Saraki was not the problem, argues Bolaji Abdullahi

I watched with utter surprise and some disappointment, Governor Nasiru El-Rufai’s comment on Arise News last week that the APC has not kept its 2015 promise of restructuring because of the activities of some fifth columnists within the party. He specifically mentioned Dr. Bukola Saraki who was President of the Senate at the time. This statement is not only untrue, but it is also unfair.

I was a member of the El-Rufai committee on True Federalism as well as a national officer of the party at the time. I am therefore in a position to know why we set up the committee and why the report of that committee was not implemented, and this has nothing to do with Dr. Saraki or the Senate that he led.

I write this statement not to defend Dr. Saraki. The person who has the job to do so has issued a statement in this regard. However, for the sake of posterity and those who are genuinely interested in the truth, it is important that those of us who were part of that story should speak out.

As the National Publicity Secretary of the Party at the time, I was the one who reported to the National Chairman, Chief John Oyegun, that the party was being severely criticized across the country for not keeping its promise on restructuring and therefore, we needed to be seen to start taking actions on this particular cardinal principle of our party, since it appeared no one in government was willing to do so. 

We discussed this extensively and agreed to set up a committee. Like most of us, the National Chairman instinctively trusted on the technical capacity of Governor El-Rufai to lead the committee, and this was unanimously agreed. The committee’s primary assignment was to resolve the apparent crisis of definition that had bedeviled the term “restructuring.” We felt it was important for us to understand what the general public expected from restructuring and attempt to reconcile this with what the party promised, before we moved to the implementation phase.

Even before we set out on the nationwide consultation, we knew it was going to be the easiest part of our assignment. We knew that the party did not have the mandate to initiate the kind of revolutionary constitutional amendment that our manifesto promised. At best, we could only hope to rely on the willingness of other actors, outside our control, to undertake the more difficult task of implementing whatever report the committee would be submitting. 

As the National Publicity Secretary, I must admit that the issue of implementation was a secondary concern for me. At that point, anything that would make the party look good in the eye of the public who had begun to question our commitment to the issue of restructuring would be sufficient. The mere ‘optics’ of setting up the committee and publicizing the report would certainly help to ease up the pressure.

 At the end of the nationwide consultation, the committee wrote a comprehensive report. It was to Governor El-Rufai’s credit as well as the Secretary of the committee, Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi that the report also proactively included some draft bills that appeared ready for transmission to the legislature. I believed this was a smart pre-emptive move to push our case, knowing quite well how the simple process of producing draft bills could be the reason that no further action would be taken for a long time.

The next phase was to take the report to the various organs of the party for approval. But even at that initial stage, I observed that the problem of definition that we set out to solve still lingered. The South West elements within the party felt that anything short of regionalisation was not good enough and would amount to a cynical bastardisation of the original promise made in the manifesto. The report from the South-South favoured resource control, while the North was largely indifferent. Perhaps most interesting for me was that despite what we all thought, we did not hear any agitation for Biafra in our South-East consultation, rather what they wanted was the creation of an additional state.

It is important to note however that the letters of the manifesto did not promise any of these sectional agenda. What was promised was a fundamental restructuring in governance anchored essentially on devolution of powers. While it was clear that there was still no shared understanding of what restructuring meant, the committee went ahead to make recommendations along the line of what the party had actually promised.

On January 31, 2018, we presented a summary of the report to the general public in Abuja. When the report appeared finalized, we now came to the big issue of implementation. And everything happened as we had feared. Two options were available to us. One was to persuade Mr. President to take ownership and lead the process; the other was to get our National Assembly caucus to accept the responsibility for the implementation of the report.

We generally preferred the first option, because we felt that the President could use his convening authority to bring everyone, including the National Assembly on board. We therefore started to look forward to an official presentation of the report to the President. To our disappointment however, it was only the Party Chairman, Chief Oyegun and the Committee Chairman, Mallam El-Rufai that had the opportunity of a private session to brief the President. From then onward, everything that we knew was what these two gentlemen told us.

They told us that the President was quite excited by the report. This greatly raised our hopes; even though we were not happy that we did not have the opportunity of a photo-op with the President, which in itself, would have made waves across the country that the party was actually making good on its restructuring promise. The second-best option was an official statement from the Presidency, acknowledging the party’s report and making a categorical commitment to its implementation. We also expected the President to thereafter direct the Attorney-General to commence the process of transmitting the constitutional amendment proposals to the National Assembly. But to our utter dismay, none of these happened. If the President was indeed enthusiastic about our work as we were told, we saw no evidence of this or of any desire to own and lead the process.

We were therefore left with the second, but more complex, option of lobbying the National Assembly directly. We had anticipated this at the beginning when we embedded representatives of the National Assembly in the committee. However, this was the time that the relationship between the Senate and the Executive had more or less broken down. When we met with the party caucus in the Senate, it turned out to be a grievance ventilation session that left us feeling as though we had put the cart before the horse. All the Senators had one issue or the other that they felt the party needed to address.

It was not the first time that the party would find itself caught in the middle of the raging acrimony between the two organs of our government. Yet, all we had was power of moral suasion. But from what I saw, it did not seem that both parties held the party in the highest esteem. In fact, I can confidently say that most of the frustrations that we suffered did not boil over only thanks to the great humility and maturity of Chief Oyegun.

Mallam El-Rufai knows that this is the truth, because he was actually one of the few governors that were always ready to champion the interest of the party. But I understand that it is more convenient to blame Dr. Saraki and some “fifth columnists” than to blame Mr. President. But those of us who risked our lives to traverse the country on this assignment and saw what eventually happened, are very clear why our work did not gain the required traction. Before we can blame Dr. Saraki or the Senate under his leadership for the failure to implement the report, we have to be able to claim that the report was actually transmitted to him by the President, who has the power to do so. Can we honestly make this claim? 

The fact that the party had to take it upon itself to set up the committee, after we had spent almost three years in government, says so much about how seriously the government had taken the party manifesto. Is Mallam El-Rufai not aware that it took the government less than a hundred days to disown the party manifesto and the policy documents derived from it as the work of some “over-zealous” party members, which they said had nothing to do with President Buhari? The truth is that the section of the party who felt triumphant after the 2015 presidential election failed to own the promise of restructuring or even the party manifesto altogether. Is it a secret that some powerful people in government had actually dismissed “restructuring” as ACN/South-West agenda?

Yet, the entire claim of APC to progressive ideology is anchored on this matter of restructuring. It was therefore reasonable to expect that this would top the agenda of government. But that was not what happened. The party took it upon itself to initiate the process in order to stave off the growing embarrassment in the media and the general public. But we had no illusion that there was very little we could do in terms of implementation. In the end, we had the report, but we did not have any off-takers willing to accept the job of implementation whether at the Executive or the National Assembly level.

I am delighted to see that isolated progress has been made over the years on some of them, including some that started with Dr. Saraki’s 8th Senate. But I doubt that this had anything to do with our report or that it even derived from any conscious attempt to deliver on the promise made in the party manifesto.

Whether we like it or not, Nigeria’ fate is tied to restructuring. But like all revolutionary reforms, restructuring is highly contentious and would require that a careful consensus be negotiated across parties, tiers and organs of government. Like Mallam El-Rufai himself said in the interview, constitutional amendments take time. This is why it is wrong of him to scape-goat an individual simply because it is politically convenient to do so, while ignoring the complexities inherent in the process and the prevailing political context that made collaboration among critical stakeholders impossible at the time. 

Abdullahi, former Federal Minister, was National Publicity Secretary of the APC (2016-2018)

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