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Reducing budget padding allegation to North-South issue unfortunate – Prof. Mato

Kabir Mato is a professor of Political Science at the University of Abuja and a renowned political and public affairs analyst. In this interview on Trust TV’s Daily Politics, he raised concerns about how the budget padding allegations raised by suspended Senator Abdul Ningi (Bauchi, PDP) was being turned into North-South issue to entrench a divisive narrative in the polity, among other issues.

You authored an article where you spoke at length on many issues regarding the padded 2024 budget. It appears you were unhappy with the way the matter was reported, especially in the Southern media. Can you shed more light on this?

Unfortunately, the southern media sensationalized it and reduced it to a North-South divide by suggesting that Sen. Abdul Ningi raised the issue primarily because President Ahmed Bola Tinubu, a Southern Nigerian, is in power. This overlooks the fact that about 70 per cent of the votes that elected Tinubu came from the 19 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

When Ningi’s interview with the BBC Hausa service came to light, many commentators from the South West took it as a northern senator’s attempt to discredit a government led by a southern president, rather than viewing it as a national challenge. This narrative contributed to the Senate’s decision to suspend Ningi as a way to silence him, without addressing the substance of his allegations.

This aspect of the debate is unfortunate, as it suggests that regional biases are overshadowing critical analysis. It is disheartening to see some southern press and elite, many of whom opposed Tinubu’s election, now using regional sentiments to deflect from the real issues.

It’s important to note that the votes that brought President Tinubu to power largely came from the northern part of the country. Therefore, it is puzzling why anyone from the North would stand against a government they helped put in place.

This trend in Nigerian politics, where issues are often viewed through regional lenses, needs to change. It’s time for the media and commentators to focus on facts rather than regional biases, especially on sensitive governance matters.

Is it that Nigerians don’t really have institutional memory? Can we blame them completely because they believe that, maybe during Buhari’s presidency, with the exception of newspapers like the Daily Trust, which stood at the centre of truth, many columnists, even from the North, supported Buhari when things were going wrong. So, why are we now blaming the South?

Many of us, of northern extraction, during President Buhari’s time, came out strongly and criticized many of his policies, including what seemed like lopsided appointments of mostly northerners to sensitive government positions, a mistake that the administration of Bola Tinubu is also making. However, if you look at the voting pattern that made Buhari president in 2015 and 2019, you’ll find that it was predominantly a northern vote with some support from the Southwest.

Regarding the claim of lopsided appointments in Buhari’s administration, there was a severe debate when official figures showed that the South West had the largest number of appointments. One fundamental blunder that Nigerian elite make regarding the country’s six geopolitical zones is assuming that appointees from certain regions represent the entire region’s interests, while differentiating appointees from other regions. This is a mistake we continue to point out.

On a general note, I think we have been fair in our discussion of national issues, looking at them from a broad perspective. For instance, the issues raised by Abdul Ningi are not about the fact that the president is from the South or that Ningi is from the North. It’s about a study commissioned by competent consultants to review the budget.

We’ve been told that this is the first time in the 24-year history of this civil administration in Nigeria that the budget or the appropriation bill was sent to the National Assembly in bits and pieces, not as a package. If this is true, then the possibilities of having loose ends, as highlighted by Abdul Ningi, become very plausible. Submitting a national appropriation in bits and pieces, ministry by ministry or sector by sector, is not the standard practice. It should come as a single bill, not multiple bills.

Therefore, if there were errors or fraudulent activities in this process, it could have been done by public servants without the knowledge of the president or the highest levels of government. The Senate’s response, in my opinion, is an attempt to bury the issue and protect its integrity.

As someone closely related to the democratic era since 1999, I am fully aware of the roles and responsibilities of each level of government. The Senate, specifically, has not been playing its role as a moderator in the national legislature. It is supposed to moderate the activities of the legislature to reduce the fears of minority units of the Nigerian federation.

Unfortunately, the Senate has been more of a place where elected officials amass wealth for themselves, rather than serving as a moderator. The Senate should be ashamed of itself. The average Nigerian sees the Senate in a negative light. We deserve an explanation on issues like this. Abdul Ningi is not an ordinary senator; he deserves attention.

It seems like you have so much confidence in Abdul Ningi. What do you see in him?

I have great confidence in Ningi because he is one of the few legislators who have been in and out of the National Assembly from 1999 to date. He’s unique in that he has served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He was the leader of the House of Representatives between 2003 and 2007 and also the Deputy Leader of the Senate during the same period. In fact, he was supposed to be the Leader of the Senate, but due to Nigerian national questions, Victor Ndoma Egba was chosen ahead of him. With all these experiences, if you know Abdul personally, you’ll see that he’s a man of good character and not a flippant personality. As an individual and a responsible representative of one of the largest constituencies in the country, he is not flippant.

For Abdul Ningi to come out and make these allegations, they deserve to be listened to by the Senate leadership, its members, and the critical segment of the Nigerian population. We should ask the Senate to review or ask experts to review these allegations so we can determine the truth. Abdul Ningi is human; he can falter. But knowing his character and personality, both as a private individual and a public official, you would not disrespect or disregard the allegations he is making.

I am pretty sure, without delving into the records, that even the corroboration by BudgIT has agreed with the issues that Abdul Ningi has raised. Perhaps the only difference is in semantics. The fact remains that the budget is crafted in a very faulty manner, and the National Assembly has passed it into law.

The sense of maturity in any governance or administration is not measured by the ability to make decisions, even if they are wrong, and continue to forge ahead. True maturity and sophistication lie in the ability to acknowledge when a decision is wrong, retrace steps, and correct it for the good of governance, the people, and the administration. This is what every sensible Nigerian should expect from the Senate.

If the Northern Senators Forum had stood by Sen. Ningi, perhaps nothing would have happened to him. Why do you think they threw him off the bus?

It is unfortunate that if you see the list of senators who decided to stay out and first of all disassociate themselves with what Abdul Ningi said, the only one among them that I’m surprised has behaved like that is Sen. Yar’Adua because this is a person that I personally grew up with. I know his integrity. I know his antecedents. I know what he can do. And like I said, you cannot simply throw out that allegation without investigating it and say no, it is not true. What did the Northern Senators say? They were simply saying that no, they were not part of Abdul Ningi. They disassociated themselves from what Sen. Ningi was saying. None of them was saying that what Ningi said was wrong because they didn’t have the audacity, they didn’t have the intellectual content to simply denounce what he said. They have not investigated. They have not cross-checked to see whether what he said was right or wrong.

Our responsibility will be to continue to talk to our people, to enlighten them. There is no particular preference for any individual. It is about the common good. It is about our collective objectives as Nigerians, as Nigerians of northern extractions, as representatives of our respective states, as representatives of our respective constituencies. I’m not worried. I’m not disturbed, rather, the seven or eight northern Senators that decided to opt out or disassociate themselves from Abdul Ningi in the first place will have themselves to blame by the time a thorough and proper investigation over this matter is conducted and the truth is known. What I do know for sure is that Nigeria has moved to a stage where it is impossible for anybody to try to sweep such a very serious allegation under the carpet; it is not possible.

During the climax of that session, something significant occurred. The Senate leader introduced a new perspective, suggesting that Abdul Ningi’s actions were not entirely altruistic. He claimed that Ningi was playing a political card to bring the Senate presidency to the North. This statement seemed to change the conversation on Twitter and other platforms, with more people supporting Sen. Akpabio and viewing Abdul Ningi and his supporters as having ulterior motives to remove the Senate president. This raises the question of whether Nigerians are easily influenced to change their opinions on critical issues.

In a normal democracy, particularly in northern Nigeria, individuals like Akpabio would not become Senate President because the support from his region was insufficient to warrant such a position. However, in Nigeria, anything goes. I was surprised by Senator Bamidele Opeyemi’s statement, as I have a lot of respect for him as a distinguished lawyer. His comment seemed to be aimed at evoking sentiments, especially from the Southern media establishments and elites. However, this tactic will not save them.

It is dangerous for any political officeholder to play divisive politics. Politics is about managing and reconciling interests. If those in power fail to understand this, it is unfortunate for us all. Opeyemi’s statement was unfortunate. Previous Senate Presidents were not removed in the manner he suggested. For example, during Obasanjo’s tenure, every state in the South East produced a Senate president in a peaceful and internally agreed-upon manner. David Mark also held office for eight years without dissent. I do not expect, and I was disappointed, by Opeyemi’s statement that it was a coup against the South. If the Northern Senators wanted, they could have supported someone like Abdulaziz Yari, but that wasn’t the case. Ali Ndume led the campaign for Akpabio’s election, showing that it was not solely a Northern affair. Opeyemi’s statement was unbecoming of a respected leader like him, and he owes us an apology. 

Senate Presidents are not removed simply because of disagreements or attempts to save a seat. The process is more complex and typically involves political resolutions rather than impeachments. It is important for the government and the Senate to investigate the allegations raised by Abdul Ningi thoroughly and transparently. While Ningi may have misunderstood some provisions, we need to know the truth. Attempts to politicize the issue or frame it as a North-South affair are unhelpful. The Senate must conduct itself better, as its history has been marked by scandals and cover-ups. In a democracy, we should not tolerate such behaviour.

We noticed that every senator is either a chairman or vice-chairman of a committee. This setup raises concerns as it appears that projects related to these committees are often directed to the senators’ districts. For example, a senator who chairs the agriculture committee may receive agriculture-related projects, even if agriculture is not a primary activity in their district. Similarly, a senator from a state like Benue, which may not share a border with neighbouring countries, could receive projects meant for border communities in their district if they are a member of the committee on border communities. This situation suggests a lack of sincerity among senators in the allocation of projects. How do you think we can solve this problem in our nation building?

In essence, what you’ve highlighted underscores a crucial fact: the funds allocated are not specifically earmarked for the intended projects. Instead, they are allocated based on where individuals can access them. This indicates a glaring reality: the constituents, electorate, and voters are not the priority of those they have elected, which is deeply unfortunate.

This issue is not new to the National Assembly; it has persisted since its inception in 2000, starting with their first budget up to the present day. This pattern speaks volumes.

I would advise the Senate, in particular, to reassess their methods and approaches. They need to elevate their standards to better serve their constituents. Otherwise, they risk facing the recurring sentiment among Nigerians that questions the need for a bicameral legislature and calls for the Senate’s abolition. The Senate has often been the target of such sentiments.

As a student of political science, I understand the Senate’s significance and why it should exist—to address the concerns of minorities in the political landscape.

Is the Senate really necessary in our situation?

Yes, it is, because in the legislative arena, moderation is crucial. While the House of Representatives could potentially pass any legislation with members from states like Kano, Lagos, Kaduna, Oyo, and Rivers, the Senate acts as a crucial moderator. Unlike the House of Representatives, where representation is based on population, the Senate provides equal representation to every state, with each having three senators. This equal representation ensures that no single region dominates the legislative process.

The Senate is expected to be composed of individuals with high expertise and experience, allowing them to moderate the legislative decisions of the House of Representatives. The Senate’s role is therefore essential in the Nigerian legislative system.

Our challenge lies not in the existence of the Senate, but in its actions. Unless the Senate is willing to change its ways, it will continue to operate as it has. It may require external pressure from the rest of Nigeria to prompt this change.

What then is the missing link in the recruitment of senators? Many view the Senate as a retirement home, which may explain some of the issues we see. Should we change how we recruit senators?

Not necessarily. The 2023 elections showed that more than half of the governors who ran for the Senate lost, indicating that Nigerians are becoming more discerning about who represents them.

The problem is not with the recruitment process itself. It’s a downside of Western liberal democracy that people have the right to elect whoever they choose, even if they may not be the best candidates. This is a reality we must accept for now. However, I hope that as we progress, with time and education, voters will become more informed and able to set agendas for their elected representatives.

We’re only about 24 or 25 years into our democratic journey, and there’s much progress to be made. At the moment, political parties play a crucial role, but I believe we will eventually reach a point where we vote for individuals rather than parties. This would indicate a higher level of political sophistication in our communities.

We need a Senate and House of Representatives composed of individuals who genuinely care about their constituents, not just those seeking personal gain. Imagine suddenly having access to millions after never having more than N10 million of your own. It’s easy to lose sight of your constituents’ needs in such a situation.

Senators should not become benefactors, distributing sewing machines and other items as if they were gifts from a benevolent leader. That’s not why they were elected.

Another problem now is obviously Sen. Ningi is the sacrificial lamb. What becomes of his constituents? They don’t have representation now in the senate, what can they do?

This is a penalty they pay through their elected representatives.

However, I don’t believe Sen. Ningi is a sacrificial lamb. I am confident that he will emerge victorious in the end, regardless of the challenges he faces. It’s crucial for the President of Nigeria to understand the implications of the Senate’s actions and intervene immediately.

The political consequences of these actions are significant. I am certain that Sen. Ningi will emerge stronger from this crisis, unless, of course, a thorough investigation by the Senate reveals otherwise. If the Senate continues to cover up the truth, Sen. Ningi will ultimately prevail.

When you suggest that the president should speak out, considering that immediately after Sen. Ningi’s suspension, the Senate President and his allies visited the Villa. However, there has been no information about their meeting with the president. Do you think they are collaborating on Ningi’s fate?

I don’t believe so. However, if that is the case, it would be unfortunate. As an experienced politician, Tinubu should understand the implications of covering up such issues.

In the past eight or nine months, we have seen instances where the president made decisions that were opposed by Nigerians, and he promptly changed course. This shows good leadership on his part.

If he chooses to align with the Senate leadership on this sensitive national issue, it would be a mistake, and I hope he does not do so.

Finally, Nigeria has a tendency to quickly move on from serious issues, shifting focus to new developments. How can we ensure that the issue of budget padding remains a priority in public discourse until the truth is revealed?

We must continue to push for answers and accountability. The unjust suspension of Abdul Ningi is another issue that many of us will continue to pursue until the truth comes to light.

It’s true that Nigeria is facing significant challenges. The exchange rate, for example, has drastically worsened. Just a year ago, it was less than N800 to buy a US dollar, but now it’s about N1,600. This decline is reflective of our broader challenges as a nation.

When Garba Shehu suggested last year that we would miss Buhari, I didn’t take him seriously. But now, considering the current state of affairs, it’s clear that our situation has deteriorated even further.

 

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