Legislators and IDEAS, Episode 84 (24/7/20)

IDEAS Radio 24 July 2020

Legislators and IDEAS 

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, here we go.  Fine, fine afternoon in the city of Lagos, hot and humid if you ask me, and I’m looking at my weather gizmo.  And Shaku maku everybody.  It’s red hot, and those of you heading to the Mainland … because of the partial closure of the Third Mainland Bridge so I can imagine.  So, a word of advice if you’re out there and you’re caught up in the snarl, make sure you listen to every instruction from the traffic officials because everyone wants you to get you home, and only the guys who are out there on the streets who are controlling the movement of traffic have the best information to get you home.  So don’t be in a hurry, it’s a Friday afternoon, so you can tune into 99.3 Nigeria Info, get into the Public Square and let’s talk about everything which is important to us.  I’m Aghogho Oboh and we can talk about everything happening in governance, in politics and development in the country, and we’ll as usual, open the Square with Ayo Obe on IDEAS: IDEAS for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics, Accountability.  And then we’ll sit in the Square for over an hour and a half Rotimi Sankore and I, where we will look at political drama that has magnetized the nation of over 200 million people, has been the subject of great discussions, subject of maybe a movie in the future, and the subject of plenty of comedy, I can imagine in the coming weeks.  Remember, you can join the Square @NigeriaInfoFM, @PublicSquareNG, @ideasradiong, all of these handles on Twitter.  If you’ve got comments, questions, kindly also send to us via messages on our WhatsApp … the number on WhatsApp is 08095975805, again 08095975805.

Alright, so, we’re going to get connected to Ayo Obe just now, where today’s focus on IDEAS will be on the National Assembly oversight drama …  Comedy or tragedy? is what the focus will be.  So, another week of drama at the Assembly, with accusation and counter-accusation.  Much of this has come against the background of attempts by the National Assembly to perform its oversight functions, most recently with regard to the Niger Delta Development Commission.  As you know, I said earlier on, IDEAS stands for Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability, and one doesn’t have to be a genius to see that all the drama raises Integrity, Ethics and Accountability issues.  Er …  So, we’re connected with Ayo Obe now.  Hello Ayo!

Ayo Obe: Hi Aghogho, how are you?

AgO: Good afternoon.

AO: Afternoon.

AgO: Great, we could see you from the front row of the revue going on in the National Assembly in the last week.

AO: I only saw clips on Twitter, so I don’t claim to have the full story.

AgO: Don’t worry, the clips that have been edited for you are the best portion of it.  I don’t think any trailer would have … would have been better than what … the clips we have seen on Twitter are like.  But, before we get into those, what does this say about our Democracy?  Is it a sign of health?  Or of sickness Ayo?

AO: I have to say Aghogho that it’s actually a sign of sickness, but sometimes you have to go through the measles in order to get into … to get yourself to a place where you’re immune.  I think that part of the problem with our legislature, is that if we look back over the history, particularly once we started having coups, that while a military coup would preserve the executive – in the form of dictatorship – and even preserve the judiciary; it would always do away instantly with the legislature.  And so, the … it’s the only one of the three arms of government that never survives a coup, and so if we have to say that practice makes perfect, then I’m afraid that the lack of practice on our legislators shows.  On the other hand … we’ve been at it since 21 … since 1999, that’s 21 years, and if we look at their job which is … I mean, they’re basically threefold: pass laws, oversight, and then, in the case of the Senate generally confirmations.  

And … I think that we … although it’s been a bit of a laughing matter for many Nigerians, it’s actually a bit serious.  When the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, was reacting to the failure of the Minister for Niger Delta to provide names of legislators who had won … won NDDC contracts, he said: “In my time in the House of Representatives… I recognise that this House has not always lived up to the high expectations of the Nigerian people.  As much as we have a lot to do in that regard …” and then he went on to say that they were not going to allow the character of the House to be assassinated.  And he said that: “The House of Representatives is a public trust placed in our care and that they have to prove themselves worthy of this public trust or risk the censure of history.”  But when he said that “This is our commitment, and we will not fail” the real question is: has the House actually resisted attempts to undermine the institution from within?  And … you know, if you look at their short history, I mean Aghogho, in preparing for this programme, I looked at a paper called: “Corruption and Legislative Functions in Nigeria”.  It was published in 2017 by a University of Maiduguri don, Dr. Usman Umaru, and he just talked, for example, about the committees, and he said:

“Every committee struggles to conduct at least one probe.  The pattern in the  life cycle of a typical committee oversight activity of the National Assembly starts by discovering a target institution, then a motion of “national  importance” is raised during the plenary.  Then it is referred to the appropriate committee to investigate.  The committee will then order a public hearing.  During the  hearing …  the invitees are pummelled to submission, followed by the agreement stage and possible apologies.  The report is then released with enough loop-holes for the accused person to escape with most  of his or her loot.”

And he gave various examples, ranging from Committee on the Pension Fund in Nigeria – even though the Committee said the people should be arrested and prosecuted, nothing happened; the House of Reps on the Capital Market – well of course, the former Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission Arumah Oteh, she exposed them as having very little knowledge of the  issue they  were probing.  And it goes on and on, and it’s not surprising actually, that Umaru said: “This kind of performance gives the impression that law makers undertake oversight function for reasons other than the noble cause.”

I mean Aghogho … and you … it’s actually strange to me now, to remember that it’s 17 years ago, when El-Rufai, the current Governor of Kaduna State, but he had been nominated as a Minister by the Obasanjo administration …

AgO: Very true.

AO: …  and when he was going for his Senate clearance, he said that two Senators had asked him to pay N54 million in bribes to facilitate his clearance at the Senate. And he said that they told him: You made money as Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises so, in order to be cleared, you have to pay!”  So … but there are just so many of these examples: I just end with the last one that many of us will probably remember, and that is the fuel subsidy issue, that was supposed to have been investigated by the House Ad hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy, where the chairman was filmed apparently putting money into his … his head.

You know, I mean … the President, in talking about … because one of the most important things that the legislature has to do in passing legislation, is the Budget, and with that of course, we’ve seen this phenomenon called “budget padding”.  And President Buhari who quite … I’m sorry to say, displayed a little bit of naivete, he said that it was “very embarrassing and disappointing”, that:

“I have been a Military Governor, Petroleum Minister, and Military Head of  State … headed the Petroleum Trust Fund.  Never had I heard the words  “budget  padding.” 

And he said that the perpetra … the culprits would not go unpunished.  But … the fact is that if there was any punishment, we the Nigerian people didn’t get to hear about it.  And despite these promises of ‘Change”, the dysfunction in the legislature seems to have become entrenched.

AgO: Absolutely.  So, against this background, what do you make of the past few weeks, looking at the last week’s drama in the National Assembly, what are your thoughts with what the National Assembly seeks to achieve?

AO: Well, I think you have to look at the way that you … I … although it’s easy for me to just condemn everybody out of hand, I think we have to remember what it takes to get elected to political office in Nigeria.  You know … you have … so much of it depends on patronage.  That’s why you have the legislators talking about  Constituency Projects, and you know we discussed Aghogho, last September, with Uadamen Ilevbaoje of BudgIT’s Tracka Nigeria programme, about how many Accountability issues that that raises.  And … we as ordinary citizens, we have so many occasions where we need to seek help, just to get our rights, or to get … to be on a level playing field, and that’s why … if you have so many gaps in governance, that you always need help to claim your rights, then you are bound to have a situation where avenues for Ethics and Integrity issues are going to fail.  And that’s why … when I say that the legislators are under pressure, the … you realise that they claim that they are attending to the needs of their constituents, but when you see what they keep for themselves, you end up saying to yourself that well, under the cover of pretending that they are doing something for their constituents, they take a huge amount, pocket most of it, and then spend … sprinkle a little bit on the … on the constituents.  And that’s why they always have these lists, because when they have lists, they don’t have to bring money out for their … out of what they have taken, and that’s why the Keyamo saga (which is still ongoing by the way) where you can just give out jobs, is a way of repaying your political favours without having to actually part with money.  

You know, if you .. if you want to be elected … I mean, I was looking at the situation in the US, where it is said that a US senator – and you know, they have six year terms – they said that he spends two thirds of the last two years of his or her term fundraising, and as for members of the House of Representatives, the Congressmen and women, they are advised to spend four hours a day raising money for their re-election.  

So I think it’s in that light that we have to look at the Niger Delta Development Commission saga.  Well, fortunately, there was some example of an attempt to uphold Ethical standards, because the original Chair of that House of Representatives Committee, Mr Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, he recused himself after the NDDC Acting Managing Director, that’s Professor Pondei, accused him of corruption and walked out on his committee.  Now, although Mr. Tunji-Ojo denied having received any NDDC contracts, he stepped aside, as he said: “to allow fair hearing”.  Well, that meant that the NDDC excuse for not appearing before the committee had gone up in smoke!  And Aghogho, it was after that, if you remember, that that we had the fainting drama.  

AgO: Very true.

AO: I don’t know whether … these things bring on fainting, but – it’s possible that there are twelve thousand NDDC abandoned projects – but Nigerians are also fainting.  Or at least, they are reeling in shock and astonishment – and I dare say – disgust at the N81.5 billion that two NDDC Interim Management Committees (because they still don’t have a Board) that these two Committees claim to have spent between October … the end of October 2019, and May 31 (that’s barely six months), on things like Overseas Travel to the United Kingdom, Members’ trip to … Union Members’ trip to Italy, Lassa Fever Kit, payment for Public Communications, COVID-19 fund.  You know, the only one that I can actually really say might have some reason is the Scholarship grants.  But yes, you might have cause to faint if you are asked to explain some of those payments.

You see, Aghogho, we need to take that statement by Senator Godswill Akpabio, the current Minister, seriously.  He said that “… people were treating NDDC as an ATM, where you just walk in there and go and pluck money and go away.  And he doesn’t think that they were looking at it as an interventionist agency.”  Now, although he’s chosen to walk back that assertion which everybody who watched the session heard him make, that most of the NDDC contracts go to legislators, the Senate released documents showing contracts with which he was associated and … you’ve seen them, N300 million for fencing the Federal Polytechnic and Federal Government College, entrepreneurship training and so on.  Now, Akpabio’s response – through his aide – was that there’s nothing unusual about a list of projects that he recommended.  He said – and the aide said: “In fact, it would have been a dereliction of duty if Senator Akpabio did not try to influence projects to his commit … his constituency.  It was part of his legislative duties as the Senate minority leader to attract projects to his constituency.”

But Aghogho, that is clearly meant to muddy the whole issue.  Because, is the Senate, by releasing those documents saying: “Oh, we were all at it!”?  Because it is one thing to say you are attracting projects to your constituency (although … even then, the Americans call it “pork barrel”, it’s always had a disreputable aura about it) but that’s one thing: it’s quite another to be attracting projects to your own companies, or your ‘front’ companies from which you benefit, and (because I’m quoting the Premium Times report on this matter): “Senate insiders said what senators usually do to enrich themselves is to insert projects into budgets and then go ahead to pick contractors who in turn execute those projects on their behalf.”  So it’s just like the Constituency Projects thing all over again, and quite frankly, if that’s the case, there are bound to be suspicions about the Integrity with which the legislators perform all of their duties.

AgO: So Ayo, we’ve come full circle – the question is, what does this mean for Nigeria’s democracy when legislators are found wanting or even compromised in the performance of their own duties?

AO: Well, I’m afraid that as long as we refuse to have a system where the ordinary citizen can live their life without needing intervention, the prospects are not going to be bright.  You know, the former president, President Obasanjo … there was a time when he alleged that “rogues and armed robbers” were in the national and state legislatures and he advised President Buhari to be wary of the law makers.  Now that refers back to my earlier point that it’s … and it’s not really surprising that two former military dictators might consider legislators as an inconvenient or unnecessary feature of our Democracy.  But I would advise Nigerians to be cautious about that.  Instead, they should follow his other piece of advice, which was that Nigerians should vote credible people into parliament.  Because I think it would be a huge shame if we go along with that requirement, despite the fact … I agree we are suspicious and we are disappointed, and for sure, they need to do a lot better, and one of the things that they could do in that regard is to be a lot more transparent and stop blurring the lines between executive functions and legislative ones.  And you know, Constituency Projects is a prime example of this.  You see, the Speaker said: “We must prove ourselves worthy of this public trust or risk the censure of history.”  But I would say that we need greater scrutiny by voters about the behaviour and voting records of legislators, and probably a much bigger willingness to elect people who will challenge what unfortunately seems to have become the established way of doing things.

AgO: Absolutely.  We’ll leave it at that.  Thank you very much Ayo Obe.

AO: Thank you Aghogho, Bye bye.

AgO: Alright, have a lovely weekend.

AO: I wish you the same.

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