By Bukola Saraki
My Distinguished Colleagues, it is wonderful to be in Katsina, the Home of Hospitality itself. I feel very welcome indeed, and it is particularly gratifying that the Northern Senators Forum Retreat is taking place in this historic city, a seat of leadership in Nigeria for centuries, as we come together to lay the groundwork for a more viable future for this region, and Nigeria as a whole.
My sincere gratitude to Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, Your Royal Majesties and Highnesses who have made it a priority to honour the invitation to be at this retreat – to help chart a way forward. Your presence is a further demonstration of the resolute leadership that has seen this region through great turbulence, and which will see us through the present unease.
Let me use this opportunity to congratulate the Executive and entire members of the Northern Senators Forum (NSF) for the successful convening of this retreat. Yours is an example of responsible leaders heeding the call of history by rising to the challenges of the moment. This is also evident in the focus of the retreat, which is on the question of the restructuring of the country – with a keen eye on a myriad of issues facing the North.
This, therefore, is an ideal forum to examine the various submissionson restructuring as put forward by stakeholders all over the country – with a view to articulating the North’s position in relation to the issue. We are grateful, therefore, for the Northern Senators Forum, which is enjoying a renaissance under the able leadership of Distinguished Senator Abdullahi Adamu; and for the role it stands ready to play in steering the debate. Indeed, as the Chairman has said, the Northern Senators Forum is bringing back its culture of positive engagement in the affairs of the nation. It is my expectation that the culture of the North, and Nigeria in general, will be more strengthened and vibrant as a result of these endeavours.
I cannot fail to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of NSF members to the task of steadying the ship of this nation while Mr. President was on medical leave. Members of the Northern Senators Forum – and indeed the entire Senate – led with commitment; they rejected political opportunism and personal ambition or interest, toput the country first. NSF members were extremely helpful in stabilising the system during that sensitive period. This is the kind of responsible leadership Nigerians rely on us to deliver. You have always been there when the country needed you, not only during Mr. President’s time away, but also on other national issues. We thank you, urge you not to tire in your efforts, and we pray that your energy shall never wane.
Distinguished Colleagues and Esteemed Guests, it is perhaps understandable if some in this gathering find the clamourous debate about restructuring a little irksome. We are, after all, meeting in a region that is, for want of a better word, beleaguered. In this regionof ours – hurt and wounded by the cataclysm of insurgency and other problems – talk of restructuring can seem a bit fanciful. Nonetheless, we must face all issues with open minds, giving each the attention it deserves. I am confident that the Northern Senators Forum is up to the task.
As we sit here today, we know that a number of challenges confront our region, one being the situation in the North East, on which a lot still needs to be done. I am hopeful that the new North East Development Commission will go a long way in alleviating the difficulties being experienced in the zone. We all have a role to play in improving conditions on the ground in the North East, so that those affected can move towards rebuilding their lives and communities – and look to a future beyond insurgency.
It is with that eye on the future that I call our attention, once again, tothe estimated 12 to 15 million children not currently in the educationsystem – the highest number of out-of-school kids in the world. Nigeria’s ignominious distinction in this regard is not only regrettable, it is a weakness in the human assets of this country, and poses a serious threat to national security. It is a stain on ourcollective conscience that such a huge demographic is withouteducation in the 21st century.
We simply cannot abandon millions of Nigerian children to the trap of ignorance and poverty. It behoves us, therefore, to come up with policies that will lead to a significant decrease in the out-of-school population, and improve on the numbers as we go along. The crisis in education also manifests itself at tertiary level. When it comes to private universities in this country, the statistics tell the story: the North has the least number. However we look at it, access to education is a serious challenge in the North. We need to change the game, to empower our people to compete on equal terms with the rest of the country, and the world.
On the economic front, whatever it will take to bring about growth and development is what must be done. We must work to stimulate greater participation of state governments and the private sector in the economy. We have to create an enabling environment for economic activities, and mitigate those factors that discourageinvestment. It is clear that, as things stand now, there is little or no incentive for an investor to pursue economic activity in locations blighted by insecurity. We need peace and stability, therefore, for our economic objectives to have the chance to come to fruition.
Beyond the headlines, the over-arching issues of the North have not gone away. The Northern Senators Forum has its work cut out on this retreat, therefore. Economic diversification is not just a buzzword; it is a real-life transition that must be made, if we are to deliver the dividends of democracy to our people. In this period of economic recovery, it is imperative that we continue to focus priority attention on diversification, with greater emphasis on the need to boost the North’s agriculture and mineral resources sectors, especially food production.
We must be the food basket of the nation – and we must do so in reality, not by some oft-repeated cliché. We must be the source of substitution for the food importation that currently amounts to an annual bill of 4 to 5 billion dollars for the country. That self-sufficiency that is central to the economic diversification ethos, must come from the North, must be guaranteed by us, because we have what it takes to make it a reality.
Restructuring, for good or for ill, is the front burner issue in the polity at the present time. I have intimated elsewhere that one problem with all the talk about restructuring is that the discussion is not being framed properly – and certain precepts are missing. I have said, and it is my firm conviction, that we must give precedence to the unity of Nigeria at all times, and put the interests of the country first. We must not be afraid to think outside the box. We must not be afraid of reform.
While Nigeria seems to be in a quandary over the agitation for restructuring, our situation is hardly unique. These are uncertain times everywhere. Catalonia’s referendum bid is reverberating even in Brussels, where thousands of people staged a rally some days ago. Spain’s Article 155, which imposed direct rule over Catalonia,has implications for everything and everyone – from football star Gerard Pique to cultural artefacts. The hand-wringing goes on in Brexit Britain over Article 50. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the foundational principles of the American nation are being reexamined – in a debate that touches on everything from the rise of the Alt-Right to anthem protests.
In our own soul-searching in this great country Nigeria, it is worth noting that we, members of the 8th National Assembly, are best placed to direct the debate over restructuring – as elected representatives of the people. It is enshrined in our Constitution that no restructuring can happen without the National Assembly. Such is the crucial role we play. I am convinced that the only way we can fulfil this great responsibility, is for us to see ourselves as Nigerians first. Beyond language, religion, region or whatever consideration – we must be Nigerians above all else. It is my hope that this retreat will infuse us with the spirit of compromise necessary to make the required leap. It is only fitting, seeing as our democracy revolves around this same spirit of compromise.
At this point, I think it is important to acknowledge that the North has been on the receiving end of considerable vitriol in the course of some of our national debates. We have had to endure some severebashing from those who question what the North brings to the table, even going as far as to suggest that we are parasites on the body of the Nigerian nation. Let us see the vilification – undeserved though it may be – as a challenge to us as leaders to redouble our efforts, and strive to put in place far-sighted policies that will transform the region and silence the naysayers.
The question as to what the North brings to the table is bound to resurface in this debate about restructuring. As I see it, the profitable development of the North’s assets proffers its own powerful response to the question. A North led by visionary leadership knows, surely, that it has leverage; and that it ought to renegotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness. Few will disagree with me when I say, therefore, that a North that is economically strong and vibrant is better placed to negotiate on restructuring or whatever else.
My own restructuring is when we work towards economic development in every part of the country, so we can all take pride of place in the Nigerian project, and no region is seen as a weak link.
My own restructuring is when we oversee the budget process to ensure equitable spread of critical infrastructure in every corner of the country, so that no region is left out of the gains of economic recovery.
My own restructuring is when we create jobs and enhance food production so our people do not go hungry.
My own restructuring is when we educate our children so that they can realise their full potential and partake in the promise of the future.
My own restructuring is when we place a premium on delivering good governance, fight against corruption, valourise honesty and live to serve the people – without betraying the trust reposed in us.
These are just a few fragments of my own idea of a restructuring that is not merely cosmetic, but has the power to truly transform lives. Every Nigerian will have his or her own perspective on the issue, no doubt. It is my hope that this retreat will go some way in helping to crystallise these ideas, and shine a light on the road ahead.
And so, what do we expect from the Northern Senators Forum in this talk of restructuring? Permit me to suggest that we need you to pay close attention to the debate, having regard to the various shades of opinion on the matter. Thereafter, we look to you to distil from the debate a coherent message that perfectly articulates the position of the North. We have full confidence in you.
I have no doubt in my mind that we, as leaders, need to do a lot more work; we need to carry out analyses and research – to be able to pick the substance from the sentiment. I say this because, during the last Constitutional Review, there were items that were rejected, for example, Devolution of Powers. But upon reflection, we realised that it was actually not inimical to the interests of the people. It is my hope that in the quieter atmosphere of this retreat, such issues can get the clear-eyed consideration they deserve. In terms of security, our region has suffered the most, due to the insurgency and other crises. It is in our interest, therefore, to strengthen and reform the security architecture of the North. The onus is on us to provide worthy leadership. We must be focused. We must be prepared to correct the mistakes of the past. We must always be conscious of the need to weigh sentiment against value. More importantly, we should not be afraid of change. Leadership is also the ability to carry out those constitutional reviews that are needed to bring the North, and Nigeria, firmly into the modern age. Let us always remember that our positions are held in trust for future generations. History will not be kind to us if we fail.
This is a time for courageous leadership, strong enough to change the narrative of Northern Nigeria.
I congratulate you all on this momentous retreat, and I thank you for listening. I wish you a successful retreat.
Long Live the Northern Senators Forum.
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE