IDEAS Radio 12 June 2020

Democracy Day and IDEAS

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, fine, fine afternoon, after the rain comes the sun.  And here we go on the Public Square where we’re looking at all the big and significant issues, development, politics all across the entire country.  And believe it or not, in politics on Democracy Day we have a big story all the way from the Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, who’s been disqualified by his party from contesting, and it doesn’t get any bigger than this!  But on Public Square, Democracy Day, today the 12th of June, marked every year in this country, democracy is celebrated.  And today on the Public Square, we have two big discussions.  First, on Democracy Day, which Ayo Obe, who is the host for IDEAS, will be taking us through.  She was a big player and a big actor during the June 12th struggle, and IDEAS will be focusing on that.  The National Bureau of Statistics has put out a report also too on COVID-19.  Earlier today the President gave his Democracy Day speech and a lot he spoke about dealt with COVID-19 and living with the COVID-19 and what his administration is doing with it.  We’ll tie that back to the NBS report on how Nigerians are living  with the COVID-19 outbreak.  Remember you can join the conversation on Twitter @NigeriaInfoFM @ideasradiong, @naijama, @aghoghooboh, any of these handles, you’ve got comments, we’ll get them across to Ayo and Rotimi, and I can also look into many of those things also too.  Ayo, good evening!

Ayo Obe: Good evening Aghogho, how are you?

AgO: I’m fine.  Great to have you on IDEAS this evening.

AO: Well, as I said, it’s Democracy Day, and IDEAS is about Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability, so we have to be here!

AgO: So it’s in the right turf today.  

AO: Yeah.

AgO: Absolutely.  So, … so first and foremost, 21 uninterrupted years of civilian rule we’ve had,  if we backtrack more to the 12th of June which was elections that happened on a sunny afternoon on … sunny day rather, Saturday, where it’s been described as the freest and fairest and most peaceful elections we’ve had in this country.  That was in 1993 where Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was declared to have won that election but it was taken from him because that election was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida.  So Ayo, tell us first and foremost your observations about Democracy Day.

AO: Well, I was just noticing the discrepancy, because actually, the anniversary of our 21 years of civilian rule was the 29th of May, and that’s because … the truth is that between the President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo and the outgoing military dictator General Abdulsalami Abubakar, they went out of their way to make sure that there was no handover on June 12th, which they could have done, I mean, it was just going to be about a couple of weeks’ difference, and they could have made June 12th the handover day and then we wouldn’t have to have this sort of discrepancy between the two things.  I think that … generally, we are … as I say, our democracy is very much a work in progress.  And to some extent, I would also say that it’s why Integrity, Ethics and Accountability are such essential qualities if we are to have a meaningful Democracy.  I mean I know that the former Governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, said that … was commending President Buhari for having the political courage to make June 12 Democracy Day, and he said that “because President Buhari is a man of integrity [you know, a quality that we love here], integrity and honesty, he realised the import of June 12,” but I think that there’s the important symbolism … getting it out of the day, making June 12th Democracy Day, but it’s not the end of the job!  There’s much more work to be done.  As I say, our Democracy is a work in progress.

AgO: Mmmm, mmmm.  Work in progress is also what we’ve heard being talked about by a number of people also too, Ayo.  So, if you look at Democracy at the different levels: federal, state, local government for example, which is being … which was highlighted in the President’s Executive Order No. 10, which was recently signed to give financial autonomy to state legislatures as well as to state judiciaries.  However Chair of the Nigeria’s Governors’ Forum says that the President has delayed the gazetting of that Order.  What does this say to you Ayo?

AO: Well, I can’t say whether … and I cannot go into the issue of whether the Executive Order can be delayed because it hasn’t been gazetted, or the implementation, because the Executive Order itself is merely trying to implement  provisions that are already there in the Constitution, but I think that it’s been quite interesting that State Governors are still trying to delay the implementation or the idea of autonomy for State and Local … Local Governments because … oh, sorry, of State Assemblies and the Judiciary … because I think that they’ve had … in the first place, they’ve had plenty of time to think about this.  Even before the President signed this Executive Order we heard the Governors are rejecting the idea of autonomy for State Houses of Assembly, rejecting autonomy for local government, and that was some years ago … some months ago.  Now they are coming again and they are saying they don’t want this implementation.  And I think that we have to look at this against the background of tremendous waste by some State Governors, which makes one wonder whether their … their concerns are really about good governance.  I mean, the la … the most recent one that still sticks in my mind was the N5.7 billion – well, I should say that there seems to be some confusion about the amount, because although initial reports talked of N5.7 billion having been returned out of a total of N7.9 billion, later reports said that it was N2.7 billion (that’s two thousand seven hundred million naira) out of the N7.9 billion that had been recovered from the different bank accounts that were linked to the former Governor of Imo State, Senator Rochas Okorocha, and that they’ve been returned to the State for the payment of workers’ salaries and pensions.  And I think that … the point is that, an amount like N7.9 billion is almost beyond the … you can hardly imagine it, and … and I should say by the way, it’s important to stress that no charges have been brought against the former Governor and we know the EFCC is very famous for making a lot of noise in the media, and not then …

AgO: … never follows through.

AO:  … not necessarily preparing very strong cases. But that sum is in itself mind-boggling.  Or it would be, if we did not have to also consider the money frozen in accounts that were connected with the former Governor of Abia State … Theodore Orji, and his son.  The amount there … I mean N521 billion, it’s just incomprehensible.  And quite frankly, if I didn’t see the list of accounts that the EFCC … in its usual: Let’s go to the press and talk about the case that we haven’t yet made … if I didn’t see that, then I would have dismissed the figures out of hand.  But I think Aghogho, that one important point about the Abia State situation, is that the accounts were traced to the son of … or alleged to have been traced, to the son of Governor Orji, and he happens to be the current Speaker of the Abia State House of Assembly.  Yet it is these very same State Houses of Assembly that the Executive Order is seeking to empower!  And quite frankly, you only have to consider the kind of expenditure, even here in Lagos State, by the Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Mudashiru Obasa … he’s … that’s … there’s a panel of Enquiry that had been set up in the State House of Assembly because there was a published allegation that he had 64 bank accounts linked to his Bank Verification Number, which he strongly denied.  But … putting that aside, when he went on to explain how the money was being spent, I don’t think many people in Lagos who are paying taxes would have found it funny, and I’m going to quote him, if you don’t mind.

AgO: Go ahead please.

AO: 

“We bought land cruisers for Principal Officers of the House.  The cars we bought for them are always higher than those of other members and we followed the due process in the purchase.  We went through the Public Procurement Agency and others and the vehicles were distributed appropriately.  It was agreed at the parliamentary meetings on about four occasions with the Clerk of the House.  My approval limit as Speaker is N100 million, and anything above that would have to be approved by the Fund Management Committee.”

And then … the Speaker also went on to say that it’s not true that they spent N258 million on printing invitation cards.  No, the amount was only N1.1 million!  And that the inauguration of the 9th Assembly cost N61 million.

And frankly Aghogho, I think that when the Speaker says that: “Whatever I have done as a Speaker, all the approvals I gave as Speaker were based on collective approval of the members of the House.”  I think it highlights the problem, because if the money is being spent on the same members of the House, rather than on the issues of concern to their constituencies, or enabling them to do their job, then of course they are going to give their approval!  And … I think that this is really highlighted by what, for my mind was really a real slap in the face to many Lagosians, when the Speaker said that: Yes!  We spent N80 million “to train the wives of 20 members in the State … wives of twenty members of the State House of Assembly in Dubai”.  I mean, … what does that even mean?  

And so, … I think that that probe, what it shows is that rather than embracing transparency, which is a key ingredient in Accountability and Integrity, or even feeling any alarm at the kind of money that was being discussed, the state legislature seems to be more concerned with concealing what they are doing with public money.  In fact, the Clerk of the Lagos State House of Assembly, he agreed that: “Some documents might have been released to the online medium (which, by the way, was Sahara Reporters) …

AgO: Right, right.

AO: … they might have been released to the online medium through some disgruntled staffers of the House.  But then he said: 

“We have been taking steps on that and we have transferred some members of staff.  The files go through many tables and there is no doubt some devilish staffers take pictures of some of these documents and send to these people.  The staff have taken oaths and this attracts dismissal.  Unofficial disclosure of information attracts dismissal in the civil service.”

So, it’s more about: Keep our secrets secret!  And I think that that in itself is a disturbing indictment.  So that while the President may have good intentions in  … when he talks about … with the objective of giving these State Houses of Assembly autonomy, it isn’t really a secret Aghogho, that some of our legislators, both at the federal and state levels, they don’t necessarily approach their duties with the desire to do the best for their constituents uppermost in their minds.  And that’s why you hear of them having to be paid money before they’ll pass the State’s budget, complaints from Ministries, Departments and Agencies about having to agree to award inflated contracts to the nominees of legislators if their own budgets are to be approved.  You know, and so … so when we are told that the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and the Conference of Speakers are meeting to resolve issues and ensure autonomy, it may not necessarily be something that makes us feel that our interests as citizens are being taken care of.

AgO: And interestingly Ayo, many of the calls we’ve been receiving today on the Democracy Day … people frustrated with the fact they haven’t seen these (in quotes) these proverbial ‘Dividends of Democracy’ some have pointed to the fact that we …  the system of government we are running is defective, some saying it’s ‘unitary system’.  When you look at Executive Order 10, it does give State Assemblies some degree of autonomy in what they are able to do, financial autonomy, and maybe perhaps strengthen democracy in a way people can maybe see things clearly.  Do you share that same sort of optimism that simply granting financial autonomy will make Democracy strengthened in the country? 

AO: I think that it’s important that we have the infrastructure and the institution … the institutional change which gives these State Houses of Assembly autonomy.  But let’s not forget that when there was a constitutional amendment that was going round, the State Houses of Assembly rejected the provision that would have given them autonomy and independence.  They had rejected it not just for themselves, but for the judiciary, for local government.  So it’s as if they want to be tied to the apron strings of the State Governors.  And you know, I mean I didn’t talk about the judiciary, because I think the situation there is likely to be a little bit better.  Not because … and I’m not saying that because I am a lawyer by the way, but just because whereas legislators may only be ‘on seat’ (if I may use the expression) for just four years, whereas judicial officers are employed through to retirement, and they get a pension at the end, but even there, we should have full transparency.  Because you’ll remember we discussed some weeks ago, about the “courtesy calls” the luxury jeeps, and …  Honestly Aghogho, this obsession with being able to drive around in big black jeeps … I wonder if all these people know that ordinary people call those cars “Oppressor”?

AgO: Very true, very true.  Ok Ayo, so, in closing … what would you say can help address this problem … at the end of the day?

AO: Well, as I said, I think it’s important that the institutional infrastructure of autonomy is put in place.  But just as … in general, I think that we the electorate need to realise the importance of our own power and to elect persons of Integrity, it’s also important that the legislatures also … understand that the power that they have, and which I think they should be exercising, is to be exercised in the interests of the people whom they represent, and not on the basis of: Has the Governor given me a car or a jeep?  And all these type of … very mundane matters.  I think it’s … of course, it depends to an extent on whether we as legisl …  we as electors and voters are ready to elect people of Integrity, and whether opposition parties are ready to position themselves in that line, but if the opposition parties are just going to be on the basis of: Enh, move aside, it’s our turn to do the same thing again, then we will not get the benefit that our democracy merits.

AgO: Hmmm, hmmm.  Alright, we’ll leave it at that.  Thank you very much Ayo Obe.  Interesting, Ayo Obe was president of the Civil Liberties Organisation during the June 12th struggle and … did play a crucial role in how the entire drama unfolded, you know, six years later.

AO: I just happened to be there Aghogho.  And I was only the Deputy President of the CLO at the time.

AgO: Ok.  Alright, thank you very much Ayo.  And you can catch Ayo on Twitter @ideasradiong and also @naijama

AO: Ok, bye bye.

AgO: Bye bye.