Cover Interviews

Level of sleaze in Buhari’s govt mindboggling – Abaribe

  • Abaribe says some elements in govt are in cahoots with people destabilising Nigeria
  • Insists not designating bandits as terrorists makes FG complicit in their atrocities

Sen. Enyinnaya Abaribe is a quintessential lawmaker. All you need to do to gauge the mood of the opposition is to talk to him. As the Senate Minority Leader, he knows his responsibilities and has performed them to the hilt. The former Deputy Governor of Abia State, an economist by training, was first elected into the Senate to represent Abia South Senatorial District in 2007.

Intelligent, debonair, yet intrepid, Abaribe is an interviewer’s delight. He hardly parries any question. On Monday, November 16, IKECHUKWU AMAECHI sat down with the 66-year-old lawmaker for two hours in his National Assembly office. As usual, he pulled no punches. It was a “state of the nation” interview. There were no off-limits. He spoke about the PDP, APC, the Buhari government, IPOB, his relationship with Nnamdi Kanu and several other issues.

What is it like being the Senate Minority Leader?

It is nothing different from what I have always been as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The only thing is that because in the way we conduct the Senate business, I lead the minority side which in a parliamentary system is called the opposition side and the Majority Leader leads the government business side in parliamentary language.

But in the presidential system, it is simply called the majority side and in the way we also arrange our business on the floor, most of the motions that are raised by the majority have to be supported by me because usually, when there is a motion, there is a supporting voice before the President of the Senate asks the opinion of the rest of us and then can hit the gavel.

So, that is basically what it is. But, in terms of our work on the floor of the Senate, ordinarily, once you are in the opposition or minority, your job is to scrutinize the position of the government as espoused by the majority. But sometimes, our interests also coincide. But our job is actually to be carefully scrutinizing what comes, looking for flaws, pointing them out, making counter motions on our own that we feel are in the best interest of the public and of course, being there for ordinary Nigerians who depend on us to see through what goes on.

One of the things that people tend to see happen is that they expect us at all times to be very combative, because the assumption, of course, is that the majority side will always back the government position because they come from the same party and they are the same set of people.

Would you say that the opposition (PDP) has creditably performed the role of holding the government accountable?

Yes, we have. Most of the time, it is not everything that should go by voice vote. So, any time that we do things by voice vote, the ruling is always in favour of those that are in the majority party. But sometimes, we make it very well known the divergent ways we are looking at particular issues but we can get overruled.

For example, on the matter of the Federal Government and the incessant loans that they have been taking, we have always stood resolutely against it but because most of our members who come from the majority party feel that it is meant for whatever government programmes that they have, they always feel persuaded by the government’s argument and not what is in the best interest of Nigerians today and the future generation of Nigerians.

In the almost three years you have been the Minority Leader, what is the most challenging moment you have faced?

I think the most challenging moment was when I introduced the Bill for us to follow the Constitution as set out in Section 271 which stipulates that the National Assembly should set up a Military Service Commission whose job will be to ensure that the dictates of Federal Character is applied in the military. It is there in the Constitution.

When I brought the Bill, I was so surprised how people in the majority, my colleagues, rather than see what we were doing as a patriotic duty of ensuring that the dictates of the Constitution are followed actually opposed the Bill, claiming that it was going to take away some phantom powers of the President.

In other words, they looked at it basically as a challenge to the authority of the President, which it was not.

That day, I felt so bad and I actually wanted us to go ahead and do a division on the floor of the Senate but after we consulted and discussed, they said they wanted to make some input into it so that we can adjust it to whatever realities they wanted, I decided not to push the matter.

Which was why, when we got to the second point again which had to do with the sanctity of elections and the transmission of results at source and the same scenario came up again and people didn’t want us to do transmission of results by electronic means, claiming that the country was not ready, we just said no, let us test this.

What I can get from these two experiences actually is that it is about time in the National Assembly in this electronic age for us to stop voice vote. I think it is too anachronistic. People should now vote electronically. What that helps us to do will be that wherever you are, you will have to vote. Your interest will have to be covered because you are supposed to be representing people.

Of course, the counter argument is that if we let people vote from anywhere they are in the world, then most people won’t bother to come for debates and look at issues on the floor of the Senate. And that is important, because at the point that you stand up to participate in the debates and counter debates, some clarifications, harmonisations and changes are made on the floor there and then. But if you are outside, and you just have to vote yes or no, you may not get the rich experience that comes from being on the floor.

So, that is what the proponents of the continuous voice vote on the floor feel.

Does that tendency of your colleagues not to look at issues from the broad national perspective that will serve the common good rather the narrow party perspective worry you?

Obviously it does but the point really is that all of us being political animals, we probably will not see everything in the same light. Even nationally, we won’t be able to see things in the same light.

And I will just give you a very graphic example of that. Since the inception of this government, we have been sitting on that floor and shouting that we have a group of terrorists in this country running all over the place, killing, maiming, burning villages, destroying people, taking over lands and we have always said, if you don’t designate these people as terrorists, what exactly is it that you call them?

But of course, you now have the other school of thought that says they are just bandits, and then, you have some people who say, if you don’t pay them, they won’t be able to lay down their arms.

It means you are looking at something nationally and you are inputting your own view which is dramatically different from the views of other people. But I am glad that gradually all of us are coming to the same realization because on the floor of the Senate recently, there has now been this growing call to designate these people as terrorists, exactly what we have been saying since 2016.

People are gradually getting to realize the danger that we put ourselves by pretending that all is well whereas we have a raging ground war in which most of the Northeast, Northwest and North Central has been devastated. I am glad that we are all on the same page now in the National Assembly but the government still seems to foot drag on calling a spade a spade.

In your view, does government’s inability to heed the call of the National Assembly and make the appropriate designation make them complicit?

One of the suggestions is that it makes them complicit in what is going on because when you talk about crime and when you want to apportion blames, somebody who has the ability to prevent a crime but refuses wilfully, in the face of the law, is an accomplice.

And when you are an accomplice, what does that mean? It means that you are part of what is going on. So, that I think is a reasonable deduction to make. And what we call on government to do is that they should come out clearly and make Nigerians know that they are not part of the terrorism because right now, the impression created by this seeming inaction is that some elements in the government are in cahoots with these people destabilizing the country.

The impression out there is that the 9th National Assembly is the most subservient to the executive. Do you agree?

I don’t think that I should be the person to make an assessment of my colleagues and me. I think the assessment should be done from an external person. I am doing my own job. What I don’t like, I stand up and say no, this is wrong. I have been doing so consistently and I have been mobilizing my colleagues and we have always made the case.

I think maybe at the point that we started, what we started to do was misconstrued because the 8th National Assembly seemed to be at daggers drawn with the executive, I never felt so. I always felt at that time, because I was part of the 8th NASS and we were the people making the case that the relationship between the executive and the legislature is not supposed to be cozy. It is supposed to be wary because the way we look at things is not the way the executive looks at things. And so, we could not have expected the relationship to be chummy. What one would expect is that people respect their boundaries but everybody gets his or her own job done.

But what then happens when that kind of relationship leads to friction?

So, if that leads to friction, then of course, there are ways of resolving frictions within a political milieu. If it is in terms of a law, you can always test it in court. If it is in terms of amendments, we can always amend what the executive has proposed. If it is in terms of passing what the executive brings, in order for it to be in the best interest of Nigerians, we can always get that done. But because what we are doing is actually something that has to do with the interest of our people, naturally, there will always be different ways of looking at something.

So, when we started in the 9th Assembly, I think the idea was that if the executive claims that they could not perform or do anything because of the strident opposition from the legislature, let us give them the leeway so that they cannot cover their deficiencies by blaming the legislature for putting stumbling blocks. That is what I think happened in the 9th Assembly.

That was misconstrued by a lot of people, including the executive to the extent that they now felt that anything they bring must pass. But of course, some didn’t.

Many Nigerians don’t see the wisdom of the Senate approving a loan request from the President before asking him to submit the details that should include the conditionality, as it happened the last time. Shouldn’t it have been the other way round?

We see that argument. Which ought to come first? Actually, we ought to know beforehand the conditions under which such loans are sought. The reason why we (opposition) were opposed to the loans is that some of them have such nebulous titles that it makes you wonder exactly what the loan is being taken for.

Just check all the loans, you will see things like taking a loan to improve the quality of teachers, for instance. There is no way you can benchmark whatever that kind of open goal can do. We had the loan for improving NTA and things like that. We queried it. We said what exactly do you need all this for?

When a country is in dire straits as we are in right now, the first question is; what are your priorities? Which are the quick wins that will help you in solving your balance of payments, help you in stabilizing your currency, see how you can halt the drift, etc.

That seems not to be the case?

Exactly!What do we find? It is just the same old, same old. Okay, we want to build this and that and each and every one of them if you subject them to proper analysis, you won’t be able to get that return on investment that you need.

You take, for instance, the issue of trade, the argument that has now become a recurring decimal because in the 8th Senate, I remember that I had confrontation in front of the Shehu Sani committee that was in charge of local and foreign debts, with the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, about the same thing, which is, trying to get a loan to build a railway outside of Nigeria and then within Nigeria, just getting a loan to rehabilitate what we already have.

And I remember that in 2017 or thereabout, 1 queried it and Minister Amaechi and I had arguments over it then to the extent that he even went to Awka, where he was giving a lecture and started saying that if they put my name and his side by side, who will know who is Igbo and who is not, which was not the argument.

So, I am glad that when he came to defend his budget this time, he was confronted by Senator Danjuma Goje, Hon Pat Asadu and others talking about the same thing. And you look at the kind of argument that are being made; oh, we are doing it because of trade. And you ask, what type of trade does Niger Republic as a country generate for us to borrow and pay on their behalf? Just think about it.

Meanwhile, they are all French speaking part of the CFA and they already have agreements with Togo on the use of the seaport in Lomé. So, what is it that we are struggling for to say we want to build a rail line in order to take goods from Nigeria to Niger?

Of course, you know that is not the reason for the rail line to Maradi. The issue is simple. There is this whole thing about Niger and the President of Nigeria and some people are just pandering to those kind of sentiments.

So, think about it. From 2017 to 2021, we are still arguing about something we ought to have finished with at that time because the 8th Senate rejected it. But what did they do? They waited till the 9th Senate to bring up the issue again. But I am not sure that the committee will accept that because as we continue, no matter how much you borrow, there will be payback at a particular time. Somebody must pay – ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren.

Usually, statesmen, when they are running their countries, you don’t leave inter-generational debt. Whatever you do in your generation, you don’t try to say, let my grandchildren pay. That is not a worthy legacy to leave for your people.

When you are in dire straits as a country, first like I said, look at yourself. Those things that you know are frivolous and are not necessary, are beyond your reach at this time, you cut them out. There is an adage that says that when you are in a hole, you stop digging first. Otherwise, if you continue to dig, you continue sinking in deeper and deeper into the hole and we seem not to follow that wise saying because just ask yourself, there was a report last week of spending that was done on palliatives. 

And the question is, how could people have said that they spent N58 billion in two months as if we don’t know what a billion is? A billion is a thousand million and you spent N58 billion in two months doing what?

They said they used it on poor Nigerians. So, there is a level of sleaze that is going on that is mind boggling. And if you say, okay, give us or show us how this was done, where, they also have no idea.

That sounds contradictory. Isn’t one of the biggest achievements of the Buhari administration their ability to slay the dragon of corruption as they claim?

Well, it is one thing for somebody to make a claim and another thing for the evidence to be there. So, how do we measure whatever successes that have come in the fight against corruption?

And I ask again, if you are spending this humongous amount of money just like that, how can you justify that? Meanwhile, despite what you say you are spending, the poverty index continues to deteriorate every day.

And one of the very telling indexes is the fact that we now have more than India, people living below poverty line. We are now the number one nation with the largest number of poor people in the world. That cannot be a legacy for which you can clap for yourself.

But President Buhari is still insisting that his government will lift 100 million people out of poverty in 10 years.

Yes, if wishes were horses.

In 2018, you caused an uproar on the floor of the Senate when you said President Muhammadu Buhari was incompetent. Do you still hold that view?

Let me say that I have not changed my mind.

Why not?

I believe that the singular job of a leader is to be able to lift the country and make the people, like former U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, said, the shinning beacon on the hill, so that everybody has hope and everybody feels that you are going somewhere. But where a leader takes you and rather than looking up to that shinning beacon, you are looking down into despair and despondency like we see all around us, there is no way that you can say that person has done well.

I know that there are different ways of grading leadership but for me what leadership really is, is that I step in and you follow me to that Promised Land.

What we see from this government has been a litany of excuses upon excuses upon excuses for their very dismal and poor showing in office. And I have elucidated on this so many times that I no longer feel that it is necessary. The failure is all around us.

But in his October 1 speech, President Buhari made an audacious claim that he has performed better than all his three PDP predecessors put together. Are you saying that he lied?

I am saying that the best person to assess somebody is not oneself. All of us are going to be subject to the judgement of history. So, people are going to look at it from outside. I mean, I can call myself the best person that has also done everything but that will not be what the reality is when the proper assessment is done from outside.

So, I feel that maybe, part of the problems of this government is the inability to confront facts that don’t conform to what they feel about themselves. And if you listen to most of the spokesmen of this government, you will probably think that they were living in an Eldorado. Yet, I cannot drive from here to Kaduna. I cannot drive from here to Kano. I cannot drive from here to Lokoja and all that. So, at every point that anybody is going anywhere in this country, he is filled with trepidation because he does not know who will confront him on the road. It never used to be like this.

When the PDP handed over this country to the APC in 2015, I don’t think that what we are seeing today, was how it was. We were shouting and screaming that there was insecurity but it was confined to three states in the Northeast. Now, it has encompassed the whole country. How will anybody make a claim of doing better than others when things move from better to worse?

Your party, the PDP, recently had its national convention, are you satisfied with the outcome?

Yes I am. One of the best things that has happened to Nigeria in recent times is that there is a credible platform out there to take over this country from those who have destroyed it or are in the process of destroying it. Now let us see whether we can have some restoration. So I am very glad with the outcome of the PDP national convention.

But there are some Nigerians who strongly believe that there is really no difference between the PDP and the APC. They are two sides of a very bad coin.

Those who claim so will need to buy better eye glasses and they will see that the difference is as clear as white and black. You cannot say that there is no difference.

Where exactly does the difference lie?

I think we just finished giving an example. Moving insecurity from the three states in the Northeast to the entire country. Is that not a very clear difference? Moving our economy from where you had an exchange rate of about N150 to the dollar and now close to N600 to a dollar. Is that not a clear difference? Being able at that time for people to find something to eat to now making us the worst in terms of employment so that a large number of our people, bigger than India have now gone into the poverty statistics. Is that not as clear as anything?

Being able to run an inclusive government in which nobody could accuse the government at that time of being sectional, of being nepotistic, of pandering to tendencies that have nothing to do with the secular nature of Nigeria. Is that not clear enough?

Look if we sit down and say let us start listing out things, we won’t leave here today.

But I will give you the final one. Sachet (Pure) Water from N5 to N20. N5 when PDP was in power to N20 in APC’s time in office. And you tell me that there is no difference. That is why I said that anybody who says so, should better get a new set of eye glasses.

There is no way you can compare both parties. Absolutely no way. What is going on today, with all due respect, is that the APC government has spokesmen who tend to believe the lies they tell to themselves and say it with such conviction and passion that you will think they are talking about another place, not the present reality that we are living in.

That is why from everywhere – patriots, churches, traditional rulers, everybody – there is this whole thing about do they really want this country as a viable entity or do they want this country to disintegrate under the weight of the incompetence of the leadership of the country at the moment.

There is this clamour for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction in 2023. But the body language of the PDP indicates that it favours taking the ticket to the North. What is going on?

Let me say that the PDP cannot be undemocratic. It is the Peoples Democratic Party, in which case, those who want to run for any office, including the presidency, must go out and meet the people and seek their support.

And I will tell you this; remember that the governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi, left the PDP because according to him, PDP doesn’t want a Southeast President. Then he went to APC. Now has APC guaranteed him a Southeast President? No! And I read one of his interviews in which he was asked what he will do if the APC does not and he, “I will be very sad.”

Of course, but that is not why you left. You left the PDP as if you were giving an ultimatum to the party. Now, why have you also in getting to the APC forgotten to give ultimatums to the party?

I have said this in another interview but let me repeat it here. Nigeria is in dire straits and Peter Obi has likened it to a vehicle with a knocked engine. The first thing that you do when the engine of a vehicle knocks is to look for a mechanic, not a driver because a driver will sit there and will still not be able to go anywhere because the engine is knocked.

Ndigbo have made so much sacrifices for Nigeria. Ndigbo are the people who have been the real Nigerians, moving all over the place, settling, making every part of Nigeria their home, contributing to the local economy everywhere they find themselves. Therefore, if you are looking for a Nigerian that will heal all of us, it has to be people who have that kind of heart – open-minded people who will be able to embrace all and sundry and therefore that gives us the right.

But you cannot tell a political party that they should close the space and say it is only here. While that is desirable, it is also still undemocratic. Therefore, those of us who want a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction will have to go out and also make every other person see why they should back the Igbo for the position.

And I am glad that Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa has come out and he is going all over the place. Pius Anyim has also said he is running. But if you talk to them, they are not saying they are running on the basis of let us close the space so that it is only us. They are saying, I am as good as any other person.

And when you talk about the body language, there is no such thing in a political party. And I can prove it. At the point at which the party was going to make a decision as to where the chairman of the party was going to come from, all that everybody assumed was that the PDP was going to take it to the South because of the so-called body language but it didn’t happen. And Nigerians were all pleasantly surprised that despite the stories told and this type of inclination which you are talking about now, yet, chairmanship still went to the North.

So, why do we want to cross the bridge when we have not got there? I think that you are being very unfair to the PDP. Actually, the PDP should be commended for leading the way and making somebody from the North the chairman.

Now, APC is forced to scramble and in their scrambling, they are also going to look for a chairman from the North. So, I guess we are getting there. But my own is that parties have conventions, rules and must adhere to the dictates of the Constitution which says that you cannot discriminate on the basis of where somebody comes from. So, we are encouraging every PDP member that feels he or she can take us away from the monumental damage that APC has done to Nigeria to come out and be part of the restoration of the soul of Nigeria.

Do you see PDP being able to wrestle power from APC in 2023? If you were not able to do it when you were in power, how come now as an opposition party?

I don’t see APC winning anything in 2023. And the matter is also simple. We will ask Nigerians, are you better off since APC came to power than when they were not in power?

And Nigerians are going to answer that question. And I don’t see how Nigerians are going to say that they have been better off. If you had employment and because of the failure of APC in governance, you no longer have employment, are you going to be happy with this government?

If in the past you could travel easily but now you can no longer do so, are you going to be happy with this government? If you could have a sense of security around you but today you are no longer able to do so are you going to be happy with the APC? IF you could eat three square meals and now you can only afford one, are going to be happy?

So, there are too many things that Nigerians are going to have to consider when they are going to cast their ballot in 2023. What do you do in a situation like that? What you do is that you no longer say let me continue in suffering, let me continue in poverty. No! There is no way they can paint it.

As a legislator, I represent my constituents and I can tell you that since the beginning of the APC government, if there were requests from my constituents for succour, they have quadrupled and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.

We had world-class people managing our economy under the PDP administrations – Okonjo Iweala, Akinwunmi Adesina, Oby Ezekweisli, mention them. And through lies, propaganda and all manner of subterfuge, you came into office but you are unable to also assemble the same type of people or even those that are better because my secondary school principal, Elder J.W. Wogu of blessed memory, the father of former Minister of Labour and Employment, Chief Emeka Wogu, always told us at the time we were kids and he was bringing us up that: Always leave a place better than you met it.

And that has been my guiding principle in life. Wherever I go, I try as much as possible to make it better than I found it.

So, you hand over Nigeria to a set of people and they make it worse, how will you now turn around and reward them? It is impossible.

They are going to lose this election because when the time comes, these questions will be asked and they no longer will have a bogey of the phantom things that they were saying that time. The election will be a referendum on their management of Nigeria.

So, if you are from Sokoto, and you live in a village where you now have to pay ransom or taxes to a bandit group in order to have your peace and quiet, which never happened under PDP, will you want to continue? How will that happen if you are from Zamfara and you now find that your children are kidnapped and your wife is raped in front of you, will you turn around and say that the government has done well?

  • Courtesy: The Niche Newspapers

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