Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe (PDP, Abia South), in this exclusive interview, said only a president from the South-East would treat every Nigerian equally. He spoke on democracy under President Muhammadu Buhari, saying the present administration has an ‘imperialistic notion’. The Senate Minority Leader also spoke on the extent he shares in the cause of the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), why northerners don’t own properties in the South-East, how the 9th National Assembly has fared so far, 2023 and Igbo presidency, his ambition, legislative/executive relationship, herders/farmers conflicts, among other issues.
Twenty months after the inauguration of the 9th Assembly, how has the journey been?
I think we will also say that the 9th Assembly confronts the same problems Nigeria itself confronts. The pandemic also affected our operations, sittings, and even our committee assignments. We were shut for quite some time, if you could remember.
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The basic thing about the 9th Senate is the perception of Nigerians that we are very compliant with the executive, therefore, everything that comes here gets approved or passes without rigour. I think that may not be correct. I think we should go back historically because of the circumstances of how the 8th Senate came into office. We were made to have a very contentious relationship with the executive and that gave the executive an opportunity to explain away their failings by saying the National Assembly was not giving them the required support. So, at the inception of the 9th Assembly, in the wisdom of the Senate president, he decided that it would be better we have a more cooperative attitude. Not that the 8th Senate didn’t cooperate, but there was so much fighting against it from the executive because of the emergence of Senator Bukola Saraki against their expectations. Therefore, from day one, it was a battle.
Right now, we have seen the failures of this government, such that it can no longer turn around to blame the National Assembly.
We need to try as much as we can to do the work we are supposed to do. We want to go ahead and make sure that one of the contentious areas, the legislations we have not dealt with all this while, in this new spirit of cooperation, let us see what we can do with them, especially the matter of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), Amendment of the Electoral Act, which was done in the 8th Senate but was rejected for flimsy reasons by the executive at that time. And of course, we give support to the executive to be able to give succour to the problem that has beset the world.
People’s perception is that your resolutions have not really made any significant impact and you are not doing much to check the executive as stipulated by the constitution. How would you react to this?
We are doing what we can do, according to the constitution and laws given to the National Assembly. Part of the misconception the public has is that they feel that even if the National Assembly takes decisions, they should also be the one to implement them. Unfortunately, it is not so. All that is required of us is to make recommendations but it still go back to the executive for implementation. And so, the ball always stops at the doorstep of the executive. As for us, if it is security, we have done so much.
Whatever we do, the law does not empower us to compel the executive to act in a certain manner. The executive usually ought to have understood the tenets of democracy and that whatever we do is an aggregation of different representatives. So, when we pass a resolution, for example, it is an aggregation of the people’s feelings and they ought to use it to make life better. In another forum, I had described this executive as one that has an imperialistic notion, and therefore, cannot be told what to do.
How do you feel that your resolutions are not implemented by the executive, and why do you think they are doing that?
I think they are the people losing. Of course we feel they ought to do better. At a particular time, there was a move by the National Assembly to amend the constitution, such that resolutions passed by both the House of Reps and the Senate jointly would amount to an act of parliament, but that did not work out.
It has always been a trend in all administrations that they mostly take the National Assembly for granted. But this particular administration has carried it to a very ridiculous extent. And so, we just see serial infringements on all the established laws and norms of democratic governance.
What does this portend for democracy?
What it simply tells us and the world is that you cannot have democracy without democrats. And so, when an individual who has been voted into office is not a democrat, he cannot give you democracy. His natural inclinations and natural feelings are always tilted towards an authoritarian rule. That is why, for lack of a better word, I will call it a kabiyesi democracy.
To address this executive stubbornness and since the National Assembly has the power to appropriate, what do you think should be done?
When you say the National Assembly only has power to appropriate, what it simply means is that it shouldn’t do its job because when you send a budget to us, for instance, we make sure we go through it, make adjustments and send it back to the executive because we are very conscious of something, which is the fact that we are representing the people of Nigeria. So, if we say we are not passing the budget except they do this or that, we are not actually hurting the executive but ordinary Nigerians because our action is going to affect them. And the executive will now latch onto it and refuse to give Nigerians dividends of democracy, claiming that the National Assembly has not done its part.
As representatives we ought to have it at the back of our minds that we owe our responsibilities to the people of Nigeria. If it means that we have to continue making demands and talking about it every time, we will do that.
You have been very vocal against the ills bedeviling the country. But it appears you are a lone voice; are you not on the same page with other minority members in the Senate?
I am not a lone voice; they are on the same page with me. As a leader, when I shout or say anything, it is after consultation with them. So they need not come out and repeat the same thing I have said since I am speaking their minds.
The nomination of the former service chiefs as ambassadors has been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. As somebody against it, what do you expect from the committee?
I cannot speak on behalf of the committee. However, I have received a couple of letters from organisations that are against the nominations and have forwarded them to the committee for their input. I have already gone public to state my position, but it is personal.
What I am saying is that you don’t reward failure. The Senate cannot on its own at different fora and through resolutions ask that these persons should leave and will at the same time approve their nominations as ambassadors. I think this question should not be for the Senate; it should be directed to the executive.
The proper thing for you to do as journalists is to ask the executive of the motive, basis and rationale for the nominations. The executive was voted into office by Nigerians; therefore, when they take decisions, Nigerians should also have the right to know the reasons for those decisions. Just like you, I am not privy to whatever led to such decision.
More than ever before, the country is polarised across several fault lines. Now that we are moving towards 2023, what do you think this administration should do to cement the crack?
I had an interview with Focus Nigeria last week and this question came up. Well, I am an optimist, so I hope they can change their ways.
As Professor Wole Soyinka said in an interview with BBC Pidgin, the president needs to address Nigerians and own up to these problems. He needs to wake up and say that if you are doing the business of rearing cattle for sale, it should not be at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians. We saw what happened in Benue State.
At a time, the governor of Benue State cried to Aso Rock and he was told that they should learn to live with their neighbours.
The murderers move about with AK47 rifles. They do not speak Hausa or Fulfude but Bambara and other foreign languages, but they have suddenly transformed into Nigerians that we must accommodate as neighbours. How did somebody who invaded you from outside your country become your neighbour?
What I am pointing at is that it was the combination of those excuses that led these people to see Nigeria as a robust place they can come and conquer. The violence spread all over the North, and now the South-West and South-East and parts of the South-South because the invaders were enabled through the inaction of the government. The consequence is what we are seeing today. We are gradually inching towards the precipice.
There are quit notices in some parts of the country, do you think that is the way forward?
No. The way forward is for security agencies to track down and apprehend the bandits that are running all over Nigeria. Unfortunately, these criminals disguise with the people who are law abiding and going with their cattle as if they were providing security for them and then, engage in kidnapping and other criminal activities. So, if you want to sanitise the system, you now ask everybody to go so that you can actually profile genuine herders. I think that was what actually happened.
As we approach the 2023 general elections, there have been agitations for Igbo presidency; how tenable is it?
From my perspective, it is very tenable. Every Nigerian has a right to vie. Power cannot be monopolised by a set of people and others are seen as second class citizens, and so, I have nothing against anybody who will like to ensure that justice and equity prevails because that is the basis for that quest. But I am more worried whether they would be a country where the person is coming to serve as president.
Some people in the South-East are already saying it is either Igbo presidency or no Nigeria; what’s your take?
Whenever agitations come and people make statements, they will range from the moderate to the extreme, so I won’t be surprised if there are some extreme positions like that.
Should the South-East miss the presidency in 2023, what do you think would happen?
Let’s also say that elective positions are not given. You will have to meet people and reach a consensus if you want to be the flag-bearer of your party. We are also talking to different groups. Then you must be able to reach a consensus with all the different parts of Nigeria. I am sure that those people who are seriously going around are also making sure they make their arguments along that line.
What are you doing as the most senior elected public officer from the South-East to actualise this?
I am a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and within our party, we are also having discussions.
A member of the Board of Trustees of your party, Adamu Maina Waziri, in an interview, said there was an understanding that the North should retain the presidential ticket of the party, what’s your take?
That must be his opinion because I am not aware of such an understanding.
Will the vice presidential slot reduce the Igbo agitation?
I don’t think you can reduce this thing to this type of simplistic model. It is just like saying, “You want a goat, suppose we give you the tail, are you going to be happy?” That’s the kind of scenario and I don’t think that should be the focus of our discussion.
If your party zones its presidential ticket to the South-East, will you contest?
I can also ask you a rhetorical question: Among all the people you see running this country today, which one can say he has a better credential than me? I don’t think so. Usually, what we normally recommend is group interest, not personal. Once you reduce something to personal interest you will lose the focus of the group’s aspiration.
You stood as surety for the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu; do you have any regret?
The court insisted that a senator should stand surety, and at that time, I was the chairman of the South-East Senate Caucus, so the responsibility was on me, and we had no problem discharging it. The problem came when, prior to the date the individual was supposed to come to court, the military, using the cover of “Operation Python Dance,” which was supposed to have started later, attacked his house and he had to escape to save his life.
So, at that point, where did we go wrong? I need to also let you know what happened to my very good friend, Ndume. He also had that same problem of the court insisting that a senator should stand surety and because the person (Maina) came from his senatorial zone, he also had the responsibility to do that. But what happened, on the day he was supposed to show up in court, they didn’t see the person and that led to the hullabaloo. We are at the point where the court has actually revoked the bail.
Some people are of the view that you stood as surety for Kanu because you share in IPOB’s cause. How would you react to that?
What is his cause? I share in his cause to the extent of saying that every Nigerian must be treated equally. I share in his cause to the extent of the saying that there are no second class citizens in Nigeria. And that everybody should be treated equally. The basic saying of the South-East person is: Live and let’s live (Egbe bere, ugo bere). That is why you find that somebody from the South-East can go to Kaura Namoda and live among the people and does not disturb them in any way. That is the singular ethos of the southeasterner.
Why would a Southeasterner be oppressed on account of where he comes from, such that he cannot get a fair stake from the government and those who swore an oath to do justice to all? After swearing to such an oath, these people would turn around and tell southeasterners that they would not give them something because they got only 5 per cent of their votes. If you do that, you are already being discriminatory. And how do you expect them to respond? Responses are dependent on the way people understand their predicament.
You expect that the government would have taken time to review and relate with their citizens, not to see them as antagonists that need to be brutally suppressed. That is the basic problem. And we will continue to ask that question.
Unlike Southeasterners who live and own properties in different parts of the country, especially in the North, you hardly see northerners owning properties in the South-East. Why is it so?
Northerners have refused to own properties in the South-East. The Easterner is the only person who believes in Nigeria, the rest don’t. So they will prefer to stay in their own corner and see others as foreigners.
It is only a president from the South-East that will treat everybody equally.
In the 1950s, the mayor of Enugu was from the North. If a northerner could be a mayor in Enugu, that means he was accepted. If you refuse to come to some people but prefer to live in your own confine, how would you blame them?
When I come to you I would want to sit with you, know your culture, eat your food and say I need this place. People sell properties everywhere. Nobody wants to know where you come from when they are selling. All they want to do is business and make an income. That argument does not come at all.
You have been speaking critically of this administration’s excessive borrowing. Where do you see Nigeria in few years to come?
The real problem, for me, is Nigeria being a debtor nation. It exited that status during the time of Obasanjo but has gone back into debt, even more than before. We should always ask ourselves how fair we will be to generational equity. What generational equity means is that you do not have to overburden generations to come. If they do not have the capacity at that time, they would not be in a position to extricate themselves from grinding poverty because every money you borrowed must be paid.
By Ismail Mudashir, Itodo Daniel Sule & Abdulateef Salau