By Henry Umoru
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe was a former Deputy Governor of Abia State. A very ranking Senator who represents Abia South Senatorial District, Abaribe was first elected into the Senate in 2007. He was subsequently re-elected to the Senate in 2011, in 2015 and in the February 23 2019 National Assembly Election. He is the leader of the South East Senate Caucus and also the Chairman, Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy. In this interview, Abaribe speaks on the militarization of the just concluded elections, Electoral Reforms, the present Senate and the relationship between the different arms of government, among other topical issues. Excerpts:
How do you see the last election?
We expected much better than what we got from the INEC. After the 2015 election, even with the imperfections, we assumed that the 2019 was going to be much better than the 2015 and of course we also assumed that all the logistics problems would have been eliminated. It took INEC four years to plan for the election. They got all the money they wanted on time and they had absolutely no reason for what happened ultimately, except if it was pre-programmed to postpone the elections in order to put people off balance and then make sure that there are two sets of guidelines for the elections.
In the North, INEC never cared about the guidelines of enforcing the use of card readers but in the South, it insisted that those things must count. So, what we found, like most observers have also found out is that Nigeria is the only place in the world where more people live in the Sahara region than in the coastal areas. You find more people voting in the deserts than in the coast. So, when you have a situation where you get millions of votes from where there is insurrection and where nobody is living, it goes to show that the elections can never, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to have been an advancement from where we were.
APC National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole made a statement about the winner takes it all and that apart from the position of Public Accounts chairman which is constitutional, no PDP lawmaker will be a Committee chairman.
I had cause at one time to advise him not to be so garrulous in his statements and I think he hasn’t learnt any lessons. You don’t choose for us or determine for us who becomes what in the Senate. I think because he has never been a member, he just doesn’t want to take advice from those who have been in the National Assembly. The National Assembly is not Edo State where he ran roughshod over everybody. It’s not a State House of Assembly. This is the National Assembly of Nigeria and the choice of who becomes what with regards to committee assignment is a collegiate choice. It’s not a choice that is made by one person. Even the Senate President cannot sit down and say I give you this or that. It never happens. There is always a Committee that is called the Selection Committee. The first thing that is done when the leadership emerges is that there will be a Selection Committee and that Selection Committee comprises of people from both the majority and the minority parties and they will now choose people that will work within this milieu.
So, when somebody from outside starts to make such insinuations, I think that he’s actually making life very difficult for whoever he is promoting because the National Assembly is an arm of government. So, when somebody from the Executive arm of government comes to try to tell the National Assembly what to do, all that you get is pushback because what we will now say is we don’t want a Senate President that is going to be a wet rag for the Executive. We wouldn’t want a Senate president that will just wake up and become an adjunct to the Executive that will be going to take orders from them. That is not good for the country, it’s not even good for Adams Oshiomhole himself because what we found out about people like him who make up these things is that if tomorrow he runs into trouble, he runs to the Senate Committee on Ethics to make a complaint and try to ask them to save him from the Executive. We’ve seen it happen many times where people who were in the Executive before and were boasting and saying all manners of things but the day they were put under pressure, the next things was that they wrote a petition and asked Public Petitions Committee to look into the matter. So, it’s not even in their own interest to have a subservient Senate and no senator will support the Senate President who will be subservient to the Executive because we are not going to give up our status as an arm of government to the Executive.
Nobody will do that. I also know that the judiciary will not do that. The reason we have our type of democracy is so that one arm can be as a check on another arm, otherwise, we might as well all go home and let the Executive be everything, including making laws for us. So, our independence is hard earned and lessons have been learnt, including what we went through in the last four years under this first term of the APC government. I do not think the APC government will also want to have the rancor that they went through in the last four years because if you put yourself under such self inflicted rancor, you are not going to get any work done. If you are unable to do that, what are you going to tell the Nigerian people? I don’t think Buhari’s legacy should be that he fought the National Assembly for eight years. History will not be kind. No matter what they say, the verdict of history is always very necessary for any man who claims to be a statesman and I don’t think that the APC should let their national chairman continue to be as small minded as he is.
Will the PDP sponsor a candidate of its own?
Why can’t the PDP sponsor a candidate? I can say that all of us are also consulting. It’s not only the APC that is consulting, we are consulting and we are also talking with the incoming APC members. Some of them are coming from the House of Representatives, so they know what we all went through. Some of them are new, but they also have an idea. Some have been governors, so they also have an idea of what type of life they will face. So, ask yourself a question. You come in as a former PDP governor and you are hearing Oshiomhole saying that you cannot be a chairman or anything. Why would you now want to follow whoever Oshiomhole brings out and say this is the man?
So, like I said before, Oshiomhole is de-marketing his party and actually making the PDP members to think twice about whoever APC is bringing up. This decision as I said, will be done on the floor of the Senate. Like Senator Ndume had earlier said, it’s not constitutional for somebody to wake up and begin to talk to you from outside and say he wants to determine what happens in an exclusive club that the person is not a member. Oshiomhole is not a member. Why would you want to tell club members what to do?
Militarization was one of the issues around that election, did you have such experience?
We didn’t have such experience in Abia. On the contrary, the military played their role the way it should be played. But from what my colleagues have told me in places like Rivers and Akwa Ibom they just had the military playing a direct role in the elections, which is not what they are supposed to do. So, both local and international observers have talked about the militarization of the election and of course we all witnessed it when the supplementary elections were done in Kano and Bauchi. We could see how it was deployed to rig people into power. So, we condemn it and we totally decry the use of the military in the manner it was used.
What is your take on electoral reform?
I do not think that the electoral reform is something that is esoteric. We already had an electoral bill that was sent to the President four times. At every point at which he made a complaint, it was modified to suit him. The first one was on the question of the sequence of elections. There was so much hue and cry and even some people came out to say that the National Assembly had no such right. But of course, the courts eventually affirmed the right of the National Assembly to fix the sequence of elections. The National Assembly removed it so that they would not say that anybody had a vested interest in members of the National Assembly coming first or so.Then of course, we now had the issue of the various amendments, but President Buhari still found reasons not to sign it, with a nebulous protestation about some things, saying that there was an ECOWAS protocol. If we really want to get it right, we should tell the President Buhari that the elections are now over and he now has time to assent to that bill. So, all those who were telling him that his election depended on the way it went, now he has a chance to bequeath to Nigerians a much better experience in voting because if electronic transmission was used, then nobody would be talking about anybody going to the collation centre and manipulating results. What it meant would have been that results would have come directly from the polling unit, all the way to where it was being collated without the physical movement that always led to what we saw in the decision. Remember what the Osun tribunal said that INEC’s copies of the results were mutilated while the agents’ copies were neat. Since we have a problem of the human aspect and human management of the elections, then the more you can eliminate the human aspect, the better the process can be and the more credibility the people can put in the process. You could just see what happened in the last elections. Immediately after the Presidential and National Assembly elections, a whole lot of Nigerians lost faith in the elections and didn’t even bother to come out in the gubernatorial and State Assembly elections. The reason they lost faith was that they knew who they voted for and now having all manners of figures being given to them just told everybody that nothing has changed and we haven’t learnt any lessons. So, if we can go through the new Electoral Act, eliminate part of the human elements, maybe that will make our elections good.
How did your party, the PDP fare in the last election?
I think that for a party that started with 11 governors and are ending up with 17 or so, that means that the party actually did very well in the elections. For the party to have up to 17 governors and did not do so well in the National Assembly elections, would have also told you that a whole lot of things went behind the scene and people were allocated figures and all that. You couldn’t have amassed such numbers without having something to show for it. Some people were merely interested in making sure that President Buhari was re-elected and they did everything and led the process. It now became clearer when it got to the governorship elections. The evidence of the elections now can also be used to prove such speculations.
Your party’s presidential candidate has filed a petition at the election tribunal. As a leader of the party, are you hopeful?
Yes, we are very hopeful that the charade and the manipulations will be ventilated at the tribunal. Let me say this about the former President. He always made it known what and where he stood and I think the candidate of the people, Vice President Atiku Abubakar also made it known that if things are fair, I would not contest. But if clearly you could see the type of the shenanigans that went on, the step that he has taken to reclaim his mandate through the tribunal is a step in the right direction and all of us are supportive that he should do that.
There is some of form of politicking already within the PDP on who will be the minority leader and your name came up prominently. Ekweremadu’s name also came up, but you are still silent on that issue.
The question of either minority or majority leader is left to the parties. The parties pick who they think is best suited to play the role for them because the minority leader’s job is to protect the interest of their party. The majority leader’s job also emanates from the parliamentary system where they call him leader of government business. It’s actually to represent government’s view. So, those are party positions. But the position of Senate President and Deputy Senate President are positions that are voted for on the floor of the Senate, which means that everybody who is a senator-elect, who comes in that day and is there, will be part of making that decision. So, the position of being Senate President will be a decision taken by all senators on the floor and not by anybody else.
The APC has adopted some candidates for the Senate Presidency and for the House of Reps Speaker. Now, your party’s caucus just issued a statement to reaffirm what you just said about the position being open to everybody. Is the PDP thinking of contesting the presiding officers positions?
Yes, because the guidelines for picking the Senate President, according to our rule book, is for ranking senators. So, anybody who is a ranking senator who can get the support of his colleagues, who are all the senators-elect, has a right to throw his hat in the ring for that. When we come to the floor, it’s no longer on the basis of the party, it’s on the basis of the people there making their choice and that was the point being made by the PDP party caucus, telling everybody that the decision will be made by the senators-elect on the floor and not by anybody who is not a senator-elect. So, nothing stops me as a ranking senator who is also spending his fifth term come June, from also consulting with my colleagues and if they find me worthy, they can also elect me as Senate President. Nothing stops me from being a Senate President.
There is this concern that the Senate is becoming a retirement place for people who have served as ministers and governors. They just retire to the Senate, about 20 or 30 percent of senators are former sovernors who are retiring here, and you fall into that category.
I left being Deputy Governor in 2003 and came to the Senate in 2007 after four years. I don’t think I retired in the Senate. So, I don’t fall into that category. Secondly, I don’t also think that I have not been a vibrant member of the National Assembly. I think I have contributed my quota to the welfare of Nigerians by being very clear about what I think that Nigerians ought to get from their government.
On the question of those who come here, I think that it has to do with the electorate. If the electorate decide that this is the person they are going to vote in, why would you blame the electorate for the choice that they make? So, if you say that it is a retirement home, then you are blaming the electorate for the choice they make.
What are we expecting from you in the 9th Senate?
I have been in the Senate for a while, so I have institutional memory. The first thing you are going to expect from me is institutional memory. I know how things are done and if there is anything buried, I know where they are buried for some time now. So, you are going to expect more of what I did in the last Senate, which is to put the interest of Nigerians there, and not to be cowed by this whole business that some people are holding the yam and the knife. I believe that Nigeria is bigger than anyone that is within the country today and the attempted deification of certain persons in the last Senate will never happen again, where some people felt that anything coming from the Executive is Hammurabi’s Law that cannot be challenged. We are saying no, it should be challenged. Of course you could see the other side of it. We let everything that came just go through. There was no due diligence done because there was a narrative that anything you question, that means that you are against President Buhari, which was not true. So, those of us who questioned certain things that came from there were targeted. I was even arrested by the DSS for no reason; the only reason being that I said you can’t just ask us to swallow everything. So, with this institutional memory now, we are going to let all members know that if you have to screen people who are being brought up for critical positions within the country, you must do thorough job.
Abia State in the next Senate will have two former governors, one deputy governor. How is the relationship going to be? And what is your advice to your state governor in his second coming?
We are all older now. We are all much more mature and whatever happened 16 years ago, when we are looking at it today, we are also going to look at it with a different perspective. One of the things about aging is that as you age, you also modify your behavior as the case may be. So, you are going to find that we are going to work more harmoniously than before and we are gone past all those things.
Referring to Governor Orji Uzor, we’ve related well since those unfortunate episodes and he has even come and had dinner with me and we have talked about putting Abia first in everything that we do. So, we are going to be supportive of what will come to our people and what will help the state to make life meaningful for the citizens. So, I do not envisage any problem.
The only problem we may have will be taking different sides according to parties, because he belongs to the APC and I belong to the PDP. So, when it is time for us to take a stand for our own side, we are going to be diametrically opposite. But what we want is for everything to go well at home.
With regard to the state governor, in my congratulatory message to him, I told him that he should pay more attention to Abia South Senatorial District, where the wealth of the state comes from.
The state is called an oil producing state by virtue of the fact that the oil comes from that side and I’ve said to him, please help us to pay attention to your area because my people are complaining to me that much attention was not given to them in the first term. If he does that, I think he will also finish strong because what you pray for every governor to do is to start strong and finish strong so that the person you are handing over to can have what he can inherit and build on to make sure that things go well for the citizens of the state.