“I am being hounded by the government. I was detained for no reason. My house was searched… they were not comfortable with my criticism.”
Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe is the chairman, Senate Committee on Power. He is very outspoken on national issues and was the spokesman of the upper legislative chamber.
In this interview, he accused the incumbent administration of playing on the issue of electoral reforms that would assist in conducting a free and fair election next year. He also shared his thoughts on a number of other issues.
There is a seeming tension in the polity. Is it normal given that elections are few months away?
Anybody who says that he didn’t expect that there will be tension is being economical with the truth. We expect that at any point at which there is election coming and an incumbent government is very bothered about its chances in an election and it looks very clear that Nigerians have rejected the incumbent government. Ordinarily, what the government will do would be to escalate tensions so that it can put a climate of fear, which is what is going on now. It is that palpable climate of fear, which is being encouraged by the government to browbeat people into either voting for them or not voting at all and leaving them to their own devices that is causing the tension. So, it is all the actions of the incumbent government that you see. The efforts to undermine the other parties, the threat that is being made everyday against opposition elements, what the party Chairman of PDP said the other day, the plans to arrest leading opposition figures and incarcerate them, the fact that every day, anybody who is a critic of this government is put under incarceration or pressure are the things causing tension.
But the government is also is pointing accusing fingers at the opposition, especially the PDP, accusing it of churning out fake news which it said is creating tension in the country?
When the opposition points out anomalies in the country, it is called fake news. But when the government itself sends erroneous information to the public, what do they call it? That is, as far as I’m concerned, not an excuse by this government. What the government has learnt to do is that when people say things that are in their interest, they will keep quiet whether it is true or not. If they want to know who purveys fake news, one of them is sitting inside the Villa there. Her name is Loretta Onochie. At every point, she will always bring out fake information and nobody has condemned her. The same Lai Mohammed has not condemned her for bringing out fake news right there under the watch of the president. So, they should not tell us such stories.
PDP has raised so much eyebrow over the non-signing of the Electoral Bill by President Muhammadu Buhari. Is the party’s hope of winning the 2019 election hinged only on the Electoral Act or it is a mere diversion of attention?
The PDP is not using it to divert attention. What the PDP is pointing out is that for a man who got into office on the basis of the use of a particular technological device, the Card Reader, and the associated things with it and this was canvassed in court as not being in the law and the law has been amended to incorporate such things that affect this same person and the person does not agree to sign it into law, what do you call that. That is hypocrisy. That is the simple word for it. The PDP is not saying that our fate lies on the Card Reader. We are only pointing out the hypocritical stance of this government. They promised Nigerians all manners of things and when they have an opportunity to now walk the talk, they find it difficult to walk the talk for a very simple reason.
But INEC has said that it will use the Card Reader?
The point really is if you use the Card Reader and the Card Reader says that only 100 people voted and all of a sudden, you get to the announcing stage of the result and somebody says 1,000 people voted, how do you get a redress in court? Because when you now go and the court says, well the Card Reader is not in the law and, therefore, we don’t have to use whatever redress that will come out of that Card Reader. That is the key. It has nothing to do with whether people will vote or not vote. It is the manipulation of results after voting that everybody is worried about and we are saying that what saved the Buhari government of the infractions that was committed during the last election was the patriotic stance of President Jonathan not to encumber the incoming government with litigation. By President Jonathan taking the decision not to go to court, all the things that happened, especially in Kano and some of the Northwestern states with regard to the distance between the card reader and the results that were eventually posted, were not ventilated in court.
For some states, especially in the gubernatorial elections, where those matters were now brought up, the Supreme Court now said that because it wasn’t in the law, they have no obligation to enforce it, although that we know that today that may not be the case because the way the Supreme Court thought yesterday, the Supreme Court can also change its mind tomorrow to say that you must incorporate elements of evidence that will be glaring before the court. So, that’s a mute point. But we wanted to avoid all these by making sure that we have two things; making sure that accreditation and voting and comparison between those that were accredited and number of votes tally. Secondly, that results will not be manipulated at the point of announcement, where people will now bring in results and just post figures that have nothing to do with what was voted for. That is direct transmission of results. Those are the things.
So, for this government to continue to tell Nigerians that it will cause confusion and all that is nonsense.
Are you saying that you do not reckon with the President’s promise that he will deliver a free and fair election?
I don’t believe a man who says this is what I’m going to do yesterday, and comes today he has the opportunity to do it and does not do that. How can you believe such a person? In all promises that have been made by this party and this government of APC, they have failed serially in all. And after failing they continue to look for excuses. So, if what they said yesterday, they are denying it today, why do I have to believe them that they are going to do better tomorrow?
Some senators who participated in the amendment of the Electoral Act are backing the president for not signing the bill into law, are you disappointed?
I do not think that the decisions of lawmakers are mostly on the basis of national interest. Sometimes, decisions of lawmakers are influenced by their different political parties.
Are we seeing parties being supreme now?
In some sense, sometimes you can see parties being supreme. Sometimes, they are not. You may see individual lawmakers making decisions according to their patriotic feelings.
Claims of PDP lawmakers working hard to veto the president on this, is it possible given that your party does not have the number to achieve that?
I don’t think when it comes to veto, you will only have people from one side. The time in which political parties in Nigeria used to dominate the National Assembly, I think that time has also passed. So, cooperation is what now happens, in which case the decision is going to be taken to make sure that everybody knows the implication for the country of whatever decisions that will be taken, whether to veto or not to veto.
Are you seeing that happening?
I am not the National Assembly, I am a member. I can tell you that if it is put on the floor today, I am going to vote for veto.
The chairman of your party came out a few days ago to accuse the government of compelling some governors to reach a deal with them on the election. Is this worrying to you?
What worries us is the effort to undermine the integrity of the process of the elections. That is the basic thing. But on another level, the governors cannot come out and tell their citizens not to vote for their party. So, they may go and do deals, they may be compelled to do deals, but that will have nothing to do with the ordinary man on the street who is feeling the pinch, who is feeling the hunger, who is feeling the hopelessness of this government. Who does not know how this government can renege on promises and still want to get another term of office? Whatever deal is being done by whoever does not affect the ordinary man.
But are you actually surprised that these PDP governors that are entering into this marriage with APC are mainly from your zone?
What you are talking about is still speculations. I don’t deal with speculations. I deal with facts.
But they have not denied it?
I don’t think anybody was accused from our zone. The PDP chairman said governors of PDP, which goes through all zones. So, I don’t think we should particularize it.
At the last economic conference that took place in Enugu some days ago, none of the Southeast governors was there even when the vice presidential candidate of PDP was the chief guest, is this not an indication that the governors are distancing away from PDP?
I wasn’t there myself. I wasn’t invited to any economic conference. As a Senator of the Federal Republic and a key stakeholder of the Southeast and also chairman of the Southeast caucus, if I wasn’t invited, how would you assume that the governors were invited?
A governor from the zone has come out to say he is supporting the president and that the president is doing so well, is this not a clear statement on where he stands?
I’m not aware that he made such a statement. I know that the governor of Ebonyi State and other governors from the zone were instrumental and were part of the national convention and played a key role in the national convention to get a candidate for the PDP. So, how will it happen? There is an assumption that people who are in politics must be pugilistic. Some are not, some are. Some will decide that if we see ourselves in a social situation, we will greet and hug and take pictures. We are not supposed to take politics to the level of that pugilistic stance. That does not mean that you support the people. So, I think that you are reading the governors of the Southeast wrong. If they decide that they must be cooperative with the government at the centre that does not mean that they will not fight to remove the government because the government is not good for anybody, including they themselves.
Few days ago, the Minister of Power said the Federal Government does not deserve any blame for the poor state of power supply in the country. As the Chairman of the Power Committee in the Senate do you agree with him?
What is happening with regards to the Minister of Power is more or less very ironical. Prior to the inception of this government, he was one of the trenchant critics of the previous government of not being able to do anything about power. The story was that he said that a serious government within six months should have fixed the sector. Now, ironically, he was given that mandate. I also heard few days ago that he has now said he never said such a thing. But records are always kept. These days, electronic records are there for whatever you said 20 years ago. So, I really feel some pity for him because the power sector is full of all manners of difficulties and contradictions that those who look at it from outside, blindly criticize everybody before they go in and when they go in, they now find out that it’s not as it looks. I have a feeling that he spoke out of frustration. Nigerians have also seen that the three and half years of APC government has been no movement forward. On a humorous level, at the point which he was congratulating his government for 7,000 megawatts, was he not taking glory for that? So, now 7,000 megawatts have come down and sometimes goes down to 2,000 megawatts as the case has always been in this country and now he’s saying a different thing. What the minister said is in one way true. We should blame ourselves for voting this government based on their exaggerations and unfounded promises which they made to the Nigerian populace. Sadly, they have disappointed the Nigerian populace so badly that they are now very frustrated because they can no longer keep to their lies.
When they started this government, rather than focus on issues, first they said the president had a body language that is making everybody work. They kept talking about body language. For six months, they didn’t have a cabinet. They let the country run into ruin. The president himself helped to worsen matters by making comments in the foreign media, painting his own country black, telling everybody that we were a corrupt nation. Investors took off and when investors are taking off, in order to take their money, they will buy dollars at any amount. So, there was a looming crash and that apparently led to the recession. But the government, rather than admit that it was their own ineptitude that led us to where we are, continually told Nigerians that it was the previous government. It is the blame game of the previous government that has gotten them to this point where at any point, instead of sitting down and getting to grips with reality, they will continue calling names of the previous government, despite the fact that the previous government brought so many innovations into this Nigeria. There is nothing that is new that you see today that this government crows about that wasn’t done or started by the previous government. All these things have come full circle now. Elections are down the corner. They are all frustrated. They know that they can no longer tell people it is the previous government because that is not an excuse. Your own records are now going to be used to judge you and it is on that basis that people like Fashola are highly frustrated and are lashing out at the Nigerian public they are supposed to serve.
Are you saying all that the PDP government for 16 years did were perfect?
I will say that every government learns and adds value to what it meets. Every government doesn’t come in and continues to excoriate the previous government, but doing absolutely nothing. The previous government of PDP already had more than 7,000 megawatts installed capacity and we know that. But, the Minister, Fashola is going ahead and making it a point of duty to say that this government has done so much, when this government has not added one single thing to the installed capacity that they found. What we had expected was that okay, you found something, you go ahead and do better; you go ahead and add to what you have found. You go ahead and get to grips and do the work. You don’t continue everyday excoriating the previous government. Now, the reality is staring them in the face and we are asking them, what have you done in the almost four years that you are in power. Nigerians have asked Minister Fashola to bring out his achievements and now he is saying to them, don’t blame us. Blame the DISCOS. If you go back to about mid-term when we were doing an assessment of this government, I was the first person who pointed out that we have a government that abdicates responsibility. From the top to the bottom; the president abdicates responsibility and continues to blame every other person, but himself. So, the ministers have learnt and, of course, continue to blame any other person, but themselves. The same thing all the way, down the line. So, today, you see the culmination of it in a Minister of Power who actually has budgets, who does things, now turning around and saying, don’t blame me, go and blame the DISCOS. So you can see the conundrum that Nigerians are facing.
Back home, you seem to be facing some challenges. Some people are arguing that you’ve done three terms and it should have gone to other place. How are you coping with the pressure from your constituents?
I’m not bothered about it. And the reason is simple too. Every politician will always face a challenge. They say in Igbo Language that when somebody wants to abuse you and he looks at you and doesn’t know how to abuse you, then he will say ‘look at how you are’. So, that is what is happening with regards to people in politics. I expect, of course, a challenge and if there is no challenge, of course, you are not going to rise to something. You are not going to be able to do more. But I have done a significant thing to the Igbo race and that is why I am not facing any challenge and that is why people look around, they don’t know what to say and they say look at how you are. Why do you think that there are so much agitations and problems in the Southeast? That comes out of the fact that we have a government that relegates the Southeasterners and looks at everybody from the Southeast as a second-class citizen. This was encapsulated by the president when he assumed office and the first time he travelled outside to the United States, he made the unfortunate 97 per cent to five per cent remark and went ahead to implement that. So, we look around and what do we get in this government? We get in this government where their own body language says that the Southeasterner is a second-class citizen. What I have done for them is that I have fearlessly pointed it out and brought a sense of dignity to the Southeasterner to say that we are also members of this comity in which we have equal rights like everybody else. So, when I go anywhere in the Southeast and not just in my Senatorial zone, I am well known as somebody who is fighting for their rights and that encapsulates everything about my Senatorial zone. Within my Senatorial zone, I have the beautiful city of Aba that has every Igbo person on this planet represented. So, what they see is they don’t see me as somebody representing Abia South Senatorial zone. They see me representing the Igbo nation, making sure that nobody among us will feel shortchanged and that I’m not one of those who will have to be licking the boots of somebody in the Villa in order to be in office.
So many people had thought that you were going to contest for governorship of your state, did you ever consider that?
There is no way I am going to contest the governorship of Abia. We already have a governor and he comes from my place. So, if you have a governor who is already there, what are you going to contest again for?
But they have issues with governance?
The issue with governance is a story for another day because we can also contest that.
So many of your supporters are concerned about the legal uncertainties surrounding you as a result of the Nnamdi Kanu bail issue. Are you worried too?
It’s legal as you said and we are contesting everything in the court. Luckily, we have the appellate court, we have the lower court and I can tell you that the case hasn’t even started. So, we don’t even know what the outcome of the case will be when ultimately it is adjudicated.
From the way things are playing out, will you say you are being hounded by the Federal Government because of your strident criticism of its activities?
Of course, I am being hounded by the government. I was detained for no reason. My house was searched and what were they looking for? They said they were looking for evidence of support of a terrorist organization. In other words, they were not comfortable with my criticism of the government. Nigerians have to be careful about this government. A government that does not absorb criticism is a government on a one-way road to dictatorship and it has happened in several other countries. That we are democracy does not mean we cannot go into a dictatorship because some dictatorships also went through democratic means. An example is Hitler. He was actually elected until he became a one-man show when he took away the powers of the parliament and now became everything. In Peru, Puji Moore also went through the same route. He was also elected until he became a dictator. In Venezuela, the late President went through elections and became a dictator. The fact that you are a democracy does not exclude the fact that you can end up being a dictatorship and it is what we are trying to prevent in Nigeria. A situation where somebody will criticize government today and tomorrow you are picked up, what does that portend? It is to create a climate of fear so that everybody runs away and then they will do what they like and before you know it, you will not have a country. Each and every one of you, especially you journalists will be the victim because they will have to prevent free speech to make sure that people don’t do any other thing. They will move from there to preventing people from exercising their fundamental rights. After they have curbed your rights, then they will make sure that they take away the powers of the courts. After they take away the powers of the courts and the powers of the parliament, what do you have? You will have only the executive standing and that is pure dictatorship. So, we must be very careful and Nigerians must pay heed to the signals that are coming. A climate of fear was being created when herdsmen were going all over the place killing people. Why are they quiet today? They are quiet because they are waiting for the elections to come so that they will now come back and unleash mayhem. The only thing that has not gone alright in their plans is that Boko Haram has not played according to their own script because their script was that Boko Haram had been defeated, had been degraded, had been denuded, but Boko Haram didn’t play that script. So, you could see that it was a plan to just lure everybody into going into an election. Now, Boko Haram has shown by attacking our military that all those claims were hollow and empty claims. So, you could see a pattern that is emerging with this government and I go back to my previous word to say that Nigerians should vote out this government. Otherwise, what we are going to see in front will be very devastating and there probably will be no Nigeria. I come from the Southeast and if you have herdsmen move again into the Southeast, do you think we are going to keep quiet and just let it happen? We are not going to do so. There is already a terrible agitation that is going on there and people are unhappy. So, how will they now support a government that is encouraging these things? The next thing they do is anybody that talks about it, they try to detain you to make you keep quiet, but it’s not going to work. This is a democracy and I have a right to say no to whatever they want to tell me. I have a right to espouse my own opinions according to my own analysis of the situation on the ground.
Over 70 members of House of Representatives recently canvassed a return to parliamentary system, is it a panacea to Nigeria’s democratic challenge?
I think the problem of the country is leadership. It is the frustration with the leadership of the country that has led people to look for a system in which they think will limit the capability of the executive side of our country to be mischievous. The law says today that if you are a member of the executive, that for you to run an election, you should be able to resign, 30 days before elections. But throughout the period of the PDP government, any minister or head of government agency desirous of running for election resigns actually 30 days before primaries, not even before the elections. But what have we seen that is happening in this government? Because of mischief, this government leaves their members in office and contest primaries, in other words, disenfranchising other people who are also contesting with them, not on a level playing ground, and when you challenge them, they will say the constitution says it’s only 30 days. That will give you the mindset of this government that they are willing to take things to the brink. With regards to the Electoral Act, the president rejected the Electoral Bill four times starting since January. At any point that there was a correction of whatever he said and returned to him, there will be no immediate response. The president will wait until the constitutionally required 30 days in order to continue to delay. I’m telling you that the way the government acts tends to lend the impression of mischief, only covered on the surface by the constitution. So, where do we go from there? It is the actions of the government that will tell you where it intends to go and I think those lawmakers, having looked at this whole thing, have now said if we cannot curb the leadership ethos of the government in power, of the person who is the leader of the government, let us now find a constitutional way of holding him in place and that is why they now insist that we go back to a parliamentary system where whoever is the leader of government, whoever is the Prime Minister is also part of the legislature. Again, every time we find things that are wrong in this country and there are motions brought and we do everything, we pass those motions, those motions are supposed to be advice to government for which a listening government will use. But we have also seen that the government doesn’t care and treats everything that we do with regards to giving it advice by way of the resolutions that we do, as an exercise in futility. So, you can see the frustrations that are leading people there. But my own take is simple. The problem is not the system. The problem is the leadership of this country and what has brought this to a head today is the fact that we have had the most ethnocentric government and government that is based on parochial interest and that has now brought agitations everywhere. It was encapsulated very clearly by the wife of the president who said that the president is not in charge, by her own words that unelected people parochial interest are the people running her husband’s government.
She said they are slowing down governance…
What does the slowing down of governance mean? It means that the things that ought to be done are not done. It also leads to consequences for the country, is that not so? If the wife of the president says to us, ‘my husband is not in charge. Some other people who we didn’t elect are in charge, why would Nigerians want to continue to leave that husband there so that the other people who are not elected, who are in charge will continue to run our lives? We want a president that will take responsibility for his government. All that the wife is telling us is validating what I said from the beginning that the government does not take responsibility for its actions.
Some people also believe that a lot of National Assembly members are to be blamed because they prefer to do deals than do their job professionally. Why is it so?
I cannot agree with you. How will the National Assembly do deals? Is it when the president brings a legislation that is not in the interest of the country that we will say no? Is it when he is supposed to take executive actions and he doesn’t take it that you will say what? There is no way you can remove responsibility for running the government from the president.
Everybody has his or her own responsibilities. Our responsibility is to make laws for good governance and part of making laws for good governance is that if we see that things are going wrong, we tell the president that you are veering in the wrong direction. The president is the person who sits day to day to take decisions for this country and we have seen that the totality of the decisions taken have led us far more into a morass than leading us to where they said to us at the beginning when they were coming into office that they were going to lead us to Eldorado.
Are you being fair and sincere when you try to suggest that nothing good has come out from this government?
Nothing good has come from this government. We can debate today and tomorrow and it will come to the same thing. This government came into office promising us three things – economy, security, anti-corruption. Which one have they done?