BY HENRY UMORU
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, PDP, Abia Central is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs. Abaribe, a ranking Senator first elected into the Senate in 2007, served as Abia State Deputy Governor between 1999-2003. In this interview, he bares his mind among others on expectations from the lawmakers, Nigeria at 51, the nation’s challenges and how Nigerians see the Senate. Excerpts:
After 51 years as an independent nation are Nigerians truly united?
The nation called Nigeria is a work in progress. As much as we know, we have not blended the way that we ought to. Actually there is a different feeling by some people that we were closer in the past than we are today because we know that at a particular time Mallam Altine was the Mayor of Enugu even though he was from the North. We know also that people contested elections, people were freer at that time, but today one of the requirements for you to even be in public life is your state of origin and your state of indigeneship that come from your local government.
Those are not things that bind a country together. What we ought to do is not to pander to them but to try as much as possible to de_emphasize all these things that keep us apart. That is why you find that in the Senate we never take any decision on the basis of where you come from. Whatever decision that is taken is always collective and in the best interest of Nigeria .
What we say is that the larger society should take a cue from us. We will also provide the necessary legislative environment to make sure that wherever you are in Nigeria, you are to be adjudged a Nigerian. It is a very difficult thing. The reason you find most of these tendencies prevalent is because of the competition for resources, competition for jobs, competition for the commonwealth of Nigeria.
Because they are not enough, people are willing to go to any length to make sure that they get their share. One of the problems that Nigeria faces is for us to make an effort to improve welfare to every Nigerian because if you don’t have to struggle to own a house because the mortgage system is working well, if you are sick you are able to get good and quality healthcare because the healthcare insurance systems are working well and you don’t have to spend everything you have to do an operation for example, you will find that most of the keen competition and divisive tendencies will ultimately be reduced. So what we think is that there should be conscious effort to provide for everybody and improve the standard of living of Nigerians.
The Senate has just constituted its standing committees, what should Nigerians expect from the upper chamber this time?
Basically, I think that the first thing we are going to do is to try to project the positive image of the Senate and the National Assembly in general. We know that at the moment we do not exactly have the confidence of the Nigerian public as much as we would like. Our intention is to try as much as possible to bridge whatever communication gap between the public and the Nigerian Senate.
Basically, the agenda of the Seventh session of the Senate was enunciated by the Senate President in his address to the plenary when we started this particular session. He said essentially that what we are going to do is to tackle some of the contentious issues that continue to weigh this nation down. He made allusion to this by posing certain questions that kind of defined where the Senate would like to concentrate efforts on.
Essentially, these are things that are not new to all Nigerians and have been talked about at various fora. They deal with the matter of devolution of power, fiscal federalism, state creation and associated matter of state and local government accounts, state police, state INEC, minimum wage and revenue allocation formula. Whether these things are going to be modified in some way is where we are going to concentrate efforts.
What everybody is trying to do now is to deal with the very serious problems Nigeria is facing. That includes, of course, the problem of perceived insecurity. What I mean by perceived insecurity is that Nigeria is grappling with new types of insurgencies which we are not used to before. And it is because it is new and we are not used to it that makes everybody go into a heightened state of panic and makes some feel that everywhere is insecure whereas that is not actually the case.
It is a large country of 140 million people, 774 local governments and something happens in three or four local governments, it is counted that the whole 774 local governments are actually in a turmoil. If you look at the way it is presented, it makes everybody feel that Nigeria is a destination not to go.
But we know as a matter of fact that there are more murders committed in South Africa daily than is committed in Nigeria monthly. Which means that South Africa is inherently far more insecure than Nigeria but because of the way it is presented people still go there and go around and feel very safe and secure. Whereas what happens in Nigeria is not presented the way they should.
What we see here is that if a police station is attacked, the whole world sees it and it is presented as if all the policemen in Nigeria have been killed. What I’m saying in effect is that because this thing is essentially what has come to us now, what it means is that we have just passed the age of innocence. The age of innocence in Nigeria has just passed. So those things we felt will never come to the shores of Nigeria are now with us. And what it means is that we have to redesign our paradigm to face the challenges. So things we used to take for granted will no longer be taken for granted. The security agencies themselves will have to reverse all their prognosis and reverse their training.
Now I think that the Federal Government is doing a good job and for us it is to provide for the government of Nigeria the best legislative instrument that they can use to give us quality life.
How will the Senate handle issues like state police, devolution of powers, revenue formula, which were considered as no go areas in the past?
All issues that have been listed form the plank on which we are to operate in this Sevebth Senate. There is no way we can say any of those areas is no go area. What we want is that Nigerians should actually talk, discuss and interact on all these contentious areas. I don’t know what you call a no go area but there is no place that is no go for us.
Can Nigerians hold the issues raised by the Senate President as a social contract between the Senate and Nigerians so that in three years the Senate can be evaluated based on how far it has gone with the contract?
This is the legislative agenda that the Senate has, a pact with Nigerians to do the best for the country.
You talked about the negative image of the Senate and the National Assembly, how is the Senate working to change the negative perception of the National Assembly?
We think that what has happened really is not that Nigerians have negative impression about the National Assembly, Nigerians are misled about the operations of the National Assembly, the Senate and the House of Representatives. That means that we are not communicating enough. So part of what we intend to do is to be open, transparent and proactive in our communication with the Nigerian people. We will manage our information in such a way that you can get it when you want. When you have access to information then you are not going to be misled in any way.
I had interaction with Journalists during the Guild of Editors conference in Benin, Edo State. One of them confronted me and asked why we are not jailing all the people we found that committed grievous crime against Nigeria in the probes that we do. That is one of the problems that we face. The public looks around, you are doing an investigation, you find people culpable and you are not doing anything.
What it means is that there is a mis_perception of the role and powers of the National Assembly. What I did was to refer him to Section 85 of the Constitution which is where the powers of the legislative houses are derived from. What it says is that we can expose corruption. When we expose corruption, our job will be to just pass it on to the Executive arm of government. It is the Executive that will now charge whoever is involved to court. It is not just that, I go home and people confront me and want to know why a road to my place is not tarred. They ask why are you not building roads? In order words, there is also a misconception that we ought to do things that are exclusively reserved for the Executive.
These are things that we will bring out and make everybody to know. All manner of misconception go on that way. We don’t want to wait until something is wrong and then we go and look for remedy. We know that if you go to the web site of the National Assembly today, you are most likely not going to get up to date information if you get any at all.
We are going to deal with that. We are going to find a way of interacting with the public and we are looking into the possibility to call them. You can call us and get information and have somebody who is on standby during working hours to answer questions. If we redesign our website and re_do things there you can now find out what goes on everyday. You can look at our notice paper and know what is being discussed. You can know which committees are meeting, when they are meeting and who they are meeting with.
We are going to send out information to the public so that everybody will get to know so that we no longer have to continue to react to uninformed opinion. I know it is a little bit difficult. The reason also is that at the National Assembly, most of our interaction with the public comes from the National Assembly Service Commission which is peopled by civil servants. Of course you know that they have all manners of civil service regulations that limit the way they interact with the public. So what we think is that we are going to try as much as possible to give teeth to the Freedom of Information Act so that we can make sure that we are really open and transparent to Nigerians. The National Assembly, the legislative arm of government is the closest arm to the public. There are no restrictions, you can come here and meet your representative because his job is to actually represent you. We also want the public to know that this is a new deal, a new era
The budget of the National Assembly was reduced, don’t you think that the reduction might affect the general performance of the National Assembly?
Well we think so, but the National Assembly was reacting to public view that the cost of governance is high and decided to take the first step to reduce the cost of governance and expects the Executive to follow suit. Part of that was also caused by inaccurate information. The National Assembly of the Seventh Session will work within the limit of available resources and deliver more to Nigerians than was the case in the past.
The 2012 budget will soon be presented to the National Assembly, how did grey areas identified by lawmakers still find their way into the final copy of the budget?
Some times shortcomings are discovered, some times also the National Assembly is handicapped because we have not put in full operation the National Assembly budget office that is supposed to give us independent verification of the figures presented in the budget. What really happens is when MDAs come to defend their budgets we do not have independent means to verify the data that they give to us. Also you find in the budget what is rolled over.
But I can understand why it happens. For instance in order to ameliorate youth unemployment, I put in the budget for my Senatorial zone skill acquisition centre to be built by the Ministry of Youth Development. Till today, three years after, every year it goes into the budget, it has not been built. I continue to write letters and pursue the ministry, but the ministry will say there is no money, that they have not released any money for the project. Meanwhile it is in the budget and so they have to roll it over. I also put two libraries in the budget, but they have not been built. The contractors have not been mobilized. The point really is while we may have questions, when you seek and they give you answers, the proper thing would have been to have our own figures to compare with the data from the budget office.
Another issue that is long standing is the issue of who really signs off the budget. If ministry ‘A’ brings a budget and we who are the representatives of the people look at their proposal that does not go far enough to address problems on the ground.
We say no, based on the revenue profile that we have determined, you can still bring enough money and do more. By the time it goes back what we get is resentment from the Executive saying that we have no right to increase what they have brought. So at every point these seeming issues are what are causing differences that you see.