The Legislative Digest Team caught up with Distinguished Senator Garba Binta Masi after the recess of the National Assembly and wanted to know her views on the current national debate on restructuring. She was blunt and bared her mind on many National Issues including the agitations in different parts of the country:
Digest: While you were on recess, certain topics, some of which threatened the country’s unity, dominated public discourse. They include the agitation by IPOB and the debate on restructuring. Everyone seems to be waiting for the National Assembly to act especially as the President has said the ball is in the court of the National Assembly. What are your views?
Senator Binta: First, we thank God for sparing our lives during the vacation and also commiserate with one of our colleagues who lost his wife during the recess. We share his pain and may God grant him fortitude to bear the loss.
Yes, during our recess a lot occurred that had to do with the unity and stability of the country. The Senate, during its executive session, has unanimously agreed that we believe
totally in the unity and indivisibility of this country, territorial control cannot be in question and peace is inevitable and we must pursue peace. We are all first Nigerians before regional. South Easterners believe they are marginalized but in the Federal Civil Service they constitute the highest number of personnel.
Sentiments are attached and we have no other country but Nigeria. Our founding fathers have fought for it. A number of our compatriots made us to digress to a civil war where innocent souls were lost but, at the end of the day, he who began the civil war (May His Soul Rest in Peace) later said we should avoid a second war; that it is not something we or any country should ever think about. Ojukwu said that we cannot wish for a second war.
Obviously, the military had to get involved because it is working within its constitutional responsibility of protecting the territorial integrity of our country and to say we cannot have a nation within a nation. In addition, if we have 6 geopolitical zones that made up this nation and every zone has its own agitation and demands, it then means something is wrong or missing somewhere, we therefore have to meet as a people to find a way forward that will make everybody accommodated. And with this agitation that has been on, a leader has to take his own responsibility otherwise we will fall into a situation that cannot be controlled by anybody and he has deemed it fit to proscribe that organization. During our deliberations we agreed that there have been organizations that have been proscribed as terrorist groups, the Vice President also mentioned that hate speech is connoted as terrorist activity.
So, as one part of the country is agitating, other parts should also be looked at. The greatest fortune we have is that the other part (those against whom hate speeches were directed at) refused to be brought into the provocation and that is why we are still having peace. However, one would not say that all hope is gone, one cardinal issue the Senate was able to stand upon is that anybody or group that is feeling agitated or aggrieved has elected Senators and Representatives in the National Assembly and such grievances and agitations should be brought through them after which the legislator may bring forth legislation to address the issue and to find a way forward. This is a more civilized and civil way to deal with these issues. As legislators we believe we cannot compromise the unity of this country and allow sentiments to come in.
Also, the Executive has passed the ball back to the Legislature over the issue of conducting a referendum and we are ready to look at it if it is brought to us and determine if it is needful in
bringing about the peace we all want, but we should take example from other countries that have gone through the same channel some Nigerians have tried to make us go through and ask questions. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and what has become of Eritrea today? We have seen Eastern Ukraine wanting to break away from Ukraine. Southern Sudan with her resources broke away from Sudan but is it at peace as a nation? Look at East Timor and others. Even Somaliland that has broken away from Somalia; we need to ask these questions to answer our own question of what we are looking for: Why the breaking from Nigeria? What will be the end result? Are we better together in our diversity or are we better when we are divided?
These are the issues that concern all of us and there is nothing wrong if we agitate in a constructive manner and bring out why such agitations are needed before the authority saddled with the responsibility to deal with it; that is why the President said he is passing the ball to the National Assembly.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there are inter-marriages among tribes, what happens to the product of these marriages? What happens to the children? Where will they stand tomorrow? What do they do? These are issues that many have not looked at but have the potential to douse the tension.
South Easterners believe they are marginalized but in the Federal Civil Service they constitute the highest number of personnel. It is a signal to others who may begin to ask ‘’as Nigerians, where is our space in the civil service?” and begin to question the implementation of Federal Character and at the end of the day we might have more problems on our hands than we planned to solve and those agitating right now over being marginalized will then be pushed aside by more marginalized groups. Others are also now asking if a typical Hausa man has ever governed this country. If you come out with facts and figures you will see that a typical Hausa man has never governed this country. Something clearly needs to be done but in the process of solving the problem, the one who started the fire might be the one who will be worst hit. This is why we need to thread with caution and allow peace to reign in the country. We are a country with a prosperous potential but, until we come together, our dream of prosperity might remain unattained. We have children and we must be concerned about what kind of country we want to leave behind for them.
Digest: The demands by agitators are somewhat streamlined; they have demanded an extra state in the South East and a greater share in appointments. As someone who was part of the Constitutional Confab that birthed this Constitution, what led to the retention of only 5 States in the South East and, secondly, what are the steps the Senate intends to take to dampen the situation, if not practically but emotionally for those agitating to see that it is not as bad as it seems for them and it is also not as good as they think it is for others?
Senator Binta: I already addressed this in my previous response; there are Senators representing every State and we feel demands and grievances should be channeled through them. Secondly, if you look at the way the Senate is structured; irrespective of population or land mass every State has three senators. If we talk about population, States like Bayelsa and Nasarawa should not produce the same number of senators because a senator representing a particular Senatorial Zone in Nasarawa State has the same population with a member of the House representing a Federal Constituency in Nasarawa State. When you look at Lagos and Kano States which are the two most populated States in the country, one Senatorial Zone in Lagos State can equate to another State yet senatorial seats are equally distributed among States regardless of population or landmass. It is not like that in the House of Representatives, population and landmass are the main consideration in delineating federal constituencies. Even the Constitution says Federal Constituencies must
have as equal population as possible. So population and landmass counts in creation of States.
Looking at the agitation for a State, what is the State that is consistent with the South East? When you look at the landmass of the entire South East, it is not up to half of the landmass of Niger State. Population and landmass are significant in State creation and there are constitutionally prescribed steps for creation of States.
When I was a member of the 1995 Constitutional Conference, I was in the Committee on Forms of Government and that was the Committee that was saddled with the responsibility to determine what type and form of government for the country. General Ike Nwachuwu from the South East was the Chairman of the Committee; the South Easterners were agitating for an additional State using the North East and other zones as basis especially with the North East having seven states. Unfortunately there was nothing we could have done, the Constitution
needs to be amended to achieve a balance and population will still be a factor and it might even push other regions to demand additional states as well.
So it is unfortunate for the South East to say they have not been carried along in the political dispensation in any government. Section 147 of the Constitution says Federal Character must be reflected in appointment of Ministers, which means every State must have a Minister and this has been done. Let us also not forget the past when former President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was in office, the region that had a field day was the South East; nobody raised eyebrows from the west or from the north because we were of the belief that we are all Nigerians so let us do what will make a better nation. The South East had the Chief of Army Staff, Aviation Minister, etc. Virtually the entire leadership of the security agencies was seventy percent from the South East and nobody complained. Unfortunately, everybody is looking at the national cake and asking how to get their share instead of trying to make the cake bigger for it to go round everybody.
Until we put selfish interests aside, and I’ve been asking myself ‘who is a true Nigerian and how do we Nigerianise ourselves?’ Everybody wants to have an American Passport or a British Passport but first and foremost you are an American before you even think of the State you belong, the American in you supersedes any other thing and there are rules that make you important as an American. From childhood it is inculcated in you that you are the most important person in the world and your country can withstand anything in the world and can defend her territory. That is why the United States allows everybody to come in because they know you will contribute to their development and economy. But here in Nigeria, you can have a foreign citizenship and be a Nigerian at the same time and want to cause confusion because your allegiance may actually lie elsewhere outside Nigeria; I strongly advocate for the government to take a second look at the issue of dual citizenship. If you are a Nigerian then you are only a Nigerian and must renounce other citizenships. If you are an American citizen, you renounce
other citizenships. If tomorrow Nigeria is at war with the UK or US, where will dual citizens of both countries stand? Where is your allegiance (referring to dual citizens). These are part of the salient issues confronting us that require urgent attention.
Nnamdi Kanu believes that he is a Nigerian but he also carries a British Passport. Where is his family? Are they in Nigeria? The answer is no. So why is he now trying to bring confusion to other Nigerians who have no other place to go than Nigeria. If anything happens now he will be nowhere to be found, he is probably out of the country but he has put a lot of youth into confusion with the hate speeches that came out. We are trying to look at all that.
I am not a typical northerner, I am a minority in the north but if I go to the South East I am looked upon as a northerner irrespective of where I come from. (They will say) Onye Hausa (meaning: a Hausa person). Even the Hausas will look at the easterners and say Nyamiri ne wana (colloquially means this is an Igbo person) and probably the person in question may be from Delta State or Rivers State and kill innocent citizens unlawfully. It is wrong and we cannot run away from addressing it. Once you use force
to deny someone his liberty, then obviously you are a terrorist.
Our communities also have a role to play in safeguarding us; if a community knows those in agitating or violent groups such as Boko Haram and they help in fishing them out then a lot will be achieved in protecting everyone. If you go to your local government or village for example, you would know those who are good or bad people from among those you grew up with. So communities are now getting together to fish out the bad people. During the last attack in Madagali, an attacker who was caught and killed was an indigene of the same community attacked and he mentioned names of other perpetrators during his interrogation. To have peace, you must first have peace within yourself before you extend it.
Selfish interest brings destruction while selflesseness brings joy and unity of purpose. Therefore, until we begin to say “what will be my contribution as a Nigerian” instead of as an easterner or northerner, that is when we will be on the right path that will bring about
peace in this country.
57 Years, how will you say the legislative arms has fared?
Senator Binta: As a NASS we are still in murky Water because even up till today Nigerians have refused to understand that democracy starts and ends with the Legislature. During the military the Executive and Judiciary remained in place and since the Legislature returned a lot of people including those who are well read still do not believe that the legislature should be part of government, but in democracy everywhere, who holds the eyes is the legislature; remove the legislature and you don’t have democracy.
The murky water is that even the elites especially those in government who are supposed to be molders of our policy still look at the National Assembly as not a part of government. Unfortunately, some people will also say we have an upper chamber and a lower chamber when the Constitution did not say that, instead it says there shall be a National Assembly consisting of two Houses: A Senate and the House of Representatives. Even journalists talk about an upper and lower house, it is wrong and we are inadvertently teaching this to children who listen to us; so when a child is asked tomorrow what the legislature is, he or she will say the legislature is the National Assembly that consists of an upper and lower house. Obviously his examiner will fail him or her and this is part of the little things that we are afraid of.
Since 1999 I have been privileged to be in the National Assembly but it has not been easy; people look at you and say: these people (referring to members of the National Assembly) are thieves, what are they doing? We don’t need to have a bicameral legislature? Why don’t we have a unicameral legislature? Etc. But we tried the unicameral Legislature and it didn’t work. We tried the Parliamentary system and it didn’t work. Finally it was said that since Nigeria has unity in diversity, let us try the Presidential system so that we can assimilate everybody but now people are saying No, the Presidential system is not working. So what system do we want?
With this crisis the President has said it is not his responsibility, but that of
the National Assembly,to find answers. And this is particularly true when you consider the equal state representation in the Senate. The Senate acts as the unifier of the nation because regardless of population no state can submerge the other in Senate deliberations.
If you take issues on a regional basis the House of Representatives will have more voices from northern Nigeria followed by the South West because of Lagos alone. If you look at things based on population alone, Lagos has about six of her representatives from the Southeastern part of the country because they have always lived in Lagos and have a constitutional right to aspire for office in Lagos and indeed anywhere you reside.
However, will that be allowed in the southeastern or northern parts of the country? It will not until we start looking at ourselves as Nigerians first and, like I earlier said, working towards Nigerianising ourselves regardless of where we come from. Once you know who a Nigerian is regardless of ethnic origin, then this issue of agitation, segregation, referendum etc would not arise. I said it earlier that the only community of people in this country that can stand and ask for a referendum seeking to stand alone is the Sardauna Province; Before the second world war the Sardauna Province was under the Protectorate of German Colony but after the war Germany was defeated and the province was given as a custodial to the British colony. That is why you would see that even in Cameroun, the two Anglophone areas are in confusion because the plebiscite of 1959 asked who wanted to be a Nigerian, who wanted to come to Nigeria and that is why you see that that region completely from Adamawa zone down to Taraba then, said they wanted to be part of Nigeria. The two Anglophone states in Cameroun are now having the same problem and have started agitating. If you look at Bakkasi and northern Cameroun and say you want to form a nation, nobody can tell us, No because we are a custodial. If you go to United Nations today and demand to be a country, nobody can stop us, but when you really look at it you will ask how do we really want to start a country? Those who have recently started one, where are they now? So you cannot run away, you cannot have it all, it is not possible;
there must be give and take, you give a little and I take a little; just like what the former President said “A little to the left and a little to the right”, we must have a place of compromise so that we can move forward.
So 57 years, if you are a woman or a man you should be expecting to have grandchildren by that age. It shows that 57 is an age of maturity. We have gone through pains from when the country was amalgamated in 1914 but even if we count only the independence years from 1960,are we really matured if up till now we see a country that is still agitating, segregation, etc.
Two monsters are destroying this country: religion and tribe, but if we claim to be religious under one God and we cannot come together under that faith, hold hands and say we want to move this country forward. Even the scripture said “if my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and turn away from their wicked ways, then I, the Lord, will hear and heal the land”. So if we need healing as a nation, there must be unity of purpose because without unity of purpose we might not get the healing we want.So we might be shouting before God and his ears are far away from us because there is no unity of purpose. That is why when it saidin the scriptures “where two or three are gathered in my name”, that connotes unity “there will be in their midst”. So for us we must forget about whatever we are thinking about based on sentiments and look at this nation as one. If Nigeria today is in turmoil where do we go? Even those who have dual citizenship, are their parents having dual citizenship? The answer is No. Are their brothers having dual citizenship? The answer is No. Therefore, we should not focus on what will be of individual benefit to one but what will benefit every one of us at the end of the day. Collective benefit is far better than individual benefit or success. This is the mindset that we need to adopt and it will allow us all to move forward.
We now have to look at the issues and find a way to unify the country. Thank you very much.
Digest: Looking at Nigeria at 57 and her women, how will you assess the participation of women in participatory democracy towards their quest to shatter the glass ceiling and be more included since 1999.
Senator Binta: It has not been easy but the joy is that the awareness is there. During the last deliberation on the constitution amendment, I pleaded with my colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives to include the thirty percent affirmative action as a clause to Section 147 that talks about appointment of Ministers of the Federal Republic. It went through but, towards the end, I think some of my colleagues especially from the northern part, felt that we are trying to put women into elective position and I said No; if Nigeria appended her signature to the Thirty five percent affirmative action in governance, we
need to domesticate it to become law. If someone comes without a political will, we will never do anything but once it is included in the Constitution then it is legally binding on the President, Governors and even Chairmen of Local Governments to ensure that thirty five percent of positions are given to women but unfortunately it was killed. The question now is why did we append our signature to a treaty, charter or convention when we do not have the will power to do it.
The first government that had the will power to bring in women was that of President Obasanjo, he took the 36 names representing 36 States as Ministers and he nominated six women, one representing each geopolitical zone, in addition to those women already in the initial 36 names and that was how we were able to have women in cabinet. The government of President Jonathan went even further and we were able to achieve close to the thirty five percent inclusion, but did we do well? One of my colleagues said the women in government are the ones who destroyed the country and I said No, it depends on the character of the women you are bringing on. If you have a woman with a good pedigree and background, certainly such a woman would not want to mess herself up because any woman that is responsible will think of the nametag on her head, the future of her children and the family she comes from; those three things are issues that women of character do not toy with. Women who have stolen public funds have their names ringing bells louder than those of men who have been stealing for long because it is not our attribute as women that when you are saddled with a responsibility you begin to think of making personal gains. Background and upbringing matters a lot. There were other women in government at the time and they did creditably well and left office without blemish; it shows strength of character and fact that family counts a lot.
What I always tell my fellow women is this: Even if your husband is a wealthy person, you do not have to rub it on the life of your children; allow them to follow the work that made their father what he is if it is genuine wealth. Nobody who has acquired wealth genuinely wants to rub it in the life of his children, he will say “I went through
this and you too have to follow your path to become somebody”. It is a commitment and you are making your children become responsible such that they can stand alone and succeed when their parents are no more. But if a child believes that once his parents are gone he will become a rich person, he will never manage himself and the inherited resources well properly. I told my kids that I hawked bread to go to school; and although I am where I am today, you don’t need to say you are watching mummy, you have to look out for your own future. I want my children and every child out there to start engaging their minds with thoughts about what will make them better than their parents. Let me get to where my parents never got to, let me achieve more. That way you are setting a target and a goal for your children.
These days there are children who tell their parents that their classmates are brought to school in flashy cars and the response should be “what do you want me to do? Should I go and steal to buy a Range Rover?” That’s not a good thing and I try to cut away from that kind of relationship. I might be here today but not tomorrow. Life is transitory and we, as parents, must start inculcating a life we will leave for our children who will also pass it on to their own children. If you look at a white man, if he has a business he puts his son in it so tomorrow if he is not there he puts another person. We must find a way to leave a legacy. As Christians we must be Christ-like. If you are a Muslim follow what the dictates of the Quran said; if we did, we wouldn’t have all these crises we are having today and that is why I love President Buhari; he said even if it is his son that is caught for corruption, let the law of the land take its course. He set the precedent.
So 57 years is not something we as women want to joke with, women have been agitating and crying long before now. We do not have the same proportional representation that some countries are having. The joy that I have is that the Presiding officers of African Parliaments met in Nigeria, the Deputy Senate President hosted them and a conversation ensued between me and the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament and the Deputy Senate President over the inclusion of women in government and I mentioned that the Deputy Senate President threw
away affirmative action from inclusion in the Constitution. The Deputy Senate President said he didn’t want it in the Constitution and I told him that the Constitution of Uganda has affirmative action enshrined in it. He said No and the Speaker of Uganda said Yes, we passed it. Kenya passed it and has affirmative action in her Constitution. South Africa, it is in her Constitution. If we claim to be giant of Africa then what are we doing?
Another colleague of mine tried to bring religion into it and I stopped him, I said you are not holier than the custodian of Islamic principles, Saudi Arabia, and their Council of Shura in Saudi Arabia has more women in it than even the American Congress; So don’t bring that. You shouldn’t stand before Nigerians and talk about what you don’t know about and they kept quiet. Unfortunately, most of our colleagues bought into it and now you are telling us twenty percent, we are not talking about percentage but about a country affirming her signature before the world. If you can do that and come back home without legalizing it, one day the story will change. I might be here when it does or I might not be; some women fought for women to be allowed into political activities but the three women are not alive today. Margaret Ekpo is gone, Gambo Sawaba is gone, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is gone but they started the agitation and today some of us are beneficiaries of the struggle they started and the sacrifices they made. We do not know the kind of sacrifice we will make, maybe this is one of them but I know tomorrow the story will change.
Digest: On a final note: The perception of the National Assembly by citizens has remained low and although some think that generalising everybody here is rather unfair, the Assembly itself has not helped the situation especially when it comes to voting. The rules allow legislators to hide under voice votes thereby denying the people an opportunity to know which legislators to hold responsible for certain votes or non votes. Would it not be better if legislators vote individually and records of the votes are accessible by the people in order to know where each Senator or Representative stood on critical issues? Will the Senate consider this?
Senator Binta: Yes, we did it in the last one.
Digest: That was only during the votes on the constitution review. How about on everyday issues and bills that get to voting?
Senator Binta: It should be on everyday issues, but for now it is being used at the times we are looking at some national issues. I told some of my colleagues who voted against the 35% affirmative action proposal that women and NGOs that support women are watching them and trying to get their voting pattern. Some told me they voted in support, and I said yes, forty three of you voted in support but it was defeated by twenty four votes. When the vote patterns are ascertained, and a lot of women groups are working towards that, we will see which women they will campaign to during elections. Sadly, when it is time to campaign and vote during elections they need women but any other thing; they say women must be kept aside. It is wrong.
Voting pattern accepted, you need to allow your conscience guide your voting and not to be coerced or forced by anyone. I am one of those who said why do we need to say YES, NO or ABSTAIN? Give me my (e-voting) card let me do that myself for my people to see. If you (legislators) go to your constituencies the majority of your constituents may want a particular thing to be done when you, you have no right to go contrary to what they are agitating for. Maybe this question ought to be directed at the principal officers; why are they not using it on a daily basis? It is a process and we are less than 20 years, perhaps gradually. An 18 year old child is still a teenager, when he crosses into maybe 25 or thereabouts he begins to understand that things have to change, and I think Nigerians should look at us in that direction that we are learning, we will make mistakes and adjust. The public is also watching us, so if we are not doing right, the whistle will be blown against us and send a signal to us that this is the feeler we are getting so why don’t we do this? Definitely whether you like
it or not you have to bend to suit the people that you represent.
Digest: So is it feasiible to look upon this Senate to change and open up voting records to the public to have access to individual voting records rather than allow every legislator to be painted in one colour?
Senator Binta: Exactly they should. In fact I think that you should take it up with the principal officers. They have the powers. I vote according to my conscience which is backed by the desire of my constituents. They tell me what they want me to do and if I feel it might not be healthy, I have to tell them the reason why we should not go this or that way. At the end of the day everybody will be happy for it.
Digest: We thank you very much for your time and attention. It has been very fruitful.
Senator Binta: I thank you too.