8th Senate: The standard Saraki left behind

“There are no standard tests to apply to a Senator…His talents may vary with his time, his contributions may be limited by his politics. To judge his true greatness is nearly an impossible task.”

These were the words of John F. Kennedy, as he discussed the difficulty of judging the quality of a Senator when he was engaged in the task of selecting the five greatest Senators, whose portraits were to adorn the US Senate reception room.

The difficulty faced by Kennedy several years ago in picking the outstanding men in the history of the US Senate is essentially the same as the problem of defining the qualities that make for distinction in the Senate everywhere today, including Nigeria.

But this in no way reduces the intensity of the belief that there are standards to be maintained as much as there are perceived impediments to being a great Senator In Nigeria for example, a favourite myth is that Governors—or other executive types—fare badly in the Senate.

They are, it is believed, extremely unhappy at sharing their command and authority with 112 others. But then came a man like Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki, fresh from the governing Kwara state, who found the path to power in the Senate ridiculously easy to explore.

The most outstanding of his feats was his 2015 discovery of the petroleum subsidy scam, the biggest fraud in the Nigerian government in recent years. Then, by exuding ample energy, eloquence, wit, good humour, intelligence, frankness, and honour, Bukola Saraki served in the Nigerian Senate since 2011, acquired seniority and steadily rose to become its president in 2015.

His four-year tenure was not without challenges. The first major hurdle was the controversy surrounding his emergence as President of the Senate. A Code of Conduct Tribunal trial was launched against, which was followed by other forms of antagonism by the executive.

But surmounting the deliberate obstacles placed before him, Saraki used his powers throughout, not simply for the advantage of his state, region, religion or tribe but largely to serve his conception of the national interest. A special combination of personal qualities and political circumstances has since marked him as the most outstanding Senate President in the entire 20 years of this democratic dispensation.

Thus, while most previous Senate Presidents confined themselves by choice to the private, back-room trades of projects, patronage and appropriations, Saraki engaged himself publicly in all the major debates of his time — touching the responsibilities of government from foreign affairs, domestic welfare, to labour relations.

And whereas his predecessors remained bound by the parochial concerns of pleasing the executive, and serving merely as spokesmen for their states and regions, Saraki insisted on deepening democracy by seeing beyond the borders of his own state, region or the interest of the presidency.

Despite unnecessary hostilities throughout his tenure, Saraki, a superb craftsman, was able to provide the needed policy framework and legislation to help an ineffective executive arm confront insecurity, unemployment, healthcare, education and economic crises.

In these regards, he will go down in history as having presided over the Senate that successfully passed more bills in the history of the fourth republic. As of May 2019, the Senate under Saraki had passed 293 bills, above the numbers passed by the three previous Senate since the return to democratic rule. The 7th Senate passed 128 bills; 6th, 72 and 4th Senate 129.

Other most notable things Saraki will be remembered for as he bowed out of the Senate on June 11, 2019, including the publishing of the National Assembly budget for the first time since 2010 when former Senate president, David Mark, blocked disclosure.

In May 2019, the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, said 22 states showed interest in accessing the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF). This would not have been possible without the intervention of the Senate under Saraki, which in May 2018 approved the N55 billion fund to cater to healthcare in Nigeria. The BHCPF is one per cent of the Federal Government Consolidated Revenue and contributions from donor grants set aside to fund the basic health needs of Nigerians.

In March 2019, the Senate held its third edition of a public hearing on the national budget. The initiative, introduced under Saraki’s leadership, started in 2016. At such hearings, Nigerians, represented by interest groups, are given the opportunity of contributing to the national budget before passage. Although the legislative process of the budget passage should include public hearings, that was not implemented under the previous administrations.

This important Not-Too-Young-To-Run legislation, initiated by the civil society, was passed by the National Assembly in 2018 and signed into law in May 2018. The law reduces the age limit for Nigerians seeking the office of president from 40 to 35; governorship from 35 to 30. It saw to an unprecedented number of young contestants for the 2019 general elections.

While national security is the executive’s direct responsibility, Saraki’s Senate showed interest in responding to the nation’s growing security crisis. In one of such measures, the Senate in February held a security summit.

Apart from the summit, the legislators, almost every week, passed resolutions on security-related issues although few of those were implemented by the executive. Saraki was also quick to arrange a Senate Roundtable in Kano that led to the clampdown on hard drug circulation and consumption in the whole of northern Nigeria in response to calls by a coalition of concerned youth groups.

Also, in order to cater to victims of insurgency in the North East, the Senate passed the North East Development Commission bill. By and large, Saraki’s experience, talent, diligence, breadth of vision and a grasp of major national issues enabled him to lead the most successful and most effective Senate in Nigeria’s democratic history.

What remains is for this great icon of democracy to put the past behind him, rededicate his sportsmanship and reclaim his statesmanship by remaining the shining model for this generation and the hope of the future generations of Nigerians. He should know that this generation is looking up to him to provide the desired direction for meaningful leadership towards achieving a prosperous nation.

With this at the back of his mind, he should resolve to mentor the younger generation with or without an office, which is the only way to sustain the legacy he has started.

This he should go through a constant interface with the youth via seminars and roundtable discussions while the younger generation must commit to learning from his noble model.

Nastura Ashir Sharif (The Vanguard)