Born of a Muslim father, who is half Yoruba and half Fulani, and a Christian mother, with links to Delta and Bonny in Rivers State, Hajia Ireti Kingibe, sees herself as a quintessential Nigerian. This is because she has carved niche in the political arena. Determined to represent her people of the Federal Capital Territory in the senate in next year’s election, Kingibe is confident of getting the people’s votes. In this interview with Olawale Olaleye and Olaseni Durojaiye, she gives reasons the All Progressives Congress ticket is hers to lose and also that the general election is going to be an easy run for her. Excerpts:
Sometime in July, you signified your intention to represent the Federal Capital Territory in the senate on the platform of APC. But between then and now, so much has happened. Do you still feel you stand a chance of winning your party’s ticket and the general election?
I still think I stand a very good chance for the simple reason that I have been in FCT politics actively since 2003. At no point did I leave the politics. Secondly, because I believe that politics is about service to the people and it’s a journey not a destination, so, despite that I didn’t get to go to the Senate at the time, I still showed interest in the welfare of the FCT and its people.
Whatever I see isn’t right, I book appointment for a meeting with whoever the Minister is at the time or the head of the relevant agencies in charge; and if it is about quota of things that I feel should come to the FCT, I also do my bit to ensure that they get it.
Besides, I have always interacted with our Chiefs and also been interacting with our people. I have been accessible to everybody since 2003 till now. I feel I have a strong chance, because in spite that I have not been to the Senate, I still demonstrate commitment and passion to the cause of the people more than some people have even done. I also feel the people are more discerning now than in the past.
Thirdly, all the people that are in the race with me have been to the National Assembly at one time or the other; some to the House of Representatives, while others have been to the Senate, and throughout my campaign, one of the things that the people kept saying was that they’re tired of constantly recycling the same old people. The feedback was those ones that have been there before now have all tried their bits and that its time to try out fresh people in those positions.
Also, thirdly, FCT will be conducting indirect primaries, through delegates. These delegates are people that we’ve been together right from inception, they know me and I know them. I have been accessible to them all through the years, so, it is very unlikely that they would follow people that they feel are opportunistic, people that they feel have abandoned them over the years and then a month to the party primaries joined the party and say here I am elect me.
The other point, which I came across during the campaigns is that people come with this attitude that, ‘I’ve come with money; I have so and so billions of naira to spend on the election.’ Again, the people were like, ‘okay, bring the money, but when I needed N19, 999, where were you? I couldn’t reach you; your doors were all locked.’
Those were some of the feedbacks that we got because I am always in and out of everywhere. People now realise that the responsibility of realising good governance starts with electing good leaders, which is their responsibility as well. They collect the money from everybody that brings money, even if it is me, but at the end of the day, they would vote for one person – one person that they feel will represent their interest for the next four years.
Some of your opponents in the race include the incumbent and one time senator, Khairat Gwadabe, are you in any way concerned that these persons might be standing prominently in your way to the Senate?
I do not consider Senator Khairat Gwadabe as standing in my way. She joined APC last month, August, and we are going into the primaries in a couple of weeks’ time. Yes, she was in the Senate 16 years ago and in my opinion, she was an excellent senator but that was 16 years ago and after that, she closed her doors to the people. Some people even felt she had retired from politics.
Maybe if she had joined the party six months ago, but one month to the elections? It is unlikely she will be standing in my way. So, my focus for getting the ticket is not Senator Khairat Gwadabe. I am running against Senator Isa Maina, Mr. Aboki Jawa, Honourable Tanko Abari; people who have been in the APC for some time.
One of them just came into the party, he wanted to run initially but, I don’t know if he was afraid to run again, because he doesn’t have the APC structure in place. So, if he feels that having joined the party one year ago, one year is not enough to put in place the structures he needed to run, it is very unlikely that someone, who joined us one month to the primaries will stand a chance of picking the party ticket.
So, those four or five men that we have all been running around and campaigning for the people of FCT in the past three years are the people that I am running against not Senator Khairat Gwadabe.
What about the general election – Senator Philip Aduda?
Talking about the general election, I am sorry but Senator Aduda has been in the Senate for eight inconsequential years and everybody in Abuja wants a change. It is that simple. He has done his bit, he’s given everything that he could give to the people, and it is now time for fresh ideas and fresh people.
What are the factors that you reckon could stand in your way?
Well, I worry that some of the candidates have been boasting that they have N1 billion to spend and things like that, but at the end of the day, the choice rests with the people. If they decided that Hajia Ireti was the one they wanted to represent them, then, it’s fine by me but if they decided that it was one of the recycled people, that is okay by me. It is their choice.
Another factor that gives me the optimism is that in the past, whenever I ran, even when I ran against Senator Maina, we did that election for close to a year. Many people in the FCT will tell you that in spite of the availability of government resources to him and the usual way of winning elections, the margin between us was really small even with my shoe string budget. Still, the Court of Appeal ruled that the PDP did not win and we were at it till I was exhausted.
Subsequently, even when I was in the PDP, I was always the person next to the government candidate, when the government of the time spent resources, money, time, coercion and everything to ensure that they get the government candidate to win the primaries.
Now there is no government candidate, the people are allowed to go and pick the candidate of their choice and that gives me the optimism that, if all this had happened while I’d been able to battle the government candidate let alone now, and the government candidate did come with a lot of money, the government also gave them all the necessary support, but now the individuals cannot have such money or have more money than the government.
Four years ago, you pulled out of the senate race and even left the PDP on account of certain happenings that you found resentful. Don’t you see any of those things playing out in APC?
Definitely not! One of the reasons I pulled out of the race was that when we went to the House of Representatives primaries, in spite of the orders and coercion to vote for the government candidate, the people didn’t vote for the government candidate, at least in Abuja South, which has four local governments. Then the Returning officers that were sent didn’t want to announce the authentic results as they were. But Maina led thugs to the place. It was only out of fear that they had to announce the results.
Afterwards there was a meeting where the minister of FCT at the time threatened the people he had the meeting with, which of course didn’t include me, that if the delegates didn’t refuse to do as instructed to vote certain candidates and went ahead to do the way they did in Abuja South, that they should beat me up and injure me, and that if that was done, he wanted to see how I would be able to go for the general election.
Some of the people that attended the meeting came and told me that ‘Madam this is what transpired at the meeting that was called and you don’t have any thugs.’ The point is if within the party they were willing to go to such length just to have their government candidate, so, I gave it some thought and I was annoyed, because at no point did the PDP demonstrate any form of fairness or internal democracy within the party.
I then had a meeting with my supporters, we discussed it and truly, I don’t have any thugs, I never had any and I never felt I needed to have one. I believe in the politics of the people and that if you must deploy so much fire power, what’s the point?
So, I withdrew from the race and decided to leave the party to join the APC even though they sent one or two people to me, that I should not be annoyed and that the APC would not win. But I told them it doesn’t matter whether they win or not, even when the PDP won it never had any impact on me.
I have never held any position. I never got a grain of rice, so it doesn’t make any difference to me. I told them I would rather belong to a platform, where I can speak my mind, where there is some measure of fairness and to a large extent, there is that in the APC. At least, in the FCT, we sit and discuss everything and agree on everything even if we don’t vote on it. So, there is a measure of fairness that I require in the APC.
That question was asked against the backdrop of the way one of your co-contestants has been sounding and that is Senator Gwadabe. She sounded very confident as if it’s a sealed deal.
The only way Senator Gwadabe can clinch the ticket is if we don’t have primaries but if we did, I don’t see how she could win the primaries. I called her when I learnt that she was calling people in my name. People were calling me to ask if I did call a meeting for Senator Khairat’s house and I said to them no but if it was Senator Khairat, she is a friend of mine and she has always been my supporter, so go ahead and attend the meeting.
When they returned they told me she supported me and I asked them what did she say and they said she said they should support a capable woman. Now, she is coming from 16 years ago, when imposition of candidates was what obtained, she does not understand that the dynamics of politics has changed and that the people are no longer amenable to be imposed on. FCT is a mini Nigeria; it is a composition of many different tribes. I will say 75 per cent of the voters are educated.
Did you really mean 75?
Well, a lot of them. May be 75 is a bit on the high side, but 75 per cent of the voters are in Abuja Municipal Council and Bwari is where the 75 per cent of the voters are. That is, the metropolis. People who live there are those that work in the private sector – the parastatals – so a majority of them are somewhat educated. Abuja also has different tribes; there is the Bwari, Gwanda, Ganagana, Bassa, Igbira, Tiv, Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. That is what Abuja is.
One of the things that made me popular in Abuja is that I am part Asaba, part Rivers, part Hausa and part Yoruba. I speak Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages fluently and I campaign in those languages. My father is Muslim, my mother is Christian. So, I sort of represent everybody. When I am speaking with Igbo people, they say you are ours, when I go to the Hausa people, I am theirs and when I go to the Yoruba people too I am theirs!
Senator Khairat is coming from the days, when candidates were picked, maybe in a room. You just announce the candidates and to hell with what the people think. When she told me she wanted to run, I told her please do, you have the right to do so, but I will not withdraw from the race for you. The FCT has decided on indirect primaries, the delegates are slightly over 2000, voting will be done right in front of us, local government by local government.
If she is one of the persons amongst us, who have been dropping names, that’s good for her, but the party is also resentful of people, who just come in from outside and think they can just inherit it. So, I don’t see that happening. She is free to have her optimism just like I have mine.
In one of the crucial meetings that the National Chairman of your party held with the National Assembly caucus of your party, he harped on experience and lamented the high turnover of National Assembly member. He even referenced the recently deceased and revered American Senator John McCain. Given that you are running against an experienced Senator in Maina, more so that you don’t consider Senator Gwadabe a formidable force in the race, do you still share this optimism of clinching the APC ticket?
He did say that, but you also have to understand that in picking the party’s candidate the people in the constituency also have a say. When you have ruled, led or represented us in the past, we the people can judge what kind of a leader you are. I know, from being in the FCT, that if Senator Maina had been such an excellent representative of the people he wouldn’t have come fifth in the primaries that held while he was an incumbent. At the end of the day, the people do have a say.
The party is also being extremely fair. I have worked very hard for the party, so has Senator Isa Maina. Generally, the leadership of the party in FCT has the attitude that let the people decide. In truth, the people that I am worried about are the people that I have been running neck-and-neck with for some years not Senator Khairat Gwadabe.
Nobody knows her in the party. She came for my declaration and gave the vote of thanks and urged the people to support me. A lot of them asked me: who is she? Remember, if you gave birth to a child 16 years ago, it is like we had great Senators in the first republic. They were fantastic. We are not allowed to call them now even if we did, people would ask us who is he.
Then you will explain that he was a Senator in the first republic and he was great. Senator Khairat has done her bit and people are tired of recycling. At the end of the day, what really counts is the commitment to the people, credibility and capacity – all of which I have exhibited over a long time. I am experienced as a person, I am an engineer, and so let the people of FCT decide.
Why do you want to run?
Many things are not right with the FCT. The constitution says we should be treated like a state, but we are not treated like one. Part of the problems is that FCT is unique, we don’t have a governor, and the Senator representing the FCT is the highest person that is elected. We don’t have a quota. Many of the Senators that had represented us have not really paid attention to some of the things that are supposed to give us an advantage or benefit us in terms of health, education and employment. Quotas in education are not in place.
Like I tell our people, we complain that we don’t have this, we don’t have that, but nobody will do it for us. We have to put those things in place. The Senate Committee on FCT runs the FCT along with the Minister of the FCT, now there are a lot of things that the Senate can work with the Minister to do for the people of the FCT. Like in youth empowerment, FCT has a huge potential for agriculture; we have wide expanse of fertile lands, which are not being maximally harnessed.
Again, a lot of things in the FCT, like the commissionership, let’s say a commissioner’s seat is zoned to the South East, I think it is not fair on the people of South East origin living and working in Abuja to actually go to the South East, when you have a resident who is a politician or whatever, who is from that zone. That way the person knows the terrain, knows the people and that way, the person is more efficient. Most of the things that are happening to the FCT are because our representatives, especially the Senator has not really sat back to ponder the narratives and come up with the right solutions to how things should be done so that the residents of the FCT can reap the benefits. If I bring you into FCT as a commissioner, you don’t know one Area Council from the rest, you don’t know our weaknesses, our strengths or our needs; so I am saying all these things must change.
Two, in the last 20 years, we have recycled the same people, we have no successors. Give us another 10 years, in all the parties, be it APC, PDP or what have you, it is the same us, everybody knows everybody – you cannot say this is the person who will run for the Senate or House of Representatives, because we have not empowered anybody to take over from us. That is another reason I want to run. I believe we should groom successors and empower them.
In a family, if the father is a great man and all the children are useless, then I think the father is a foolish father for not preparing anybody to take over from him. FCT needs to start empowering the younger generations, and when I say empowering, I mean in so many ways – politically and economically – to take over from us.
Third is that I also think women make more committed and more compassionate leaders. With all due apologies to men, when a man is very great he doesn’t want a greater man to come after him, so he blocks it; but no matter how great you are, the mother still doesn’t care, you are still her son. I would like to see a lot of young men who are empowered, who have capacity. I want to do all of that when I go to the Senate.
I will also work on the Mayoral Bill. FCT needs a mayor; FCT needs a lot of thing that somebody like me who has been there in the FCT through all its evolutions can see and know. FCT doesn’t have university admission quota. We have a Federal Polytechnic in Abaji that has been built, what is left for it to start functioning is just a little, so, I know the problems and the issues of the FCT.
In the past, people of the FCT think the city should just be about the indigenes. From going around, I also know that that narrative has changed; the people just want good representation; they don’t care what tribe the person is.
The Legislature is one very important institution in a democracy and the growth of the institution lies with experience. For example, it is believed that the longer a senator is in the Senate, the more experience he or she becomes. Here you are preaching succession, how do you think your argument supports the growth of that institution?
I also believe that the youngest among all of us that is running now should be in his late 50s or early 60, yes, there is a lot to be said for wisdom and I also believe that there is something to be said of a population that 60 per cent of the people are below 30 years of age. We need to really grow that population. After all, in the past, we had Heads of states who were in their 30s and they were not bad leaders.
I am not saying everything should be about young people, yes experience thus count. It’s just about getting them into the Legislature. If you go round the villages, you will realise that there are a lot of empowerment programmes that can be done working with the Minister of the FCT, because a lot of this programmes can only be unlocked by the state.
A lot of these young people can also be empowered to go into local government administration. We have local government elections as well. We’ve had Council Chairmen in the past who could barely speak English, chairmen of a council like the Abuja Municipal Area Council, so there is a lot to be done. I am not necessarily advocating that we should be changing Senators in the National Assembly every now and then.
But if you took any of us who is running, even if you took me, by the time we’ve done two terms we would have turned to one of those who are constantly sleeping in the chambers. But if you begin to groom a credible, committed young man, who is like 45 or 48 to take over from me, he can probably do three terms. It not just about getting there, you must have the desire to promote your people if not, he will not be successful; the people will not feel his impact. It will be a case of he’s just there because he’s been there before.
I am saying that if you took a young man who is 45, he could probably do three terms and still have the energy to go at it, not the way a 75 year old man will do. If you continue, so, what then do you expect to do with the youth population that you are not empowering? There are 62 of them and this time around, we are going to local government elections. They need to be empowered; there are people in the villages that have capacity but lack the resource.
Again, a lot of the people can be empowered through some of the Agricultural programmes. If people are gainfully empowered, they wouldn’t want to be thugs; they don’t have the time. It has been established that the weed that grows in Abaji is exactly the kind that we import. Why don’t we have hectares and hectares of weed farms in Abaji? We don’t have it because it’s not been anybody’s focus.
I am not saying that is going to be my job when I get to the Senate but if the Senator representing the FCT takes that up with the minister, because everything comes through the minister, if the Senator sits with the minister and discusses this with him in a well thought-through manner, I doubt that the minister would say no to the initiative. He will support the initiative especially, when the Senator is ready to do some of the leg work through the CBN and other relevant agencies.
So, really, it is about what you expect to do for your people, not just sitting there 3 days a week, six months a year, collect your allowances and then say nay and Aye and leave. There are constituency projects. How many have we seen in the FCT? Hardly any meaningful constituency projects! I saw a plastic water tanks with Senator Aduda’s name on it, probably that is his own idea of constituency project.
How would you assess the APC government in the last three and a half years?
In truth, the government has achieved a lot in Agriculture. I am sure everybody will agree with that. The government has reduced our importation bill. We have done a lot, though some people will say not as much as we could have done. I am not saying that there is no room for improvements; there is.
Then again, there is a limit to what we could have done in four years. Given four more years, we will certainly meet the expectations of the people. I’m not saying we couldn’t have done better but we didn’t because we met a country in disarray. We could do better in terms of Rule of Law and obeying court orders. We could have done better but we also have a lot. We may not have been advertising our achievements as much as we could have.
Do you share the views of some persons that this government doesn’t have sufficient capacity?
That is their opinion.
Those who gauge public opinion and feel the pulse of Nigerians hold the views that Nigerians, especially the youths are disappointed with the performance of the administration. Do you see that disenchantment playing out against your party in the next elections?
My opinion is that come 2019 general election, yes the parties are important but the candidates also matter even more. It is like saying anybody could have led APC to victory in 2015, because it is APC, no.
One of the reasons why we won was because a lot of people came out to vote for President Muhammadu Buhari, same way when I get the APC senatorial ticket for FCT, which I expect to get. The people have to decide between Hajia Ireti Kingibe and Senator Aduda. That is the choice they have and I can assure you that the people, especially the youths of the FCT will not vote for Senator Aduda again given the choice. So, that’s why I think now, yes, parties are popular in certain places, yet, the candidates that the parties field in the election are critical to the party winning.
You are of a Muslim father, who is both Yoruba and Fulani and a Christian mother, who is Delta Igbo and from Bonny in Rivers State, how is this an advantage to you?
When I was a lot younger, I felt a little bit irritated. Whenever I was taken to my father’s mother, whilst my parents always spoke English language to each other, she didn’t understand. So, I had to speak Hausa language to her as a six-year-old little girl and I had to spend months with her but as I got older, I then realised that it was an advantage in Nigeria. Maybe I got to checkpoint and I look at officer and when I realised the officer is a Yoruba, I start speaking Yoruba language to the person and he sees me as his tribe and allows us off.
When I get to another place and I realised that the officer in charge is Igbo and I speak the Igbo language to him and he also sees me the same way the Yoruba officer sees me and allows us go on our journey. So, as I got older, I didn’t resent it because it puts me at an advantage everywhere. I remember when we first moved to Abuja, there were no telephones, people were very difficult to get.
Then I went to the territorial controller and he was like, ‘Madam, you can fill the forms, there are no telephone lines now’. I sat down and as I was filling the forms, one man came to me and said, ‘oh Madam, you’re Ireti Kingibe’ and I said yes, then he said ‘I read about you’, then, another man said to me, ‘I have read about you,’ then the Territorial Controller now said to me, ‘Did you say your name was Ireti,’ and I said to him I didn’t say that but it is. He then said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that you’re my sister?’ Instantly, two telephone lines came out, because he immediately identified with me as his sister.
Unfortunately, those are some of the problems that Nigeria has, which we need to work on. In truth, we need to have left the stage of State of Origin, what should matter is where you live. As Nigerians, one should be able to go and live in Bayelsa State if he feels like. As Nigerians, what should matter is the place here you live in, the place where you contribute to its development, where you pay taxes to, the place that affects you. One man said to me the other day that he would rather the transformer does not work in his father’s village than for it not to work where he lives in Abuja.
There is so much that needs to be done in uniting us and somebody like me understands it. There was an election that was filled with hate speeches on the Social Media, some were saying kill Muslims, others were saying kill Christians and one of my younger sisters said to me, ‘So what about us? I said to her, sorry they don’t know about people like us. People like us are not in the equation. I have first cousins, who are pastors. I understand that religion should not divide us. I understand that there are good people and there are bad people in all religions.
Another thing that has worked for me is that a lot of people in the FCT can relate to me, even the indigenous ones. Some of them call me honorary indigene, because of how long I have lived in Abuja and how I have been affecting their lives and championing their cause. At the end of the day, leaders that are not accessible to the people are of no use.We should be able to identify with the people. The other time that we had tremor and houses were vibrating, we should be able to go somewhere and complain about it, then reach out to our people to reassure them about what is happening.
If you cannot do that, how can you reassure me that you care about me; and that is what most people in Abuja are saying about me? They tell others that Hajia Ireti cares about the FCT; she cares about people living in the FCT. By the time I am done with this interview, there would have been a whole lot of dead calls, missed calls and I will return them all regardless of who is calling, whether I have the numbers stored or not. That is me for you.
I know it’s not easy but if you are not ready to do that then go into your sitting rooms and close the door, because leadership requires that you have to be accessible to the people you lead. Sometimes, I give the phone to my aides and tell them write down the numbers of everybody that has called me and in my leisure time I call them.
As the nation approaches the 2019 general election, what are your concerns about your co-contestants?
In spite of my confidence, sometimes I get nervous. We all do as the primaries get closer, even for the general election, where I do with certainty that the FCT wants a change. My concerns are that people are generally disillusioned with all of us; they are disillusioned with the PDP, they are disillusioned with the APC, and we need to work harder as a party to meet the expectations of the people.
I am hoping that the people will give us a second chance to build on what we have built already. I also hope that they are discerning enough, as I tell them when I campaign, that you complain and complain, but you must also take responsibility for the leaders that you have produced. They didn’t just happen, you elected them.
If you are not happy with them, then some of the faults are yours. So, I am hoping that through the primary process, not just in my party but across all the parties, because when you elect whether a House of Representatives member, senator or governor, the person belongs to all of us irrespective of your party affiliation; that they go out and elect the best candidates. I tell them to show interest in who runs the affairs of even the local government down to the councillors.
I let them know that they have to be actively involved, just going to vote on the day of the election day but to know who and who is running, and who is a better candidate; to show interest in who will better represent their interest, and sometimes too, if it is just by campaigning for that person on your street, then, you have done your bit. So, Nigerians must collectively show interest in how they are governed.
What do you consider your biggest political capital going into the contest? Is it your marital name?
My marital name has not featured much in my campaigns and that is why if you saw my posters, it is not very bold. Hajia Ireti is what is bold and significant and that is because that is what everybody calls and know me as in the FCT. My biggest political asset going into the contest is my consistency, my passion for good governance and for the people and also, my work for the people in the last 16 years.
Another is the attitude of the people of the FCT to me. I have recordings of some of the places that we have been to and the things they say about me. Many of them would say Hajia Ireti is capable. When we have a problem, we go to her and she resolves it; when there is a problem she helps us to fight it out. If she has been doing all of that for us when she is not even our representative, can you imagine what and how much more she would do for us when she becomes our representative at the Senate? Those, I think, are the greatest assets going into the election.
Hearing all of that is part of what has been giving me the confidence that okay the other people have been there before but in between they are not available to the people while I have always been there for them. And that is because if I heard of any programme going on that the FCT can benefit from, I intervene.
Like some of the programmes going on in the Agriculture sector, when I heard of it, I found out who the consultant was and engaged with the consultants so that in the first pilot, the FCT is included. Their attitude to me is that, we know you are not the richest person around, but any time we have a problem, we know that the moment we are able to get to you, you will find a way to solve it for us. But the other people we don’t see; it is you that we always see.