The Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Basic Education, Zakari Mohammed, in this interview with JOHN AMEH, speaks on leadership issues in the House and his personal lifestyle outside the chamber
Tell us a little about your background.
I celebrated my 46th birthday on July 7. I obtained a Diploma in Civil Law from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1991. I could not proceed to read law at degree level at ABU because I lost my father that same year. I had to look for work. Also, the policy of the radio station, where I worked, did not encourage sponsorship of any member of staff to study law, being a broadcast outfit. I later read Sociology and also obtained a diploma in Journalism. I did my master’s degree thereafter, specialising in Criminology.
I heeded the call of my people to join politics in 2001 and I contested election into the Kwara State House of Assembly in 2003. That did not materialise. I worked for the emergence of Dr. Bukola Saraki then as the governor of Kwara State. In 2003, I was appointed as his Special Assistant on Sports Matters. He later made me the Commissioner for Sports and Youth Development; and later, the Commissioner for Energy before I resigned to contest a seat in the 7th House of Representatives. I am married and I have a lovely daughter.
Are you saying you came to the National Assembly out of a burning desire to serve your people and not because you were anybody’s ‘boy’?
I don’t think it was like that. I just think it was because of the fact that in Kwara State, for eight years that he served as governor, the Senate President (Bukola Saraki) groomed young minds like myself, Bolaji Abdullahi, Razak Atunwa, and a couple of others. We came into government and we made our marks. Responsibility was given to us and we didn’t do badly; I didn’t do badly in the area of my responsibility. To my credit and of course to the credit of Dr. Bukola Saraki as the governor, we conceived the first football academy in the state. In the Ministry of Energy, we translated the government’s vision of providing electricity to rural dwellers into reality, with over 1,000 communities connected to the national grid.
Is it correct to say Saraki, the Senate President, is your godfather?
Yes, to tell you the truth, he is my big brother. I won’t lie about that. Coming into politics, God did it but God used someone like him to shop for young men who can impact positively on society. He is my leader, elder brother and a leader in whom I am well pleased.
We engage in arguments a lot and he concedes to superior arguments, which is the good thing about him. When he gives you a responsibility, he gives you free rein to do it. He will expect you to bear the consequences when they come. So, politically, it’s not wrong to have a leader and a mentor.
Your mentor has been under fire since the inauguration of the 8th Senate over allegations of false declaration of assets. Are you still proud of him?
Because I have worked very closely with him in the last 14 years, I know his person. I know that in this clime, people don’t want you to have courage. In the build-up to the 2011 election in Kwara State, especially on the matter of who would succeed him, he was very plain and fair about it. He believed that one senatorial zone had a governor before him, four years, eight years, plus his 12 years. So, he said it should go to another senatorial zone. The North had it 1992/93, though it was short; the South had it in 1983 for about three months; and he believed that the South should have it. That is leadership. Even though he knew that his biological sister (Senator Gbemi Saraki) was entitled to contest, he did not support her. He just believed that things should be done fairly. How many people have that type of courage? The issue of disobeying his late father was even a misinterpretation.
So, for me, people who have courage in this clime and are honest definitely cannot get away without being treated the way he has been treated. He has gone through it and I believe that it’s an opportunity for Nigerians to see him in a better light now and appreciate his person. What was his offence? Was he not entitled to contest the Senate presidency? Was he not qualified? Those issues are for history.
Why do National Assembly members have a negative image?
Globally, parliaments are not popular. We are still a young democracy in Nigeria and I believe that some lessons have been learnt and we will continue to learn.
Unfortunately, some members of parliament too have not conducted themselves well as role models in the society. So, we have good minds and we have funny minds, just as it is the case with every trade or profession. People come from different backgrounds and, especially because of the frustration in the land, the parliament is the easiest target for Nigerians to vent their anger. You find out that even lawyers don’t know how the parliament functions!
The alleged sex scandal involving three of your colleagues in the US generated ripples but your internal mechanism exonerated them. Has any lesson been learnt?
In the first place, the (former) US Ambassador (to Nigeria, Mr. James Entwistle) was mischievous. Mischievous in the sense that those who levelled the allegations would have taken action immediately if such an incident occurred. In the case of a World Bank official (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) in the same US, years back, it was promptly reported. If, indeed, a hotel maid was harassed, the CCTV footages were there; the US will not treat such a case with kid gloves. Why did they wait for four weeks before making a formal complaint? With due respect, one of the members, Mark Terseer Gbillah, actually came from the US to contest election in Nigeria. Emma Ikon has a home in the US; so he is used to travelling there. Garba-Gololo was into business before he came in here. For whatever it is, the story does not convince anyone that a member, who spent more than 14 years in the US, solicited the services of park attendants to hire prostitutes or that they abused a housekeeper.
Besides, the ambassador did not bother to follow the appropriate diplomatic channel when he wrote directly to our speaker. I believe that he needed to be tutored. The ambassador refused to come and testify when the House invited him, he also could not produce any video footage. However, we treat people from other parts of the world with dignity and we expect them to treat us the same way too. The lesson for me is that people deserve to be treated with dignity.
You love big, exotic automobiles. Do you also relax by taking some fine ladies out on a jolly ride?
It depends on everybody’s background and orientation. I was not brought up that way. I love big cars, yes. One must have a hobby. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. With the opposite sex too, I am not randy. So, as a legislator, you have to be very careful since whatever you do tells so much about your personality. Sometimes, I can drive around with friends, but not just for leisure. If I have my way, I will continue to buy cars, even sell, have a collection and sell them off again after using them for some time
What nicknames do your friends call you?
That is exactly for my friends to say. What I know as a person is that I am very blunt. You know where I stand on every matter. I don’t pretend.
With the way you sound, you must be picking quarrels with your wife a lot at home
Oh, yes, I do. We quarrel a lot! You see, let me be honest with you, quarrels are the balm that soothes the home. Because if you don’t quarrel, you don’t exactly know how much you love yourselves. First, you are different human beings from different backgrounds. My wife is Yoruba; I am from another tribe. We have different cultural backgrounds. What is important in every relationship is how you manage your weaknesses. I have mine. We are to cover up for each other.
Sometimes, women believe that they are at the receiving end. They will ask you for money, and you won’t be able to drop it and when they see you spending money on things that could affect you politically, they can’t really balance it. So, you have to call and explain why it is so. With your wife, she is expected to understand, but not the outsiders.