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I was earning N15,000 as monthly salary – Ex-Reps Speaker

A former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Benjamin Akaai Chaha, died on Tuesday in Makurdi aged 82. He served as Speaker from…

A former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Benjamin Akaai Chaha, died on Tuesday in Makurdi aged 82. He served as Speaker from Oct 1 to Dec 31, 1983 during the Second Republic. Since his ouster, he lived a quiet life. In this interview he granted Weekly Trust in 2013, the former Speaker spoke on why he kept low profile, the problem of corruption, among others. Excerpt:

WEEKLY Trust: As a one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives little is being heard from you. How would you assess politics in your days compared to what obtains today?

Rt. Hon. Benjamin Chaha: I may not be able to give you a precise answer but what I know is that in our time, we were frank with anybody who wanted to confront us or give us a tough time. We did not allow anything to happen to any of us holding political office – then the president was Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Joseph Wayas was the Senate President, and I was the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

I can tell you that the politics we practised in those years was quite different from what is on today. We were not wealth-minded. For example, Shagari was receiving N50, 000 as salary; he had started with N25, 000. As a speaker, I was collecting N12,000 as salary before it was adjusted to N15,000.

I was satisfied with that money without asking for additions from either Mr President or anybody. We were alright. We didn’t ask people for favours but we got gifts from our friends who were rich. We were more or less living on charity because people thought they needed to help us financially.

Can you recall memorable moments of your times in the House?

I stayed for three months only. There was no much time for achievements but those coming to me were satisfied with my representation. In fact, our people did not enjoy my short stay as Speaker. They were just looking forward to seeing that something was done in their favour or for other people through my stay in that office before the military interrupted. Alhaji Shagari was just trying to set up his administration  for the second tenure when the military took over. He had embarked upon an enabling bill to get us moving but then, it was too late to make an impact on that. The bill was to enable him to move forward his administration.

What happened the day the military took over?

It started with Dr Alex Ekwueme, then vice president and myself. Ekwueme had told me about his suspicion but that he didn’t have an idea of what was going to happen. When he knew I didn’t know anything about it and that I didn’t have anything in the way of logistics, he told me that he had something for me but how to get that thing he had for me was a problem because he could not go back to the house to search for anything further.

However, Shagari was in the total knowledge of what was actually going on, so he decided to go to Abuja instead of remaining in Lagos to avoid being arrested. But, I was not aware and Ekwueme who had a slight knowledge of the matter decided to remain in Lagos for the coup to happen. On the day that the military finally took over, I was in my house when they brought Ekwueme from his house; one Major Jackoro was the person who arrested us. When I opened my door, I saw Ekwueme in his company and from there we were taken to Bonny camp. I remained there for one week after which they asked me to go back home and hand over the National Assembly to the army. They told me that my friend Ekwueme would not go home yet because they had planned not to release him. At this time, Ekwueme went to have his shower when they confided in me that he would not go home. But when he came back, I couldn’t say anything to him. It was too much for me to open up that page, so I left it at that since they were not going to kill him.

And of course, he was not released when I came back to hand over the National Assembly. Gidado [Idris] was the clerk of the National Assembly that time and together we handed over to the Army.

Late General Sani Abacha had asked me to do so with the help of Gidado. That was exactly what happened.

After that experience, did you continue as a politician?

I remained a politician. Up till now, I am in politics but I’m trying to leave. I don’t want to be a politician again. I would like to be a traditional ruler now; I’m tired of politics.

So, what traditional stool are you aiming for?

I want to be chief of Sankera. It is one of the six first class traditional stools created in the Tiv nation.

Talking about today’s politics in Nigeria, how is it different from how it was perceived in the Shagari’s era?

(Laughs) The difference starts right from behaviour. In our days, we were considering people’s rights. We would always try to behave in a gentleman’s manner and that is not happening now.

I tell you the truth, I find it difficult to compare because we were not living the lives of today’s politicians. We were quite different because we had no love for money.

Now, they want money at all costs. These days, politicians consider people based on relationship and tribal sentiments; they want people from their families which were hard to find during our days. Today, if you are from a ‘big man’ family then, you enjoy your freedom and everything that goes with it, but if you are not from that family, there would be nothing for you. So, I can say that this country is totally broken; there is nothing you can use to compare it with our own time.

For example, I’m a Tiv man but when I was in Lagos, nobody knew I was from a Tiv-speaking area because I knew I was to care for everybody regardless of their tribe, culture or norms. Even in Tiv land, when I returned initially, nobody knew I was Tiv because back in Lagos, I was dealing with Yoruba, Igbo and other tribes.

These people loved me too. As a matter of fact, Shagari was a very humble leader. He would often reason with us to understand what he was doing and we knew him as such but I don’t know what is happening today. That is the reason why I want to go away from politics.

Nigerians love money and wealth right into their enzymes; there is no way you can pull this out from them. Corruption has become a law in Nigeria; you need to have money to have the attention of people. No matter how you try, you cannot get them to stop corruption.

People of your calibre would want to remain relevant in national politics. Why are you maintaining a low profile?

I lie low because I’m tired. Politics does not help me at all. Personally, I don’t belong  to that class. I know that I’m not cut out for that class. If I were to come from that class, I know that they would consider me.

What class do you mean?

I know within myself that I don’t belong to that class. And that is why I said that I want to come over to the traditional line instead of playing politics. I mean I do not belong to any political class. I’m alone. If I want to play my card the way I please, nobody would like to hear from me. So, knowing fully well that nobody would like my kind of politics, why should I waste my time? It is better for me to go to the traditional line. I want to be a chief in my locality. I don’t want to do politics again.

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