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Senate Presidency: I Enjoy Overwhelming Support From Senators-elect – Ndume

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Senator Ali Ndume (APC Borno South) is a top contender for the office of the Senate president in the forthcoming 9th National Assembly. In appearance, speech, and deeds, Ndume is the opposite of what his political opponents and critics portray him to be, especially in the media. He is simple, humble, frank, thorough and versatile. Overall, this lawmaker is at peace with himself and others irrespective of their political differences. These salient attributes of this grassroots politician came to the fore recently when he visited LEADERSHIP Newspapers Group corporate office in Abuja. SUNDAY ISUWA, who was there, reports

Your opponents for the Senate presidency are wooing senators with constituency projects. Is this proper?

Let me first clarify certain things here. There is nothing wrong with constituency projects. Constituency project is simply an amount that is captured in the budget for National Assembly members. For instance, it is N100 billion and when the money is divided, 60 per cent goes to the House of Representatives and 40 per cent to the Senate. The 40 per cent is now translated and allocated to the 109 senators and of course, the leadership takes more. When that is done, projects are now assigned to various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) for prosecution.

I did a research on it and the practice is obtainable worldwide. The one I know is done in about 18 countries including the United States of America (USA). In America they call it a “puck barrel”, that is money set aside for projects in senators or congressmen districts to give the presence of the federation in that locality and enhance his political chances.

So, there is nothing wrong with that. But the way it is being run or managed is the problem. That is why I want to make it more transparent so that there will be a law on it with public input. This constituency project is necessary because there are some local government areas that the only federal government’s project you can see there is the constituency project. If there is no law for it to serve its purpose, then it is a waste. Anybody can offer any senator anything I will not lose sleep over that.

There are allegations that lawmakers try to pocket the money and deny their constituents of the benefits

That can’t happen without connivance with the implementing agencies. If you have a law that sets out how this thing should be done, it will go well. However, I am not worried that it’s being alleged that some people want to take advantage of it. I don’t think that is true.

The current Senate seems to be confrontational with the executive arm of government, if elected as the Senate president, how will you strike a balance?

My aspiration has started with that: That I will not be submissive and be confrontational. If the party chairman is saying it is Senator Ahmed Lawan and I am saying I should be given the chance, I am not fighting the party; that is why I am not being confrontational. What happened last time was unfortunate. And I will always say it. The two sides are to be blamed. The executive has its blame and the legislature has its share of it. The framers of the constitution did not anticipate interference from the executive in running the affairs of the legislature.

What we are going through now is not even good. If the executive is seen to be part and parcel of the emergence of the leadership of the National Assembly, who will the leadership pay allegiance to? Are you going to have two masters? And when you have two masters, does it work? You can have two wives, but you can’t have two husbands. It can’t work. Having said that, if you look at the analysis of what transpired between the executive and the legislature, if it is true that we are loyal members of the party, we shouldn’t have faced that challenge. The party should not have fear whether it is Goje, Lawan or me. We have the required number unlike what happened in 2015. We have senators that are equal to the task of the Senate president. They only vote when they have the time and you must lobby colleagues, even in America, that is the practice

For example, my people said I should go and contest for the Senate president and a party leader says don’t do that. If I don’t do that, who will vote for me tomorrow? When they talk about party, the party does not sell itself. The candidates sell the party. We have about 43 senators from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). That means they contested with APC in their constituencies and APC lost. In 2011, 90 days to the elections, the PDP called me and said come and contest in our platform. I went to PDP and I won. Even this one, it was because of President Muhammadu Buhari that I moved to the APC. He asked me to join the APC and I signed in. So, when people just talk anyhow from the comfort of their secretariat and they don’t go out to contest an election but will be telling you this and that, it is very frustrating. I am 60 years old, I’ve contested elections five times and my people voted for me. This time they say go and contest for the office of the Senate president. Even the constitution of the party allows me to do that. And then one person, without consultation will say you are not the one. So, what do I do? I wait for God’s decision and as I said God will do it through my colleagues.

How many senators are supporting you?

It is not fair to disclose my secret. Let me tell you one thing. I am aspiring to be Senate president. I don’t want to be senators’ president. A situation where someone will want to bring a leader amongst equals it can’t work. I am telling you from my experience in the National Assembly; it’s not something I will tell you the number of the people I have. I can’t invite senators to be following me everywhere. That I feel is even disrespectful, I told someone who wanted to follow me that he should let me operate alone. I am operating submarine because of the leader of the party’s position.

But you think I will be in this contest if I am not sure that I will win? I’ve been in this type of position and I have even contested for a similar position. Even the position I left last as the Senate leader, I contested against all my opponents. Goje wanted to be Senate leader, Ahmed Lawan wanted to be Senate leader and the party endorsed him. We went for the election and I got 10 of the 13 votes in Goje’s office. It was not like Saraki gave me the position of the Senate leader. No, we contested in Goje’s office and I got 10 votes. So, as I said, I don’t want to be a senators’ president. I want to be Senate president and my colleagues are buying into the idea quickly. Most of them in the chamber will tell me that their fear is that I may back out, if not, they will vote for me.

And the imposition of candidates has never worked in the National Assembly. Senator Evan Enwerem was there, he barely spent three months; they kicked him out. Senator Adolphus Wabara was imposed but for a mistake of about N5 million, they sent him away. In the House of Representatives, Hon. Patricia Etteh was there, she did not survive. Back in 2015, Ahmed Lawan and Senator George Akume were to be imposed on us but Senator Bukola Saraki emerged. Even when people said had it been that members were there it would have been a different thing, I disagreed because Saraki got 57 votes and if we were all 109, he would still have emerged. But Saraki spoilt the thing by combining his ambition with running the Senate. That was why we had the problem and some people want to use that as an excuse.

Why should you determine who becomes the Senate president amongst equals when you have your comfortable majority. And you will automatically have the Senate leader because the majority has the Senate leader. And the Senate leader is responsible for the business of the Upper Chamber, coordinating the committees. But unfortunately,  Nigerian politics is drifting to godfatherism. And then those of us who only have God and don’t have godfathers aspire for positions, we will be at crossroads.

And I think that is my major problem. I’ve always tried to stand by the truth and it has worked for me. I prefer to stand with my conscience than to stand with the crowd. Some of the people you see following them it’s not because they will vote for them. Let me tell you, many of them will vote for me on that day. That I know. I can guarantee that. I am fasting. That is politics for you. So, why should I ask my colleagues to be following me as if they are my commissioners or special advisers (SAs)? I don’t ask my colleagues to follow me. Even when I was the Senate leader, I don’t ask my colleagues to follow me because they are leaders in their right.

Why are you not on the same page with Saraki?

It is not that we are not on the same page. Maybe our thinking might not be the same. First, let me say that what happened between Saraki and me was a misunderstanding on principles. But as we go down the line, he now appreciates me for who I am. And also, Saraki comes with a silver spoon and I came from a different background, I am somebody who can be stubborn when it comes to the issues of principles. That is where we had problems. When we formed the Like Minds, the idea was to have an expanded Senate where we own the Senate with one of our colleagues leading. That time, he was a leader from his zone. He championed the cause of the APC in the North Central zone. So, we said when they zoned the position, we will follow whoever they zoned it to. In the North East, Goje, Ahmed Lawan, Binta Masi, and me, decided that we would nominate one person to stand for the election.

When we started that, of course, Saraki and other governors had more money to run the secretariat and fund other activities. Of course, he had interest in running for the office of the Senate president. Saraki also had a stronger political background than myself. His father was a known figure, a Senate leader too, he was two-term governor and so he was in a better position in terms of reaching out and the likes. But in politics, there is no permanent friend.

Why is your state governor not with you?

First, my governor came out to say that he will toe the party line. He is right and I don’t have a problem with that. But it is unfortunate. I am actually disappointed but I am ready to go on. I had worse scenarios in the past and the end was what God had destined for me. I don’t think God needs anybody’s decision before he decides on my fate. So, whether the governor is supporting me or not, or he is toeing the party line, if the Almighty God that gives power through my colleagues, the other 108, want me there, nobody can stop it. I’ve lost one vote there, I know, but even that vote, I am thinking that if there will be open secret ballot, I can’t say I will lose that vote because there are some people that cannot stand to the bullying of the party but there are also others that can stand and vote for me. If they try to arm-twist people, the more they try that the more the senators-elect will resist it. I have given you a rundown of history. The candidate imposed never lasts and that is if he or she succeeds.

What will you do about senators’ jumbo pay if you emerge the Senate president?

Let me tell you, the allowances of the senators are fixed by the leadership. In the past, they were shortchanging members that were not close to the leadership. There was no fairness, justice, equity and transparency. That was what led to a revolt where they collapsed the process that if you are making provision for transportation for committee work, health and other sub-heads in the constitution, because of the that, they said once the budget is approved, it should be divided equally and paid into the office of the senator and he runs it and retires the money. On the other hand, it means you have big money in your office. But every penny that is paid to that office, there is a purpose and it is clearly defined. So, this is what is happening.

Coming to say we have to find a better way of running these offices, I must confess that democracy has granted that. But I have issues with it; if they pay that money and the senator spent it the way he wants. I would have preferred that there is a process in the spending of this money where auditors can audit the spending. And if you said you won’t run it that way, the money will be stashed with the Senate president.

In America, a senator receives an approximate of about $137,000 annually. If you convert it to Naira it gives you about N5million annually. He does not have people lining up every morning before him for one thing or the other. The Senate will have to look at this expenditure again and come up with a better transparent way of doing it. I think I will talk to my colleagues about it and talk to Nigerians about it and let’s do what is right. That is the running cost.

My salary is actually determined by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). Coming back to defend our position, this year’s budget is N8.82trillion. Seventy per cent is spent on less than two per cent of Nigerians. If you don’t take care of your people, they won’t vote for you. After six months or one year after leaving office, if you observed, most of these lawmakers can’t even pay their children school fees because the money is not there. Some of us once you come to Abuja, you don’t go back to your people. That money that is paid to my office, I use it to provide services for my people. Some of you will bear me witness there was a time I bought over 100 vehicles and shared to my constituents when Okada (motorcycles) was banned in Abuja. So, we used that money for our people because you can’t throw these youths to the streets like that. It is only the politicians that are watering down the level of poverty in the country.

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