I’m not Grooming My Son for Kwara – Saraki

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Pic.24. Senate President Bukola Saraki on News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum at the National Assembly in Abuja on Tuesday (1/8/17). 03959/1/8/2017/ Jones Bamidele/NAN

At the end of the 2nd legislative year of the 8th Senate President, Bukola Saraki spoke on the journey so far and controversies on devolution of power, ex-governor’s pension and salary, anti-corruption and constitutional review. He also spoke on the politics of his home state of Kwara.

The senate just adjourned after its second legislative year. How has the journey been so far?
I think we are satisfied with what we were able to accomplish in the past 24 months. When we compare what we have been able to do in this 8th Senate to the senate before us, I think we have done very well. For example we have done about 125 bills compared to the 5th, 6th and 7th senate. I think the 5th senate did about 129 in four years and the 7th did about 125. So we have been able to do what the others have done in four years in two years.

We also need to look at the quality of bills that we have passed. A lot of them have to do with the economy and infrastructure issues. We passed bills to do with making us have more credible elections and improving our electoral process, and of course the constitutional review that we have just been able to do. We have addressed the jinx that has to do with the Petroleum Industry Bill. We have been able to make the National Assembly more transparent in some of the things we are doing like Open NASS. So, by and large we have not done too badly

One of the trending issues now is the Constitutional Review. What made the Senate to take so many sections of the constitution for review. What informed that decision?
I think we learnt from the experience of the past, on some of the things that need to be done to make it a success. You know it is not an easy task to review the constitution. Of course you know it is two thirds, even in some cases it is more than two thirds. So you have to have consultations, engagements, discussions in trying to make those changes that are necessary and some of these changes have been long overdue. Many of them are not things that we just thought about now.
What we have been able to do is have the political will to make it happen. They are not new amendments.
In the 7th National Assembly some of those amendments were made but unfortunately they never got implemented and one of the things we learnt was not to keep the process till very late. One of the mistakes we made in the 7th senate was in the dying hour of the tenure. So this time around we promised we do early to have time to see it to conclusion.

Also what we did was to consult a lot with state assemblies, and get them involved. They were part of the process and we ensured that we had a kind of joint report with the House of Representatives. You can see that we tried to consult widely so that we can get the support of everybody.

So like I said, some of those amendments have been around, like the separation of the office of the Accountant General, and the independence of the office of the Auditor-General.

You said you have made a lot of consultations with the state houses of assembly. The last experience we had was that many of the amendments were rejected by the state houses of assembly because it was alleged they were influenced by some state governors who may not like the amendments. Have you taken care of that?

I can’t say we have taken care of it, but we have consulted widely. In fact that is why we split it into bills. We are hopeful that we will score 90 per cent success. If we do, fine. To say which one will pass or fail will be difficult for me to say, but we will do our best to consult and discuss with them to see that we pass the bill.

However, the state assemblies are aware of the bills we are sending to them because they attended the last retreat that was held in Lagos where the last document was prepared. But as you rightly said, it goes beyond the state assembly members. By the time it goes to the state, they too must consult with their constituents, governors, traditional rulers and different politics might come into
place. I am hopeful the Local government autonomy, others bills sent to the houses of assembly will pass in the interest of Nigerians and the country at large. I hope they will see it from that point of view and also give it a blessing.

There were things that Nigerians were really looking forward to. They are devolution of powers, state creation, state electoral commissions, Land Use Act. All these didn’t find favour in this review. Would you like to throw light into why they were discarded?

I think we all need to understand the process. First of all constitutional review by its nature is not a bill that will just pass through the normal process. It needs two thirds majority. So that means they must be issues that a majority of Nigerians want. Secondly because of the net effect of it, it is important that wide consultations are done and in a process like that, lawmakers are representing their people, so if a senator or member house of representative says this amendment I will like to consult more with the people, I am not against it but if I have to vote I will vote against it. My view is that we must respect that. When you say all Nigerians want something, well if all Nigerians want something you will see it in the vote.

The ones that all Nigerians wanted, you saw it in the vote. The fact that it did not pass through, means that there are some Nigerians that are not sure and a lot of people equated the devolution of power to mean restructuring and that is why I said when I was in Ilorin that we should all blame ourselves because I think the commentaries have built a lot of mistrust. If the constitutional review had come like eight months, ago devolution would have passed. saying I want to go and another part is saying I want to stay-all that created this mistrust, people not sure what it is all about and insinuation whether some people want to play a fast one.

So, those who were sceptical said I am not ready to support this and as I keep on saying, we were a country of multiple religions, multiple ethnicity. We are a diverse country, you cannot stampede me out of here, I can’t stampede you out of here. Once we understand that, then the rhetorics have to calm down. You can’t bully people to go one way because that is the way you want it.

The constitution has said two thirds, if you say two thirds that means you must have the buying of more than majority of the people.

So, as I said, it has failed now, do I think if it is presented again it will fail? Probably not. As I said, if it had been presented a few months back, it probably would have gone.

What we need to do is educate, enlighten and engage those that have reservations to let them know that this country will be better for it,.

I have given many examples. Even America that we copied, a lot of you must have been following in the last few months the health care bill in America.

They attempted seven times and that is just a health bill. They go, they fail, they come back. They adjust, they go, they come back. They don’t say because they fail they start abusing everybody that did not agree.

We need to understand because if we want this bill to pass, it is the same people that would have to make it pass. So we cannot blackmail or bully them. We must convince them and get them to buy into it.

So I am hopeful. We will try and look at it again after the break and hopefully by then those who are sceptical or who have their concerns would have been convinced.

During the review, the issue of citizenship, whether a woman should claim her parents or husband’s place for elective positions and also the issue of affirmative action came up. Is the National Assembly anti-women?

The National Assembly is not anti-women. I think we achieved something during the constitutional review. It is a pity that it has not been well reported and that is, we negotiated in the Senate. We are not against affirmative actions and other issues regarding gender, but a lot of lawmakers were against some of these to be in the constitution.

Even in most countries it is not in the constitution. Even the countries we copied, gender affirmation is not in the constitution. So we agreed that we vote against it in the constitution with the commitment that when the gender bill comes it will go and we had that gentleman’s agreement and to me that is a great achievement.

If the gender bill passes with the gender affirmation, we would have done our beat and that is what we will be pushing for after our vacation.

I have given many examples. Even America that we copied, a lot of you must have been following in the last few months the health care bill in America.

They attempted seven times and that is just a health bill. They go, they fail, they come back. They adjust, they go, they come back. They don’t say because they fail they start abusing everybody that did not agree.

We need to understand because if we want this bill to pass, it is the same people that would have to make it pass. So we cannot blackmail or bully them. We must convince them and get them to buy into it.

So I am hopeful. We will try and look at it again after the break and hopefully by then those who are sceptical or who have their concerns would have been convinced.

During the review, the issue of citizenship, whether a woman should claim her parents or husband’s place for elective positions and also the issue of affirmative action came up. Is the National Assembly anti-women?

The National Assembly is not anti-women. I think we achieved something during the constitutional review. It is a pity that it has not been well reported and that is, we negotiated in the Senate. We are not against affirmative actions and other issues regarding gender, but a lot of lawmakers were against some of these to be in the constitution.
Even in most countries it is not in the constitution. Even the countries we copied, gender affirmation is not in the constitution. So we agreed that we vote against it in the constitution with the commitment that when the gender bill comes it will go and we had that gentleman’s agreement and to me that is a great achievement.

If the gender bill passes with the gender affirmation, we would have done our best and that is what we will be pushing for after our vacation.

Some Nigerians have accused National Assembly, especially the Senate of being opposed to the war against corruption hence the rejection of the appointment of EFCC Chair and the fact that many of you are former governors who have cases to answer.

I think there is a lot of misunderstanding. I think there is a lot of blackmail and all is not in the interest of democracy. Let us take it one by one. Rejection of the candidate for the position of a chairman of EFCC is a process. It is a process that is not restricted to the EFCC chairman. It is a process that has to with either a chairman or the Governor of Central Bank, Director General of Lottery Commission, Electricity Regulatory Commission. It is the same process and we have approved many people from the executive and we have rejected some and when we reject them, it is not for any personal reason because it is a process.

In the case of the EFCC it is unfortunate. Those that follow how National Assembly works; if the National Assembly has an interest on any candidate, the candidate will not bescreened on a Wednesday. Magu’s screening was on a Wednesday where we carry plenary live. That is to show you how transparent the Senate was. We screened him on a Wednesday so that all Nigerians can watch it and let him go and sell himself.

That shows that there was no pre-meditated plan to reject him. Unfortunately we downplayed some things. This is about institution. If the top, most serious intelligence organization not even EFCC in this case, let’s say you are screening the Governor of Central Bank and EFCC reports that the man lacks integrity and is not honest, will you just discard that. Even if you do, years later you are weakeningthat institution.

We should stop talking about personalities. We should be focusing on how to strengthen our democratic institutions. It is not about individuals. But because some people have particular interest they will try and bring this down to individuals. There is nothing personal on the personality of the Acting Chairman of EFCC.

As an individual, I have had a personal experience with Magu, where he stood up for what is right. I remember during the former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, where he because we were fighting some of the issues then, some of us were sent to the EFCC. I remember I was sent to Magu’s office. They were trying to get him to investigate something of ten, twelve years ago. I remember Magu said nobody was going to use him.

You said former governors have cases?.
Some of them have cases that have lasted over ten years. Was it Magu that brought the cases? Magu did not bring about the cases. Magu did not know about their cases. Their cases are in court. Can Magu go to court and withdraw the cases.
These are just cheap blackmail. We have to decide whether we want to strengthen these institutions or not.

By the type of democracy we are practising, check and balances, independent arms of government, you present I confirm, so it means that there will be a day you will not confirm. So if you don’t confirm have I committed a crime? The days I confirm, I don’t commit a crime, the day I don’t confirm, all hell will break loose. These are processes.

It is very unfortunate. When people say we don’t want to fight corruption, does fighting corruption start and end with an individual? It doesn’t.
We have played our role. We will leave posterity to judge us. It was done live. It wasn’t that we did it at night in a close-door and then announced the result to the public. They saw it. You can ask them if it looked as if this gentleman was not given fair hearing or something. Our argument is; Today it is Magu, tomorrow it could be a president. Today we have an honest transparent President, tomorrow we could have a corrupt dishonest president who brings his best man to be the Governor of Central Bank and together they want to connive and steal money.
They take the name to senate and if senate rejects it, the president will say, my friend, continue. So it is about systems and processes.

Some will win, some will not win and I think what we should do, this institution, whether you like Saraki or you don’t, like Ekweremadu, it is not about us. By the end of our tenure we will go. It is the institution. We cannot belittle or weaken the institutions because it is that institution that separates democracy from dictatorship.

In dictatorship, you have government, you have judiciary. The only thing you don’t have is parliament. When you weaken the parliament, you have weakened democracy. If you think by so doing you are weakening Saraki, you are not, but the institution.

Some people have vested interest and instead of them to declare their vested interest, they pretend as if they are fighting for the system. They are not fighting for the system because we know they are not fighting for the system. Unfortunately those that don’t know would believe they are fighting for the system. We have moved on from that, as you can see, the last few weeks we have passed about three or four anti-corruption bills, again trying to support the system. Whistle Blower Protection Bill: trying to support the system, we’ve also passed the Bill on witness and then recently after we got suspended by Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units, we quickly moved so that this suspension can be lifted. So whatever way we can do, we’ll help the fight against corruption. We are playing our role.

In the wake of the Northeast crisis, the National Assembly took a lot of steps to support IDPs, including the pledge to donate N300,000 by each senator to assist. What really is the situation and has that pledge been redeemed?

To the best of my knowledge that is already happening, we are contributing the money like we promised. But I think it goes beyond just that. We have shown that we will continue to support them in form of appropriation and providing good funding.
As you saw just last week, we also approved some foreign loans that will go towards supporting activities and palliatives in the North East to fight the humanitarian crisis. I think it was about $800 million that we approved for the executive from that point of view.

We are always ready to support men and women in uniform to ensure that they get whatever they require.
We have been meeting with a lot of NGOs working in the North East. We are looking at the possibility of seeing what we can do to create more incentives for Nigerians, individuals and companies to make more donations for the North East.

Recently SERAP alleged that some of you are collecting pension and salary. Is it justified with the allegation?
Well I am not collecting pension or salary as former governor of Kwara State. When it started some of us did not see that part of the law, but the moment I saw that, I wrote to my state and said they should stop my pension.
So I speak for myself on that part, I am not doing that and I leave everybody to their own decision.
I think the pension law was made assuming that when you leave office you were going to retire to the farm. I didn’t think they were expecting you to still remain in government.

So I think morally, if you have got another job, you should give up the pension until when you are truly a pensioner. I think most of those who get the pension it is not as if they really need it, it is just an oversight. Maybe the states should go and amend their laws to say that if you have an appointment then you are not entitled to pension as a former governor.

There are special banks – such as Bank of Industry, agriculture, infrastructure, yet we have deficit in virtually all aspects of the economy. Is there any interface with these banks, especially that of infrastructure, to spur them to granting loans or doing their jobs.

Well, not interface per se. We are engaging with them. I think the infrastructure bank is part of those involved in the Lagos-Ibadan road.
Because of the importance of such banks, there are bills we have passed to encourage private sector participation in infrastructure. I have this strong view and I feel very strongly about it that government cannot; nowhere in the world that government can fund infrastructure projects; and even if government can fund infrastructure projects, other social sector will suffer – health will suffer and education will suffer. You are seeing it. You are seeing a lot of complaints that percentage of allocation, budget allocation to health and education is too low, it’s because we are pushing all our money toward infrastructure. What should happen is that we should try and get private sector to take over some of these infrastructure so that the money can go into education and health. By doing that, that is where Banks like infrastructure will come in. That is why you would have heard in the National Assembly, we are really pushing the idea of Lagos-Ibadan road, being a private secor project. Trying to appropriate that project in the budget. This is a road that is very viable that is centre of the commercial activity and we should see how private sector can participate for example now even if you go by the budgetary allocation on that road, last year was N30 billion and this year after back and forth we took it back to N20 billion so that if they don’t find private funding we will take it up. Even if you provide N30 billion, it will not be sufficient, it will probably needs about N100 billion to complete. So if you go by the releases for the last couple of years, that road minimum 3-5 years, you are still at it. There is a lot of private –sector money there that can go immediately, they can put the N100 billion down in infrastructure bank, private sector people, pension money andput the money on the table day one, which will make the contractors move. So the point I’m making which I want to emphasis is that it is the kind of laws and policies that we pass that will encourage private sector that will make the infrastructure deficit reduced. Government alone cannot solve the problem of infrastructure deficit.

APC has been going through some problems since the take-off of the government. Aside allegations of former Vice President Atiku on the rejection of devolution of power is against APC’s manifesto, there has been no NEC meeting for a long time. Are you not concerned?
I think there is no APC member that will tell you he is happy with the state of affairs of the party. There is a lot of work that we need to do. Luckily despite the lack of meetings here and there, if you go round the 36 states, not many states but just a few states where I see internal party crisis. It is not that party at the grassroots has a lot of crisis here and there. It is just for the administrative aspect and the national to provide leadership in driving the party. The party needs to do that, I mean there is no doubt that we are running out of time. But luckily for us there are no many major crises in the party per se. It is just that the party is drifting, it is not becoming a rallying point, no activity, a ruling party definitely should be seeing more activities those in charge of the party need to get that going.

You are number three among those in charge of the party.
I can’t call a meeting of the party. I have expressed my view and the responsibility of calling a party for a meeting is that of those who we elected as party officials.

The drift you talk about is giving room for insinuations that Senate President is physically a member of the party, but his spirit is not there; that your spirit is in PDP.
You are just using that to do propaganda for PDP; where is the spirit, where are they judging the spirit from, where are they seeing the spirit from? That is just trying to sell the PDP and trying to give hope that people like us are still there. Look the issue that there are speculations because the party is docile, because the party is dormant. If the party goes back to what we all know it to be, holding NEC, and having caucus meetings, spirit and no spirit things will stop.

It is not that they have called; let us say that party calls you for a meeting and you don’t see me at the meeting then you can say that yes my spirit is not there.

Your emergence as senate president somehow contributed to disobedience and weakening of the party’s leadership. 
Go and look at the party records. The last meeting the party held with regard to the zoning of the national officers, senate president was zoned to north central. It was after that the party started to do different things, shifting its position. The point I’m making is that that’s over two years.
ago, two years now, is that the reason why the party cannot move ahead? My own point is that the executive of party just needs to wake up and start managing the party.

As President of the senate and number three citizen, you have a stake in the party and you can call some of them to order and influence some activities.
We are doing that. It’s because you have asked me the question, there is no day when I see the party chairman and tell him, Mr chairman we must put the party in focus. And we want to do it in the right way it’s done. The rules of the party also gives you room by which you can call a meeting, but I think we have not got to that point yet, I think we should do it in a smooth manner. But what I want to assure you is that the foundation is still strong. There were crisis all over the place, that’s a different matter. What I’m saying is that it is because of the inactivity that is giving room for speculations. The moment we start to see activity, you would see overnight, things will change. And that is why the party, hopefully will hold a mini convention, now we have done our congresses, they picked delegates on Saturday. You will see that after you the mini convention. All those speculations will be put to rest.

What is your take on minimum wage?
We are in support; we are waiting for the executive. We have told them to go ahead with the idea. I have said it myself and the Speaker said it the last time, we are fully in support. We are waiting for the executive to make a move on it. We are prodding the executive to do that. It is justifiable for it to happen, how will it not be. If you look at the challenges the people are going through, more so all the indices have changed and that is the only indices that should stay the same? It is not possible.

Some states have not even implemented the last minimum wage. What is your take on this?
That is affordability, we have to understand that. I am not in the state but I don’t think that any chief executive or any governor would be irresponsible not to want to provide succour for his people.

One of the good news was when the Senate called on the executive to look at the report of 2014 CONFAB. What will the Senate do if the executive fails to bring it?
We will cross that bridge when we get there. As I said in my opening remarks when we were talking about devolution, I think we should not aggregate or rush to conclude where all Nigerians are on issues like this.
I think that we should try and ensure that we get everybody’s buy in on very major issues like this.

I want re-emphasise that we need to be very sensitive on how we go about addressing these issues. Because somebody is not on my own page does not mean that the person is not somebody I can engage with or do things with. As I said, I cannot kick you out of Nigeria. You cannot push me out of Nigeria, this Nigeria, belongs to all of us, we have chosen to be one despite all our diversities.

What is needed now is the political skill, despite those things that divide us, to be able to come together in the things that are important to make a modern country.

There is no point having a country that will not give opportunities to its people. That is why I believe that giving certain powers to the state would ensure and create better opportunities for everybody. But there are some that might think otherwise and the answer is not to stampede them. I think that because we must sometimes be on a slow pace, maybe at the slowest because to take the pace of the fastest we are going to leave people behind and at the end of the day we will not achieve anything.
My own advice on some of these issues is that: You points are well noted. If you say majority I will ask you majority of who? If you sit down with another set of Nigerian they will tell you that they don’t agree. My responsibility or our responsibility. as leaders is to converge and bring those different views together and I think we will get there, but we have to go in a manner that builds confidence and builds trust.

The Senate has passed part of the PIB and some have not been passed. Do you have a time frame to pass those aspects that are left?
Ans: We are trying to do it as quickly as possible, this is the most important part, the technical part of it. This is the part that decides the investment climate in oil and gas; this is the part that desides whether people want to come and invest in oil and gas. This is what is going to look at how revenue comes to the federation. So it is very technical, we are still targeting this year. Once we get back we will work on that as a priority. I can’t specify now what I think the time frame will be, but we are doing all our best to make sure that we pass it as soon as possible.

The 8th Senate appeared to be the most turbulent. How did you manage in the last two years?
It is because from day one we had an agenda, a Legislative Agenda. It will be interesting for you to get a copy of that agenda and look at those promises that we made, you will see that some of the things we have been doing are not by chance. It is like somebody who is working through a document and he is ticking it, We have been organised, we have been focused, we had an agenda. Our agenda was that the senate will be addressing the economy. That we championed Made in Nigeria was not by chance, it was part of our agenda. We said to ourselves, what can make Nigeria’s economy grow. People are spending so much on importation, why don’t we try and save that.
Government spends about N1.3 trillion, why doesn’t it spend that on locally produced goods? So let us pass a law that any MDA, before it goes to buy foreign goods must see that there is no local alternative. If we do that it means that that N1.3 trillion will be spent inwards.

We are talking of infrastructure in these laws. Railway law has been there for more than 50 years, nobody has reviewed it until we came. Ports, Inland Revenue and now we are talking about PIB. These are economy-based issues.
Ease of doing business, we are passing laws that will allow SMEs now get credits without having landed property as collateral. We are improving on credit bureau to allow banks lend to small scale businesses.

It is because we have been focused, determined and strong willed and not be distracted. Sometimes I see that all the noises are distractions. Anybody that finds himself in the position of leadership, must have own vision and focus.

Most of those noises are not in the interest of Nigeria, they are personal agenda. People who want a certain person to emerge as Senate President or Speaker make these noises. They say, since we cannot win the battle for the National Assembly let’s distract them.

Unfortunately the media nowadays need to do some cleansing because there is a problem. It is important because people sometimes are misguided by some of the stories. The other day I read someone saying that the 8th Senate is the worst senate in the history of Nigeria.

We do not allow ourselves to be distracted. In two years, we passed more bills than all other Senate passed in four years, that is not a small achievement.
Especially for a senate that was distracted. At a point we were in court every other week. Nevertheless we still succeeded.

2019 elections year is around the corner and the amendment to electoral law is late. How do you cope?

Well you know we passed the INEC amendment Bill this year, we are working on the House of Representatives to do theirs as well so that we can get that to the President for assent and that gives them at least one year plus.
I am sure by the time we come back from recess the House will take action on theirs within the month and it will be passed to the President by October. So there is enough time.

Being in the saddle as governor for eight years in Kwara, what legacy did you leave as people are speculating you want to groom your son to be the next governor?

That is not in the offing at all. I am sure he doesn’t even want to hear politics at all. You know it is not easy for children who are born to politicians especially in this time. When I was much younger, we were insulated from some of the political issues because well, we didn’t read the newspapers, we didn’t know what was happening. I reluctantly went into politics, go and check. Once or twice I was given the form to run for House of Reps, I remember I just travelled and turned off my phones and disappeared for months.
After seeing what my father had been through, I thought to myself that this is not for me.

In my eight years, we put a direction and we were able to transform the state. My successor too has been able to take it from there and we hope that by the time he finishes the next governor will continue to build on that in creating an environment that will continue to create entrepreneurship.

In the agricultural sector we have done a lot of things that drive commercial activities which is not the blueprint of the country. Even in the universal health coverage which we are now talking about at the national level, I started that when I was governor and now my governor has continued and built on that.

This shows the importance of continuity and stability and today we thank God that we are one of those states where there is a very good relationship between former governor and current governor.

Some point out that the state still owes workers pension and salaries dating back to when you were the governor.
That is not true, majority of the amounts still being owed are at the local government level. There might be issues with pensions here and there but I don’t know the details but I know that the arrears and liability are at local government level not at state government level.

What is happening to the white farmers and the farm you brought about, not much is being heard about that farm?

Not much? That is a pity because that farm today is probably the second largest poultry farm in the country and probably in another three years will be the third largest in West Africa. Recently the farm was bought into by the 5th largest poultry farm in South Africa.

I don’t think there is any other example of success in seeing something start from nothing and growing to a state where it is viable and growing to a stage where you can see private sector involvement. If you go to the community around there you will see a lot of small scale industries that have picked up and small scale farmers also. It has been a great success. The problem sometimes is that some of you in the media don’t like going beyond Lagos and Abuja.

Honestly it is has done very well. You can see what the APC government is doing in agriculture, but this is something we don’t talk about, the success that the APC government has made is tremendous. I am sure that in a few years time we will be self-sufficient in rice and that is a major achievement. For a country that is always importing rice to now get to the stage where we no longer have to import rice?

I was in the farm recently with the governor of CBN and what we saw there was very impressive, the only thing they are still having problems with is the issue of smuggling. People are still smuggling chicken and that is our biggest challenge.

The same thing with rice, we have been working and taking on Customs that they need to do something about these issues. We had to give the management of Customs all the support, we have to make sure that they must do something about smuggling.

Last time the constitution was amended there was a problem with assent of the president. What is your view, does the President need to assent to the bill on constitution amendment?

Well, to me, if two thirds of the National Assembly agree to something and two thirds of the state assemblies, in my view the President should accept that as the wish of the people.
Does he really need an assent? Personally i don’t think so, that is my personal view. Because, with two-third of National Assembly, two-third of states, the people have spoken.