By Agaju Madugba, Katsina
Senator Abba Ali, represented Katsina/Dutsinma Senatorial district under the defunct National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Ali is currently a member of the Board of Trustees of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) as well as kinsman of President Muhammadu Buhari. Some 17 years after the return to democratic rule, Ali goes back memory lane as he relives his days as a federal legislator between 1979 and 1983 and laments that members of the present day National Assembly have turned contractors.
How do you compare your days at the National Assembly with what is obtainable there today?
It is totally different today. In 1979, we were purely politicians, members of the National Assembly, making laws, appropriating funds for the Federal Government and there were checks and balances in government. We did not interfere in the running of government. Nowadays you see Senators and members of the House of Representatives handling money in the name of constituency allowances to do constituency jobs. It is not their job. It is the job of the government. They do not have the expertise. They are supposed to be lawmakers and that is Buhari’s fight with the National Assembly. Buhari wants to scrap it because it should not be there. If you want to be a lawmaker, then you should be a lawmaker. If you want to run the party, you run the party and if you want to be part of the Executive then you go there. There is separation of powers.
I remember vividly when we were at the National Assembly, when they wanted to renovate our 1004 flats in Lagos, the budget was made and Joseph Wayas, the then Senate President reminded us that we were lawmakers, that we should tell the Ministry of Works what we wanted in our houses, that they have the expertise to cost it and give the contract to the right people to do it. We did not touch a kobo of it. But when the PDP government under Obasanjo came in, they monetized everything and privatized so many industries including NITEL.
Look at the steel industries, they are no longer functional. But when they were under the control of government, they were functional. We are copying the American system but have you ever seen or heard where members of the legislature touch money? It is the Executive that does that. The lawmakers are there to ensure that the money they appropriate for projects is spent as agreed upon and for the purposes intended. This is the mistake we have made and that is why I told you that when politicians returned to power in 1999, we started behaving like the military and not as politicians. That is why we have to change now.
What were the emoluments like in your days?
Let me tell you, for the four years we did at the National Assembly, we were only given N10,000 each for constituency allowance, to open an office in our constituency. Even the allowances we paid to our staff were not paid throughout the four years. We paid our assistants out of our own money. Do you know how much we got then as salary? It was the responsibility of the National Assembly to fix the salary of the President. When we said Shagari should earn N1 million salary, he said he was not going to accept that that government was taking care of him at the State House. He said the money was too much. Finally, he said that N25, 000 per annum was enough for him.
Then, nobody could earn more than the President. So, we decided that the Senate President and the Vice President should earn N20, 000 per annum and that the Speaker should earn N18, 000 per annum and the Senators, N15, 000 per annum and members of the House of Representatives, N12, 00 per annum. A member of the House of Representatives earned N1, 000 per month. As Senators, we got N1, 200 per month. Out of that amount, they deducted some money because we were given N10, 000 each to buy cars which we paid back within three years. And, at the 1004 flats where we stayed, we paid rent and that rent was also deducted from our salary of N1, 200 per month. At the end of the day we ended up with N780 per month. That was what we earned per month throughout the four years. But now, I understand that there are even proposals for members of the National Assembly and even state governors to earn money after leaving office. It is wrong. They are not workers who served the country for 35 years, to earn pension. In fact, in some other countries, legislators work on part time basis. For each sitting, there is a sitting allowance. I understand that Senators earn so much money nowadays when we cannot even pay the minimum wage of N18, 00 per month for workers. Nigerians are said to be undergoing severe economic hardship especially under the present regime of Muhammadu Buhari. Do you agree with that?
Sometimes we tend to forget the reality of situations on ground and we apportion blames on particular persons or regimes. The reality is that there is a world recession which does not affect only Nigeria. There is economic hardship all over the world. We had gone through such periods in the past but it is possible that the regimes then did not want to come out and tell the true situation of things. But Buhari realised that we are under a democratic rule and he allow people to say their minds in the course of which they may have the opportunity to make their input and say their grievances for a general improvement of the society. As you are aware, before his coming, we had a period of economic boom; the price of crude oil was high for about five years. The previous regime enjoyed that and people spent money lavishly. Suddenly when this regime came in, the price of oil dropped to about a quarter of what was obtainable in the past. As a government that has to take measures, the government took measures to take care of the situation. If your income is low, you have to spend according to your priorities. Muhammadu Buhari decided to cancel so many things and stopped the importation of some items. Some of us were privileged to visit him during the last Sallah and he told us a touchy story. He said that that the previous government spent N28 billion on the importation of rice for one year. But when they investigated, only N5 billion was actually used for the importation while N3 billion was diverted in collaboration with the importers. We are used to eating imported rice but Buhari said no, let us stop it and start the rice pilot scheme in Kebbi state. Here in my house, we eat our home grown rice which is cheaper and we have to come down to our senses. In Nigeria, we are capable of feeding ourselves and the West African region and indeed the whole of Africa, if we concentrate on agriculture and it can bring all the resources we need to manage our country.
But critics believe that the Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy has tended to slow down activities of government agencies thereby further retarding economic growth. Do you agree?
I don’t agree with you. The Single Treasury Account was even decided during the Obasanjo regime and then the Umaru Musa and Jonathan regime. It is the only way out to curb corruption but because the previous governments did not want to fight corruption, they decided not to introduce it. It was actually their idea. Part of Buhari’s agenda is to fight corruption and you cannot fight corruption without blocking loopholes that give room for corruption to take place. Under Single Treasury Account, you cannot spend money without being checked. Buhari told us that when he came in, they found one ministry with well over 40 accounts in various banks. They operated secret accounts through which they perpetuated all kinds of corruption.
The PDP has consistently described government’s anti-corruption fight as one-sided and that the APC was not equipped to handle the country. Do you agree?
The membership of the APC is not entirely different from that of the PDP. We were all members of the PDP. So, the PDP cannot brag and say that APC does not have the right people to manage the affairs of the country. We formed the PDP and the current members of the APC were in PDP. The Nigerian politics is such that today, you see somebody in APC and tomorrow you see him in PDP or vice versa. It is not something unusual in Nigeria. But it is wrong to say that the anti-corruption war is one-sided. Buhari made it clear during his campaigns that he was going to fight corruption in the country. When he came in, he started with the TSA but some people do not want it because they are no longer free to dip their hands into the coffers of government. He also said that he was not going to investigate the past but people complained against some people who they believe were involved in corrupt practices and that such cases ought to be investigated. Those cases before the EFCC were not brought by the APC government. They were there long before APC and he said that they should continue. The Sule Lamido case and several others were there before the APC came on board.
What do you consider as some of the Buhari administration’s achievements in almost two years now?
The number one achievement is peace. The Boko Haram issue is almost completely wiped out. It is an achievement which the previous government could not do for six years. Now you can drive and go anywhere at night. Some days back, I drove all the way from Kaduna to Katsina and I left Kaduna at about past eight pm. You know very well that during the previous regime you could not even travel within the state. The second achievement is that we are now beginning to realise that we have to work towards building the nation instead of destroying it. The government has put the economy on the right path so that it can become viable. We are gradually returning to agriculture and small businesses especially using the N-Power programme of government. Some people are being empowered so that they can start small businesses.