No zone in Nigeria is marginalised — Kalu
A former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu, represents Abia North in the Senate. In this interview with newsmen in Abuja, he speaks on the security architecture of the country, the suspended Ruga cattle settlement initiative, among other issues. TAIWO AMODU and OSARETIN OSADEBAMWEN were at the session.
What will be your legislative agenda in the next four years on behalf of your constituents?
The entire Senate has set up a legislative agenda for us but that agenda is what I want to see first. The president of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan inaugurated a committee to prepare a four-year calendar agenda for us as a Senate. Based on that agenda, my constituency will be keyed into the Senate agenda.
Three weeks after the take-off of the ninth Assembly, offices of senators are not equipped except for the principal officers; why the delay?
I still operate from the office of the president of the Senate. I go there after plenary and return to my personal office anytime the president of the Senate leaves. The Clerk of the National Assembly has already told us that anytime we go on recess, they will be able to fix the national assembly for us.
President Buhari received the principal officers of the National Assembly and talked about nominating people he can trust as cabinet members. Months after his inauguration, it seems the Senate will not get the list before you go on break. What is your reaction to this?
Maybe you did not hear the president well. He is making all efforts to get the list. At least, I was in the room with him. It is not good to misquote Mr President. I am sure that list will be ready sooner than you think. Mr President said he was making a wider consultation because before, he was given a list by party people but now he is making a background check to make sure that they are people he can work with.
Do you think the South-East is being marginalised by the Buhari government?
After the Nigerian war, things have not been the same. There has always been marginalisation. You will remember my quarrel with the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, while I was governor, was over the Port Harcourt-Enugu- Umuahia-Aba Expressway that was abandoned which led me to remove the toll gate. It was that singular action by me that led to the removal of all toll gates across the country because when they existed, there were potholes all over the roads. Why do you need to toll bad roads? I came one morning and removed the toll gate at Okpanta and Isialangwa junction. President Obasanjo called me and asked why I did it. I told him it was because there were no roads to justify the payment by people at the toll gates.
And I meant every word. I am sure there were few governors that could have done that at that time that I was a governor. I said no Abian or non-Abian plying that road should pay toll again. After six months, Mr President ordered that they remove all toll gates in Nigeria.
I am not against the roads being tolled. It is good for the highways to be tolled but you have to toll a road that is motorable.
On marginalisation, yes it exists, I cannot lie to you. However, our people too are not better politicians. They are not because you have to flow and be part of any other region. But President Muhammadu Buhari, who we did not even vote for is building the second Niger Bridge now and doing the Port Harcourt Expressway and the Enugu-Awka-Onitsha Expressway. They are doing other major roads. Those we voted for never came to our aid on that route. Instead, they were repairing the Ninth Mile to Makurdi.
Those we voted for genuinely did not touch that bridge for 10 years. I believe that President Buhari has tried. I am not talking in terms of appointments because the Constitution says every state should have one minister. That is statutory. It is good to also spread the appointment of Service Chiefs, which I will like people to sponsor a Bill so that we can make a law that every region must have a Service Chief come from its area. But when you look at it, service chiefs are like personal staff of the President. They are not really constitutionally owned because you can only work with military men you trust. That is the truth. Let me take you down the memory lane. All the people that have been heads of state did the same thing the President has done. It is not something new. Who was the director of the State Security Service (SSS) when President Olusegun Obasanjo was the president of the country? It was Colonel Kayode Are; he is not from my village. Who was President Goodluck Jonathan’s director of the SSS? It was Ita Ekpeyong. He is not from my village.
So, everybody goes back to his region. It may not be the best but that is the trend because everybody wants to be in control of his security. Sometimes, people say they are marginalised, it is not real. We should look for productive things that can be done by the government. I don’t care about who is appointed; what I care about is the service they render. I care about the safety of the people from armed robbers which should be stopped from harassing people.
If I tell you this story, you may think it is a joke. One day, I shared a joke with the President. If you know the President very well, he cracks a lot of jokes. You will wonder, this man who doesn’t not laugh. Before I joined the All Progressives Congress, this was about three years ago,. I paid him a visit and said Mr. President, ‘We are marginalised.’ He asked me how. He said the previous government had all your brothers. They could have done what they were supposed to do but that they did not do it. He said you had the Secretary to the Government of the Federation; you had the minister of finance; minister of aviation; deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and the deputy Senate president. You had people who could have budgeted for the area and execute projects for the benefit of the people but for whatever reason, they did not do so.’ You can see that whether you like it or not, the president was partially right. I do not fear anybody. If the president is wrong, I will tell him. If he is right, I will clap for him.
So to me, the eastern part of Nigeria has been neglected for a long time and now, we are addressing the issues.
The second Niger Bridge is coming upstream. I can tell that since 1975, every administration in the country had promised to build the bridge. When completed, it will not only be for the benefit of the South-East; it will be of benefit to all Nigerians. All those that came to power before now only talked and talked about the project as they did nothing. President Buhari is implementing it right away. Some people may say he did not appoint us as ministers, we do not need ministers once you do the second Niger Bridge and all the roads in the region. If you can provide security and stop kidnapping, our people will be happy.
Kidnapping started way back then. When about 25 white men were kidnapped, the then President Obasanjo called me, Governor James Ibori of Delta State and Governor Peter Odili of Rivers State. He woke us up at about 2am and requested that we fish out the perpetrators of the crime. We all went out and contacted some of the boys we knew and they produced the suspects.
And I remember saying that I made a statement that after kidnapping the white people, the criminals would turn to Nigerians as their next set of potential victims. Before now, did you believe that there would be kidnapping in the North? I have said it times without number that the Federal Government should invest more in the education of children in northern Nigeria. I lived in the North. I know the region very well. If I have the opportunity, I will address the issue of education, almajiri, and nomadic education to save nomads and provide quality education so that they can focus on their cattle. These are things we are not doing.
You have been active in politics for a long time. Do you think the centralisation of power is good for national development?
For me and my colleagues in the Senate, led by Ahmad Lawan, my former roommate at the University of Maiduguri, the ninth Senate is going to live up to the public’s expectations. Lawan is a reformer right from his university days; he has never changed, just like I have never changed. He also thinks about the people. I think we are going to put more changes than what it used to be. I have seen a few journalists writing that this Senate will be a rubber stamp, but even President Buhari himself knows that we are not going to be a rubber stamp. We have a lot of respect for President Buhari, but we think more of the Nigerian people. For Lawan, Nigerians come first before the friendship with Buhari. Friendship will be at the back seat after the needs of the Nigerian people. We do not need to wear gloves to go and fight with President Buhari to show that we are independent. We need to sit down, disagree and agree and tell him, ‘No Mr. President, you can’t do this one. The law says you cannot do it. Knowing President Muhammadu Buhari for who he is, he will never ask anybody to go against the law. When they were making the arrangement of those to lead the National Assembly, the moment they told him that I was not qualified; that it was against the Rule Book for me to run for the position of the president of the Senate, he took a stand.
The man will not look at your face and he owes you no apology. Buhari is a leader people misunderstood. I have known him closely for more than 30 years; he and Gen Ibrahim Babangida. He has not changed. Do you think a man who ruled Nigeria would not have house in Abuja, Port Harcourt or Ibadan? This is who the man is. In Daura, he own a small house he built since thy kingdom come. I want to appeal to Nigerians to be patient with him and the National Assembly.
On a lighter note, what is your relationship with Enyinanya Abaribe and Theodore Orji both of whom you were in the same camp and later fell apart?
It has been a very fruitful movement, you can see now, in the last few weeks, former Governor Theodore Orji is putting his best as he used to do. It is a good development. You can see Senator Enyinanya Abaribe is trying to do the job he has been given very well. We are friends now for the interest of Abia. That must hold us together. For the interest of the Senate, that must hold us together, there can never be any division in decision making on what concerns our people and what concerns Nigeria.
What are your thoughts on the Ruga Cattle Settlement project that has been suspended by the Federal Government?
Ruga is not something that people should be worried about. In 2001, I established Ruga in Abia. In Okpanta, I built the cattle area from where the whole cattle sold in Umuahia and Aba were sourced. When I became the governor of the state, I called the Hausa community and we met.
I said Umuahia and Aba, we needed to de-congest the cities. What they call Shoprite today used to be a cattle settlement. The same thing with Aba. I had an honest meeting with them and said I would provide electricity and water in a new location. We had meetings and the communities said yes, they took off in Okpanta. That is the biggest cattle market in both South-South and the South-East today. This is the issue; the Federal Government should always do a wider consultation because you put a deliberate policy. If I have such plan and the people in my village in Igbere do not understand what Ruga is, they will be worried and may want to kill all of us. Some of us are the largest sellers of cattle. I started selling cattle as far back as when I was at the university. I still sell cows because the business is profitable. Most of the cattle you see are also not owned by the Hausa-Fulani in our area. Uzuakoli people and the surrounding areas also trade in cattle. People should have information. It is power and power is information. They have seen criticising the government and criticising tribes; there is too much hatred among politicians. Everything is politics in Nigeria. Nobody talks about the interest of Nigeria, everybody talks about the interest of his village. It is high time our politicians started being Nigerian politician, not Igbere politician, not ethnic politicians; they should see themselves as Nigerian politicians, working for Nigeria.