By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has weathered the storm of a turbulent first year in office, largely due to an unprecedented luck of an overwhelming multi-party support in the National Assembly. As a result of the support and cooperation from his colleagues, the 8th National Assembly under his leadership can today point at some achievements despite the various issues that tended to distract and draw him backwards in the last one year.
Saraki, in this interview, waves aside his current travails as mere distractions, which he wants to overcome and clear his name and lists the major achievements of his NASS under his tutelage.
‘We are not just coming to the Senate to jump from one issue to another. We are focusing largely on the economy, how we can address things that would make Nigeria a better place, create jobs for our people, improve the economy and make the country investment-friendly.’
‘This National Assembly is not afraid of anybody. This Senate is not afraid to say the truth when it is necessary. We are not afraid of taking on anybody once we believe that the person is not following the law. There is no sacred cow in this business. We know by doing that, the system will come back to fight us. Unless we do things right, nothing will happen’.
Having presided over the 8th Senate for one year, would you say you are excited, worried or challenged?
I think at different times and moments, all the words you have used can fit in one way or the other. But most importantly is that I give a lot of thanks to our Creator, the Almighty God for giving one the opportunity. Whatever you say, it is an honour, an opportunity. It is not bestowed on many. To have been able to achieve that, one is honoured. Based on that, every day, one is grateful for that opportunity.
I am one that is focused on what needs to be done. I believe this has a new challenge. This is so because in the beginning, one played a very key role in bringing about this government. When we started, a lot of people used to tell me ‘Why are you wasting your time? Have you ever heard of anybody defeating a sitting government?’ They would advise me not to waste my time. They would say, ‘You can’t win; you are just going to endanger yourself and you are going nowhere’. Even a lot of our friends in the media, out of respect, they would listen to me but were very doubtful of any chance for the APC to win the last election. But they would say, ‘This Oga, you are so optimistic. You will defeat a sitting government, with what?’
But we achieved that with the commitment of Nigerians. I feel one is carrying on his shoulders a lot of responsibility. I know what people sacrificed in making this happened. I believe that motivates one to see that we make a difference. That is what drives me every day.
I wouldn’t say I underestimated what is happening; I expected there would be challenges when one is trying to make a change. This is more on the legislative angle. That is where the change is because Nigerians have been used to the executive and the judiciary. The youngest of the three arms is the legislature, which many people are not very conversant with like the other two arms of government because they cannot immediately see how it connects to their daily lives. Indeed, an average man or woman in Nigeria knows how the executive affects his or her life. When a minister makes an announcement that that they have raised the duty on car importation or the exchange rate has gone up to this and that, they know what that means. It is so for the judiciary. They know that this judge can rule for or against if they have a case. They do not understand what the lawmakers are doing. That makes our work more challenging.
I am very hopeful that by the time we are done, we will be able to change this perception.
But is this the kind of Senate you had in mind when you were vying for the Senate Presidency and can this take Nigeria to its destination of greatness?
I very much believe so. I was in the 7th Senate for four years and I followed the activities of the National Assembly closely. I believe that where we are now, the group of senators we have are focused, patriotic and are committed to solving Nigeria’s problems. They are patriotic because this is the first time we have a Senate that is very divided with a very slim majority. You can’t really compare it to the previous Senate. With this scenario, one should expect a Senate that is chaotic but, in the last one year, anytime we discussed national issues, issues that have to do with the economy, senators have jettisoned their political leanings and presented themselves as senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Right from the time we screened ministers and worked on the budget, they all acted patriotically and not as PDP or APC senators.
The senators have shown a lot of maturity, patriotism and support. Nobody would even know that there is a slim majority. Without that support, that unity, majority of the issues we want to discuss, especially those that border on reforms of this country, cannot take place. They think of Nigeria first. I am happy and honoured by the support they have given me. I am confident that as we move ahead, we would build on our achievements. We would ensure that major issues that ordinarily should be discussed on party lines because of their controversial nature are looked at from nationalistic point of view.
We have been doing that. The supplementary budget, under normal circumstances, would not have passed if the senators wanted to go on party lines but they rose beyond that, they saw themselves first as senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
If you see the work we have done in the last one year despite a lot of distraction, it shows that it is a Senate that has a roadmap. We are not just coming to the Senate to jump from one issue to another. We are focusing largely on the economy, how we can address things that would make Nigeria a better place, create jobs for our people, improve the economy and make the country investment-friendly.
Looking at things we have tackled, you can see a clear path that we have created. This is different from what was in place before. Some of the issues that people were not ready to touch in the, past we have touched them. We are opening up the Senate to public participation. We are not afraid that anybody would come with criticism of our activities. Of course people should express their minds.
We told ourselves, ‘look let’s open it up’ and we are ready to take whatever that comes with it if it will help make the country better. I don’t think the Senate has ever had this kind of openness that is in place now.
To achieve this kind of cohesion, you need the active support and cooperation of all the members and I am happy that we are working as one big family.
If I don’t have the type of senators we have now to work with, some of the things we have achieved would not have been possible.
Nigerians are facing hard times especially on the economic front. In what way is the Senate helping to reduce their sufferings?
Look, let me say this: Even before it became clear like this, the issue of the economy has always been on our agenda. You have to understand that 90 percent of our revenue comes from oil. We are all aware that the price of oil has plummeted since the last one year. It came from $100 down to even $28, $30. We are operating a mono-product economy. And there is high level of unemployment. So it is clear to us that, in order to address some of these issues, we must do several things. First, we cannot continue to depend on oil. We must diversify into agriculture and solid minerals. But we all have to understand that these sectors are not such that you can go there on a Monday and by Tuesday or Wednesday you begin to see results. They need five to ten years to give you what you want. What we must bring about in these sectors are reforms. It is not even policies. People who want to invest in these sectors are sceptical of somersault in policies. What people are looking out for is the kind of laws the country has that support the sectors.
For instance, in agriculture, if you talk about diversification and you don’t have any law that is clear or shows that there is a move to promote either commercial agriculture or credit to farmers, nobody is going to do any business. People would not want to invest in those sectors.
So you begin to see that we are addressing some of these areas. In the agricultural sector, we are doing it.
On the economy, one of the bills before us, which I am hopeful that the two chambers will soon pass, is the Public Procurement Law. It is a pity that it is not well reported. We saw earlier on that we must do something to stimulate the economy. One of the things we must know is that when you are going through this kind of downturn or recession, you must think outside the box. We told ourselves that the country spends in its budget a lot of money, close to N2trn, on recurrent expenditure. Most of the money is used to purchase goods outside the country helping to boost other countries’ economy to our own detriment. So we need a policy that keeps government expenditure in check and gives economic power to the people.
If there is no law that supports that, it will not happen. It cannot be left to one government today, another one in four years comes with different plans. If there is a law in place, it will encourage entrepreneurs to say, ‘well, there is a law in Nigeria that says that this ministry must buy this item first in Nigeria. I as an entrepreneur, if I can produce goods locally, I have a market’. The America we talk about free trade etc had such a law in place as early as 1920s. It was called ‘Buy America’. China still has it. Few countries in South America have it. I told somebody that even if this is the only law that we pass, it will have huge impact on our economy. There would be money going into stimulating the manufacturing sector and providing jobs for Nigerians.
Today in the health sector, there are some drugs that government agencies buy that are produced locally. But because there is no law that stops them from buying them abroad, they would go and buy the same Paracetamol that is made in the UK instead of buying the one produced here.
We have a lot of our government agencies that do not patronise those locally produced shirts, shoes and canvasses, etc. Ministries buy pencils, chalk from abroad. Initially, you might talk about standard but it is like that all over the world. When we start we will improve the standard. When the ban on importation of furniture started in Nigeria, we didn’t have enough people who were producing furniture. But now we have them in abundance. The furniture I use was made in a factory in Kwara.
Like I said, passing a law like that will stimulate the economy. We will challenge the executive to make sure that they respect the law when we pass it.
Secondly, in the public procurement law that we are working on, we are reducing the number of hurdles for the bidding process. Sometimes, even after passing the budget, before they award contracts, they advertise, screen, this and that. It will take sometimes four to five months to do all those things. Before everything is completed, it will take up to a year. We have looked at it; we have cut down some of the days and hurdles. We have shortened the time so that money will come into the system. After a budget is passed, money is not in the system. If a system encourages that money will still sit at the Central Bank for another three to four months, the economy will not move.
What we have done also in advanced payment is to give flexibility to it. It used to be 15 percent. In some cases like in works, you may need to give more money in the dry season to get a lot of work done. These are the laws that make a difference.
Also, we are facing infrastructure deficit -we talk about power, road, and railway – there is no government that can fund these gigantic projects. It is not possible. If you are waiting for government to fund railway, roads, it will not happen. It does not have the money to do that. I don’t think it is pretending about it. And we all agree that without infrastructure, our economy cannot move forward. The answer remains to have an enabling environment by law that allows private sector participation in the funding of these projects.
Look at the issue of Calabar-Lagos Coastal Railway project that raised a lot of dust. How much is the money? Only N60bn, which is for counterpart funding of the project, which is being financed by the Chinese Exim Bank. If that amount is what we are struggling to find from everywhere, how will government tackle other pressing needs. If we have an enabling environment, a big Chinese or UAE company can say, ‘Look, can I participate? I will provide all the trains, carriages for this route. Give me the Lagos to Calabar or Calabar to Port Harcourt route; I will fund it and I will make my money from the goods and tariffs”. If there is a law that allows that, you will see everybody bringing his money to invest in Nigeria.
The law that we are currently trying to pass, for the first time, will allow the private sector to even build rail tracks. If we want to concession any of our projects or services, the law would take care of such. These are the things that the existing law does not allow.
On roads, we are ensuring that some of the laws will enable better maintenance of our highways and better participation of private sectors in road construction. Look at the Lagos-Ibadan Road or the one from Ibadan to Ilorin? Since 1999 when Obasanjo was in power, the road has been under construction. That is 16 years ago. They broke it into three segments in a bid to make it easier. They broke into Ibadan to Oyo for one contractor, Oyo to Ogbomosho for another contractor and Ogbomosho to Ilorin another contractor. We are just about to start the last phase. That is Oyo to Ogbomosho. Lagos -Ibadan that is so important to us is yet to be completed. The money is not there.
So it is the law that will enable the private sector to participate in such construction that we require.
If you talk about reforms in any society, they can only be done if there are stable laws that will support that. And that is what we are trying to do in ensuring that all these sectors are provided with an enabling environment that will bring about change in the economy and create jobs for a lot of our unemployed youths.
With the controversies that surrounded the 2016 budget and the dwindling oil revenues, do you sincerely think the budget will be faithfully implemented?
What we have done, despite the power that is given to the legislature by the constitution, is to stand with the people. As part of the cooperation with the executive we ensured that the executive got what they wanted so that they will not give the excuse that they are not familiar ith the budget or that it is not theirs. We bent backwards and even relinquished some powers we have as part of the support. This is a government that has come to change things and we told ourselves that we should as much as possible support it and work with what it wants. There is no excuse on the part of the executive not to implement this year’s budget to the last letter.
On our part, we are to ensure that enabling laws are passed. I give you example again with the procurement law that we are amending. It is an effort to fast-track the process by which budget would be implemented. And then, of course our own oversight, we have resolved that we will monitor every Naira, every kobo to ensure that they are spent in line with the budget. I can assure you that we will do that. We will make sure that all the agencies and ministries implement the budget fully. In saying that we have to be realistic and see what the executive does with the challenges it has. Nobody anticipated the disruption we are having in the Niger Delta area. The budget was based on 2.2 million barrels of crude a day. But now it has gone to as low as 1.6 million barrels. That is a temporary setback. Government must show its capacity and ability to get peace restored in the Niger Delta. Everything must be done to ensure that production goes back to the original projection which 2.2 million barrels.
Remember oil price was down to $28 per barrel. Some people were worried and even asked how we were going to implement the budget. Luckily it has gone up to $50. There is some buffer there that should help to cushion some of the shortfalls here and there.
Our own part is to make sure that the amount that has been appropriated, all the releases are made to the agencies in line with the law. There cannot be selective releases. The budget has been approved, the money is there, there is need to release it to the agencies and ministries each quarter. When the money is not there, there is need for the executive to come back to us to explain why. We will hold them accountable. That is the only thing that will make the difference between this year and any other year in terms of budget implementation.
Do you feel distracted in any way by your current trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal?
I agree that anytime the history of this period is written, the aspect of CCT will be there. From what we are seeing in the court, not my words, even the words of the witnesses support what I said earlier that my trial is political. Remember the day the chief witness said the first time they wrote to the committee on Federal Government Implementation Committee on the Sale of Landed Property was in April 2015 which was two months after I had emerged as the Senate President. To me, that was a further confirmation of what I said. It means that prior to then, there was no investigation done.
Be that it as it may, it is a distraction. There is more we could have done. There are a lot of hours that we are losing when we do go to court. We have to do that because I want to clear my name as soon as possible so that we can move forward. It is an unfortunate distraction. I think it was ill-conceived by those who started it.
However, it has not deterred us. We still have been able to address and push along our own agenda. It is something that after the case is over, as an institution, we must look at how to strengthen our judiciary and how to ensure that political battles that are lost in the political arena do not find themselves into the judicial arena. It is not good for the system. Sometimes you hear people use the word corruption trial but when you actually look the issue, at best you call it administration misdemeanour. When we start to paint the fight against corruption and people begin not to be sure whether it is corruption fight or politics, we do more harm to the war on corruption. The fight against corruption should be very transparent so that when you find somebody guilty, Nigerians will know. But, you see, sometimes people are found guilty even on the so-called corruption; the society will still embrace them. And this is because people do not have belief in the system. When we do things like these we taint the system.
I think it is something we must address. Back to the issue, it has not deterred us. Yes, it may have weighed us a little down, stopped us from moving at the pace we wanted to move but I still believe that we are doing much better than previously. I am confident that at the end of our term we would have made a lot of great strides and set Senate and the National Assembly at a level much higher than we met it.
The Senate attempted amending the CCB Act but was forced by public outrage to drop it, only for the House of Representatives to take it up. Will the Senate be bold enough to concur to a law it had earlier dropped?
I have not seen details of what they have passed. There is a process to follow if we are to concur to what they have passed. They will send to us for concurrence. When we get it we will look at it and see what they have done.
What step do you recommend should be taken by the Federal Government to restore peace in the Niger Delta?
On the issue of Niger Delta, we have had this kind of problem before when President Yar’Adua was in office. We were able to find a solution that restored peace to the region. Clearly, there is need for all of us to put hands on the deck and bring peace to the Niger Delta.
I was chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum when we did it in the past . I know the role we played at that time to ensure that Yar’Adua government worked out the amnesty programme that restored peace at that time. The National Assembly is there and available to play our own role in bringing about peace in the region. It is a priority and I don’t believe any price is too high in restoring peace to the Niger Delta.
Are recommending another amnesty for the militants as Yar’Adua did?
I didn’t say that. I said that we have done it before. Every situation has its own solution. There is an amnesty programme already in place, so it might not be the issue of amnesty. Whatever the issues are, what I am saying is that we must be able to bend backwards and find a solution to the situation. At the time Yar’Adua granted amnesty to the militants on June 25, 2009, nobody had heard of such programme anywhere in Nigeria. It was fashioned out at that time to meet the situation. Now, we must fashion out whatever is required. What I am saying is that no price is too high to pay for peace to reign in this country.
How true is the claim that the President transmitted a letter to the Senate regarding his medical trip to London?
The letter clearly stated that the President will be away for 10 working days to attend to his health. I am a doctor, you can be attended to by a doctor, if he is not sure, he might say look I better refer you to another doctor. That happens to an ordinary person not to talk of the President of a country. I don’t blame the doctor that attended to him. He needs to be careful. He wants to share responsibility. He is also being over cautious. He is taking 10 days off, he has done the right thing so that there will be stability. He has followed the process, nothing has been hidden. We wish him all the best. When we had the dinner he was fit and well. We sat together; there was no evidence that he had any problem. I think this is just to ensure that all righteousness and correctness are followed. There is no problem.
To what extent has the Senate gone in amending the Nigerian Constitution to take care of many critical areas that need urgent attention?
We have set up a committee headed by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu and they have started meeting over the crucial matter.
We gave them a clear mandate. As you are aware, in the 7th Assembly, a lot of work was done to the extent that the amendment was passed by the National Assembly but was not assented to by the President as required by law.
We have told them to break the work into two phases. Let us first agree quickly on things that most people agree that should be amended. In two weeks’ time they are going to have a retreat in Lagos to review all the areas where people have common position. Secondly, they will get new areas.
We are going for areas that have little or no controversy. They will consult with speakers in all the 36 states so that we get their input as well. We will come back and try as much as possible to ensure that before the year ends we can pass the constitution amendment. It is likely that after that we will continue to work because there are some new areas that will come in that may need more consultations and engagement with the public. But these ones that we have already had engagements before, I think with limited resources, it is better that we try and fast-track it and get it out. It might not be comprehensive but our attitude is to get as many areas as possible amended instead of spending two or three years doing nothing on the same process.
Are you not worried that the Senate is just being seen as a toothless bulldog since most of its resolutions are not being implemented by the Executive? Will the senate accommodate the restructuring of the country in the ongoing amendment?
Constitution amendment is based on the feedback you get from the people- general consensus by the people and stakeholders. It is not in my place as a presiding officer or chairman of the National Assembly to say this is what is going to happen. Going back to what I said earlier, what we want to focus on now is the areas that we have all agreed on. Restructuring will involve arguments to and fro, pros and cons. These are the kind of things I think at this first stage will pretty much distract us.
We have been doing constitution amendment for many years, yet we don’t amend it. Let us amend the ones that we all agree that need to be amended. There are certain parts of the constitution we all agree that need to be amended. If not that the former president, for whatever reason, did not assent to the last amendment, we would have been done with that. My view is that let us do those less controversial ones. After that, the second phase of the amendment we will bring new issues, possibly issue like restructuring.
On resolutions, we have made it clear that we are not going to be a National Assembly that will not be effective. We have already set up something like a compliance committee to oversee some of these things we have made and see that the executive arm complies.
This National Assembly is not afraid of anybody. This Senate is not afraid to say the truth when it is necessary. We are not afraid of taking on anybody once we believe that the person is not following the law. There is no sacred cow in this business. We know by doing that the system will come back to fight us. Unless we do things right nothing will happen.
Look at the last investigation we did on Treasury Single Account, TSA, everything was made open. I was also a member of the 7th Assembly where some major decisions reached on the floor never saw the light of the day. For instance, I did a motion on oil subsidy and till the time the 7th Assembly ended it never saw the light of the day.
But the TSA report did not only see the light of the day, its recommendations did. Even till today you can see those involved sponsoring articles against us. I saw one the other day saying that the senate president is in dilemma because I personally have a credit card that I am being charged one percent. What does my credit card got to do with a national matter? They are saying that because of that my refusal to allow the country to be paying one percent to them when other companies say they can do the TSA for us for less. You can see selfish interest playing out in what they are doing. Just by this action, you can see that we are saving the country billions of naira. I am pretty sure that if you offer the same company to take the business and pay one third of that it will agree. We know the kind of money they was moving around and they think it is the same National Assembly that they will give money to senators and either the report will not see the light of the day or even if it comes it will be watered down . We are waiting to see if the executive will be working with a company that will be charging us four times what others can do for us with little or nothing.
We must put an end to this type of nonsense.
We will make sure that our resolutions have substance, are transparent and that the right thing is done.
You had earlier promised to make the breakdown of the budget of the National Assembly. Should the silence on that from you be taken that you have changed your mind?
No I have not changed my mind. There is a process of putting it on our website. I have already released the figures, what is remaining is creating greater awareness on that. You cannot be shouting for transparency and you do not ensure openness in your own house.