The Senator from Bayelsa East Senatorial Zone and member of the Atiku Campaign Organisation, Ben Murray Bruce, takes a critical look at his activities in the National Assembly, the performance of President Muhammadu Buhari, his cabinet and the chances of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the general elections. He also talks about former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan in this interview with Nduka Nwosu
Tell us about your time in politics.
I have been in politics all my life right after independence when I was old enough to read and write and listen to the radio. I have always preferred politics to music, to dancing and other ventures I found myself. The difference is that I did not aspire to get into elected office. I preferred politics to any other conversation in the world, I was always a political animal. My politics cannot be circumscribed to now that I ran for public office. I have always been attracted to politicians and political office holders.
What impact did the war have on you?
We were attracted to the war as children and the war was fought by children. You have to understand the entire military structure. We have just had independence and we were old enough to know what Nigeria needed. The post-independence politics revolved on Igbos, Hausas and Yorubas, the three ethnic groups in the country. The country was polarised along these ethnic divides and we were not as religious as we are today but politics thrived on tribal lines, just as we are still ruled by tribalism. Tribalism in the Nigerian society did not start today. I don’t think we needed to fight the war, I think there were ways we could have avoided the civil war. Many of those who fought the war were still very young in their twenties and early thirties. Decisions I made at say 25 or 35 would not be made at 62. The young people who fought the war are older and wiser now.
Do you agree we’ve learnt very little from the war? An example is the Aburi Accord which advocated for fiscal federalism and a weak federal state and the post-war technological innovations of self-reliance and discoveries that were not exploited?
One is unrelated to the other. The Aburi Accord was to avoid the war while Biafra’s technological advancement was a post-war discovery. But for the war, these discoveries may not have happened but were prompted by necessity. There was a short supply of arms; weapons and trucks were converted to armoured vehicles. The Biafrans created their own bombs. I know what happened, creativity is borne out of necessity.
Nigerians are creative by nature even today and I don’t have to kill someone to be creative. If we invest in research, science, and technology we can come up with amazing innovations and discoveries.
Our problem is that we hardly spend money on research and development whereas there are many Nigerians working as expatriates in some of the world’s highly developed research institutions such as NASA. So the greatest Nigerians do not live here, they live abroad; that is why in America today the ethnic group with the highest income are Nigerians, not the Chinese, not the British, Polish or Ghanaians but Nigerians. Nigerians are the most successful ethnic group making the most money in the US.
How do you balance the promise made by the SGF on power shift coming to the South East if it votes for the APC and the promise made by the Vice President on power coming to the South West if it votes for the APC?
If you carry out this type of campaign in a Western democracy, you might end up in a mental institution; what is the logic behind such campaign strategy without reference to the roads, schools, and the infrastructure you can point to as evidence of performance? This is a good case of instant gratification with no reasonable logic to back it up.
Don’t you think it is producing the right results?
Then politics is not for me. I will go back to the private sector. Campaigns like that are detrimental to the peace and unity of Nigeria. Question is what have you done? I will rather die than be a part of a political campaign that talks of giving power to an ethnic group rather focus on issues bordering on achievements and what you can do for the people when the power comes to you. What is the logic in a campaign strategy based on instant gratification? This is an insult to our collective intelligence.
What is unconstitutional about tribal politics?
People should remember Rwanda and some of our West African neighbours and the tribal wars they have fought. It is not all about politics, we need peace to practice democracy, to think about the people. It is illegal and unconstitutional to practice politics along tribal lines.
Do you agree with Lai Mohammed that the APC has fulfilled its promises to Nigerians?
Lai Mohammed is my friend and he is entitled to say what he has said. He is doing his job otherwise what do you want him to say? If you put a gun to his head what will you expect him to say? Of course, Lai is going to say that. He has to say that. It is a campaign so he has to say that. If he has to be specific is he referring to unemployment, inflation, devaluation of the naira, road construction, and power supply? Where in the world do you talk of seven or eight megawatts of power being produced? The argument is not what you are producing, the argument is do you have the light? The claim that you have generated so much megawatt does not hold water. Do we have light or not? That is the success or failure rating, which is what is on the ground relative to the needs of the people and the promises you made?
Between Atiku’s making Nigeria great again and Buhari’s next level, what are the contrasts and comparisons?
The next level slogan is plagiarising in the first place. I don’t know how we can go to the next level. I think what APC should do is to take us back to where they found us. It took the President six months to form a cabinet. When he formed the cabinet, he did not have the right talents to fix a bad economy and to create jobs. He needed the best talents, not the mediocre. If he had assembled the best talents around him, he would have had a chance. He didn’t have the best talents around him. We cleared his ministers even though some of them didn’t pay their taxes and we conceded when our APC colleagues persuaded us to clear the appointees. They were good fathers and good mothers but I don’t think a lot of them were qualified for the jobs they were given.
When Chrysler was going down, they chose the most talented people with Lee Iacocca and they took Chrysler out of the woods. Nissan hired Hiroto Saikawa in 2017 to take it out of the woods. When prices of oil dropped and we went into recession, we needed to move faster to fix the economy but he did not. Buhari should have surrounded himself with the best talents in the country but he didn’t. Everything was done in slow motion, the way he ran the economy was done in slow motion and it was destined to fail. That’s why I don’t see how the team he has can fix the economy. You need talents to fix the economy and this President’s team lacks the talents to fix the economy.
Don’t you think those who packaged the President in 2015 did a great job and they are still around?
First of all, people who supported PMB three years ago have all retreated. I know Buhari as a person. He might be a nice guy, whatever it is, but I have to respect those who packaged him in 2015, they did a fantastic job. They created a new identity for him. Bola Tinubu and the other members of his team created a new identity for Buhari. He became president but the things that were problems for him in 1984 are still a problem in 2018. He had a great chance to redeem himself if he had surrounded himself with the right people, people thinking of Nigeria first but unfortunately, he did not and that is the reason whyhe is in trouble, his inability to fix the economy and all the other promises.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not about Buhari, it is about competence and running a competent government with the right people. I gave Buhari an award a few years ago as Man of the Year and I fought for his legacy. That was during Ibrahim Babangida’s rule as a military President. I went to the film corporation to demand why it refused to edit Buhari’s tenure as military ruler. I insisted Nigerians deserved to watch the tape and make up their minds regarding his tenure as a military dictator. I argued he was part of Nigeria’s history and the fact he had been overthrown was no reason for not editing his tapes while he ruled the country.
So my issue in politics has nothing to do with political parties. I have always said this. The issue in Nigeria is not Islam versus Christianity, it is not APC versus PDP. It is the issue of right versus wrong. It is about the establishment and what it does when the people give it power. This establishment under President Buhari has failed Nigerians and must respect the will of the people in the next few weeks by conducting a fair and credible election.
The opposition claims the last budget presentation was falsified with non-performance exalted and ghost projects executed, how true is this?
First, of all, there is nothing different between this budget and the ones presented in the last three years. One, we are spending 8o percent of the budget on recurrent expenditure; there is no money for capital. You are spending several billion dollars on subsidy, which on assumption of office the President said it was a fraud and that there was no need for a subsidy. You were subsidizing for three straight years without telling anybody. The money was coming from someplace yet no single project has been completed. The budget is a cut-and-pay job.
If you look at the ministries, they are buying computers, they are travelling; it is all about recurrent expenditure; why should we run a country like that? That is the problem. So the budget really is recurrent with debt service assuming the position of first line charge and you are borrowing so much with heavy debt service. You have the domestic debt to service so what is there for capital?
If you were to advise the President, what would you tell him?
First, of all, I will advise him to change his cabinet. He should replace most of those who constitute his cabinet, not necessarily everybody should be replaced. He should then proceed to recruit very bright Nigerians both within and anywhere in the world. He should deregulate immediately and get rid of subsidy. He should know an economy with a multiple exchange rate is counter-productive. It is rent, people are making huge gains out of it, sacrificing long-term gain for the short term. He should focus on technology and find an answer to an efficient mass transit system.
Still on multiple exchange rate, is this the first time we have had it?
Look, the fact that somebody made a mistake last week is not reason enough to repeat the same mistake. What I did ten years ago is history and I cannot make the same mistake again. People who dwell on the past are hardly successful in life. Only failures dwell on the past.
Do you have any fears regarding the general election?
I am worried about credible elections. The APC believes Jonathan was too soft, too kind, too naïve and they want to show how they are tough and ready to win at all cost. So that is why they are taking it easy on little or no campaigns. If I were in their shoes I will not bother to campaign. If you ran a failed government you would not campaign.
What are you going to campaign on? Roads, schools, double-digit inflation, education, healthcare, a poor GDP growth, that your country is rated as a place with the highest number of poor people? What do you want to campaign on?
What are the options or alternatives?
If the elections are rigged we have no options but go to court to challenge the results. We are a law-abiding party. Regardless of what happens, we are going to win anyway and if they are voted in the country would have had what it deserves. Who will they blame, me?
How do you see the controversy on the trader-moni at this time?
It is nothing but vote buying. Vote buying is illegal anywhere in the world, just as vote tampering, except maybe in Nigeria. Less than eight weeks to the election the APC Vice President is distributing N10,000 to traders. What do you call that? Can you imagine Donald Trump or his deputy moving around distributing $30 to illiterate traders? How would that impact positively on their lives even here in the country?
Why did the strong presence you made in the Senate not reckoned with in returning you to a second term?
It is the zoning system. It is an unbroken chain of agreement that the LGAs constituting the Senatorial Zone would rotate the candidates every four years. You know when you have a country with high unemployment, politics becomes a way of life. If you take that away from them, they go crazy.
How is the Atiku campaign progressing?
It is a great campaign and he is doing a great job and we are going to win with a landslide if there is a level playing field. We will win with a landslide.
How do you see Nigeria’s recent ranking as having the highest number of poor people on earth?
We don’t have a population policy. This is embarrassing and humiliating. India whose population far surpasses that of Nigeria, with over a billion people, ranks better than Nigeria and it is not by
distributing naira or trader moni, that you solve this type of problem. We are not paying attention to education, which is the most plausible way to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor along with industrialization, but this government is not paying attention to any of these. Even if the President means well, he is not surrounded by talented people. He is like a coach with very bad players and how can he win trophies? Which is worse incompetence or corruption?
Incompetence is worse than corrupt competence. I don’t like any of the above but I will prefer corrupt competence to incompetence. Nigeria is in a terrible state because of incompetence. Does it make sense for example that Innocent Chukwuma, the chairman of Innoson Motors, who is the only Nigerian we can boast of before the international community as a car maker, is being harassed and threatened with a jail term in this country? MTN is a good ambassador of what the PDP did in transforming the telecommunications sector and it is being harassed out of context even if there was an infraction. Yet we want to bring in foreign investors. Is this right?
What is your experience serving under former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan?
The most brilliant president I have served is President Olusegun Obasanjo. He is a thinker; he is brilliant. He is a committed and patriotic Nigerian. One day I was with him and the late Senator Brume came to see him. There were four of us -the President, Brume and Stella, the First Lady. Brume hinted him about strike action at the Villa. The President got up, took off his clothes and showed us bullet wounds on his thigh and said to Brume: ‘Tell the striking workers to see me tomorrow at 9 am in the morning next day, I will personally meet them. I could have died for Nigeria during the civil war. Tell them to come and hear my story.” Brume made a retreat exclaiming it was a false alarm.
Obasanjo is a brave man and nobody should make mistakes about the man, I love him because he tells it like it is. Now that is a great President. He took off his shoes and showed us bullet holes on his legs. How many Presidents would do that? He did not ask the police to arrest these workers but wanted to meet them at the first gate of the villa. He does not care. Obasanjo is Nigeria’s first; always remember that and he is Nigeria’s greatest President. Nobody comes second. I don’t know. He is just the best.
What was your experience under President Goodluck Jonathan?
President Jonathan impacted me in many ways. This is one man who said coming back to the office was not worth the shedding of the blood of Nigerians. His conduct of the 2o15 elections remains the reference point for other African leaders who prefer to rig themselves back to power by ignoring due process and credible and fair elections.
Jonathan chose Prof. Attahiru Jega, a northerner he did not know and had not met before his appointment as INEC chairman. In spite of the hue and cry for his sack because of his partisan inclinations, he assured the international community that Jega would conduct the elections and he did with all the flaws he recorded. There is no doubt that President Jonathan has left a huge legacy for Africa in the conduct of free and fair elections, he has proved that rigging oneself to power is something African leaders must eschew. His legacy remains sterling quality other African leaders must imbibe. He didn’t want any bloodshed. He liked being President but he didn’t want anybody to lose his life because he wanted to be the president and for that, I have the greatest respect for him. What happened had to happen. He is gone and Buhari is President but if he hadn’t done that, Buhari would not have been the President. He could have easily challenged the results. Anything could have happened but he didn’t give in to that. For that, I have the greatest respect for him. Buhari has no choice but to sustain this chain of credibility.
Why were you mentioned as one of the PDP lawmakers who accused the APC of locking out the National Assembly members when the DSS invaded the premises?
First, of all, it was a terrorist act. It was an act of terrorism that was unleashed on members of the National Assembly. It was a state sponsored terrorist act. It was the Federal Government sponsoring the attack of an independent arm of government. The Vice President who intervened and was largely applauded by peace-loving Nigerians said an investigation would take place and that it would be made public. Well, Mr. Vice President what was the result of your findings? Tell us who sponsored what, who was involved? The Americans and the British are still waiting to have their visas revoked. Once the findings are made public, we will all be better for it.
How would you assess the quality of legislative activities under Saraki?
We started well. First, there was the fight on who would be the next Senate President and we became polarised. So people take positions based on party lines, no longer on the country. If you go to the Senate today, nobody takes decisions on Nigeria, it is on party lines. APC cannot support PDP on any issue except it is on party lines and vice versa. That is where we are today. It is very disgusting such that if you say something against the government it is accompanied with yelling, screaming and booing by the APC Senators. I did not sign up for that, legislating or debating on party lines. I signed to represent my country, my senatorial zone, not APC or PDP. The sycophants can do what they want, I will not be part of it.
Do you agree with President Buhari that signing the electoral bill into law now Is not practical rather than follow the example of President Jonathan who signed the electoral bill a few weeks to Election Day just to deepen the process of transparency and credible elections?
Election results were manipulated in 2015 using the incidence forms. If the President had signed the bill and the law is passed, it means there would be no incidence forms to fall back on to rig the election. The incidence form is part of the strategy or game plan for electoral victory by the APC. You can write it and from there other things could happen. So I leave that to your imagination.
INEC has come out to say there would be no use of incidence forms during the election. You don’t agree with INEC?
And you think I should believe INEC? Do you think I should believe INEC or the chairman of INEC? I am watching INEC. I believe a lot of them are going to pay a terrible price after the elections because all those involved in rigging the elections I am sure will not have one single international job after the elections. We will remind the international organizations that these people rigged the elections and you don’t want a crook in your organization. So anybody who wants an international job should not be involved in any act of fraudulence. We know all of them by name and if you are involved in fraud or electoral malpractice of any kind, forget about being rewarded with international assignments.