By Bilesanmi Olalekan
Senator Muhammed Ndume – Borno South – was the Minority Leader in the House of Reps as an ANPP lawmaker before he moved to the PDP and then became a senator. His political career took a twist when he was accused of sponsoring the Boko Haram Islamist group.
In this interview, he hails the onslaught against Boko Haram by the military forces but says the insurgency by the sect festered after government took it for granted that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau died during a raid on his hideout in 2012.
Ndume warns that same mistake should not be made in the wake of the current claim that the sect leader has been killed. The senator also speaks on some other national issues.
Where were you and what was your reaction when you heard that the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, was dead?
First of all, I was not very sure since his body was not shown and there was no categorical statement from the military that he was dead, like the American military told the world about the late Osama bin Laden, they were categorical. I was not around when the announcement concerning Shekau’s death was made. However it is not the death of Shekau that concerns me, it is the problems that relate to the insurgency that concern me.
I hope the death of Shekau means the death of Boko Haram insurgency and the security challenges that we are facing in the North- east. But the death of a sect leader like this does not usually bring insurgency to an end. Government must take action in order to make sure that the Boko Haram insurgency comes to a total end. Mind you, we in the North-east are in the fore front of the whole crisis.
We are in the centre of the crisis. We know how it feels. I was home last week, I went round my constituency, saw the two most affected communities, Dambua and Dangoza. It was a pathetic sight to behold. Towns that were very vibrant and lively have suddenly become ghost towns. It is either the people have run away or have been killed. What you see are children here and there. You can hardly get somebody above 30 living around. Though I think it is getting better now especially with the emergency rule because normalcy is beginning to set in.
You were part of the Presidential Committee raised to dialogue with Boko Haram at a time and, suddenly, you found yourself in the web of the sect-government crisis, leading to your arrest and arraignment in court. Any regret that you wanted to assist the government in the first place?
No, I didn’t regret it at all. Though I feel bad about the whole thing and that is why I said before the interview that I would not want to talk about it and I will appreciate if we don’t go beyond that because security issues are not something you politicise, trivialise, tribalise. It is a calamity and I have always said instances of this nature should be looked into collectively, not looking for scapegoats, but solutions to the problems.
But when government sees problems and they begin to look for scapegoats, then you are not finding solution to the problems. And you know for now it will be subjudice talking much about it because it is still in court. As a leader and someone who is from the affected area, I think when you have serious issues like the one we are having now, you don’t trivialise, tribalise or give it a religious colouration.
It is like cancer, it will just keep on spreading and, before you know it, it is beyond control. Initially, government was trivialising the matter until they saw that it was going beyond them, so I was happy that they brought in the military. And that is why results are coming out now. People, I mean civilians, are themselves volunteering information because they have seen that government has shown seriousness.
Youths are now arresting Boko Haram members. I know some boys, all the way from Borno, went to Lagos to arrest a suspected Boko Haram member. In those days, nobody talked about it. But they have all seen that government is damn serious about fighting the insurgency, and that is why they also are showing support for the the government action and we are all seeing results.
But it is not time to relent on what they are doing until they finally get to the end of the problem. In 2009, when Boko Haram was crushed, everybody thought it was over, saying Shekau was dead even though some had contrary views, only for him to resurface in 2011 and unleashed very serious damage on government. All of us must support government because it is a national issue, it is not a religious issue because it has never been. When they now go about attacking mosques, would you now say that is religious?
Talking about government showing seriousness, some have said the emergency rule was late in coming?
That is true. The emergency rule had been in some local government areas in the states affected prior to the main emergency. Government was not as serious as it is now in tackling the issue. It has even gone further in creating a garrison in that area in order to effectively tackle the issue. This is something that would have been done long time ago.
If it were done then, we would have gone very far. But as the saying goes, it is better late than never. And I think we have paid the price for it. Of course, the action is effective. But it is not perfect as we all know. I am more concerned about the civilian JTF, that is, the youths who are giving out information leading to the arrest of the sect members, I think they (government) should use this opportunity to organise them because, at the moment, they are just there, there is no structure; government should take advantage of this opportunity and organise these youths. There is no support whatsoever aside the cover the JTF gives them. After the menace of the Boko Haram, what do you do with them? The soldiers would go back to their barracks, where would the youths go ?
The child marriage controversy
That is not true. There was nothing of such.
How about your colleagues that….
You had better talk to my colleagues then. You are talking to me. You want to hear from me? So, listen. I Senator Muhammed Ali Ndume didn’t vote on marriageable age. And nobody in the chamber that day did. On the issue of marriageable age, nobody did. What happened was that Section 29, Subsection 4 or thereabouts of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, says that if you want to renounce your citizenship, you must be 18 years of age or you must be of marriageable age.
The committee was saying that the clause should be removed and those that are in support of the clause to be expunged should vote yes while those against it should vote no. That was what happened. The issue of age and marriage didn’t arise at all. We all voted according to our conscience. Then Senator Yerima raised an issue that expunging it would affect Islamic legal system which didn’t specify age bracket in marriage.
So, where the issue of marriage came in, I don’t know. That was why the Senate president was even saying no, we had taken a decision on that already but, for me, I am really surprised that we are wasting energy on this when we should be talking about lack of electricity, unemployment. I have a daughter that is 25 years old now, she will marry at the time she is ready to .
I married my first wife at the age of 19 when she was in the university. When I was to marry my second wife, she was about graduating from the university at the age of 22. I don’t think we should waste much energy discussing this. After all, do you marry without consent? If you have a daughter that you brought up, would anybody marry her out for you? Or are you going to marry out your daughter when she is not ready for marriage?
There is no light, there is security challenge, the schools are shut and here we are talking about marriage. This is one of my concerns for this country. I am even worried now talking about it with you because I know very soon, they will start abusing Ndume on the pages of newspapers and in the social media. I saw my name and picture on the pages of newspapers on the day we voted on the citizenship issue as if we killed somebody.
But it is proven that early marriage brings about diseases like vesico vagina fistula, VVF.
That is a lie. That is happening because we don’t have a good health care system; otherwise when you see pregnancy that may be injurious to the child and mother, you perform CS on the woman. Why don’t we insist that we should have good health care system? Why don’t we insist that parents should be more responsible? I will not marry out my daughter under 18.Please let us talk about serious issues.
The jumbo package members of the National Assembly collect is said to be adding to the high cost of governance in this country and as explained by Obi Ezekwezili, a former minister, recently, that about N1trillion has been spent on you people in the last 10 years.
Let me say that the cost of governance in Nigeria is prohibitive. Out of the national budget, you spend about 75% on recurrent expenditure. Is that not too much? However, you don’t isolate the National Assembly. It was only in the last three years that the budget of the National Assembly shot up. So, since the last three to four years now, the budget has always been N150b which includes the running cost, salaries of members of the National Assembly, legislative aides, National Assembly Commission, National Assembly staff, National Assembly capital and recurrent.
Take N150billion in this year’s budget as against the budget of N4.9trillion, what percentage does that give you? And out of that, go and check the salaries, allowances and emoluments that go the members of the National Assembly, not National Assembly as a whole and check out the figures. Go to the Presidency, each of the ministries, look at their spending, then you can now talk, but you don’t just want to make news for news sake.
If you take the N3.2
trillion which is the recurrent expenditure of this year’s budget and take N150 billion and divide it, you now say it is the National Assembly that is responsible for the high cost of governance in this country? Let me tell you, even the budget loopholes or leakages are more than what the National Assembly is taking. Agreed that the cost of governance is high, it is not because of what the National Assembly is being paid.
If National Assembly members are taking jumbo pay and milking the country as they are saying, go and see former members of the assembly, are they not supposed to be rich Nigerians? When have they taken the money to? Are they not supposed to be building structures that would make them richer even after leaving the assembly?
Go and look at them especially those that didn’t return, go and see the type of life they are living; that is when you will know whether they are taking jumbo pay or not. And then go and look at a retired director and see the life he is living after retirement. Go and see even this minister that is talking, she was minister just a few years back and see her standard of living now and compare it with our former senate presidents.
Go and take the statistics of the office of minister for education while she was there, the personal emoluments she was spending in the office as a minister and compare it to what was being paid to a senator that period. I don’t want to join issues with anybody but this issue of looking for scapegoat syndrome that is common with us should be stopped. The President said that they are going to sacrifice 30% of their salaries, did it work?
Have they implemented it? We in the assembly, out of the allowances, we said we are going to cut off 30% across board and we did. But that has not been done in the executive arm. The budget quagmire we found ourselves in was because members of the appropriation cut off personnel cost of some of the ministries which nearly turned this country upside down. You people are talking about those who just for traveling expenses, they are spending billions of naira, no one is talking about that.
The matter came up as a result of petition. A member of the executive spent about N2billion on travels only. If you give me N2billion today, I will not play politics again, if you say you are giving me and not that I should give my people, that it is mine, I am done. It is just that we are the most endangered species in all of this but we are ready to take the bashing. We are the symbol of democracy. But truly the cost of governance in this country should be looked into so that about 75% should go into capital while the balance can go to personnel and recurrent.
Objectively, is your party, the PDP, in crises?
Yes, but that does not mean there are no gains. However, democracy, not PDP, has not given the much desired dividends we deserve. Blame is not only on the doorsteps of the PDP. It is a collective responsibility. Just because the PDP is on the driver’s seat does not mean the passengers are less guilty. Yes, the PDP government has been running this country for the past 13 years, but not independently, it runs the country interdependently. The opposition is there. Nigerians are there. It is supposed to be a collective thing.
So, on the assessment of our democracy in the last 13 years ,I will say we are yet to get to where we are supposed to be. But we can’t put the blame squarely on the door steps of the PDP because you can’t have a bad leader if you don’t have a bad followership. Leadership is supposed to be for the people, by the people; if it is not working well, you don’t just look at the head, you look at the whole body.
There is controversy as to which region should be elected in 2015. The North insists it is their turn while the South-south is saying the President must be given a second term. You are a northerner. What is your take?
Let me be honest with you. I feel bad when we begin to tribalise an important issue like this. We are in democracy which is about elections. We are copying the presidential system and, in the presidential system like the American that we are copying, in America today, are they talking about north or east? south or west? There was a Nigerian mayor in Ohio or Columbus. There was one again in Russia. But here, is it possible for you, Ola, to leave Lagos and go to Borno to win election? But let me tell you, in 1979 to1983, the Secretary to the State Government in Borno State was a Yoruba man.
The Chief Judge in Borno in 1979 to 1983 was Justice Kalu Anya. He is from South-east. But, today, all that is gone. This is how this country is supposed to be, it does not matter where you come from. The important thing is to have a good President. The region he comes from, to me , does not matter. It is a President that can deliver, not where he or she comes from.
Has this president delivered?
I told you that I don’t want to talk about personalities but issues or ideas. It is weak minds that discuss personalities. As I said, you can’t have a bad President until you have a bad followership. Is Jonathan running this country alone? So please let us refrain from discussing personalities, let us talk about issues that will move our country forward. If Obama dies today, America will be up and running.
I have said it several times, government should be like a rail track and, once the train is on the track, unless something happens, you cannot suddenly stop. But Nigeria is being run like a bicycle now. You know bicycle depends on the person riding it. If you ride it fast, it will be fast and if you choose to be slow, slow shall it move, if you stop, it will stop too. That is how we are running it. We should build strong institutions not personalities. Once the policies are right which of course will determine the speed of the train, that is all we need, not personalities.
At the time you defected to the PDP, it was barely three months to the general elections of 2011. How did you win the election on a different platform and even to a higher level-Senate?
It was just the work of God. I am a very lucky person. I am from a poor background. My father didn’t go to school and my late mother was barely educated before she was married to my father. I don’t have anybody that is rich in my family. I went into politics without any godfather. My god father presently and all along from the beginning is God. If I have a political god father, I would not be going through the travails I am going through now. But I believe that God allowed it to be so because of a purpose which I don’t know and I pray it is positive.
There is no magic. My guiding principle in life is, ‘Don’t ever forget where you are coming from if you want to know where you are going’. I know that I am from, so I always relate with the poor and up till now the poor identify with me. And incidentally, the poor are the majority and the poor are the ones that decide one’s fate and the voice of the people, they say, is the voice of God.
That was how I emerged. An individual in our politics that time, that was our sitting governor, thought he could play God, but the same God came out to say no. Although we cannot see Him but He is always there and it was through Him that I emerged victorious. I went to PDP, even my being in PDP is God’s choice. I won the election decisively. There was no election petition against me. As a matter of fact, I have never gone to court in my life until they said I sponsored Boko Haram. I have never gone to court even on a civil issue. But God must have put me through all these for a purpose and I hope it is a positive one.