After conducting substandard elections, APC can’t impose presiding officers on 9th Senate —Abaribe
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe served as the deputy governor of Abia State between 1999 and 2003. He was elected into the Senate in 2007 and will be sworn in for his fourth tenure in June. In this interview, the Abia South Senator, who is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy in the outgoing Senate speaks on the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari need to immediately sign the Electoral Act amendment bill to reduce human element in elections and why outsiders cannot dictate to the ninth Senate how to run its affairs. Group Politics Editor, Taiwo Adisa, presents the Excerpts:
THE 2019 elections has been won and lost and you’ve seen the results. How do you rate the general election? Is it a step forward for Nigeria’s democracy?
Let me say that we expected much better than we got from INEC. After the 2015 elections, even with the imperfections, we made an assumption that the 2019 was going to be much better than the 2015 and, of course, we assumed also that all these logistics problems would have been clearly eliminated. It took INEC four years to plan for the election. They got all the money they wanted on time and they had absolutely no reason for what happened ultimately, except if it was a pre-programmed thing to postpone the elections so you put people off balance, then make sure that there are two sets of guidelines for the elections.
In the North, you never cared about your guidelines of enforcing the card readers and all that and in the South, you insisted that those things must count. So, what we found, like most observers have also found, is that Nigeria is the only place in the world where more people live in the Sahara region than in the coastal areas. You find more people voting in the deserts than in the coast. So, when you have a situation where you get millions of votes from where there is insurrection and all that and nobody is living in those areas. It goes to show that the elections can never, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to have been an advancement from where we were.
Militarisation is one of the issues around that election. Did you have the experiences of the flip side of it?
We didn’t have that in Abia. On the contrary, the military played their role the way they ought to play it. But from what my colleagues have told me in places like Rivers, Akwa Ibom and so on, they just had the military playing a direct role in the elections, which is not what they are supposed to do. So, both local and international observers have talked about the militarisation that was used and, of course, we all witnessed it when the supplementary elections were done in Kano, in Bauchi and everywhere. We could see how it was deployed to rig people into power. So, we condemn and we totally decry the use of the military in the manner it was used.
Looking at the outcome of the elections what then is your take on electoral reform?
I do not think that the electoral reform matter is something that is esoteric. We already had an electoral bill that was sent to the president four times. At every point at which he made a complaint, it was modified to suit him. I remember that I was also part of a panel in a TV programme and where I said that there were several elephants in that room of the electoral bill will make President Buhari never to sign the bill. Unfortunately, I was proved right. He still found reasons not to sign it, with a nebulous protestation about some things, saying that there was an ECOWAS protocol and all that type of thing. If we really want to get it right, what we ought to do is to ask President Buhari that he now has time to assent to that bill, since the elections are over now. So, all those who were telling him that his election depended on the way it went, now he has a chance to bequeath to Nigerians a much better experience in voting, because if electronic transmission was used, then nobody would have started talking about this question of anybody going to the collation centre and manipulating results.
So, if we can go through the new Electoral Act, eliminate part of the human elements maybe that will make our elections good. In fact, I saw some posts that have been trending where it says that you can still use your debit or credit card anywhere you are in the country, you do not have to go back to that particular branch. Which means that if you have a PVC, you can vote anywhere in the country through a machine and be able actually collate your votes and the votes are done electronically within a short period you could know who is winning and who is not winning. This question of somebody making an elaborate show, staying for three days here and telling us it is who they eventually decide that is the president will never work.
Your party’s presidential candidate has filed a petition at the election tribunal. Some forces were of the opinion that he should not have gone to the tribunal in view of the example already showed by your party’s candidate before him, the former President Jonathan. Right now, the matter is before the tribunal. As a leader of the party, are you hopeful of any turnaround?
Yes, we are very hopeful that the charade and the manipulations will be ventilated at the tribunal. Let me say this about the former president, he always made it known what and where he stood and I think the candidate of the people, Vice-President Atiku Abubakar also made it known to say if things were fair, he would not contest the result. But if clearly you could see the type of the shenanigans that went on, the step that he has taken to reclaim his mandate through the tribunal is a step in the right direction and all of us are supportive that he should do that.
Clearly, the representative of the party at the presidential declaration even made a point that day, which a lot of people glossed over and which the INEC chairman also glossed over, as per what he had told us were the total number of registered voters. When he was asked to tell us how many of these registered voters had collected PVCs, he also gave a number. Then, of course he said these were the total numbers of people who were accredited to vote and then later changed his mind and gave a lower figure, leaving everybody in doubt as to what happened to 1.6 million voters supposedly accredited and did not vote. It was just a whole mathematical problem for even the chairman of INEC to overcome there. All he just did was to gloss it over. That doesn’t happen anywhere, and which is why we were talking about this electronic voting, because tabulation would have been instant, it would have been automatic and would have been accurate.
There is some of form of politicking already within the PDP on who will be the Minority Leader and your name came up prominently. Ekweremadu’s name also came up, but you are still silent on that issue, why?
Let me say that question of either minority or majority leaders are left to the parties. The parties pick who they think is best suited to play the role for them, because the Minority Leader’s job is to protect the interest of their party. The majority leader’s job also emanates from the parliamentary system where they call him leader of government business. It’s actually to represent government’s view. So, those are party positions.
But the position of Senate President and Deputy Senate President are positions that are voted for on the floor of the Senate, which means that everybody who is a senator-elect, who comes in that day and is there, will be part of making that decision. So, the position of being Senate President will be a decision taken by all Senators on the floor and not by anybody else.
The APC has adopted some candidates for the Senate Presidency and for the House of Reps Speaker. Now, your party’s caucus just issued a statement to reaffirm what you just said about the position being open to everybody. Is the PDP thinking of contesting these positions?
Yes, because the guidelines for picking the Senate President, according to our rule book, is for ranking senators. So, anybody who is a ranking senator who can get the support of his colleagues, which are all the senators-elect, has a right to throw his hat in the ring for that. So, for the APC making a choice, that is the APC and not all the senators-elect. When we come to the floor, it’s no longer on the basis of the party, it’s on the basis of the people there making their choice and that was the point being made by the PDP caucus, telling everybody that the decision will be made by the senators-elect on the floor and not by anybody who is not a senator-elect. So, nothing stops me as a ranking senator who is also spending his fourth term by June, from also consulting with my colleagues and if they find me worthy, they can also elect me as Senate President. Nothing stops me from being a Senate President.
Adams Oshiomhole made a statement about the winner taking it all, saying that apart from the position of Public Accounts chairman which is constitutional, no PDP lawmaker will be a committee chairman, how is the PDP taking that?
I had cause at one time to advise him not to be so garrulous in his statements and I think he hasn’t learnt any lessons. You don’t choose for us or determine for us who becomes what in the Senate. I think because he has never been a member, he just doesn’t want to take advice from those who have been in the National Assembly. The National Assembly is not where he was in Edo State where he ran roughshod over everybody. It’s not a State House of Assembly. This is the National Assembly of Nigeria and the choice of who becomes what with regards to committee assignment is a collegiate choice. It’s not a choice that is made by one person. Even the Senate President cannot sit down and say I give you this ABCD, it never happens. There is always a committee that is called the Selection Committee. The first thing that is done when the leadership emerges is that there will be a selection committee and that committee comprises people from both the majority parties and the minority parties and then they will now choose people that will work within this milieu.
So, when somebody from outside starts to make such insinuations, I think that what he’s just doing is that he’s actually making life very difficult for whoever he is promoting because, number one, the National Assembly is an arm of government. So, when somebody from the executive arm of government comes to try to tell the National Assembly what to do, all that you get is pushback, because what we will now say is we don’t want a Senate President that is going to be a wet rag for the executive. We wouldn’t want a Senate President that will just wake up and become an adjunct to the executive; that will be going to take orders from them. That is not even good for the country. It’s not even good for Adams Oshiomhole himself because what we found out about people like him who make up these things is that if tomorrow he runs into trouble, he runs to the Senate Committee on Ethics to make a complaint and try to ask them to save him from the executive.
We’ve seen it happen times without number, where people who were in the executive before and were boasting and saying all manners of things and the day they are put under pressure, the next things was that they wrote a petition asking Public Petitions Committee to ‘please come and look into my matter.’ So, it’s not even in their interest to have a subservient Senate and no senator will support the Senate President that will be subservient to the executive because we are not going to give up our status as an arm of government to the executive. Nobody will do that. I also know that the judiciary will not do that. The reason why you have our type of democracy is so that one arm can be as a check on another arm, otherwise, we might as well all go home and now let the executive be everything, including making laws for us. Our independence is hard-earned and lessons have been learnt, including what we went through in the last four years under the first term of the APC government. I do not think the APC government will also want to have the rancour that they went through in the last four years, because if you yourself are under such self-inflicted rancour, you are not going to get any work done.
Going by what the statement credited to the chairman of the APC, do you foresee a kind of repeat of the 2015 scenario, particularly in the emergence of presiding officers?
What you are telling me now is to do a forecast of the minds of those who are senators-elect. I don’t think we can make such a forecast. What I know and what I think and what I’m privy to, from the PDP side is that we as PDP, we are all together and we have all resolved that all of us will vote for the person who best will protect our interest as minority members. So, if we have somebody whose interest will be to follow what Oshiomhole has done, which is to punish you for being a minority member, that person will never get our votes.
But the PDP will not sponsor a candidate of its own, will it?
Why can’t the PDP sponsor a candidate?
Should we expect an upset from the side of the PDP?
Well, I can say that all of us are also consulting. It’s not APC only that is consulting; we are also consulting. We are also asking people and talking among ourselves and we are talking also with the incoming APC members. Some of them are coming from the House of Representatives, so they know what we all went through. Some of them are new, but they also have an idea. Some have been governors, so they also have an idea of what type of life they will face. So, ask yourself a question. You come in as a former PDP governor and you are hearing Oshiomhole saying that you cannot be a chairman or you cannot be anything. Why would you now want to follow whoever Oshiomhole brings out and say this is the man? So, like I said before, Oshiomhole is de-marketing his party and actually making the PDP members to think twice about whoever APC is bringing up as somebody they are fronting. This decision as I said, will be taken on the floor of the Senate. Like Senator Ndume had earlier said, it’s not constitutional for somebody to wake up and begin to talk to you from outside and say he wants to determine what happens in an exclusive club that the person is not a member. Oshiomhole is not a member. Why would you want to tell club members?
What are we expecting from you in the 9th Senate?
I have been in the Senate for a while, so I have institutional memory. The first thing you are going to expect from me is institutional memory. I know how things are done and if there is anything buried, I know where they are buried for some time now. So, you are going to expect more of what I did in the last Senate, which is to put the interest of Nigerians there, and not to be cowed by this whole business that some people are holding the yam and the knife. I do not believe that. I believe that Nigeria is bigger than anyone that is within the country today and the attempted deification of certain persons in the last Senate will never happen again, where some people felt that anything coming from the Executive is Hammurabi’s Law that cannot be challenged. We are saying no, it should be challenged. Of course you could see the other side of it. We let everything that came just go through. There was no due diligence done because there was a narrative that anything you question that means that you are against President Buhari, which was not true.
So, those of us who questioned certain things that came from there were targeted. I was even arrested by the DSS for no reason; the only reason being that I said you can’t just ask us to swallow everything. We have also seen that in the case of Adeosun, we didn’t even do any listening. Ultimate, somebody found out that they didn’t do youth service to the greatest embarrassment of Nigeria because this is somebody who had gone to represent Nigeria in international fora in the financial circles wherever. Of course, you know what happens in finance. The first thing that they look for is integrity in the person that they put up there. So, when we now were faced with such things later, a lot of people came back to blame the National Assembly for letting such things.
So, with this institutional memory now, we are going to let all members know that if you have to screen people who are being brought up for critical positions within the country, you must do thorough job.