SENATOR Ben Ndii Obi is the immediate past Presidential Adviser on Inter Party Affairs. Before then, he had held many political positions, including being the National Secretary of the defunct All Peoples Party, APP, vice presidential candidate and the senator for Anambra Central. In this interview, Obi speaks on Senate President Bukola Saraki and why there is need for the executive and the legislative arms of government to work together.
You were close to the Saraki family. What can you say about the new Senate President?
In 1999, I was the Adviser in the office of the National Security Adviser and, soon after, President Obasanjo appointed Bukola Saraki a Special Assistant. Bukola didn’t want to accept it. It took almost three months for him to make up his mind. One day I called him and he came to my office and I said, ‘if you don’t accept this appointment, you may run into trouble with the president and your bank may also suffer serious consequences’. So he had to take leave of the bank.
The father had said to me to talk to him because he knew that his son would listen to me and I am happy that I convinced him. I told him he could still oversee the affairs of the bank without playing the day to day role. That was how he assumed office as Special Assistant to the President.
An interesting thing was that while Bukola assumed office in early 2000 as SA Budget, the budget of 2000 didn’t come out early because of the problem between the executive and the legislature. And when he took charge of budget, the budget of 2001 and 2002 came out in record time. It was singularly due to the efforts of Bukola Saraki because he was able to liaise effectively with the National Assembly.
Having played that role, now as the Chairman of the National Assembly, it is obvious that he will do things that will make the working relationship between the executive and the legislature very cordial.
Again, in 1998/1999, I was the foundation National Secretary of APP. In fact, I gave the name of that party on August 28, 1998 at the Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. Bukola’s late father, Dr Olusola Saraki, was one of the major financiers and leaders of the party. He came on board with the likes of Admiral Lawal and Shaaba Lafiagi, who was a governor of Kwara State, and we had this problem of who would be the next governor of Kwara. Because Lafiagi had been governor of the state before, Bukola was sympathetic to him and I said to the leader, his father, that because Lafiagi was governor and he made mistakes, let him go back to remedy the situation as governor. Eventually, Bukola’s suggestion carried the day.
Sen. Ben Obi
In one discussion I had with the late Bukola’s father, he said he had spent his time and resources putting people in as governor of Kwara and that it was time he put his son. I agreed. He then told Bukola his decision and surprisingly the young man turned it down. Then the father called me and said, ‘Can you imagine that Bukola said he did not want to be governor?’. He asked me again to talk to him and, again, I went to the young man. I asked him what the problem was and he said the problem was relocating to Ilorin. And I said he could turn Ilorin to one of the finest cities. I said even if he insisted on living in Lagos, he could work from Monday to Friday and then spend his weekends in Lagos. He agreed and I went to his father and told him that Bukola had agreed and he thanked me. That was how he went to be the governor of Kwara State.
I remember that I was having lunch with General Ibrahim Babangida and General Gusau in General Gusau’s house in Abuja and Babangida said the battle between Oloye (Saraki’s father) and Lawal would end in Lawal’s favour and I said Oloye would win. Not only that his son, Bukola, won the governorship election, he became the Chairman of the Governors’ Forum and changed the dynamics of the body. He gave the forum respect. That is the man, Bukola, for you.
It’s important here to understand the depth of the political sagacity of the new Senate President. I think his party, APC, underrated his political skills. The young man is truly a chip of the old bloc. He understands the game very well. I have very good reason to say what I am saying because I can count myself as one of those who took him through political tutelage.
I was at one time in charge of his father’s campaign when the strong man of Kwara politics ran for the president and Bukola was then running the Societe Generale Bank. His father had very great foresight and analytic political mind. So, whenever we sat down as the kitchen cabinet, he (Bukola) would always sit in and his contributions were very incisive. He made contributions in all issues. His identification of sharp political mind cut across all the zones of the country and most times we ended up agreeing with his suggestions.
So, when the APC said they had a candidate and that they had taken a decision, I sat back in the comfort of my home and laughed it off. I said this is one political game they could not win because the senators would take control when they get into the chamber. And as long as that was the case, there was no way any other person would defeat Bukola on that ground. I was too sure of that, and I said so to everybody who cared to listen. And I said so more than six weeks ago that the National Assembly election will be the first litmus test for the APC and it is in their interest to give the new Senate President, Bukola Saraki, all the support he needs. That PDP gave him 100% support was also expected because he saw the sharp division in his party and he knew what to do and did it.
The APC threatened to sanction those who disobeyed the party in the National Assembly election, but later changed its mind and said the party would support those elected. Do you think the support is genuine?
They have seen the reason and the wisdom to support Senator Bukola Saraki because they are the ones that will ultimately lose out because the red chamber is a setting where Nigeria comes first. That is why senators are referred to as Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Yes, in the course of wanting to run an election, the party gives one the platform. I am a very strong promoter of party discipline. But I am also cautious on when to draw the line between party interest and national interest. And I think here, national interest has come to play.
I am not even yet talking about the competence of the young. I know that he is very competent and I know that he will make a mark and I know that he will make a difference. And I can assure Nigerians that in six months, everybody will see the competence of the young man. So, in all respect, the APC had its candidates for Senate and House of Representatives, but Nigerians chose their own candidates.
Do you see the tenure of the Senate President lasting?
Well, recall that in 2011, PDP had its candidate for the House of Representatives. The ACN teamed up with Tambuwal and Ihedioha and they became the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. It was a lesson in democracy for the PDP. In 2015, PDP paid them back in their own coin. So, it is a question of pointing one’s finger at somebody and four other fingers are pointing at you.
Now, this issue of banana peel, quite honestly, ended in our era in the Senate with Ken Nnamani. We talked of banana peel when we had more senators outsmarting the Senate President. You elect the Senate President by simple majority. If you look at the scenario that brought Senator Bukola Saraki to office, assuming the Senate was in full session; he could also easily have won the election. With Saraki having a deputy that had been there for eight years, you can be sure that their experience will play a very big role in stabilizing the 8th Senate.
What is your advice to the executive and legislative arms of government?
The country is in a great need of selfless service and it is in the interest of both the executive and the legislature to work hand in gloves to make things improve very fast. The people of this country are suffering. The hardship is so much. You can feel it; you can see it; you can touch it. The only way the suffering of Nigerians can be alleviated is by ensuring a good working relationship between the executive and the legislature to do things that will improve quickly the welfare of the people. I know that things will be pretty hard in the next few months. However, a good relationship between the two arms of government will facilitate a better Nigeria.