Fred Itua, Abuja
Dr Orji Uzor Kalu is a former Governor of Abia State. Currently, he is the Chief Whip of the Senate. He is representing the Abia North Senatorial District.
In this interview in Abuja, Senator Kalu spoke on a number of issues, including the relationship of the National Assembly with the Executive, Ruga, among others. Excerpt:
Are you not worried that offices of senators are not ready almost one month after inauguration?
I am still trying to get it up there. I still operate from the office of the Senate President whenever we are out of the chamber and I come back to my personal office by 7:00 or 8:00p.m any time the Senate President leaves. I think it is something the Clerk of the National Assembly has explained to us that they are looking into it and that once we go on recess, they would be able to fix the National Assembly.
President Buhari hosted the principal officers of the National Assembly. Months after his inauguration, senators are not sure of getting the ministerial list before vacation, what is the situation?
I don’t think so. Maybe you didn’t hear the president well. He is making all efforts to get the list to the National Assembly. At least, I was in the room. It is not good to misquote the president. I am sure that the list would be ready very soon, sooner than you think. The president said that he is making a wider consultation that in the last tenure, he was just handed over the list by party people to appoint and now he is making a background check on everyone of them to make sure they are people he can work with.
The Orji Foundation, what is it all about and how many persons have you taken care of and how many do you intend to take care of?
You are talking as if you are not a Nigerian. If you were, you would have known what this Foundation has done. It is easier said than done. We have done what we are supposed to do. They are countless. This Foundation has been there for 30 years and we are in the East, West and North. Less than two months ago, we were in Maiduguri IDP camp and we were able to take care of people with Ulcer wounds and their ailment is healing now. Before then, there were no drugs to treat and heal them. We have some free loan schemes in Lagos, Oyo and Osun states. We have done that also in Abuja market and areas of the North. We have been to Borno, Kano and Sokoto states to treat people. We are giving free loans to people to continue to do their businesses where we can and for genuine people. Few days ago, we gave scholarship to many students based on need. At the moment, we are sharing palm seedlings all over the East. Even people from Benue, Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom states. They are collecting from the reserve. In the past two months, we have 480, 000 seedlings. They are no longer seeds, but palm fruits that are above one year and half and they are replanting on their own. This Foundation is focused on Agriculture, especially palm to give back to the people what they can have because when I see people coming to beg for money when you are in the village, it’s painful. This country is supposed to have outgrown this by now because this economy has a lot for us to take away from. So, we must have to go back to Agriculture because the Petroleum deceived a lot of us. There is no country in the world that has petroleum and have peace. No country in the world that makes petroleum their main earning point that has peace. The Foundation has done a lot which I cannot mention all. We have spent so much for the people of Nigeria.
As a very strong voice from the Southeast, is the present government really marginalising the Igbo and if yes, what should be done?
Let me be honest with you. Since after the war, things have not been the same. There have always been marginalisation. Remember my quarrel with former President Olusegun Obasanjo when I was governor over the same Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Enugu expressway. That expressway was abandoned and I had to remove the toll gate. It was based on that my move that all the toll gates in Nigeria were removed. I came one morning and removed the toll gates in my state. President Obasanjo called me to ask why I did that and I told him because there was no road to for people to pay toll. I meant every word. I am sure there were only few governors that could have done that when I was governor. I removed the toll gates and said no Abian or non-Abian plying that road should pay a dime again. So, after six months, the president ordered for all the toll gates in Nigeria to be removed. It is good to collect toll fee, but you can only toll a road that is motorable. So, for marginalisation, yes I cannot lie or look at anybody’s face. But again, our people are not good politicians, because you have to flow like any other region. But by building the Second Niger Bridge and doing those Port Harcourt-Aba-Umuahia-Enugu expressway and Enugu-Awka-Onitsha expressway, Buhari has ended the marginalisation of Igbo. Our people didn’t even vote for President Buhari. Those we voted for were not productive. So, those our people voted for genuinely for 10 years didn’t touch those things. So, I believe that President Buhari has tried now. I am not talking in terms of appointment because the constitution says that every state should have at least one minister. That is statutory. It is good to also spread the Service Chiefs which I will like people in the Senate to bring a bill, so we can make a law that every region must have a Service Chief. But when you look at the Service Chiefs, they are like personal staff of the president. They are not really constitutionally owned because you only work with military men you trust. That is the truth whether you want to hear that or not. I can take you to memory lane on all those that have been Heads of State. They just did the same thing the president is doing now. So, there is nothing new. Who was President Obasanjo’s director of SSS? He was not from my village. Who was President Jonathan’s director of SSS? He was Ekpenyong. He was not from my village. So, everybody goes back to his region. It might not be the best, but that is the trend because everybody wants to be in control of his security. This is why when I see people shout that they are marginalised, sometimes these things are not real. We should look for productive things that would be done by the government. I don’t care about who is being appointed. What I care about is what services are they giving for people to move about their businesses. What they are doing for people to be secured. I am not interested in this story that you think might be a joke. I was cracking a joke with the president one day. You know he jokes a lot. I was saying something before I joined the APC about three and a half years ago. We were joking and I said Mr President, we are marginalised. He asked how? He said the previous government had all your brothers who could have done what they were supposed to do, but they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. He listed them. I was just looking. So, you can see, whether you like it or not, the president was partially right. You know me. I don’t fear anybody. If the president is wrong I will tell him he is wrong. If he is right I will clap hands for him. For me, the eastern part of Nigeria has been neglected for a long time and now we have started to address the issue. The Second Niger Bridge is coming on board. I can tell you from the ‘70s every administration promised the easterners a Second Niger Bridge and the benefit is not only for Easterners. It is for the Nigerian people and every other person that came spoke big English and grammar and they did not do anything, but President Buhari is implementing it right away. So, somebody will say he did not give us minister. We don’t need a minister if he can’t do the Niger bridge. If he can do all the roads and there is security so that you people would not be kidnapped, we will be okay. Remember this kidnapping started in Warri, Delta State. When they kidnapped about 25 white people and Obasanjo called me, Governors Ibori and Odili. He woke us up at about 2:00a.m to ensure we secured their release. All of us went into action. We contacted some of the boys we knew and they produced them. I made a statement then that these kidnappers would finish white men and they will turn over to kidnapping Nigerians. If they told anybody then that there would be kidnapping in the North today would they believe? That is how we are going. I have said it times without number that the the Federal Government should invest money in education in Northern Nigeria. To be honest with you, if I have the opportunity, I will address issues of education in the North. I will address the issue of Almajiri and nomadic education and save the normards. I will provide quality education to help stop the killings of people. Because these are things we are not doing. Everything is politics in Nigeria. When people talk, politicians politicise everything. Nobody is talking about the interest of the country. Anybody you meet talks about the interest of his village. It is high time our politicians started being Nigerian politicians and not their village politicians. They should see themselves as people who represent Nigerians.
In the last 21 years, you have been one of the key players at the national level on the workings of the Nigerian project. But with the problem of the systemic failure affecting the system, do you think the Nigerian project can give the desired result in terms of genuine development?
What I want to assure you people, for me and for our colleagues in the Senate led by Ahmad Lawan is that, it would be a very good Senate. The reason is that the Senate President is a reformer right from when we were in the university. He was my roommate in the university. We were not in the same class, but we were roommates. He has never changed like I have never changed. He also thinks about the people. I believe we are going to bring about a lot of changes than what it used to be in the past. But bringing about change is not easy. Whether those who are going to bring about the change should have the capability of executing the change is another issue. We are not afraid of taking decisions. Many of you are writing that this Senate is going to be a rubber stamp. Even President Buhari himself knows we are not going to be a rubber stamp. We are not afraid of President Buhari, we think more of the Nigerian people and for Lawan, Nigerian people come first before friendship with Buhari. We need to sit down, to agree and disagree and tell him he can’t do this one because the law says so. Knowing Buhari, I know he will will never ask anybody to go against the law. Buhari is a leader people greatly misunderstand. I have known him now for 32 years, as well as former President Babangida. He has not changed. This is the reality. So, a man that has made up his mind that way, he can’t break the law. I want to tell the Nigerian people to be patient with him. I will also address the issue about jumbo pay. I have received my salary for June and it is far bellow what you people are writing. If a minister is travelling to Lagos, would he use his leg? What you call fat salaries are monies used to run the constituency because they don’t give us additional funds when we travel to Abia, Lagos, Badagry or Kaduna. This is the money they use. Next meeting, I will unveil to you. So, you can see that you are maligning and criticising the National Assembly for nothing. Most of my colleagues said they did not know it was going to be like this and I said we came to be senators. But when they are outside, they will say the money is carried by the National Assembly. It is not true. That money they have given them is not going to be enough. I have seen them crying already. They came to me to complain because I have seen the good and the ugly. I think that the media are not fair to the National Assembly. I call on you people to change your mind because there is no jumbo pay. Honestly, I have not seen one. If I see jumbo pay that does not represent my conscience, I will speak. When I was governor, the state bought my food and paid for everything. But as a senator nobody does that. The money you have is for your constituency, for your staff and travelling allowances. That is what it is meant for. Tell me the ministers we are going to clear, there is no one senator that will have more than one car. Have you heard of that? You people should be patient with this Senate. Before now, honestly I used to think that senators didn’t have any job to do, but I have realised they have a lot of work to do. I have been there for one month now and I go to the office to have leaders meeting at the Senate President’s office and I leave 7:00p.m everyday.
Few years back you and two other senators, Abaribe and Orji from Abia State were all in the same camp. You parted ways and now all of you are back in the Senate. What is the relationship like now?
It has been a very faithful movement. You can see that even now within the last few days, former Governor Theodore Orji has been putting his best better than his first four years. So, it is a good development. And you can see that Senator Abaribe is making every effort to do the work given to him very well. We are friends now. For the interest Abia, we must stay together. The interest of the Senate must also hold us together. There would never be any division in decision making. What concerns our people and what concerns the Nigerian people, we must be together. Interest is the same interest and realise that I was their boss, both of them. I was the governor, one was deputy and the other was chief of staff. They have never given me any reason to doubt their loyalty then. They have always respected me and I have always respected them. That is how we find ourselves in the Senate. There is no division. We are one strong family and it’ll continue to be one strong family in the Senate.