Ndoma-Egba: Executive Doesn’t Have Monopoly of Wisdom on Budget Benchmark, Patriotism
Senate Leader Victor Ndoma-Egba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is in his third term in the Senate. In this interview with Tunde Rahman and Tokunbo Adedoja in his office at the National Assembly in Abuja, Ndoma-Egba, a Peoples Democratic Party senator, speaks on several issues, including the incessant controversy between the executive and legislature over the budgeting process, factors militating against the emergence of a strong legislature, the controversy surrounding the salaries and allowances of lawmakers, and the prolonged absence of some governors from their states. Excerpts:
This is your third term in the Senate and you are one of the few Senators that have done three terms. What has been your experience in the upper chamber?
First of all, let me say it is another life completely and that our National Assembly is still evolving. In the very frequent interventions in our political lives – post-independent life – by the military, the first casualty was always the National Assembly because the presence or absence of the National Assembly defines the kind of government you have. If you had a National Assembly, it was clearly a democratic government. If you didn’t have a National Assembly, then clearly it was a military dictatorship because a parliament is inconsistent with a dictatorship. And because we had several interventions by the military, the casualties had to be the National Assembly. The National Assembly has not had the opportunity of a consistent growth. Our growth has been episodic. You know when you have episodic growth you have a number of challenges. We have had challenges of capacity; we have had challenges of infrastructure.
How specifically have these challenges manifested?
The capacity challenges manifest in two forms. One is at the level of the bureaucracy. At some points, you have a bureaucracy that was on ground but didn’t have a parliament to serve. So, during that period, for instance, they couldn’t have any experience, just a state of lethargy. Then, at the level of the parliament itself, the high turnover rate has also had a bearing on our ability to deliver. Each time we have had elections, we have had far more members not coming back than coming back. And the intrinsic nature of parliament is that every member is more or less a sovereign, for want of an appropriate term, because I haven’t found an appropriate term. Some were sovereigns, in quote, in the sense that, yes, you have a bureaucracy that is serving the National Assembly, but as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I also have my own bureaucracy here serving me. And the National Assembly is one place where you don’t have handing over notes. I didn’t have any handing over note from my predecessor and I don’t expect to prepare a handing over note for my successor. So, the day you are going, you go away with your bureaucracy. You go away with your institutional memory, you go away with your network and you know it is the memory of each member of parliament aggregated that constitutes the institutional memory of the institution. So, as many members go away, to that extent, the National Assembly loses that much of memory.
Are there accounts from the more advanced democracies to illustrate the relationship between the institutional memory of the legislature and the rate of membership turnover?
That is why in developed democracies, take the United States, Robert Byrd, was in the Senate for 54 unbroken years; Edward Kennedy was in the Senate for 48 unbroken years, even Joe Biden was in the Senate from 1972. Even John McCain has been in the Senate since 1968. I flipped through a very interesting story not long ago; senators in the US who have been in the Senate for as long as Barack Obama has been alive.
But here, in ours, how many years of democracy now? Fourteen. You have less than two senators with 14 years of experience. It’s only Senator David Mark that has been here since 1999 and Bello Gwarzo, the chief whip, but he did not come in 1999 because there was a court case. He came in 2000. So, in our 14 years of democracy, you have less than two senators with 14 years experience in the Senate.
Now, in the US Senate, there are certain positions that you are eligible for only when you have spent a certain number of years, like their Chairman, Rules and Business. You must have been in the Senate for a continuous period of say 26 years. So, our two most experienced senators here combined are not eligible for a position in the US Senate. That is the issue.
Do you think this challenge of legislative membership turnover has affected Nigeria on the international scene?
Beyond the domestic manifestation of our problem of capacity is the international side of it. Today, parliaments are involved in diplomacy and that is why you have ECOWAS Parliament, you have Pan-African Parliament, you have IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union), Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, etc. They are involved in diplomacy because there are settled protocols at that international level that have to be domesticated locally and the nitty-gritty had to be sorted out at that parliamentary level. Now, our high turnover rate has denied us the experience of people who have been participating very actively at those levels. So, what has been the experience? The experience since 2003 has been that we have been grappling with this issue of capacity and we have been grappling with another very important issue of public perception.
You know, because for the almost 30 years that we had military rule, parliament didn’t exist and Nigerians lived without parliament. So, today the reaction to any situation is that it must be those guys there we could do without who are now the cause of our problems. But it’s been a very interesting journey being around to see the institution move from one level to another.
In spite of all these problems you have mentioned, what would you say has been responsible for the rather unusual stability the Senate has witnessed since 2007?
I talked about the problems inherent in episodic development. In 1999 when democracy returned, if you remember, we had a President who wanted to dominate every space. So, there were a lot of outside interests in who became the Senate President or the Speaker. That outside interest, more or less, informed who became the Senate President or the Speaker. Now, what was our experience, each time a Senate President or Speaker emerged as a result of outside influence, there were those forces within the National Assembly that were fighting for the independence of the institution. So, there was always a conflict between those forces that were for internal independence and those forces that were implanting leadership in the National Assembly. And it was a contest of those forces that resulted in the instability that we saw.
Now, come 2007, for the first time, the leadership emerged from within, there wasn’t that much external influence. And even when there was a contest, a contest that in my view was needless in 2007 between Senator David Mark and Senator George Akume. I said needless because by our rules, Senator George Akume was ineligible to contest.
By our rules, he was ineligible. I remember arguing that he ought to have been disqualified. There were a lot of arguments and at the end of the day, superior wisdom prevailed and they said let us go out there in the field and slug it out. Fortunately, that brought a lot of credibility to the process because it was open. It was an open process and it was an internal, purely internal process that delivered that leadership. So, it is a leadership for whom members claimed ownership. It’s their own leadership and the leadership has remained open and transparent. I think that for as long as leadership remains open and transparent and people can claim ownership of the leadership, you will have stability. That is what we have had.
But it was widely thought that the pre-2007 instability revolved around scandals and the sharing of the perks of office.
(Cuts in)…No, no, I talked about openness and transparency. It’s all part of it. If I could recall, before 2002, there was a lot of centralisation here. If you were a senator and you needed stationery, you were to apply to the Senate President. So, if you were his friend, you probably got approval early. If you were not his friend, you didn’t get. Now, since the budget system was decentralised, every senator knows what his budget is. You apply for it; you go to audit and retire what you are supposed to retire. So, you answer directly to internal audit. So, I don’t, for instance, need to be a crony of the Senate President to be able to run my office efficiently. Those sources of friction have been decentralised. Because every senator knows how to run his budget and if there are issues, you go to audit and sort the thing out yourself.
You have talked about the high turnover of legislators as a hindrance to the emergence of a strong legislature. But do you think this problem of turnover can be resolved under the country’s peculiar geopolitical circumstances, where issues like zoning and rotation are very hot topics?
In an imperceptible way, I think we are moving towards that and people are now beginning to have doubts about zoning, and recent events also have reduced the claim to zoning as a political process. I will give you an example. Take Benue South where the Senate President comes from, if you apply zoning, they certainly would lose the Senate Presidency because the incumbent has a more viable claim to being Senate President, he was returned. So, at the end of the day now, constituencies would begin to look beyond the issue of zoning to say look, who is the best person to claim a price that is possible. And then the arguments in PDP for President Jonathan’s emergence and for him not to contest are beginning to water down the strength of zoning as an argument for political acquisition of power.
Do you really support zoning as a way of sharing political power?
I think that zoning has had its time. It is no longer going to be a very valid argument in the near future. That point in our political development where you needed to guarantee inclusiveness has been passed. We are going to get to a point when people would begin to look at who is in a best position to deliver to the expectations of people.
Don’t you think the minorities would suffer if there is no zoning because that is a way of ensuring balance?
The minorities have produced a President. What the minorities should do is to insist that they put forward the people of quality. When quality becomes a consideration, I don’t think people would worry more on the geography of somebody’s birth. People would begin to worry about how he can deliver to the expectation of the Nigerian people.
But there are still other factors, like religion. I don’t think we have gotten to a level where only the quality of aspirants would get them elected.
We can’t get there in a day. It is like democracy. Democracy is an endless journey, a perpetual journey. You cannot reach a point and say we have arrived at our destination in democracy. No such point. So, it is also a journey that we are not going to get there in a day, but if you look at some developments, they may not appear too obvious, but you can see a gradual shift in our mindset. There is a gradual shift.
Your party is enmeshed in a crisis at the moment and some have said it’s all about 2015. The secretary of the party, who is believed to be a candidate of the governors, has been removed by the court, so to say. Also recall that there was a time an attempt was made by the National Assembly to make senators members of your party’s National Executive Committee, a move that was allegedly blocked by the governors. Are you comfortable with the powers and influence of the PDP governors?
The reality of the situation is that the governors fund the party. They fund the party. You pay the piper, you dictate the tune. Until the party finds other ways of funding itself… I remember in the days of the NPN and the UPN; in the days of the NPN, if the then Cross River State chairman of the party wanted to see the governor, the governor drove to the party secretariat. It was because then, the party did not depend on the governors absolutely for funding. Today, the reverse is the case. So, until we find sources of funding the party that would make the contributions of the governors not as critical as it is today, they will continue to control the party. Again, the public opinion: I remember the condemnation the National Assembly got when we tried to expand NEC to include members of the National Assembly. The whole media, the public, descended on us, that we were self-serving, that we were selfish. Meanwhile, we were just looking for ways of further democratising the centres of power within the party. But we became victims of a hostile public.
The public was, obviously, wary of imposing a new dictatorship on an existing one, because if the National Assembly members had become NEC members of PDP, you would have used your numerical strength to take charge.
That is where we get the dynamics wrong. Every politics is local. If I go to a NEC meeting, what is important to me principally is the implication of a decision on my state. That is what is of concern to me. There is no way the National Assembly can have a common position. It will be very rare. There will be situations, but those would be the exceptions to the rule because what is influencing your thought process is how a particular policy or a particular decision impacts on your politics back home because every politics is local. So, the fear that there would be this gang-up was a totally unnecessary fear.
Looking at the crisis in your party now – Its inability to elect a Board of Trustees chairman, the sack of the party’s secretary, and the opposition political parties’ efforts to merge and create a formidable front ahead of 2015. Do you foresee a strong opposition against PDP in 2015?
The only opposition to PDP will be PDP itself. For a party that large, remember what they say in those days, big car, big problem. First, the PDP is a political party and conflicts, contestations are normal. In fact, those are the ingredients. But at the end of the day, the PDP has the capacity to resolve all of those conflicts to move forward. I believe that what we are seeing is normal in a political environment, especially when that environment is as large as the PDP. But the critical questions are: do we have the mechanism to resolve these issues? Do we have the versatility to resolve these issues? And my answer is, yes.
What is your take on the recent issues involving the president and the National Assembly, principally, the controversy over the passage of the budget and its remittance to the president, which you were quoted as saying the National Assembly had done, the legislature’s increase of the crude oil benchmark from the executive-proposed $75 per barrel to $79, and the withholding of appropriation to the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Let me start from the first one about the budget having been forwarded. I am very careful when I answer questions. The question from the journalist was whether the Appropriation Bill had been forwarded, and I said yes. The budget comes in two components. We have the bill and we have the details. The journalist didn’t ask me about the details. He asked me if the bill had been forwarded and it is a fact that the bill had been forwarded. If he had asked me about the details, I would have explained that the details would follow later. But he was specific on the bill. The bill has been forwarded and I stand by that position. So, that is the position. He got an answer to the question that he asked. I was not to formulate a question for him.
On the benchmark, I won’t mention names. But we’ve had a number of discussions and I remember some key members of the executive raised concerns about the benchmark. That they have responsibility for managing the economy and that we should trust them to manage the economy the best way they understood and take responsibility for it. We are in a democracy; the constitution does not give exclusive powers to a single arm of government to manage the nation. The powers of the executive are clear. The powers of the legislature are clear and the powers of the judiciary are clear. In my response to that observation, I reminded the person talking then that in this same National Assembly, in this same Senate, we also have people who had been given responsibility to manage the economy. We have former ministers of finance in this Senate, who I believe understand the economy as well as those who are there today.
So, it is not the executive that has the monopoly of wisdom on what the benchmark should be. There are different perspectives to the benchmark. I remember representing the Senate President to receive people from an international organisation and they raised the benchmark (issue) and the chairman of the Senate committee on finance was there and when he explained certain issues, they conceded to him. They conceded in that discussion that the benchmark would hover around $78 per barrel. So, it depends on what index you arrive at, that would depend on what you have put in the basket and from where you are standing. I want to make the point that there is no monopoly of knowledge where this issue is concerned. In this National Assembly, you have very knowledgeable people. You also have people who have had the opportunity of managing the economy of this country who are members.
So you believe the National Assembly acted within its powers and with patriotism on these issues?
It is a question of perspective and what we have done is not outside our constitutional responsibility. The constitution gave the executive the powers to propose and it also gave the National Assembly the powers to appropriate. It is within our constitutional duty to appropriate. And in so doing, we also have the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians in mind. Just like I talked about no one being a monopoly of knowledge, there is also no monopoly of patriotism. We are as patriotic as the people in the executive, we are as patriotic as the people in the judiciary; we are as patriotic as the people in the streets. There is nobody who has a monopoly of patriotism. We took that decision in our understanding of the best interest of Nigeria. The executive, I believe, made that proposal in their own understanding of the best interest of Nigerians. But as constitutionally empowered, we have done our duty.
Don’t you think you usurped the powers of the executive on the issue of SEC?
You talked about SEC; that we are dabbling into the powers of the executive to hire and fire. If you had a judicial issue and a court made an order saying a certain position should be maintained, and you went ahead and flouted the order and you came back to the court, do you think that the court will present itself as a helpless institution? They will nullify whatever you have done. There is no institution of government that is going to present itself as helpless. If for whatever reasons the National Assembly says Mr. President, we are not comfortable with this situation, the President has a million options, one million options. He can still use the knowledge of the person in different ways. And I think that it is needless for us to paint the picture of confrontation. The ministers that you have today, how did they become ministers? By resolution of the Senate, by our resolution, isn’t it? What of doctrine of necessity? A resolution. Why pick and choose which to follow? And you want the institution that empowered you in the first place to appear helpless? There is no institution that would present itself as helpless. There is no such institution. Keep the person, if you must. We will use the powers that we have to also enforce our position.
What offence did the SEC director general actually commit?
Not with the Senate, but before the House of Representatives.
But the Senate has now adopted it?
We have one National Assembly. Do you expect us as a National Assembly to take inconsistent positions?
Maybe, because the House of Representatives also joined you in taking out the one you didn’t want, the BPE director-general, Bolanle Onagoruwa.
(Cuts in). Because it is one National Assembly.
If you were the President, would it not be dangerous for you to accept that the National Assembly determines who you hire and who you fire?
Has that determination been reckless? There are thousands of appointments that the President has made, how many has the National Assembly dabbled in? We are talking of thousands and thousands of appointments The National Assembly is not reckless. There was a public hearing; it was debated on the floor. There are thousands of appointments that are made, how many have we dabbled into? Can you actually say that we have been reckless in the use of that power?
No one seems to say that, but many believe it is not within your domain to determine for the President who to fire.
No, no, no. I have asked a question whether we have been reckless in the thousands of appointments that have been made. I think with only two, to the best of my recollection, have we had issues. Only two out of several appointments. Look, for whatever reason that we passed the resolution, when it is convenient, you enforce, when it is not convenient, you say it is advisory. Are you expecting the National Assembly to just raise its hands in helplessness? Is that the kind of institution that you want to see to check the executive? An institution that confesses helplessness? Is that the strong institution that Nigerians would want to see to check the executive?
But looking at the fact that SEC is an important institution because it regulates the capital market, have you thought of what message the nation is sending to investors and the international business community if the executive and legislature cannot agree on an issue as little as the headship of SEC?
Don’t dwell too much on this issue of SEC. But one question I would want to ask. Is the woman indispensable? Is there any human being that is indispensable?
Still on the issue of the powers of the National Assembly with respect to the budget, there are views that once the president sends in the budget estimates, all that is expected of the National Assembly is to…
(Cuts in…) is to rubber-stamp it?
But the legislature is not to add its own figures. The National Assembly is in the habit of padding the budget to the extent that the President may not even know his own budget again when it gets back to him. There are also these constituency projects that you even put there and the thing gets bloated and makes it difficult for the President to implement. Don’t you think the National Assembly is going beyond its boundary?
Please help me explain when the constitution says you have powers to appropriate, what does that mean? Because the position you are canvassing is that once the President brings a proposal, we just rubber-stamp it and send back. That is your understanding.
The popular understanding of the powers of appropriation is that when the President sends his estimates, if you think that in some areas the figures are too high, you reduce or vary the figures. But not to bring in new projects into the budget and jack up the budget.
Now, let us talk of figures. How much of the constituency projects….No let me put it in another way. The constituency projects that are added amounts to how much of the budget?
It may not be much, but it wasn’t the President’s idea.
No, that is the point. See during late President Yar’Adua’s time, may God bless his soul, there were those who believed that he needed a judicial interpretation of the extent of powers of the executive regarding the budget and the extent of the powers of the legislature. And that was as a result of the impasse regarding the 2008 budget. That was the issue. Now, the executive believes that their proposal on the budget to the National Assembly is scripture – it is either the Bible or the Quran. It’s iron-cast, it’s immutable, you can’t touch it, when we bring it to you, you rubber stamp it. The National Assembly believes that our powers to appropriate is at large. We can look at what you have brought, accept it, reject it, modify it.
That is the basic thinking on both sides. And until the court tells us, look, this is the extent to which you can go, or the extent to which you cannot go, it would remain an eternal argument about who has the power over the budget. In the United States, for instance, they have gone past the point of argument. Everybody concedes that it is the power of Congress and that is why you don’t have that argument. But here, we still believe that the same parliament that is supposed to check the executive, when it comes to the budget, should be a rubber-stamp. And the same people who would expect you to be a rubber-stamp are the same ones who will expect you to be a strong institution, are the same ones who will expect you to do proper oversight. When it comes to those arguments as to how constituency projects affect the budget, we should use figures.
What proportion of the budget by Mr. President are constituency projects? It is usually an insignificant fraction. And please tell me, which project is not a constituency project? Every proposal by the executive for projects is located in somebody’s constituency. It becomes a constituency project only when it’s suggested by the National Assembly. Every project, whether suggested by the executive or the National Assembly, is a constituency project because it must be in some constituencies. It cuts across constituencies. So, every project is a constituency project and I think that is the clarification I need to make. And what do you expect? I go back home every four years for election. So, I go back home, I say vote for me. And they say what have you brought? And I say, the executive did not put anything.
That is why we say it is not within your domain. You need to make laws for the country not to site projects. If you want to site projects you contest for governorship.
(Cuts in…) No, no, no, the core function of the legislature is to legislate but at the soul of that function is his power over appropriation. That is the soul of that power. The power of parliament is actually in its power to appropriate.
Many people also see the National Assembly as a drain on the economy. Sometimes, some of the allowances they get are shrouded in secrecy.
(Cuts in……) You want me to show you? Good. Let me show you (reaches out for some documents).
What is your reaction to the calls for the scrapping of the bicameral legislature and part-time legislators?
There are two issues. The first is the justification for having a bicameral legislature. Let us go back to history. In what conditions do you have a bicameral legislature? You have a bicameral legislature virtually in every society where you have a plural society. Plural in terms of tribe, plural in terms of religion. And why is that so? Representation in the House of Representatives is based on federal constituencies that are based on population. So, that addresses the issue of population. The upper house is usually based on equality of states of the federating units. So, no matter how big or small a state is, there is some equality. Now, if you take our own situation in the House of Reps, between Jigawa and Kano State, these two states can stop anything. Which means that if you have a unicameral legislature, coming from my part of the world, nothing from me will ever see the light of the day. So, the upper house in our own case must create that balance where minorities can be protected.
That is the justification for bicameral legislature. So that you can capture every interest in the society. Now, those who said that we should scrap the Senate, have not told us how minorities like me would be protected in the new arrangement. Because the lower house representation is based on population, which means I am out. So, how do you protect me, a minority. In fact, not just a minority, a minority of the minorities. How? On what platform? You won’t even be there in the first place. You won’t be near there. That is one. Two, when we talk about cost, I am not too good about figures. Let’s use the 2012 budget. We had a budget of almost N4.9 trillion. The budget of the National Assembly is N150 billion. What percentage of N4.9 trillion is N150 billion? It is less than three per cent.
But what percentage of 160 million people is 469 members of National Assembly?
I am coming to it. This N150 billion, which is less than three per cent or thereabout that we are talking bout includes the House of Reps, includes the Senate, that is, there members, includes the bureaucracy because here we have a large bureaucracy of civil servants. We have an institute called the National Legislative Institute, it includes it. It includes the National Assembly Service Commission. So, it is not as if that is what… Because the impression out there is that you have N150 billion, the 360 members plus the 109 Senators just sit down and share the money. It includes capital. If we are to buy this furniture, it is from there. It includes our subscription to international organisations. It’s all from that N150 billion. Now, when you ask the question, what percentage of 360 people to 160 million, one oil importer in this opaque fuel subsidy regime, is talking of more than N150 billion.
That is one person versus 160 million. Pension funds, N150 billion is just a fraction of what we are talking about. Now, when we talk about allowances, I have my payslips from 2003. Our salaries are fixed by the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. This is it. In it, it proposes the salaries of the President, the vice President, ministers, members of the National Assembly, the judiciary and other public officers.
But the catch is always in the allowances….
(Cuts in….) No, no, no. This talks about salaries and allowances. I am coming to what you call quarterly allowances. There is nothing like quarterly allowances. I am coming to it. Now the difference between my salary and that of a minister or a Supreme Court judge is very little. But I earn a jumbo pay in the minds of the public. The minister who earns about the same thing as me does not earn a jumbo pay, the Supreme Court judge who earns almost the same thing as me does not earn a jumbo pay. Mindset, perception. If you take the budget of any ministry, department or agency of government, you will see an overhead, including your own office. You are not even in government. I am sure that for this trip, you are not paying from your salary.
Yes, my office is paying for it.
In our own case, what they call allowances are overhead, because you don’t retire allowances. The only person you retire allowances to is your wife. So, I am given N6million for travels in a quarter. The person in the executive, in the judiciary is given N6million for travels in a quarter. His own is overhead, but now because I am in the National Assembly, is a salary, is part of my allowance. I just came back from Liberia yesterday evening. I am given a ticket to travel, I am given estacode to travel, is an allowance. But when a minister travels, it is not an allowance, when a judge travels, it is not an allowance. It is only when a member of the national Assembly travels that what he is given for travels becomes an issue, it is allowance. As you can see, I have an office, I buy stationery, the money I am given for stationary is part of my quarterly allowance. When they buy stationeries in the courts, in the ministries, it is not quarterly allowance. The minister’s overhead, for his or her office is not part of his or her allowance.
The overhead in the judiciary is not part of the judge’s allowance. But the one in the National Assembly is part of the members’ allowance. You see, it is the mindset, the perception I was talking about. That we are being held to a standard totally different from what other public officers are held to. The so called allowance, in this place we are subjected to two audits. We have our own internal audits and we atill have the auditor general of the federation. And we have audit queries. So, when they talk about allowance, I think they are using a totally different standard for us from those who are equally paid from the public funds. So, in summary, we are looking for cost of governance, it is not the cost of the National Assembly that should be implicated. It is the leakages in the system. I have just mentioned two – the petroleum subsidy payments and the pension funds issue. The sums you are talking about, they are far in excess of what we are talking about in the National Assembly that is an arm of government.
We are talking of individuals. So, the real issue is how to stem the leakages in the system, the leakages that have fed corruption in the system. And I will give you another example about this perception. In my first term, I was spokesman of the Senate. I remember before Ken Nnamani became the Senate President, the Senate had ordered one bullet proof vehicle for the Senate President. It made front pages, there were photographs, there were editorials. Why? These are vehicles that local government chairmen buy three, four. And I went to the press and I asked them, how many bulletproof vehicles have they in the presidency? Nobody could say. How many are there in the judiciary? Nobody could say. How many do state governors have? How many do local government chairmen have? But one vehicle became a major issue. For the first time, when they tried to buy committee vehicles, two cars for each committee, it became a subject of editorials. Meanwhile, just drive round Abuja in a lot of these departments and agencies; you will see hundreds of vehicles parked. It is not an issue. It is only an issue when it concerns the National Assembly. But we can locate that mindset in our history. In the fact that Nigeria could do without a National Assembly in almost 30 years of military rule and every society must have a scapegoat. So, because Nigerians have learnt to live without the National Assembly, we have become the scapegoats of whatever goes wrong in Nigeria. The consolation is that there is no [parliament anywhere in the world that is popular.
You talked about two areas of leakages – the subsidy issue and the pension fund. Do you think the senate has done enough in terms of investigation of the matter?
Let me say that it is not correct that we haven’t done much on the subsidy issue. Remember that what even instigated the whole probe by the both the Senate and the House of Reps was the motion by Senator Bukola Saraki. That was what instigated it.
But some say this has put him in trouble now with the federal government.
(Cuts in…..) I don’t know about that (laughs). We set up the Magnus Abe committee in the Senate, the House also set up their own headed by Hon. Farouk Lawan. Yes, for whatever reasons, the House was faster than us. But we have a report. The Magnus Abe committee, its report has been laid. The executive set up the Aig-Imoukhuede Committee. Now, the reason why we haven’t taken action is you have the report of the House, you have the report of the Aig-Imoukhuede Committee on the same issue. Won’t we be obfuscating the issues? Like I said before, it is one National Assembly. If the House of Representatives has been faster than us and they have done something and the executive have done something, let us await the outcome of those things. But as far as doing the work, we did very extensive work. The report has been laid, we have the report. We are looking at the circumstances on when to take ours. By the time the executive and the House reports are resolved, and there are still grey areas, we will now take ours. The report is ready, it’s been laid by Senator Magnus Abe. Then, the Pension Funds, of course, you know that we took a report on the Pension funds and we took certain decisions, passed certain resolutions. Again, we said look, this taskforce is an illegality. We now have a situation where he (Taskforce chairman) is invited to the Senate, he does not appear. A warrant is issued, he is not arrested. So, an individual is now bigger than an istitution. All I can say on that is that, this Senate will never be helpless.
Not long ago, a prominent figure Chief Edwin Clark raised an issue about the volume of funds that had gone to your zone, the South South, since this derivation policy started. His position was that trillions of Nigeria had gone into that region and there is no comparison between how much had been spent and the level of development there. You are from that zone; do you agree that the funds that had gone into that area had not been judiciously expended?
All I can say is that we could have done far better than we have done and we could do much better than we are doing. There is this issue of, ‘what have you done with the 13 per cent derivation?’ But nobody has asked the corresponding question of what has the nation done with the 87 per cent derivation it is keeping? Again, we are talking about 13 per cent, nobody is talking about 87 per cent. So, if you ask that question, logically you must ask the corresponding question: What has the nation done with the 87 per cent it is keeping? Do you see any evidence of the judicious use of it?
You said in an interview that your governor, Liyel Imoke, who had been away for some time, was not on sick leave, that he is on leave of absence.
(Cuts in….) I didn’t say he was not on sick leave, I said he is on leave.
Okay, you said he was on leave and that he would soon come back. Do you have any information about the state of the governor’s health? Secondly, does it not bother you that the governor has been away for so long? Recall the intervention of the National Assembly during Yar’Adua case, which came up with the amendment of Section 145 and Section 190. Well, under the Section 190, there is no time limit for which a governor could be away as long as he transmits a letter. Are you comfortable with that kind of situation?
Let me say this. I am not a medical person. When I went to see him, I went with my elder brother who happens to be professor of surgery and who at some point was his doctor. I saw him in his house in US receiving visitors. We talked for about an hour and a half. We ate together. Apparently before we came, he had just driven in. And he looked healthy. I asked him if there were any issues, he explained that he was doing medical check. Now, I go for check up every April. I don’t need to be ill. Immediately it is a particular day in April, I go to my doctors and they do a comprehensive check. He looked very well to me. On the constitutional side, he wrote to the Assembly saying he was proceeding on two months vacation and that during that period, the deputy governor will act. The two months have not expired. He properly transmitted authority, there is no vacuum. Is he entitled to leave or not? He is entitled to leave. If he decides to take his leave, was he expected to be responding to enquiries? Somebody who has written to say I am going on leave? Supposing if he decides to spend his leave in place where there is no GSM, it is up to him.
He gave us a date that this leave will be for so long. Let us wait until that date. But I don’t see where he has breached the constitution, there is no vacuum in governance, there is an acting governor in place, he properly transmitted a letter to the state Assembly, properly transmitted authority to his deputy. And people see him. In fact, this morning as I was coming to work, a colleague of mine in the House of Reps called me that he just came from US this morning, and I said to him, ‘did you see the governor?’. He said yes, that he was with him and he went with his family to see him. I asked, how was he? He said he was okay. People see him. So, it is not as if he was hiding. People go there to visit him. If you want to go and see him, I will facilitate for you to go and visit him. So, it is not that he is hiding.
The other one, even though the amendment you did was far reaching, it wasn’t far-reaching enough because a governor who had transmitted a letter could just be away indefinitely or intermittently. The deputy governor does not have that power because there is a governor somewhere.
(Cuts in…) We are talking of Cross River State, because he gave a time frame, ‘I will be away for this period.’
But in some other places like the case of Enugu, in particular, he didn’t transmit such a letter. He only said he was going on leave……
(Cuts in…) But the constitution is very clear. If they think that the governor is no longer in a position to perform his duties, it is very clear.
But that provision is not still far-reaching enough?
Suggest to me what you think it should be?
I think there should be a clause putting a limit to the period a governor or the president can be away even after transmitting a letter to the legislature.
(Cuts in…) Let us do it this way. Governors may be governors, President may be President, but at the end of the day, we are mere mortals subjected to everything that every other mortal is subjected to, including ill-health.
If your health does not permit you, why do you have to hold the nation or state to ransom?
No, no, no. Let us even assume that the governor said I am ill, I am in hospital. We now say because you are ill we have removed you.
But they try to hide their health conditions.
I think it’s the management of the situation, but as far as the constitutional provisions are concerned, I think that they are adequate to cover every situation. And don’t forget that this is not peculiar to Nigeria. Venezuela is having the same challenge. Hugo Chavez case. In his own case, there are medical bulletins every now and then. But it still has not solved the constitutional impasse. It still hasn’t, because the man’s tenure has expired, he was supposed to have been inaugurated, he cannot be inaugurated.
2015 is just around the corner and you must be juggling your political balls. Are you planning to go back to the Senate for a fourth term or you are considering something higher, like governorship?
Let me say categorically that the governorship is out. That is categorical. I am not contemplating that. We pray for life. From a philosophical level, I am somebody who believes absolutely in God’s hand in my life. Everything I set out to be, I never became. I became what I never set out to be.
I wanted to be a Catholic priest, I never became. My first entrance into the university was to read medicine. I ended very far away from being a doctor. When I went to read law, yes, my father was a lawyer, I went to read law not to practice law. I read law to teach law, I never taught it. When I went into politics, it was to be governor; I didn’t become governor. So, everything that I have become, it’s not what I set out to be, apart from maybe one, Senior Advocate of Nigeria. So, I am one person who has been guided by the hand of God. When you have been blessed the way I have been blessed, because I admit God’s blessings in my life, the only way to reciprocate is to make yourself available for service. Not just service, service that is 24 hours a day, service that is from the heart.