Senate President Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki is in the eye of the storm these days. Too many contentious issues on the national scene spiral towards this former governor of Kwara State. Saraki sat down exclusively with Daily Trust on Sunday for an hour and discussed a wide range of issues. Excerpts:
Senate President, do you sleep at all these days, with all the things that are happening?
I do, very well.
With all the missiles flying left, right and center?
It depends on the kind of missiles [Laughter].
When you contested for and became Senate President in 2015, did you bargain for this kind of situation, with all the crises and conflicts?
Well, some of these come with the job and with the kind of politics that we play. The most important thing is to always stay focused, have an objective, have a goal, and be guided by that. And at every point to ask yourself what changes are you making to the lives of the people that voted for us? How are we improving their lives? That is my focus. I keep telling people, politics is over and it is the time for governance. Unfortunately, some of the people who lost do not accept that politics is over and it is now time for governance. Their strategy is to distract you. Most of the noise is not about governance but about politics.
You said two days ago that there is no rift between the Executive and the Senate but the Executive branch itself believes there is a problem because they said the matter was discussed at last week’s DEC meeting and ministers expressed concern over the poor relationship.
What I am saying is that there are bound to be problems but just because an agency has an issue with National Assembly, do you put the blame at the door step of the President? Will you hold the President responsible because one agency, for one reason of the other has a problem ? There are so many agencies. Indeed, there has been significant improvement in the relationship from where we were a year ago. The issues now are specific, not the kind of systemic strained relationship that we had last year. Today you can narrow down on the issues because they are isolated. That was what ideas trying to explain. Of course there are issues today buy the situation is not abnormal that an agency will have a problem here and another agency will have a problem there. The issues can be solved, and one should not on that basis conclude that The Executive and legislature have a strained relationship. Otherwise, maybe other things are going on well. In fact the most important things are going on well. Budget is going on; I mean, if you look at the rancour we had in 2015, do you see the kind of rancour now? That time there was a rancour at every stage of the budget process but this year, for four months now have you heard that kind of rancour? The budget process is the real test for Executive – legislative relationship because that is where you engage with every ministry and agency in the Executive. But when one or two agencies have issues, that is bound to happen but you cannot judge the relationship of two branches of government from those particular incidents.
I will come to those incidents. Last week, DEC appointed a committee headed by the Vice President, worh several ministers who were former senators, to seek peace with the Senate. What has happened since then?
I have not heard anything
You have not heard anything?
I have not formally heard anything, either that there is a meeting or anything. But whenever they contact us we will be happy to listen because maybe that committee can he used to look at some of these isolated incidents, take them up and one by one and see how we can address them. It is good development and when it happens, we will work closely with executive to look at the issues.
Some Senators have told reporters that there are many issues that strained relationship but that the number one issue is your trial before Code of conduct Tibunal. Are you going yo make that number one issue in this negotiation ?
No, no. I Have never made it an issue and I do not intend yo make it an issue. When that case started, if you go by the drums at the time, that case now as far as I’m concerned is almost gone. The last wirhbess that came from CCB, one bygone all the questions they asked him, was this man invited before CCB, he said mom is there anything in this form that he did not declare, he said no. As I said from Day one, that case should never have gone to CCT. CCB is saying all these things; we don’t know anything about them. This is the first time that CCB will take anyone to court without first asking him him come and write a statement. This is the first time that EFCC will prosecute case at CCT. So many things in that trial are abnormal. People who have been following that case already known what it had collapsed. So I have no fear about it and we will not out it on the table. Certainly we were not pleased by it, to see the head of one arm of government sent to trial thatbis more political than anything else. That was what the Senators were talking about. But for the last two years did it stop us from working? We are carrying on, doing our best in working for people’s welfare. So while senators are notnhaooy, I don’t think we we should interpret what they said. This trial cannot be the reason for any rift between the two arms of government.
When you say this trial is political, who orchestrated it?
I have to do more investigation (laughter). If you look at the case, it is Norma normal case. This was an issue that happened 13 years ago even though they say that criminal issues have no limitation of time. Two, was the manager invited to make a statement? If you out all these issues together. It raises suspicion that this is all political. But we have gone through the process, we are coming to the end of it and I am confident that insha Allah install be vindicated. There was another case, forcing Senate rules and it collapsed, so I believe that in this one too that truth will come out.
Then there is the case of Magu. We understand that Senate is insisting that since he was not confirmed as substantive EFCC chairman, the President should remove him as Acting Chairman and you are even stalemating some confirmations until it is done. Is that correct ?
People are not being to the Senate. We are in a society that believe on due process. This is a process; President sends a name to Senate for approval. The case of Magu and many other nominations that came before his and that will come after, it is the same process. There was even a security report thst said he was unfit for the position. Senators did not believe that he is fit for the position. Nobodyvdoubted that we followed due process in this matter. This is the process set out by the constitution. It is not personal. The other day we rejected three names nominates for membership of Naija Delta Development Commission. There were no noise; President brought three new names, and everything is moving on. I think this matter us being too personalised. Now, what Senate believes is that is a person is found unfit to be the substantive chairman, how does he become fit to become an acting chairman? It is our duty to protect our Institutions and the Democratic Process. We have expressed our view; we have done our part, we have done the screening, we reached our conclusion, and we leave it to the President to carry out his responsibility. We should protect processes and institutions because they are the ones that will survive far beyond out own lives.
But you did not stop there. We understand that Senate Stopped the screening of 27 Nominees for RECs until the President removes Magu as Acting EFCC chairman.
No, no. We only deferred it for two weeks. You have to understand a parliament. Somebody stood up and asked a question. He said some of these REC nominees are for reappointment. So what happens if we reject some of them? Will they be told to continue as Acting RECs? To be honest, i had no answer to that question. In parliament, sometimes she. You cannot answer a question, what you do is to say okay we note it, let us step it down and come back later to look at the issue (laughter) , hoping that somewhere along the way you will find an answer. You can see the concern, I mean. We have the constitutional power to confirm Mr X but even though we dis not confirm him, he is still holding the position. Now I have another conformation for Mr Y and assuming I don’t confirm him, will he still hold the position? So there is an issue there.
The two weeks is nearly up already, so did you get any feedback?
When Senate resumes we will sit down and review the situation. Sometimes you take a position you express how you feel, and the Senators may have already achieved that ans may decide to move on.
Two ministerial nominees were also sent to Senate. Are they also going to be affected by this statement?
No, no. We are waiting for them tobbrinf their CS’s and security reports.
What about Customs Comptroller General Col Hameed Ali? He has notbuet appeared in his full uniform. Are you still expecting him to come, for that matter in his uniform?
I think that was an issue in which we allowed an unimportant issue to overshadow the more importanr issue. That was unfortunate. Our job in parliament is to look at the interest of Nigerians. That policy introduced by customs is very bad and is coming in very difficult times and it needed a review. That was the main issue. Unfortunately, the narrative of the uniform was given more prominence. As at today, I’m not even sure whether that Customs policy is still in force or or has been suspended. All anyone remembers is the issue of the uniform. I think we all have a role to play here in not allowing some of these pedestrian issues to submerge the more substantive issues. The advice we gave him was to suspend this action and carry out more consultation, and let’s talk about other ways by which customs revenue can be increased. There are many other ways. for example, I’m surprised that when we are talking about enhancing agricultural production, Customs has reduced the duty on dairy products. It used to be the percent duty, now it is five percent. That is policy inconsistency; you say you want to support local farmers to produce milk and you reduce the duty on imported milk. When I was chairman Governor’s Forum, I also chaired a presidential committee on raising revenue and one of the things we did was to raise duty on milk products. Milk produced in Nigeria is more expensive than imported one from Europe of Australia. The milk duty we have in Nigeria is the lowest in Africa. In Uganda milk duty is 15 -20%. I wanted to push for 25% duty here, but now it is down to 5% when we want to support agriculture. That drop alone is worth billions because we spend close to $1 billion a year to import milk products. Five percent of this is about N15 Billion Naira. That is a better way to raise revenue. Parliament unlike a three hour a day, and sometime you find that attention is not given to the relevant issues. The issue of whether he can wear uniform or cannot wear uniform, that can on until whenever but whether he is in uniform or Not, let him do the right policy (laughter). This policy is not good since it affects everybody, there should be wide consultation. We are in a democratic setting and since parliament represents the people, come and explain what you want to do, why and how you want to do it.
Why did you suspend Senator Ndume for six months when according to some layers the rules provide for no more than two weeks suspension?
Again, we followed the process. He came ok a matter of privilege. The matter was referred to Ethics committee, which is our body that looks into behaviours, petitions, etc. They reviewed it; we all went and made our case before them, they listened to everybody and reached their conclusion. They submitted their report, it was debated, and a decision was taken. I do not know of any law or rule that was disregarded by the Senate. Due process was followed. It is not the first time that a member of Senate or House was suspended. I think right now there is a member of the House who is on suspension for a a year or so, so when people get up say nobody can be suspended for more than Two weeks … of course there are always interests. If I’m from Borno South, of course I want my representative back but if you give a committee an assignment and they do it and Senate takes a decision based on It, I think we should respect that.
But by raising the issue and getting it referred to ethics committee, Ndume gave Dino Melaye and you chance to clear yourselves of allegations so you should be grateful to him.
No, I don’t think so because the issue of the car, when it came up, the management issued a statement. When government appointees buy an official car, it is not their car. Government provides a car to you by virtue of your job. The National Assembly management said no car was IMPORTED in Senator Saraki’s name, and Ndume knew that. Even if you think that your colleague is not qualified, did he call him and say ‘Colleague, is it true that you don’t have a genuine certificate? There are many ways of addressing these issues. Coming to the (Senate) floor escalated the whole issue. What the committee was saying was did you check this thing very well before you came to the door and said your privilege was.. So it is not that he gave me an opportunity to prove because the Managmebt has already said that no car was brought in under my name, and Ndume knew it. He brought the issue to embarrass both myself and the institution. I am not an importer. I don’t agree with you that he gave us chance to clear ourselves because we had already been cleared.
So where is the car right now ?
We will only know where it is when it is delivered but honestly, for Now, I don’t know where it is.
Are you likely to forgive Ndume because people are even demonstrating to the gate of the National Assembly.
I wish I have all these powers. I am only the presiding officer. I was not the one who approved his suspension with a memo, like they do In Executive branch, so you canmot send another memo to me and say ‘please review it.’ He was suspended at the Senate plenary, so all senators must sit again and look at it. All I can say is that tee his Senate has a large heart. We used to have dissenting voices before but we are now back as one family. Sooner or later we may have a political solution somewhere and Ndume may be back in the folks.
That’s another thing people are saying. That those Senators that once oppose you, you gave them juicy committee assignments and now they are silent.
Is that a question or what?
People are saying that in the Social Media.
No. You see, in the 8th Senate initially there was interference from outside but we all realised the need to come together. You said some people got juicy committee but even those that did not get juicy committees, we are all United and are working together. It is not everybody that can get what you are calling juicy committee . We all realized that there is an objective we want to achieve and we can only achieve it by working together harmoniously and if we achieve it, the credit goes to all of us. And we are seeing the result of this harmony. A day after Ndume’s suspension we passes a major bill, the electoral act. The chairman INEC came today (last Thursday) And expressed appreciation that for the first time, Electoral act was passed two years before election. You can see that we are not distracted. These issues are not affecting Senate productivity. And today we are laying PIB (Petroleum Industry bill), which has never happened before. I an saying some things will happen because of politics here and there, but it has not affected our productivity. I can understand if because of these issues, major bills are still waiting and we have not passed them. Last year we proffered a way out of the economic problems. Three weeks ago we moved a motion on the Senate floor that led to the biggest anti-corruption case, where we said there was theft of close to N140 billion in petroleum products and government agencies then moved in. It was not any anti-corruption agency that discovered it but the Senate, and we are happy that the DG SSS moved in and arrested the man. So please judge us by our results, though the politics is going on. We know some people are not happy with the politics, but that politics has come and gone. Let us serve Nigeria now and when 2019 comes, the. You start again. But we cannot have politics all the time. When government wanted the increase tariff, who intervene? It was the National Assembly. When government brought request to borrow $31 Billion, people were saying ‘National assembly refused to approve’ but it made government to look at a better approach with the proper breakdown e.g $1.5bn support for 2016 budget. It became much better when you can break it down and say, this is for this and this is for that, instead of approving a total loan package without breakdown. So, when we take positions like that, it is not against the government we are all working for the same purpose. The people who are saying that This Senate President is against President Buhari, I say to them, when President Buhari was away for two months and rumours were flying everywhere as to the real situation, President Buhari received many guests ( in London) but who was the person who came back and said President Buhari is fine and coming back home ? Tell me who was It?
Loyalty is not what people do in front of You, it is what they do behind your back. This propaganda is just to cause head on collision and we know why they are doing it. When the time comes, we will you why they’re doing it. (Laughter)
Who are they and why are they doing it?
When the time comes, I will tell you. We know them and we are all watching them.
Newspapers reported that EFCC discovered N3.5Billion of Paris Club refund to states was diverted to your aides and that they laundered it. Is that true?
It is all lies. I have challenged EFCC, not once, not twice. MMelrose was appointed as a consultant to governors forum, along with others. Because the gentleman is somebody that i know, he has done his job, the people that gave him the job, the Governors forum, he has a contractual agreement; they are not complaining that the man did it do the job. The contract fee is fixed: the mandate is fixed, so how am I involved in this? But because of the politics that is going on, you feel you must jam me into this… I am not the one who does not clear people! I only preside! The people who gave him consultancy job, please job and ask them whether he stole their money. Instead they have searched my account, turned it upside down. All these things are not true. I have been through this before. I was a governor for eight years. When I finished, I never had any problem with EFCC. The only time when i have problem with EFCC is when there is an issue that is political. When I got up in the Senate and raised the issue of N1.3 trillion fuel subsidy, I quickly got a letter from EFCC, that i should come. If truly there were issues with my governorship, why didn’t I get invited within one month like some of my colleagues? In 2011 when I decided that I was going to contest for President, pram! I got EFCC invitation. Anytime I get an invitation from EFCC, you can attach it to a political issue. At the end of the day, nothing comes out of them.
Are you going to contest for President in 2019?
You are not the first and you will not be the last person to ask me this question. We won election in 2015. We have not yet delivered. Majority of the people we should be talking about how we are going to deliver, they are talking about 2019. This is time for governance. When it is time for politics, it is time for politics. If I give any answer to your question, I am also helping to overheat the polity. Everybody should leave that issue of 2019 so we can concentrate on governance. When we formed APC in 2013 and people asked if I was going to contest for President, I said count me out. You have many questions; keep this one kn your pocket, when we get to 2019, You can come and ask me about that. What you should be asking me now and what is going to answer now is issues related to governance. Many of the distrafrioma that we are suffering in the Senate is because of 2019, from forces outside.
For many months after you became Senate President, President Buhari was not meeting with you, though you are meeting a bit more frequently these days. What is your relationship like?
We have a very good relationship.
You call it very good when the Executive isbsaying that they are at loggerheads with the Senate.
You should separate issues. Are you blaming President Buhari for any agency head that has misunderstanding with Senate? If any agency head decides to abuse the National Assembly, do you blame President Buhari for it? You asked what is my relationship with President Buhari? You must separate that from any head of an agency that decided to abuse National Assembly and cause a problem (Laughter). Was it President Buhari that said, go there and abuse them? I ams sure it was not so. I don’t think President Buhari told anyone to get up and say that all senators are armed robbery. Those people decided on their own that is the way they want to relate with the Senate, so we must separate that from President Buhari.
What is your message to APC supporters especially in the North who are saying these days that Saraki and Senate have grounded Buhari’s government?
There is a lot of misinformation out there. From Day One I took a position, and some very powerful people don’t like the position. When you want to know who is loyal to you, it is during your trying moments. Go back two months ago. Who was it who stood up resolutely and said Mr. President will be back and there is no cause for alarm? I don’t think a man who is not loyal to you will do that. We know some people who went to London and saw President Buhari, but they just left. They did not say anything. My message to all our party’s supporters is that I am committed, that whatever we promised Nigerians, we will deliver. For some of us, this government cannot be allowed to fall. We left one party with our supporters and embarked on this journey. We must be able to go back to them and tell them that that journey was worth it. If God forbid this government fails, what will I go back and tell them? It is my personal political interest to see that this government succeeds.