On that fateful afternoon of 13th December, 2017, we finally received a message that the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media & Publicity, Office of the Vice-President, Laolu Akande will be ready for our interview session, that same evening. We had trailed him for months on end to no avail.
At exactly 7.45pm, he ushered the Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, Segun Tomori into his office at the Presidential villa where he spoke extempore on the programmes of the Buhari administration, the persona of his boss, Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo among other issues that pertain to State of the Nation.
Q. It’s a pleasure meeting you sir. Not much is known about you before joining this administration as the Vice-President’s spokesman. Can you give us a sneak preview into who Laolu Akande is?
A. I’m a reporter, I’m a teacher and I’m a preacher. Those are the three things that I do.
Q. How has the experience of working with the Vice-President been for the past two and half years?
A. Very inspiring to work directly with a man of integrity, a man who has a clear understanding of what the problems are, and who is particularly focused on how to get solutions. He is very hard-working and has the confidence of the President. I find it to be a privilege to be working with a government that is truly reforming and taking the country in the right direction.
Q. Sir, the Vice-President is in charge of the economy as the head of the Economic Management Team (EMT), what would you consider as the giant strides of the present administration on the economy from inception till date?
A. The truth of the matter is that as much as people keep saying “hey stop talking about what happened”, who does that? There is no situation that exist or existed that doesn’t have a past. We are all products of the past. So we met a very messed up economic situation. The economy was already in downturn before we came and of course he ended up in recession. By the grace of God and by the hard work of the Buhari administration, we are out of recession. We are on to a recovery.
We are reforming several aspects of the economy in terms of diversification.
We have gone into agriculture in a very significant way. We have reduced rice importation and we’re getting into sufficiency in rice production, we are working on tomato policy, the fertiliser system has been revamped. If you look at what we are doing in the area of “Ease of Doing Business” which is one of the focus of Mr President, he asked the Vice-President to lead that charge. We stepped up 24 places in the World Bank ranking and also got cited as among the 10 most reforming economies in the World. That is quite significant and as the Vice-President put it, that is a third party endorsement of the Economic direction of this government.
So we are very confident that this country is going in the right direction and like the President said, we are not celebrating yet. We want to touch the lives of the people. That is why you see a lot of initiatives, which include trying to lower interest rates for people in manufacturing; that is why we had the anchor borrowers programme that is literally revolutionizing farming which is why we have the results that I spoke about. So we are taking a close look at the situation and keep striving to bring progress and direct development to the ordinary people and it is a day by day work to which we are firmly committed to.
Q. You mentioned the giant strides of the administration on agriculture but most analysts will posit it is not yet translating to reduction in food prices.. Is there a disconnect .. (Cuts in..)
A. There instances in which the food prices have dropped. Even if you look at the inflation rate, there is slight marginal decline in the inflationary rate so it is question of time, it is a question of keep doing what we are doing. We don’t want to give the impression that this there will be a sudden turnaround. This things have to be arranged, it’s not going to be magical. We are working in the right path.
We are encouraging diversification especially in the area of agriculture, we are encouraging building an environment that is conducive to people doing business. We are conducting MSMEs clinics where we bring people who have small business ideas, where we bring them in touch with government agencies to facilitate their work, we are trying to reorientate govt agencies like National Food, Drugs Administration And Control (NAFDAC), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) that their job is not to be obstacles but facilitators of people that have businesses.
That’s why we started the MSME clinics where the Vice-President has been going round the country, I think he has gone to about 10 or 11 States where we bring people who have small businesses together and we take the government agencies to them to solve their problems, ask questions and even enquire about how they can have access to affordable credit. It is our believe that if we continue on this path, which we will, we will get development to people that matters.
Q. Despite the achievements you have expatiated, not a few Nigerians believe that the All Progressives Congress (APC) administration has performed below expectations. Do you think this assertion is justified?
A. I think people should wait for 4 Years just like the President. Like I said, there is no point trying to judge a team in the half time. For instance, look at what the World bank said, that we are among the top 10 countries that are reforming the economy. That is a credible third party endorsement. So we are confident that we are on the right path and for the assessment, let’s wait and see.
I think the hand writing is on the wall that we are on the right path.
Q. People think in certain quarters that there is no effective communication of government policies and programmes to Nigerians under this administration. The Presidential media team is believed not to be doing enough in this regard, do you subscribe to this?
A. We work here, as you can see, this is 8pm and we are still here pushing out our messages. The truth of the matter is that communication is quite complicated especially now that we have the social media. There is a great deal of feedback and…
Q. Do you think a change of strategy will suffice?
A. I don’t think the problem is with the change of strategy. It is just that we have to do what we are doing and continue to do it and do much more. I have no problem to say that we will do much more to communicate what is happening here.
We just finished a meeting right now and I won’t be surprised if others are going on as we speak. We have a dedicated leadership. We have a President and Vice-President whose only agenda is to deal with the problems of the country, solve them and bring dividends of democracy to Nigerians. So our job in the media team is to continue to showcase that. Yes, we will do more. We will continue to engage, we will open more avenues to interact with Nigerians and make ourselves more accountable.
Q. An instance of a major government programme that most do not know about is the Social Investments Programme (SIP) that includes the Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT), Home-Grown School Feeding Programme, N-Power and GEEP. Shouldn’t there be some sort of advertisement or documentary of this programme on prime-time TV to keep Nigerians abreast of it?
A. Communication is a continuous process. You can never be done communicating. I think it is important for us to know that we will never get to a point where we can say the job is done, so it is a continuous process. Our SIP programmes, if you look at the social media, we have the messages out there. The beneficiaries themselves are telling the story especially N-Power.
I think by now, the average Nigerian has a fair knowledge of what N-Power is. We are serving one free meal per day to primary school pupils in 20 States, about 5m pupils are beneficiaries. The important thing is this is happening and it is touching lives. It is like a swelling, it is a groundswell that is building up, so if it hasn’t gotten widespread publicity, it is not that it won’t get there. It is on the way. 5m pupils are being fed; About 200,000 Nigerian graduates now have something to do, collecting N30,000 per month, they have their devices, another 300,000 have been pre-selected to join them early next year. On Government Enterprise Empowerment Programme (GEEP), I think close 250,000 traders, artisans have gotten very affordable non-interest loans with only a one-off 5% administrative cost.
Over a 100,000 very poor, vulnerable Nigerians are collecting N5,000 monthly and this numbers are rising. The momentum is building, very slowly. We are going to ramp it up to a point where it can no longer be hidden.
Q. Sir, Most Nigerians believe the Vice-President proved his mettle in leadership as Acting President during the medical vacation of President Muhammadu Buhari. What in your opinion makes Prof. Osinbajo tick?
A. Well, like I said, the Vice-President is a hard worker. Not just that he is brilliant but he works very hard. Some of us came to government and said we will work hard until we met Prof. Osinbajo and we said “Oh my God” (Laughs). So he works very hard, so anytime anyone works that hard, there is no how he won’t get that kind of results.
Second, he has a clear, a very clear understanding of where he is going and what his goals are. Three, I think the President and Vice-President have managed to strike a very unique partnership of mutual respect, of mutual understanding of issues and a common motivation of let’s just fix this country. So I think those are the factors that enabled him to act very well as President and to support the President as he continues his job as Vice-President.
Q. I’m going to ask this very straight. Do you see the Vice-President as a Presidential front-runner, if not in 2019, then 2023?
A. Our job right now is with the Vice-President and we are supporting him. We have absolute confidence in the President and the Vice-President and that is what we are concerned about. We are not concerned about 2019, we are concerned about 2018 that we are going into in a few weeks time by the grace of God.
We are concerned about what we are going to do to deliver the goods. We are concerned about how we will ramp up the Social Investments Programme (SIP), we are concerned about how we are going to speed up the Economic recovery and growth. That is what we are concerned about. We are not concerned about 2019, we are concerned about 2018 (Laughs) . We take one day, at a time.
We are dealing with what we have today. We have a job, we have a huge significant expectation from Nigerians. We take our job very seriously. We take the fact that Nigerians have said you guys go and do it. The President and the Vice-President formed a team which I belong to. We don’t take that job for granted at all.
So we are not bothered about what is going to happen next. We have been given four years and we want to discharge ourselves effectively, efficiently and faithfully.
Q. Finally, on a lighter note, how do you unwind, away from your very busy schedule?
A. Well, in several ways. I do a lot of singing. I watch TV. I’m a news junkie generally. I also watch African Magic. I watch Yoruba, I watch English and any language that can suffice (laughs), I try to sleep and I find time to take my wife to the movies at the weekend. And I find time to take a break generally. And once in a while, when I have the opportunity, I find time to preach.
Segun Tomori: Thank you for your time, and thanks for having us.
Mr. Akande : Thank you for coming. I hope together we can pull this country to where it truly belongs because the truth of the matter is that it is a country that God is interested in and very endowed. We have no excuse not to be great.