An Amazon from the North, Khairat Abdulrazaq-Gwadabe served as a senator representing the Federal Capital Territory Constituency, between 1999 and 2003, serving on various senate committees. In this interview with some journalists, Including Iyobosa Uwugiaren Abdulrazaq-Gwadabe talks about her plans to return to the Senate with a vision for the people at heart of her ambition. She also talks about her relationship with Chuba Okadigbo and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, and how she stood up to Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo

When you were in the Senate from 1999 to 2003, what was the experience like?
Over the years, because of the way I’ve interacted with people at my job, coming to the Senate and having understood the nature of people from different places, I could easily understand their point of view and where their argument was coming from. But one thing in the Senate, in the very early stage that shocked me into understanding that this place is about knowing how to lobby your fellow people and not assuming that everybody is going to see things with you the same way, was when we were filling our biodata. We had to fill so many things and in one place, they left four spaces for children’s name and I was filling and I could hear one of my fellow Senators calling somebody and saying, ‘Ah, Distinguished, how many lines, there is not enough line here for us’. And the other fellow asked, ‘how many children do you have?’ One said, ‘I have 13’. Another one said, ‘Me I have 26. So, I turned my head just to see the faces of those who had this number of kids. What I took away from that was that I had to map my people there. If I need something to be done in a particular way, I will go for certain people that I know will stick with it and those who will not stick with it and I realized that the number of children you have and that you’re taking care of will determine your strength in holding onto a bargain or a position on any issue. So, that was the first thing I learnt just by people filling forms and cracking jokes and that helped me throughout my term in that place. The point is that when people have too many baggage – and we are all getting the same pay and allowances – would find it difficult to stick to principles when the heat really comes on because the first consideration for most (not all) would be that, well, this would be a way of solving part of their problem. Some of us who did not have as much children, still had to support people – those who had school fees to be responsible for and all that. These were the kinds of things that came to play when the executive needed to have some voices to disrupt the system within the legislative arm. Some of these things played easily for them to pick up. These were a few things I picked up very early. One doesn’t generalize but I found that the cultural biases largely influenced the makeup of the person.

You were very close to late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and even when they wanted to remove him, you were one of the women against his removal. What attracted you to Chief Okadigbo? And were events to be replayed again, will you still stand by the OYI OF OYI, as Okadigbo was known?
I will still vote against his today. The Oyi of Oyi is of excellent mind. I love excellent, intellectual minds. The intellectual sagacity came with some form of arrogance that reflected in his charisma. When you are arrogant with your knowledge, you know what you know and you are not afraid to exude what you know and correct those who do not understand what you know and I like that. But a lot of those who don’t know as much don’t like to be told off. If you find a very intellectual person, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So, that may be the only thing that was lacking in him. But nobody is complete. Okadigbo was a man of distinction who knew what he knew and was not bothered about what you said.

When we were to vote for the Senate President then, I was looking for somebody that had experience. We were all green coming from nowhere in 1999. They say in a blind man’s land, the person with vision in one eye could see better than the rest of us. So, I pitched my tent with him, as against the others who were running, and, at that time, it was zoned to the Southeast – virtually all those who were elected from the Southeast vied for that position. Mind you, I studied law in the UK and then I came back and did my Masters in Nigeria, and after coming back, I did my NYSC. They posted me to Lagos but I didn’t want to do it in Lagos. I wanted to go to the East.

Why did you want to go to the East?
I wanted to understand another part of Nigeria very well, the language of the people and their culture. I already knew the Yoruba and Hausa. I believe in one Nigeria and I am completely detribalised. So, I really wanted to use that year to learn the language and their ways. I remember my father was saying, ‘I don’t understand you. Everybody is coming to me to help post them to Lagos and you want to go to the East’? Eventually, the posting came out and it was Lagos again, mainly because those who studied abroad are all kept in the capital. So, back to my experience in the Senate: after inauguration, we were cheated out of that game but we stood solidly with Okadigbo, that you cannot start a new democratic process with green horns. Eventually, when the time and opportunity came due to the Evan or Evans issue, we were able to impeach Evans and bring Oyi. From the day we brought Oyi, the debate on the floor became robust. If you don’t have anything up in your head, you will not even dare press the bell to indicate that you wanted to speak. You dare not press that buzzer. I enjoyed it because anytime I pressed the buzzer to speak, I will look to my right and the late Senator Wahab Dosunmu from Lagos, as I’m speaking, Dosunmu will be looking through his rule book to see how to stop me. It was quite engaging. He was from AD but he was not always talking from AD platform. He just wanted to demonstrate that sense of engagement – that’s what made it robust. It was exciting. Sometimes, I was in the front row, and you know when you are presiding and a thought comes and you want to quickly reel out a rule to stop the fellow and you can’t really remember it, I’m there checking and I will take my pen and paper, write the rule number boldly and carry it by my chest and show it to Okadigbo and when he looks and down and he sees it, being of a very sharp mind, he already knows what you’re talking about and he would refer to rule so and so. So, the thing was flowing and the debate was rich and the laws we were making were impressive. Even those who didn’t know as much were lured in and people learned a lot by that. But by the time the politics came in to remove him, we tried hard because what we wanted was to build independence of the legislature quickly so that whoever comes will have an established order of doing things and the respect for that institution. Then, you must admit that once you hear the word Mr. President and Oyi stands up to move, you know that power is moving. That was our experience.

The people you served at that time, how come it’s been some 15years now since you left the Senate that you’re staging a comeback, what happened?
One of the things I learnt then was that you should always ask your community what they want. Don’t assume that they are suffering. When I was campaigning in one of the communities, I discovered that the men complained that women take hours to go from their home, around 6am, to fetch water in the river; they walk long distance and before they come back, it’s by 11, 12 or even 1pm; and I felt that that was too much. So, I decided that we will attract borehole for them. We did that and I was so excited that we were able to bring borehole. The men were happy but the women were not. They said you don’t like us. I brought you water and you say I don’t like you. They said it’s because you don’t understand. What we had before paid us. I discovered that when they wake up at 6am, they take all their laundry and go to the river. They spend the day to socialize, do all their activities and they enjoy it. The husband and children are there at home and they have fun and when they are done, they now come home with their water. Now, the borehole is right in their nose and I deprived them of such a nice social time. So, they wanted their time and that was it for them. I took away their freedom. So, you don’t always assume that somebody is suffering. Maybe he likes it in that particular way because it comes with some form of consolation which money cannot always buy.

When you look at what has happened in the last couple of years, what perspective would you want to present regarding your understanding of why things are the way they are now in NASS and why they should not be this way?
It’s all about understanding how the legislature works. It works at several levels. The first level is the chamber and the chamber floor is usually about getting an opportunity to also play to the gallery there, because the spot light is on you and you get an opportunity to let your constituency know you can speak English or you can debate. You get an opportunity to bring up issues that are dear to you or your constituency or some group find in you a role model to push issues for them and that’s the floor. Now, in that floor, you must stop to think how you reflect, collectively, that institution to the world because as you are seated, whatever you are doing, people are watching you and making an impression of our legislative house. That’s decorum. It must be top notch and walking and moving around aimlessly when members are speaking should not really be encouraged. I know people have to ease themselves and all of that.

The second level is the debate on bills that that come and one has to be prepared. To be prepared to make sound debate, you must have support staff and you are as good as your support staff. Thirdly, you have the level of your committees and at the level of the committees, the work entails working in your chamber as an individual Senator and working as a collective. If you are not the chair of the committee, your responsibility is still high, as far as the committees are concerned, which is bringing your wealth of knowledge or discovering and learning about the issues that are before you. If, for instance, you are in the Committee on Railways or Ports, you have to understand how the ports work. You have to understand what are the constraints, how many ports do we have; do we have inland ports; the coastal ports. What are the agencies that operate within this sphere? What are the dangers of government neglect by giving jetties out and privatizing it? Is it good for us? Is it not good? If giving these concessions out, you are not monitoring them, you have this proliferation of arms because anybody can engage any particular jetty and bring anything or take anything out. So, it is your responsibility as a member of that committee to do your research, reach out. At the fourth level, you have the workings on oversight. You oversee by going out to visit the ports. What are you looking for? What you should be looking for at that stage is you have done an appropriation. They have come to you with their budget and you’ve worked on the budget and you allocated appropriation for it. Now, you give them six months to see how that has worked. Then, you go and see the first two quarters. These things that we have given them, how far have they gone with it? What are the constraints; what can we do better? You note it, you ask questions, and you wait for the next budget and ask questions; where did the funds go? Why did you vire? You can sanction them for virement and so forth. There is a lot of work that needs to be done but you must understand it, know what you are going there to do and be equipped to do that.

So, what’s with this comeback bid now?
I asked myself the same question. But honestly speaking, it’s different. We have watched quietly the system changing in the direction that I never envisaged. I came into politics with a lot of vibrancy. I really wanted Nigeria to be better than the rest. Once you have a strong institution, it doesn’t matter who is sitting on top of the institution, it must be made to work. But as you know, I did not technically lose the primaries in 2003. There was a lot of agitation from the National Assembly for the impeachment of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo at the time and we were the people pushing for it because we felt that he was very unconstitutional in his actions. Every constitution, particularly the Appropriation Act, was always flouted. We worked hard to put things in place and he messed it up. When he came to do his budget presentation and state of the nation address, you will find that what he said never tallied with the budgeting. For instance, that time, you can’t be saying my thrust is agriculture and then you are giving less than N100 billion to agric. You can’t tell me that your thrust is health and you are giving more to defence than health. That’s not your thrust. So, whatever you are saying in the state of the nation address must tally with what you have presented us. So, largely, we now look at your address and say this is where he wants to go and we will help him get there. We tweak the budget in a manner that will reflect the direction that he wants to go and we would want to see the system go and achieve that and we worked tirelessly to do that. But when it comes to implementation, he will now become selective as to which ministry he is going to give funds. If you don’t get money, you can’t do anything. We said, no, if we continue the process this way, we are going to get to a point where some of us that want to see Nigeria do well, we won’t get there. This second term he is seeking let us ask him not to go.

So, we were called to a conference – all the appointees, ambassadors and legislators of the PDP – at the Yar’Adua Centre. Audu Ogbeh was chairman of the party at the time, and they selected people to speak and people spoke. I came up and summarized what every speaker had said. I said we are all going round in circles, we know what the problem is and we know where the problem is. Mr. Chairman, please let us beg Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo not to run for second term in the interest of the country and in the interest of the party. There was an explosion of applause. They forgot that he was seated there. I think somebody must have said something. Somebody reminded us that he’s Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. I responded and said I appreciate that you would rather call him ‘chief’. But for a man to say he is going to give up his life and serve his nation, I think he needs to be honoured and he served his nation and rose to the highest level you can give a man in that military field, general. I think we should honour him by addressing him as General Olusegun Obasanjo. He is just a chief of a small community in Nigeria. But he has risen to the highest level as a general and commander-in-chief of that army. So, I repeat, I am talking about our president, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. Everybody clapped for me and then the chairman said to me to go and sit. I sat and that was the nail. So, when it came to time for primaries, I said I won’t give them that pleasure of not seeking reelection, that I will go and I didn’t just want the people to ask in future that why didn’t I go for a second term, then I can tell them why. I’m a fighter, they will hit me but I won’t go out of the way. So, that was what happened. They just didn’t want me to return.

At some point you moved to ANPP?
It’s good to stand for something. Whatever anybody says, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari is standing for something. I was sitting in my house and watching the congress of the ANPP on the TV and Gen. Buhari emerged as the flag bearer then and the next thing I saw, he raised the hand of Chuba Okadigbo, the Oyi of Oyi, as his running mate. I said these are the people I’m going to follow. I think I can work with them to get the Nigeria we want. So, that was how I decamped from the PDP to ANPP. I remember the party was excited and they wanted to give me automatic ticket to run for the Senate. I said no. I didn’t come to run. I came to make sure that we tilt Nigeria in the direction that will yield the best. That’s how I joined the presidential campaign team and we went everywhere. I don’t know if anyone of you has ever been in the political rally of those days with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. You need to understand the following he has. We went to Adamawa. I refused to go on planes because I wanted to see what the road situation is and what the people, their lives, are like. So, we drove all the way to Adamawa.

The day the President arrived for that campaign, when we got to the airport, we sat in the VIP lounge and the plane landed. We could see from the window, the human surge compromised the perimeter fence of the airport as sea of heads went to tarmac as if they wanted to carry the plane. The plane came to a stop but you couldn’t see the tarmac. The only thing you could see was sea of heads and the plane like it was sitting on their head. Everywhere on the tarmac was filled with human beings.

The man could not come out. They had to reverse a jeep into the cargo hole so that they don’t mob him as he comes out through the main door and that was how they got him out. It’s frightening because being mobbed like that, you could get killed out of love. It took us four hours to drive from the airport to town, a journey that took us 30 minutes. Being in the entourage, he would move forward and we will follow him. Then I saw that they almost killed me, not with their hands but because of pushing. So, every time he goes up, I will wait. When Oyi went up, I would follow Chuba because they loved Chuba – everywhere you went, the two tall men, the same birthday, the same height. Everything was just so similar and the crowd loved Oyi in the North. So, you have two men that people loved. It was a pity they didn’t win. After the loss, we went to court and I went back to my chambers. We did so many things in the main time.

How do you think your constituents will receive you now?
If you recall, they commissioned Abuja monorail some two months ago. I was invited and I attended. As we walked in, the Abuja political class and the chiefs were sitting to the right and people were sitting to the left. I was ushered to the front and I sat down. I now saw the President on the right and we all got up. As Mr. President entered with the former Minister of Abuja, el-Rufai, and some of the villa escorts that was it. I looked round and was taken aback. Mr. President is the Governor of Abuja. He is also our President. When the President visits any place, there is usually a line-up of party stalwarts, chiefs and the people that practice politics, eminent personnel in that area. But there wasn’t such line-up. Then we were ushered into the train. I was the only Abuja based person in the train. All the chiefs and everybody were sitting out there. They were prevented. These are people that practice politics here, they are the ones that keep the party buoyant. They are eminent personalities that should be recognized at all opportunities. So, I had to ask, ‘You mean your politics here is that bad, that you are no longer recognized? What is the problem?’ So, they explained that one, the people representing them don’t come back after they are elected and things like that. So, I felt that we have to have better representation. Politics must be better. If it is the quality of representation that is causing this, then I’m ready to run.

Everybody knows that the Senatorial seat in Abuja is occupied by the opposition party. So, the lacuna between governance at the top and the people, in the FCT, the highest office you can aspire to here, is serious. Even though it’s a legislative seat, you can use it to ensure you have better politics played locally. So, these were the things that really started agitating my mind. Then I decided to go round, talk to people and get their feeling. I went to all the wards, spoke to all of them and the feedback I got was frightening to me too. They complained and they were saying you represented us well; why don’t you come out again. Some of the aspirants over the years will tell me that when we go on tour, people tell them that if you promise to be like Senator Khairat Abdulrazaq who served us, then we will vote for you. All of that was what brought me out. I said, okay, let me come, sacrifice and provide the platform where we can rise, win elections and play politics properly with better development, allow people to have their voices represented the way I should be represented. Those who also believe in my ideas will work with me to achieve it. That’s why I came out.

What are you bringing to the table now, especially contesting against an opposition incumbent?
You must understand the FCT terrain because it varies. If you say you are going to Kuje for instance, the Kuje Council which is a local government is so huge that if you leave the metropolis and you want to go to a town called Kudun Kariya in Kuje, you have to go to Abaji first, you go to Nasarawa State, pass Nasarawa before you get to Kudun Kariya. Kudun Kariya is Northeast of Abuja. If we put road from Karshi, we open a roadway that will lead us to Kudun Kariya directly. But because it’s not there, they have to traverse Gwagwalada, Kwali, Abaji, Nasarawa State, and then back to Kuje. Abuja is a very beautify terrain – if you like lush green area, go to Kwali side. It’s largely waterlogged with lots of aerated waters. Farming is very good in that side. If you want where there is more waters or rivers, you go to Abaji. If you are going out of Abuja, once you hit Abaji town, there is a turning on the right that takes you to Kandagi. By the time you get to a point during the raining season, I remember in those days, even up till now, the bridge is washed away. So, those who are there cannot go to school because the teachers are on this side for the duration of that period. They are cut away from us. How do you get development to them? It is effective understanding of the terrain, the needs of the people and how you budget for it for effective development.

We still have to go to the primaries. We have six Area Councils and in each of the Area Councils, we have layers of Nigerians. As I said, all the area councils here, the Chairmen of the Area Councils are currently chaired by APC. There was one before that that was PDP but he decamped. All the area council heads are now APC. Nigerians as I have come to see have changed. They are not the kind of Nigerians we used to have. Their mindset has closed up. They can discern, at least I know in the territory, voting for a party and voting for an individual. The point is people are going to vote on issues. We are pushing them to vote on issues than personalities. The tendency is they will look at performance. I know the electorate will look at what has the incumbent done; what are the persons coming to take over, what do they hope to do. They are going to decide all of these and this will weigh heavily on the way they will vote. I hope that we will clinch it by the grace of God.