Economic hardship and little enlightenment about the work of the legislature have led many Nigerians to habour adverse notions about the National Assembly. Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe throws new light on the legislative business, and its cost and benefit to society, in this encounter with Vincent Obia. The chairman of Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs also talks about his own political career, which has been on an upward trajectory and now points towards the Abia State governorship seat
You can tell a lot about a public officer from their daily routines and self-discipline. Some devote themselves to strict routines for cosmetics and power dressing. Some have no discipline. As you meet Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, the first thing that strikes you is his lithe physique, which tries to belie the age of the man on the cusp between his fifth decade of life and the sixth decade.
The senator for Abia South senatorial district will be 59 on March 1. â€œBut because I do one hour on the treadmill everyday, you will never know,â€ he says. This makes a statement about Abaribeâ€™s dogged determination to succeed in his endeavours and his commitment to discipline and adventure.
Abaribe had tried to go to the House of Representatives on the platform of the now defunct United Nigeria Congress Party under the General Sani Abacha transition programme, but was unsuccessful. â€œBut in politics, when you are unsuccessful, that teaches you a lesson. It tells you how not to do it next time. I came back and tried to go back to my business. And lo and behold, Abacha died and the whole political dynamics changed,â€ he says.
At the start of the Fourth Republic in 1999, he wanted to run for the House of Representatives, but ended up being deputy governor under then Governor Orji Kalu. They had a turbulent three years until Abaribe resigned on March 7, 2003 to vie for the governorship of Abia State under All Nigeria Peoples Party. He lost to Kalu.
Abaribe was elected into the Sixth Senate in 2007, and re-elected in 2011.
A ranking member of the upper chamber, and with the benefit of hindsight and foresight, Abaribe believes the feeling among Nigerians that the bicameral legislature is a huge drain on the countryâ€™s resources is the result of a historical attempt to disparage and subvert the legislature.
â€œI would say that may be the insinuation is not just about the National Assembly. The perception in the public is that people in public office are spindrifts who have misused public resources,â€ he says.
â€œWith particular reference to the National Assembly, certain perceptions have been historically built. When the National Assembly started in 1999 and we had the Obasanjo government, there was, of course, an imperial presidency because there hadnâ€™t been any institution during the military that was supposed to be a check on the executive. From that point, there was a serious attempt to subvert the National Assembly and ensure that it was just an appendage of the presidency. That was where the problem started.â€
He recalls how in 1999 the senatorsâ€™ choice of Chuba Okadigbo as senate president was, allegedly, overturned overnight by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo government, â€œusing all manners of pressure,â€ leading to Evans Enweremâ€™s emergence as senate president. Okadigboâ€™s attempt to fight back with the Peoples Democratic Movement machinery culminated in the â€œrevolving doorâ€ syndrome, which meant a very unstable National Assembly leadership at the time.
Abaribe gives an insight into the National Assembly furniture allowance crisis at the start of the Fourth Republic.
â€œWhat happened was that as members of the National Assembly were coming into office, they didnâ€™t have any accommodation, they were living in hotels. Now when there was a negotiation with the executive that they needed to have accommodation and the accommodation that was built, the present Apo Legislative Quarters, was getting ready, it was necessary to furnish the place. The first thing was the furniture allowance. It was supposed to be something to be refunded. Okadigbo was now senate president. But in trying to undermine the National Assembly under Okadigbo, it was leaked that the legislators had collected huge furniture allowances. The whole country went up in arms. It was not explained that it was going to be refunded from the incomes of the legislators.
â€œThe National Assembly was still fledgling and couldnâ€™t make the necessary explanations. That was what led to the perception. I was outside and was also part of the outrage against the legislators. But nobody knew what ministers and other government officials were getting and how they were spending it.â€
National Assembly as Cost Centre
Abaribe also throws light on the accounting procedure in the legislature. He says, â€œI represent Abia South senatorial district. That means that if I were in a private company, I would have either been what they call a profit centre or a cost centre. When I was in SCOA as area manager in Port Harcourt, I was a profit and cost centre; at every time they will check the cost you are using to run the company vice-a-vice the profit you are bringing. There was a perception in the public that we were civil servants and therefore, didnâ€™t need any element of cost around every office. But every other place in the world, the office of a senator â€“ or House member â€“ is actually a cost centre. In the U.S. senate, every senator, depending on the size of your constituency, gets between $3.6 million and $5 million. Obamaâ€™s own was $4.2 million when he was representing Illinois. That was a cost centre, not his salary. The salary of a U.S. senator is $174, 000.
â€œNow, we ran into the problem of how to explain to the Nigerian public that this is a cost centre, and that has been the problem till today.â€
Maintained with about three percent of the annual budget (N150 billion), Abaribe says the National Assembly does an intrinsic work that is invaluable, but difficult to quantify.
â€œThe question is, if the National Assembly wasnâ€™t there to make the kind of inquiries and oversights that we are seeing now, where will we be today? You find that at every point, it is the National Assembly that exposes the monumental mismanagement of Nigeriaâ€™s resources.
â€œThe question of fuel subsidy fraud came out from a motion that was brought by Senator Saraki, the pension scam came out from a motion by Senator Lawan, etc. The National Assembly does an intrinsic work as a check.â€
On whether the country has done well in terms of the development of democratic culture since 1999, Abaribe believes there has been a general improvement, with political actors at all levels learning to do the right thing. â€œFor the National Assembly, we are far better at democratic ethos than we were,â€ he says. â€œWe do our own and we put pressure on the executive to do the right thing. Of course, the executive would sometimes ignore whatever we say.â€
The National Assembly has moved from the infamous â€œrevolving door policyâ€ to a more stable legislature. â€œThere has been an improvement in the quality of debates. The resort to ethnicism and demagoguery has reducedâ€¦
â€œThere is also a seismic shift. What we are seeing is that nobody now can take the National Assembly or the Nigerian public for granted. Every political actor today is unsure whether they can get the kind of support they used to take for granted before. Everybody now does his best to make sure you key into what your constituents want,â€ Abaribe explains.
Governorship Ambition and Zoning
Abaribe is excited by Governor Theodore Orjiâ€™s recent statement that the right to produce the next governor has been zoned to Abia South senatorial district. Short of declaring that he will throw his hat into the ring, the senator leaves no one in doubt about his intention to vie for the Abia State governorship post in 2015. But he says, â€œI am doing consultations now with intent to make my position known when I conclude the consultation.â€
He says what Orji has done is a commendable attempt to streamline the governorship contest to a manageable form in line with current zoning trends across the country. â€œBut in doing that, whoever may come from Abia South to become the governor should also be an Abia governor, and not an Abia South governor. Somebody whose vision, breath, and reach will be beyond that part of the state,â€ he says.
â€œThat encapsulates why I am doing all the consultations within and around Abia, having been a deputy governor, two-term senator, having had my horizon much beyond Abia and traversed the whole of the country, having given my trajectory and shown that at critical junctures of my life both Igbos, Yorubas, etc, all contributed in one way or the other.â€
National Assembly Defections
Abaribe believes the defections in the National Assembly are normal, stressing, however, that there is a snag in the current move by the All Progressives Congress legislators.
According to him, â€œPrior to the defections, those who wanted to defect both in the House and the senate combined and went to court. They got two injunctions pending the resolution of the suit. The people sued were the principal officers of the two chambers â€“ the senate president and the House speaker.
In one of those orders, the judge said parties must maintain the status quo. The status quo is that they are in PDP, they cannot move. Their suit is that their seats should not be declared vacant should they defect. That order was gotten in December. So when they say they want to move, they run against the court order.
â€œWe also have a section in our standing rules which guides our operation on the floor. Our Standing Rule 53 (5) says when a matter is in court, and if in the opinion of the senate president that matter, if it goes on, would likely prejudice the court action, it cannot be discussed. The senate president was now in a dilemma.â€
The senate spokesman, however, states that the matter is being discussed with a view to reaching an amicable solution.
Abaribe has had a long and adventurous career, spanning academics, business administration, and trading. He grew up in Aba, a city where trading and business adventurism seem to be the bailiwick of residents. He had wanted to build a career in academics. He taught briefly at the Edo State University, Ekpoma, (then Bendel State University) after obtaining a Masterâ€™s degree in Economics from the University of Benin and also starting a Ph.D. programme there. But fate changed the direction of his career path to SCOA, a trading corporation; NICON Plc.; Integrated Mortgage Company; and ultimately, private business.
Abaribeâ€™ working life is full of interesting anecdotes. At SCOA, Abaribe started as a trainee manager and rose to area manager for southern Nigeria. He says his employment in the company had been made possible by the fair-mindedness of someone not of his own tribe.
He narrates, â€œAbout 100 of us were called for the oral interview. But when we got to the SCOA office at Marina, something significant happened. We were talking among ourselves and this story came up that after the test some people within SCOA manipulated the results that were sent by TEDRO and put other peopleâ€™s names and those who were living in Lagos and were following up came to find out. They went to report to one of those I would call true Nigerians, Ifaturoti. He was the personnel manager of SCOA. â€œIâ€™m saying this because the impression is that all Nigerians are corrupt. Ifaturoti was a Yoruba man and quite elderly. When he got to know as personnel manager, he said, no, this canâ€™t happen under me. He cancelled all the letters they had sent earlier, went to TEDRO to collect the original results from them and insisted that all the 100 people that were initially invited for oral interview were the people to be called. That was how we were invited.
â€œIf not for the uprightness of Ifaturoti, we would probably not have worked in SCOA.â€
Abaribeâ€™s rise to SCOAâ€™s area manager for southern Nigeria also had an interesting story around it.
He says, â€œI had worked as logistics manager under a deputy general manager who is from Orudi, a small town in Sapele. His name is J.B Erijo. I had never met him all my life until I worked under him. When there was this small problem in Port Harcourt and they decided to change the area manager, he asked me to go. I had spent six months reorganising the place and one day I was speaking to him on phone and he asked me, â€œwhere are you from?â€ when I told him I was an Igbo man he couldnâ€™t believe it. What Iâ€™m saying is that they were doing things based on your competence. That is why I believe in this country. My driver is an Hausa man from Kano.
â€œTwo people now who have affected my trajectory through life were completely not Igbo.â€
Following the political and economic crisis in the aftermath of the June 12, 1993 presidential election annulment by former military president Ibrahim Babangida, many companies had collapsed, including Abaribeâ€™s. Then he went into trading.
â€œBut it didnâ€™t work and I lost some money,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s good to try things because it makes you know whether you do some things or not. I remember when I was leaving SCOA for NICON, I was a little conflicted, being in a fairly high position as area manager in charge of southern Nigeria and seeing the opportunity coming that wasnâ€™t so sure.
â€œThere was a biscuit company near Agunlejika. We used to distribute for them. The Indian who was the general manager told me something very profound when I told him about the conflicting situation I found myself. He said, â€˜If you do not take the opportunity and try it out, you will forever regret because you will not know whether you could have made a success of it.â€™ His advice was, â€˜You are young, take opportunities when you are young.â€™
â€œI then tried to be a stock fish trader; it didnâ€™t also work. In fact, I lost my money and other peopleâ€™s money. Then I went to China with a friend who traded in electronics. I found out I could do well in electronics and set up an IT company. I used to go and buy components and come back to build them into computers and sell. I taught myself how to do those things.
â€œI also distributed door bells and other electronic goods because Iâ€™m very technically inclined in terms of looking at gismos. I read science fiction a lot, ground-breaking technology.â€
Abaribe sets himself high targets. He aims for the â€œdeepening of democracy in the legislative arm and effective representation of my constituency.â€ Working as the face of the senate, certainly, he has tried to achieve those goals with the current improvements in the legislative process.
It is difficult to say how the powers that be in Abia State view the present political interests and accomplishments of the Abia South senator, especially, in terms of entrusting him with the governorship role. Regardless, Abaribe has demonstrated confidence in his strength.