By Johnbosco Agbakwuru & Joseph Erunke
Senator Odion Ugbesia (PDP, Edo Central) says at 53 there is cause for celebration but more can be achieved through a national dialogue.
AFTER 53 years of independence, how have we fared as a country?
I will say that we have fared very well in so many areas. For instance, when I was studying in America in the 70s, I would write a letter to my parents and after like about six months, the thing would not get to them not to talk of talking to them but I have spoken to about five people in America today alone and another two persons in London.
I have spoken to my daughter in London twice today. So, that technological development is a major stride that we have made. Can you imagine in the 1960s, how many days it would take you to get from Benin to Abuja, Kaduna or Kano?
We are moving along with the times, we may be slow but definitely, we have moved quite fast and I think that is enough for a developing nation.\
By next year, Nigerians will celebrate 100 years of amalgamation, would you say Nigeria has fared well as a united nation or should the regions go their separate ways?
Let’s look at it from maybe a more philosophical point of view. We have fared the very way we are. This is the way God wanted Nigeria to be, that is where we are today. So, we have no cause to regret what God has done. And since our amalgamation 99 years ago, I think we have done marvelously well.
Can you imagine what life was 30, 40, 50 years ago if you were born at that time? So, I think we have done well whether you like it or not. But it is true that we have challenges but we will overcome those challenges.
I have had cause to say severally that 50 years, 70 years and 100 years in the life of a nation is small. We are still laying the foundation for growth, we are still laying foundation for solution to some of the challenges that we have, laying institutional foundation to deal with corruption, we are laying infrastructural foundation for infrastructural development. I think we should continue in the same commitment, with time I think we will overcome all these challenges and we will be proud that we are Nigerians.
There are fears out there that some of the challenges that we are having, especially the security challenges may affect the unity of this country, what is your take?
Anybody who says that will not be totally wrong but we are praying that it does not. It is a plural society; it is the plurality that is beginning to manifest itself negatively now.
But with some concerted efforts, I think we can find some ways to deal with this plurality and find common grounds that will bring about cohesion and harmony in this country.
I have always said that at every point in time, we should choose the banner of peace, banner of dialogue over any other options available to us and not the option of violence, not the option of demonstration.
I think that is the path that I will recommend. That as leaders of this country-the political leaders, the religious leaders, academic leaders, and cultural leaders should sit down and discuss things that can bring us together and not these rabble rousers threatening fire and brimstone. That will not help issues; we must sit down and talk.
So you are in support of a Sovereign National Conference
You can call it anything, any kind of conference that will promote peace, any kind of dialogue, exercise that will promote peace, that will promote harmony, I am in support of it and that is what I am recommending.
You mentioned “rabble rousers”, expantiate on that
There are those who are threatening that if you don’t do this the country will break, they are doomsday prophets. You don’t expect governors to talk the way some of them are talking; you don’t expect some government officials to talk the way they are talking. Let us be disciplined.We must not unnecessarily heat up the polity by our unguarded utterances; we should guard some of the things we say.
On G-7 Governors advice to President Goodluck Jonathan not to contest the 2015 presidential election
Long, long ago, I said it that the governors, the Nigerian governors have become too powerful. Those who drafted this constitution did not envisage a situation where 36 state governors can hold this country hostage because of the power they exercise.
The Nigerian Governors Forum is not known to the Nigerian Constitution, yet they determine the direction of the Nigerian politics.
These G-6 or G-7 Governors, if they were ordinary people, then, we can dismiss what they say. But you cannot dismiss what any governor says in this country because they have become too powerful. How have they become too powerful? It is because they are in control of too many resources.
They can determine the colour and shape of the political process in their various states. That is where we are.
If you are coming to a national convention, those who are coming to a national convention are delegates that are determined by governors. Political parties are functioning in different states according to the whims and caprices of governors because they pay the piper to dictate the tone of political process in their respective states.
His solution to the problem of wrong people coming to power
The issue of who comes to power, I will tell you the truth. I think we should try to find a way around it. We have to go back to the constitution and see whether there is a way we can curb it.
Can you imagine that the problems we are having in almost all the political parties today is as a result of the Governors Forum?
How do you go back to the constitution since you have already said it all that the Governors Forum is not known in the constitution?
Maybe we can now decide to introduce something about them in the constitution, so as to curb these excesses. I don’t have a solution to it now but I think we must have a way to deal with the powers of the governors who have become too powerful as opposed to some provisions in the constitution.
Do you mean that the governors have held the country hostage?
Of course. How else do you want them to do it, you want them to start ruling the country before you know that?
How do you personally look at the issue of Jonathan contesting the 2015 presidential election or not?
Well, you see, that is his constitutional right; don’t just go there. It is his constitutional right to contest. And you can’t deny him that, the best you can do is you don’t vote for him. That is the best thing you can do. If you are opposed to him, don’t vote for him. He has the power to contest.
What are the possible solutions to checkmating the alleged enormous powers of the governors?
Like I said, we must find a constitutional solution to it or way to deal with that and that is why we were thinking during the last exercise of the constitutional amendment that the money meant for local government should be sent to them directly. That is why some of us are canvassing for local government autonomy where local government will be getting their money directly so that the money cannot be held at the state level. But unfortunately, even here in the National Assembly, it did not pass during the last voting in the on-going constitution amendment. It did not pass in the last exercise! We sent to the state Houses of Assembly their own independent financial autonomy and they rejected it, most of them rejected it, why because the governors didn’t want them to pass it.
The governors have the Houses of Assembly in their pockets. So how do I send Local Government Amendment Bill to Edo State and expect it to be passed? Unless the governor says yes,let it pass. If he says no, it will not pass.
Do you foresee any possible threat to your party, the Peoples Democratic Party in the forth coming election, given the on-going crisis rocking it?
Well, I must tell you that the PDP is such a big party and one of the problems that we are having is that the party is too big. That alone, is a problem of its own. The crisis is not unique, it is not peculiar to PDP, other political parties have their own crises. Party politics is all about resolution. So, like I have said, with commitment from most leaders of the party, we will find solutions to the present challenges. The only path to amicable resolution is the path to dialogue and discussion. So, I am optimistic that this one will be a thing of the past. It is part of the learning process. Don’t forget that our democracy is still young.
Is our democracy still young after 13 years of existence?
Yes, it is still young. If after 60, 70 and 80 years, we are still having all these things because what we are doing now is that everybody is trying to find his position. Every institution is trying to find its position in line with the constitution. And very soon, we will find that position.
Do you foresee resolution of PDP crisis before elections?
Yes, I think so.
How will it be done?
Again, we must sit down. If those who call themselves new PDP have grievances, we must sit down and listen to them. If they have observation, we must sit down and listen to them. Both parties must sit down and find a common course. We must find a solution to the problem and that can only come through the processes of give and take, the bargaining process. The PDP has people who have enormous power to deploy to resolving this crisis.PDP has many prominent people in this country that have enormous bargaining experience that they can deploy to finding problems to this crisis. It is not only PDP that has crisis but the PDP is positioned enough to resolving its crisis.
Sir, there are fears out there that if the party’s crisis is not urgently resolved, it may infiltrate the National Assembly and consequently lead some possible changes in its leadership, are you not seeing things going this direction?
I don’t think so. The Senate President, David Mark has become such a darling of almost everybody. I don’t know of any senator that has any grudge against that man. He has held the Senate so firmly together. I think I will say he has held this country so firmly together. He is somebody who has the wherewithal to even solve most of the problems we even have in this country today. I don’t see any threat in the Senate to his leadership, I don’t see any.
It appears you are the only PDP senator in Edo State that is controlled by the All Progressive Congress?
Not appears, I am the only PDP senator in Edo State.
Are you not feeling threatened that back home, your party is in a minority?
Well, we were in the minority when I won my second term. So now that we are still in the minority, if I want my third term, I will win.
Okay, how would you rate the administration back home?
(Deep breath).Well, I hate to continue to talk about the Oshiomhole’s administration (Governor Adams Oshiomhole). This is so for two reasons. One, he is my friend and I see him as somebody who after doing his first term and now, doing his second term in office as a governor, he doesn’t seemed to have found a way to define or separate governance from unionism. That is a major problem.
The second problem is his total disrespect for his elders. We are in an African society, whether we like it or not, where we revere our elders. He doesn’t do that and that is not good enough, because the office of a governor carries some decorum, there are things that are expected of a governor-that is some decency, some tolerance, some restraints in utterances and things like that. He doesn’t do that.
As for infrastructural development, again, people think he is doing well or has done well because when we were in government before, there were certain things we did not do well, that the PDP in government in Edo State did not do well. So, anybody that comes now to add one pin, he is seen to have done something good, otherwise, you can’t pass the roads in Benin now, I mean in Benin.
There are some roads that you just can’t pass and it’s been like that ever since. The most visible things he has done is to pain schools along highways- the Airport Road, and some other roads in Auchi and the rest of them. You must also look at the quantum of money that came to the state to determine whether all the investments on infrastructural development are commensurate with the money that came to the state.
You said Governor Adams Oshiomhole whom you described as your very good friend, lacks respect for elders, as a friend, have you in any way, made attempts to advise him on this?
Any time I see him, I advise him. Go and ask him. The other time I quarreled with him. I told him, why would you come to my home town and start telling people about things which are not true. He is my friend, no doubt. I told him that if you have stolen money and I have no proof that you might have stolen money, I will not say it. The last one he did was that I have a hotel in the village and he now came to them to say “ask him where he got the money to build the hotel.”
So you see, when you say friendship, friendship goes with so many things. What is important of all is loyalty to a friend. If you have no proof that I stole money to build the hotel, why are you coming to say ask him where he got money to build the hotel. That is my problem with him, otherwise, we are friends. Anytime we meet, we greet and he gives me that respect, gets down and I hug him and I will still tell him, o’boy, this one wey you do yesterday no good. That is the truth of the matter.
What advice would you again, give him here as a friend and as the governor of Edo State?
I think he should concentrate on governance and leave unionists to do their unionism. He should concentrate on governance and carry everybody along. You are not the governor of unionists but the governor of Edo State. The day he was declared the winner of the governorship election in Edo State, I left Senate retreat in Kano to go and congratulate him in Benin. I drove past my house to go to Benin just to go and congratulate him. There are some restraints you must exercise. To just say, oh, Senator Ugbesia sleeping in the Senate and all sorts of things, ah, I won’t do that to you because you know it is not true. I am not naturally loquacious. But the Senate is not a place you just jump up and talk when you want to. You can only talk when they ask you to talk. That is what people don’t know. You can only talk in the Senate when the Senate President’s eyes catch you. He doesn’t say talk, you can’t talk. That doesn’t mean you are sleeping. I know of a few colleagues who have not spoken a word in the chamber since they have been here in the Senate. That doesn’t mean that they have been sleeping. Their governors didn’t go screaming and the rest of that.
Do you fore-see a situation where your party will bounce back to power in Edo State?
Oh, yes. In the next election, the PDP will get back Edo State.
What gives you the confidence, sir?
Well, I am a very seasoned politician and I can read the barometer of politics in Edo State. I do know that ACN as a party is not a popular party in Edo State. I do also know that the last election was thoroughly rigged.
I am just hearing that from you, sir.
Well, in case you don’t know, the last governorship election in Edo State was thoroughly rigged and we just decided not to contest it. That is all, that we should just forge ahead. I must tell you that we lost that election by default. If there was a synergy between the centre and the state, probably, we wouldn’t have lost that election. But again, that is history. We have worked hard enough; we have repositioned the party strong enough to be able to win the next election too very easily.
Can we know some of the things, I mean empowerment programmes you have put in place as a senator representing your people in the National Assembly?
Recently, I was called to my senatorial district to give a score card. What I said then was that the primary responsibility of a legislator is to make law for the good governance of this country. The senator is not a contract awarding person. The legislature is not a contract awarding institution and therefore, I have no contract to award. Two, we have what we called constituency projects and as a senator, I am entitled to a given amount of money not to be given to me as cash which most people believe, because even Oshiomhole came to my constituency during the last governorship election and was telling the people to ask me question about what I did with my N500 million constituency project. Unfortunately, these people have been misinformed, so thoroughly misinformed about the constituency projects. I am entitled to that, what that means is that I can put it in the budget. Once I put it in the budget, it is left to the minister in that ministry where it falls at, whether to award it or not. The only quarrel you will find with the executive and the legislature in the National Assembly is because of the way they treat our constituency projects. If I am entitled to say N200 million, it can be spread in three ministries and at the end of the year, they only award N15 million out of that money, that is what happens. You are aware that what we do is to spread it within ministries. The things that our people need are so dear. In my area in particular, our biggest problem is water and I have done more than 30 bore-holes in my constituency. The next thing is schools and I have built at least 13 schools in my constituency. I will give you all the papers containing these things so that you see yourself. Maybe, I should give you the papers now so that I don’t start giving you wrong figures. Very soon, I am going to do more comprehensive additional eight bore-holes and we are trying to determine the location and all of these will come through the leadership of this or that committee. For example, we have to involve the communication committee, so as to involve the ICT facilities in the projects.