Senator Suleiman Adokwe represents Nasarawa South senatorial district. In this interview with Jaiyeola Andrews, Adokwe decries the growing disenchantment with national institution among Nigerians and says there is need for a radical rethink of national responsibilities by the political elite. But he believes there are still grounds for optimism. Excerpts:
Nigeria celebrated its 53rd independence anniversary, amid grim political and economic circumstances. Do you think there are real grounds for optimism about the future of the country?
In my view, yes, there is something to celebrate. Most Nigerians when they are asked the question they speak in anger; there is nothing to celebrate, we should have done better than what we have done, we should be in a better position than we are today. We forget the circumstances that brought the various ethnic nationalities together in 1914 to form a country called Nigeria. It was not one of voluntary volition, where people sat together and said, okay let us be together as a country or one dominant ethnic nationality conquered the rest, as is very common in history. So, there would be a binding force that will forge a sense of nationality as a country. But people were brought together for convenience by the colonial administrators.
We are in touch with each other during the pre-colonial time either through trade route or some form of ethnic wars. Beyond that, there was not any formal forging of a country called Nigeria until the colonial masters brought us together for their administrative convenience. So given that kind of loose confederation, as it were, we had a protracted transition period of agreeing to be a country. Prior to independence, there were discordant tunes within the region and virtually each region was developing at its own pace and at a certain time. In fact, until recently, a lot of us even, as a young graduate, we did not want to work in Lagos; everybody wanted to work in their state. Even when Abuja was created, some parts of this country were reluctant to come to Abuja. So these are the set of circumstances that continue to undermine our oneness as a nation, and undermine our willpower to develop, in spite of all the natural resources God has endowed the country with.
With that kind of background, when you look at all those factors undermining our will to progress and the few achievements that have been made, you will concede that we have tried.
What is your take on the federal government’s plan to convene a national conference?
It is a reflection of the perilous time in which we live. There is so much talk about: let us even reexamine the need for our living together as a people, or let us reexamine how we can continue to live together as a people without getting at each other’s throat, because of the state of anarchy in virtually every part of this country. There is no exception; even those docile communities have finally become very aggressive. We are almost getting to a level where anything goes and people have resorted to self-help. There is breakdown of law and order; criminals are getting away with murder with impunity simply because whatever they do, their ethnic backgrounds hide them from proper due process of law. Everybody looks at the centre and feels that they are not part of it so nobody should harass their own people.
So the calls for national conference is a reflection of what is going on and the need for the political elite, the opinion moulders of various communities, to sit down and talk things out. That is my understanding of it. I do not think that it is a deliberate step to now say let us divide the country and everybody should go his way. That will be the extreme condition that could be taken. But majority of ordinary Nigerians know that we have been so integrated in many ways through marriages, through commerce, through relocation that dividing the country is a very serious upheaval. It is also a forum to call each other’s bluff. If one part of this country thinks that is the one that is making the other parts survive, people are now made to see that we have become so symbiotic in our living that you can hardly know who has advantage over the other. If you have so much water, you don’t have so much land, if you have so much land, you don’t have so much water, if you have so much minerals, you don’t have so much agricultural resources, and so on.
The way we are today, everybody can benefit from all these things at the minimal cost.
There has been a strong public protest about an alleged jumbo pay of National Assembly members. What is your opinion on this?
The unfortunate thing is that virtually every senator you ask will tell you his salary is an open secret, so there is nothing hidden about it. But for some reasons the public just won’t believe it. The salary of senators is fixed by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission. They are the ones that fix the salary and everybody can find out what the salary of a senator is. People are making mention of, you are earning N30 million a month, N50 million, some even say N100 million. It just goes to show that nobody seems to be able to put his fingers on what it is all about, and if you are alleging that this is how much a senator earns, you must prove it. Where the concept of jumbo salary comes, I don’t know and we have continuously said in the past four to five years the allocation to the National Assembly – Senate, House of Representatives, the management, the civil servants that are there, the various organisations, like National Institute of Legislative Studies and the National Assembly Commission – is the totality of N159 billion per annum and that is less than three per cent of the total budget of the country.
The budget of this year is N4.7 trillion, if you remove N150 billion, you still have the balance of N4.6 trillion. People are hell-bent on undermining the National Assembly and the National Assembly is what makes a difference in a democracy. The executive and judiciary have always been in existence under dictatorships. It is the National Assembly that makes the difference in a democracy and the people who are elected are the people you see every day and the slightest change in their lifestyle becomes a cause for suspicion.
The truth of the matter is that we don’t have that kind of money. That is why you can hardly find a rich former senator, but you can always find a rich former minister, a rich former governor, no president will ever come to be poor, but you have lots and lots of poor former senators and House of Representatives members. What they are saying about jumbo pay does not exist.
Many Nigerians believe the Senate fairly frequently adopts an anti-people stance, unlike the House of Representatives that is perceived as relatively pro-people. How would you respond to this?
I don’t know the basis of that comparison. At the end of the day, any law that is passed must be agreed upon between the two chambers. If a bill failed in the Senate and it succeeds in the House of Representatives, it will still require concurrence in the Senate for it to become law, and in most cases whatever the position of the House of Representatives is, unless it is radically different from the position of the Senate, it will always see the light of the day. Don’t forget that the Senate in any jurisdiction, whether in Nigeria, in America, in France, in Rome where it all started, it is a collection of people who have seen so many things in life, who are seasoned administrators, seasoned businessmen, seasoned lawyers, professors, academics. They have the benefit of experience and they look at things in all ramifications.
They are bound to be much more sober in their dealings than the House of Representatives, which consists of old and young people. It is to be expected anywhere in the world. Even in the United States, the Congress is seen as the peoples’ house. In the UK, the parliament is seen as the peoples’ house, as opposed to the House of Lords, and even in Italy, France, everywhere; you find that the Senate is more conservative than the House of Representatives.
Then I have to let you understand that at the end of the day, the National Assembly is one. Where the House of Representatives may be seen as firing and more proactive, the Senate provides a steady hand for the situation. At the end of the day, we reconcile whatever extreme positions are taken and the country is better for it.
How would you react to the argument in some quarters that legislators should work on part-time basis?
Those calls are calls of anger and frustration where the people see legislators not as truly representing them. So in anger they say throw away the water and the baby and let us go back to square one. That would not change anything.
The only thing available to the people is, if you think your legislator has not been representing you well, when another time comes for election you vote another person that can represent you well. At the end of the day, the institution will become very tough and you always find that things will improve with time.