By Kola Ologbondiyan
For the President of the Senate, Senator David Alechenu Bonaventure Mark, the Okpokpowulu K’Idoma, attaining age 65 is only deserving of giving praises to God in the church. No parties. No Aso ebi. Not even invitation cards to invite friends to join him in the praises of God.
His choice of celebration is to play golf at the Otukpo Golf and Country Club, St. Mark, Akpegede, Otukpo, Benue State, because the mood of the nation calls for a sober reflection.
While those of us who have constituted ourselves into an emergency birthday planning committee have our ‘lost expectations’ to manage, it will still be misplaced not to celebrate this statesman, patriot, nationalist, officer and complete gentleman.
My first encounter with Senator Mark was at the Soweto Block of the National Aasembly Complex. He spoke straight and did not hide his passion for truth. He said his brother (Senator Tunde Ogbeha) had spoken to him about me “but you need to prove the attributes which Tunde (Senator Ogbeha) used to describe you.”
He related with me not like the Niger state military governor whose fitting beret bore a green plume but like that ordinary Nigerian who lived next to me in the neighborhood. Needless to say that I became attached to him from that very first day in 2001 and I have received tremendous encouragement from him and my Uncle, Senator Ogbeha.
My deployment to cover the Senate in 2003 by THISDAY newspapers provided the elixir. Every legislative day provided an opportunity for me to interact, criticize or commend Senator Mark. Unlike many ‘big men’ in our country, he never protested my criticisms. Rather, he would invite me and my brother, the Nation’s Capital Editor of Daily Independent Newspaper, Sam Akpe, for his committee oversights and meetings not minding what our views of those sessions would be.
This tradition was maintained till 2007 when the race for President of the Senate began. I had walked to his Apo Residence to find out how he was doing when he called me over to the study upstairs. As soon as he took his seat, he said: “Kola (pronounced as Cola), there is work to do. The mantle of the President of te Senate is falling on me. But as you know it, in every political arena even the mundane things are played up. What do you think?” I took a deep breath and did a mental calculation of returning senators from the North Central geo-political zone. It was certain that Senator Mark stood taller than others. He knew the Senate Rule Book like the palms of his hands. He understood the floor politics of the Senate. He is endowed with charisma and has tremendous respect among his colleagues.
The first conclusion on my mind was that every returning Senator across the geo-political zones would have a preference for him although, that will not be enough to elect him President of the Senate.
“Oga sir,” I started, “having had the privilege to cover the Senate since 2003, I can say without any fears that you are most suited for this job. You have an undeniable popular appeal among your colleagues in the Senate. You have had the opportunity to demonstrate your leadership traits on the floor on many occasions and none of your colleagues have risen to fault you or your arguments.
“But like you said sir, I think two issues will play up prominently. One is religion and the other is this perception in some quarters that you are arrogant.” Calmly, he replied; “On religion, you know I will not change my faith because I want to seek a public office. As for arrogance, be honest with me, am I arrogant?
Continuing, he said; “I ask you this question because experience has taught me that no Senator can stand an arrogant presiding officer.” I responded in the negative because many times his actions and decisions had always kept me and Sam Akpe wondering if this Senator David Mark is the same person some Nigerians describe as arrogant and anti-poor. Our conclusion then was that these negative attributes must be perception hangover of the military days when every officer dressed in starchy military jackets were seen as anti-poor, cocky and undemocratic. It is in sync with this that a myth of anti-poor was created around Senator Mark on the grounds that he allegedly said that telephone is not for the poor as Minister of Communication during his military career days.
At many fora, he has laboured to place his position in perspective. In a telephone chat with Mr. Felix Otuya, who wrote the story wherein Senator Mark was alleged to have made those remarks, he (Otuya) said he had also made concerted efforts to defend Senator Mark adding that he was a victim of editorial over-interpretation and misrepresentation of facts. He said Senator Mark as Minister of Communication only charged those owing Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) to pay their bills. Otuya is not alone. Those who worked with Senator Mark as Minister testified to his managerial prowess. He introduced mobile phones and digital telephone system. He began the city coding system and removed NITEL from civil service structure and improved the staff welfare package. Not just that.
As Communication Minister, he built two ultra modern digital earth stations from the internally generated revenue of the organization without a recourse to the Federal Government. He ensured that NITEL was accountable and contributed revenue to the Federation Account.
In the heat of the 2007 election of the President of the Senate, I embarked on an unsolicited perception assessment of Senator Mark among his colleagues in the Senate.
Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora (AC, Lagos) said he will not only vote for Senator Mark but he would canvass support for him. He (Mamora) noted that two basic principles guide a presiding officer. He must be fair and just in decisions that affect his colleagues.
“The Distinguished Senator Mark, he had said, is the best for the job. As a floor Senator, he was fair and just. He will not do otherwise as a presiding officer,” Senator Mamora had said. He was not alone.
Senator Uche Chukwumerije (APGA, Abia) had said that his support for Senator Mark was predicated on trust and reliability. “If he (Senator Mark) told you that he will take a particular stand on any issue, you have no doubts” while Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (PDP, Cross River) who had served on the Police Affairs Committee which Senator Mark chaired between 2003 - 2007 said he could not would not need another presiding officer other than Senator Mark. Senator Ndoma-Egba noted that Senator Mark “as Committee chairman was very civil, simple and sacredly guarded the interests of the members of our committee.
It is instructive to state that these attributes will later come to play in favour of Senator Mark in his unanimous re-election as President of the Senate in 2011. Senator Smart Adeyemi in seconding the motion for Senator Mark’s unanimous adoption as the President of the Senate for a second term, described him as “a team player who treats all his colleagues as his equals.” I remember that as Senator Mark trots round the geo-political zones to rally the support of his colleagues for the 7th Senate, the meat of his discussion was that he would be “honest, transparent, fair and will ensure that there is equity and justice and above all, preside with the fear of God.”
Those words were the hallmark of his exemplary leadership whether in the military or Senate. On his first election as the President of the Senate, he was persuaded to buy a bullet-proof car for his use. His reaction s sharp. Can we buy one for each of the 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives? Since the answer was in the negative, he struck off the idea with a sentence; anybody who is determined to kill will only wait for me to alight from the bullet-proof car.
Senator Mark is an apostle of frugal spending of government funds. In December 2007, he ensured the return of N7bn unspent votes of the Senate back to Federal Government coffers. Those who relate with him on finances of the National Assembly have many stories to tell. This is often subsumed in one sentence - the man is too careful. The history of National Assembly will record Senator Mark as a jinx breaker as his tenure has witnessed constitutional amendments, which prior to his ascendancy as President of the Senate appeared unrealistic, while his doctrine of necessity rescued this nation from an impending catastrophe. He is a champion of an independent National Assembly that collaborates with the Executive in achieving democratic derivable that will guarantee a better life for the citizenry.
In achieving this feat, Senator Mark led the National Assembly to secure its financial independence from the executive and has gingered the state assemblies to garner support for their own independence in the forthcoming constitution amendment exercise.
He also retains the respect of being the first and only President of the Senate who has kept a very cordial relationship with his home state governor thereby helping to strengthen the political stability of the nation. “Whenever I am in Benue State, His Excellency, Gabriel Suswam, is the Number One citizen and he will always get my respect. But whenever he crosses to Abuja where I am Number 3, he gives me my deserved respects. This way, we have kept a cordial and harmonious working relationship for the benefits of Benue State,” Senator Mark will always say. As the most experienced senator in the chamber, Senator Mark has sponsored or co-sponsored very important bills like the Anti-Corruption Bill: Niger Delta Bill; Minimum Wage Bill; Free Universal Primary Education Bill; among many others.
In his Benue South Senatorial District constituency, he has facilitated several Federal Government projects like the Oju-Otukpo-Oweto Road: the rehabilitation of the Aliede-Otukpo- Otukpa Road; the N18bn Otobi Dam project; building and rehabilitation of schools; establishment of St. Mark’s Golf Academy, Akpegede among many others. Through his David Mark’s Scholarship Foundation, (DMSF) no fewer than 11,000 students have benefitted from bursary awards across Benue State. He has encouraged sports through his Apa United Football Club and Apa Queen as well as the annual Mark D’Ball Basketball Tournament.
Among all these, nothing fascinates me like his stance on truth and honesty. He has no respects for liars and dubiety. His passion for truth and honesty is magnetic. “
You must say the truth always no matter whose ox is gored and accept your mistakes where you are wrong. These attributes, Senator Mark would always contend, are universal morals that civilization can not wish away. I wish you a happy birthday and pray that the Lord increases your good health and wisdom in the years ahead.
• Ologbondiyan is Special Adviser, Media to the Senate President.