have forgiven so many people who have offended you publicly, without them going to TV stations to apologise to you. Why is my own case different?’ I said ‘your case is different because first of all I helped to found the EFCC; I made sure that even when you had no budget, I took money from the privatization council and gave you as a loan so that you can function before the National Assembly approved your budget. I was instrumental to your appointment, so I believe I had contributed to your development and that is what you are now paying me back with’. In any case, he kept apologising and I said ‘okay; no problem’. That closed the chapter.
But you’ve never supported his political aspirations?
No, when we were in the same political party, APC, he came to me and said he has been asked to join PDP and I told him please don’t go to PDP. If you think I might not support your political aspirations in Adamawa, you are wrong. If the people of Adamawa say they want you, I also want you. Not only that, I sent one of his closest friends, Senator Lawal Shuaibu, who is now Deputy Chairman, North, APC, to go and tell Nuhu to please remain in APC and not move to PDP. But eventually he left, so there was never a time when he needed my political support and it was not forthcoming. The point is that I am a true democrat, if he goes through a process and emerges as the choice of the people, I will always support that choice.
Could it be that he doubted your sincerity?
Maybe, but I don’t know. This is what happened between us and I am very straightforward so it was up to him.
The current governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, in his book: “Accidental Public Servant” portrays you as a very corrupt person. Is the book account accurate about your person?
Did he give any evidence or prove where I was corrupt? Again this is the same el-Rufai whom I was instrumental in bringing into government and making him Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, and eventually a minister. You also forgot that it was the same el-Rufai and Nuhu that my boss used in cooking up the indictment that was eventually thrown out.
So, where is the evidence of corruption? It’s just not fair for you to say somebody is corrupt without substantiation. This is the same el-Rufai who testified on TV that he worked with me as DG of BPE for four years and there was never a time I asked him or instructed him to do anything unethical in those years.
So, how am I a corrupt person? This is the same el-Rufai and others who incorporated Transcorp during my time as Vice President and offered me shares and I declined. I wrote them officially to say it was unethical of me to have accepted those offers. So, where is the corruption toga coming from?
But he mentioned the fact that you were the arrowhead in the N50 million bribe scandal involving Senators Ibrahim Mantu, Jonathan Zwingina and others during his ministerial confirmation screening…
No, absolutely not. He must have misconstrued what happened. He actually ran to me to say that he was denied confirmation by the Senate. Of course, I called Mantu and others and confronted them, and they admitted that yes they denied him because they do not see him as a Minister. It is also on record, because I controlled the campaign funds, every Senator benefitted from those funds; and el-Rufai now went and said those campaign funds were meant to be a bribe. This is how he came about concocting that story. Of course my boss, the President, investigated the story and found out that indeed every Senator got contributions from the campaign fund which I was managing.
So where is the corruption in that? Had he discovered that there was corruption, he would have used it against me because he was looking for anything to nail me. But he couldn’t get it because I brought him evidence of all those that benefitted from the campaign fund.
Why was he looking for anything to nail you?
My offence was simply because I disagreed with him on the amendment of the Constitution, to remove tenure/term limits or what was popularly called the “third term agenda”. In fact he sent the then Attorney General and Prof. Jerry Gana to my office to bring me the draft amendments to the constitution. After going through, I found out that tenure limits had been removed. In other words he could be President for life! I now asked them that, ‘if I send you to the President can you deliver this message’. They said ‘yes’. I said ‘go and tell him I will not support it and I will fight it’.
But he never admitted there was a third term agenda.
As far as I’m concerned, he called me on the phone and said ‘VP, I’m sending Attorney General Kanu Agabi and Jerry Gana to see you’. So it’s my word against his.
The story then was that you attempted to thwart his second term bid and he had to kneel down to beg you before you conceded. Is this true?
(smiles) It is not true that he knelt for me. Of course he came to my house and I refused to see him. He started it. How can you go and declare your candidature and refuse to declare that you will run with your running mate? So I had to fight back to remain on the ticket. Eventually he declared that he was running with me and then came to my house and we made up.
It was speculated that you suggested to him the ‘Mandela option’, that you were interested in taking over.
Absolutely not true. Rather he accused one of my aides of promoting the ‘Mandela option’.
In 2010, a United States Senate report was said to have accused you of laundering over $40 million in suspicious funds into the US between 2000 and 2008 in collaboration with your wife, Jennifer. Would you say this was orchestrated by your enemies?
It was an allegation which wasn’t proved. It was my legitimate money which I transferred to the US, there was nothing about it. More so, I was not indicted in that report. They only said suspicious funds but I proved before the Senate committee that they were not suspect.
Your friend, the Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson…
He was not my friend.
He was said to be close to you.
Never! He was not close to me.
Okay, what was the relationship between you and William Jefferson?
There was no relationship whatsoever.
Then tell us why he was linked to you?
The man wrote a letter to my office on a communications project, and for God’s sake, I was not the minister of communications; so I endorsed the letter to the minister of communications to address as his purview. After that, I travelled to the United States and he came to see me to bring the same copy of the letter. I told him, ‘well, I got a copy of this letter and have forwarded it to the ministry of communications to get in touch with you’, and he left! That was all we discussed.
Apparently, I didn’t know he had duped a lady and collected “marked money” from her in my name; unknown to him the FBI was on his trail. But of course there was no way he could give me money because, what was $100,000 to me? Eventually, my wife’s residence was searched and nothing was found; but when his residence was searched, of course the money was found there; and he was convicted. I was not even called as a witness.
The last time this magazine spoke with your former boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, he made reference to the fact that you are corrupt and that there is still a valid travel restriction on you to the United States.
There is no travel restriction on me to the United States. After leaving office, I’ve been to the US severally to visit my family which has eventually relocated.
When was the last time you visited the US?
The reason why I always visited the US was because of my wife. She is no more in the US. So I don’t have compelling reason to visit the US now.
How would you describe the anticorruption campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari?
Well, so far so good, the anti-corruption posture is in accordance to the laws of our country, nothing is being done extrajudicially.
What is your view on the way the EFCC, under its current leadership, is performing?
As much as possible, the EFCC is fighting corruption according to the rule of law. That’s the best it can do.
Your investments in the American University of Nigeria, was it morally appropriate to have done so as a sitting Vice President?
You need to have studied the structure of the University. More than 20 years ago, I started with a nursery school, then a primary school before I established the University. The whole institution is a Trust and non-profit foundation. Till date, I still don’t make any profit, and I have continued to subsidize the education being offered in that place. It is a complete educational community from Kindergarten to the University based on the American system in one place which doesn’t belong to me or the family.
My own is a completely different system from others. I don’t know their concept which may be for profit or other gains, but mine isn’t a profit making venture.
Do you intend to make profit in the future?
Even if profit is eventually made, it will be reinvested in the place. So nothing will come back to me or any member of my family.
Going by the revelations from the arms procurement investigation, are you shocked at the level of corruption in our polity?
Honestly, I never thought it was that pervasive. I never thought!
So how can we separate money from politics in Nigeria?
You can separate money from politics if you have the right leadership. The leadership should give focus and direction as far as fighting corruption is concerned.
President Buhari is already saying that he will not allow institutions of government to fund political parties. Is that a realistic position?
First of all, it is fundamentally wrong and illegal to use government funds in financing political parties. As far as I know, being the custodian of the political process and structure during our time, we never used government funds. I drew up the structure of how we could fund our party then, and wenever used government funds.
How about the alleged funding of PDP from the NNPC accounts?
During our time?
Yes, during your time under Obasanjo’s government.
Not that I’m aware of. Maybe, at the later stage of our administration when the President of course decided to divest me of all responsibilities.