Sadiq Umar is the Kwara North senatorial candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC) for the 2019 general elections. A pharmacist, he has worked for many years in the health development sector under DFID and USAID. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Umar explains why he is leaving his career in the sector to seek a seat in the Senate.
PT- Can you tell us a little about what you were doing before coming into politics?
I am a pharmacist by profession but as far as career is concerned, I have been in the development sector, where I have worked with DFID and USAID. We are interested in maternal and child health, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs.
What I have always done in the past 20 years is managing projects to see how we can help people and the vulnerable. That was what I was doing before my constituents said I should come and serve them or represent them in the red chamber of the National Assembly and I accepted and here I am. I won the primaries of the APC for Kwara North senatorial district.
PT- Is it the people who called you? Are your hands not already full in your current engagement in the health sector?
Umar – It is my career and I got to almost the peak of my career, so it is by what they know about me and what I have been doing where I am working, that is why they said they needed a candidate that understands the developmental challenges of our region and that they need a good candidate that can represent them very well.
With pressure, I agreed. Instead of just serving at that limited angle, I can come and serve at the political level because the key reasons why there are gaps in our health sector, why donors have to come into the country to support the country, is basically because of poor governance.
If we have good policies, we have good governance that responds to the health challenges, why should anybody come into your country to come and start carrying out interventions in malaria, HIV/AIDs, maternal and child health? That will not be necessary. I think that what I am doing now is basically to serve that gap. If I get to governance, it’s easier to serve more, not only my constituency but the whole country.
PT- APC primaries across the country were tumultuous, especially in Kwara State. How did the one at your district go?
Umar– I can tell you that I am one of the luckiest persons in this primaries because my candidature is almost the single candidature that did not call for any controversy. That is because all the elders agreed and all the local governments agreed that I am the candidate of their choice. So it was a direct primary and I had an overwhelming majority of the votes, over and above the other four candidates. So there was no controversy in my own constituency.
PT- There are five local governments in the district, what is your own local government?
Umar– I am from Kaiama Local Government. Incidentally, there is an understanding of zonal arrangement in the senatorial district – (Kwara North Senatorial District). The understanding is that Baruten, Kaiama constituency produce the Senate this time around and it is zeroed in on Kaiama specifically. Almost all the other local governments agreed that it is Kaiama that will produce the senator. That also made it easier because all the stakeholders have accepted that Kaiama should produce the senator for this year.
PT- Your opponent from PDP (Zakari Mohammed of the House of Representatives), who is considered your major opponent, which local government area is he from?
Umar– He is from Baruten. That is because the PDP has chosen to zone theirs to Baruten. I am talking of APC.
PT- How do you feel about facing someone who has been winning elections in the area (Mr Mohammed has been in the House since 2011)? He has vast experience in politicking and legislation.
Umar– I feel excited. First, it is going to be an interesting contest because like you said, he has been around for a long time. But do not forget that the election is going to be about the people. It is the people that will take the decision of who they are going to vote. Like I told you, my candidature is driven by the people more than my personal ambition. So if that much should be there, it means the people are with me and I can tell you that in Kwara State today, APC is ahead of PDP and it is even more so in my senatorial region.
So, I am excited that we going to win with a landslide actually because the people who are going to vote are with me and APC is grounded in Kwara and more so in Kwara North. So I have nothing to be scared of
PT- Most people will tend to disagree with that assertion, given that APC in Kwara State is driven by the well-oiled structure of the Sarakis and we have known that for a long time they have always won elections in the state. How can you then make such assertions about APC in Kwara?
Umar – That is what brings about the concept of change. As they say, the only thing constant in life is change. That change is here now. It is true like you said, but the change is here now and without making much noise about it, we just concluded a by-election in Kwara South in one of the federal constituencies and APC won and of course PDP had a candidate. If that is anything to go by, you do not need to be told that other elections will still follow that pattern.
PT – What is your legislative agenda when elected into office? Because most politicians come out and say they want to do something but they do not have the plan or well written out blueprint on how to go about it.
Umar – Thank you very much for that question. Let me say first and foremost, I hope to be a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It means my primary responsibility will be making laws for the good governance of the whole country, appropriation, over-sighting and so on. My first agenda is to go and do those well – promote bills that will ensure good governance for the whole country, support bills from any member and from the Executive that will fit into my dream of seeing Nigeria become a developed country.
Having said that, I am also representing my people and I know the problems of my people and I have been engaging them during the campaigns and I have continued to do that to understand clearly what their priorities are. So far, what I can see in my region is very poor infrastructure. Our road network is terrible. For those who are used to Kwara North, from Moro to Edu to Patigi to Kaiama, Baruten, we have very bad roads and of course, you know the implication of that. The economy and the activities of our area have been impeded because of the very bad road network. And my people are essentially farmers – you know what that means. We do not have roads to transport farm produce, we have wastages, the high cost of all of that. So infrastructure will be the primary focus for me as what my region will be interested in. All the networking that is required, lobbying that is required, case making with evidence that I will do to ensure that we get the best share of federal infrastructural allocation.
Again poverty is very high in my area and poverty is as a result of poor educational services. We do not have good education facilities in our area and there are poor health services. Those two translate to poverty that is affecting my area. We intend to be able to lift as many people as possible out of poverty and to do that means focusing on improving health and educational services in our area.
When you do that, what is next is opportunities for people who acquire education might have to fight for more opportunities because my people do not have opportunities in Kwara not to talk of the federal government. That will be an interest to me, to make sure our people are positioned to enjoy the opportunities available at the state level and at the federal level.
Again, the youth, who incidentally are the most important group of people in the society because they are the future. For our youth right now, it is a very sorry situation so we have to find a way of empowering them. Our women, the same thing. And we are interested in the women because they are the bedrock of the family and if we are able to empower our women, they will be able to support both the children, the youth and in fact the men.
So our cardinal interest is in youth and women. The poor, the vulnerable, the weak are also of interest to us, they would be supported. But for the women and the youth, they need to be empowered. And in empowering them, they have to be categorised. There are those who have education, all we need is to be able to have skill acquisition programmes for them. Give them basic skills to be able to do something for themselves and little money that they can be able to take care of their children and husbands.
The youth, most of them with education we will consider what we can do to be able to place them for them to be gainfully employed and those that have capacity and interest in entrepreneurship we need to create and open that opportunity for them. When they do, they will be able to employ other youth to work for them. That is the way we intend fighting poverty.
In the final analysis, I am saying we have to fight poverty in my region, which is a number one enemy. And to do that, we need to have improved infrastructure, we need to empower the youth and the women, we need to improve our education and health services so that we have citizens who are healthy, strong and motivated to be productive.
PT- How as a legislator do you think you can achieve all of these?
Umar– That is an interesting one, because when I say all these people say ‘you are going to be a legislator in Abuja in the Senate’. But that is true; my understanding about leadership is not about staying in your cocoon doing what you need to do. It means opening up and relating with other tiers of government, you need to relate with other leaders in your region and in your state.
So what I am saying is, most of all these things will be done at the state level, some will be done at the local government level, and where in a way, probably as the most senior political office holder in my senatorial region, I hope to give leadership along that chain. So I am interested in whatever is happening in my state, to work with the state governor and the Executive to see the best we can do for our people in relationship with those programmes I have mentioned.
The local governments are actually key in this because they are the closest to the people. I am looking forward to an era where local government chairmen can just go in there and do whatever they like and go away will be over. I hope to engage them and give them some level of leadership and we collaborate together on the way forward. In the federal level, what my team members are doing, in the state level and the local government are doing, so we have an integrated common agenda with programmes that we will be working together to perform a synergy with a singular goal. We all have clear objectives and programmes of what we want to achieve for our people. I hope we will be able to do these in a very serious manner that we can have targets with milestones that this is what we need to do and the number of people we need to get out of poverty within a stipulated time and how we are going to be able to do that. And we will draw our programme on who is going to be responsible on what level, local state and federal and we compare notes, we engage ourselves, we score ourselves, we assess ourselves on what we are doing.
By the way, we are going to do an assessment to know how bad our situation is. I have an idea but we have to do this scientifically. That is the baseline and where we want to go to in a year, four years, eight years, and 20 and in 50 years. We have to programme all of that and work together to achieve it. I am clear it is not me that is going to do all of these, but it is by working together. The era of everybody holding his office and doing what he feels he should do will be over very soon by the grace of God.
PT- You mentioned road infrastructure in your area, there was a road project in 2005, Chikanda-Kosubosu road linking your part of the state with other parts of the state. What is the state of that project?
Umar – Thank you very much. The state government did some job from that axis from Ilorin down to Chikanda, that was a very good effort, but it wasn’t a very good job. That road is already compromised; there are portholes. But relatively, that is a fair road that we have enjoyed in my region. From Kosubosu to Kaiama, which is a very short distance, in less than an hour you can link Kaiama from Baruten. That has been abandoned for decades. It’s actually not motorable any longer. That road has to be fixed if you really want to improve the socio-economic situation of our people in that region.
There is another road from Kaiama to Bode Saadu, about a 100 kilometres, that will link Baruten and Kaiama with the whole of Kwara North and link Ilorin easily. That road, you know about it, several decades ago it was conceptualised, they started some work but it has been abandoned for decades. That road has to be opened because that is the only way you will link the whole of Kwara North and that is the only way we people in Kaiama and Baruten can go to the state capital within one and a half hours to two hours. Right now, we have to start going through Oyo, we go round before we can get to our state capital and it is terrible and unacceptable.
PT – Campaign has officially started. What campaign strategy are you employing to let your people know your plans for them and get them to vote for you? Because it is a different thing to have plans for people and getting them to vote you to office.
Umar – Interestingly you know I am lucky that the world has changed. We live in a global village driven by technology. Within a second you can send out information that can pass across what you want to say. That we have been doing. We are also using regular media and having interviews. We are talking to the people and the people are getting the information except, of course, that the number of people that have access to social media and mainstream media is still limited especially in our area where the opportunities are limited.
Aside from doing the regular, using the social media, using radios, television and so on, we are also moving down to the grassroots to meet the people and that is actually at the centre of my campaign. Get to the people, meet them, anywhere they are and talk to them. We are going to the local governments, wards, and in fact, we are getting to the polling units were voting will take place. We have mapped that out; we have our agents, our campaign teams, banners, all of those matters.
We need to get to the people and I intend to also move and get to the people, not just campaigning to them to vote for us, but let me really have a hands-on assessment of how bad their situation is, and what they really consider as priorities in their lives so that I have the required data before even winning the election. We will be clear from the beginning what we want to do. Our approach to politics is just the same approach I am used to as a development worker. We have to be clear, we need data, we need to know where we are coming from, where we want to go and how we will get there. That is my approach even for the campaign.
PT- There is the trend of vote buying that is going on in the country. How do you think you can face the menace of vote buying?
Umar – Voting buying is a new phase in our political development. Anybody that does not seem to understand it or appreciate it does not know what is happening. Some of us are happy about it to some extent. Because with PVCs and card readers, it means the people have been empowered; they have to give you their support, unlike before where political merchants can collect millions and billions of naira and just write results. That has been restricted.
That is why politicians are running to the people to buy their votes because that is the only way you can get their votes. Having said that, let me also say that as a development worker, much as I am worried about that, because that makes a mess of the principles of democracy, but then maybe it is wealth redistribution. People are waiting for the opportunity of having some stipends to empower them during election. Much as it is bad, it is an opportunity for people to have access to some people who have stolen their money.
How are we going to address that? I am not worried about it at all because the people are wiser and we are also communicating to the people that this election is not about collecting stipends and voting for whoever gives you money. It is about voting the right candidate to be able to secure your future and that of your children. I can assure you, no matter any amount somebody is bringing to Kwara and particularly my senatorial region, thank you for coming to empower the people by sharing money for them but the people would vote their conscience and the right candidate because they know the party that is going to work for them, they know the candidate that have their interest at heart and they are going to do that. So I am not worried about vote buying because my people are empowered, informed, mobilised and they are sensitised about this.
PT- Coming with your wealth of experience with the health sector background, how do intend translating this into law-making, especially knowing that we have a lot of health Acts that are just redundant on the shelves and not looked into. And do you intend following up for better implementation?
Umar – For me, aside from my constituency challenges I have highlighted earlier, the health sector is going to be another area of interested for me. In both cases, I will be co-sponsoring bills with other people in the house, including those outside the house, working with development organisations that I have worked with before to look at the health sector and identify where those weak areas are, where those gaps are and what is missing, what laws we need to pass to strengthen policies that make health services qualitative, accessible and affordable for our people. It is a priority for me.
The laws are there, implementation in most cases becomes the problem. Some laws are obsolete, some have challenges of access to funds from both federal level down to local government level. You know health is on the concurrent list as it cuts across all. For me, my attitude will be who we need to work with to ensure that laws are passed that will make healthcare services affordable, accessible and qualitative.
By the way, I am also thinking we need to get radical about the health sector because health and education are the priorities that move the country forward. That is get them functional education and not like the ones we see this days, skills, good health, they will be productive and can do something for themselves.
We are going to take that serious to the extent that we are thinking of a need to set aside, apart from what has been set aside for the National Health Insurance Scheme right now, we also think the government needs to pick interest in the activities of the development partners which has been very helpful in the country. I am looking forward to seeing Nigeria government leaving a certain percentage of national resources in carrying out special items in the health sector.
PT- In Kaiama, which is your local government, health services have been termed poor. The general hospital and primary health care centres seem to have some of the necessary equipment for basic health care services but they lack health personnel, meaning most cases of maternal, infant and child mortalities could have been prevented. How do you intend tackling this if elected?
Umar – Let me correct an impression. If I go home, I go to the general hospital. The general hospital is functioning, I can tell you. There are two doctors there, very hard working young men and they are doing their best possible. But like you said, it is true, there are equipment but they are not functional because they are not manned. They need personnel to carry out the required tests.
Interestingly, what most people don’t know is that development is a cycle, everything is linked together. There is no way you can ensure that the required health personnel stay in a town like Kaiama where you have not addressed infrastructure. The road network in and out of Kaiama from all direction is terrible. A young doctor will not be interested in staying in that type of environment because he wants to pull a link. So if you address road network, address poverty and this community becomes very comfortable, you can easily attract health professionals to work in that environment.
So what am I going to do, in the short term, medium term and long term, and I have started for the short term. All those doctors I met there I have encouraged them that they should please not run away the way others ran away; that I am coming, they should be there and I will be with them, support them with anything they need and I have started.
When I go to the general hospital, if I see a little gap or when they are sourcing for resources to work with I come in. I tell them when I get to the red chamber there will be a lot more I can do to make them comfortable and make their work comfortable and enjoyable and as fast as I can.
I am also considering the opportunities of training and seminars which would encourage them. By the way it is not only Kaiama we are talking about, we are giving Kaiama as an example. That is applicable to almost everywhere in Kwara North, it is the same thing. So we will look at all of that and encourage them in the short term. For the medium and long-term plans, we will address all the issues that are linked with that: infrastructure, equipment, training, motivation and all of that. That way, you can ensure that human resources for health is met.
The challenge is all over the country, human resources for health are always a challenge; from my experience, that is a gap. But for me, I will do whatever I can to ensure that we retain those who are there by giving them a conducive environment. We will make sure we attract more people to come and to do that means putting in place things that will make them have access to training, having the right equipment and the right skillful people are there and make sure that they are happy. By the way, all these places are very natural areas. If you make that place comfortable people will rather stay there than being in the city with all the noise.
PT- Nigeria is largely dependent on international donors to fund health and most of its health interventions. As a former development person, why do you think that is the case and what can we do to reposition the health care to serve Nigerians better, especially with the dwindling international funds?
Umar – The funding has been dwindling and it has started. I can tell you that donor funding is drying up slowly. That I can tell you and policies are changing, especially in the United States of America with President Trump’s policies of country first and so on.
It can only get worse; that I can tell you. And we need to start thinking and start getting independent-minded. We need to start thinking of self-sustainability and all the donors by the way in almost 10 years now from my experience have been preaching sustainability- what are you doing, counterpart funding and so on. For me, I think that one area that will be my agenda too. And I mentioned it is time for the Nigerian government to say ‘what is the value we have been getting from these donors in the last 30 years, for example?’ And the value is high. The data is there; you can see how much DFID, USAID have invested and what intervention they are doing and the results. Let’s look at it and see what is the total cost of these. It is huge money, a lot of dollars in billion. Are we that poor as a country? I do not think we are that poor. What can we do? It is time for the Nigerian government to start setting aside funding to serve as a transition. While the donors are planning to slow down and pull out, Nigeria government should be increasing its interest in taking up this responsibility, after all, it is our responsibility in the first place so that we have a clear-cut policy. I think we need to run a national health programme that is related to what donors are running now. That is programmes slightly different from what the core ministry is doing.
We need to have that transition and model, we need to agree that those donors have done this much in so years. They are planning to leave or really need to leave. I think they will leave either we like it or not. Funds will dry up; Nigerian government can step up and have a model after all what the projects governed, controlled and operated by independent civil society groups.
Let us separate it from the ministry first. When we see the success of that, we know what the cost which is available is, and then we can start thinking of integrating into the core national health programme.
PT- The National Health Act is at long last in operation. But the implementation has been dragging. Do you think if fully implemented the Act can bring a significant improvement to health care services in Nigeria?
Umar – Yes, I think it will I have always believed in the Act and yes, there might be little gaps here and there, nothing is static; that can be looked at. All the areas people have challenges with can be reviewed and ensured that in the final analysis, Nigeria has an Act that will get to the last mile in the society to ensure that everybody has access to health care services that are affordable and qualitative enough
PT – As a pharmacist, what is your take on the regulation of the sales of over-the-counter drugs (OTC) or non-prescribed drugs, which has not been effective in the country? What do you think you can do to improve regulations when you get to the “red chamber”?
Umar – That is an agenda for me as a professional. Of course, I have my own professional agenda as a pharmacist; I am interested in working for the pharmacy profession and I can tell you that in Nigeria today, it is so sad that the amount of counterfeit drugs in circulation if people really know, people will cry for this country.
People will deliberately go to import drugs that are not the genuine drugs, the excipients – the quantity of what should be there as an active principle – they compromise it and tell the manufacturers to halve it or put just a quarter of what is required to reduce the drug’s cost, it is everywhere! It is a porous system that we are running and everyone is involved. Professionals, non-professionals, charlatans are all involved. There is still the same lawlessness that is so predominant in this country. I think we need to strengthen the security, we need to be sure that those who are manning agencies that are responsible for control are the right people. We have square pegs in round holes and we are unable to make people pay for their wrongdoings- that is the problem.
If anything goes wrong, whoever is responsible must face the law. We must enforce the law. And by the way, all this is interagency-related. Not only NAFDAC, SON, it’s at every level. Where all these things come in up to the manufacturing companies and countries of origin, there is a need to link it back. Why should a country allow an export commodity leave its country in collaboration with those companies to our country?
We need to have bilateral relations with other countries around the world; mainly India, China and Indonesia where many of our drugs come from. We need to get it right by being strong. And it has to be a legal issue. We have to make clear-cut laws and engage these countries. We need to tell the governments of these countries to have some responsibility for what is leaving their countries and coming into our country.
We need to get serious about it; especially the small ones where people carry antibiotics on the street. It is not okay for citizens. The citizens have a role to play too. We need to sensitise the citizens on the danger. They need to know it is wrong to buy drugs from such people. We need to get serious as a country because drugs are like poison and they can be used in any form. They can be injurious as anything you can think of and we need to take that very seriously and I am interested in our laws that govern drugs in this country.
PT- There is a poor public perception of legislators in Nigeria, people see them as parasites. How do you feel about that perception?
Umar – I think it is a 50/50 thing. The first 50, the people are not wrong by what they see, they will talk of what they can see. What value are you adding to them as a society? They want to see that and they see legislators as people who just go in there and allocate allowances for themselves when the poor people do not have much to earn or survive on.
The other 50 part is that citizens also need to sympathise with the legislators because when you are representing five LGAs, I can tell you it is a tough business to do. You have to go to that five LGAs, wards’ people and they see you as the government. Their poverty, their problems, it is you they expect to solve. Meanwhile, you are not the government and where do they expect you to get all the money to do that is a challenge. The people are poor because there is no good governance, no appropriate policies, and laws to make life easy for them and they have to look for who can solve things for them and they think their political leaders are and come after you. Meanwhile, they are the same set of people who will complain you are getting a big salary! So it is a national challenge and we need to correct that as much as possible. Let’s get politicians who are willing to develop the society and Nigerians will see the difference.
PT- The last time Kwara had a governor from Kwara North was 25 years ago. What is the feeling of the people of the area about being overlooked for the governorship race in 2019, especially by both the two major parties?
Umar – People are disappointed. In Kwara North, we believe it is our turn to produce the next governor of Kwara State and the two major parties did not pick candidates from Kwara North. But we should remember two things: one, it is a democracy; so people vote regardless of what the region is. Yes, you can talk about zoning, but it is a democracy. What you get is what you get, those who emerge, emerge. Aside from that, there are other political expediencies and strategic considerations why the two parties tend to lean towards the region they lean to. But what I can tell you is that Kwara North people are decent and God-fearing people and we are hopeful people. Much as we are disappointed, we stick to it in good faith and believe in our various political parties. At least, I can speak for APC; no matter what happens, what is important is for our party to win the election so that we will be able to implement the programmes we want to implement which everybody will benefit from.