President of the Senate, David Mark, in this interview with Senior Correspondent, SOLA SHITTU, in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital, venue of the 2012 Senate Retreat, says religious fundamentalism is the real reason for Boko Haram, not poverty, as touted by some Northern
leaders. On development, he warns Northern states that the South will not wait for them, so they had better sit up. Excerpts…
If you are asked in a test about this state, Akwa Ibom, after the Senate retreat here, what would you put down on paper?
The first thing I would put down in a paper is that every state has an opportunity to develop at its own pace. Akwa Ibom, from the briefing we’ve got on what we went round to see, has really judiciously utilised whatever allocation it has received. It has also shown that the governor is sufficiently exposed because you may have all the resources, but if you don’t think deep, you cannot plan deep. The second thing that I will put down on paper, as far as the retreat is concerned, is that we’ve been reasonably successful; but until the current insecurity in the country disappears, there is nothing that we can do at the moment that we will say is conclusive. We have, at least, been able to chart a course; we have been able to expose our minds to some of the issues involved in the current security challenges we are facing.
How do you intend to fast-track your resolutions in the communiqué?
We do that by putting pressure on the executive, by personal contact from me or by getting the committees to intensify their oversight functions over the MDAs (Ministries Departments and Agencies), and we do that by individually talking to people who are responsible for those items in the communiqué. The point now is that the Senate must also come out and be seen, as much as we can, to find a practical solution to the problem on the ground. The legislations that we have at the moment are reasonably adequate, but there are areas where we need to tighten some of the laws that exist at the moment, and when we go, we also try and bring that up and look at those areas that we think we really need to strengthen the security agencies, so that they can act. I am sure that there are areas, at the moment, where the security agencies may want to act, but they don’t have the legal power, the legal instrument to act.
If you say the governor of Akwa Ibom has used the state’s money judiciously, would you then recommend that there should be peer review mechanism among governors in order to learn from others?
Well, whether it is peer review mechanism, revisit or whatever, I think there is no harm in one going to a fellow governor, looking at what he has on ground, discussing with him or asking him (some useful questions concerning how he did it). One of the things we have also learnt is that when there is cooperation between the executive and the legislature, then it is a lot easier for one to operate. The governor said that about 84 per cent of his annual budgets are expended on capital, so he has only 16 per cent on recurrent and overhead. At the federal level, it is the reverse; it is a complete reverse. No government can develop that way. There is Boko Haram issue; but if you noticed, I said that one of the reasons people advanced is poverty. But I don’t believe that there is something far more fundamental than the issue of poverty, or that people are unemployed or that it is lack of education. All those things are not going to happen overnight. I think the root cause of Boko Haram is religious fundamentalism and we must address it. We cannot shy away from it. You fracture your right leg; then when the doctor comes you gave him your left leg for treatment, how would the right leg heal? The real issues are there and we must face them, if you want to face the reality. The most important thing in our resolutions as far as Boko Haram is concerned, in my opinion, is the fact that we must restrict religious preachers. We must license them; we can’t allow people to go about preaching what they want. If Islam believes that suicide will send you to hell and Christians believe that if you commit suicide, you have no remedy – you are going to hell, why are we allowing the Islamic teachers to preach something else? Why aren’t they being told that suicide is not acceptable in any religion? But the bad guys are the ones who are preaching that if you commit suicide, there is no problem – you are going to heaven; not only that you will go to heaven, but you will have over 70 virgins.
But some of the practitioners of religion might think that this is a way of gauging them. Don’t you think there is need for sensitisation before doing that?
Well, it is not the Senate that is going to do that; our own is to make sure that we legislate in such a way that your preaching is in tune with what will ensure national interest. If you are misinterpreting religious tenets, if you are misleading people, you would not be given the free hand to do so. At the moment, that is what is happening. There is no one single solution but at least we must start from somewhere. You would also notice that when the Sultan spoke that even they as traditional rulers can do little or nothing. So in amending the Constitution, we must give them a prominent role because they are an integral part of our traditional system. So we should carve a role for them because they play an important role. For heaven’s sake, what is happening now in Boko Haram in the North? We are in Akwa Ibom now; will the governor of Akwa Ibom wait for the governor of Borno before he starts his own projects here? If Boko Haram that is saying x2 we have been doing this over the years, western education is not helping us; all those who have been elected are people who have had western education are not doing the right thing; we want to bring development; that they are doing it because there is no development in the North, who is the contractor that will now go and work in Borno or any affected area in the North? It will only get worse; it cannot improve by the action of Boko Haram. Therefore it is only important and proper that people tell them that what they are doing will only bring them backward and the development gap between the North and the South will increase. People don’t want to hear it, but that is the truth on the ground. You cannot compare what you see on the ground in Akwa Ibom now with any of the states in the North. Yes they are not receiving the same amount of money, but the cost of construction in the South is not the same as the cost of construction in the North. So, that in itself is not good enough a reason. All hands must be on deck, including (that of) even people like me. I don’t know any Boko Haram man; and if I know, I would talk to him. When I say that Northern leaders are now pretending, that is the truth. Some of them are pretending that they know the leaders and that they can talk to them, I don’t believe that they do. I used the word ‘we’. I am told people are criticising me and saying that I am part of the North; did I say I am not part of the North? I said I am part of the North and that is the reason I used the word ‘we’. If I know, I would talk to them; if they also know, they should talk to them. But if they don’t know, they don’t need to pretend that they know, just to be relevant. They should say so that they don’t know anything about them and then all of us should work together as a team. But if they don’t know and they don’t want to admit that they don’t know, then how do we solve the problem? I have always preached dialogue with Boko Haram from the onset; that has been my stand, so that they can explain their grievances and then we can address those grievances. But how do you go and tell somebody if you don’t know the person. You need a partner to dialogue, so those people who are criticising me now that I shouldn’t have said that about Northern leaders, I didn’t exclude myself; but I am open enough. I am frank enough to say that I don’t know anybody in Boko Haram.
The plan to issue licence to religious preachers, to me, is constitutional, and the federal lawmakers cannot legislate for the state…
(Cuts in) But the National Assembly can legislate and tell you not to be telling people to go and commit suicide. The National Assembly can say that if you are a preacher and you are telling people to go and commit suicide, when they catch you, they will kill you also; that one has nothing to do with state.
One of your resolutions in this retreat emphasises the need for the National Assembly to be independent of the MDAs in their oversight mission. How do you intend to do this?
We have been preaching that for long. It was Professor Inyang who said that the regulated cannot be the regulator. He who goes to equity must go with clean hands. If we are not funded enough, then we try and make sure that we are funded. But the point that we are making here is: look, let’s make sure that there is a clear demarcation between us and the MDAs that we oversight. You remember the case of where one of the ministries bought all the committee members air ticket. It’s not that they gave them money, but they bought ticket for them. I think that was a real mistake. We don’t want a situation whereby MDAs will buy (us) ticket for transportation. But you will see when we go back because we have resolved now that as soon as we go back, we are going to get the report from the various committees. If we oversight the MDAs properly, some of the wastes that we see now, some of the misapplied fund that we see now or some of the corruption in the system will be eliminated. All may not be eliminated, but it will not reach a level where it has reached. We have had 13 years of continuous democracy where we have those who used to encourage the military (now) saying that the military will never come again. We have not perfected it (democratic rule) and we are not going to perfect it overnight. But the point is that even if we make a mistake, let us trace our steps back, apologise to the people that we made a mistake, and move forward.
In your opening speech, you asked the Boko Haram leaders to come out of the closet and dialogue, assuring them that they will not be arrested. Is the executive on the same page with you on this?
They have to be on the same page (with me). But you see, those who are criticising me have forgotten that they are not interested in that one.
Would they be arrested?
They will not be arrested. Why should they be arrested if they have grievances and if I have given them my word? But if they hide behind to kill, then they will be arrested and, of course, the ultimate result is that you also will die. I think that we should really strengthen the existing law. Truly, if you kill, as far as I am concerned, it is not to put you in jail; but you also will be killed. It is very easy to ask people to forgive, and when I ask people to forgive, it’s painful. But Christian teaching is always forgiveness and forgiveness; leave vengeance to God. I have been preaching that and I will continue to preach that because if I do otherwise, then it is not okay by my own faith. But I know how painful it is. I told Bishop Matthew Kukah that if the Christian community begins to dwindle in terms of going to worship on Sunday, soon you will not have a Church standing and there will be nobody for you to even tell to forgive. But if people are driven to the extreme, then they begin to take laws into their hands, and I don’t want that to happen. God forbid that it shouldn’t happen because we are still in a position to ensure that it doesn’t happen. My appeal has always been one of preaching peace, forgiveness and dialogue. If we do this, I think we will get it right. I also want to appeal to the Northern elders who feel that what I said was criticising them; but if it is constructive criticism, then they should accept it. I didn’t exclude myself; I was very emphatic, and continuously I used the word ‘we’, which means that I am included also. My point is very straight-forward. If we know them, then we should talk to them. If we don’t know them, then we should say we don’t know them, because if we don’t know them and we keep telling government that we know them and government is relying on us to take a message to them, then we are missing the point by putting the searchlight on a wrong direction.
That is not going to yield result. It is a serious practical situation on the ground in this country today, and I think we should find a serious practical solution to it. There are immediate recommendations and immediate solutions and there are long term strategic solutions. Yes, there is disparity in education between the North and the South in this country, and unless we don’t want to face the reality, that is the truth. The governor of Borno said, in 10 local governments, only two people passed UTME and WAEC to a level where they can be admitted in the university. From 10 local governments two people? In Southern states here, virtually everybody will more than get the grades. So as long as there is disparity in development, there will be problem and the only way we can deal with that gap, which we cannot close tomorrow morning, is to have a conducive and peaceful environment, so that the things we want to do can be done. The Almajiri School is good, but if you also listen to Bishop Kukah, let us not create another group of people who will just be preaching and indoctrinating them, so that he has more disciples to send out to the society. So we must monitor every educational institution and make sure that nobody is indoctrinated even early enough. There is no reason Christians and Muslims should not co-exist to cooperate, even in imparting knowledge, because that is the way people like me were brought up. In my own school, on Fridays, the Muslims would go to the Mosque. On the same Friday, we Christians would go to what we called “Fellowship Hour” where the pastor or the priest would speak to us. The Catholic would go to their priest, the Anglican and Methodists will go to their reverends; but we are all friends and we found that from our secondary school days, some of my best friends are Muslims. We should not introduce religious fundamentalism into this country because it is a dangerous thing. There is no logic involved when people are indoctrinated; the only language they understand is “either you are with me or you are against me”. That is not the way religion should be taught. Let me also thank the media for the fair and balanced reportage. Let me say this with all sincerity: criticise us, but let it be constructive criticism. When you offer an explanation and you are wrong, you know that you must also say that you are wrong in bold, clear, unambiguous terms, not in one small corner of your paper where nobody can find out. But truly, I think you are doing well and I urge you to continue to do well because we are partners in this business. If democracy succeeds, if democracy is stronger today in Nigeria, the media share in that glory. But I think there is also the erroneous belief that if democracy does not succeed, you distant yourself from it. No, you will be part of it also, and if somebody is doing well and you don’t praise him, there will be no incentive for doing well. If you group everybody together, then there is no incentive. If you go to school and there is no examination, whether you fail or pass you are moving to the next level, then there is no incentive to read. Only very few people will have the personal incentive to read. When we do something that is good, give us a pat on the back, and when you err and you admit, let our own be on front page also.
Daily Independent NG 7/8/2012