By Ben Agande
At a point, he left the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the All Congress of Nigeria (ACN), then back to the PDP before finally dumping the PDP shortly before the general elections for the All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview, Na’Abba speaks on some national issues. Excerpts:
What would you say the Buhari government has done differently from the previous government?
I think from what is happening today, there is a greater commitment by the Buhari administration to tackle insurgency. Thanks to that commitment, a great deal has been achieved. In other areas, time must be given to the administration to begin concrete undertakings before any value judgement can be made. In the realm of rhetoric, of course there have been some achievements. But those achievements need to be concretized.
For example, there has been an improvement in power supply since the beginning of the administration even though from time to time drop in that supply is experienced. No doubt, this improvement is prompted by the emergence of a new Sheriff in town, whose rhetoric is made of a sterner stuff. On the whole, it must be admitted that with the emergence of this new administration, more seriousness and urgency have been injected into governance than hitherto.
You were passionate in advocating change in the affairs of your former party, the PDP. Eventually you left the party for the APC. Did you feel that at that time that PDP was a hopeless case?
At the time I left the PDP, the party was definitely a hopeless case. Apart from important members of the party feeling alienated, the party was ruled by impunity and corruption; particularly in the manner some top members of the party were collecting money from aspirants in order to offer them tickets to contest elections.
In some cases, some individuals paid out money so that certain aspirants were denied the right to contest for elections. Imposition of candidates became the order of the day, to the extent that primary elections that were supposed to take place in the states were moved to the national headquarters in Abuja because favorite aspirants must become candidates of the party in the elections. This was done to the detriment of members that had been in the party for 16 years.
There was also schism between the President and the party as the President lost confidence in the National Chairman because, according to them, he was planning to contest for the presidency at the expense of Jonathan. The National Chairman also lost confidence in the President. The general feeling among party officials then, was that Jonathan could not win the presidency for the party and had thus become a liability.
There was also schism between the Presidency and the presidential campaign organization over finances, protocol, procedure and which organ to spearhead the campaign. There was the factor of the Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria’s involvement in the campaign which met with a lot of resentment from party members. No one knew them in the party, but they took over the activities of the party and they seemed to enjoy Jonathan’s backing.
Overall, the government was behaving like a cartel such that most members and organs of the party were not privy to the goings on in government. Under such circumstance, there was no way the party could have won the election because it was out of touch with the people and reality. Members in majority of the states felt they no longer had any stake in the party. The PDP of 1998 that ushered in the new democracy in 1998 had transformed into a bizarre contraption practicing everything but democracy.
One of the banes of democracy in Nigeria is the absence of internal democracy within our political parties. How can this be corrected?
The issue of internal democracy is central to any debate about Nigeria’s democracy. There is a general lack of it in our parties. In fact, the crisis of development that Nigeria goes through today is as a result of the jettisoning of this cardinal principle of democracy. Without mincing words, it is the reason we have low quality leadership in most aspects of governance. Lack of internal democracy has a very pervasive effect on governance overall. It not only affects our political system and institutions negatively, it also has a devastating effect on economics and society. It deprives politics of order, vibrancy and purpose, and enthrones mediocrity. It is the mother of political, economic and social exclusion. At a time when economies are being deregulated, it is wrong for anybody to regulate politics through the subversion of internal democracy. Candidates must not emerge through anointing or consensus. There must be election. It is that competitive spirit inherent in elections that propel societies to develop intellectually and consequently in all facets of life. Excellence can only be achieved through competition. Sycophancy must not be allowed to continue to be the criterion with which and within which our political leaders emerge. In a regime of sycophancy, the incentive to excel is non-existent. The society becomes dead intellectually. When that happens, every sector will be inhibited. Politics, economics and society stagnate and stalemate and become immersed in inertia. No going forward. Under such circumstance, revolution follows. I must emphasize, philosophically speaking, that it is wrong to deregulate economics and regulate politics.
As the Speaker of the House of Representatives, you fought former President Obasanjo in order to sustain the independence of the legislature. Would you say that your successors sustained your effort?
When elections took place in 1999, many people were skeptical about the sustenance of the newly ushered democracy. You will recall that elections took place when former Head of State Sani Abacha was in power even though most of those who won the elections were his acolytes. The Abdusalami government cancelled the elections and asked politicians to establish their own political parties as opposed to the contraption, called political parties under Abacha, that Uncle Bola Ige labelled “the five fingers of a leprous hand”. Because the parties were more independent after Abacha’s demise, aspirants decided to participate in the elections.
The institution that benefited most by being populated with such altruistic and idealistic Nigerians, under that dispensation, was the House of Representatives. Most of those who are responsible for the destruction of the tradition and standard we set have been mere power players who believe in nothing but the acquisition of power for power sake.
Incidentally, I was elected to lead the House after my predecessor resigned after only 44 days as Speaker. When I was elected, I thought I must mobilize the institution and the members to properly position democracy in Nigeria and give it its rightful place. Luckily for me, apart from my colleagues’ altruism and idealism, majority of them did not come to the House through godfathers and governors. Therefore, the way the House was constituted was receptive to my democratic proselytization. We succeeded in debating and adopting a philosophy for the House that overwhelming majority of the members subscribed to; a philosophy that was in tandem with our own world view.
In effect, the House, in spite of differences in political parties, was coalesced into one to the extent that we were generally regarded as a cult. In such a situation, it was easy to raise the level of the House to where we took it to. Subsequent Houses, 5th, 6th, and 7th did not emerge under the same circumstances. By 2001, the President and governors realized the potential of the legislature to bring them to equity in ways that they never envisaged if it had a very strong leadership. Strong leadership of course in the House of Representatives under me had.
We had the worst confrontation ever between the executive arm and the legislature in the history of this country. Of course, the President was battered and bruised particularly with the attempted impeachment of him by the National Assembly due to his misrule, which took a more serious mien when the House decided it was time to remove him. With these developments, the President, the party and the governors colluded to undermine the legislature by, among other things, the use of the party and governmental machinery to bring to the legislative arm only members that will be loyal to them and to neither the institution nor the Constitution henceforth.
In the general elections of 2003, almost all the Mobile Police in the North were mobilized to Kano to ensure that I lose the election at all costs at the instance of President Obasanjo under the watch of the governor. That was after I got away with a win in a primary election that we had to take away the delegates to Katsina to hide them because the state governor tried to get all of them arrested and detained and would only be released after the primary election.
They were to be substituted with a new set of delegates who would only vote for the government candidate, a former commissioner for information of the state. Most members of the House of Representatives that worked with me to ensure a free, vibrant and independent legislature were so treated like me in their primary election in varying degrees and could not win their primary elections So they could not come back to the House. So those that came to the House to succeed us in 2003, of course with some exception, came at the behest of their governors with the active support of President Obasanjo.
In fact, the presiding officers were personally selected by the President and imposed on the House, their qualification being their refusal to support the House to impeach him in 2002. From there, what we had built started getting eroded. In the circumstances that the 5th House was constituted and run, it will be impossible for them to maintain the standard and tradition established by us and also made it impossible for the 6th and 7th Houses to follow suit. The current 8th House has good leadership. I hope the members will give the leadership the necessary support for him to be able to restore the House to it’s halcyon years of 1999-2003. The issue is that, no matter how strong and clear headed a presiding officer is, in a legislature , if he hasn’t got the kind of support he requires from floor members , he may find it difficult to deliver.
Are you saying that Obasanjo played a role in weakening the legislature?
No doubt, Obasanjo played a big role in weakening the legislature. It is common knowledge that he did all he could to see to my impeachment and removal as the Speaker by my colleagues. What he wanted was to install a puppet. In my own case and that of the House of Representatives, he did not succeed.
In the Senate, he orchestrated the impeachment and removal of my counterpart, CHUBA OKADIGBO. No doubt, this weakened the Senate in that his eventual successor Anyim Pius Anyim, was a confessed Obasanjonian. Together with Obasanjo, they engaged in doing a lot of things, too numerous to mention here, that eventually culminated in weakening the institution .
In 2003, Obasanjo colluded with the PDP to bring to the legislature people who should not be there, all in his effort to see the Constitution amended to accommodate his tenure elongation project. It almost succeeded but for the requirement that to amend any item in the Constitution, two thirds members of both Houses must to vote in the affirmative. If it were ordinary majority votes required, that anti-democratic project would have succeeded and he would have been enjoying his fifth term today.
He would of course never have allowed the APC to emerge. I can go on and on. The emergence of the Senate President in 2007 was no doubt because of the active support he gave to the tenure elongation project . Unfortunately for the country, he became the longest serving presiding officer of the Senate.
President Buhari seems to be very close to Obasanjo. Considering the adverse role you said he played in this democracy, what would be your advice to President Buhari about his closeness to Obasanjo?
I obviously would not want to come between Buhari and Obasanjo. They knew each other in the military. Buhari was variously a Minister and military secretary under him as well as a military governor. So Buhari knows him better than I do. So he knows how to handle him. However, in 1984, when Buhari became Head of State, he said his administration was an offshoot of the Obasanjo administration.
I was, therefore, baffled when, in 1999, Obasanjo, having become the President, became determined to embarrass Buhari over his headship of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). He instituted probe after probe to find faults with Buhari. Unfortunately for him he did not find anything. Indeed, he personally harassed and interrogated Buhari. I was in the government, so I know all these. He went on to disband the PTF in spite of the important infrastructural projects being undertaken by the body, against the advice of some of us.
The nation lost so much to this singular misadventure in monetary terms that I personally called into question Obasanjo’s patriotic credentials. The other day, I watched on television Obasanjo’s emissary handing over documents to Buhari on power infrastructure developed by his think tank, an action that made me laugh profusely. How could someone who spent $16b on power without achieving anything when he was President bring a proposal on that matter to anybody! While I would not advise Buhari to repay Obasanjo in his own coins, I would advocate that he should not allow him to be distracting him.
He hasn’t got any ideas to offer him. Of recent, he took some Colombians to Buhari and introduced them as experts on insurgency. Up till now, Colombia is battling insurgents. So I don’t see how the Colombians would help end insurgency in Nigeria.So, he should relate with him with some circumspection. It must never escape Buhari’ s memory that all the difficulties Nigeria is going through today are Obasanjo ‘s handiwork, including the fielding of the likes of Umaru Y’ar’adua and Goodluck Jonathan to be President and Vice President and subsequently the President in spite of the known condition and limitations of all of them. He did that with the sole purpose of continuing to run the government from Otta, which unfortunately for him failed. Both denied him that privilege and guarded their mandates jealously. This accounted for his hostility to Jonathan.
There is heightened agitation by a group in the South-East for what they call sovereign state of Biafra. What do you think is responsible for this resurgence?
I think there is a sort of conspiracy. Most of the former governors from the zone did not do much for their states and this has been a source of frustration for the people of the South-East. Let me add that it is not everybody in the South-East that is in support of this Biafra agitation. I think it is a misguided demand based on propaganda from people who are self-serving. I don’t think there is any need for Biafra today.
The Igbo are very hard working and enterprising. They are spread all over Africa. In Nigeria, there are over 25 million Igbo outside Igbo land, achieving economic success. They are very dominant in the economies of all the states they live in. I don’t think it is fair to throw Igbo into some kind of crisis. I believe there must be some dialogue in order to douse the tension. The leadership of those agitators are just serving their interests. They target their propaganda towards a particular class of people who are ignorant. We have to handle it with much care.
The clash between Shiites and the military in Zaria recently provoked widespread reactions from Nigeria and the international community. What is your reaction to the incident?
The allegation against the Shiites was that they blocked the road and refused to allow the Chief of the Army Staff to pass. If it is true that they blocked the road, then they went too far. But for the army to do what they did to the Shiites, it was very brutal and barbaric which should not happen under a democratic dispensation. The law should not be applied by people to serve their ego. The armed forces of Nigeria are supposed to serve Nigerians and they should do so with care and responsibility. What they did was reckless.