INTERVIEW: What I will do as president on state police, crypto, repentant terrorists

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A former Senate President, Bukola Saraki, one of the 15 presidential aspirants in the Peoples Democratic Party, says he is the best person to rule Nigeria from 2023.

His experiences as a former senate president and two-term governor of Kwara State are some of the reasons that convince him he can not only win next year’s presidential poll but also run the country better than is being done by President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

This is his second shot at the nation’s highest office. He had contested the PDP presidential primary for the 2019 General Election but lost out to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is also one of his rivals now.

This time, Mr Saraki says he is confident of emerging as the opposition party’s flag bearer, having convinced party delegates across the country that he has all the qualities they have asked for.

In his official declaration speech on May 12, he promised the rule of law, health insurance for every Nigerian and attention to the welfare of security personnel.

In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ QueenEsther Iroanusi, the 59-year-old talks about leakages in many sectors in the country and how he plans to plug them.

He also talks about his plans on state policing, whether or not rehabilitation of repentant terrorists will be an option if elected, a ‘possible’ female running mate and how he intends to relate with the legislature.

Excerpts:

PT: In your declaration speech, you promised to provide half a million housing units yearly for Nigerians. How do you want to achieve this?

Saraki: We intend to build more houses. We think that targeting about 500,000 houses every year for the first four years, will go a long way. We also believe that there is a need to have home improvement. It is not just building a house, a lot of people are just living in slums and we think that there is a need for home improvement. So, we want to invest in improving even what we have. Part of the plan also will be to provide more money and strengthen the mortgage institutions so that they can provide funding for people to be able to build homes for themselves too. There are some we will build as a government, and some, we will provide funding for people to build.

PT: I asked that because this administration has spent a lot on infrastructure with regards to housing, railways and so on. And most of the funds for these are from borrowing. So how do you intend to fund this housing scheme? Will your administration tax more to pay back?

Saraki: No. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of leakages in the system. Huge leakages in the system. I can see already how easily you can claw back close to N8-9 trillion. And that will help to increase revenue. That is one.

Number two, also from value for money. We must review the Bureau of Public Procurement. Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves that with all the money that the government is spending, how come we don’t see a lot of these projects and the impact on the people? Because of the lack of value for money.

If you do a value for money audit on these projects, what you find might be shocking. And you need to tighten those processes to ensure that a job that should cost N5 should really cost N5 and not N25. When you do that, all these leakages and excess expenditure in government will come down significantly. So you’ll have more money to do that.

Number three, in infrastructure, you have to decide on what your priorities are. Things like housing have a multiplier effect. You provide a home for people, you also provide jobs – for those constructing. These are things you look at as opposed to some of the things that we are spending money on.

Also in infrastructure, there are some areas that the private sector will be able to fund, not that the government needs to put money. For example, when I was Senate President, the Lagos-Ibadan road, if you check the news at that time, I had problems with a lot of politicians, they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. We were being asked to put N30 billion in Lagos-Ibadan road and I asked why should we do that? It is a road that the private sector supports. In the right environment, it is usually not government-funded. And they said ‘no, put it in the budget.’

Look now, four years later, it is still not completed.

There are some infrastructural projects that would happen, you can do them if you create an enabling environment and bring confidence in investment. Then some are for the government itself to do. For example, in power, in the transmission sector, government dues are so important. The government will have to fund that – whatever amount that is required. Those are investments that will pay off in the long run.

PT: Many countries are buying into digital currencies – like crypto and NFTs and the like and it was banned at some point by this administration. Do you think exploring this sector will help the economy?

Saraki: I don’t think it will wreck the economy but I think like any of these new sectors, you need to have guidelines and regulations. I am not against it but I think we must look at it and see that it must be operated in a well-guided environment. There must be legislation and policies that ensure there is no abuse in the process whatsoever.

I also think it has helped especially the young generation in creating jobs and opportunities. And anything that creates jobs and an enabling environment for people to do their businesses, I am in support of that. So, yes, I am in support of that. But again, we have to ensure that it is not abused and used as a source of money laundering or financing of terrorists and those are issues that we must address.

PT: Another point in your speech is the training and re-training of security personnel, making sure they are well paid and all. However, there has been a clamour for devolving the security apparatus down to the local level. I am talking about state police, which has been a major topic right from the previous Constitution Amendment – during your time as Senate President.

The current administration and the ninth assembly have rejected it. Is it something your administration will give a nod to?

PT: Definitely. I truly believe that security is best provided when it is brought down to the community level. There are concerns about certain abuses when we see what happens in the environment but that doesn’t mean that we should not do what is right in ensuring that we improve the security at the community level.

It is so difficult now to centralise the issue of policing and that is what we are seeing. Those people are not against it, their fear is the abuse. And my view is that we can have laws and ensure that people are held accountable for those abuses. We have to find a way to walk around it. We can’t just allow one thing – fear of abuse.

It is clear that the security architecture now is not working, so we must review it. I am very open to it. We tried to push for it in the eighth assembly but unfortunately, I found out that those who were against it were just because of a phobia of the unknown.

There were concerns like, states that have more money will be safer than states with less. Those are things we can discuss to ensure that every state, no matter its resources, gets a minimum amount of standard security or police support. That way, no state will get deprived of the kind of security services required.

PT: There were many legislations concerning insecurity during the eighth assembly. I remember the roundtable security summit that produced recommendations for the Executive but most of the recommendations have not been implemented. Why do you think this is so? And what would you do to hasten their implementation?

Saraki: One of the things I said is that the style and leadership are very key. A lot of the challenges we are seeing are challenges that could have been handled differently and produced different results.

We are in a situation where people are not held responsible. One of the arguments we have had is that despite all the loss of lives and insecurity, how many people have been held accountable and responsible? Because the more you have less of that, these are the kind of problems that we see.

Also, a lot of men and women in the security agencies are not well-compensated and well-trained. There is also poor collaboration among the security agencies. They don’t work well together. We are not using technology as well as we should and it is clear that people are benefitting from it and that must stop. And the only way it can stop is that the leadership we will provide will take a hard stance to prevent that.

PT: We see that this administration is pouring billions of naira into the security sector. At a time, they were taking out money from the Excess Crude Account to buy Tucano Jets and it was one of the things that caused a rift between some lawmakers then and even some lawmakers in the 9th Assembly and members of the Executive. It has been noticed that despite all of these, there have been no improvements. How do you intend to work with the National Assembly to ensure that when it is time to tackle issues of security, there is no collision with the Legislature, particularly with the security sector?

Saraki: I am well-positioned to be able to use my experience for the benefit of the country, having been someone who has been on the executive and also headed the legislative arm of government. When I become President, definitely, my relationship with the National Assembly will be totally different. Having been someone who understands the way it has happened. That kind of collision, you will not see it. Like now, most governments, like this current government and previous governments, you will see the emphasis is on cabinet meetings, that is a military hangover in a democratic setting like this.

READ ALSO: 2023: Saraki promises to restructure Nigeria

Your emphasis should be more engagements with the National Assembly. How often do you see the leadership of the National Assembly actually having a dialogue or engagements with the Executive arm of government? It hardly happens. You see the Speaker going one day and the Senate President going another day. That is not the National Assembly. It is the leadership that is the National Assembly and that is where you discuss the issues. When you want to create an enabling environment for investment, it is not the Executive Orders that will give competence to the private sector, it is the law, the legislation that is key.

So, the relationship of how I will work with the National Assembly will be totally different from now. And that is what is going to give confidence in the investment side and it will ensure also on the security side that we will get better results.

PT: Where do you stand on rehabilitating repentant Boko Haram members or terrorists?

Saraki: Well, I don’t think you can just have one policy that applies to all. You need to look at each case and what the issues (are). It has been shown over the past that you cannot just use one approach to fight an issue like this and I think we need to accept that. All over the world where you have terrorism, it is not just one approach, you got to have multiple kinds of approaches in dealing with that.

PT: So if you become the President, you will not mind granting amnesty to the ones (terrorists) who say they have repented?

Saraki: I cannot say that now because I need to see what the issues are at the time. That is the point I am making. Because these are very sensitive issues and I don’t want to also sensationalise it, which is where you are going. So I need to be careful with the words I choose.

That is not what is important. What is important is that people are dying, people are being kidnapped, and you can’t, as a leader who is looking for a solution, close your eyes to any option. What is important to you now is to save people’s lives and put an end to this.

If you want to do that, you’ve got to look at the issues. I think that those decisions become clearer when you are faced with reality, what is on ground, because as you know, security is not something that is information that is out there. It’s not like the economy where those in government and outside government are all sharing the same information. But what I said is that I will work every day and ensure that we put an end to being the world’s capital for kidnapping, to be a place where people can leave their homes and they will get home safe. And I think it is doable because I believe that we have men and women in security forces who are competent. We have in today’s world, the technologies that can support us and I believe with the right kind of commitment, we will be able to put an end to it. How we will do that is through discussions.

One of the other points is that the economy is also a factor. Hopelessness, when a lot of the youth do not have alternatives, they don’t see a future for themselves. So, one of the important things that we need to do is to ensure that they do have an alternative. So as you are fighting insecurity, you must create an option for them of what they can do.

PT: Are there policies in this administration that you think you will not mind continuing if you are elected into office? And are there policies you feel should be scrapped immediately?

Saraki: I won’t look at it like that. I will look at it like what my own policies are. If my policies happen to be one of what they are doing, that’s alright.

I am going to rephrase that question. The most important thing is not about what this government is doing and saying I want to continue. That is not the approach. The approach is that I have a clear mind on the kind of government we want to run. We need to address largely and most importantly the economy—ensure that the economy is stable, ensure that we fight inflation, ensure that we eliminate this multi foreign exchange – that there is confidence in investment, ensure that we reduce borrowing, ensure we do not borrow for consumption, ensure we address the issue of fuel subsidy. Spending N5 trillion is unacceptable, it is corruption of the highest level. We will stop that and ensure that we will create an enabling environment that will support made-in-Nigeria goods. These are policies that we will try to bring in. That’s so that we can create jobs for our teeming youth.

To address that, we need to look at the health sector—how to keep a healthy population. One of my major drives is to ensure that there is health insurance coverage for Nigerians. I promise in two years, 50 per cent of Nigerians will have insurance cover that they will not need to pay from disposable income to pay for expenses on health.

On education, we will ensure… everybody talks that universal basic education is compulsory but we still have people who are out of school. So we got to make sure that that law is truly implemented and ensure that that is left to the state. Let the federal government provide guidelines and standards that will develop education, improve our tertiary institutions, ensure that they are better funded, and the quality of teaching is better. We need to review and take some bold decisions. Having a country where the first 1000 universities in the world and Nigeria is not there. That is not what it used to be in the 60s. We need to go back there. We need to ensure that people that go to universities are educated and educated for society. That is why you have a lot of people that are qualified, they cannot get jobs.

PT: One of the issues the lecturers are having now is the fact that the current institutions we have are not well taken care of. But at the National Assembly, almost every day, you see at least three new bills to establish tertiary institutions. What will you do to address that? Do you support the establishment of new institutions when we can barely cater for the ones we have?

Saraki: I think there has to be some level of autonomy. We have to let those universities survive based on capacities, resources and standards. That’s key. And that’s the model that works. You cannot talk about opening universities that you cannot fund. You fund them and you can’t pay them the right kind of salaries, you can’t invest in infrastructure and the standards are low. That’s not going to help society in trying to bring the kind of people that we want to be qualified and can now use their education to ensure that the country is a better place.

So, my own take is that you must have a model that allows universities to thrive. Government can give support or from time to time support their budget. But that will be based on an incentive or certain standards. If you are doing well, you are qualifying the best students, you are having the best courses, best research then you can be able to say I will fund you, and to the universities that are not doing well as well. That can create competition for the universities to try and increase their standards. But what we are seeing now where the cost of tertiary institutions is even lower than sometimes the cost of primary education, it is not going to work. That is not the kind of society we want to build for ourselves.

PT: In the primaries coming up, you are going against 14 other aspirants and some of them are powerful in their own capacities. One of them is someone who polled like 11 million votes in the last presidential elections. How do you intend to get the delegates on your side to secure the ticket?

Saraki: I have had the opportunity to go round the country. From what I am hearing from the delegates; when you go to them and ask them what kind of president are they looking for, I hear things like they want a vibrant, younger president, we want a president that understands the issues, they want a president that can unite this country because this country has never been so disunited, they want a president that can bring investments, they want a president that will have some level of experience and they want a president that they believe will be able to provide leadership.

Those things they asked for, that they want, I believe I possess some of those abilities and I think that is resonating now.

What also has happened is that over the years, a lot of people now have moved away from, ‘I’m voting for you because this is where you come from or this is the religion you worship’, they are now looking for a Nigerian president that will make their life better. Because when you think about it, the poverty that you see now does not separate North or South. It affects all of us, both Christians and Muslims, and a lot of the delegates are looking for a president that will make Nigeria better. I believe with great humility that one happens to be that candidate.

PT: Will you consider a female running mate?

Saraki: As I said in my speech, it is all about now, to talk about what we can do. If we have a female running mate that is competent, that has the qualities, the experience, why not?

PT: I am going to mention three words and you are going to tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.

-2023?

Saraki for President

-Nigerian youth?

That’s the future of the country

-Ninth Assembly?

No comment. (Chuckles)


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