24 July 2018

Nigeria: Politicians Will Put National Interests First - Saraki

Photo: Tami Hultman / AllAfrica
Senate President Bukola Saraki during @allafrica interview in Washington, DC

Washington, DC — Senate President Bukola Saraki, speaking to AllAfrica about the challenges and opportunities facing Nigeria, expressed his faith in Nigeria's justice system. In an interview on 11 July, prior to a summons today from the Inspector General of Police,

Saraki attributed charges against him to political rivalry. But he said that, in the end, he expects politicians will put the country's pressing problems ahead of their own ambitions.

Those assumptions are now being tested. The summons to answer claims that he had instigated a day of deadly bank robberies and murders of police and civilians on 5 April was accompanied by threats of force if he does not present himself to police. Saraki repeated what he has said in the past - that he does not hold himself above the law and would appear in response to the summons.

Governing party defections deliver Senate control to opposition

That was only one of today's dramatic developments. The new summons came as today's defections from the governing party changed the balance of power in the National Assembly.

The Senate has adjourned for eight weeks after Saraki, presiding, informed the Senate that 15 senators of the governing APC said they have left the party, giving the opposition PDP control of the chamber. Later today, 37 members of the House of Representatives announced their withdrawals from the governing party.

Video inside the House showed scenes of celebration among members. Nigerian media have been featuring discussions by legal scholars and analysts about how the dramatic developments will affect the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and next year's national elections.

In the only interview Senate President Saraki gave while in Washington earlier this month, he said he was considering the role he will play amid the brewing discontent in the governing APC. In and out of the Senate, Saraki has vigorously championed the reforms promised by President Buhari, including the fight against corruption.

Saraki was not among those withdrawing from the APC today, but if he remains in the governing party, he could lose his status as president of the Senate, a powerful position that is third in line to the presidency. He told AllAfrica that it has been satisfying to be in a position to promote legislation that helps Nigerians, despite constant attacks from opponents and legal actions against him.

Promoting peace and prosperity in a country yearning for both

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with the continent's largest economy. Despite its oil riches, it has more poor people than any other country in the world, suffers the highest rates of malaria and is one of the most dangerous places in which to give birth. Conflicts have spawned a humanitarian crisis.

Saraki called the allegations against him a distraction from the important business of promoting the interests of Nigerians. In the interview, he pointed to the passage this year, "finally", of funds aiming towards universal health coverage for the country's exploding, youthful population. The law is, he said, "a major milestone that definitely will begin to lead to a healthier population", and a legacy that he, as a physician, wanted to leave.

"Whether we talk about immunization, about maternal mortality or infant mortality, the key way to address that is to provide adequate funding for primary health care," he said. "Providing funding now for universal health care will ensure that a lot more people get immunized, as opposed to one in four presently. We hope that every child will get immunization. We believe that by doing that we will reduce infant mortality significantly and also will be able to have more skilled professionals assisting deliveries and more prenatal care and antenatal care."

There is speculation that today's withdrawals from the APC could be, in part, pressure from Saraki supporters for him to run for president.

Who will govern Nigeria?

Access to health care and fighting corruption were major campaign issues in 2015 when Nigerians defied predictions by voting out incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and electing Buhari. But popular criticism has spread, as the government is seen to have failed to eliminate corruption, to deliver health care, or to bring peace – from Boko Haram attacks in the north, in conflicts over land between farmers and herders in central areas, and in the oil-producing Delta region in the south, where local militias sabotage distribution pipelines they say pollute their waters while by-passing their communities, leaving them without fuel.

Veteran politician and former vice president of Nigeria Atiku Abubakar has declared his candidacy as the PDP nominee, launching his campaign two days ago. But earlier this month a coalition of opposition parties announced that they will agree on a single candidate to contest President Buhari, should he run again despite the unannounced illness that took him to the United Kingdom for repeated treatments.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has been prominent in traveling around the country, representing the president. But many political pundits say Osinbajo has no path to the presidency in this election. He is from the south, and, in an informal convention, the presidency has rotated between states of the north and those of the south every eight years.

The unwritten power-sharing agreement has been a way of ensuring regional representation, as well as giving both Muslim and Christian communities a chance at the highest office. The north has a predominance of Muslim voters, while a majority in the south identify as Christian.

Insurgent presidential candidate Kingsley Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, says such insider arrangements have been a way of sharing spoils, not a way to serve Nigerians, and that old norms should be abandoned.

Asked about his own future, Saraki said the next couple of weeks are important times for him to "take decisions that would decide" where he will put his efforts going forward. "I'm consulting a lot of people, my constituencies, some of my colleagues, family," he said. "Once I make up my mind, I will announce to the public where I stand. I'm not going to change what I believe in; I'm not going to change my fight to make the country a better country, a more secure, prosperous country."

Now part of his attention must be directed to defending himself against renewed allegations of serious crimes.

Bizarre claims: person third-in-line to presidency responsible for multiple murders, attacks on police and six bank robberies in two-hour crime spree.  

In May, police first summoned Saraki to answer allegations that he was behind bank robberies and murders in Kwara state. After he expressed his intention to comply with the summons and contest the charges, which he called politically motivated, police withdrew the summons.

Those aren't the only criminal charges Saraki has faced since becoming Senate president. In 2015, the Nigerian government accused him of 18 counts of "false and anticipatory asset declaration" – alleging that he had failed to declare all his assets before taking office, as required by law.

Although the Code of Conduct Tribunal found in Saraki's favor, the government appealed the Tribunal's ruling, leaving him again in legal jeopardy. Early this month, the Supreme Court of Nigeria dismissed all the false asset declaration charges, saying government lawyers had engaged in a "forensic somersault".

President Buhari welcomed the high court's judgment, saying Saraki had set an example for Nigerians to emulate.  "I have seen him take the tortuous path of using the judicial process," Buhari said in a statement, rather than trying to destroy the judicial institution. "This is what I have done in the three elections in which I was cheated out, before God made it possible for me to come here the fourth time I ran for the office."

In his interview with AllAfrica, Saraki characterized the allegations he has faced as desperation by "a few" political opponents.

"I think what you saw – I know what you saw – in the case of armed robbery is just a state of desperation by a few people to try and fabricate something that has nothing to do with me, which they know has nothing to do with me," said Saraki. "And you will see over the time, events will unfold to show how desperate some of those people have got, to try and make a case."

'Our democracy is at stake here' – Tweets express concern

The deadly events in Kwara began in early April when over a dozen heavily armed robbers assaulted divisional police headquarters and raided five banks in the town of Offa for two hours, killing several police and over 30 civilians, including a pregnant mother and her young son, before reportedly fleeing on stolen motorcycles and other vehicles. In a statement at the time, Saraki, a former governor of Kwara, said he had spoken with Governor Ahmed "to express my condolence on the lives that were lost in the attack, and we both agreed that no stone would be left unturned until the perpetrators of this heinous act are caught and brought to justice."

In a bizarre turn of events, the following month Saraki and Ahmed were themselves summoned by police to answer allegations that it was they who had instigated and provided support for the robberies and murders. Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris said gang leaders claimed that "the Senate President supplies arms and money to the thugs; that everyone in Kwara Central fears them because of their guns and ability to kill anybody without hesitation."

Police held an outdoor press conference displaying what they said was captured arms, along with the perpetrators, seated at a table. Video of the press conference shows police repeatedly prompting the seated men to say how Saraki had instructed them to conduct the raids and to say he provided funds and vehicles. One of the vehicles shown displayed a license tag that read: SARAKI.

Police public relations officer Jimoh Moshood in June renewed claims that the criminal gang "have a direct link" to Saraki, using as evidence a piece of cloth specially made for the wedding ceremony of the senator's daughter in October in the Kwara capitol of Ilorin. Public reaction in Kwara noted the weakness of the evidence: the Saraki family had printed thousands of pieces of the fabric to distribute to citizens of the state who gathered to offer congratulations.

Saraki said his accusers "miss the point, not knowing the damage it could do to the country as a whole. They think it's just me as an individual, but the damage to the country is more than that. We do hope that as the country some of us will continue to fight for what we believe is right, to fight for values of democracy and what we believe in."

He applauded, as did President Buhari, Nigeria's judicial system. Saraki acknowledged that it has not been easy. But, he said, vindication by the Supreme Court "further encourages us in the judiciary system, that at least we have the judiciary that is there [also] for the common man and woman".

"It's a relief," Saraki said in the interview, "after a thousand and eighteen days of what was totally unnecessary, was a distraction. What we should be spending time to do was unite the arms of government for cooperation and work towards delivering all our promises to Nigerians."

The relief proved short-lived, with today's revived summons on the far more serious charges of murder and armed robbery. Twitter is drawing comments, some from supporters and others like one that says: #IStandwithSaraki, not becos I like him or am [political] but because our democracy is at stake here…

Read the full interview on AllAfrica.

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