By TUNDE ODESOLA, SUNDAY ABORISADE, AND OLALEK
The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has denied reports that he is nursing the ambition for presidency in 2019, saying he actually quit his presidential bid in the 2015 election for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Saraki stated that he contributed immensely to the emergence of Buhari as President and contributed greatly to his victory in the presidential election held on March 28, 2015.
The Senate President, who spoke to select journalists in an exclusive interview in Abuja on Saturday, also denied having plans to dump the All Progressives Congress due to the ongoing crisis in the party over his leadership of the Senate.
Rather, he said what remained paramount in his mind at the moment was how to support the Buhari-led administration to tackle the various social and economic problems confronting the country.
Saraki said, “I was the first person that stepped down his political ambition, once General Buhari announced that he was going to contest the presidential election. And since then, prior to the period of election, I worked tirelessly to support his emergence.
“Even some of my friends who are not supporting me now are doing so because I did not support them in their presidential ambition and that I supported President Buhari. That is why I find it funny that the same people are now claiming to love Buhari more than me. It is a very funny world.
“These are people that I was begging to leave the stage for Buhari to run since all of us are young. They are now the one going round to say that Saraki did not like Buhari but time will tell.”
The Presidency, however, faulted Saraki’s claim of stepping down for Buhari ahead of the presidential election.
Saraki had on October 13, 2014, announced the suspension of his presidential bid in the interest of the country and his party. He, however, did not state which of the other aspirants he was going to back.
Saraki’s statement then partly read, “I decided to step down my ambition because Nigeria’s political outlook for 2015 is very complicated and this is the time for every patriotic politician to situate his personal ambition in the context of the country’s overall interest.
“I don’t think our party can afford too much internal rancour going into next year’s election. I, therefore, think some of us need to make the sacrifice and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem of the party.”
This will be Saraki’s first personal response to the ongoing crisis that is trailing his controversial emergence as the President of the Senate on June 9.
Saraki had led a faction of APC senators, under the auspices of the Like Minds Senators, to defy the party’s choice of Ahmad Lawan as the Senate President.
In what many have described as a ‘coup’, the pro-Saraki group had allied with the opposition lawmakers in the Peoples Democratic Party to make Saraki leader of the upper chamber of the legislature in the absence over 50 APC senators.
A similar scenario had also played out in the House of Representatives where Yakubu Dogara opposed Femi Gbajabiamila, the choice candidate of his party, to emerge Speaker of the House.
Explaining what happened on the National Assembly leadership election day, Saraki said he smuggled himself into the chamber on the day the 8th Assembly was inaugurated when he became aware of an alleged plan to abduct and prevent him from standing for the Senate presidential election
The Senate President also defended his absence from the International Conference Centre venue of a proposed meeting between President Buhari and APC lawmakers on the day of the election.
He insisted that he did not receive any invitation for the meeting.
Saraki said, “As regards the meeting, on the morning of the inauguration, I didn’t finish meeting until 4am of that day and I had got information that efforts would likely be made to make sure that I didn’t get access into the chambers.
He said the plan before was that senators-elect should go to the Transcorp Hilton Hotel around 8:00am and 9:00am to proceed to the National Assembly.
The Senate President said he was, however, advised against going to the chamber at the scheduled time as there were plans to stop him from being part of the day’s proceedings.
Saraki said he got into the National Assembly Complex as early as 6:00am and stayed in a car in the car park from then till quarter to 10:00am. He noted that all through the period, there was no communication to him.
“So, anybody who said they spoke to me to go the ICC was not true because I didn’t even know what was going on. All I was monitoring was how people were arriving at the complex. It was at quarter to 10:00am that I got information that the Clerk to the National Assembly had entered the chamber.”
The APC, however, described Saraki’s non-invitation claim as a lie, saying all senators-elect were invited to the said meeting.
Saraki, a two-term ex-Governor of Kwara State and former Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, said it was at that point that he got down from the “small car” in which he was hiding and entered the chamber.
“Even when I was in the chambers, I didn’t know what had transpired earlier on. The only thing I observed was that it appeared that some of our senators were not in the chamber. But for the fact that my colleagues arrived in batches, I had the opinion that they were on their way. And by 10:00am, the programme started.
“Before I knew it, my election had come and gone. Even, my people were worried. It was only when I got into the chambers that they were relieved,” Saraki added.
The Senate President also dismissed his alleged pact with the PDP to elect Ike Ekweremadu as Deputy Senate President.
Ekweremadu of the PDP, who occupied same position in the last Senate, had been re-elected as Saraki’s deputy in the Senate that has the APC as majority.
The Senate President, however, insisted that that it was the absence of the APC Senators from the chamber that caused the emergence of Ekweremadu as his deputy.
He said, “Never in our wildest imagination did we envisage that some senators would not be present on the day of the inauguration. In my view, and in the view of some of those who worked closely with me, I worked hard for my election. I had direct contact with every single senator; one on one. Weeks to the election, I did not rely on anybody. I worked hard, both in our party, the APC, and out of it.
“I approached every senator, I talked to them. We built confidence, not only in the APC, but, also, in the PDP. I talked to them. That was why I laugh when people said that I had a deal with Ekweremadu or I had a hand in the emergence of Ekweremadu.”
Saraki stated that he did not need any deal to win the election, saying he had “penetrated everywhere.”
Speaking further on the penetration, he said, “One of the meetings was held at Transcorp Hilton and Senator Godswill Akpabio and Senator Ibrahim Gobir co-chaired it. Both the APC and the PDP members were present.
“At that meeting, if you heard most of them there, the position they took was that ‘this is the Senate President they want. Across party lines, they said that they believe in me and that this is the Senate President that can lead us. There was no deal.”
Saraki, who described Ekweremadu’s deputy Senate presidency as painful and unfortunate, maintained that it was caused by the absence of his APC colleagues. He recalled that the PDP senators had announced to the public that they were supporting him.
He further said, “With regard to the deputy, when they told us that they had a candidate, we, too, told them we had a candidate for Deputy Senate President in the person of Senator Ali Ndume.
“We never, in our imagination, thought they (other APC senators) would not turn up. By the time we got there, we were only 24 while the PDP was more than 40.
“It is unfortunate that we have a PDP man as deputy Senate President. It is painful. It is painful for any APC member because when we went through the struggle. That was not what we signed for.”
Saraki said it was unfair to put the blame on “one side” because it was a combination of errors and miscalculations that led having some senators at another place instead of being on the floor of the Senate on that day.
“So, to suggest that it was out of a desperate act to emerge (as Senate President) is what I reject completely and those who followed the events would know that I didn’t have that deal to emerge,” he stated.
Saraki also disagreed with insinuations that he went against the position of the party which had allegedly zoned the position of the Senate president to a particular region.
“At no time was any decision taken by the party to zone the position to any particular zone,” he stated.
Saraki also said he had had personal discussions with the Lawan and they had allegedly deliberated extensively on how to collectively move the Senate forward in the interest of the senators, the APC and members of the public.
He said, “I also have an opportunity to sit down and discuss with Senator Ahmad Lawan as part of our reconciliation efforts. I am confident that this matter will soon fizzle out because we are making serious efforts.”
Saraki further said serious arrangements were already ongoing to unite the various sides to the crisis, even as he hinted that he had reached out to the leaders of the party, President Buhari and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, on how to collectively move the country forward.
“Regards to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu; as you all know, he is one of the leaders of the party. I have great respect for him. We have worked closely together before. Unfortunately my group did not agree with him on this issue.
“However, we are both responsible and committed to the project of the party and Nigeria that we will overcome this and move forward. It is part of our plans, as part of the healing process, to meet with him and it will happen soon,” Saraki added.
Saraki did not step down for Buhari – Presidency
The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, on Saturday, said there was no truth in the claim by Saraki that he stepped down for President Buhari in the APC presidential race.
Adesina, in an interview with one of our correspondents, said the issue of stepping down did not arise because the party conducted a free and fair presidential primary which Buhari won.
The presidential spokesman said all Nigerians know those who took part in the party primary.
Adesina said, “There was no issue of stepping down during the presidential race in the APC. There was a presidential primary that was plain, transparent, free and fair.
“We all know those who were involved in the primary; all Nigerians know those who participated in the APC presidential primary and President Buhari emerged the winner of that process.”
When asked if Saraki had reached out to the President as he claimed, Adesina said, “The President has always maintained that the party is supreme. The party started a process which was truncated.
“The President has always maintained that those who truncated or aborted the process were the ones who precipitated crisis.
“The President had said in earlier statements that he would work with anybody who emerged the Senate President, but then, that did not include those who will subvert (the process).”
‘Saraki snubbed Buhari to emerge Senate president’
A leader of the APC, who spoke to this paper on the condition of anonymity, said Saraki was only trying to be clever by half.
The leader of the party, who spoke in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents on Saturday, said Saraki had boxed himself into a corner.
“Saraki is simply trying to be clever by half. He is in a fix and he is trying to justify his illegal actions,” the source said.
He added, “Saraki is bound by the nation’s constitution to read the party’s list without any amendment. If the PDP had sent him their own list of principal officers, will he tamper with it or won’t the PDP send their own list?”
Insisting that the Senate President lied about not being invited to the ICC meeting, the reliable party source said Saraki was invited.
The source said, “He is lying if he said he was not invited to the ICC meeting. All National Assembly members-elect were invited via an SMS.
“He deliberately snubbed the President because he had already struck a deal with the PDP to actualise his inordinate ambition in defiance of his party’s position.