Ekweremadu Will Make My Work Difficult – Saraki
Almost a month after his emergence as the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki at the weekend broke his silence in an interview with journalists in Abuja, where he spoke on circumstances surrounding his emergence and the emergence of a PDP senator as Deputy Senate President, among other issues. Excerpts?:
On June 9, when you were elected as Senate President, what happened inside the chamber that very day? Were you aware of the meeting scheduled by the party at the International Conference Centre (ICC)?
The truth is that I have not spoken on that incident before. So, l will tell you what exactly happened. First, as regards the meeting at the ICC, I didn’t finish the various meetings I was having till around 4 am on Tuesday (June 9). I got the information that efforts were likely being made to make sure I did not get access into the chambers. So, as early as 5 am, I had a contingency plan that I must have my way because the plan before was that we should go to the Transcorp Hilton between 8am and 9 am and proceed to the National Assembly from there. But I was advised that it would not be safe or secure for me to do that because there were some people who said if I did not get to the chamber, it will not be possible for anybody to nominate me or second my nomination.
So, I had to devise my own means. I can tell you today that I was in the National Assembly complex as early as 6 am in the morning. I stayed in the car park, inside my small car from that 6 am to 9.45 am. This is the truth. I was there and there was no communication. So, anybody that said he spoke to me or called me was lying. I did not know what was going on. All I did was to monitor how people were arriving into the chamber. It was at 9.45 am that I got information that the clerk had entered into the chambers. I got out of my small car, put on my Babaringa and walked from the car park into the chambers.
That was the reason some of you would have noticed that I looked very tired that morning. Even when I was in the chambers, the only thing I observed was that some of our senators were not present but for the fact that people were arriving in batches, I was of the opinion that they would come in subsequent batches. Then, by 10 am, the event started and before we knew it, my election had come and gone. That was what happened with regards to it. Even some of my supporters were initially worried that they did not see me. They were relieved when they saw me in the chambers.
As alleged by Senator Kabir Marafa, is there any change indeed from the 2011 Senate Standing Orders to that of 2015?
These are administrative issues. All we got when we arrived in the Senate chambers was a brown envelope and inside it was the 2015 Standing Orders and that was what we worked with.
There was a story that in 1979, your late father contested for Senate Presidency and he was a threat to the preferred candidate. We heard that on the day of the inauguration of the Senate, he was invited by the then President Shehu Shagari and by the time he came back from the meeting, Senator Joseph Wayas was already on the seat as the Senate President. Is there any link between 1979 and 2015?
I think people are just creating stories and expressing issues. Honestly, nobody in his wildest calculation ever thought that some senators would not be present on the day of inauguration. In my own view, most of those who worked closely with us would not be surprised about the outcome of the election because I worked hard. I had direct contact with every single senator. I was not relying on anybody. Even within our party, I worked hard and was in touch with everybody, seeing them, and talking to them. We began to build confidence. Also on the other side, the Peoples Democratic Party senators, I was talking to them.
That was the reason I laughed when people said that I had a deal that led to the emergence of Senator Ike Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President. I did not make any deal for Ekweremadu to win. I did not need a deal because as I said, I worked hard. Everybody who is a senator. So, I was canvassing and campaigning for their votes and some of you will remember the meeting we held at the Transcorp Hotel which the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, co-chaired with Senator Ibrahim Gobir. If you heard most of them there, the position they took was that ‘this is the Senate President we want’. This was not on any party line. Those who came from PDP, their view were that ‘this is the Senate President we believe in and whom we believe can lead us.’
So, when I heard people talking about a deal, it is strange to me. Our success was because one was able to convince a lot of our colleagues and they accepted that this is the person that was going to lead and as such, the outcome of the Senate President’s election was positive. But the fact is that we worked hard for it and also prayed about it. We campaigned and won the confidence of our colleagues even within the APC itself. I believed that the way the events turned out was some evidence of faith and destiny because sometimes, I sit down and still wonder how some of our colleagues found themselves in the International Conference Centre. I mean, if there had been a situation where the clerk announced that the event had been postponed, it would have been a different thing. I am sure if you ask some of my colleagues what actually happened, they will not find an answer to it other than that there must be a hand of fate and destiny in it.
So, it is not true that PDP senators invited you to their meeting and told you that they would support you?
What I am saying is that PDP senators had announced to the public that they were supporting me without my having a meeting with them. PDP as a party told the public at about 10 pm on June 8 that in their own meeting, majority of their senators had told the party that ‘this is who they were going to vote for and the party decided to agree with them.’ So, even in their own interest strategically, they decided that since 30 of their senators were going to vote for me anyway, the remaining had better joined and concurred. It was not until 2 am on June 9 that they called us to tell us that this was what they had decided and when they said that they had a candidate for the position of Deputy Senate President, we also told them that we had a candidate in the name of Senator Ali Ndume. It was our own calculation that after we would have finished the Senate President’s election, the two groups in APC would meet and agree on a candidate.
We never in our own team thought the other group would not turn up for the inauguration. By the time we got there, we were 25 or thereabout and they were over 40 PDP members. So, there was no way they would not have defeated us and that was what happened. When people said it was a deal, I said to them that if the clerk had started the proceedings in the House of Representatives first before proceeding to the Senate, it is the House of Representatives, I am sure, that would have had a Deputy Speaker from PDP. It was the two hours the clerk of the National Assembly spent with us that gave the time to House members to return to the House and have enough number to prevent that kind of event.
For any APC member, it is unfortunate that we have a PDP man as a Deputy Senate President. It is painful for any APC member. When we went through all the struggles that was not what we signed for. It is unfortunate but it has happened. It would be unfair to put all these blames on one side because it was a combination of errors and miscalculations that led us to have what happened that morning – that some senators were in another place instead of being at the National Assembly. So, to suggest that it was out of desperate act to emerge as Senate President will be uncharitable. I reject the suggestion that we had a deal completely and those who had followed the event knew that I did not need that kind of deal to emerge. As I said, if we the Senate elections had been the second one to take place, Ekweremadu would not have emerged Deputy Senate President. The problem would have been in the House of Representatives. My view is that we will see how to work with it and how we will be able to move on as a party and still push in through our agenda.
Your emergence was against your party’s wish but the party leadership later accepted. When the party nominated principal officers, one would have thought that in order to mend fences, you would have accepted their nominees. People will think it is a case of a man who defeated his party twice
Let me take the first question where you said that my emergence was not the party’s position. We have it on record that at no time did the party say it had zoned this position to a particular zone. Soon after the election, the party held a meeting at the caucus level. At the caucus level, there was a working document that the party presented, which showed that it had zoned the Senate Presidency to the North-central but at the meeting, it was rejected and thus, the party needed to go back and work on the paper.
We waited for the party but there was no follow up. Then, we started hearing rumours that the party was thinking that it might consider not holding on to that proposal from the National Working Committee (NWC) that the Senate Presidency should be zoned to the North-central and may be, it would be given to the North-east. Then, the governors got involved, held their own meeting and also recommended North-central. All we were waiting for was for the party to announce that the position had been zoned to North-central but all of a sudden, the leaders of the party categorically came and said there was no zoning. If the party had said it had zoned this position to the North-east, Abubakar Bukola Saraki would never have contested for the office of Senate President. But the party said there was no zoning and that it would use merit and all that. It also said anybody from the two zones could contest. That was point number one.
On the issue of procedure of the emergence of the principal officers of the party, it is true that the party did send a letter but as you all know, we are guided by the Constitution and the Standing Orders of the Senate. These are two documents that I have taken an oath to ensure that whatever I do as the Senate President, I will abide by their rules. And also by parliamentary practices and procedures and things that are done as convention, you know that the content of that letter clearly was not the norm or what they practiced in that place. It generally has been the convention that majority of these positions go to different caucuses of the party and from there, the party meets and recommends.
This Senate President is just first among equals. I do not have any executive power over my colleagues and some of you know the effort I made over the last 48 hours particularly in the North-east zone to appeal to some of our Senators to see whether they will agree with the party position but at the end of the day, my hands are tied. All one could do was to appeal and at the end of the day, we must be guided by the Standing Orders and by the Constitution. Again, this letter by the party chairman, all the senators knew the content of the letter, not that it was known only to me. So, there were opportunities also in those zones to implement the content or leave it.
It was really dependent on the wishes of those senators. The point should not be to hold me responsible for the actions of those colleagues of mine because it would be very unfair. The positions they took were those in line with our Constitution and Standing Orders. In that area, it would be unfair to say that the party was defeated twice. I remember in 2011, we saw how leaders emerged, in the previous Senate. We have seen how the nominees emerged and I do not think this one has been any different from how the previous ones have emerged. That area is very important and it is clear. So, we should not give impression that the party’s position was jettisoned. Some of these letters from the party are normally addressed to the caucuses of the party and not to the plenary session of the senators. And at the end of the day, what I was reading was their decision, not mine.
I was only reading the decision of the caucuses of the senators in the zones, not my decision or my directives. And those are the people according to our Standing Orders and the Constitution that have the right to make those decisions. In any case, the party had also demonstrated some inconsistencies on the matter. On Friday, June 19, the party chairman called me and said they were sending a letter to my office. I said they should send it. In the letter, which I had seen the copy, the party only zoned the positions and principal officers and directed the Senate caucus of the APC to fill them. No name was put against any of the positions. Then, they recalled the letter, obviously after somebody had mounted pressure on them. They then wrote the last one which they specifically allocated to individual senators. That is the inconsistency we are talking about.
Why did you not read the letter from the South-west caucus?
Because I have not received their letter but they communicated to me later that day that their letter should be ready by the end of business last Friday. I do not know whether they would have submitted it. I did not want to do anything that was not strictly official. I knew that they had no objection to a particular candidate but I wanted to be sure I got a letter from their caucus like others did and that was the reason I did not announce any name. Their letter had not arrived but they had conveyed to me information that they had got nine or 10 signatures and were waiting for two or three remaining senators to sign but some of them were not around and that was the reason their letter was delayed.
Although some of the good news that have come out of the reconciliation moves is not in the public domain or reported because I am confident that this matter will fizzle out and blow away because we are making efforts to begin to engage ourselves because these are two groups that never had problems. I did say to Lawan when we sat down to talk that he should try and reach out to his members in the North-east so that they can come together to begin to engage themselves. The idea is that beyond the issue of leadership, they must work together as a caucus because there will be many issues that would be sent to the caucuses to go and discuss and there must be unity there. I must say that on Lawan’s own part too, I could see that efforts were being made.
I want you also to understand that it is just two weeks after election. It is normal that after election for this kind of position that was fiercely contested, there would be sentiments and emotions. If you can remember, after APC presidential primaries, for weeks, there were people today who are now pretending to love President Buhari more than us, who did not attend rallies. They sat in their houses and we were begging them. What I am saying is that two weeks to me is short in a healing process and I am sure that if you look at the mood the first day we resumed and the mood today, you will see that peace will come.
As someone who has taken this position, I will not stop until I see a full healing process, a full reconciliation. I am a fair minded person and I will be fair to everybody because everybody has contributed for us to get here. Things have happened unfortunately but it cannot be a winner takes all. Everybody must be part of that process and we will get there. We are not entirely there but I believe that in the few weeks within this period of recess, by the time we come back, we would be able to get closer and closer as a united APC family. I am sure that by the time we come back with full leadership in place, we will be better off than where we are now and that responsibility is mine. I will prefer my actions to speak more than what I say. Just come back in two months’ time, I am confident that this will be a thing of the past. We will unite because we are all responsible and we know the issues before us are greater than this. Even in states where people contest for elections and lose out, it takes time for full reconciliation to take place and I believe we will get there in ensuring there is full reconciliation.
Since your emergence, have you met with President Muhammadu Buhari and Senator Bola Tinubu? If yes, what did they tell you?
First, it has been the view of some of us senators that what Mr. President wants to see as a father is reconciliation among us as a group and his position is that he will like us to unite so that he is not be seen to be on one side or the other. I think those steps are going on. As regards Asiwaju Tinubu, as you know, he is one of the leaders of the party and I have great respect for him. Two of us had worked very closely together on major issues in the party, leading to issues that were very important at different stages in the development of our party.
Unfortunately, in this matter, as much as one wants to win a support of all forces within, it happened like that and I think at the end of the day, we will look at the things we have done together that have gone well. Yes, it is a setback but I do not think that that in any way was what will dictate the kind of relationship that we have. We are both responsible and committed to the project of the party and Nigeria. We will overcome this and move forward. It is our intention, as part of the healing process to be able to do that and it will happen.
There is the general belief that Tinubu did not want to support you because as a Senate President, you will be too powerful and there is also the issue of 2019.
I hear a lot about this 2019 and honestly, I feel very sad that people are talking about 2019 now. The reason I am saying this is because the challenges ahead of us are enormous. We went round. I particularly spent less time in my state during our campaign. I was campaigning with Mr. President and I had the opportunity of going round parts of the country and the aspirations, expectations of Nigerians were high. We have a lot of work and I cannot understand how responsible politicians, knowing the kind of challenges that we have, will begin to talk about 2019.
First of all, the challenges that we have in meeting the expectations of the people, assuming we are even in a buoyant economy is huge. Then, unfortunately, we are in a situation where the world economic recession with the drop in oil price is going to affect the challenges ahead. How then can we leave those challenges and be talking about 2019? I find that to be very irresponsible. I do not want to be part of it. It is not on my radar. What is paramount to me now is Nigeria. Some of us took a lot of risks, made a lot of sacrifices, left our own party against everything, went round, campaigned, sold an agenda to the people. We have to deliver and that is my focus. I want people to desist from this because it shows that it is either we are not committed to what we want to do for Nigeria or we are not sincere if we are talking about 2019. Honestly, anybody that talks about 2019 must be very irresponsible.