A former senator and current pro-chancellor of the University of Calabar, Senator Nkechi Nwaogu, speaks with TOFARATI IGE about her time at the Senate, her political career, and other issues
What were some of your achievements as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Insurance and other Financial Institutions?
There are many of them but one or two that stand out are the establishment of the act that provided for the Asset Management Company, which has helped many banks not to go under. It is a financial resolution vehicle that helps to reduce the toxicity of banks’ debts. It’s an agency that, every day, I beat my chest about. Prior to the time the act came into being, banks were falling like packs of cards in the eighties, nineties, up till 2005. But since the establishment of AMCON, there hasn’t been any total bank failure. They could have management problems and they would be changed; or financial or liquidity problems and they would resort to AMCON.
Another thing relating to banks, which was our committee’s landmark achievement, was that we were able to instil fears into bankers in terms of reducing insider trading abuse. Before then, a lot of bank owners were using depositors’ funds the way they liked. And that caused the failure of some banks not meeting their obligations. Recall that in 2009, we were able to reel out the names of bank owners and shareholders that borrowed large sums of money from their banks, and that led to the final collapse of those institutions. That action was supposed to lead to prosecution, and if they were found guilty, they were to be sent to jail. However, I don’t know what has happened to them.
In the course of carrying out your oversight duties on banks, what were some of the challenges you faced?
They included the non-implementation of the things we discovered. I have always believed that the way the oversight activities are structured (not only for our committee), and the time for legislators to carry out those functions are serious setbacks. You may visit a bank or call them to submit their documents, but you do not have enough manpower to decipher what has gone wrong. Because of the size of the businesses in the financial service industry, it requires the establishment of an experienced research arm of the legislature to continue the work after the initial oversight function has been done. We don’t have the time or resources; yet the people on the street think we may have collected money and that is why we don’t want to do certain things. Meanwhile, as of the time I was in the Senate, the five legislative aides paid for and allocated to every Senator were grossly inadequate. And what they were paid made it impossible to engage experts who could adequately do research work.
Many believe that in the course of their oversight activities, lawmakers collect money from industries they are meant to oversee and turn a blind eye to the misdeeds there. What’s your take on that?
That is absolutely untrue. I don’t think that whatever would be given to any legislator would be worth denting the person’s name and reputation.
For instance, I saw a lot of sharp practices by chairmen and managing directors of banks, and I was offered some things to overlook those practices. But my committee did not overlook them. I would never do that and I don’t think any lawmaker worth his or her salt would take a crumb (even if it’s not a crumb) to undermine the name one has built over the years. When we mentioned the names of the bigwigs who had defaulted on huge loans, I could have demanded something so as not to call their names.
Even when I was the chairman of the oil and gas committee, we brought to light the negligence of the NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) . We could have also collected money at that time.
Some of the work your committee did had to do with the restoration of the licences of Societe Generale Bank and Savannah Bank. Why did you do that when those banks were thought to have been poorly managed?
Agreed, they were poorly managed. But it was also discovered that the issues had been distorted with political undertone. Since the management of the two banks were willing to correct their errors, it was better to restore their licences than shutting them down totally and allowing people to be out of jobs, and depositors’ funds frittered away.
Can you recall other bills you contributed to?
I also moved a motion to make it compulsory for universities to adhere strictly to the student-lecturer ratio determined by the National Universities Commission. I moved that motion because it was discovered that students that studied professional courses such as law would come out of school and be unable to find a place at Law School because the universities had admitted more students than they were supposed to. If you go to some schools, you would see so many students in a lecture hall, and some would even be standing. In such cases, it is easy to see that they cannot all assimilate, or even hear what the lecturer might be teaching.
Another motion I moved was the one that compelled banks not to mop up funds in dormant accounts and make it part of their income. Now, even if your account has been dormant for many years, so far you can trace it to the bank, you can have it reactivated. And in the case that the account has become permanently dormant, the funds there can be used for social responsibility projects.
Another motion that I am happy about was the one that made it compulsory for public offices to provide access to those that are physically challenged. I don’t know how far that has been complied with though.
What do you think is often responsible for the frosty relationship between lawmakers and the executive arm of government?
This usually happens when one arm wants to be overbearing towards the other. There are three arms of government and none is superior to another, but they must all work together. When one wants to bully the other one, there will always be resistance. This is not peculiar to Nigeria; it happens in even more advanced democracies such as the United States of America.
I believe it takes two to tango. Just like between a husband and wife, if one does not respect the existence of the other, there will always be friction. In order to reduce such friction, I believe it requires tolerance, accommodation and the understanding of the separation of powers. There are so many ways to approach an issue if one employs wisdom.
I would advise the incoming Ninth National Assembly and the executive to be tolerant and have mutual respect for each other. That is the only way to avoid friction.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once said the National Assembly is a den of corruption in Nigeria. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
That is absolute nonsense because he is more corrupt. Over the years, his claims have been proved to be untrue. There is corruption everywhere – in the judiciary and the executive. Singling out the legislature is not fair enough.
What were some of the highlights of your time on the committee on gas resources?
The major achievement was that we brought to the attention of Nigerians that gas had been neglected for a while. Attention has always been on petroleum, whereas Nigeria has more gas than crude oil. Nigeria was on the losing end of all the joint venture arrangements that the country had with various companies. All the funds that were supposed to accrue to the government’s purse did not come in. It was during my tenure as chairman of the committee that we found out that the dividends supposed to be earned from the joint venture gas businesses the Nigerian government had with several international oil companies such as NLNG, SPDC, and many others, were not properly accounted for.
It was in 2015 that the government got some good money as dividends into the federation account, instead of stopping at the table of the petroleum minister and NNPC.
Also, it was during my tenure we discovered that the Nigerian government did not have any metering device to discover how much gas we had; we were only operating based on what the IOCs told us then. We also discovered that all agreements towards reduction of gas flaring were just lip service; they were mere academic exercises. There were no efforts by the IOCs to reduce the menace.
In what ways did you impact on your constituents back home?
There were quite a lot of them. It is on record that up till the time I left the Senate, I was one Senator that trained the highest number of constituents in vocational programmes. Beyond training them, I also provided them with capital. I trained over 400 young men and women from my senatorial district.
Also, I attracted various projects to my constituency. There is no local government I did not attract primary schools, rural electrification, health centres, primary schools, and many other things to.
A lot of former governors are now making their way to the Senate. What’s your take on that?
I think it is a time bomb in the making. The Senate is gradually turning to a political burial ground for retiring governors. I thought the system would stop governors from retiring to the Senate unproductively. They go there to hide and they have nothing to offer. If care is not taken, they would be the determinants of what happens in the Nigerian economy. If out of 109 senators, the former governors make up the majority, they can decide whether to bring down a president or not, because they have the war chest. Unless something is done, I foresee that in the near future, we would have more former governors in the Senate than people who are there to work.
In 2011, your election to the National Assembly was overturned before it was later restored. What was your experience during that period?
It had a political undertone because I felt there was nothing to the case. Someone said my local government was not part of my senatorial election, and I felt it was nonsense. But it turned out to be a case that went from the Federal High Court to the Appeal Court, and eventually Supreme Court. But to the glory of God, I emerged victorious, and it was determined that my local government, which was created in 1996, had always been part of my senatorial district. The case was later thrown out but it cost me a lot of money to hire lawyers just to say the truth.
In 2015, you contested the governorship position in Abia State. Do you still have any plans to vie for that office?
I contested the senatorial election during the last general elections under the All Progressives Grand Alliance, but I was sabotaged, betrayed and robbed. The case is in the tribunal; so, I cannot say much about it. Days ago, I won the pre-election court matter which had been on since November.
You used to be a member of the Peoples Democratic Party…
That was when the PDP was still a party.
What are some of the things you think the party did not get right?
They started playing God. They believed they could do anything and get away with it. They were no longer selecting their candidates based on merit; rather, they were only concerned about who paid the highest.
How have you fared in politics as a woman?
I think my experience in politics is what every woman has been facing – that is, discrimination. Until the government is serious about politics of including the good women of the country – those who have been proved to be good, and those that are up and coming – we wouldn’t really make headway. I think people should be judged not by their gender, but by their intellectual prowess. Is there any reason we have not been able to produce a female governor since 1960? Is it for the lack of women who are capable? Are you telling me there are no women in the country who can preside over the affairs of any state? I’m not talking about deputy governors. I mean, a woman who buys a form to contest the governorship election. I am not saying that women should be given the position on a silver platter, but they should be given equal opportunities, a level playing ground.
Women should be encouraged to be state governors. Then, we would be able to assess which gender can do better in terms of governance. This issue is really frustrating, especially for those of us at the frontline.
What do you think about some state houses of assembly that awarded life pensions to themselves?
It is ridiculous, but at the same time, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Did the National Assembly’s principal officers not give themselves life remunerations? The same thing also happens in the executive. The president, vice president, governors and deputy governors also enjoy the same benefits. If you don’t look at it holistically, you would think it is inconceivable.
Do you subscribe to the notion that the National Assembly should be on part-time basis?
Right now, it is on part-time basis. Lawmakers don’t sit throughout the year. Having been there for 12 years, I can tell you that we sit on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We hold committee meetings on Mondays and Fridays. What time do we have to go home to those that sent us there? What time do we have to do effective oversight duties? So, you can see that the number of days we have is not even enough to do effective work.
As a former banker, what do you think are the major reasons banks collapse?
There are quite a number of reasons banks collapse. There could be sharp practices by bank workers in terms of not carrying out due diligence on the people and organisations they award loans to. There are laid down rules that are supposed to be followed before giving out loans, but when these rules are not followed, they often cause problems along the line.
Most times, the banks were doing cosmetic accounting; they only had huge deposits on paper. And when the external auditors come, perhaps as a result of being compromised, they fail to identify that what the banks have are paper profits. How could a bank be posting huge profits, yet become illiquid within a short period?
At a time, banks were also looking for people who could bring in huge deposits, instead of experienced bankers.
You once said that you founded your company, Libra Investment, to help people in rural areas. What were some of the projects the company has done with SMEs?
That was before I went into active politics. We were involved in the provision of microcredit for SMEs. We were covering the gap that conventional banks were not able to cater to. As a banker, I noticed that in the South-East, there were more of traders and many of them were seeking for letters of credits and loans. But after providing them funding to import goods, they had no money to clear the items at the port, transportation, warehousing, and other incidentals. So, we came in to provide funding for those small companies, and they were doing well.
We were also helping small manufacturers, though we were tailored more towards women. We provided them with microloans so that they could be financially independent and contribute to nation-building.
What stirred your interest in politics?
My late husband was the one in politics, and I was a banker. At a time, I saw that my people’s needs could not be met in the private sector alone. So, I found myself being appointed to the Economic Advisory Board of Abia State between 1991-1993. When I served in that capacity, I realised that I could do more if I was in public service; and that geared me into politics.
Did you enjoy the support of your family and friends when you went into politics?
Yes, I was quite lucky. I actually practise politics where I’m married and not where I was born. My late husband and his family were very supportive and accommodating of me. I suffered no discrimination whatsoever, unlike other women who could be asked to go back to their homes.
Can you give us a glimpse into your life before politics?
I was a banker before going into politics. I trained in the United Kingdom. I attended the London College of Printing where I bagged a diploma in Printing Technology and Management. Then, I went to the Polytechnic of South Bank, London, and obtained a post-graduate degree in Management Studies and majored in Finance. After that, I attended the University of Brunel in Uxbridge, UK, where I did a Master in Management Studies, with a major in Finance.
I worked briefly in the United Kingdom and came back to Nigeria for my National Youth Service Corps at the International Merchant Bank. I was retained after my service and I worked there as a credit analyst. I also worked at Commerce Bank and Diamond Bank. I left Diamond Bank as a manager in 1993. In 1997, I established Libra Investments. And from there, I never looked back.
In 2006, I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for a post-graduate diploma in Political Science. In 2008, I obtained a Master in Political Science from the same university. In 2018, I obtained a PhD in Political Science from the same university.
As the pro-chancellor of the University of Calabar, what have you brought to bear on that position?
This month will make it two years that I have occupied that position. I’m working with the university’s senior management to improve on certain areas so that we can add more value to the institution.
We are trying to increase the internally generated revenue by ensuring that we plug some of the loopholes. We are also ensuring that there is a proper reward system for the lecturers and non-academic staff. We are also working on making good policies, such as improving the welfare of workers and ensuring that there is good relationship between students and the lecturers.
What are some of the most memorable moments of your childhood?
I come from a polygamous but happy family. You would not even know that the children came from different mothers. My father used to describe his 13 children as 13 sons, irrespective of their genders. He gave us equal opportunities.
Back then, I used to play football with the boys. I always cherish my childhood.
What were your childhood ambitions?
As a child, I always wanted to be outstanding wherever I found myself. I always worked hard to be recognised, and that has helped me over the years.
How do you relax?
I relax with friends. I am also a golfer and that takes a lot of my time now. I find it relaxing and a good opportunity to network.
Golf is traditionally seen as an elitist and men’s game. Is that notion correct?
I don’t know what you mean by elitist, but I know it’s quite expensive. Like I said earlier, I like challenging norms, and that was the same reason I played football in my early days. Even while in secondary school, I was very athletic and I even represented my school at major competitions.
How do you like to dress?
I am very fashion conscious. I would call myself a smart dresser. I have the spirit of what I call power dressing. I like to look elegant and I always go for the best. I like to look smashing and walk tall.