Ita Benedict, a journalist and former aide on Public Affairs to Godswill Akpabio, currently executive director, Media Action for Accountable Leadership, in this interview with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK, said it would be in the interest of the nation to zone the position of the Senate president to the South-South zone with former minister of Niger Delta Affairs as the most qualified candidate. Excerpts:
The race for the 10th president of the senate is attracting much interest from many quarters, why is this the case?
It wouldn’t be out of place for the race not to attract attention because that office is a warehouse of power and influence. It is the only arm of government with the constitutional mandate of law making for the growth and development of the country. It has vested powers to provide checks and balances on the executive in clear fulfillment of the doctrine of separation of powers as propounded by the French philosopher, Baron De Montesquieu. The red chamber or senate is a foremost trustee of the Nigerian project. In fact, it is empowered with the onerous task of removing the president from office in the event of clear and deliberate violation of the constitution. It is an office with extraordinary powers and responsibility.
So it is natural for the election of the occupant of that exalted office to generate attention. There are a lot of interests at work; various caucuses working to outsmart the other. Lobbying, horse trading and other forms of negotiations including deal making are also on the cards. It is part of the process of every democratic setting, so ours is not an exemption. If you could remember in very recent times, how Bukola Saraki emerged as Senate President, you will understand the essence of the attention.
There are always external political blocks seeking to control the legislature from a distance. You saw the attention that came with the election of the current speaker of the US Congress where he had to go through a number of ballots
before he could emerge. So, that has always been the trajectory whenever it’s time to elect the leadership of the national assembly, especially the senate president.
It is reported that APC is considering zoning the position of the Senate President to either the south east or the south-south zone; do you think it should be further micro-zoned to either of the two zones?
Well, the ultimate goal of every governance process should be the attainment of national security, unity, cohesion and integration. So micro zoning in a democracy especially in this part that we find ourselves could also serve as a tool in engendering a sense of belonging provided quality, excellence is not compromised. It helps in stabilising the polity and could deepen political participation amongst the people. It could also build trust and goodwill for the party. So, political parties being the midwifery of that process have a duty to ensure that their actions with respect to where political offices are zoned to should reflect citizens’ collective national aspirations.
So if the APC is desirous of zoning the senate presidency to the south east and south-south, that to my mind is their attempt at balancing the country’s complex geo- political fault lines.
Therefore, if the speculation is true, then it will be a commendable move. But specifically speaking, the party in power should cede the presidency of the senate to the south-south in view of the fact that the south east has produced five Senate Presidents in recent past.
The last time the south-south produced the senate president was in 1979, in the person of Joseph Wayas of blessed memory. So to answer to your question more poignantly, I think for the reason stated, which is the balancing or our configuration, it is politically correct or expedient to do so and in this case to the south-south.
Both Senators Oriji Uzor Kalu from Abia State and Godswill Akpabio from Akwa Ibom have featured prominently among those who are leading contenders; how do you think the issue should be managed so as not to create bad blood between the two neighbouring states?
Both Senators Godswill Obot Akpabio and Orji Uzor Kalu are prominent Nigerians and politicians who are returning to the Senate. It should be expected that they would earn each other’s respect. So, I do not see any rancour brewing. This is simply politics and at the end of the day, just one person will emerge. I also want to add that they were elected by their constituents primarily as senators to the red chambers; that’s the first call. Both men are eminently qualified. Kalu is currently the Chief Whip and Akpabio was a minority leader between 2015- 2019. The Senate rule of ranking qualifies both men to run for the office. But Godswill Akpabio comes off as a more qualified man for the job. First and foremost, the election of who becomes Senate President is a contest of equals. I do not think it should breed any rancour or ill feelings because all the 109 senators elected stand qualified for the office, except for the protocol that requires ranking and experience. Secondly, the party’s internal mechanism on negotiation and bargaining should be brought to bear in the management of the process. There should be wide consultations amongst critical stakeholders, the Nigerian public should also be taken into consideration in the choice of the next Senate president because there’s a public expectation and it should reflect the sentiments of the moment.
There are political requirements, leadership qualities and personality traits expected of the senate president. Senators are individual trustees of our corporate enterprise called Nigeria, so there’s a high degree of expectation for them to exhibit that sense of trusteeship in the discharge of their democratic right during that moment of honour and responsibility
Many Nigerians had kicked against the Muslim Muslim presidential ticket, how do you think the position of the Senate President should be handled to assuage the fears of Nigerians?
Yes, you are correct. There was an outburst over the Muslim/Muslim ticket. To many Nigerians especially the Christian community, it smacked of insensitivity and lack of regards for our secularity. Even though there’s a seemingly calmness from the public over the issue, I do think that the APC can gain some reputational mileage with the election of a Christian Senate President from the South. That will send a great signal that they understand our ethno- religious diversity. For me, I would say, it’s an all time opportunity for the party to market itself to Nigerians. It could go a long way in assuaging the fears that arose from the Muslim/Muslim presidential pair.
Having worked with Akpabio for eight years, what can you say about his commitment to the unity of the country and his ability to lead the National Assembly?
The breeding ground of his legislative experience dates back to the University of Calabar, when he was elected speaker of parliament, students’ union government of his university.
As governor, he pioneered a new governance benchmark in human capital development known as boys-to-men; and infrastructure renaissance which has come to stay as uncommon transformation.
He has the requisite legislative experience, a leadership of uncommon mixture, a likeable and charismatic personality, with great appeal, a great mixer, a communicator with unique oratory, a bridge builder, someone with an unbridled capacity for reading the room and an unquenchable appetite for quality and service; a pan-Nigerian who believes in its unity.
It is believed in various political circles that his stepping down for Tinubu during his party primaries laid the groundwork for Tinubu’s emergence as the flagbearer of APC.
He goes down in history as the most decorated public servant in the 10th Senate.
I am very confident that Senator Akpabio will win the support of the leadership of his party, his colleagues and even those of other parties because of his leadership savvy.
The history of his emergence as governor in 2007 and the trajectory of his political odyssey comes readily to mind. His grace is uncommon and for me, he is the All Progressives Congress (APC) most prized athlete for the coveted crown and their best foot forward.