Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, PDP Abia South, is Senate Minority Leader. In this exclusive interview, the fourth-timer in the National Assembly speaks on the Igbo quest for presidency in 2023, restructuring of the polity, the proposed military withdrawal from volatile areas across the country, hate/social media bills among other issues. We are in 2020. What is your take on the polity? I don’t think anyone who has been in Nigeria this past year would say it went well for Nigerians. I think that, on the contrary, it was a very difficult year. And because we are human beings, people always have hope, always feel that tomorrow would be better than today and always pray to God for a change in their circumstances, so we have entered 2020 with the hope that this will usher in a different decade than the one we just passed through. I think that nobody can say that a decade of 2010 to 2019 has been so good for Nigerians. It’s been ups and downs just like one musician said that we like taking one step forward and three steps backwards. So, we look forward to a better 2020 and the years further with the hope that the present occupants of the political space will take corrective measures and do the right things for Nigerians.
As the Minority Leader of the Senate, how has 9th National Assembly fared since inauguration in June? I do not think Nigerians will say that the National Assembly between June 2019 and now has done so badly. Yes, we had some missteps, I acknowledge that but I can also acknowledge that we have also corrected certain things. For example, budget-making was very tardy and the law was not being followed. The law says the budget is supposed to be from January to December but we didn’t take it serious. We corrected that. I think where we made what I will call a not-very-impressive statement is in the way we screened ministers and went through the process of approving the heads of ministries in Nigeria. I think we could have done a better job. But be that as it may, what we want to do is to look at the future and not at the past. A better job, how? I am talking about the way we screened the ministers.
How was it supposed to be? There should have been a far more rigorous examination of their programmes, qualifications and all that even though I also stated at that time that part of the problem is the fact that we have continually gone on with the wrong way of nominating people, meaning that you bring somebody without a portfolio and so, if the person doesn’t have a portfolio, what you do, at best, is to guess using whatever credentials he has and ask him questions along that line but not knowing whether he will be there. For example, we had about four SANs, we didn’t know who was going to be Attorney-General among them. So, what were you gonna ask them? What I would like to see is whether it’s possible to change the law to make it mandatory that whenever the President is nominating ministers, he will do that with portfolios. Will you be sponsoring a bill to that effect? Well, we may have to look into that and I think that that will be possible because almost everybody has agreed that the process is flawed. The 9th National Assembly scored a first by returning the country to January to December budget cycle. Would you applaud the parliament under the chairmanship of Senator Ahmed Lawan? I said earlier that we have done some things that are good and we have also done some things that are not so good. There is no system that can run at 100% at every point. There will always be some areas that you will do well and areas that will be flawed. So, I think that bringing us back to what ought to be according to the law is something that should be applauded. Of course with the next stage being that ensuring that the implementation is followed to the letter and that our oversight is also very rigorous…implementation in the sense that if we earmark N100 for a project, money should be released in full so that we can see the end of that project. But what we see really these days is that when you earmark N100 for a project for instance, they put N30 there and the project starts, then it is abandoned. And in the next budget it is not continued.
But the opposition in some quarters wasn’t quite happy with the time-frame for the budget passage, feeling that a thorough job wasn’t really done? It is not true. Thorough job was done on the job irrespective of the time-frame. We went out of our way to do due diligence on the budget. I was part of it. We actually made every member to do absolutely the right thing. We even insisted that if the committees were tardy, we will just take what was brought by government and that made everybody to sit up and people worked very hard. And the President ordered ministers not to travel during that time and everybody had to be around. So, when anybody says that the process was hasty, that’s not true. For once, are you applauding the President because you appear not to always agree with him on issues? No, he is doing his job. This is part of the problems that we run into in this country. Somebody does his job and he expects to be applauded for it. Why? His job is to bring the budget on time and he brought the budget on time. Actually the people who should be applauded are lawmakers at the National Assembly who gave the budget expeditious attention and insisted that this ought to be done and he did. If he didn’t do it, everybody would have now known that it was the fault of the executive. The point really is that prior to this time, at every point, the blame had always been put on the National Assembly that it is legislators who don’t work and all that. I don’t think the question of applauding or not is necessary at this stage. Nigerians were recently taken aback when Senate President Ahmed Lawan said that any request sent by President Buhari will be given express approval. They feel the Senate is a ‘rubber stamp’ and that the President is infallible. To you, was that statement correct? I think the other day at the reception of the Senate President in Damaturu, Yobe State by the governor, he expressly stated that that wasn’t what he meant. He has corrected that. I think what he felt was that if you are running a country as President, the assumption is that you have to put the country first, before anything. But I think what he said was now taken out of context and interpreted that the National Assembly is an appendage of the executive branch. We are not and members of both Houses of the National Assembly will always look at every request and everything made and consider the effect on the country because the essence of governance essentially is the welfare of Nigerians. So, if anything comes up and we see that it doesn’t enhance the welfare of Nigerians, of course, we are going to reject it. So, Nigerians should not worry about whether we are going to do our job or not. We are going to do the job to the best of our ability.
2023 is already in focus even though it is still three years away. Politicians like you are jostling. Regions and zones are aligning and realigning. The President has said he’s bowing out then. Of course, he has a constitutional limit in 2023. But he was quiet on where the presidency will go. Igbo are clamouring. How do you see 2023? We have just finished elections in 2019. This is early 2020; even litigations coming from the elections are not yet over. There are still some things that are not yet resolved and then everybody is talking about 2023. We haven’t even talked about how dire our situation is as a country; how difficult things are for an average person. Then, something that is more than three years away, we are talking about it. I think jobbers who think they can use it to create an avenue for fleecing those who are vulnerable are the people who are continually talking about this. I think we should be far more focused on how we can create opportunities for our people. First is for them to earn a living. The unemployment rate is so high that some people are putting it at 32 percent. That’s really outrageous and very scary. The cost of living is so high. People cannot make ends meet. In the midst of all these difficulties, somebody is more interested in who will be from where. I think those who are doing it are not patriotic. But politicians always think about the next elections and eventually 2023 will come. The Igbo believe it is their time when it eventually comes. Let’s talk about it. Do you think the Igbo really deserve a shot at the presidency as it were? I think what you are doing now is that you are also creating this same thing that we are decrying. We are saying that it is too early for anybody to be talking about who will take whatever and the times are very dire. And instead of looking at that you are asking other questions. OK, an Igbo becoming the next President, if it doesn’t change your life today, in what way will that help you? So, what we are interested in is how do we get this country to be better and I have made this point repeatedly before and let me repeat it: the structure of the country should be changed before we start thinking about who gets what and I believe and I stay on that. The structure is so bad that it is very difficult for you to make the country work. That’s the point. At the moment, the country has turned into a unitary government and we merely mouth federalism. And so, it makes it near impossible for you to even do mere security. A local government chairman can’t even secure his environment and he’s called the chief security officer of his local government. He can’t call a DPO to say ‘how do we secure our area?’ A governor cannot even do that. You know, things are in such a shape that one single person will stay in Abuja to determine what happens in Damaturu, in my local government, Obingwa, Abia State. How would that even happen? So, when we now talk that there needs to be a fundamental discussion about how this country is structured, some people get so scared and now think that what you are talking about is dismembering the country. No. We are saying that the way it is, is not workable. Until you confront it, we will just continue running around in circle and continue the present cycle of poverty that has made us the poverty capital of the world. Most of us, especially the elite, don’t seem to understand that we are actually sitting on a keg of gunpowder and if it explodes, it will consume everybody including those who think that they don’t have to do anything about it. So, this is the time for people to actually put on their thinking cap and look at how we can resolve all these fundamental issues. And then, as we are thinking about that, a few people will come out and say we want to be President. To do what? OK, to do their own looting of the economy? Is that what it is all about? That’s not what it is all about. Talking about restructuring, the closest we got to that was in 2014 when then-President Goodluck Jonathan set up the National Conference in Abuja. Some people believed that the recommendations were far more reaching that it could help restructure the country as it were. But recently Mallam Garba Shehu, SSA to the President on Media and Publicity, said anybody who wants that should go through the National Assembly; that you don’t need to convoke a body and ask them to do that. So, do you see restructuring happening outside the NASS? Why won’t restructuring happen through the National Assembly? How can that be achieved? It can only be achieved when people believe and agree to work on it and then take necessary steps and not when a constitutional amendment is sought in the National Assembly and some people believe that they have to dominate the country and therefore they won’t agree. You know, when you stretch things to their elastic limits, it breaks and that is where we are going because we have just refused to play the act of give and take and for no reason. And in another interview, I stated that those who said let’s leave things as they are, are actually the enemies of Nigeria. There is no human being on earth who doesn’t adjust his circumstance according to how he finds himself. And so this blank refusal of adjusting and say you can just continue, look we have a feeding bottle economy where people go to Abuja every month to share revenue. How can that be? Of course, revenues are no longer coming and, in 20-30 years, we will no longer have anybody buying our oil. The signs are everywhere and so if there is no oil being sold and no money to collect in Abuja, what will people do? Nobody is thinking. Countries usually project 50 years, 100 years, “this is what it will look like, this is how we want to move people from point A to point B, so we have to build high speed trains, we will build bigger airports, we have to have better equipped hospitals, there is going to be this number of people who will live in this place, we have to have housing for them and so people think and project” but we just sit here in this country and we do no thinking and we will just be living for today and tomorrow will catch up with us. And you see, that is why when we talked about applauding the president for bringing a budget on time; these are so pedestrian and it is mind-boggling. How? A governor pays salaries to his workers. Is he not supposed to pay salaries? What is he supposed to do? It should be the least of the things that he ought to think about; and because we have dragged ourselves down to this level, we just find it so normal. OK. I tell you this to understand my mindset. When I used to work for SCOA Nigeria, I was the Area Manager, it was basically a trading company and we would buy things from suppliers and sell to our distributors. For example, Nigerian Breweries was a major supplier and we would buy from them. We would write cheque to pay them for whatever they supplied and by the 27th of every month my signature is on it. By the 28th, the representative will come in and pick the cheque and go and the same for salaries and all that. It was a routine. I was now surprised that when I came into government, when it was time to pay somebody and the file of the person is no longer there, they will say it is missing and all of that; I just could not understand why something routine has now become a big achievement. I think we should move out of that and elevate out thoughts beyond basic pedestrian level where we are. But the North generally does not show inclination for restructuring… No, it is not true. There is nothing called the North. This is part of the problems we have. We also have a general fear (of the so-called North). If you go there, there are so many divisions going on. What you ought to say is that whoever has the levers of power today and he is sitting there in the Presidency has shown a disinclination, not the North. There is no such thing. If you go and meet somebody from Plateau, he has a different idea about what should happen. If you meet somebody else in Benue, he has a different idea. If you meet somebody in Kwara, he has a different idea. If you meet somebody in Niger, he has a different idea. If you go to Kebbi, people have a different idea; they are just so different. The point really is that there are two classes of people: Those who are in power and those who are not. Those who are in power want to sustain the advantage they think they have. They actually don’t have any advantage and the reason they don’t have any advantage is that if you are the only educated man in a sea of one million uneducated people, in what way does your education help you? If you are the only rich person in a place and every other person is not so wealthy and then they have to come and feed off your hands, in what way does that help you? It is when you elevate everybody that you are actually building up your society. So, I think what is going on really is that, people who find themselves in position of advantage think that they have to continue to sustain that advantage but everywhere in the world where you have had progress, what you see is that people challenge the status quo. If you don’t challenge the status quo, there can’t be any progress. You must always ask yourself “why do you have to”. In challenging a status quo as it is now, would you be realigning with those people that you mentioned in the North and also the South-West in realizing this ambition about restructuring towards 2023? Everything shouldn’t be geared towards winning an election. You need to change a society. One of the things said about China and I think it also happened in India is moving people out of poverty and so China was able to move more than our total population out of poverty. That was the challenge you have and it wasn’t done by looking at an election coming. You see, at the point you look at an election coming, the next thing you do is to gear yourself towards that election and the creative ways you are supposed to use to help people, you don’t do that anymore; so you are just looking at how do you win the election. That shouldn’t be. In specific terms, are the Igbo interested in the 2023 presidency or restructuring? What do you mean? If you go to Ohaneze President-General, he has always said it that what we are interested in is changing this system as it is which is with the Middle-Belt and the South-South and PANDEF saying same thing and so on and so forth. We need to restructure this country. The way the country is now cannot be sustained and everybody turns around and I think that pushing the bogie of Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, let me tell you about how elections are done. Political parties determine who their candidates are. It is not a group of people sitting outside saying “we want this person”. No, it is the party that determines and every party will calculate in their own way; what is the way for them to win an election. And so when a group of people who are not part of the party sit outside and who don’t have the capacity to change anything, but they will now be shouting “we want it for this person or that person”; that is not how it is done. It is those that the party gives tickets that run for elections. What is your take on the proposed social media bill? Social Media Bill? We have always been against it. I am against it and I have told them I am not for it and I can assure you it will not be passed. What about Hate Speech Bill? No, Hate Speech Bill won’t even come up anymore because everybody has seen it that it was simply not designed for democracy. The essence of democratic engagement is to be able to express your views and for others to express their views and we have always said that the instruments that you can use to express your views have changed, technologies have changed all those things. The point really is, if I belong to a chat group and they say what I don’t like, I can simply leave the group. If you post something derogatory to me and I found out that you are the person doing that post, I sue you. I can sue you for slander, I can sue you for defamation, and there are so many things I can use to get you. I think the real problem which we are just not focusing on is not the law; it is the fact that the law has never been effectively administered, be it the law on social media or the law on crime and all that. In a television interview, I asked a simple question, a group of people got up and said the Igbo must leave the North and they identified themselves; they were seen, they were known and yet they were never arrested for attempting to ignite a crisis in the country. If they had been arrested and charged to court and maybe sentenced to a jail term, then everybody will learn their lesson. So, bringing up Social Media Bill and so will make people not to…, it won’t. People will go ahead and do what they want to do so long as they are sure they will not pay a price for it. The Federal Government said it is going to withdraw the military from volatile areas across the country and replace them with the police. To you, is that time ripe for that? Has Nigeria really degraded Boko Haram? Sometime last week, a report came out that there were 28 ISWAP attacks in Nigeria in 14 days. That means there were two attacks per day and, in a situation in which ISWAP or Boko Haram attacks twice a day in two weeks and then somebody comes out and says the place is safe, I think some people must be fooling themselves. I don’t believe the report is real that you are going to willingly walk away because, if you do that, what you are telling Nigerians is that you are going to surrender that territory to ISWAP or Boko Haram. No, they are not walking away; they are using the police as replacement for the military. Yes, but then, the reason the military went there in the first place was that the police were unable to do that. Now telling us that you are going to send the police, we also have not seen a change or an enhancement of the effectiveness of the police that will warrant us to say let us hand over to them. So, I still believe that somebody is being misquoted somewhere.
Your party, the PDP, lost recent elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states. The latter is the home state of a former President of this country under the PDP. To this end, is the PDP falling apart? Where is the PDP ship going in future elections? In the elections of 2019, PDP won in Bauchi and Oyo states. So, if PDP loses one state or two, how does that say that PDP is falling apart when PDP also gained ground elsewhere? So elections are things you may win or lose depending on the circumstances. Kogi was not lost by the PDP. Kogi was grabbed by APC using everything to take it and then, of course, it is being challenged. A situation where even helicopters were used, go and ask questions what happened there. So it wasn’t an election, it was an invasion of a state by some people who insisted that they needed to keep a very unpopular person in office for reasons best known to them. So, when we look at that, we are not going to say that is a failure of the PDP. No. It is a failure actually of those who left all the normal rules of engagement and decided that they will burn down everywhere rather than lose an election and I don’t think that is good for our electoral management because what it means is that people will now be encouraged to say “okay, since the processes could be bastardized in this way, the best way for us to go forward will be to guard against such things happening in other elections” and what would that bring, it would bring more mayhem, more violence and then it also means that, instead of going forward we are actually going backward. There is an advocacy by Dr Doyin Okupe that in future elections, PDP should change its name. Do you see that happening in the future? Did he say that the elections were lost because of the name? I do not think that Dr Doyin Okupe will say that elections were lost because of the name of the party. Even prior to our last convention, there was also a group that advocated that there should be a change of name but most members of PDP felt that we had name recognition that you cannot buy. It is a household name for all Nigerians and that is already embedded in the psyche of people. What are parties? Parties are people and when a party has a candidate that is good and it organizes itself properly, then it wins elections and that is what happens. It doesn’t have anything to do with the name of the party.