By Emmanuel Aziken
HE is a far cry from the more flashy Leaders that preceded him. But that Senator Teslim Folarin is today fully in the saddle and deftly asserting himself as the leader of the Senate is not in doubt. As the fulcrum upon which the business of the Senate revolves, Senator Folarin has remarkably carried out his duties with a simplicity that betrays his relative freshness to the complexity of national politics.
Yet beneath the faÃ§ade of seeming naivety is a resoluteness that has battered the prestige of some of his distinguished colleagues in the Senate. Born in October 1963, Folarin has a B ScÂ Degree in Political ScienceÂ from University of Ibadan; and MCSE from Elite College, London. He was tutored in the art of real politics in Molete, Ibadan by the deceased godfather of Amala politics, Chief Lamidi Adedibu. Senator Folarin who now represents Oyo Central Senatorial District in the Senate spoke on his leadership of the Senate, life after the death of Adedibu and on other sundry issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the Senate in the last two years?
Itâ€™s been good. Weâ€™ve made progress and we have managed to stabilize the politics.
The President has been reported as saying that the Senate have not measured up to expectation.
Iâ€™m also told the President didnâ€™t say that. There is no record of him saying that. He wonâ€™t say such a thing. I donâ€™t know where it came from because his linkman to the National Assembly, Senator Abba Aji whom I work with very closely has denied that the President ever said that. So, I donâ€™t believe he said so.
But he was reported to have written to the Senate, saying it passed only four bills.
I cannot recall receiving such a letter. This issue of bills, we are not in the business of passing bills for passing sake. This Senate is concentrating more on oversight function and Iâ€™ve made that very clear to people who would care to listen. The last Senate, which I was part of, Iâ€™m told we passed over a hundred bills. But the institutions that are tasked with making these laws work are not functioning properly. Thatâ€™s the truth. So, we are saying that let us begin to see how these institutions are working. You can see all these public hearings happening. Weâ€™ve been calling them and asking questions and we are doing more of that. The few bills we have passed are bills I believe would impact on the lives of Nigerians.
When you talk of oversight, it has been alleged and reported that oversight is to some Senators an opportunity for extortion. As the leader of the Senate, have you heard such report?
It is very easy in Nigeria for everyone to accuse everybody of extortion. When you donâ€™t get your way, they say you collected money and Ghana-must-go. I can say without any fear of contradiction that I have no evidence of that.
Senators have been going on oversight functions and they have done very well. In FCT for instance, if you look at the Public Hearing we did on the tenure of the last administration, it uncovered so many things. If it were to extort as people seem to claim, they wouldnâ€™t be doing that sort of work.
But critics allege that these Public Hearings and probes have not made any substantive progress or landmark in the polity?
No doubt they have. I just mentioned the one on FCT. There is a big one comingÂ again on transport, the one by Senator Heineken Lokpobiri. We are expecting his report any moment from now. If you look at the FCT probe, it heard of a lot of injustices that was done to Nigerians. We are in the process of trying to correct them.
When Nigerians vote for you, it is to go and make a difference, not to make them suffer. They vote for you not for you to take advantage of them. So, where we see problems that government has caused people, we try to correctÂ them and thatâ€™s what the Senate probe was all about.
One of your Committee Chairmen Senator Ugbane was held in Kuje Prison for more than two weeks. Itâ€™s an unprecedented record for a Senator to be incarcerated for that long. How do you feel about it?
Like everyone, I feel sad. It would be unfair of me to be judgmental because the matter is in court as you well know. So, it would be irresponsible of me to speak on a matter that is before the court. Again, it is not in the character of this Senate to interfere with judicial process. When the case comes up in court, we will see what they say.
If a Senator could be held in prison for more than three weeks, what do you think of an ordinary Nigerian?
When you say a Senator, a Senator is a Nigerian and you have to look at it from that perspective. I donâ€™t think it is right to say that just because you are a Senator, it means you have to get special treatment. If you are a Senator or anybody, you have to comply. You have to live within the laws of the land. Iâ€™m not saying heâ€™s guilty. In any case, we donâ€™t have the power to interfere in the work of the courts. Even if we do have the power, we wont do that.
As a lawmaker, are you satisfied with that process that keeps somebody in prison for three weeks, irrespective of the fact that heâ€™s Senator?
Now I like what you are saying because what the law says is that you have to charge him to court within twenty four hours. I donâ€™t have the full facts but Iâ€™ve been briefed that they went to the Magistrate Court and got some injunctions to keep them there, pending the finality of their investigation. Iâ€™m not a lawyer and I donâ€™t know whether you can do that. But if they are doing it, I want to believe that it is possible for them to do it. But I donâ€™t think itâ€™s right for you to keep anybody (for that long). But because heâ€™s a Senator, we have to be very careful because if you begin to make an issue out of it, the next thing Nigerians will say is that it is because heâ€™s a Senator.
Again, let us look at it from the other side. What it means is that the system is now working. In the Second republic, it would not have been possible for you to hold a Senator for this long. But this is happening now and what it means is that the system is now working and we are making improvement.
This issue and several others have led to proposals and speculations that the executive arm of government is snobbish of the Legislature. Do you consider it so?
Itâ€™s a different arm of government. So, I donâ€™t think we are really bothered about whether they are snobbish or not. That is the truth. There is a principle of separation of power and we are a different arm of government. We have our jobs to do and we will do it. But I donâ€™t think that statement is correct. I think itâ€™s you the press trying to create excitement in the polity. I confirm to you that we met the party and we discussed these issues. Very soon, we will also meet the president. I donâ€™t think there is any problem, to be honest with you.
In the last dispensation, there were regular consultations between the executive and the legislative arms of government. Is it the same between you and the presidency now?
At the beginning, we met at different times with the President. I think we met every fortnight and it was very useful because we would share ideas, he would tell us what he is doing and we would tell him what we are doing. Where there are synergies, we try to make sure there is no conflict.
In the last few months, that has not happened. But what has happened and I can tell you is that his Liaison Officer to the National Assembly meets with me. They hold regular meetings on Mondays. I tell him what I want to do and he tells us what they expect of us and we plan our way from there. The Senate President meets Mr. President regularly and if there is any message, he will pass it to us.
One of the bills brought by the President to reform the Electoral System was killed by the Senate. As the leader of the Senate and direct sponsor of the bill were you disappointed?
It was a bit disappointing because every executive bill is my bill. So, you are right there. Again, I have to take some responsibility. Maybe I didnâ€™t read the mood of the Senate well. If I had read it properly, maybe I should have withdrawn that bill.
Do you agree with the arguments by the Senators that the Bill was defective?
You have to. Once the Senate has taken a position, you have to abide by that decision. Iâ€™m also part of that decision.
Was that not as a result of lack of consultation between the executive and the legislative branches of government controlled by your party?
You may be right but like I said, weâ€™ve taken steps to make sure it doesnâ€™t happen again. Maybe one or two things should have been done. But let me be honest with you. These are critical bills and I said to Abba Aji the other day that we expect to be carried along fully. I donâ€™t sit in their FEC meeting because Iâ€™m not a member of FEC. So, after the FEC meeting and decision is taken to forward the bills to us, I expect to be fully briefed on where they are coming from. That wasnâ€™t done. But I can assure you that wonâ€™t happen again.
Do you have any confidence that the remaining bills will be passed by the Senate?
There are one or two bills again that we are not sure about. But like I said, I take responsibility for that bill because I didnâ€™t read the mood of the Senate well. Part of my job is to read the mood and see whether a bill will go through. I misread the mood of the Senate. You see how the Senate President managed the debate for two, three days. Maybe I should have taken a queue from that.
The House of Representatives has passed a number of bills that are yet to be considered by the Senate and the Senate has also passed some bills that are yet to be considered by the House. Why is there no concurrence going on?
We need to simplify the process. For instance, I spoke with the Chairman, Committee on Rules and Business and he is discussing with his House counterpart. We are saying that if a Bill has been passed in the House, we donâ€™t have to go the full hog again because it doesnâ€™t make sense. We should device a system whereby we just do first and second reading on those bills and we send them to the Committee for concurrence. When we resume from our summer break, I think we will begin to see more of those bills passed. But itâ€™s a good observation.
A number of Senators and observers have complained about the multiplicity of Committees, which derail both the legislature and the executive arms of government from being focused. The Committees are so many and the Executive has to report to so many of them. Are you not worried?
I think itâ€™s a function of a level of democratic experience. There are lots of politics in this too and you have to stabilize the Senate and all that stuff. Iâ€™m sure that as we mature, we will begin to condense these Committees.
Are you satisfied with the level of performance of the Committees?
A lot of them have done very well. You find one or two that you expect more performance.
Do you have any system of checks and discipline
You have to understand that you operate in an environment where you are first among equals. So, itâ€™s not like a Governor_Commissioner relationship where you call the Commissioner and say look Iâ€™m sacking you. It doesnâ€™t happen that way in the National Assembly. You have to treat them with respect. What Iâ€™ve found is that the ones we think are not performing, most of them have good reasons that we may not be aware of. There are personal problems that I would not like to go into. But we are looking seriously into freshening things. But when it will happen is what I donâ€™t know.
But you said this same thing of reconstituting the committees last July?
Yes, I did say so but you have to understand that politics is very dynamic and you have to get the timing right. Thatâ€™s the other thing. You are operating in an environment of first among equals. You donâ€™t just wake up one day and say youâ€™veÂ sacked one Committee Chairman. It doesnâ€™t work out like that in a legislature. You have to look at the timing. And even when we do it, it wonâ€™t be the whole Committees. It will just be a few.
You have served under three Senate Presidents â€“ Senator Wabara, Senator Nnamani and Senator David Mark. How would you assess the three?
They are three different Senate Presidents with three different styles. But for me, they were all effective, to be honest with you. I have had the privilege to work with David Mark and for me, heâ€™s the best. There is no doubt about that. I think if you look at his pedigree, people say David Mark is very good and that he presides very well. With all due respect to the last too, I think heâ€™s had more experience in public life than both of them. I didnâ€™t realize how good Ken was until he became Senate President. I think when you are challenged, then you begin to see a different side of people. I was very close to him as a Senator and when he became Senate President, he raised the bar and I think he did very well.
Some people believe that the stability of the present Senate is because David Mark is so rich that he doesnâ€™t have to touch your money. Do you agree with this opinion?
People know what is due to them and he doesnâ€™t have to tamper with peopleâ€™s funds. If you are asking me why we have stability in the Senate, I think it is because the leadership and the entire Senate are working together. In 1999 when those guys came, they had nothing to fall on and it was difficult for them. They had been sent packing for years and, suddenly, you find yourself in an arm of government that is very critical to the survival of democracy. So, they were learning the ropes and it wasnâ€™t easy for them; hence all the instability then. From 1999 to 2003 we had three Senate Presidents, from 2003 to 2007, we managed two.
So how many Senate Presidents do you hope to manage this time?
I think we are very happy with the Senate President. The Senate, National Assembly and indeed Nigerians are very happy with him. Heâ€™s been there and for the younger ones like us, we are learning so much from him and I hope I would one day be in a position to practice some of the things Iâ€™ve learnt from him.
What are your political interests in Oyo State?
This is my second time in the Senate. I didnâ€™t ask to be a Senate leader but I became a Senate Leader and I decided that I was going to give it my best, which I believe Iâ€™m trying to do. Iâ€™m not saying Iâ€™m the best, but I can say we have surprised a lot of people. I just mentioned Ken to you who surprised a lot of us when he became Senate President, not that we thought he was an idiot. But the way he managed the Senate was okay. He did his own bit. The same thing could be said about me.
As a two-time Senator and Senate Leader, I am a national leader, not just for my State. So, quite naturally, I have interest in what happens, not just here in Abuja but also in my State.
As for aspirations, Iâ€™m not one to start planning for the next dispensation and Iâ€™ve never been like that. I take everything as they come and I do my bit and see what happens.
Do you feel like an orphan now, since the demise of your political godfather, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu?
It was difficult when he died. Unfortunately, a lot of people didnâ€™t get to reach him. Iâ€™m not saying his style was the best. But a lot of people didnâ€™t know about this man. I tend to be loyal to people who are loyal to me. He helped me become a Senator. Nobody knew me before then. He helped me climb the traditional ladder. There is no way I will write my political history without mentioning this man. I didnâ€™t betray him while he was alive and I wonâ€™t betray him in death. Itâ€™s been very difficult because he did all the organization for us. If Baba was alive, I think you would have seen a better Senate Leader because I would have concentrated more on my job.
What are the distractions you have?
There are so many distractions in politics. There are always people wanting to criticize and undermine you.
Since he died, has anybody come up to fill the vacuum?
Nobody can be like Adedibu. He was unique because he wasnâ€™t interested in any electoral office. So, it was easy for him to take decisions. Some people will like his decisions and some wonâ€™t, but he doesnâ€™t care. As far as heâ€™s concerned, he has taken his decisions.
Iâ€™m sure you wonâ€™t call him a democrat.
Let me tell you one thing you donâ€™t know about that man: he was a true democrat. Before he took any decision, he would call us and everybody will make an input before he takes a decision. Even if he doesnâ€™t agree with us, he will give reasons. But a lot of people didnâ€™t know that.
What is your relationship with Governor Akala?
Itâ€™s cordial. Heâ€™s the governor of my State and I have got to respect that.
Would you support him for a second term?
He hasnâ€™t told me he wants to go for a second term; but if he asks me to support him, why not. The constitution allows him to do a second term and if he wants to do a second term, we will sit down and talk and we look at all the issues.
It was reported you had some disagreement with Babaâ€™s political disciples, especially the Deputy Governor.
That was in the past. I can call him now and he will say hello to you. When Baba died, there was bound to be flexing of muscles and that was what happened then. At the end of the day, we had to work to together. I and the Deputy Governor, we belong to the same camp. He knows my style and I know his style. I know his weakness, he knows mine and we complement each other. So, I was just laughing when people made a lot of noise about our relationship. But I knew we would get back together at the right time. We are back together now.
Are you also together with Governor Ladoja?
I have a relationship with all my leaders, not just Ladoja, but Chief Adeogun, Lekan Balogun,
But not like when Baba was alive. To be very honest, you canâ€™t do that when Baba was alive.