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JEGA'S INTEGRITY 'LL BE TESTED WHEN HE SEES MONEY – OKUNROUNMU

By NBF News

Senator Femi Okunrounmu is the Secretary General of the Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere. The Senator who represented Ogun Central between 1999 and 2003 laments the looting of the nation's resources at the National Assembly through the award of frivolous contracts and allowances.

He also hinted that the real test to the integrity of INEC boss, Attahiru Jega will be when he is tempted with money. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) activist also viewed the aspiration of former President Ibrahim Babangida as an insult on Nigerians. Excerpts…

Do you think the Presidency should go back to the North in 2011 or will you be in support of Jonathan contesting?

In principle, zoning is not a suitable arrangement so I don't support it because it means that you won't select the best material for a job. You restrict the materials artificially to a particular group of people; but unfortunately at that time, the best material for the job may not come from that section, so you deprive the nation of the services of a competent leader. So on that basis, I do not support zoning.

Some of us however argued for it that since we have accepted it, then it should go round and that was why at the constitutional conference, we said that if we are going to accommodate zoning, let us do it on geo-political basis and that the zone that has been having monopoly of power should forget about it and allow others to do it. We saw that as the next best solution at that time.

But we are now faced with a dilemma over this issue of zoning. Obasanjo did eight years and Yar'Adua started for the north but died after two and a half years in office; some people argue that another northerner should be allowed to complete the eight years of the North while some say it should be thrown open; where do you stand?

It is wrong to say that Obasanjo did eight years for the South, that is looking at politics from a materialistic point of view; that is why we say we want it in our area. That reasoning is very primitive and it presumes that whoever is in power will definitely give advantage to his area and won't be serving the country and that those not from the zone of the man are going to suffer.

That is a primitive way of politicking. If that assumption is true, he doesn't deserve to be there. In a Presidential system, which we are practicing, the whole country is the constituency of the President. When he is there, he is not there for his zone but for the whole country. Hence it doesn't matter where he comes from as long as he is there for the benefit of all. This is why zoning makes no sense. It can only make sense to those that want to go there and serve their selfish interest.

Do you think, given the circumstances, Jonathan should contest?

We should not particularize this issue. He may be a good leader or he may not. Once we particularize it, we miss the point. For 2011, the contest should be open to all. If within the PDP, they feel Jonathan is their best material, they should field him, but if they feel there are others who are better than him, then they should not hesitate to field that person. All parties should field their best materials. Nobody should say Jonathan should contest or not contest. Jonathan, like every other Nigerian, has the right to seek to be president and within the party he belongs, he has the right to seek the ticket.

How is the opposition preparing for the 2011 polls?

It is difficult to prepare for 2011 election because the horizon is still very foggy. For the last three years, we have been trying to bring all the progressive groups together and form a formidable front and entrench good governance, but unfortunately, the effort to form this mega party has not succeeded because of the ambition of some individuals within the progressive circles.

It appears that the same problem that is prominent among the conservatives in Nigeria is also present among the progressives in this country. A lot of progressives have personal ambition and agenda on why they want to be in power. I say this because if you don't have personal agenda, you should be able to subsume your ambition under the overall interest of Nigeria as a nation. If we say the progressives should come together so that we can get rid of PDP, then all those that are truly progressives should be able to come together regardless of their ambition. But that is not what we have in the Progressives. A lot of our people have ambitions that they refused to subsume under the national interest.

You don't want to mention names of people that refused to subsume their individual ambition?

No, I won't mention any names. You know all the people we've been trying to rally together for us to be able to present a common front so you can check for yourself those that scuttled the plan.

So, it can be safe to say that personal agenda destroyed the mega party idea?

Yes, that is what killed the plan.
We have a new INEC headed by Attahiru Jega; will you say we have a good INEC now?

Nigerians rush to give judgment; we don't give people a chance to demonstrate what they can do before we rush to comment on them. It is a weakness that we have in Nigeria that our leaders are exploiting. We should give Jega time to prove himself before we start singing praise of him.

Yes, his antecedent are good and encouraging but you can't know a man as to his real integrity until you put him in charge of money. It is only then you will know whether he is a man of integrity or not. Put a man in position of power and then start to judge how he will behave. A man known to be upright before because he has never seen huge money may misbehave after money is dangled before him. You need to allow him to be in that position for some time before you can praise him. If he is able to resist the temptation and do the right thing, then you can rightly say this is a man of integrity.

So his integrity can only be proved after he is tempted with money?

Everybody that is INEC chairman is bound to be tempted with big money by politicians. They will try to make him influence election results by throwing big money at him. The government in power will do it and those in the opposition too will tempt him with money. At the state level, people will do the same to Resident Electoral commissioner, it is when they are able to resist these temptations and allow Nigerians to vote and their votes count that we can conclude that this is a man of integrity.

What will you say of the controversy that trailed the nomination of some other members of the INEC who were accused of being card-carrying members of INEC?

We don't do things properly in Nigeria. The constitution is faulty in that regards. It is the constitution that allows PDP members to be appointed into INEC. The constitution say that to be appointed into INEC, you have to have the same qualification as a person going into the House of Representatives and if you are going into the House of Representatives, you must be sponsored by a party and that is why the President has continued to appoint PDP members. Instead of correcting this we are crying that Jonathan appointed PDP members.

Yes, he might remove two of them but all of them have party sympathy and I'm sure the president won't close his eye and appoint those that have no sympathy for PDP. The constitution is what we should amend. We need to insert it in the constitution that those that would be in INEC must not have sympathy for any political party.

We should therefore not expect anything spectacular from INEC then?

If the national chairman lives up to expectation, what happens to the 36 resident electoral commissioners? The integrity of the national chairman may not necessarily rub off the national chairman. All elections up to the governorship end in the states and it is only the Presidential election that the national chairman handles. The REC takes money from all parties, and I say that as someone who had contested elections before, I know that the electoral officers sees election time as harvest time.

It is insincerity for anyone to say that it is only the ruling party that tries to bribe INEC, all the political parties do it and the officers take it. The electoral officers see election time as harvest time. It is not only the electoral officers, the police; the men of the State Security Services and the civil defence too all collect money during elections. We need to be sincere on the problem if we want to truly cure it.

If you are a candidate and you don't give this money you can't win. The night before the election, if you don't give them, they will send people to you asking for it.

They once came to you too?
Yes they do. If you don't have money, you will have to beg and hope they will do the right thing; but the fact is they demand money from all the politicians.

How can we get it right in 2011?
Let us pray that Jega will try to be upright and instill discipline on his staff and do a correct election. I think he should put some means in place whereby he can know whether his people took money or not.

I will advise that once a man is appointed as a REC, he should declare all his assets and they should go and verify it if it is true or he has decided to inflate his assets or not. What they do with asset declaration is they give speculative declaration in anticipation of what they feel they will have during the harvest.

What do you see to the demand by your colleagues in the National assembly who are asking for a rise in their quarterly allocation?

If you go to the house of a man and you steal his TV and the man did not talk, you are likely to go back and steal his car and if he says nothing, you can go back and try to take over the whole house. He will say the man is not complaining. Nigerians are too lethargic and docile we just complain and do nothing on it; that is why those who rule over us get bolder.

In the first instance, the quarterly allocation is totally illegal and unjustifiable. The present level is not justifiable. We are told the floor members of the House of Representatives get as much as N27 million every quarter as allowances while those in the Senate get N45 million. This money is separate from all the illegal money they also get every time they do things.

Is the money for constituency project or what?
It is not for constituency project, it is just for their personal pockets. It is day light robbery of the nation's resources that they built into the budget. In a country where some people can't afford three square meals, it is stealing. The annoying thing is that Nigerians are keeping quiet. Now they are saying they want it increased as if the present level is acceptable.

Has it been like that since 1999?
It was not so before; this looting is a post 2003 phenomenon. It was not so between 1999 and 2003 and I make bold to say that while I was in the Senate it was not so. You can ask any Senator that was there in 1999 and they will tell you it was not like that.

I remember that we impeached the late Dr. Chuba Okadigbo as Senate President over a contract we felt he should not have awarded. The whole contract was N143 million for a street light project, but we felt our job is to make laws and not to award contracts. We impeached him for that but what we are seeing today at the national assembly is massive looting and they do it with impunity. Now they award contracts for everything, cars and chairs and all manner of things.

The House of Representatives has been on the boil over car contract and Dimeji Bankole is at the centre of it…

I don't want to personalize it; illegal contract has been at the National Assembly even before Bankole became the speaker. I remember that Patricia Etteh was alleged to have stolen some money and some people that called themselves integrity group said she must go and we support them and today they are their and the level of stealing has increased. They can't even control it now. Why they are complaining is that some members of the House of Representatives got replaced from their supposed lucrative committee and they decided to make noise. Everybody is stealing in that place and even the media too get their own share at the National Assembly.

Will you support the call on Bankole to step down as Speaker?

There are many of them that should resign not just Bankole. If you are talking of corruption, then many people in government should go; they wine and dine in corruption. We read it in the papers daily and nothing is done to those people stealing public funds. That is why people are encouraged to steal; if you punish one corrupt official every other person will sit up.

Those telling Bankole to resign are missing the point; there is massive looting of the national resources going on. This PDP government is a pack pf thieves.

But we have two anti-graft agencies in place and you are saying massive looting is on in the country.

Are those ones working? They are not working. The EFCC went after Ibori when Yar'Adua was there, what happened to Ibori? Were they not just scratching it? How many of the former governors that were charged to court by the EFCC have been jailed? Are those people not going around oppressing with their loot now? What they do to the judges is just to court and the man will be given bail and that is the end. They are just deceiving us. Even Bode George that was jailed was not because of corruption but not adhering to rules.

What of DSP Alamieyeseigha?
He was in jail for how many weeks? He was asked to return some token money. Is that how to stop corruption? Is that how Singapore or Japan did it? How come that even in straightforward cases as in Halliburton and Siemens scandals, those who are foreign nationals in the scams get punished yet we can't do anything about our own people here? Why corruption is not prominent in other countries is simply because they know that if they steal they will be dealt with but here it is not so.

What is your feeling about Babangida planning to contest in the 2011 presidential race?

I think that is the greatest insult to Nigerians. But the most regrettable thing is that some people want to be his campaign coordinator because all the problems we have in Nigeria today were created by Babangida. Babangida is the genesis of all the evil in Nigeria. Before Babangida, Nigerians were afraid of stealing public funds; I am not saying they are saints but they were very careful. We kept corruption at a low level and they punish the corrupt. But when Babangida came, he gave corruption teeth. He liberalized it and made corruption the norm by introducing the settlement syndrome and now we are all suffering for it.

But may be he might have the solution to the evil you listed?

That is the most idiotic talk I will hear. A man had bastardized your country and he is saying he wants to come back. To do what? He had the chance and he lost it. If we want to go back it is okay to go to a good era but not to a bad era. How can a man that destroyed the country say he wants to come back? To do what? That is warped reasoning for anyone to say that he might have the solution.

Should we not be ashamed that we are recycling old people who once ruined this country when we have young and better-exposed people in this country? It is only a dying society that does that.

What is your view on the country going back to two or three parties?

It is not right to arbitrarily axe some parties because that will conflict with the concept of freedom of association. Let anyone who wants to form a party do so but the government should not give grants to any party that did not fulfill certain conditions. They should win certain number of seats in the local and state assembly and the National Assembly. We know what we need to do but we don't do it. The present system aids mushrooming of political parties. If we refuse to give grants to none performing and functional parties, all of them will die natural deaths.

Do you like the idea of independent candidates?
It is okay if the person thinks he is strong enough to go it alone without any party. America has it every time but whether they ever won is another thing.

It did not work in America, will it work here?
As long as you are not giving anyone grants, he can spend his money; it is not government funds. If someone wants people to hear his name for some three months and he can spend the money, why deny him the opportunity.