Senator Joseph Akaagerger, a holder of doctorate degree in law easily combines his cerebral prowess with a devotion to the celestial.
His foray into the political arena followed his last military posting as Military Administrator of Katsina State. He handed over the baton of government to President Umaru Yar'Adua who took over from him as Governor of the state in 1999.
Presently Vice-Chairman of the Senate Committee on Communications, Senator Akaagerger represents Benue North East Senatorial district.
In this interview with Vanguard conducted during the just concluded Senate retreat, Senator Akaagerger harped on the place of godliness in politics, recounted his experience since entering politics and gave pass mark to the two year administration in his home state. Excerpts:
What should be the immediate concern of the Senate in reviewing the 1999 Constitution?
As a soldier I must set for myself limited objectives and the Senate is trying to do this. I completely agree with the position of the Senate to do an incremental revision or amendment of the constitution and the first will be the electoral reforms. I think what will be more beneficial to us is to start with the electoral reforms because if we have a sound electoral system it creates confidence at it deepens democracy
What is your relationship with the President of the Senate and how do you assess his stewardship so far?
I have so many things binding me and the Senate President. Besides the fact that he is my senior, we have served in the armed forces before and we had this perfect relationship then and now to continue in the Senate is the continuation of a previous relationship which has always been beneficial to me and the people of Benue State.
I will say of his stewardship that it has been very wonderful; he has been able to put the Senate together.
You asked me of banana peels before, you can see that it is completely absent this time around. You can see that since we started the Senate that there has not been any hiccup like it was previously. This is a manifestation of a man who is capable of managing people and managing materials.
A man who has been able to relate with different Nigerians at all levels in very correct manner and that is why the Senate has continued as a family up to this moment. I can only wish him the best for the remaining years of his tenure.
What is your perspective of this Senate compared to previous Senates?
Not being a member of the former Senate it will be very difficult for me to assess.
But you have heard of incidents of Ghana Must Go, banana peels and all that?
I heard about those things but I cannot prove them. I remember one experience in the House of Representatives when on television somebody said that he was bribed and put the money before the House, we saw it but he didn't disclose who gave him the money and that was how the matter also died in the peculiar way it came.
I would only say that all along what I do know is that I have heard such speculations in the papers, I have not had any experience. So within the context of Ghana Must Go, I will give the Sixth Senate a pass mark because this is the Senate I belong to. I am not aware of any integrity problems in the Senate.
On national issues, I think the Senate has also done well. Last year we were in Kano looking at the issue of desertification in the northern parts of country and when we were in Port-Harcourt the issue of development in those areas that turned out militants and now we are here (Enugu) to look at the issue of gully erosions in the environment.
On our legislative functions we have looked at legislation for an enduring electoral system and I think that one area where the Senate could do better is to ensure that oversight functions make more meaning than they do now.
To what extent have you used the platform of the Senate in articulating the developmental challenges of your constituency?
This again revolves around constituency projects in my senatorial district and also issues that touch the people most. Recently I have been talking about the issue of Lake Nyos and the environmental problems it causes on the people and the executive has been also responding and there has been tremendous cooperation from the Committee chairmen of the relevant committees such as Water Resources, Environment and Agriculture.
Besides these, quite a number of MDG projects have been executed in my senatorial district and I think this is very commendable. We have also had the NCC install over a hundred computers in some selected secondary schools. There is a college I established with my wife in 1999 and they are already on the internet now courtesy of the NCC.
At a personal level we have engaged in education, we are building two secondary schools in less privileged areas of my senatorial district courtesy of my wife and myself.
What has been most useful to them has been my free medical programme. So far, over 50,000 persons have benefitted from it. We have also carried out surgeries for almost 10,000 persons. I take care of the transportation for any person who cares to be treated. When we have complicated cases that are referred to the University of Jos Teaching Hospital I take care of all the expenses.
How do you foot this bills?
Does that not mean that you are leaving oversight legislative duties to perform executive functions?
No I wouldn't think so. What I think we are doing is that we are not taking that as excutive functions but just as interventionist measures because government cannot do it alone, even as private individuals we should be able to assist our governors and even the president at our various levels to make interventions that are relevant to the people. We cannot wait to see people go about without healthcare.
Do you see that as a lapse on the part of the executive?
It is not a lapse on their part, I think it is a cooperative synthesis between the executive and the legislature and I would want to say that in this respect that my governor is doing very well in healthcare services, in agriculture, in education, in power supply and building roads and so on. These are capital projects that we cannot engage in, but little efforts we can do here and there to intervene and assist within the context that government cannot do all alone, justify our actions in this regard.
Yes indeed, legislation is our concern and we can also intervene in these executive related areas to assist government deliver dividends of democracy to our people.
There is some perception that it is such interventions by legislators that put pressure on them to dabble into corrupt practices. Are you faced with such pressure?
Yes we can be faced with pressures but we should have integrity enough to tell people the extent to which we can go and to also stop where it is necessary and where it puts you into problem, you should be able to tell people I cannot go beyond this.
In all these things I want to say that it is also correct both politically and socially for legislators to begin to liaise with their local authorities, the governors for example to engage in these exercises. I keep my governor informed in everything I am doing. You will see that in the MDG projects that are health related we always intervene where the governor stops. For example, my governor is providing healthcare facilities in all the local government headquarters so, at the community level it becomes our concern to assist him with the MDG interventions and if you can also personally intervene, that is also helpful.
So, I have concerned myself in the areas of healthcare, agriculture, education and micro-financing. Quite a number of people in the Senate had been in business for a while so they can intervene in their own areas.
What is your motivation in politics?
First of all I must begin to say that I never, ever had a political ambition. I felt that having left the armed forces that I would retire to my law practice. But then two things happened. One, pressure from individuals and persuasions from persons for whom I had the greatest respect who insisted that I had the quality, and second, is the experience I derived from my time as Military Administrator of Katsina State.
I began to discover that besides the persuasions of the people, I became convinced that one will not be able to impact positively on his society except one uses the political window as an avenue to reach the people. When I came into politics I had massive support in my senatorial district and that is why I am in the Senate today. And I am further convinced that God has a purpose for me to be here.
Is there a place for God- fearing individuals in the kind of politics that is played in Nigeria today with electoral vices such as rigging commonplace?
There is much more about politics than rigging. Rigging may just be a vice. When Jesus had twelve disciples there was a Judas there. The Bible is clear about what God's intention for politics is, it is that it should be an avenue for development but man in his usual style and disposition will always manipulate issues and begin to operate in a manner not originally designed by God.
I think that the best thing to do is to begin to look at politics from a positive direction. Begin to look at the intervention of godly people in politics as God's own plan to redirect affairs in this area. Yes, there are vices and rigging is one of them but there are quite a number of things that are useful and I believe that the original design of politics even in Nigeria is not for rigging and is not for negative issues but yet they have come and we are the same Nigerians who will have to make the difference.
Recently, the country has been engaged in the issue of electoral reforms and Nigerians themselves have realized that the present system as it is does not create confidence and consolidate dividends and that is why I believe the Senate retreat was focused even towards electoral reforms.
So, I believe that a Christian has a place, religion has a place in politics and not just Christians, but also devout Muslims and other religions too.
So, how has your political experience been?
With my pedigree as a soldier I will say that this is altogether a different ball game in some perspectives. For example in my former constituency, the army, it is a matter of order, it is a matter of hierarchy, it is a matter of integrity.
But here in politics you could find nuances of integrity problems, you can talk to someone in the morning and in the evening time he is singing a different song. In the army your yes is yes and your no is no, that is regimentation which you can hardly find in politics. Yet again there are some people who will stand by their words, whose words are their honour.
One other thing is that now we talk about consensus, we may even disagree to agree but not in my former constituency, where orders are orders. If this is the order given it should be obeyed. In politics it is much more of persuasion and so on.
How will I describe the entire system? I will say it is a disorderly order! Whereas in my former constituency it is absolute order but we thank God that the situation is not as grim as I have painted it but on the whole I want to thank most people who I have dealt with, whose support I have had, who had shown that there are still men of honour in politics.
Have you ever had any experience that challenged your faith?
Let me just give a little example here. I had a candidate in my former party, the United Nigeria Peoples Party (UNPP) who after we had agreed that we would field this candidate in the State House of Assembly (and I am not given to giving my support and withdrawing it) the elders came to me in the morning as we were walking towards the point of primaries and told me that they had withdrawn their support and that I had no option but to withdraw my support for the lady if I needed their support in my next election.
Against my conscience and for reasons which they gave which were not cogent for me, I withdrew but the woman suffered a stroke after getting the shock that there was no support for her.
Of course, we didn't even win the elections and there God was teaching me a lesson there too, that you must always be sincere, you must always be honest in what you are doing irrespective of any pressure or change of position from anywhere. If you are not part of it, it is better for you to resign!
How has that experience shaped your political relationships and interventions?
I have had several situations where after we have agreed on issues people will come with various interests and say that they do not want to go that way again and want to renege from the earlier position. To me it appears ungodly but in politics it is common practice.
How this has shaped me since then is that I have told myself that I will no longer participate in such kinds of issues. It is either I will reserve myself or resign from that kind of position.
Since then I have never disappointed a person...But again you will discover that those you fight for in politics are the ones that will come against you full swing. Those are some of the inconsistencies and paradoxes that one meets in politics.
My principle on this is that I am a member of the party and I also want to make heaven, not only to end in party politics which is a short term affair. We must also begin to understand that the same scale of judgment, the same scale of justice for which He will judge any other person is the same that He will apply for the Christian in politics.
So, you cannot explain yourself out that you are here in Rome and that you are behaving like Romans! God doesn't look at you that way, God looks at you as His son and God looks at you as a person who should perform His mandate and once you are sure of that, you are sure of the glory of God too.
What is your relationship with the Governor of Benue State and what is your assessment of his administration?
My relationship with my governor, His Excellency, Gabriel Suswam is very cordial and I appreciate it. The governor relates with us on the platform of respect and honour and I think this is correct and respect is reciprocal and we also have the same obligation to him.
And as to his assessment, the governor is doing particularly well. If you get to Benue starting from township roads not only in Makurdi, but in the city centres of Otukpo, Gboko, Katsina-Ala and others they are all receiving fast face lifts.
Then in rural roads he is doing quite well there. He is also doing well in the area of water supply, education and several other areas and it is quite commendable. Indeed he has justified our mandate.
Any final word?
I will take this opportunity to appreciate the good people of Benue North East senatorial district and to appreciate my governor in the process also for the support I have had in the past two years and I am looking forward that this support will translate to peace because without peace there cannot be any development?