Enyinnaya Abaribe is a ranking senator and chairman, Senate committee on information, media and public affairs. He was former governor of Abia State. In this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, the senator talks about the relevance of the National Assembly, its role in the development of democratic culture, zoning arrangement in Abia gubernatorial race ahead 2015, among others. Excerpt:
Perception of the National Assembly as a conduit pipe through which a few people siphon the resources of the country
Well, I will say that the insinuation is not just the National Assembly, but the political class in general, from councillors to executive arm of the local government, all the way to state Houses of Assembly, then to national level, the perception is that all those in political office have not done well. They’re rather spendthrifts; that they have massively used public funds to their own advantage. That’s number one. Number two is with particular reference to the National Assembly. Of course, these perceptions can be historical. I can explain very simply. When the National Assembly started in 1999 and we had the Obasanjo government that was on the executive side; there was of course an imperial president because there hadn’t been any institution during the military era that was supposed to be a check on the executive; so from that point, there was a very serious attempt by the president to subvert the National Assembly, to ensure the National Assembly at that time was simply an appendage of the presidency and that was where the problem started.
It you recall, the whole PDP senators that were in majority and joined with others had chosen Chuba Okadigbo to be the Senate president, but the executive (under Obasanjo) overnight with all manner of subversions installed Evan Enwerem as Senate president. Of course, Okadigbo, backed by the PDM machinery, decided to fight back. It was this fighting back that resulted in the revolving hand process (banana peel) that happened throughout that dispensation. Now, what happened was that as the senators and members of the House were coming into office, they didn’t have any accommodation, they were hiring hotels; so when they were now negotiating with the executive that they needed to have accommodation, (the present Apo Legislative Quarters was not ready then), they asked for furniture allowance. It was something that supposed to be refunded, just like you get motor vehicle allowance, then you repay. But, in trying to undermine the Okodigbo regime (because by that time Okadigbo was the Senate president), it was alleged that some people were collecting N3.3 million or something like that; and of course, the whole country roared. It wasn’t explained that the money was a loan to be refunded; any legislator that refused to pay back, the money would be deducted from his salary.
Again, at that time, the executive had control of the media. The National Assembly was still fledgling and had not got its acts together and so, couldn’t make explanations and all that.
And that was what led to that perception. Nobody knew what ministers were getting, what other government appointees were getting, and how they were spending money. Then, thirdly, was that the accounting procedure was not fully explained to the Nigerian people and I can explain it now.
I represent Abia State Senatorial district, which means if I was in a private company, I would either be what they call a profit or cost centre. At every point they will check the cost you are using to run your office vis-a-vis the profit you are making. There was this public perception that we were civil servants and therefore, didn’t need any cost element around our office.
The office of a Senate or House of Reps is a cost centre. In the United States, every senator, depending on the size of his/her constituency gets between $3.6 million to $5million:
So, it is the perception that was created from the beginning to say that we’re supposed to come and do the debate and go, but they forget that every judge office is a cost centre, appropriation office is a cost centre, to the point that we have had a cause to invite a minister to defend why the minister should spend N2 billion on travels.
The National Assembly’s N150 billion annual budget constitutes the salaries and allowances of lawmakers at the National Assembly, including staff, all the bureaucracy there, and any improvement that is done there. And it is only 3 percent of the country’s annual budget.
Do you think there is that development of democratic culture in the country? We still see elements of autocratic leadership; for instance, the situation in Rivers State?
This question should actually be directed to the executive. For the National Assembly, we are far better at the democratic ethos than where we were before. People can never overnight become democratic people; so what we find is that we do our own and we put pressure on the executive to do the right thing. There has been an improvement in the National Assembly from the revolving door politics to a now stable legislature, improvement in the quality of debate and all that.
Overall, things have changed and there’s an improvement; even Mbu you referred to in Rivers has been moved. Nobody said until I leave office or until I leave presidency, Mbu will not leave Rivers. Things are really improving. At the end of the day, we are making incremental improvement. It may seem slow, but what we see now is that nobody can take the National Assembly for granted, or the Nigerian public for granted. There’s an explosion in information, and it is so difficult today to ignore them unlike what used to happen in the military era. Every legislator today is doing his/her utmost best to key in to the needs of his/her constituency.
Are you joining the gubernatorial race in Abia for 2015?
Ok, let me say that I am doing consultations for now with intent that when I finish the consultation, I will state clearly what I think about it. But that Abia is very dear to my heart is not in contention.
To answer the other part of the question, I will say that our constitution clearly stated that you cannot discriminate against anybody based on where he/she comes from. The import of that part of the constitution is that you can’t stop anybody who in his/her own wisdom says he/she can vie for any political office that is available despite whatever arrangement that may have been made. With all that in mind, what the governor has done is to advise that instead of having a myriad of people from one place clamouring to do the same thing, let us see how we can bring it to a reasonable and united focus and direction. That’s why he said there’s a consensus in Abia that those who have not had the opportunity to govern the state should be given an opportunity. And if you also recall, sometime in 1999, in the run up to doing the presidency, there was this kind of understanding, that the part of Nigeria that had been sorely treated should be given the opportunity. That was how PDP gave the opportunity to the South West. AD and APP also did the same thing. Even though PDP said so, people like Rimi also went ahead to contest. Of course, the system has now been patterned in such a way that power shifts naturally to an area at a particular time, as a result people coming to struggle for power from other areas or geo-political zones do not have a chance. You see, I belong to PDP and the party stands for justice and equity. Look around South-South and South East, you’ll see that there’s a pattern that is emerging. I was reading in a paper the other day where the governor of Cross River State said power was shifting to Cross River North; in Enugu, the governor said it was the turn of Enugu North. So, you see it is a pattern that PDP is embracing to ensure that equity reigns. And that is why in Abia, it is now to Abia South. In doing that, whoever that may come from Abia South should also be an Abia governor and not Abia South governor. It must be someone whose vision is beyond his local enterprise. That’s encapsulates while I am doing all the consultations within and outside Abia South, and even beyond Abia. Having been a deputy governor, two-time senator and having had my horizon much beyond Abia and having traversed the entire country and my trajectory in life; that at typical junctions in my life, both Igbos, Yorubas and others have positively impacted my life, I felt I needed to consult widely. Abia needs someone who is cosmopolitan enough to be able to know that we need to build what is there now and take Abia to a much better level.
PDP, APC standoff and implication for the nation’s democracy
Thank you very much for that question. That is something we need to clearly bring to the Nigerian public. The APC as it is, is seeking to take power from PDP, so we do not expect the APC to agree with anything that PDP is doing.
In fact, we do expect that criticism from APC must be very virulent, and what they are doing now is nothing we in the PDP are unaware that they should be doing.
Today, the buzz word in the Nigeria political lexicon is “defection”, but it is something that had happened on the floor of the Senate before. Before now, people had moved from one party to the other. People will continue to move as they try to actualise one dream or the other. If such dreams are not realisable in one party they may move to another.
Particularly, since the ideology components of those parties are close together, ideological barriers are not that much. Prior to the defection or purported defection, those who wanted to defect, both in the House or the Senate combined and went to court, they got an injunction, in fact, they got two others pending the resolution of the suit, and in one of those orders the judge said parties to the suit they themselves who sued and those sued), must maintain status quo. Now, these other one gotten in December, from that point till now, when they now came and say we want to move; they ran straight ahead to obtain court order that said they can move, but the ruling of the other court said, you must maintain the status quo. That’s the substance of their suit. Their suit is that their seats should not be declared vacant. Now, we also have a rule in our standing rule which guides our operations on the floor.