Washington, DC — Bukola Saraki, who – as Senate President and third in line to the Presidency – is one of Nigeria's most powerful politicians. He was elected to the Senate in 2011 after serving two terms as governor of Kwara state. Earlier this month he led a bi-partisan legislative delegation to Washington, DC. The group had meetings at Capitol Hill and the State Department, consultations at the United States Institute of Peace, and the Senate President made a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations. In an interview with AllAfrica, the only media he met during the visit, Saraki, spoke about a wide range of challenges facing Africa's most populous nation.
Nigeria has the largest population and the biggest economy in Africa, but the country faces enormous challenges. One of the issues people care about most is improving health. You lead the Senate. You are a physician. You have dealt, as a governor and as a senator, with the problem of access to health care. What can the federal government do? Can you reduce one of the highest global death rates of mothers and babies related to childbirth? Can you increase immunization rates? Can you eradicate malaria?
I believe we can. We have taken the steps towards that by the health act passed in 2014. And in this year's budget of 2018, we've finally provided funding for that, which will ensure universal health care coverage for primary health care. 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.
Providing funding now for universal health care will ensure that a lot more people get immunized, as opposed to one in four presently in the country. We hope to get universal coverage and 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 staff in primary health care and will ensure more professionals assisting deliveries and more prenatal care and antenatal care.
So this major step, led by myself and the Speaker [of the House of Representatives], in providing funding for primary health care in line with the health act, is a major milestone that will begin to lead to a healthier population. We thank all the members of the National Assembly, all the civil society that worked for it. I believe the total amount this year is about 55 billion [Naira], [about one per cent of consolidated revenue, which will carry on being made available].
We also have NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and different [international] organizations working with Nigeria who have said that once we provide that funding, they will come up with their own funding to match that. So I see a lot of funding now coming into primary health care.
The next challenge is proper utilization of that money. The major step is at least the funding is there now, and we are closer to universal health coverage. And when we do that – [when] every Nigerian, whether you're poor, whether you can afford it, has health-care coverage – then we're definitely on the right road towards better health care and less amount of mortality, both infant and maternal.
Is that outcome particularly satisfying to you as a physician?
For me, it has been. If you had followed the proceedings of the National Assembly, I did make an appeal to my colleagues that, being a doctor – and now the opportunity and honor to be the Senate president – it would be something I would like to deliver. It's a rewarding achievement for me to see that happen – that finally the country has done what is necessary for us to do to improve healthcare in the country. Because if you look at the statistics of Nigeria compared ro even countries that are poorer than we are – less resources – their figures are much better. So we have no excuse and I hope that was this action we've taken in the National Assembly will be remembered as a turning point in addressing health care and in making our people healthier and the population healthier and laying the foundation for a stronger country health wise and a stronger country productivity wise.
Nigeria has more poor people than any other country on earth. What can the federal government do to reduce poverty more generally?
Our GDP rate this year is probably about two percent. We need to get that significantly higher. We do that by ensuring that we get more investment in the right sectors, particularly, for example, in agriculture. We need to diversify our [oil-dependent] economy, provide jobs for our people.
Certain things we've done in the National Assembly. We've passed a bill on the [Bureau of Public] Procurement Act – a section of it called 'Made-in-Nigeria' – to encourage more products and goods to be produced locally. The national government needs to consider Nigerian products as a first option. That will stimulate industries that will provide jobs. I think that will go a long way. Secondly, we need to pass ease-of-doing-business laws that will make it easier for people to do business and make Nigeria a destination point.
We've done that with some of the laws we passed, and we've seen that has helped us in the World Bank [rankings]. We've moved up about 45 places. We need to continue to engage with the private sector that will bring investment into the country – the right kind of policies and the right kind of laws.
In thirty years Nigeria could be the world's third most populous country.
In the infrastructure sector, we've passed a number of bills in the National Assembly to try to encourage the private sector to participate. The issue of power [electricity] is still a problem that increases the cost of doing business, Secondly the movement of goods - we're trying to see more investment in the railway sector. We passed laws that allow private sector to invest in port development, so we can ensure it's easier for goods to come into the country – reduce the cost of doing business.
These are all laws that would facilitate more private sector and foreign direct investment. By doing that, you will be able to take care population growth. There are figures – percent of poverty – that have to do with the fact that we have a population that is growing at a very, very significant rate. It is being predicted that by 2050 the country could be the third most populous country in the world. That is something that we need to start working towards now – the challenges with that. We must ensure that GDP growth far outstrips the population [growth] rate.
Nigeria has among the best conditions in the world for solar energy. Is it important to invest in renewable power?
It's a very good alternative. We have all the right resources. We just need to create an enabling environment. Already there are a few solar power projects coming up in the country. We in the National Assembly have seen what else we can do to encourage that and to give the right kind of incentive for that kind of investment. That's a way for us to address the issue of power, because the options are there. They're probably a bit cheaper, and we can bring it to the rural areas easier. That will provide an opportunity to ensure that there is power in rural areas.
Nigerians yearn for peace and security – from continuing Boko Haram attacks in the northeast where a humanitarian emergency affects millions; in the middle of the country, where there is deadly conflict between farmers and herders over land; and in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where local militias reflect popular discount over pollution of water and lack of benefits from the revenues or the petroleum produced. What can leadership at the federal level do to help address those concerns?
Leaders in all arms of government need to be united on this front. We need to work across party lines, and we need to provide leadership. We need to reassure the population that we're committed to our major responsibility by the Constitution – which is providing security, protecting lives and properties. People need to know that if there are acts of criminality, they will be dealt with decisively, people will be held accountable. Those kinds of messages need to be very strong.
At the moment, I think we can do more in getting across those messages. And let us separate the issue of criminality and deal with it in line with the laws of the land. That is one. Secondly, we need to engage community leaders, religious leaders. We must speak with the message of unity. We must ensure that we move away from hate speech and away from things that will not unite the country. Religious leaders have a role to play, but we as political leaders need to encourage them. They need to see that we are providing the leadership required. When we do that as people in government, plus the community leaders, plus our religious leaders, we should be able to and we will be able to take up these challenges and find solutions to them.
I would like to see more accountability. When crimes occur, people should be held accountable, prosecuted and justice should take its toll. That is important. The security agencies must also be up to their own responsibilities to prevent some of these attacks and protect the people.
Police need more manpower, more training, more accountability – and more funding.
We in the National Assembly have carried out public hearings to find out why haven't the police, particularly, been up to its responsibility of protecting lives and properties. We've tried to find out the reason. Some structural issues need to be addressed: The issue of human resources – them [the police] being able to have enough manpower. There's the issue of training, the issue of professionalism. There's the issue of corruption. These are some of the issues we found that we are bringing steps to see what we can do about it: holding them more accountable – ensuring that we also see how we can provide better funding.
But it goes beyond funding. They themselves as an organization need to look at it. That's why we have a bill now - Police Reform Bill - which just passed through a second reading. It is our hope to pass that. We think that will strengthen the police, make it more professional, make it more accountable to Nigerians and be able to play its role. I emphasize the issue of police, because unfortunately, now, the army is playing a lot of rolls. The danger of that is that we're stretching the army too thin, and we need to ensure that the army stays on its constitutional responsibility in territorial integrity, and the police should play their role in the issue of civil disorders. That is why a lot of us are really advocating that they live up to their responsibility.
Do you think that the coalition of opposition parties who say that they will field a candidate for the next election can, in fact, unite around a single candidate?
Well, it has been done before. If we look at 2015, a lot of political parties came together to field a candidate against the incumbent president at the time. If the national interest is to provide new direction to address some of the problems that are not being addressed, I think people will work together to ensure that. I think we are all responsible enough to not always put our personal interest before our national interest. If working together is the answer, I think by and large the Nigerian politician, despite what might be said sometimes, has come to learn that it's important at the end of the day that we put our own interest behind that of the country.
It must have been a relief when the Supreme Court vindicated you against charges that you had not declared all your assets, as is required, when you took office. But what is behind these bizarre allegations that you instigated half a dozen bank robberies, a raid on a divisional police station that killed police officers, and dozens of murders of civilians, including a pregnant mother and her son – all in a two-hour crime spree in the town of Offa, not far from Ilorin, the capital of Kwara state, where you served as governor before being elected to the senate? [Note: A police summons in May required Senator Saraki to appear in connection with the case was withdrawn, after he said he would honor it. But a new summons, reviving the earlier charges, was issued on the evening of 23 July.]
Well, you know, I said from the very first day I stepped into the court of the Code of Conduct [for the trial on asset declarations at the Code of Conduct Tribunal] that it's unfortunate – that I'm only here because of the fact that I emerged as president of the Senate, that this is where we brought politics to the courtroom. It's a relief after a thousand and eighteen days of what was totally unnecessary, was a distraction. [The Supreme Court of Nigeria on 6 June vacated all the charges]
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. It wasn't a fight against corruption; it was never a fight against corruption. It's unfortunate. We do more harm to the fight against corruption when we politicize it and use it as a tool to fight perceived enemies and people who have different views. In democracy we cannot always have the same views. There will be dissenting views on issues and the whole point is to work together for the interest of the people.
I'm not going to change my fight to make the country a more secure, prosperous country.
I think what you saw – I know what you saw – in the case of armed robbery is just 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. You will see over time, events will unfold to show that and show how desperate some of those people have got to try and make a case.
They think it's just me as an individual, but the damage to the country is more than that. We do hope that some of us will continue to fight for what we believe is right, to fight for values of democracy and what we believe in. It is not easy, but the victory at the Supreme Court further encourages us in the Judiciary System – that at least we have the Judiciary that is there for the common man and woman.
You say it's difficult sometimes to be a prominent leader. How do you see your future? Do you see staying as the Senate President? Are you going to stay in the APC? Are you going to join the opposition?
Well I think the next week, couple of weeks, are important times for me to take some decisions. I'm consulting a lot of people, my constituencies, some of my colleagues, family. 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.
A lot of young Nigerians have the capacity, have the ability, the entrepreneurship. They have a bright future, and we as government must create an enabling environment to allow them to aspire and reach their goals. We must continue to hold ourselves accountable until we can create that future for the young population that we have. Whatever role I can play to ensure a secure, bright future for a lot of young Nigerians, I will continue to do that.
We are a youthful country. We have over 70 per cent of our population under 35. Going by the demographics, we are going to have a huge population – and largely youth. We must bring down unemployment; we must create more jobs; we must engage them. Luckily for us as a country, we have the necessary resources. What we need to do is to drive investment into the country in order to keep our youth engaged. And we must provide the right kind of education that ensures that when they finish their education, they can find jobs for themselves.
Amend the constitution so young people can run for office. When our youth are educated, healthy and employed, Nigeria can be a force in the global world.
If we can make our youth more educated, if we can make our youth much healthier, than we will build a stronger country that can truly take a seat in the community of nations and Nigeria can really be a force in the global world. Those who are going to drive that future are the youth. So whatever policies we have, whatever legislation we have, must be addressed to the youth.
That is why we believe they must participate in governance. That is why we push for the amendment of the Constitution to allow much younger people to run for elective offices. This is the future we should have in Nigeria.
Is progress being made in the fight against corruption?
There is progress. There are still leakages here and there. That's continuing. But I think there is a political will to fight corruption. There is also a position by all Nigerians, apart from those us who are elected in office, that we must change the ways we do things.
Nobody can take that away from us, away from this government, that the message out there to all Nigerians is that we have to change our ways; we've got to fight corruption. What we need to do now is ensure that it is done through due process, [that] there's justice, that it is consistent, that it is not allowed to be used politically.
Also, we must be more proactive. A lot of the actions are more about asset recovery as opposed to preventing corruption. We need the kind of environment that makes it almost impossible for some of these corrupt practices. The easier task to fight corruption is to ensure that it is prevented. That requires the buy-in of the entire community – the people of Nigeria.
So we can do more. We can strengthen institutions, make them independent, make them more professional, train people that are there to carry those exercises, strengthen the judiciary. We can fast track some of the corruption cases to ensure they are concluded in the shortest period of time.
But, yes, definitely, we have made progress we have made progress, both as government and as a nation. There's no government that is going to be elected in 2019 that will come in under any other platform except the platform of fighting correction seriously and aggressively. That is because it is clear to any leader that that's where the country is today.
You and the Speaker of the House are accompanied by a delegation from both chambers of the legislature, aimed at promoting Nigeria. How do you assess the visit?
The visit for me has been successful. First of all, I was pleasantly surprised that it is clear that, particularly in Congress, they see the importance of Nigeria. They see how important we are as a partner in Africa. There is interest in seeing that there is a redefinition of the kind of relationship the United States has with Africa and Nigeria – from relations to do with aid and assistance to a relationship of partnership. That kind of message is occurring everywhere we go.
They see the future as well. If you look at the last few years, where you have seen GDP rates grow from two to five to eight percent is mainly in Africa. Congress is looking at partnership, at how to create opportunities, new markets. America's looking at opportunities where some of their own products can go into untapped markets. A lot of them are beginning to see that Africa, particularly Nigeria, can provide that new market. Come to Nigeria, because that is where the future has opportunities for you!
We must get our house in order to attract investment
But there are concerns. Are we ready to create the environment for investment? Are we ready to tackle the challenge of security issues? So we have work to do. Let's get our own house in order.
I've also seen interest in the 2019 elections. A lot of members on the Hill, know the importance of it – because of the role of Nigeria plays in the continent and in the region. If you have stability in Nigeria, you have stability in the Ecowas [the Economic Community of West African States] and in the continent. So it is important that we have a credible election that will lay the foundation for that.
There is interest in the issue of security – the importance to continue to work together, to fight terrorism especially Boko Haram, Isis. I see a desire to work very closely with us.
In the area of humanitarian assistance, I also see great interest, great understanding, and readiness to provide support. By and large, the message you get is: Yes, Nigeria is an important partner that we'll continue to work with. Nigeria is an important partner in providing stability in the continent, and Nigeria is important [for] investment which is important for the American people and government – a relationship that is mutually beneficial as against a relationship about assistance and aid to Nigeria.
It's about partnership. That is the message I'm getting from Congress, which is encouraging. I think that we, as a country, need to play our own part in continuing to encourage that.
AllAfrica interviews are lightly edited for length, clarity and context.