In this exclusive interview with OrderPaper Nigeria, Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu who represents Imo North senatorial district in the National Assembly, explains his position on constituency projects, jumbo salaries of lawmakers, the political fight with his governor, Rochas Okorocha, 2019 elections and the chances of the All Progressives Congress (APC) re-emerging as the ruling party at the federal level, among other issues. Excerpts by Titilope Olayemi Fadare and Bakare Majeed
Tell us about your achievements so far in the 8th Senate?
In terms of bills, I have got the Child Rights Act (amendment) bill, and it has been passed but not yet assented to by the President. We have two other bills in the works: one is on the establishment of a Federal School of Nursing in my constituency (Isiala Mbano) and a bill to establish a regulatory framework on crypto currency to allow the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to set up a desk; that bill is still at second reading stage. And also there are a couple of motions to my name. But you know, I came into the Senate less than two years ago because our elections (litigation) dragged on for so long. In terms of achievements to my constituency, I have over 75 projects that I have ongoing. Top of those projects are roads. I attracted the 29km Umulogho-Akwokwo road being built by NDDC; as I am talking to you, more than 20km of the road has been completed. I attracted the Akuneze to Isinweke road rehabilitation; I attracted Isinkwe to Ugwualla road rehabilitation; and I also attracted the construction of Umulogho to Ugwualla 4km road that was built by NDDC; we have some many roads, we have the Obolo to Umueze 1; we attracted Chiabanachiala in Unwere community erosion project and channelization which cost about N500million and it is about 90% completion. I also attracted water treatment plant and water borehole reticulation worth over 300million to Obowo local government. We attracted a cottage hospital in Isiala Mbano which is located in Unubana part of Isiala Mbano; the project is almost finished, and it’s a 50 ward clinic with all the equipment which have been purchased. We have several primary schools (more than 12 schools) some have finished, I cannot really remember them, we have boreholes, simple boreholes with tanks in more than 10 communities (some of them are solar powered). We also have the Isialapaka dam which is for both irrigation and electrification, which has been advertised and about to be awarded by the Ministry of Water Resources. There are many of them. I cannot really remember them off head that is because I have spent a lot of my time and resources to meet with stakeholders within the various ministries and agencies, including NDDC, FERMA and other intervention agencies, to ensure that my senatorial district is well represented in terms of projects execution.
What do you feel about using technology to tell your success story on constituency projects?
One of the things I did was to train youths in the 6 local governments in my district; in fact we trained 300 youths in each local governments in partnership with Google for three days in each of these local governments, and the whole idea was to teach the youths on how to use their smart phone for business and for research purposes, because we realize that some of these youths have no access to computer, and tablets. We also realized that some of them think that phone is just to make calls and to use it to keep in touch with their friends and to do both moral and immoral things. So when we discussed with Google, they came here and they conducted that training for them. Out of the over 1500 that participated, about 600 were certified and were given Google certificates. So we are hoping that by this December, we are trying to see if we can buy laptops and tablets to distribute to all of them.
In this regard, what do you think of ConsTrack, our mobile app platform to track constituency projects and through which lawmakers can tell their success stories?
I think it is a good idea because part of what we suffer as politicians is the social media misinformation, especially on the legislature which is at the receiving end of most criticisms. We have been demonized both by the executive, the judiciary and indeed the masses because for one, we are more regularly available to them, because it is a lot easier to see a senator, members of the national assembly and even the state house of assembly, than seeing a governor, president or even the ministers. They have more security at their offices and their homes than we as senators, and when the people have issues, the first person they will want to see are their representatives, and we have heard so many stories in the media about how senators are making so much money, I want to put it straight and I think Senator Shehu Sani has once revealed it, that what I have received ever since I entered that office is that N13.5million monthly, I have never gotten anything. I hear fabulous amount of money, that they say people receive, 30 (something) million, 100 million, I wish I had that because that would help me solve most of the problems in my communities but I want to tell you that just two days ago, I received an alert of that money, and I can show you my account, it is zero, because before even the money come, you keep (dealing with pressures) everyday … Just this morning, there was a pathetic situation: of one of our constituents who was just ejected from her House, a widow, I had to cough out N500,000 this morning; I didn’t have it, but these are some of the things that happen, and you know that these people have no other place to go. We are not doing it because this widow lives in Abuja, and I do not really know her, I can’t tell whether tomorrow she is going to support me or not but you have to do these things, it is important that we do it. Like these projects I am telling you, I am sure that by the time you come and take videos and pictures of these projects, and see them whether in construction or completed and interview the people around there, and see how happy they are, that such a project has been brought to them, and how effective the senator has been, and maybe people when they read it and see it, you know that this is real. I support that. Let me also say that part of the problem that we have in Nigeria is that everybody feels governance from the perspective of his locality, except when a road is done in your village, or the road that leads to your house, you will not know that government is doing other roads elsewhere, except when the water is brought to your house, you will not remember that there are so many other communities and there is no way government can do or bring these things to everybody. I have situation where I go on campaign and I talk about what I have done and people are like, okay, you have done this, you have done that, and it has not reached our community and because of that, they start fighting you, you know; so our people need to understand that there has to be patience, and we have to have people, elect people who truly want to see the development of our communities. We need to recognize that there is no way government can go into every community, both at the national and the state level. And again, our people must hold the state governors to account, too much is being done by the federal government and too much is being expected from the federal government, without recourse to the fact that there are people in our state government, who collect huge amount of money on a daily basis, but end up not making use of these money in any way that it can be accounted for. The state government collect… look at how much money they have collected from the Paris refund, or from the bailout fund and all of it, yet, they are still owing salaries, what of the local governments? Some of what we are doing today, like doing a health centre, borehole projects, these are projects (supposed to be built) by them. In year 2018, I don’t think it should be the responsibility of the federal government. Local government have the capacity, it has been provided for in the distribution of resources of this country, enough money to build all these kinds of boreholes, health centres, culverts, so that we at the federal can continue to concentrate on things either expanding the frontiers of education or looking at tertiary or health facilities. I would like to for example, instead of committing resources into all these, equip secondary hospitals with necessary equipment so that when you do these projects, these are projects, instead of going to do boreholes but you have to do these things because you must intervene in the communities, where the local governments are not doing these things. So, our people need to start demanding from the state government, what they are doing and that is why we need to have autonomy of local governments. The state governments have refused to allow the autonomy of local government. When I was the speaker, the House in 2014, when we were doing the constitutional amendment, voted for autonomy of the local government. So I think it is important that we begin to demand for some of these because development must come from bottom up, instead of top down, all those monies that are being sent to the local government should be used for them.
You have spoken about Salary. So let me take it from there. There is a current uproar about the national minimum wage and the need to review it. If senators are taking 13 million and an average civil servant is taking 18 thousand, what is your personal position on this?
Comparing Senators and civil servants is like comparing apples and oranges. I can tell you that clearly, N13.5 million is nothing in the cause of running your office and position as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. At the same time, I believe that the minimum wage is too small for a country like Nigeria, if you go to other countries, I just returned from Monrovia, and I am aware minimum wage in a country as poor as Liberia is about a $100 which is about N35,000. So there is every need to increase the minimum wage but you see people need to understand. They keep comparing Nigerian Senators with Senators in the US. What a Nigerian Senator takes as a matter of fact is seven hundred (and something thousand) naira as a salary. That senator in his office has five official staff that work for him, in his constituency, depending on how many local governments. In my constituency for example, I have six local governments, I have not less than six people who work in not less than 6 of each local government and they are being paid. So I have a wage bill from my constituency of well over N5million every month to pay. That doesn’t include the fact that when anybody has a baby in your village, it is your village and you have to pay. When there is a burial, you pay, when there is someone sick, it is your responsibility. There is so much responsibility attached to the office. I don’t think people need to worry about what Senators are being paid. I can tell you that I don’t know what Senators are being paid in the past but in this Senate that I belong to, except there are other senators who are being paid higher than I am being paid. Our receipt is just that amount I mentioned. We are completely being underpaid. Now, you go to the US, their salary may be a little lower than that N13.5 Million but there are other things that are provided for them such as transportation, what they need to do their work. The US government spends nothing less than two (and some fraction) million dollars every year on every senator because they have to hire consultants and all sorts of people who work for them. To draft a bill is not a very cheap program and there are training programs and trips Senators are supposed to attend. So please, I want to beg Nigerians that the debate has been very unfair to us.
With respect to constituency projects and offices, there are many lawmakers who do not have the structures that you have painted in your case in place; shouldn’t we have a law guiding constituency projects?
The law wouldn’t just be there to direct what the money would be used for, the law if it comes, must be very all encompassing, it should also at the same time make federal government release 100% of the constituency funds. I am aware that last year, our constituency fund that was meant for my constituency, was just N200million, and at the end of the day, less than 70% of it was released, and the agencies where they were released end up not releasing the 70%, they took over 30% of it. Some of them, they have not finished the projects up till today. At the end of the day, you find out that even the money meant for the constituency projects are not completely released by the federal government. There are people who use theirs for empowerment projects, there are others who also use their for all these empowerment programmes like motorcycles, keke, you see, every community has their own needs, sometimes when you meet your own community, you will find out their needs, that was why I was talking about if local governments are existing. Like when you go to a community and they tell you their biggest problem is water, you can not intend to build a water scheme for them, because water scheme will entail creating a borehole, building a huge tank, finding pumping stations, building reticulations, you dot have the capacity, it’s not provided for, you do not have votes (in the budget) as a senator. What you can do is to build a borehole for them, put a tank, a pump and a generator. And hope that the community will in turn manage it. I have done boreholes and water projects for communities even when I was a speaker that today, maybe after some time the water pump stops working and those communities up till today have not been able to buy a simple water pump of N100, 000, then change it and that project is abandoned. Another person comes again and begins another project. These are some of the things we need to find solution to. When you go as a legislator to visit your constituents, often times, they tell you what they want is water and electricity, maybe they have electricity and they want you to help them buy transformer, reticulate power to their communities, and distribute it, they want you to help with building of road, maybe you do not have the capacity to build a tarred road, except you can attract a government agency to do these things. And the people don’t seem to recognize that Senators don’t have votes, we do the budget hearing but we are not the ones that execute the budget. We can prepare the budget, approve it, at the end of the day it is still the executive that will decide which part of the budget they are going to execute or not and who is going to execute it.
How will you rate the 8th assembly?
It is very subjective of me to rate an assembly that I am part of. This is the only one I have been a part of, so I cannot compare it with any other, but we have done well.
In terms of productivity?
In terms of productivity, this has been the most productive, in terms of bills we have passed, in terms of motions. We have had our issues, issues that the assembly has managed to move on. Part of the draw back has been the executive-legislative crisis and I will put the blame on both sides; there should have been better understanding, and better management of the crisis. I believe that the 8th assembly has done well, I believe that if all the issues had been managed, things would have been much better.
Talking about history, in June you granted an interview, where you said “Okorocha has put Ndigbo to shame.” Do you still stand by that statement?
You are aware that there is crisis in my state, and the problem comes from that fact that the governor has tried to appropriate power of the entire state, all the parastatals, all the ministries, and all elective positions in the state; it is believe by a lot of people that he has not done well; he started well, but he is not ending well.
You said he started well but now he has gone wrong, at what point did he go wrong?
When he couldn’t control his greed. How can you have a situation where a governor would appoint temporary chairmen of the party, 27 of them the governor would appoint all. Commissioners he has one commissioner from each local government and no reference to any stakeholder. As a senator, I couldn’t nominate anybody in the state for any position whatsoever, it has to be the governor. In 2019 elections, there are 42 positions to be contested for in Imo state which is the 27 local government chairmen, 10 federal House of Representatives, three senators and he wants to appoint everything. He wants his son-in-law to become governor. He wants to be senator, he wants his relations to occupy other positions and even those of us who are senators he doesn’t want us to return. If that is not greed, what else can we call it? Over 1.7 trillion has passed through my state. My local government has received over a billion naira and you can’t see one culvert. The only project they have built in my local government is a chapel and one IT centre which has not been completed for 8 years.
Is it not going to affect the overall chances of APC come 2019?
Definitely we would have had a very easy and free ride. If we had performed well as a state. Right now, it is going to be very difficult for us to win election. I am not the person that will tell you yes (we will win just like that), but you see elections in 2019 is not going to be about parties but about individuals and that is what we want to rely on hopefully. At least our credibility as people and as politicians in our community would be able to help us win the election.
So there is no hope for reconciliation with the governor?
I don’t know. It all depends. He is the governor, but you see reconciliation, he has been asked to call reconciliation meetings for several times and he has not. He has not shown any sign that he wants to reconcile. And now that he is practically losing grip, it is going to very difficult for him or does he have the integrity to set a reconciliation team? I don’t think he has. Nobody will listen to anything he says. If there is going to be reconciliation it has to come from the national.
How will you rate the level of internal democracy in APC?
APC is about one of the youngest parties. You need to understand that the APC is an amalgamation of very strange fellows. We came together in 2014. Having captured power, it was a bit difficult at the initial time because when people come together to understand each other, it is difficult for most of you to work at the same pace. Some will work at a faster pace and some slower. I think we have been able to settle all that. There is no way you will go through elections in any party without having crisis. As a matter of fact, I think APC has done well. We just finished with our congresses less than four months ago and right after that we embarked on primaries. Most parties would have been broken by now. I want to rate the ability of the National Working Committee pertaining all the crisis emanating from the party, 70%. That is a very good pass mark. Most of the crisis we have is as a result of impunity and lack of internal democracy has come from the states where governors have shown complete lack of ability to maintain or manage people and they are not that many. We look at Zamfara, Imo, Ogun state. In Kaduna state, it is because of the personal issue Shehu Sani has with the Governor and the Governor couldn’t contain it. It is very sad. Even though the party and even the President wish that Senator Shehu Sani be given the ticket. But you cannot blame the party leadership, you blame the governor. The Governors are exercising their power with impunity and not all the Governors I must say. I don’t understand how someone can be in power for 8 years and you think that the next set of people should be produced by you. If you don’t have anything to hide why must he insist on somebody? If you have done well, you should work out of that place and hopefully look for further positions. You can run for president, he can be nominated vice president, you can come to the senate, and you can be humble enough to even go back to the House of Representatives, if you still want to serve.
You talked about Governors going to higher positions such as Senate, there has been a consistent trend which in most cases even in Imo state, you see Governors finishing their second terms and they want to go to the Senate. Is this encouraging for our democracy?
It is unfortunate because most of these governors that are retiring contribute very little in terms of productivity in the senate. They are there not because they want to be there or they have a calling to be in the senate or they have a legislative capacity. They are there because they just want to find a place to remain relevant for the next election. There is nothing you can do. It is your right to run as long as their people elect them, there is nothing you can do about it.
You and your Governor would be returning to the senate in 2019. How do you intend to work together for the good of Imo state?
Like I said earlier, it is the governor. It is all in his hands. If he wants peace in the state he would have peace. If he doesn’t want peace that means he would keep having crisis. The fact remains that we are all politicians. Being a governor is an opportunity. Any of us could have been governor. He is not a governor because he is older than all of us or more intelligent. It is an opportunity that God granted him. And it is expected for him to use that opportunity to build people, peace, extend it to every nook and cranny of the state. But in a situation where people feel that they have been shortchanged in everything, you can’t go to any community and see any major projects. And then I don’t know, the governor keeps deluding himself that he has done well. On the street, every Nigerian of today knows that majority of all the things the governor says he has done, they are not true. All the roads he has done, most of them are of poor capacity, that once it rains, they are washed away. This is the government that pays the least for road. You can’t build any road in the South-east today with less than 100 million and expect that to last per kilometer at least not less than 80 million per kilometer, if you want that road to last. Today in Imo state, you hear about roads being built for 40 million, 30 million, and 50 million. Often times, the contractors after giving the advance, they are not paid anymore. That’s why we have low quality roads and projects in Imo state. He has built buildings scattered all over the place, the buildings they don’t make sense. The finishing are so poor. This is a state, if you travel outside this country, you see the kind of project that are being built or that were built by governments. A case in point is the Imo state House of Assembly where I was speaker. When we renovated the place, I gave him a proposal on the renovation, he decided to do the one he wanted to do and gave the contract to his sister. And that building nobody can stay there. I said to him, Rochas, when we went to South Africa, I showed him the South African- Kauteng region. I showed him the legislature. It was built more than a hundred years ago and it is still standing. So we should build government projects to last. The national assembly will be there for the next 100 years. All you need to do is to maintain it. All I am saying is that, the same way, the federal government will build the national assembly and it is built well, that is the same way the state government should build their state legislature, government houses, courts. Let’s not build court as if we are building it as cow shed. We should build things that we should be proud of. Even if it is one that we build let it be properly built. So when another government comes, they would build another one and then over the years we would now have proper development and not this half development that we have and that is my worry with my state.
Would you have remained in the APC if you lost out?
I have had this running trouble with my governor for over a year and the half now. I have always known that my governor did not want me to return to the senate. It was a decision I have made my mind on. And say nothing will make me change from that position that I had taken. When I took it I realized that it could go either way. When there was this mass defection in the national assembly, of course, I was being tempted by PDP. I was offered money and a ticket. APGA also offered the same thing. They were quite attractive. I knew that if I continued staying in APC, the fight I have with my governor could go either way but I have faith and belief in what APC and the President stands for. If I didn’t get this ticket I will still continue to support the president. That I can assure you. But I would have fought the governor even more.
You being a grass root politician, what do you think are the chances of the APC both in the governorship and general elections?
It is going to be tight and very difficult. Because we have up till now we are yet to unfortunately expand our frontiers in the South-east because of the kind of government we ran in Imo state. I believe if we did better in Imo state, other states would have wanted to come in. Again, the governor didn’t want people to come in. However, I know APC has made quite some in road into the South-East. We are going to do much better than we did. We are looking at capturing at least one state or two states in the South-East. I actually believe we have gotten Imo state especially if our choice of governorship candidate whom we expect will fly the flag- Hope Uzodimma, if they give him the ticket, I believe he would have a very good chance of winning and we will retain the state.
Is the APC still satisfied with Saraki’s leadership? Are there still moves to impeach him?
The position of the APC is that Saraki having joined PDP, he is a member of the minority party and it is only fair a majority will lead the minority in any democratic setting. APC is still interested in him leaving the seat but that is not the priority. The priority is to ensure that we get ready for the 2019 election, make plans on how we are going to win the election, ensure that the government is kept together. There are no bottlenecks from the national assembly that would prevent the government from getting its business done. We are not interested in crisis within the national assembly because when there is crisis the government suffers it. So I don’t think we are going to have any floor fights over change in leadership, which is not in our purview.
On a last note, do you think the leadership style of the APC National Chairman, Adams Oshiomole, has caused problem for the party?
I believe that Comrade Adams Oshiomole’s leadership is an asset to the party because for him: for a party to transit party primaries in less than four months, he inherited a party, he didn’t conduct the congresses, he managed to conduct primaries and in out of 36 states, less than 20% are having crisis then I think he has done very well. We need to commend him. I have interacted with him a lot and I think he is a very, very intelligent man. I think he is a man who knows how to handle this kind of crisis. He should be commend for the good work he is doing.