Saraki: The Senate I Lead is Patriotic

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To mark the first anniversary of his inauguration today, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki spoke with senior editors, including THISDAY’s Bolaji Adebiyi on the high points of the last one year. Excerpts:

How would you describe your experience in the last one year?
I give a lot of thanks to our creator, mighty God for giving one the opportunity. Whatever you say, it is an honour, an opportunity. It is not bestowed on many. To have been able to achieve that, one is honoured. Based on that, everyday one is grateful for that opportunity.

It reminds me of when I was governor in Kwara State; I used to say that every day. What was driving me was that I was counting the days when the job would end. The day it ends I want to be able to say that I did this and that. I don’t want to end the job and say hey, I wished I had done this and that.

I am one that is focused on what needs to be done. I believe this is a new challenge. This is so because one played a very key role in bringing about this government. At the beginning a lot of people used to tell me, why are you wasting your time? Have you ever heard of anybody defeating a sitting government? They would advise me not to waste my time. They would say, ‘you can’t win, you are just going to endanger yourself, you are going nowhere.’ Even a lot of our friends in the media, out of respect they would listen to me. But they would say ‘this Oga, you are so optimistic; you will defeat a sitting government, with what?
But we achieved that with the commitment of Nigerians. I feel one is carrying on his shoulder a lot of responsibility. I know what people sacrificed in making this happen. I believe that motivates one to see that we make a difference and everyday, that is what drives me.

I wouldn’t say I underestimated what is happening, I expected the challenges when you are trying to make a change. This is more on the legislative angle. That is where the change is because Nigerians have been used to the executive and the judiciary. The youngest of the three arms is the legislature. The one that people don’t understand the most is the legislature. The one people cannot see how it connects to their daily life is the legislature. An average man or woman in Nigeria knows how the executive affects his or her life. When a minister makes an announcement that we have now raised the duty on car importation or the exchange rate has gone up to this and that , they know what that means. It is so for the judiciary. They know that this judge can rule for or against if they have a case. They do not understand what the lawmakers are doing. That makes our work more challenging.
I am very hopeful that by the time we are done, we will be able to change this perception.

Is this the Senate you had in mind when you vied for the presidency? Can it propel Nigeria to the destination the people are aspiring?
I very much believe so. I was in the 7th Senate for four years; I followed the activities of the National Assembly. I believe that where we are now, the groups of senators we have are focused, patriotic and they are committed to solving Nigeria’s problems. They are patriotic because this is the first time we have a Senate that is much divided, the majority is very slim. You can’t really compare it to the previous Senate. You have a Senate with this slim majority, everyday should be chaotic, and the senators should be up in arms.

But in the last one year, anytime we discussed national issues, issues that have to do with the economy, senators have jettisoned their political leanings and have presented themselves as senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Right from the time we screened ministers, looked at budget, they acted like senators of Federal Republic of Nigeria and not that of APC or PDP.

Legislative arm is belief in processes. Sometimes the substance might be good but once you miss it, you derail. Just like the judiciary, if you miss the process it is out. The senators have shown a lot of maturity, patriotism and support. Nobody would even know that there is a slim majority. Without that support, that unity, majority of the issues we want to discuss especially those that border on reforms of this country cannot take place. They think of Nigeria first. I am happy and honoured by the support they have given me. I am confident that as we move ahead we would build on our achievements. We would ensure that major issues that ordinarily should be discussed on party lines because of their controversial nature are looked at from nationalistic point of view.
We have been doing that. Look at the supplementary budget, under a normal circumstance, would not have passed if the senators wanted to go along party lines. But they rose beyond that, they saw themselves first as senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

If you see the work we have done in the last one year despite a lot of distraction, it shows that it is a Senate that has the roadmap. We are not just coming to the Senate to jump from one issue to another. We are focusing largely on the economy, how we can address things that would make Nigeria a better place, create jobs for our people, improve the economy and make the country investment friendly.
Looking at things we have tackled you can see a clear path that we have created. This is different from what was in place before. Some of the issues that people were not ready to touch in the past, we have touched them. We are opening up the Senate to public participation. We are not afraid that anybody would come with criticism of our activities. Of course people should express their own mind.
We told ourselves, look, let’s open it up. We are ready to take whatever that comes with it if it will help make the country better. I don’t think the Senate has ever had this kind of openness that is in place now. To achieve this, you cannot do it alone as Senate president; it is because the senators wanted it and believe in that agenda.
If I don’t have the type of senators we have now to work with some of the things we are doing would not have been possible.

Nigerians face hard times. How is the Senate helping to navigate the nation out of the economic doldrums?
The economy has always been on our agenda. You have to understand that 90 percent of our revenues come from oil. We are all aware of the price of oil has plummeted since the last one year. It came from $100 down to even $28, $30. We are operating a mono product economy. And there is high level of unemployment. So it is clear for us that, in order to address some of these issues we must do the following. First, we cannot continue to depend on oil. We must diversify. We must diversify to agriculture and solid mineral. But we all have to understand that these sectors are not such that you can go there on a Monday and by Tuesday, Wednesday you begin to see results. They need five to ten years to give you what you want. What we must bring about in these sectors are reforms. It is not even policies. People who want to invest in these sectors are skeptical of somersault in polices. What people are looking out for is the kind of laws the country has that support the sectors.

For instance, in agriculture, if you talk about agriculture diversification and you don’t have any law that is clear or shows that there is a move to promote either commercial agriculture or credit to farmers, nobody is going to do any business. People would not want to invest in those sectors.
So you begin to see that we are addressing some of these areas. In the agricultural sector we are doing it.

On the economy, one of the bills before us which I am hopeful that the two chambers will soon pass is our public procurement law. It is a pity that it is not well reported. We saw earlier on that we must do something to stimulate the economy. One of the things we must know is that when you are going through this kind of downturn or recession, you must think outside the box.

We told ourselves that the country spends in its budget a lot of money, close to N2trn in capital purchases, outside salary etc. Most of the money is used to purchase goods outside the country. So that two trillion is help other countries’ economy. What stops government from saying, look I have my two trillion naira, if I don’t find those goods in Nigeria I can buy it any other place. But I must first make a concerted effort to see whether I can find those within Nigeria.
If there is no law that supports that, it will not happen. It cannot be left to one government today, another one in four years comes with different plans. If there is a law well backed up, it will encourage entrepreneurs to say, well there is a law in Nigeria that says that this ministry must buy this item first in Nigeria. I as an entrepreneur, if I can produce that goods locally, I have a market. The America we talk about free trade etc, as early as 1920s had such a law. It was called ‘Buy America’. China still has it. Few countries in South America have it. I told somebody that even if this is the only law that we passed it will have huge impact on our economy. There would be money going into stimulating the manufacturing sector and providing jobs to Nigerians.
Today in the health sector, there are some drugs that governments agencies buy that are produced locally. But because there is no law that stops them from buying them abroad, they would go and buy the same drug that is made in the UK instead of buying the one produced here.

We have a lot of our Para agencies that do not support those that locally procure shirts, shoes and canvasses etc. We looked around when we went to the Aba Trade Fair Made in Nigeria. Some of these items can be bought here. Ministries buy pencils, chalk from abroad. Initially you might talk about standard but it is like that all over the world. When we start we will improve the standard. When we banned importation of furniture in Nigeria, we didn’t have enough people who were producing furniture. But now we have them in abundance. The furniture I use is made from a factory in Kwara.

Like I said, passing a law like that will stimulate the economy. We will challenge the executive to make sure that they respect the law when we pass it.
Secondly, in the public procurement law that we are passing, we are reducing the number of huddles for the bidding process. Sometimes, even after passing the budget, before they award contracts they advertise, screen, this and that. It will take sometimes four to five months to do all those things. Before everything is finished it will take up to a year. We have looked at it; we have cut down some of the days and hurdles. We have shortened the time so that money will come into the system. After a budget is passed money is not in the system. If a system encourages that money will still sit at the central bank for another three, four months, the economy will not move.

What we have done also in advanced payment is to give flexibility to it. It used to be 15 percent. In some cases like in works you may need to give more money in the dry season to get a lot of work done. These are the laws that make a difference.

Also, we are facing infrastructure deficit -we talk about power, road, and railway – there is no government that can fund these gigantic projects. It is not possible. If you are waiting for government to fund railway, roads, it will not happen. It does not have the money to do that. I don’t think it is pretending about it. And we all agree that without this infrastructure, our economy cannot move forward. The answer remains to have an enabling environment by law that allows private sector participation in the funding of these projects.
Look at the issue of Lagos-Calabar rail that raised a lot of dust. How much is the money? N60bn. If that amount is what we are struggling to find from everywhere, how will government tackle other pressing needs. If we have an enabling environment, a big Chinese or a UAE company can say look, can I participate? I will provide all the trains, carriages for this route. Give me the route, Lagos to Calabar or Calabar to Port Harcourt, I will fund it and I will make my money from the goods tariffs. If there is a law that allows that you will see everybody bringing his money.

The law that we are trying to pass currently, for the first time, will allow the private sector to even build rail tracks. If we want to concession part of it, the law allows it. These are the things that the existing law did not allow.
On roads, we are ensuring that some of the laws will enable better maintenance of highways and better participation of private sectors in road construction. Look at the Lagos -Ibadan road or the one from Ibadan to Ilorin? Since 1999 when Obasanjo was in power the road has been under construction. That is 16 years ago. They broke it into three segments in a bid to make it easier.

They broke into Ibadan to Oyo, one contractor; Oyo to Ogbomosho, another contractor; and Ogbomosho to Ilorin, another contractor. Till now we are just about to start the last phase. That is Oyo to Ogbomoso. Lagos -Ibadan that is so important to us is yet to be completed. The money is not there.
So it is the law that will enable the private sector to participate in such construction that we require.

If you talk about reforms in any society, they can only be done if there are stable laws that will support that. And that is what we are trying to do in ensuring that all these sectors are provided with an enabling environment that will bring about change in the economy and create jobs for a lot of our unemployed youths.

How much of distraction has your trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal had on your Senate presidency? Secondly, with the controversies that surrounded the 2016 budget and the dwindling oil revenues, do you sincerely think the budget will be faithfully implemented?
Let me start with the last question. What we have done, despite the power that is given to the legislature by the constitution, is to stand with the people. As part of the cooperation with the executive we ensured that the executive got what they want so that they will not give the excuse that they are not familiar with the budget or that it is not theirs. We bent backwards and even relinquished some powers we have as part of the support. This is a government that has come to change things, we told ourselves that we should as much as possible support it and work with what it wants. There is no excuse on the executive part.

On our part, we are to ensure that the enabling laws are passed. I give you example again with the procurement law that we are amending. It is an effort to fast tract the process by which budget would be implemented. And then, of course our own oversight, we have resolved that we will monitor every naira, every kobo to ensure that they are spent in line with the budget.

I can assure you that we will do that. We will make sure that all the agencies and ministries implement the budget fully. In saying that we have to be realistic and see what the executive does with the challenges it has. Nobody anticipated the disruption we are having in the Niger Delta area. The budget was based on 2.2 million barrels a day. But now it has gone that to as low as 1.6 million barrels. That is temporary setback. Government must show its capacity and ability to get peace restored in the Niger Delta. Everything must be done to ensure that production goes back to the original projection which 2.2 million barrels.
Remember oil price was down to $28 per barrel. Some people were worried and even asked how we are going to implement the budget. Luckily it has gone up to $50. There is some buffer there that should help to cushion some of the shortfalls here and there.
Our own part is to make sure that the amount that has been appropriated, all the releases are made to the agencies in line with the law. There cannot be selective releases. The budget has been approved, the money is there, there is need to release it to the agencies and ministries each quarter. When the monies are not there, there is need for the executive to come back to us to explain why. We will hold them accountable. That is the only thing that will make the difference between this year and any other year in terms of budget implementation.

On the CCT, I agree that anytime the history of this period is written the aspect of CCT will be there. From what we are seeing in the court, not my words, even the words of the witnesses support what I said earlier that my trial is political. Remember the day the chief witness said the first time they wrote to the committee on federal government implementation of property sale was in August 2016, which was like two months after I emerged. To me, that was further confirmation to what I said. It means that prior to then there was no investigation done.

Be it as it may it is a distraction. There is more we could have done. There are a lot of hours that we are losing when we do go to court. We have to do that; I want to clear my name as soon as possible so that we can move forward. It is an unfortunate distraction. I think it was ill-conceived by those that started it.
However, it has not deterred us. We still have been able to address and push along our own agenda. It is something that after the case is over, as an institution, we must look at how to strengthen our judiciary and how to ensure that political battles that are lost in the political arena do not find themselves into the judicial arena. It is not good for the system. Sometimes you hear people use the word corruption trial but when you actually look the issue, at best you call it administration misdemeanor. There is nowhere at anytime we are talking about government funds missing somewhere. When we start to paint the fight against corruption and people begin not to be sure whether it is corruption fight or politics we do more harm to the war on corruption. The fight against corruption should be very transparent so that when you find somebody guilty Nigerians will know. But you see, sometimes people are found guilty even on the so called corruption; the society will still embrace them. And this is because people do not have belief in the system. When we do things like these we taint the system.

I think it is something we must address. Back to the issue, it has not deterred us. Yes it may have weighed us a little down, stopped us from moving at the pace we wanted to move but I still believe that we are doing much better than previously. I am confident that at the end of our term we would have made a lot of great strides, that we will set the Senate and National Assembly at a level much higher than we met it.

The Senate attempted amending the CCB act but it was visited with public outcry. And that forced the chamber to drop the idea. The House is going ahead with the amendment. Is the Senate going to concur when the House passes it? Secondly what step do you recommend the Federal Government take to restore peace in the Niger Delta?
On whether the Senate will concur or not, I have not seen details of what they have passed. There is a process, when they pass it. They will send it to us for concurrence. When we get it, we will look at it and see what they have done.
On the issue of Niger Delta, we have had this kind of problem before. That was during the period of President Yar’Adua. We were able to find a solution that restored peace to the region. Clearly, there is need for all of us to put all hands on the deck and bring peace to the Niger Delta.

I was chairman of NGF when we did it in the past. I know the role we played at that time to ensure that Yar’Adua government works out the amnesty programme that restored peace at that time. The National Assembly is there and available to play our own role in bringing about peace in the region. It is a priority and I don’t believe any price is too high in restoring peace.
Are you recommending that the Yar’Adua model should be employed by the incumbent administration?
I didn’t say that. I said that we have done it before. Every situation has its own solution. There is an amnesty programme already in place, so it might not be the issue of amnesty. Whatever the issues are what I am saying is that we must be able to bend backward and find solution. At the time of the Yar’Adua time nobody had heard of such programme. It was fashioned out at that time to meet the situation. Now, we must fashion out whatever is required. What I am saying is that no price is too high to pay for peace to reign in this country.

How true is the claim that the President transmitted a letter to the senate regarding his medical trip to London?
The letter clearly stated that the President will be away for 10 working days to attend to his health. I am a doctor, you can be attended to by a doctor, if he is not sure, he might say look I better refer you to another doctor. That happens to an ordinary person not to talk of the President of a country. I don’t blame the doctor that attended to him. He needs to be careful. He wants to share responsibility, he is just being over cautious. I think you are ok, I don’t want tomorrow you will say I am the one that said so, let’s someone else confirm what I am saying. I think that is ok.

He is taking 10 days off, he has done the right thing so that there will be stability. He has followed the process, nothing has been hidden. We wish him all the best. When we had the dinner he was fit and well. We sat together; there was no evidence that he had any problem. I think this is just to ensure that all righteousness and correctness are followed. There is no problem.

What is the state of the constitution amendment in the Senate?
We have set up a committee headed by the Deputy Senate President. They have started meeting. We gave them a clear mandate. As you are aware, in the 7th Assembly a lot of work was done, it was passed by the National Assembly but it did not get the assent of the former President. We have told them to break the work into two phases. Let us first agree quickly things that most people agree that should be amended. In two weeks’ time they are going to have a retreat in Lagos to review all the areas where people have common position. Secondly, they will get new areas.

We are going for areas that have little or no controversy. They will consult with speakers in all the 36 states so that we get their buy in as well. We will come back and try as much as possible to ensure that before the year ends we can pass the constitution amendment. It is likely that after that we will continue to work because there are some new areas that will come in that may need more consultations and engagement with the public.
But these ones that we have already had engagements before, I think with limited resources, it is better that we try and fast tract it and get it out. We are targeting that before the end of the year we should try and see we amend the constitution in areas that there is agreement by all. It might not be comprehensive but our attitude is, lets what we can do that everybody will agree than spending two three years on the same process.

Senate in the last one year has passed quite a number of resolutions but we don’t get to see many of the resolutions being implemented by the executive. Is that not a sign that National Assembly is turning into a toothless bulldog? Secondly, the issue of restructuring of the country is coming up now, will the constitution amendment work towards that?
Constitution amendment is based on the feedback you get from the people, general consensus by the people and stakeholders. It is not in my place as a presiding officer or chairman of the National Assembly to say this is what is going to happen. Restructuring I think will involve arguments to and fro, pros and cons. These are the kind of thing I think at this first stage will pretty much distract us.
On resolutions, we have made it clear that we are not going to be a National Assembly that will not be effective. We have already set up something like a compliance committee to oversee some of these things we have made and see that the executive arm complies.

This National Assembly is not afraid of anybody. This Senate is not afraid to say the truth when it is necessary. We are not afraid of taking on anybody once we believe that the person is not following the law. There is no sacred cow in this business. We know by doing that the system will come back to fight us. Unless we do things right nothing will happen.

Look at the last investigation we did on TSA everything was made open. I was in the 7th Assembly; those kinds of reports don’t see the light of the day. I did a motion on oil subsidy, till the time the 7th assembly ended it never saw the light of the day.

But the TSA report did not only see the light of the day, its recommendations did. We will make sure that our resolutions have substance, transparent and that the right thing is done.

You earlier promised to make the breakdown of the budget of the National Assembly. Should the silence on that from you be taken that you have changed your mind?
No, I have not changed my mind. There is a process of putting it on our website. I have already released the figures, what is remaining is creating greater awareness on that. You cannot be shouting for transparency and you do not ensure openness in your own house.

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The senators have shown a lot of maturity, patriotism and support. Nobody would even know that there is a slim majority. Without that support, that unity, majority of the issues we want to discuss especially those that border on reforms of this country cannot take place. They think of Nigeria first. I am happy and honoured by the support they have given me.