• ‘For four years, we tried to build the independence of the National Assembly’
• 2003 episode: Buhari ‘smuggled’ out of plane after followers overwhelmingly stormed airport
• Explains why she wants to return to Senate
By Jide Ajani and Soni Daniel
Senator Khairat Abdulrazaq-Gwadabe was elected to represent the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in the Senate at the start of the Fourth Republic, running on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) platform. She held office from June 1999 to June 2003.
Born in Zaria, Khairat bagged the bachelor’s of law degree at the University of Buckingham and has a master’s degree in constitutional law from University of Lagos. After taking her seat at the Senate in 1999, she was appointed into Committees on the Environment, Health, Women Affairs (Chairman), Federal Character, Tourism & Culture and the FCT.
Previously, in 1994, she was a member of the Panel on the Review of the Customs and Excise Department.
As a senator, she represented the people of the FCT well and she was a very strong voice for women participation in politics.
As of December 2011, Khairat was the Chairman of the Senators Forum, through which serving and non-serving senators share their knowledge and experience to promote democracy.
The people of the FCT, having x-rayed the current representation at the Senate and those aspiring for the seat, have asked her to run for the seat again so that they can benefit from her purposeful representation.
This is why she is running for the Senate on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, APC.
In this interview, conducted after she officially declared her intention to run for election, last week, the senator speaks on why she wants to return to parliament.
You were in the Senate from 1999 to 2003. What was the experience like?
Over the years, because of the way I’ve interacted with people at my job, coming to the Senate and having understood the nature of people from different places, I could easily understand their points of view. But one thing in the Senate, in the very early stage, that shocked me into understanding that this place is about knowing how to lobby your fellow people and not assuming that everybody is going to see things with you the same way, was when we were filling our biodata. In one place, they left space for four children’s names and, as I was filling, I could hear one of my fellow senators saying: ‘distinguished, there are not enough lines here for us’. And one other fellow asked, ‘how many children do you have?’ He replied, ‘I have 13’. Another senator said, ‘I have 26’.
So, I turned my head just to see the faces of those who had this number of kids. What I took away from that was that I had to map my people there. If I needed something to be done in a particular way, I knew the people who will stick with it and those who will not and I realized that the number of children you had and that you’re taking care of will determine your strength in holding onto a bargain or a position on any issue. And that helped me throughout my tenure in that place. The point is that when people have too many baggage – and we are all getting the same pay – you find it difficult to stick to principles when the heat comes because the first consideration for most (not all) would be that, well, this would be a way of solving part of their problem. Some of us who did not have many children still had to support people – those who had school fees to pay and all that. These were the kinds of things that came to play when the executive needed voices to disrupt the legislative arm. These were a few things I picked up very early. One doesn’t generalize, but I found that the cultural biases largely influenced the makeup of the person.
You were very close to the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo; even when they wanted to remove him as Senate President, you were one of the women against his removal. What attracted you to Okadigbo? And were events to be replayed, will you still stand by the OYI OF OYI, as Okadigbo was known?
The Oyi of Oyi was an excellent mind. I love excellent, intellectual minds. The intellectual sagacity came with some form of arrogance that reflected in his charisma. When you are arrogant with your knowledge, you are not afraid to exude what you know and correct those who do not understand what you know and I like that. But a lot of those who don’t know as much don’t like to be told off. If you find a very intellectual person, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So, that may be the only thing that was lacking in him. But nobody is complete. Okadigbo was a man of distinction who knew what he knew and was not bothered about what you said. When we were to vote for the Senate President then, I was looking for somebody that had experience. We were all green coming as senators in 1999. So, I pitched my tent with him, as against others who were running, and, at that time, the Senate Presidency was zoned to the South-East – and virtually all those who were elected from the zone vied for that position. (Mind you, I studied law in the UK and I came back and did my master’s in Nigeria, and then my NYSC. They posted me to Lagos but I didn’t want to do it in Lagos. I wanted to go to the East)
I wanted to understand another part of Nigeria very well. I already knew the Yoruba and Hausa. I believe in one Nigeria and I am completely detribalised. So, I really wanted to use that year to learn the language and their ways. I remember my father was saying, ‘I don’t understand you. Everybody is coming to me to help them influence their posting to Lagos and you want to go to the East.’ Eventually, the posting came out and it was Lagos, mainly because those who studied abroad are all kept in the capital. So, back to my experience in the Senate, after inauguration, we were cheated out of that game but we stood solidly with Okadigbo, that you could not start a new democratic process with green horns. Eventually, when the opportunity came due to the Evan or Evans issue, we were able to impeach Evans and bring Oyi. From the day we brought Oyi, the debate on the floor became robust. If you didn’t have anything up in your head, you will not dare press the bell to indicate that you wanted to speak.
I enjoyed it because anytime I pressed the buzzer to speak, I will look to my right where the late Senator Wahab Dosunmu from Lagos always sat; and anytime I spoke, Dosunmu will be looking through his rule book to see how to stop me. It was quite engaging. He was from AD but he was not always talking from AD platform. He just wanted to demonstrate that sense of engagement – that’s what made it robust. Sometimes, I would sit in the front row, and you know that when you are presiding and a thought comes and you want to quickly reel out a rule to stop the fellow and you can’t really remember it, I was there checking and I will take my pen and paper, write the rule number boldly and carry it by my chest and show it to Okadigbo and, when he looked down and he saw it, being of a very sharp mind, he already knew what you were talking about and he would refer to rule so and so. So, the thing was flowing and the debate was rich and the laws we were making were impressive. But by the time politics came in to remove him, we tried hard because what we wanted was to build the independence of the legislature quickly so that whoever comes will have an established order of doing things and respect for that institution. Then, you must admit that once you heard the word ‘Mr. President’ and Oyi stood up to move, you know that power was moving.
It’s been 15 years since you left the Senate and you’re staging a comeback. What happened?
One of the things I learnt then was that you should always ask your community what they want. Don’t assume that they are suffering. When I was campaigning in one of the communities, I discovered that the men complained that women took hours to fetch water from the river. So, I decided to give them a borehole. We did that. The men were happy but the women were not. The women said what they had before paid them. I discovered that when they woke up at 6am, they would take all their laundry and go to the river. They would spend the day to socialize, do all their activities and they enjoyed it. The husband and children would be home while they had fun before returning home with their water. Now, the borehole was right in their nose and I deprived them of such a nice time. So, they wanted their time and that was it for them. I took away their freedom. So, you don’t always assume that somebody is suffering. Maybe he likes it in that particular way because it comes with some form of consolation which money cannot always buy.
When you look at what has happened in the last couple of years, what perspective would you want to present regarding your understanding of why things are the way they are now in NASS and why they should not be this way?
It’s all about understanding how the legislature works. And it works at several levels. The first level is the chamber floor which is usually about getting an opportunity to also play to the gallery, because the spotlight is on you and you get an opportunity to let your constituency know you can speak English or you can debate. You get an opportunity to bring up issues that are dear to you or your constituency or some group finds in you a role model to push issues for them. Now, in that floor, you must stop to think, how do you reflect, collectively, that institution to the world because, as you are seated, whatever you are doing, people are watching you and making an impression of our legislative house? That’s decorum. It must be top notch and walking and moving around aimlessly when members are speaking should not be encouraged.
The second level is the debate of bills and one has to be prepared. To be prepared to make sound debate, you must have support staff and you are as good as your support staff. Thirdly, at the level of the Committee, you must work in the chamber as an individual senator and as a group. If you are not the Chair of the Committee, your responsibility is still high, that is, to bring your wealth of knowledge or discovering and learning about the issues that are before you. At the fourth level, you do oversight by visiting the agencies under your Committee. What are you looking for? They have come to you with their budget and you’ve worked on the budget and you allocated funds for their needs. Now, you give them six months to see how that has worked: The funds that we have given them, how far have they utilised them, what are the constraints, what can we do better? You ask questions and then wait for the next budget and ask more questions; where did the funds go? There is a lot of work that needs to be done but you must understand it, know what you are going there to do and be equipped to do that.
So, why this comeback bid?
I asked myself the same question. But honestly speaking, it’s different. We have watched quietly the system changing in the direction that I never envisaged. I came into politics with a lot of vibrancy. I wanted Nigeria to be better. Once you have a strong institution, it doesn’t matter who is sitting on top of the institution, the system will work. But as you know, I did not technically lose the primary in 2003. There was a lot of agitation from the National Assembly for the impeachment of President Olusegun Obasanjo at the time and we were the people pushing for it because we felt that he was unconstitutional in some of his actions. Every law, particularly the Appropriation Act, was always flouted. We worked hard to put things in place and he messed it up.
Anytime he came to do his budget presentation or the state of the nation address, you will find that whatever he said never tallied with the budgeting. For instance, you can’t say your thrust is agriculture and then you are giving less than N100 billion to agriculture. You can’t tell me that your thrust is health and you are giving more money to defence. So, whatever you are saying in the state of the nation address must tally with what you have presented to us. So, largely, we now look at your address and say ‘this is where he wants to go and we will help him get there’. We tinker with the budget in a manner that will reflect the direction that he wants to go. But when it comes to implementation, he will now become selective as to which ministry he is going to give funds. If you don’t get money, you can’t do anything. We said, ‘no, if we continue the process this way, we are going to get to a point where some of us that want to see Nigeria do well will not achieve our aim. This second term he is seeking, let us ask him not to go’.
So, we were called to a conference – all the appointees, ambassadors and legislators of the PDP – at the Yar’Adua Centre. Audu Ogbeh was Chairman of the party at the time, and they selected people to speak and people spoke. I came up and summarized what every speaker had said. I said we were all going round in circles. ‘Mr. Chairman, please let us beg Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo not to run for second term in the interest of the country and in the interest of the party’. There was a big round of applause. They forgot that he was seated there. I think somebody reminded me that he’s Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. I responded and said ‘I appreciate that you would rather call him chief. But for a man to say he is going to give up his life and serve his nation, I think he needs to be honoured and he served his nation and rose to the highest level you can give a man in the military, General. I think we should honour him by addressing him as General Olusegun Obasanjo. He is a chief in just a small community in Nigeria. But he has risen to the highest level as a General and Commander-in-Chief of the army. So, I repeat, I am talking about our President, General Olusegun Obasanjo’. Everybody clapped for me and then the Chairman asked me to go and sit down. I sat and that was the nail. So, when it came to the time for primaries, I said I won’t give them that pleasure of not seeking re-election, that I will go and that if people asked me in future why didn’t I go for a second term, I could tell them why. I’m a fighter, they will hit me but I won’t go out of the way. That is what happened. They just didn’t want me to return.
At some point you moved to the ANPP?
It’s good to stand for something. Whatever anybody says, General Muhammadu Buhari is standing for something. I was sitting in my house and watching the congress of the ANPP on TV and Buhari emerged as the flag bearer then and the next thing I saw, he raised the hand of Okadigbo as his running mate. I said these are the people I’m going to follow ‘because I can work with them to get the Nigeria we want’. That is how I defected from the PDP to ANPP. I remember then ANPP was excited and they wanted to give me automatic ticket to run for the Senate. I said no, ‘I didn’t come to run. I came to make sure that we tilt Nigeria in the direction that will yield the best’. That’s how I joined the presidential campaign team and we went everywhere.
I don’t know if you were in the political rally of those days with Buhari. You need to understand the following he has. We went to Adamawa. I refused to go by air because I wanted to see what the road situation was and what the people, their lives were like. So, we drove all the way from Abuja to Adamawa. The day Buhari arrived for the campaign, when we got to the airport, we sat in the VIP lounge and the plane landed. We could see from the window, the crowd on the tarmac, it was like they wanted to carry the plane. The plane came to a stop but you couldn’t see the tarmac. The only thing you could see was sea of heads. The man could not come out. They had to drive a jeep into the cargo hole so that they didn’t mob him as he emerged through the main door.
It’s frightening because in a situation like that, you could get killed out of love. It took us four hours to drive from the airport to town, a journey that took us 30 minutes earlier in the day. Being in the entourage, he would move forward and we will follow him. Then I saw that they almost killed me, not with their hands but because of pushing. So, every time he went up, I will wait. When Oyi went up, I will follow Chuba because they loved Chuba – everywhere you went, the two tall men, the same birthday, the same height. Everything was just so similar and the crowd loved Oyi in the North. So, you had two men that people loved. It was a pity they didn’t win. After the loss, we went to court and I went back to my law chamber. We did so many things in the meantime.
How do you think your constituents will receive you now?
If you recall, they commissioned Abuja monorail some two months ago. I was invited and I attended. As we walked in, the Abuja political class and the chiefs were sitting to the right and other people were sitting to the left. I was ushered to the front row and I sat down. Then Mr. President entered with the former Minister of Abuja, el-Rufai. When the President visits any place, there is usually a line up of party stalwarts, chiefs and politicians. But there wasn’t such line up. Then we were ushered into the train. I was the only Abuja based person in the train. All the chiefs among others were sitting out there. They were prevented. Politicians are the ones that keep the party going. They are eminent personalities that should be recognized at all occasions.
So, I had to ask ‘you mean your politics here is that bad, that you are no longer recognized? What is the problem?’ So, they explained that one, the people representing them don’t come back after they are elected. So, I felt that we have to have better representation. Politics must be better. If it is the quality of representation that is causing this, then I’m ready to run. Everybody knows that the senatorial seat in Abuja is occupied by the opposition party. So, the lacuna between governance at the top and the people in the FCT, the highest office you can aspire to here, is serious. Even though it’s a legislative seat, you can use it to ensure you have better politics played locally. So, these were the things that really started agitating my mind.
Then I decided to go round, talk to people and get their feeling. I went to all the wards, spoke to all of them and the feedback I got was frightening. They complained and they were saying ‘you represented us well; why don’t you come out again?’ Some of the aspirants, over the years, will tell me that when they go on consultation, people tell them that ‘if you promise to be like Senator Kairat Abdulrazaq who served us, then we will vote for you’. All of that was what brought me out. I said, ‘okay, let me come, sacrifice and provide the platform where we can rise, win elections and play politics properly with better development, allow people to have their voices represented’. Those who also believe in my ideas will work with me to achieve it. That’s why I came out.
What are you bringing to the table now, especially contesting against an opposition incumbent?
You must understand the FCT terrain. If you say you are going to Kuje, for instance, the local government is so huge that if you leave the metropolis and you want to go to Kudun Kariya, you have to go to Abaji first, you go to Nasarawa State before you get to Kudun Kariya. If we do a road from Karshi, then you can link Kudun Kariya directly. Abuja has a very beautiful terrain – if you like lush green area, go to Kwali side. It’s waterlogged. And farming is very good there. If you want where there is more water, go to Abaji. If you are going out of Abuja, once you hit Abaji, there is a turning on the right that takes you to Kandagi. At a time during the rainy season, the bridge there was washed away. So, the pupils there couldn’t go to school because the teachers were on this side for the duration of that period. They were cut away from us. How do you get development to such people? It is effective understanding of the terrain, the needs of the people and how you budget for it for effective development.
We still have to go for primaries. We have six Area Councils and in each of the Area Councils, we have layers of Nigerians. The Chairmen of the Area Councils are currently APC members. There was one of them before that was a PDP member but he decamped. Nigerians as I have come to see have changed. They are not the kind of Nigerians we used to have. Their mindset has changed. They can discern. The point is that people are going to vote based on issues. We are pushing them to vote on issues than personalities. The chances are that they will look at performance. I know the electorate will look at what the incumbent has done; the person coming to take over, what does he hope to do? They are going to decide all of these and this will weigh heavily on the way they will vote. I hope that we will clinch it by the grace of God.