Senate President Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki is in the eye of the storm these days. Too many contentious issues on the national scene spiral towards this former governor of Kwara State. Saraki sat down exclusively with Daily Trust on Sunday for an hour and discussed a wide range of issues. Excerpts:
Senate President, do you sleep at all these days, with all the things that are happening?
I do, very well.
With all the missiles flying left, right and center?
It depends on the kind of missiles [Laughter].
When you contested for and became Senate President in 2015, did you bargain for this kind of situation, with all the crises and conflicts?
Well, some of these come with the job and with the kind of politics that we play. The most important thing is to always stay focused, have an objective, have a goal, and be guided by that. And at every point to ask yourself what changes are you making to the lives of the people that voted for us? How are we improving their lives? That is my focus. I keep telling people, politics is over and it is the time for governance. Unfortunately, some of the people who lost do not accept that politics is over and it is now time for governance. Their strategy is to distract you. Most of the noise is not about governance but about politics.
You said two days ago that there is no rift between the Executive and the Senate but the Executive Branch itself believes there is a problem because they said the matter was discussed at last week’s FEC meeting and ministers expressed concern over the poor relationship.
What I am saying is that there are bound to be problems but just because one agency has an issue with the National Assembly, do you put the blame at the doorstep of the President? Will you hold the President responsible because one agency, for one reason or the other, has a problem? There are so many agencies. Indeed, there has been a significant improvement in the relationship from where we were a year ago. The issues now are specific, not the kind of systemic strained relationship that we had last year. Today you can narrow down on the issues because they are isolated. That was what I was trying to explain. Of course there are issues today but the situation is not abnormal that an agency will have a problem here and another agency will have a problem there. The issues can be resolved, and one should not on that basis conclude that the Executive and the Legislature have a strained relationship. Otherwise, many other things are going on well. In fact the most important things are going on well. Budget is going on; I mean, if you look at the rancour we had in 2015, do you see that kind of rancour now? That time there was rancour at every stage of the budget process but this year, for four months now have you heard that kind of rancour? The budget process is the real test for Executive-Legislative relationship because that is where you engage with every ministry and agency in the Executive. But when one or two agencies have issues, that is bound to happen but you cannot judge the relationship of two branches of government from those particular incidents.
I will come to those incidents. Last week, FEC appointed a committee headed by the Vice President, with several ministers who were former senators, to seek peace with the Senate. What has happened since then?
I have not heard anything.
You have not heard anything?
I have not formally heard anything, either that there is a meeting or anything. But whenever they contact us we will be happy to listen because maybe that committee can be used to look at some of these isolated incidents, take them up one by one and see how we can address them. It is a good development and when it happens, we will work closely with the Executive to look at the issues.
Some senators have told reporters that there are many issues that make for the strained relationship but that the number one issue is your trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Are you going to make that the number one issue in this negotiation?
No, no. I have never made it an issue and I do not intend to make it an issue. When that case started, if you go by the drums at that time, that case now as far as I am concerned is almost gone. The last witness that came before CCB, one by one all the questions they asked him, was this man ever invited before CCB, he said no. Is there anything in this form that he did not declare, he said no. As I said from Day One, that case should never have gone to CCT. EFCC has no business taking a case to CCT. CCB is saying all these things; we don’t know anything about them. This is the first time that CCB will take anyone to court without first asking him to come and write a statement. This is the first time that EFCC will prosecute a case at CCT. So many things in that trial are abnormal. People who have been following that case already know that it has collapsed. So I have no fear about it and we will not put it on the table. Certainly we were not pleased by it, to see the head of one arm of government sent to a trial that is more political than anything else. That was what those senators were talking about. But for the last two years did it stop us from working? We are carrying on, doing our best in working for people’s welfare. So while senators are not happy, I don’t think we should misinterpret what they said. This trial cannot be the reason for any rift between the two arms of government.
When you say this trial is political, who orchestrated it?
I have to do more investigation [Laughter]. If you look at the case, it is not a normal case. This was an issue that happened 13 years ago even though they say that criminal issues have no limitation of time. Two, was the man ever invited to make a statement? If you put all these issues together, it raises suspicion that it is all political. But we have gone through the process, we are coming to the end of it and I am confident that insha Allah I shall be vindicated. There was another case, of forging Senate rules and it collapsed, so I believe that in this one too the truth will come out.
Then there is the case of Magu. We understand that Senate is insisting that since he was not confirmed as substantive EFCC chairman, the President should remove him as Acting Chairman and you are even stalemating some confirmations until that is done. Is that correct?
People are not being fair to the Senate. We are in a society that believes in due process. This is a process; president sends a name to Senate for approval. The case of Magu and many other nominations that came before his and that will come after, it is the same process. There was even a security report that said he was unfit for the position. Senators did not believe that he is fit for the position. Nobody doubted that we followed due process in this matter. This is the process set out by the constitution. It is not personal. The other day we rejected three names nominated for membership of the Niger Delta Development Commission. There was no noise; president brought three new names, and everything is moving on. I think this matter is being too personalised. Now, what Senate believes is that if a person is found unfit to be the substantive chairman, how does he become fit to become an acting chairman? It is our duty to protect our institutions and the democratic process. We have expressed our view, we have done our part, we have done the screening, we reached our conclusion, and we leave it to the president to carry out his responsibility. We should protect processes and institutions because they are the ones that will survive far beyond our own lives.
But you did not stop there. We understand that Senate stopped the screening of 27 nominees for RECs until the president removes Magu as acting EFCC chairman.
No, no. We only deferred it for two weeks. You have to understand a parliament. Somebody stood up and asked a question. He said some of these REC nominees are for reappointment. So what happens if we reject some of them? Will they be told to continue as acting RECs? To be honest, I had no answer to that question. In parliament, sometimes when you cannot answer a question, what you do is to say ok we note it, let us step it down and come back later to look at the issue [Laughter], hoping that somewhere along the way you will find an answer. You can see the concern, I mean. We have the constitutional power to confirm Mr X but even though we did not confirm him, he is still holding the position. Now I have another confirmation for Mr. Y and assuming I don’t confirm him, will he still hold the position? So there is an issue there.
The two weeks’ deferment is nearly up already, so did you get any feedback?
When Senate resumes we will sit down and review the situation. Sometimes you take a position just to express how you feel, and senators may have already achieved that and may decide to move on.
Two ministerial nominees were also sent to Senate. Are they also going to be affected by this stalemate?
No, no. We are waiting for them to bring their CVs and security reports.
What about Customs Comptroller General Col Hameed Ali? He has not yet appeared before you in his full uniform. Are you still expecting him to come, for that matter in his uniform?
I think that was an issue in which we all allowed an unimportant issue to overshadow the more important issue. That was unfortunate. Our job in parliament is to look at the interest of Nigerians. That policy introduced by Customs is very bad and is coming in very difficult times and it needed a review. That was the main issue. Unfortunately, the narrative of the uniform was given more prominence. As at today, I am not even sure whether that Customs policy is still in force or it has been suspended. All anyone remembers is the issue of uniform. I think we all have a role to play here in not allowing some of these pedestrian issues to submerge the more substantive issues. The advice we gave him was to suspend this action and carry out more consultation, and let’s talk about other ways in which Customs revenue can be increased. There are many other ways. For example, I am surprised that when we are talking about enhancing agricultural production, Customs has reduced the duty of dairy products. It used to be ten percent duty, now it is five percent. That is policy inconsistency; you say you want to support local farmers to produce milk and you reduce the duty on imported milk. When I was chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum, I also chaired a presidential committee on raising revenue and one of the things we did was to raise duty on milk products. Milk produced in Nigeria is more expensive than imported one from Europe or Australia. The milk duty we have in Nigeria is the lowest in Africa. In Uganda milk duty is 15-20%. I wanted to push for 25% duty here, but now it is down to 5% when we want to support agriculture. That drop alone is worth billions because we spend close to $1bn a year to import milk products. Five per cent of that is about N15 billion. That is a better way to raise revenue. Parliament is like a three-hour day, and sometimes you find that attention is not given to the relevant issues. The issue of whether he can wear or cannot wear uniform, that can go on until whenever but whether he is in uniform or not, let him do the right policy [laughter]. This policy is not good and since it affects everybody, there should be wide consultation. We are in a democratic setting and since parliament represents the people, come and explain what you want to do, why and how you want to do it.
Why did you suspend Senator Ali Ndume for six months when according to some lawyers the rules provide for no more than two weeks’ suspension?
Again, we followed the process. He came on a matter of privilege. The matter was referred to Ethics Committee, which is our body that looks into behaviours, petitions, etc. They reviewed it; we all went and made our case before them, they listened to everybody and reached their conclusion. They submitted their report, it was debated, and a decision was taken. I do not know of any law or any rule that was disregarded by the Senate. Due process was followed. It is not the first time that a member of the Senate or the House was suspended. I think right now there is a member of the House who is on suspension for a year or so, so when people get up and say nobody can be suspended for more than two weeks…Of course there are always interests. If I am from Borno South, of course I want my representative back but if you give a committee an assignment and they do it and Senate takes a decision based on it, I think we should respect that.
But by raising the issue and getting it referred to Ethics committee, Ndume gave Dino Melaye and you a chance to clear yourselves of the allegations so you should be grateful to him.
No, I don’t think so because the issue of the car, when it came up, the management issued a statement. When government appointees buy an official car, it is not their car. Government provides a car to you by virtue of your job. The National Assembly Management said no car was imported in Senator Saraki’s name, and Senator Ndume knew that. Even if you think that your colleague is not qualified, did he call him and say ‘Colleague, is it true that you don’t have a genuine certificate?’ There are many ways of addressing these issues. Coming to the [Senate] floor escalated the whole issue. What the committee was saying was did you check this thing very well before you came to the floor and said your privilege was… So it is not that he gave me an opportunity to prove it because the management had already said that no car was brought in under my name, and Ndume knew it. He brought the issue to embarrass both myself and the institution. I am not an importer. I don’t agree with you that he gave us a chance to clear ourselves because we had already been cleared.
So where is this car right now?
We will only know where it is when it is delivered but honestly, for now, I don’t know where it is.
Are you likely to forgive Ndume because people are even demonstrating to the gate of the National Assembly?
I wish I have all these powers. I am only the presiding officer. I was not the one who approved his suspension with a memo, like they do in the Executive Branch, so you cannot send another memo to me and say, ‘Please review it.’ He was suspended at the Senate plenary, so all the senators must sit again and look at it. All I can say is that this Senate has a large heart. We used to have dissenting voices before but we are now back as one family. Sooner or later we may have a political solution somewhere and Ndume may be back in the fold.
That’s another thing people are saying. That those senators that once opposed to you, you gave them juicy committee assignments and they are silent now.
Is that a question or what?
People are saying that in the social media.
No. You see, in the 8th Senate initially there was interference from outside but we all realised the need to come together. You said some people got juicy committees but even those that did not get juicy committees, we are all united and are working together. It is not everybody that can get what you are calling a juicy committee. We all realised that there is an objective we want to achieve and we can only achieve it by working together harmoniously and if we achieve it, the credit goes to all of us. And we are seeing the result of this harmony. A day after Ndume’s suspension we passed a major bill, the Electoral Act. The Chairman INEC came today [last Thursday] and expressed appreciation that for the first time, Electoral Act was passed two years before election. You can see that we are not distracted. These issues are not affecting Senate’s productivity. And today we are laying the PIB [Petroleum Industry Bill], which has never happened before. I am saying some things will happen because of politics here and there, but it has not affected our productivity. I can understand if because of these issues, major bills are still waiting and we have not passed them. Last year we proffered a way out of the economic problems. Three weeks ago we moved a motion on the Senate floor that led to the biggest anti-corruption case, where we said there was theft of close to N140 billion in petroleum products and government agencies then moved in. It was not any anti-corruption agency that discovered it but the Senate, and we are happy that the DG SSS moved in and arrested the man. So please judge us by our results, though the politics is going on. We know some people are not happy with the politics, but that politics has come and gone. Let us serve Nigeria now and when 2019 comes, then you start again. But we cannot have politics all the time. When government wanted to increase electricity tariff, who intervened? It was the National Assembly. When government brought request to borrow $31bn, people were saying ‘National Assembly refused to approve’ but it made government to look at a better approach with proper breakdown, e.g. $1.5bn support for 2016 budget. It became much better when you can break it down and say, this is for this and this is for that, instead of approving a total loan package without breakdowns. So, when we take positions like that, it is not against the government. We are all working for the same purpose.
The people who are saying that this Senate President is against President Buhari, I say to them, when President Buhari was away for two months and rumours were flying everywhere as to the real situation, President Buhari received many guests [in London] but who was the person who came out and said, ‘President Buhari is fine and is coming back home’? Tell me, who was it?
Loyalty is not what people do in front of you. It is what they do behind your back. This propaganda is just to cause head-on collision and we know why they are doing it. When the time comes, we will tell you why they are doing it [laughter].
Who are they and why are they doing it?
When the time comes, I will tell you. We know them and we are watching them.
Newspapers reported that EFCC discovered N3.5bn out of Paris Club refund to states was diverted to your aides and that they laundered it. Is that true?
It is all lies. I have challenged EFCC, not once, not twice. Melrose was appointed as a consultant to the Governors’ Forum, along with others. Because the gentleman is somebody that I know, he has done his job. The people that gave him the job, the Governors’ Forum, he has a contractual agreement; they are not complaining that the man did not do the job. The contract fee is fixed; the mandate is fixed, so how am I involved in this? But because of the politics that is going on, you feel you must jam me into this… I am not the one who does not clear people! I only preside! The people who gave him the consultancy job, please go and ask them whether he stole their money. Instead they have searched my account, turned it upside down. All these things are not true. I have been through this before. I was a governor for eight years. When I finished, I never had any problem with EFCC. The only time when I have problem with EFCC is when there is an issue that is political. When I got up in the Senate and raised the issue of N1.3trillion fuel subsidy, I quickly got a letter from EFCC, that I should come. If truly there were issues with my governorship, why didn’t I get invited within one month like some of my other colleagues? In 2011 when I decided that I was going to contest for president, pram! I got EFCC invitation. Anytime I get an invitation from EFCC, you can attach it to a political issue. At the end of the day, nothing comes out of them.
Are you going to contest for President in 2019?
You are not the first and you will not be the last person to ask me this question. We won election in 2015. We have not yet delivered. Majority of the people who should be talking about how we are going to deliver, they are talking about 2019. This is time for governance. When it is time for politics, it is time for politics. If I give any answer to your question, I am also helping to overheat the polity. Everybody should leave that issue of 2019 so we can concentrate on governance. When we formed APC in 2013 and people asked if I was going to contest for President, I said count me out. You have many questions; keep this one in your pocket, when we get to 2019, you can come and ask me about that. What you should be asking me now and what I am going to answer now is issues related to governance. Many of the distractions that we are suffering in the Senate is because of 2019, from forces from outside.
For many months after you became Senate President, President Buhari was not meeting with you, though you are meeting a bit more frequently these days. What is your relationship with him like?
We have a very good relationship.
You call it very good when the Executive is saying that they are at loggerheads with the Senate?
You should separate issues. Are you blaming President Buhari for any agency head that has misunderstanding with Senate? If any agency head decides to abuse the National Assembly, do you blame President Buhari for it? You asked, what is my relationship with President Buhari? You must separate that from any head of an agency that decides to abuse the National Assembly and cause a problem [Laughter]. Was it President Buhari that said, go there and abuse them? I am sure it was not so. I don’t think President Buhari told anyone to get up and say that all senators are armed robbers. Those people decided on their own that that is the way they want to relate with Senate, so we must separate that from President Buhari.
What is your message to APC supporters especially in the North who are saying these days that Saraki and Senate have grounded Buhari’s government?
There is a lot of misinformation out there. From Day One I took a position, and some very powerful people don’t like the position. When you want to know who is loyal to you, it is during your trying moments. Go back two months ago. Who was it who stood up resolutely and said Mr. President will be back and there is no cause for alarm? I don’t think a man who is not loyal to you will do that. We know some people who went to London and saw President Buhari, but they just left. They did not say anything. My message to all our party’s supporters is that I am committed, that whatever we promised Nigerians, we will deliver. For some of us, this government cannot be allowed to fail. We left one party with our supporters and embarked on this journey. We must be able to go back to them and tell them that that journey was worth it. If God forbid this government fails, what will I go back and tell them? It is in my personal political interest to see that this government succeeds.
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