Senator Babafemi Ojudu tells AYORINDE OLUOKUN and DESMOND UTOMWEN about his frustration as a legislator and why Nigeria finds it difficult to make progress.
You’ve been at the National Assembly for over a year. What has been your experience, especially in terms of perception as a journalist and now as a lawmaker?
For me, it has been very interesting on one hand, very frustrating and traumatic on the other in the sense that I was motivated to come to be part of the needed change in Nigeria. But getting here, I saw that the problems we have are so entrenched that it will need 1001 Femi Ojudus to bring about any change. Our country is really in the grip of evil elements at all the levels of government and something has to give. You are out there, you see the problems, you perceive it and you think other people should also perceive the problems the way you have perceived it and that all our energy, resources and time should be devoted to trying to solve the problem. But what you see is that people don’t see the problems, they are very lackadaisical about it. They think that Nigeria will continue to roll on and nothing is going to unsettle it, therefore, there is no need for any emergency or the need to sit down in a very serious manner, think out solutions to these problems and save this country from perdition. For me, in that sense, it has been very traumatic and frustrating. And when you express disgust at the things you see, they just think you are crazy. It is a very dangerous attitude for the ruling class to have, especially for the kind of resources we have as a country and also for the magnitude of our problems.
Is it not possible to build an alliance of a few people across the different levels of government to bring about the required change?
That was the challenge I gave myself when I came in. But again, attempting that has also been difficult. People are looking for one gain or the other, which are personal. People are still more concerned about the problems of survival, managing and increasing what they have. So, collaboration becomes so difficult. As I said earlier, the kind of journalistic urgency and deadline attitude that one brings to the job, I did not see it in other people and for me, that makes it much more frustrating. I think people’s psyche have been battered for too long to have that attitude of wanting to stand alone and be deprived of benefits and perks that are accruable to those who kowtow and massage the egos of those in power.
From the way you speak, it seems moving forward as a country will be difficult for us?
It’s near-impossible. If we want to move forward through the formal and normal process, it is going to take us another century. But if there is a rupture from below, that may just bring a quicker resolution to what is happening in Nigeria.
We’ve had regime changes on the basis of the fact that things were not working before and the situation even became worse …
We are not talking of administrations now. We are talking of change of order, changing the system for a more patriotic, more nationalistic and more result-oriented one. Look at our infrastructure: the road network, power, the problems in our educational, aviation and health sectors. This implies that all of us in leadership positions, whether legislative or executive, should not be sleeping! Obama came to power and within two years, he lost all the sheen that came with him to power. His hair has gone grey. Here, we are in government, everybody is getting fat and bloated. That means we are sleeping more than we should be sleeping and eating more than we should be eating. If we experience stress at all, it is in pursuit of personal gains. No nation can solve the magnitude of the problems that we have without leaders who will act and work as if they are at war. We are actually at war, not of bullets and bombs, but I am talking of the situation in which you have almost 80 per cent youth unemployment. When not up to 10 per cent of your road network is passable, you are at war. When your education is so bad that your children are now running to Ukraine, Ghana, Malaysia, even Sierra Leone for education, then, you are at war. When your leaders have to seek medical treatment for toothache or common cold in Germany, Egypt, India or Dubai, then you are at war. These problems require that all of us should not have more than three or four hours sleep per day. We should come together and say these problems must be solved whether you are a member of PDP, ACN; member of Celestial or Anglican Church, Muslim or Christian. I mean all kinds of bodies have been coming out with all kinds of things about Nigeria–the worst place to be born, for example. There are things they saw that made them pronounce that kind of verdict. Now, we have insurgents all over. Our soldiers were being deployed to go and fight a foreign war and on their way, right inside their country, people shot at them and bombed them! Something must be wrong. A first class Emir was shot at in his own domain and many of his aides were killed. Yet, we are not doing serious thinking about how to solve those problems and declare a kind of emergency to bring about solutions.
But how do we move forward because it seems as if we are hemmed from all sides?
It is about leadership. I am not even talking of leadership of today, but I’m much more worried about the leadership of tomorrow. We are saying today is bad, but tomorrow is going to be worse. Where are we training the doctors, engineers, the economists, the philosophers of tomorrow? Is it the kind of training we are giving out at our polytechnics and universities, the kind of stuffs we are teaching them? So, if today is so bad, what will happen tomorrow? At least, we can say those who are in leadership today have some measure of good education in and outside Nigeria, but what happens to people we are training today? Students who went through universities, but the universities did not pass through them? That means we have greater danger ahead except we quickly think about the future of this country. But I have been here for over a year now and I have not seen any indication that we are actually thinking about the future of this country. How can you have the number of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education and nobody is thinking of how to give the products jobs? Less than two per cent of them are employed and the rest are just left to wander about it is either they kidnap, rob or engage in prostitution.
Looking at it across all levels of government, what percentage of our officials would you say are committed and thinking the way you are thinking now?
It’s negligible and that is what I have been saying. If they are substantial, then, we would be able to make a push, to change or educate those considered as the bad. And I don’t think these people are intrinsically bad. It is just that they did not even believe that Nigeria is worth dying for. It is about orientation–just take your own and leave the problems there; the problems will go away. But no problem solves itself. People solve problems. People must see that we are failing as leaders. But again, you just talk and nobody seems to realise there is a problem. Take for example, a media house went into a Police College to bring out the rot in the institution. The President watched it on television and felt concerned enough to go and see the place, but rather than asking who is responsible for this rot, whether money was voted for the college, he was asking why Channels Television was allowed to embarrass his government. He was blaming it on his enemies. That kind of attitude does not solve any problem. A patriotic, nationalistic, problem-solving president would first think about how to change the face of that place and then call Channels back six months after to come and see the effects his visit has had on the situation. It’s only in this country that our yesterday is always better than our today and our today is always better than our tomorrow. In other parts of the world, their today is always better than their yesterday and their tomorrow is always better than their today. If you go to the secondary school that you attended, you are unlikely to recognise the place. But if you schooled abroad and you go back to your university, it must have changed for the better.
Some people have said Nigeria may have to take the Rawlings option to put things right. Is this the kind of change we need?
I am not an advocate of violence. I wouldn’t advocate violence, but I just know that whatever way it will come, Nigeria needs a change and it is not just a cosmetic one.
So, we can’t solve the problems through motions, constitutional amendments–as being done by the National Assembly–which you are part of? What is the way out?
It is not about laws or about motions. You move a motion, the generality of the Senate debates the motion, they come to a resolution, you send the resolutions to Mr. President, but nothing is done. You bring a bill, the bill is debated, it is passed. Useful as that bill is, the President even refused to assent to it. You probe, the report comes out, you send the outcome of the bill to the executive and nothing is done about it. So, how does that change anything?
Then, do you see the National Assembly in general as being hamstrung?
Not by anybody, but ourselves and that has to do with the fact that one party controls the executive and has overwhelming majority in the legislature. Maybe if it had been otherwise, things would have been better. Maybe we would have been able to sit down and check the executive and say if they fail to do things that are in the interest of Nigerians, we would do something about it. The minority, sometimes, does have its say and the majority will have its way. So, motions and constitution review are cosmetic. Left to me, we need to go back to the people and ask them how do we relate as a people, how do we want to be governed? And that brings us to the issue of national conference.
Still talking about the leadership problem, people contested elections, spending a lot of money and when they get elected, they are in a hurry to recoup their investments, so to say. Do you think that is where the problem is?
That is one of the discoveries I made when I got here and I also do not think it is just about recouping. I spent a lot of money to get to the Senate through the assistance of friends, family and all that and I am not even thinking of recouping. You are even thinking of how to do something so that people will not damage your image. You are expected to tar roads, provide water and transformer. As a lawmaker, you are expected to help roof the homes of the people in your constituency, finance the weddings of their wards and the burial of their parents, pay school fees and all that. These are not your roles. They put you under pressure.
“As a lawmaker, you are expected to help roof the homes of the people in your constituency, finance the weddings of their wards and the burial of their parents, pay school fees and all that. These are not your roles. They put you under pressure. That way oversight functions, committee work, drafting of bills and motions as well as making informed contributions in the chambers become secondary”
That way oversight functions, committee work, drafting of bills and motions as well as making informed contributions in the chambers become secondary. That’s because if you do all of that and you earned 100 per cent, you are a failure if you don’t help build the palace, help build the town hall and provide boreholes. If somebody comes to your house to ask for N50,000 and you give him N10,000, you have failed as a lawmaker. When I was coming in, I was outraged by the amount I was told that lawmakers do earn and I said I was going to fight and all of that. I got here and discovered that you have to go home every weekend and these are the expectations that people have of you. If I earn a million naira every day, there is no way I could meet all of that. If you decide that as a lawmaker, you are not going to take on those responsibilities expected of you, a time will come when you will not be able to go back to your constituency. When they see you, they will stone you.
Where does that now leave the lawmaker?
That is why people are nervous. They want to look for money to supplement what they earn so that they can provide services that are not part of the things listed as their roles under the constitution. I met a colleague who told me that he didn’t have N10,000 as he was speaking with me. I asked why. He said he bought two trailers of rice for Christmas, cows, rams, turkeys and cartons of wine that he distributed to members of his constituency in 10 local governments. And on Christmas day, people still rushed to his house to eat and drink and take transport fares when leaving. He said he is in Abuja now without enough for him to even eat. I understood what he was saying. You are invited to events every day, every weekend, this village day, that town day, you have to donate money. Not only donate. As you are leaving the event, people are shouting your name and you have to give everybody money. I hold this quarterly briefing in my constituency. It is the practice here that every budget year, you put forward a project in your constituency, domicile the project in a ministry and the ministry will then go and execute the project. You are not given money. So, the three senators from Ekiti teamed up and then domiciled the project in the Ministry of Agriculture. We told the ministry to irrigate about 4000 hectares of land, using a dam so that the land could be parcelled out to young people to cultivate tomatoes. We planned to find an investor to come and put a tomato processing plant there. And when our colleagues heard it, they said this is innovative. When the UNDP heard about it, they were happy, they said they will even give us counterpart funding. So, I went home happy that I was going to tell my people something great. But when I began talking, they booed me. One of the leaders said: ‘Senator, tell them you are going to buy okada’. I said I have always condemned this kind of thing. But when I said ladies and gentlemen, our leader has just said if I tell you I am going to buy okada, you will be happy and they said yes. They don’t want to do any work. If you buy them the okada, they will sell it and spend the money. I was at a function organised by the National Directorate of Employment, NDE, in my state and when the woman in charge narrated her experience, we were shocked. She said the agency would take young people, train them for some months after which they will provide them with working equipment like sewing machines, machines for vulcanizing and other trades. The following day, those equipment would be taken to the market to be sold by the same people that you have trained. There is so much ignorance. The belief is that Ojudu is a Senator and he is earning so much money. Some are even saying Ojudu has gone to give our money to the Ministry of Agriculture to do irrigation, the money he should have brought for us to share. I set up an initiative and I called it Initiative of Babafemi Ojudu for Leadership Development, I-BOLD. Under that initiative, I called students of higher institutions to write essays on topical issues yearly and we collect the essays, rate them and writers of the best 20 essays get a laptop each and some money. When I advertised the first edition, some students of Ekiti State origin in institutions of higher learning came to protest in front of my house, saying that I could give N5000 to each person in my constituency. That’s why I said it has been so frustrating at the level of leadership, at the level of followership.
Since you became a Senator you have been a member of some probe panels that attracted national attention. The panels produced their reports, which were ignored by the executive, except the one that recommended the sack of the Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises…
She was not even sacked on the basis of our report. I can tell you emphatically that she was sacked because her position later affected their interest.
But why do you think the executive arm has not done anything about the reports and their recommendations?
From the first day, I knew nothing would be done. But they said we should go ahead, believing that we would achieve something. So, the systems are too interwoven for any decisive thing to be done about what we need to do about Nigeria. The interests of those who sold those companies and those in power now are interwoven. How do you expect those who are in power now to fight them when they are drinking from the same pot? In the other one about pension, you have an Assistant Director who is shunning the Senate, shunning everybody just because he is a friend to Mr. President. He follows the President everywhere; goes to airport to welcome him and goes about in bullet-proof vehicles with 27 policemen guarding him. Yet, he is known to have pillaged the resources of the pension body and nobody is going to do anything about it.
There are fears that ACN in Ekiti State may be heading for crisis over the 2014 gubernatorial election ticket.
All of us, minus one person, has endorsed the governor. If you know my history, I am not a praise singer. But I will invite you to go round Ado Ekiti. I was talking to some chiefs in my town and they said we have never had it this good and that if me, an Ado indigene, becomes governor, I wouldn’t do better than this. And that goes for all the areas of the state. In each of the local councils, the governor has tarred five kilometers of road. Indeed, virtually all the roads have been tarred. Streetlights are being provided. Schools are being renovated across the state and they are not cosmetic renovation. Go and look at the stadium, look at the hospitals. Go to Ikogosi–I was there last weekend and was amazed by what I saw. The local government structure is being reformed, ghost workers are being weeded out of the system and laptops are being provided for school children. So, it is the Americans who say you don’t fix what is not broken. Since he still has the right of first refusal, why should anybody now say this man who has done our state, party and generation proud should not be offered the ticket to go for a second term? Is it just about personal ambition? I am not supporting him because I am in the same party with him. I am also eminently qualified to be governor of the state. I could have said ‘I want to challenge you’, but my life is not like that. It is not about the individual.
“All of us, minus one person, has endorsed the governor. If you know my history, I am not a praise singer. But I will invite you to go round Ado Ekiti. I was talking to some chiefs in my town and they said we have never had it this good and that if me, an Ado indigene, becomes governor, I wouldn’t do better than this. And that goes for all the areas of the state. In each of the local councils, the governor has tarred five kilometers of road. Indeed, virtually all the roads have been tarred. Streetlights are being provided. Schools are being renovated across the state and they are not cosmetic renovation. Go and look at the stadium, look at the hospitals. Go to Ikogosi–I was there last weekend and was amazed by what I saw. The local government structure is being reformed, ghost workers are being weeded out of the system and laptops are being provided for school children. So, it is the Americans who say you don’t fix what is not broken. Since he still has the right of first refusal, why should anybody now say this man who has done our state, party and generation proud should not be offered the ticket to go for a second term?”
This man, for God’s sake, has done well. He may not have put money in the pockets of individuals like us, but that should not be our major problem. It should be about how he has touched lives there. All these are happening in that state and one individual just gets up after having spent 12 years in government in Lagos and wants to do four years in the House of Representatives, making 16 years in public life, and he is not patient enough to see this individual complete his eight years before saying he wants to be governor. But one thing I am happy about is that all our leaders at the national, state and local levels have said it is not going to happen. At Christmas, you are expected to send gifts round your constituency, the same person sent gifts –rice, groundnut oil and all that to all the local councils. But as the gifts were arriving, they were all packed and dumped at his gate.