BY MUYIWA OYINLOLA AND AHURAKA ISAH
…..Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, in this interview speaks on how the legislative arm of government has impacted on Nigerians since he assumed its leadership two makes. He also gives a mid-term report of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration since 2015.
president, how has the journey been?
It has been very eventful and it has been very challenging. It has also been very rewarding. We have made some giant strides and we have taken the eighth Senate to certain levels of achievements that has not been done before, that the people can be proud of as a country; that is going to strengthen the institution. We have redefined our engagement with the public and we have been a very focused senate, we have clear agenda, legislative agenda and we have done differently from the past and positive things.
And I believe that we are laying a very good foundation for the future. It’s been two years and I think we have done a lot in these two years and we can be proud that we have surpassed the previous assembly before us. We focus on the collaboration with the civil society, we try to focus on the needs of Nigerians, how do we impact on the lives of Nigerians if we rarely hit the ground running, and we can to point to many things that we can say these are remarkable achievements of this senate.
The eighth assembly started on a rowdy note but today, it has become a very vibrant institution, how did you placate the people on the other side? And how did you resolve the whole thing to ensure that the senate is now one?
From day one, the issues were issues of principles, principles on the independence of the three arms the government. The process that led to an election and the emergence of leadership which had the support of the members. So, from day one, majority of us were already on the same page. Unfortunately, a few were not, and I think if the senate was left on its alone, we would have resolved those issues much earlier on but unfortunately due to the differences here and there, it was prolonged. But you see, because whether it’s in the ward election or the local government election or in the state house of assembly, it is natural that there will be losers there will be winners. The disposition of the loser, most of the time might not be positive towards the leadership. The responsibility of the winner is to make sure that everybody comes on board and that was the plan but unfortunately, there were a few distractions here and there but luckily, one was able to bring everybody together and let them understand that we have bigger responsibility beyond election, which is to make a difference to Nigerians that voted for us. And I think, with time when it was clear, a lot of our colleagues see in us leadership, sincerity of purpose and we’re focused on issues. We gave opportunity to every sector, everybody was able to contribute, to add his own voice and we are not discriminating against anyone, whether you are from the ruling or opposition party or what part of the country you belong to, and with time people realized that we should all come together.
And of course, another thing is about the challenges of the country, the difficult times people are facing. We quickly realized in the senate that the most important thing is the economy and our focus is on the economy. If you look at all our works in the last two years, 90 something percent of our work has been on the economy. We took up the challenge of the country in recession, we came back, we met we debated and we came up with a roadmap that we felt the executive needed to take. We also gave ourselves assignments on what we needed to do, and today, we’re beginning to see signs of recovery. In one word,mine has been able to provide leadership and bring unity. I was in the seventh senate. But the eighth is more united. We think of the country, we’re not easily divided. Have a common agenda and the agenda is the interest of the people. Even though people spread rumour, sponsor propaganda, but we take the issues. And what are the issues? Our primary agenda is legislation. We are here to make laws.
The eighth senate doesn’t seem to have the goodwill of the average Nigerian, Nigerians seem to be unhappy with the senate, does that bother you?
When you are in position of leadership, you have to try and stay focused on what you planned to develop. And sometimes, it takes a while for people to come round and understand where you are trying to go. If you don’t stay focused and you get distracted by some of the comments, you will derail. I say this because, for example, you hear the senate and executive are at logger heads then you ask yourself, how are we at logger head? Mr. President has presented to us 196 requests for confirmation but approves 185 is that a logger head? I don’t see that as loggerhead. Mr. President is fighting corruption, we after so many years are the first senate to do open NASS, is that not fighting corruption? The bill before the national assembly on corruption which has to do with mutual assistance on the food around the pipeline is that not fighting corruption? You talk about some of the corporations we’ve had, and some of the interventions that we have shown in helping the executive to move forward. Sometimes, I believe that we should be judged by our results, There are a lot of commentaries out there but I always ask people that they should tell us where they believe that senate is not doing well.
There are some issues that are historical in the sense, that is there something that the senate is doing now that the previous senate did not do? And I think what we are doing is actually turning things around. Look at the budget process. In the past, nobody used to have public hearing on budget process so we are doing innovative things that are different from the previous senate. When I say that, I sometimes say to myself and you will see as time goes on that I always say overtime have I don’t have to be in the public service to know that if you have a sincerity of purpose, you have an agenda and the agenda is the interest of the people even those that spread rumour or sometimes sponsor propaganda, people with political interest, people that have their own agenda and try and spread false news just to incite people.
If we take the issues, what are we meant to do? We are here to pass bills and legislation. The first two years, I think we have been able to pass close to 90 bills. There is no senate before us in the last two years that has hit that figure. The last one, I was in seventh senate, we passed 125, one of the highest and out of that 125, we passed 46 on the last day. So, there is no senate since we have been in democracy that has beat our figures. Look at petitions that we have treated, no senate and I can challenge anybody. So, in that area, nobody can match us. If you go to the area of oversight, I also ask people the question, I have been in senate, you have covered the National Assembly; today in Nigeria, there is no MDA that can believe that it can do any corrupt act or any malpractice in their agency and believe that a report will come to the senate and it will be swept under the carpet, it’s not possible. We have shown it; if one of the most senior persons in government, we are now afraid, so the message we are sending to Nigerians, is that we will hold to the constitution. If we have to step on toes, we will step on toes, in terms of fighting corruption or exposing any unscrupulous act.
NAITI Report had been on the floor, gathering dust for many years because nobody wants to go there; we are talking of billions of dollars, powerful agencies, and powerful people. I always say, whey they say fight corruption, I always say it is always easier to fight corruption with smaller agencies. That is why I say that under President Buhari, we have looked at agencies that were before untouchable, before, nobody will go to NNPC to go and check their books, I mean that is the truth, instead they will be disturbing one chairman of a council in a state.
So, the point I am making is that when I hear that, I say what is it based on, what are the issues? So, if you list the issues and you go by their facts, and what I will Nigerians is, not to be based on sentiments because some people are pushing those issues based on their political agenda. Let us base it on the assignments because it’s like somebody you vote for and on the the executive, it’s always easy, if you say I’m going to do roads, provide water, I am going to do health, I am going to do education, you assess him like that. The national assembly has its bills, oversight. So, I have given you the statistics now. Bills, since the beginning of democracy in Nigeria, no senate has made that record. Oversight as well and what we have done,
we have intervened in a lot of issues; I don’t know any senate that has been able to take a report on somebody as high up as the secretary to the government without being intimidated not to do that. So, every agency knows that under this senate, you better go and do the right thing because if you do the wrong thing this is not a senate that will accept the wrong thing.
In spite of all these, the perception of an average Nigerian is that the senate or the national assembly is an assembly of corrupt people, what do you think is fuelling this perception?
I don’t know, I want to go by facts, if there is a case of senate funds that was misappropriated, I want to know. What are their facts? I don’t want to go by sending a call, I think a lot of things, sometimes people take on headlines and papers, some of them are not based on facts.
Take for example, when we are talking on the issue of Customs, we were talking of something about the interest of Nigerians, but some people now take on blackmail and propaganda. Something that is a national issue, they now say it had something to do about car duty. At the end of the day, when the facts came out you didn’t hear anything anymore. These are examples. The other example you hear sometimes is that they did not confirm Magu and I think we need to stop this issue of blackmail, or not saying the right thing. You all saw the process. Was it senate that wrote the report on Magu? Was it manufactured by the senate? The screening of Magu was live, we didn’t do it in the back room at night. Everybody saw the performance, and lastly, they say because some senators have cases with the EFCC, yes some senators have cases with the EFCC. But these cases were in public glare even before Magu became chairman of the EFCC. So, is it Magu that took your case to the EFCC? Why will everybody hold that against Magu? A case of 10 years ago, I’m sure he was not even in that department then. I think you understand what I mean. It’s just like if you’re a student and you went for an exam, the professor that failed you has left the department. Then you said the man that is there now, you don’t like him because you failed, is he the one that failed you?
Most of these cases are in court. There is nothing Magu can do. I think these things should be based on facts. And I think we need to separate facts from things that are not true, these are largely propaganda. So, my own view is that those views will change because at the end of the day the views are not based on facts. I have given you facts and the fact is that what is the responsibility of the responsibility of the legislative arm of government, based on the constitution? We are to make laws. Have they made laws? What is the number of the laws that they have made? How have they made those laws. As I said, no senate has surpassed us on this, and I stand to be corrected. Even if you look and the relationship between the executive and legislative, even under Obansajo, and in the PDP, even in those days they could not get all the ministers approved. This is the first time that all ministerial appointments have been approved. I’ve just told you now that out of 196, a total of 185 was passed, that’s over 90 something percent. So, even the support to executive had not been as it is good now. Executive went ahead to increase the electricity tariff, who said no you cannot do this to Nigerians? It is the same senate. When they increased data tariff, who stood up and said no, you cannot do this Nigerians? It is the same senate. But when you do this, other system will fight you back; something that had nothing to do with the other. So I believe that people must take decision, based on facts. If Nigerians have that perception, it must be based on facts. What are the facts to believe that this senate has not acted in the interest of Nigerians?
Of all the bills that the senate has passed in the last two years, which is dearest to you and why?
It’s INEC, because I think that the foundation of our democracy, first of all, we must sustain our democracy and our democracy must be strong. Governance must be strong, and I think two things that make democracy and governance strong is our electoral process. I think that for as long as we can have people that are elected and it is the wish of the people, we would have accountability; if we have accountability, we would have good governance and I believe that the process we have done in INEC would strengthen the electoral process, and bring our electoral process as best as anywhere in the world. This mad many more, we have done.
I think one of the largest problems we have had is that, in a lot of places, people do not believe that their vote counts and because of that, people do not participate and when people do not participate, wrong people get elected. If we have a system that votes count, everybody would participate, good people that would be accountable and perform because we need people that would perform for this country and improve governance. When we improve governance, we will fight poverty, and things would get better. And it has never been done before. Normally, you will find out that in the whole four years people would be arguing then they will pass it in the last day by that time, INEC cannot do anything with it and that’s why the chairman of INEC commended us that this is the first time, that they have enough time in two years. If we can make progress on that electronic voting, I believe that our voting will be perfect, that it will get to the point that it would truly reflect the wish of the people. What is important is what will strengthen our democracy and improve governance; I mean that is the foundation, everything else that comes after that is only there if the foundation of democracy is very strong.
Section 80 of the constitution has been a very historical problem between the executive and the legislature in the passage of the budget. It says before any money at all could be spent by any executive, it must go through legislation appropriation, now this has given the legislators opportunity to include figures deem fit and the executive is saying, that these inclusions may also not go by their own agenda, that we must get this things done, economy grown, this way I will contain the social rate and again, coming to this budget we have passed.
I don’t think that these are problems that will come up from time to time and what we are there for is to be able to manage those problems and find solutions to it. And by the type of democracy we are practicing, the presidential system that we have, the checks and balances, by its nature it’s breed conflicts. Just by its nature. Submit to me, you confirm or you reject. So, it means that we must have disagreements and agreements by that nature; unlike a Parliamentary system. Same thing with the issue of budgeting, also because of the process. It’s just a way of ensuring that one arm of government does not have too much power. So, the solution to that is to force all stakeholders to collaborate in the interest of the country.
Now, as you say that, a man or woman who is in the National Assembly who is representing his people surely must have something to say about project to be sited in his constituency. He might even be in a better place to know what his or her constituency requires. So, he must be able to contribute one way or the other and also to ensure that not just one arm of government will say this is what we want to do and that is why the writers of the constitution in their wisdom have said that there must be checks. So, in my own view, what it takes to make a government effective and perform is the ability to bring people together and find solution. Definitely you could see in 2017 that the budget process is much better than 2016 because there was wider consultation at the level of legislative and executive, and that is why the final product at the end of the day might not be perfect but is better. So, as you improve the level of consultation you will get to a point that all those kind of problems will become a thing of the past.
But as long as you do not bring that environment for consultation and you stand on the fact that I am the executive arm of government and I am the one that appropriate, those problems will continue because the way the constitution was done it allows for that but what is the solution to it is more and more of engagement.
2017 budget passing was less controversial than that of 2016 where we had the issue of padding or whatsoever. How did you achieve this? And 2016 budget elapsed last month and this 2017 budget has not been signed. How soon is it going to be signed?
Well you know I am not in the executive, this question should go to the executive. All I can assure Nigerians is that am sure it will be signed very soon. I am not sure of the number of days but am sure. There are some thing that they are doing, but I cannot speak for them but am pretty sure that they too are conscious of the importance to quickly sign it, they are conscious of the responsibility of national assembly, and what our role is and what is our responsibility so am sure that will be signed in few days. You were talking about padding, when you use words like that; I reject words like that if you say padding. What is padding? The constitution is very clear on the responsibility of the National Assembly, if a project comes and in the view of wisdom and the view of say the ministry of water resources and you believe the project should be one million and the oversight committee believes that the project should be 1.1million, how does that increase on one million become padding? When you suggest padding, it gives the connotation that it is for selfish interest and the constitution is very clear. If the project is one million and the national assembly decision is 800 thousand and you reduce, you now take that 200 thousand to somewhere that needs more money, I think you need to be a bit more responsible when you use this kinds of words because these are words that it is very easy to incite, when you use it, it suggests that they are done but the constitution gives us powers, clearly. And if you believe that that is not what should be spent on, that it should be spent on something else it.
If you believe that more money should go to the Niger Delta, when we had all the problems in the Niger Delta, the national assembly decided that though the government, if you remember, government aid it was going to spend 25 billion, and the senate made it very clear that it very inadequate and that must go to 40 billion, is that padding? That is why I say the most important issue in budget process is the issue of consultation, the stakeholders go beyond just the executive. The stakeholders, in my own view are both the executive, that is that ministry and also the committee that oversee. They should be able to sit down and look at the budget.
Now, what happened this year that makes it better than that of last year is that there was consultation at the leadership level, in the sense that the executive came before us much before the President had laid the budget to tell us that this is their plan, these are the things they might want to send on. And there was lot of talk, back and forth. So, that reduced the area of conflict.
From some findings, currently executive are saying the legislators have included over 4,000 projects on their own and some of those project are projects that ordinarily ought to be carried out by the Local governments or state governments?
No document is perfect, even without the executive, it’s possible that some of these things, some project erroneously might have been state on local governments, it’s possible. So, if they cannot be implemented, that is simple that doesn’t have to be whether it is executive or legislation. So, if there is any case like that, of course, they will be dealt with. There are environments, there are different things and those kinds of projects cannot be implemented. There is no course for concern about those kinds of things.
But if there are projects that the executive has said, maybe Obajana or take Enugu-Port Harcourt road and there are three sections and the executive put money in section 1 and there is no money in section 2 & 3, and the legislative now said instead of putting the whole 10 in section 1, put 3 in 1, 3 in section 2 and 1 in the final section. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. So, what I’m saying is that, you must take each case and look at it, they can come up with their observation but the power in the issue of appropriation is clearly with the executive arm of government and that is clearly where it stands. But what I believe for progress is that there is need to be collaboration, if the both are rigid which is what we try to ensure, that is why I keep on using the word collaboration because the democratic phase we are practicing purposely puts it in such a way that you must work together and the only way a developed community work together is because they engage and discuss and look at the national interest.