Biafra agitation is Justified- Senator Abaribe

Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe is not a stranger to the followers of Nigerian politics. He came into the political limelight following his election in 1999 as the deputy governor of Abia State. He later left office in controversial circumstances over his principled standoff with the then governor of the state Chief Orji Uzor Kalu. The ranking Senator representing Abia South Senatorial district has become the voice for most people in the South East who are unhappy with the Nigerian State for various reasons.

Recently the soft-spoken  Chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Power Senator sat down with Alabingo.com in Lagos and shared his thoughts on a wide range of issues as they affect the Igbos; Biafra, The controversial federal rail project, Igbo Marginalisation, Power Challenges etc. Enjoy!

The exclusion of the Southeast in the proposed rail project has generated debate. And when you raised the issue on the floor of the Senate one of your colleagues was said to have retorted that the Igbo should wait till 2018. How do all these come across to you?

Well, let me say that I didn’t hear any of my colleagues make that statement, I cannot really respond to a statement I didn’t hear. Let me also say that I didn’t say that the Igbo were excluded. I said that the eastern railway corridor – because the Nigeria Railway is made up of two corridors. There’s the western corridor which starts from Kano and terminates in Lagos. There’s eastern corridor which starts from Port Harcourt and terminates in Maiduguri. So if you want to do a revolution in the railways there is no way you can do one part and leave the other part. In actual fact, in the letter written by Mr. President to the Senate asking an acceleration of the debate on the request for the loan, the President specifically said that there is an ongoing negotiation for the concessioning of the eastern corridor.

In other words, you’re taking a loan to do the western corridor – that is Kano-Kaduna-all the way to Lagos, Lagos-Ibadan to Port Harcourt to Calabar – that is the coastal one. And so, if you’re taking a loan by the Federal Government what it means is that the whole country will pay for it. Then if you concession a section of it – concessioning simply means somebody takes it over, builds it and charges you. So what it means is that only those who are within that eastern corridor will pay. So people from the eastern corridor now – starting from Port Harcourt coming down to Aba to Umuahia, Enugu, Makurdi, Laffia, Bauchi, Jos all the way to Maiduguri – everybody on that line will now pay for the concessioning.

So everybody on that eastern corridor will now be subject to what I will call double jeopardy. First, you pay for what is being used to build for one side. Then you turn around again and now pay exclusively for the one that is done on your own side – that is one. The second thing is we don’t have a very good history with concessioning because it is a relatively new thing in Nigeria. The second Onitsha bridge has been bulged down by the fact that they are looking for concession all this while. The only concesioning we’ve seen that seems it is a little successful is the Murtala Mohammed 2, which is also bulged down with all manners of litigation and problems. Somebody now tells us to wait, until we can concession that side.

So we feel that this in effect is a constitutional matter. Section 16(2a) of the Constitution states very clearly that you are going to do economic development in a fair and balanced manner. So when you have eastern and western corridors and then you’re doing only West with our resources – that is not balanced. So when I brought up the motion, my essential aim was to say; this is not balanced, it is against the constitution. The constitution says in taking these responsibilities you must make sure that everybody in the country is captured. This is exactly what that is all about.

There is a strong feeling among people in the eastern part of the country that the Federal Government is not carrying them along. Where do you stand? 

I’m the chairman of the Southeast Senate caucus. Sometime last year, I think about September, we went to have a discussion. We sought for an audience with President Buhari. We went and met with him. And we asked him, and we made it very, very clear to him that the Southeast is totally excluded from happenings within the country. We’re not part of the security network in the country. There’s a security council for which every component part of the country is supposed to be represented. And that his pattern of appointment into the security architecture of the country we feel it is not representative of the country. So how will the Southeast as a whole be excluded?

And we also told him about so many other things that have happened that have shown us that he is completely blind to the feelings of the Southeast. Of course, after our discussion, he promised that they’re going to look into it. But up till today, nothing has come out of it. We also told him very clearly that the agitations that they see and the feelings of the younger elements in the Southeast are feelings of alienation. And that feeling of agitations is making people say why don’t we have our own country? If you don’t want us, let’s go. And we felt that if you need to build a more inclusive nation, then you must be sensitive to the feelings of every component part of this nation.

And we still stand by those feelings that we’re not being well treated within the country, and it’s very pervading on the whole side. I think Ohanaeze under John Ninia Nwodo has very clearly articulated it. Several other groupings and organization have also articulated it very, very clearly to say if you want us to be part of what you’re doing then bring us into the tent, don’t put us outside of the tent.

The Federal Ministry of Transport came yesterday and made some announcements that the coastal rail project from Lagos to Calabar will transverse Aba, Onitsha and so on. Does that solve the problem?

I had already said that we’re talking about the eastern corridor. The eastern corridor means that you have rail-line – it’s already there – that leaves Port Harcourt, gets to Aba, goes all the way to Umuahia, goes all the way to Enugu, goes to Makurdi, goes to Laffia, then goes to all the way. Then you now ask yourself when the Ministry of Transport comes up with this statement and says that the coastal rail line will link up Aba and so, that is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the whole eastern corridor all the way to Maiduguri. You understand?

So I will say they’re being very less than truthful about the issue. This issue is not whether it will link to Aba where I represent. And I think it will be a very, very sad thing that the ministry itself will come up with this form of agreement. And let me reiterate my argument here. The letter that was written by Mr. President seeking for this loan which of course must have been drafted by the ministry officials says very clearly that the eastern corridor starting from Port Harcourt to all the way down to Maiduguri will be done by concessioning.

So who made that decision? What were the criteria to make a decision to say one part of the country you’re going to borrow money which all of us are going to pay and then the other part you’re going to wait for who will want to invest via concessioning for it? That is thoroughly discriminatory and section 42 of the Constitution says very clearly that you cannot in doing a public policy discriminate against anybody on the basis of wherever you come from. So when you make this kind of decision where one part is taken care of, another part is not taken care of, then you are making discrimination on the basis of where you come from, that’s what we’re saying. For the ministry to say oh, we have coastal rail line one spur will come to Aba and all that, did we tell him that our problem is spook coming to Aba?

Our problem is there has always been trade, commerce, and everything. If you want to move petroleum products, it makes more sense to move them via rail line. It’s cheaper. It doesn’t break up the roads, it makes everything better. So are you going to be moving it among yourselves down there? It makes more sense, there’s already a rail line. That is the point. And that’s why in my motion I also said there is a transport master plan. So you bring the master plan and come and tell us what is the basis for your decision? If you have to borrow money to build the rail line you borrow for everybody. You don’t now borrow for one side and then tell me who come from the other side that I should wait when you find somebody who will concession that place. So you either do concession for everybody or you borrow for everybody. That is our contention.

See also  Muhammadu Sanusi speaks out after return to throne

From the body language of the senators on the floor do you see this Senate insisting on correcting that mistake before going further with the process?

Obviously! The Senate President was very clear on it that day to say there has to be fair and balanced development in the country. And so that the Senate was going to look into it! He actually said that the Senate leadership will engage the executive to look into this matter. So I do not see how this loan will pass through on the floor of the Senate with this type of anomaly. And that is why in order to give the government a chance to be able to persuade people to go that way we said let the minister come and tell us the criteria for which you made this decision. You understand?

And it’s very, very clear, the constitution is clear. You can’t rule this country on any basis that is not in the constitution. And you can’t now impose on me the obligation to pay for a loan for which I will not have any benefit therein. Do you understand? That is the key thing. And we’re not talking about senators from the Southeast alone. The senators from the South-south are part of it, senators from North Central because Laffia is Nasarawa, Makurdi is Benue, Jos is Plateau.

All the senators from there are also part of it. Then, of course, going all the way from Bauchi going all the way to Maiduguri, the senators from Borno, the senators from Yobe, the senators from Gombe, they’re all part of it. And so when you’re talking about a configuration of senators from everywhere, you see that it’s going to be a very difficult thing if they don’t resolve these issues.

You worked to secure the release of Nnamdi Kalu. What informed your decision and what is your understanding of the Biafra agitation?

I had said it earlier that the whole concept of the Biafra agitation is coming from the feeling that is very pervasive in the Southeast and South-south, especially of an alienation within the Nigerian polity. And find also that this alienation spreads all over the place. There are people in the Southwest who feel alienated, there’re people in the North Central who feel alienated. They’re the people who’re being attacked by Fulani herdsmen and nobody is doing anything about it. They’re feeling alienated.

So there’s a Biafra in everybody in Nigeria today. So it is simply what I will call a reaction to the situation that they find themselves. That is what is fueling the agitation. And you cannot tell anybody not to speak out and not to say this is how I feel in a situation where he is being treated no longer as a full-fledged Nigerian but as a second class citizen. There used to be elements of this happening but what we find today is that APC government seems to have taken it to another level and that has led to this increased agitation.

And the only way you can resolve the issue is also to look at the causes and the complaints and then you look at how you can assuage people’s feelings. There’s a certain level of insensitivity going on within the people who run the present government. And what we’re simply saying is that each and every one of us has right under the law, under the constitution. And we are expected to defend those rights. And part of what I’m doing is defending those rights that are enshrined in the constitution because we all swore in as senators that we will defend the rights of Nigerians.

Coming to Nnamdi Kalu, one of his bail conditions was simple: That they should find a senator. And being that he’s from Southeast, we had a meeting as the Southeast caucus and decided that we must go ahead and do the needful, and make sure he’s out of the detention for which he had earlier been granted bail but the government refused to let him out. So we went ahead to ensure his bail conditions were met so that was what happened. It was a collective decision of the Southeast Caucus.

Can you tell us more about his release? There are insinuations that it has a political insinuation. He has been granted bail before. Don’t you think there is more to it?

I don’t know anything else except that he was given a bail condition one of which is that a senator will be a bail guarantor and I came up to guarantee. I don’t see any other political insinuation to it.

The Biafra thing is about people not being fairly represented in decision making or is there a genuine belief among the people in the Southeast that they should have a country?

I think that maybe I’m not in the best position to answer that question. That question is better posed to those who are espousing Biafra. I am a senator elected to the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the laws set up under the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Therefore I’m a Nigerian and a senator. So I cannot speculate on the reasons and motives of those who seek that.

You’re an Igbo man and I want to believe that you witnessed the civil war. What does Biafra mean to you?

 I was in secondary school when the civil war broke out because I spent three years living the experience of Biafra and also, of course, came back to secondary school and of course here I am today. So in terms of the experience of knowing what happened, the deprivations that happened and I will say utter waste of human lives that happened within that period, I was privy to. I wasn’t privy to political consciousness or lack of consciousness that led to the decisions that were taken by the young men at that time led by Odumegwu Ojukwu all the way down to the civil war and what informed their decision because I was in class 1, which means I was just about 12 years old. I can read the historical accounts now.

I can read and understand what, I will say, led to people taking hard decisions. I’ve read several accounts and I’ve seen all those tapes. But being a senator of the federal republic of Nigeria, I’ve to be far more reflective today. And that is why I’m part of saying if you have gotten to a position that made you take a certain decision in the past, you should also today make sure you take adequate consideration of the past before making decisions of today where you’ve been before. And so there is an aphorism that says those who do not remember history tend to repeat it. And we shouldn’t let the aphorism happen in Nigeria. What should happen today is when we are confronted with a situation today, we should have the totality of our historical experience to use it resolve the problems of today.

What we’re saying in essence is this: that the present leadership of the country today seems not to want to learn from history. The present leadership seems not to be mindful of the feelings and sensitivities of the various nationalities in Nigeria. And there is this arrogant mindset that we can do anything and get away with it. But today is not 1966 or 1965. There is an explosion of information. There’s a much more awareness by everybody about their rights and everything. That means you have to be far more sensitive in making decisions about people and their welfare than hitherto.

Hitherto you could get away with it but today you just will not be able to because somebody is going to challenge you. That is how I feel that those issues will be resolved and like I said we’ve met with President Mohammadu Buhari and actually laid all those things down on the table.

See also  Abia committed to transparent, accountable government, as house of reps committee commends Otti

You still have not answered the question, sir. I said what does Biafra mean to you personally?

Well, what it means to me personally is that I think that it was an expression of a people who felt that they were unjustly treated and very viciously handled within the Nigerian nation and decided that they should seek their own part and ultimately it was not successful. But you see the unjust treatment and those parts that led to it is what we’re now having to confront all over again and that’s why I said that we must have to use the totality of the past to be able to confront the present. And those who are making decisions today ought to be guided by that.

But are you also worried that those who are supposed to make decisions are making the same mistakes made in the past and also those who are agitating appear to be making the same mistakes the previous agitators made?

No, I’m only heartened by one fact. And that fact is encapsulated in an adage, an Igbo adage that says that twenty years is not eternity. Our people say it every time. What it means in effect is that every government, every ruling party has time when they will have to come and seek the mandate of the people. So if you’re not doing well in whichever way, every four years you will have to try to renew your mandate. Even if you try to pillage, try to strong arm, try to muscle everybody and all that, the constitution is very clear. There’s a maximum of eight years that you will use and within eight years you cannot destroy a country. You understand? So I really don’t want to bother myself about whether those who are in office today are making mistakes. They will come back and seek the mandate of Nigerians. And because each and every one of us is a Nigerian entitled to vote or be voted for, we will also make our decision at that time based on how the present ruling party has conducted its affairs.

The wind of defection is blowing in your party, the PDP. It is so serious that I don’t know if I will be surprised that I wake up tomorrow and see a bold headline, “Senator Abaribe dumps PDP”. What’s going on? Are we seeing the imminent collapse of the political sky-scrapper called PDP?

I think that every party evolves. Every party moves from one phase to the other. And what you see today you may not see tomorrow. But you can rest assured that I’m not inclined to follow the fad of jumping from one point to the other. At the moment I represent Abia South Senatorial District. And this district has given me their mandate I’ve not also indicated interest in moving from one point to the other. I think that those who are jumping about today should ask themselves one simple question. If former Governor Tinubu and his close associates and people at the time that they were in AD and the time in 2013 when the whole of Southwest moved out, that he had also under pressure succumbed and moved to the PDP there will probably not be an APC and there will probably not be another government.

So, I think that people should be a little bit more reflective before they jump into political alliances or political configurations just for the mere fact of getting certain things from government as it is today. I agree that because we are in a third world country and political formations have not really taken deep root or have not solidified as much as we like, you will find that there will always be the allure to be within what we call the federal government. So people will tend to drift to whichever party that is controlling the federal government. That is the fact that we can easily see.

But I now also know that politics is local. Politics does not depend mostly on elements that are outside of your locality. To win an election, you will also need to win it within your locality. And it is the feelings of the people within your locality that will determine how you go. You can be a big fish; you can be a strong person or a very well-known national figure. But we have always had the history in Nigeria that National figures lose elections in their wards (laughter), which means that politics is local and we can cite numerous examples of people who when they go to seek the mandate of their people at home lose.

And then you’ll ask which one should you really follow? Is it what your people say at the local level or what you think is supposed to be; that ephemeral part of the federation where people eulogise you when you have no solid base? I’ve always won elections solely on the basis of my base, where I come from. They will still determine where we go ultimately.

You are the chairman, Senate Committee on Power. Are you satisfied with what we’re getting from the power sector reform?

No, we’re absolutely not satisfied. In fact, it has led us, the Committee on Power to make certain decisions. The first thing we did was to convene a summit of all the stakeholders in the power sector. The Senate President and the Speaker were very concerned because this is economic development we’re talking about. We had a summit, we had a stakeholders’ forum. Then we now had a big summit which was done at the Transcorp Hilton in which all issues were brought out and different scenarios for resolving the issues in the power sector were put forward. The Ministry of Power is taking steps, also in conjunction with the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission to address all these issues.

The basic issues now are that infrastructure is dilapidated. It was sold. The reason for trying to sell them was to ensure that investments are made in the sector. But several years after the privatization, investments are not forthcoming. Everybody is blaming each other. The sector was gradually running into a roadblock. And therefore certain decisions needed to be made which they are making at the moment, specifically, to be able to improve the liquidity in the system. Because liquidity has now become a major problem and being able to expand people who will invest in the sector so that there will be an improvement in the facilities. At the moment I can tell you that we are very very dissatisfied with what we’re seeing.

I think they’re constitutional issues too. For instance, Lagos State Government say they are generating power but they can’t sell because they need to take it to the national grid. So constitutionally is there anything being done to ensure a level of decentralization in this regard?

Maybe people are not very aware. It’s not a constitutional issue. The electricity market has been totally deregulated. The only aspect of electricity sector now that is still in the hands of government is transmission. But in terms of distribution, in terms of generation, in terms of all those things they’re still private. All that anybody who wants to do anything needs to do is to work with the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission, that now gives you license to do whatever you want to do. So if Lagos State Government is generating power and they want to move it out all they need to do is to work with the Electricity Regulatory Commission that’ll give them the license for them to be able to work with whatever they have. If they want to distribute then they have to go and seek for a distribution license.

In other words, if they now get the distribution license they have to build a new distribution network. Because the existing distribution network I think is between Ikeja Disco and Eko Disco. So my own thought there is that if Lagos State wants to get into distribution why build a fresh network, why not collaborate with discos that are existing. Because discos are also looking for who will invest and who will make it easier for them. If they’re working with state government it makes it even easier for the discos to be efficient.

Because most discos must do remapping of their area, they must try to know who their customers are and working with the state government with a database, even makes it easier for them. So I do not see that as a disincentive for Lagos State Government, I think maybe the proper collaborations are not being sought.