Shehu Sani, the senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District, recently visited the corporate headquarters of PREMIUM TIMES. During the visit, the activist turned senator fielded questions from the editors. He spoke on various issues, including the economy, Boko Haram, accountability in the National Assembly, and his grouse with his state governor, Nasir El-Rufai. This is the first part of the interview.
PT: Most of the states are not able to pay salaries and meet other financial obligations because of huge debt burden. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, what is your committee doing to help the states survive as most of them are in a terrible situation?
Sani: Well, I can say clearly that debt is a new form of colonialism. Many countries in Africa today are politically independent but economically colonized. It is a fact that debt has become a chain and a prison for many countries in Africa including Nigeria. Nigeria’s external debt stands at about $10.3 billion while the internal debt stands at over N40 billion. Many states in the federation today are highly indebted to the very point that their federal allocations, when debts are deducted, there is nothing much left for capital and current expenditures. And most unfortunately is that these debts that are piled up cannot be justified in terms of projects on ground. I think one thing that is missing today in Nigeria is that the public, both the old and new generations, are not very conscious of the implication of debts. A governor of a state makes a request to the state house of assembly that he wants to borrow and the state assembly gives him approval and the approval is now sent to the president and the president sends it to the federal ministry of finance and debts are piled up for the state. What Nigeria needs now is debt consciousness whereby you should know that if your state or the federal government goes and borrow, it is you that will pay, your children will pay, and your grandchildren will pay. By 2006/2007, Nigeria’s external debt was almost at zero point. Former President Obasanjo was able to get debt forgiveness, but now it has piled up to over $10 billion. And if you look at the other side, with the falling oil prices and the devaluation of the naira and falling oil reserves, the idea of us going to borrow to fund budgets continuously I think we will be burying ourselves into debt. This is because experts will say we need to borrow to be able to generate economic activities in your state or country and then you will be able to perform. You can borrow to create jobs and generate economic activities but your capacity to service that debts is very low. So we are now within the ambit of imperialist economic formula that has to do with the fact that we are gradually racing into a debt trap which we cannot get out of. And if you are poor, it is one thing. But if you are poor and also indebted, it is worse. President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria is a poor country now. But I don’t believe that. I believe we have been impoverished; we have been raped; we have been looted and raped. That is from one point of view. But another point of view is that we are resource endowed to the point that we have the resources and we have the man power and all we need is the wisdom to connect the two for us to be able to reach the Promise Land. I think as the president, he has a duty to move Nigeria from the land of promises we are to the Promise Land. The economy as it is, is in big trouble. Whether we use recession or depression the very problem is that majority of our states cannot pay salaries, cannot execute capital projects and the federal government is also in a dire financial situations. So whatever language you use we certainly have a problem at hand.
PT: You talked about sacrifice. Nigerians are always good in making sacrifices. What has the leadership done in this regard because nothing has changed in terms of the leadership cutting costs? The president is still flying the number of jets he has. The National Assembly members are still not subjecting their budget to scrutiny?
Sani: That is a moral question which any person in public office needs to answer. Patriotism and sacrifice should not be a one way thing. It should be two ways. And if there are those that need to make sacrifices and show level of patriotism, they are those in the position of power so as to demonstrate their commitment and the sincerity of their call. I am one of those who stands by the very fact that our budgets should be made open. And in some of the discussions we had with the senate president we made it very clear to him that where you tell people not to go is where they will go because they think that something is hidden there. And as an arm of the state there should be no reason why Nigerians should not know the budget of the Central Bank of Nigeria and the budget of the National Assembly. And I think also that why Nigerians are very curious has to do with the very fact that people are really suffering now. When people were not suffering, nobody paid attention to budgets. Now there is so much sufferings that a lot of questions are being asked everywhere. So I share that, but certainly the National Assembly will make things normal.
On the presidential jets, well I don’t think in this era of security problem globally, you will expect the president to fly a commercial jet. But there is a moral question on the need to do away with presidential fleets that are of no use. if you have 10 to 15 presidential fleets and the president is certainly going to ride on one or two, there is need to convert those excesses and pump them back into the economy. There is something which Nigerians should be conscious of: radical economic reform is very much needed, not cosmetic reform. Radical sacrifices are also needed. For example, when people are in office they tell you they are going to collect half salary or quarter salary. Who has any means of verifying whether that salary is full or half? There is none.
As long as there is a law there that says they can collect their full salary, that law has not been changed. So they broke no law at all. When they make utterances that they are going to collect quarter salaries and then it hits the headlines and now they get the fame as a result of such a peripheral sacrifice, it doesn’t make any sense. And again things like cancellation of handbags and souvenirs for conferences, how much would that save? When you look at the cost of the conference in a Five-Star hotel, you talk of rooms, the publicity, the honorarium given, how much will removing handbags and souvenir save. Some of these things to me look deceptive. That sacrifice should be made by those in the position of leadership – president, senators and governors – I share that.
PT: You have always talked about transparency, openness, human rights democracy etc. Now you are in the Senate and the National Assembly has refused to disclose its own budget. If you were in the other camp, you would have fought vigorously and perhaps continue to fight. Why are you quiet about this? You are also one of those giving support to the senate president, who promised to make the National Assembly budget public and has refused to do so. So why are you not campaigning for this level of transparency now that you are there?
Sani: Well, it will interest you to know that the senate president is certainly going to make this budget open by the time that we are back from recess. As the chairman of the National Assembly, there is no option but to make it public. I actually see no reason why it should not be made public. I have just been to the Senate for the first time and I have seen that has been the tradition for a very long time but it will be in the interest of the integrity and reputation of the National Assembly that the budget should be made public. That one is sure.
And as for the integrity of the National Assembly itself generally, I believe that you hardly see a parliament that is popular and the reason has to do with the fact that whether it is in the UK or US or Japan or any other country, you will find out that parliament has always been at the receiving end of public anger. It should be so because people who are elected into office, if they are not subjected to constant scrutiny and questions, certainly a dark cloud of corruption will thicken and then the system will be run in the dark. So it is necessary. And if you also look at it, out of the three arms of the state – the judiciary, the parliament and the executive – the National Assembly is the only place where you can enter without much scrutiny. You can’t walk into the Presidential Villa. If you go to the National Assembly there is a sign which I put on my own wall that my appointment is from Monday to Friday. So you don’t need to tell me when you are coming but that is the limit with what I can do. Other issues have to do with the management of the National Assembly. But in general sense, I can say the parliament should be open but not to the point of jeopardizing the security of those who are in it. I can say out of the three arms of the state, if the government buys five cars for a judge, hardly will Nigerians know. If a minister is riding 20 cars, hardly will Nigerians know. But if a lawmaker bought a new motorcycle, the whole of his constituency will know. So, it is in the interest of this country and as much as the National Assembly is consistently questioned, screened and criticized, the same should also go for the judiciary and the executive arms of the state. Those two institutions are indispensable. But it is natural for people to be angry and if they are angry, where will they go? They can’t go to their traditional ruler and they can’t go to a judge who is not elected. All protests and nuisance in terms of civil opposition should go to the Villa and to the National Assembly. It is easier to protest at the gate of the National Assembly than at the gate of the Villa, which shows that there is more democracy at the National Assembly than there is on the other side.
PT: Some time ago, you had some relationship with Boko Haram sect and you even offered suggestions on how to handle the issue. Are you surprised that we still have the insurgents around? Are you satisfied with the way the issue has been handled so far?
Sani: Well, the Boko Haram insurgency that started from the incidence of 2009 is still with us but it evolves from one phase to another. The height of that madness and violence and mass killing was in the twilight of Jonathan administration when they moved away from suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks to the point of taking over territories, appointing governors, hoisting flags and unleashing their own version of Islamic government. That was the height of madness in the history of this country. But we must give credit to President Muhammadu Buhari. He has been able to dislodge them and they are not as potent and effective as they used to be. They also control no territory except where they keep the Chibok girls. Now I am not very surprised because terrorism is not something that you can defeat in one day. The mistakes people have made in the past was to even set dates to end the insurgency. In Africa today, the north eastern Nigeria, Somalia and Libya represent a triangle of terror and until and unless the continent deals with terrorism in these places, the whole continent will not be safe. And if countries as sophisticated as Spain and France and the United Kingdom can still be attacked by terrorists with all that they have, we have even done the best we could. This is the first time in the history of sub-Saharan Africa where a government is recording an appreciable success in terms of ending insurgency. But now the success of government cannot be visibly seen because the moral aspect of the war is tied to the rescue of the Chibok girls. And until the girls are rescued other efforts being done by the government will not be seen. But what we need now is the application of force and still the option of dialogue. But I wonder if at all anybody will be willing now to offer himself to serve as a mediator in the current state whereby some of those who offer themselves in the past are also being accused of complicity or suspected of being complicit in the whole thing.
PT: Recently, the president set up a Task Force of about a thousand soldiers to protect cattle. But people are being killed in Kaduna, Taraba, Benue, Nasarawa in their hundreds and the same government does not think of setting up a Task Force to protect these other people. Mind you, we are talking about diversification of our economy and we are looking at agriculture. These are the areas that produce the quantum of the food we eat in this country and they are not farming again because herdsmen are killing them. What do you think is the solution to the menace of the herdsmen?
Sani: There is an evolution of violence in our society whereby over the years our fortunes as a nation declined. And even when things were good, when the economy was relatively better, the ruling political establishment maintained and sustained a socio-economic system that impoverished majority of citizens of the country and empowered and enriched very few bourgeoisie that are from both the business side and the political angle. The control of power in Nigeria for a very long time also means the control of the resources of the country. I don’t see Nigeria’s history as a question of north and south. I see a class distinction in terms of our economic and our political demands. The fact is that some persons took over political power, they sold the public enterprises to themselves, they own the oil wells in the country, and they have the real estate. They are in banking, they are in oil, they are in insurance etc. They failed to create a conducive nation where their businesses, their fortunes and also their dead bodies will be at peace. What is happening today is a product of years of socio- economic neglect and the lack of vision on the part of our leaders, particularly those who had the opportunity to lead this country in its own moment of prosperity.
Now the violence of the herdsmen is a product of those decades of refusal or failure of the political elite and the ruling political class to envision that they would be a Nigeria where the people will be from 50 million to 175 million and we were supposed to have planned all these things. Now the killing as it is, if our leaders of between 20 and 25 years ago thought that the primitive trade of herding cattle through one village to another cannot sustain a nation of 175 million people, won’t happen. This is because herding cattle and livestock is also a part of agriculture and we can’t feed 175 million people using host. We have to advance to modern agriculture. But we have not advanced in terms of that aspect of livestock farming. Now, it was easier in 1970 for a Fulani herdsman to move from Senegal to Mali to Burkina Faso to Niger to Nigeria and from Katsina to Port Harcourt or Ibadan. We are living in a different world now where people are more attached to their lands, more conscious of their own economic interest and therefore more sensitive than it used to be at that time. So that failure is what we have now. It is not that there were no clashes between herdsmen and farmers 30 years ago, but it is more now. So, the violence is a political issue, security issue, an ecological issue, a geographical issue and it is also a social issue.
The solution to it could not simply be about arresting herdsmen, but it is also about using the umbrella Fulani Cattle Breeders Association to train the Fulanis in modern ways of cattle ranching and cattle grazing. So you can send 1000 soldiers but once a typical Fulani man with 500 cows has not been trained to stay in one place and feed his cattle, he will certainly move and as he moves, he is going to move into one community. If the great grandfathers of that community allowed the Fulanis to pass, the children who are now the social media generation will ask questions. They may even demand taxes from them for passing through their land. That is where the violence is going to come from. The solution to that problem has to do with the very fact that we must include cattle breeding as a major priority in our agricultural policy.