Recently, the National Assembly completed another year in decision making, with several bills passed, but of course, with too many corruption scandals causing the nation a lot of embarrassments. In this interview with JUNGLE JOURNALIST, senate leader, Honourable victor Ndoma-Egba speaks on these issues, and goes a step further to comment on the ever-burning issues of MKO Abiola, June 12, and other national matters:
What is your candid assessment of the National Assembly, one year after?
Let me be more specific on the Senate. It’s been another year of stability. If you look at the history of the Senate from 1999 till the sixth senate, it has always ended on a note of instability. It was only in the sixth senate, with the coming of David Mark, which we took off on a note of stability, and again ended on that same note. In the seventh senate, we have again taken off on a note of stability. The implication for me is that the Senate as an institution is mature. In the sixth Senate, I don’t recall any scandal around the Senate. One year into the seventh senate, there is also no scandal. What it means is that our internal cleansing processes appear to be working. In terms of bills, our core legislative function is law-making, so it is right to be accessed on the number of bills you have passed, even though it is not usually the quantity of bills per se that determines the output of the parliament. It is an objective way of assessing the parliament. In the last one year, we have passed 24 bills, which is the highest number ever passed within the same time frame. We have 126 bills under processing, which again is the highest in number. We have taken about 48 motions, the highest number within that period. It shows that as we mature, our systems get more productive and more efficient. We still have constraints, and the major constraints are capacity. It is historical, in that there were many years we had military rule during which the Senate did not exist. We have only existed before now at the mercy of the military. Each time they came back, we were dissolved, each time they gratuitously left, we were reenacted into existence. Because the military intervention were so often, we didn’t have the opportunity of regular growth. Our growth has been episodic, in interludes. So we didn’t have that opportunity which the other arms of government had. With or without the military, the executive existed. With or without the military, the judiciary existed. They made laws that tried to limit the jurisdiction of courts, but with time, when the judiciary found ways round those exclusion clauses in law, which means that they were maturing, they were responding. They grew in spite of the military, but we did not have that opportunity because we were not in existence. So our growth has been in episodes, but we are trying to catch up with the stability we have now. We also had the constraints of infrastructure. It was only in the seventh senate that every senator can claim to have a proper office. Before now, we used to be in the older building, and shared two rooms, and only one toilet for everybody. But this is the first time we can say we are properly quartered in terms of offices. We have the challenge of hostile public perception. We were under military for about 30 years, which means that for those 30 years, out of 52 years of independence, the parliament did not exist, and Nigeria continued. So, for 30 years, people lived without us, and if you can live without us, that means you can live without us.
The implication now is that, whenever anything goes wrong, the first thing they say is ‘these people that we were living without!’ are the cause. We have been ascribed responsibilities that are constitutionally ours, and being held responsible for things that are outside our powers. One example is the notion that the National Assembly is responsible for Nigeria’s woes.
Nigerians believe that, with all the money that gets to you, there is nothing you people come up with as sign that you are indeed serving the people. What is your take on this?
Our budget is N150 billion, the national budget is N4. something trillion. About three percent of that budget is what gets to us. That includes recurrent and capital. It includes the salaries of members of National Assembly, salaries of the civil servants who are working in the National Assembly, service commission, our aides, includes our subscription to the international parliamentary associations, it includes the National Legislative Institute, N150 billion. It’s about 10 percent of what is alleged to have been spent on subsidies. So, even I terms of opportunities, with our budget at 3 percent, our opportunity for corruption is 3 percent. But it is that 3 percent that is the focus of everything that has gone wrong, nobody is interested I where the other 97 percent is domiciled.
Two, we talk about the jumbo pay. I keep a file of my pay slip- its right here. From the first day I came here, in have the file of my pay slip. What has happened as, as you can see, I am operating from an office, what am doing here is official. So if am given N10, 000 to buy stationery, the same that is given in the executive and judiciary, it is given there for that purpose, but my own N10, 000 is part of my allowance. If am given money to travel officially, its part of my allowance, but at executive and judiciary, its travel allowance.
Recently I was at a funeral service where the preacher was talking about what some of us do with our constituency allowances, and what others don’t do with theirs. Am not aware of any constituency allowances, I don’t know of any such allowance, but this was coming from a very knowledgeable and believable Nigerian. So the public goes away with the notion that there I some allowance called constituency allowance. I remember appearing on a TV programme and was talking about my pay- what you take home after taxes and everything is about N650, 000. Then a young man called me and asked, ‘what of the N40 million you receive every month for entertainment?’ I said that if I received even zero point zero five percent of that, it will show on my physique, because I will start by entertaining myself. But there is no such thing. The public out there has its own perception. With the kind of money they say we earn, there should not be a poor former senator. But I challenge Nigerians to show me a single rich former senator. We are looking at those standards- one different standard for the executive and a totally different one for the National Assembly. That is why, if you purchase one vehicle, it becomes the subject of the editorials. But go to one obscure agency- they can buy 100 vehicles, nobody notices it.
You have talked about achievements in the area of bills, you have also talked about perception challenges. Can you link these with the performance of your oversight function?
I have talked about capacity, and the implications of our capacity is far-reaching. An example is the budgetary process. You use processes, parameters when budgeting. The indices and parameters we use are the ones fed to us by the executive. We don’t have independent capacity yet like the United States that has a congressional budget office. Like they say, garbage in garbage out, even from the structural perspective, we have issues with oversight. The people you are oversighting are the ones you depend o for input. But what I have noticed, as an institution matures, you find ways round these issues. People talk about corruption in the senate. The senate has 54 standing committees. But the notion is that it is a pervasive thing. Every member of the National Assembly is seen as a thief. I remember one day I was taking my son to school, and there was this radio programme. It was painting all of us as thieves, brigands and armed robbers. I noticed that my son, who was sitting by my side was shifting. I looked at him, and asked ‘why are you shifting? So you believe the story?’ he replied, ‘is it not true?’ I also remember when a colleague of mine, lawyer, came with my former principal who was in town. He called me over the phone, and said he would like to see me. I said he should come to the office. He reluctantly came to the office, and being a very small office, the connecting door was open and I was busy writing. They must have stood there for about three minutes without me noticing, because I was engrossed in what I was doing. He said, ‘you mean you people work here?’ I said, ‘what do you mean?’ he said that the impression they had was that all we do is to move ‘Ghana-must-Go’ bags all around. Meanwhile, it was budget season, and at 7 am, all senators at that season are very likely to be in the office. So he was shocked, but again, it was that same perception of the public. I go to church sometimes and the priests are so against politicians, though when they want to change the roof it’s the same politicians.
But we too are searching for salvation, hoping to go to heaven. We are also looking for God’s face like any other person. I am a catholic and I carry my chaplet in my pocket all the time. I am like any other person. I look at my colleagues and I know that 99.99 percent of them are truly patriotic Nigerians who are struggling to offer their best to Nigeria.
Most often, we see your colleagues exhibiting pictures of roads, street lights and other things they have done. They also call it constituency project. Who do we blame here?
No, no, let me tell you, I give scholarships. I have given scholarships since 1980, before the senate. I have professors today who were I my scholarship. I have bought cars for my constituents, it’s not from any allowance. Every project is a constituency project, because it is done in somebody’s constituency. What I am saying categorically that does not exist is a constituency allowance. Let me tell you how it operates. There is an office in the Villa called the MDG, headed by a senior special assistant. Now, that office will come up with parameters- we want to build primary schools, or we want to intervene in twelve centres I Cross River Central Senatorial District, and so on. If it’s my senatorial district, they will send me a form to show where they should be sighted. Then I will met with those representing these constituencies to ask, ‘please where and where are you sighting these projects so that we don’t duplicate?’ I now fill that form, an return it to the committee, which forward I to the office of the senior special assistant on MDGs. They do the awards. In Obasanjo’s time it was a taboo for you to even have a say who the contractor should be. They were warned not to go to any senator, and those projects failed, because you come to my constituency, in a place called Akparabong, which is not even as remote as the other places, some of those projects were sighted right inside, and the contractors were supposed to come from Sokoto to do a borehole of N3 million, and you expect it to work. We have had cases where a contractor is supposed to go to go to Buguma to do a N7 million project, and we said no, there are ways we can assist. We have this traditional notion of hospitality in my community. If you are coming to do anything in my community, let me know, let me call the chiefs for you. Anybody who has one empty room I his house, he can offer it to the visitor. Even the materials he is bringing could be kept in the chief’s compound, so that he does not have to pay for security. But when you now say that we who represent these communities that are the beneficiaries of these projects’ are taboos, and should not even be told, the project is bound to fail. Yes, you have constituency projects. As a matter of fact, every project is a constituency project. Even if it’s the Abuja-Lokoja road it’s a constituency project because it passes through people’s constituency. So all projects are constituency projects, but if are talking about the MDGs, yes, we can influence where it is sighted, but you have no hand in the award of contracts. And I say again very categorically, that there is nothing like constituency allowance.
As a senator from the Niger-Delta, what would you say is the reason the Niger Delta has been calm all the while?
I think it is essentially what has happened and what the people of the Niger- Delta still expect to happen. You know government went into discussions with milt ants whose leaders were known, they went into a dialogue. The outcome is the amnesty programme. Certain promises were made, some are being kept, others we hope will be kept.
Why can’t this be extended to the Boko Haram people?
Do you know their leaders? Has anybody come to tell you ‘I am a leader of Boko Haram?’ in Niger-Delta, you hear ‘General this, General that, they had their camps, and I remember at some point, the present president and vice president even had to go to those camps to meet with them. They were known, and they owned up. They gave their reasons why they were involved. Nobody wants to come out and say, ‘I am the leader of Boko Haram’.
Back to the National Assembly, what is the relationship like between the upper and lower houses?
It couldn’t be better. The leadership of both houses has mutual respect for one another. There is also a level of consultation, which was something that was missing in the recent past. There is constant dialogue on those areas we need to harmonize. When an issue comes up, I am I constant touch with their leadership, and they are also I constant touch with me.
So what accounts for those differences between the House’ and Senate approach to matters which are quite different, if truly there this harmony?
You know I made an exception that the consultation does not include how we do our work. You must be at least 30 years to be a member of the house, and 35 to be in the senate, which means you are likely to find older people in the senate than house of reps. Two, our number is smaller- they are 360, and we are 109. If we have 109 points of view, they have 360. A senator represents a stat, while a member of the house represents a federal constituency. What it means is that we have a broader outlook because we are structurally in a broader reach. They are more intense because their constituencies are smaller. Lastly, the lower house in a bicameral arrangement is designed to represent the people directly. The upper house is designed to stabilize the polity. Structurally, we are not supposed to join the fray, but stand apart. When there is a crises, we now move in to cam the situation. And you can see it, that when Yaradua had health challenges, it was the senate tat moved in with the doctrine of necessity to stabilize the polity. During the last strike, on the removal of oil subsidy, our approach was different, because we knew that we are expected to stabilize the crises at such points. So the two houses are conceptually different.
Does it bother you that each time, here is always this problem of bribery coming from the House of Reps?
The house has over 70 committees, how many are involved I bribe? Let me say this, of the three arms, the National Assembly is the one that operates in the open we are in plenary, committees, there are cameras. We are obliged to operate in the public because we represent the people. We have only tow situations where we operate in private- to discuss national issues and hosed keeping issues. I remember when one bullet-proof car was ordered, even before Ken Nnamani became senate president. It was the subject of many front page stories, it was the subject of an editorial. I went to the press centre and askd ‘look gentlemen, we may have erred here, but how many bullet-proof cars are the rain the Villa? Nobody could say. How many care do you have in your local government chairman’s fleet? Or in the judiciary? Nobody could say, but that one in the National Assembly was known. If you were to subject the other arms to the kind of scrutiny that the National Assembly enjoys, are you sure we will still appear as bad as we do now?
Do you suspect another arm of government deliberately setting up the House of Reps?
I don’t. I don’t see who will benefit anything if he National Assembly is discredited. Nigerians will lose, and I tell you this. I have talked about the long period Nigerians have got used to living without a legislature. Nigerian could do without a legislature, but the same Nigerians want democracy, and these institutions they could do without represents democracy. If we get mischievous of our National Assembly, we could end up with a timid National Assembly, and as timid National Assembly does nobody any good. It means the Executive can have a free hand to roll. I subscribe to openness in governance, I subscribe to openness even in our private lives. If you have nothing to hide, you will be open, and it is because of my very firm belief in openness that personally sponsored the Freedom of Information bill. It is today an act because I believe that society must be open. It is when the society is open that you will see us rise to our responsibilities and abilities. It is when society is open that you can elevate accountability, public discourse. I don’t see anybody benefitting from a timid national assembly. What has happened is that we are more open to scrutiny than any other person. If there is one instance of bribery in the national assembly, as open as it is, I bet you there will be thousands in those institutions that operate in closets. That is why I said that if you subject the other arms of government to the same scrutiny that we undergo, w may not be as bad as e appear.
Do you subscribe to the agitation for a Sovereign National Conference?
If you say sovereign, how do we set aside the constitution, for it to be sovereign, you have to set aside the constitution. And you need a military coup to set aside the constitution, and that one is unconstitutional. So I think a sovereign national conference I a constitutional democracy is a misnomer. You can say national conference. It’s okay. The national assembly does not object to as many Nigerians as possible, as many for a as possible, as many opportunities as possible to discuss Nigeria. We will encourage it, we will even provide an opportunity for Nigerians to do so when we start the present round of constitutional amendment. The public hearings are going to be extensive and very robust. If Nigerians want to go outside the national assembly to discus Nigeria, we will encourage it. It is their rights, it is guaranteed under the constitution, freedom of association and speech. We have sworn to uphold and protect the constitution, so we will uphold and protect every right that the constitution has given. But the one I don’t understand is when they begin to qualify it as sovereign. Where will the sovereignty derive from? Outside the constitution? If its outside it, are you going to set aside the constitution? When you say sovereign, we might as well keep quiet, as it will be an exercise in futility.
When you have those discussions and debates, are you going to use the comments that come out of it?
We have always done so, we have never laid claim to a monopoly of knowledge or wisdom. If you notice, the lawmaking process inherently allows for public hearing, and we use the opportunity as generously as we can possibly use. Every perspective and insight is very useful in what we do here. Recently we received a submission from Olisa Agbakoba. We are debating it, we use ever material.
Should we expect a robust review of the constitution?
It’s not in our hands, because if you even look at the procedure for constitutional amendment, it also involves the state houses of assembly. Every proposed amendment has to be passed by at least two-thirds of the state assembly. The implication is that for amendment to be passed, Nigerians must have discussed it and passed sufficient remarks on it.
Why do you think Nigerians are calling for the review of the constitution?
Are you satisfied with Nigeria as it is today? If you are not satisfied, we must discuss. If you are satisfied, you will think of how to even get more satisfied. The discussion, dialoguing, is a normal human activity. I was asked whether it is not a clash that the Southern states wanted the revenue allocation reviewed, and the north also wants the same, I said no, it is an agreement, that we need to renegotiate the fiscal terms of our union as a country. Everybody agrees we need to discuss, even with your wife, what keeps your marriage going is communication. So, there is nothing wrong that Nigerians want to discuss. They must discuss. It’s a right that is guaranteed tem under the constitution.
What is your take o the agitations for MKO Abiola to be posthumously recognized as a president of this country?
First of all let me say that Nigeria needs to honour Chief MKO Abiola. He deserve it, he earned it. The democracy we enjoy today may not have been possible without his contributions and sacrifice. He had the opportunity to say, ‘let me leave this thing and go enjoy my wealth. But he said he will die for it if need be and he died. Abiola can never be honoured enough for as long as we have our democracy. I have listened to the argument about he being declared the present. I have no problem with that. The only problem we have is, when will we say his term ended constitutionally? If you are president you were president from this day to this day? That is a problem.
What about the issue of declaring June 12 national holiday?
I have absolutely no objections to that. Like I said, you can never honour Abiola enough, for as long as we enjoy democracy.
You have the privilege of having the Ikom monoliths in your constituency. What are you doing to ensure it becomes a strong tourist attraction for Nigeria?
The most I can do is to ensure that Federal infrastructure that leads to the place is in place. As I speak to you, the Ogoja Ikom Road, which was in very bad shape, is being handled with assistance from World Bank. That road is one the reasons I agreed to come to the senate. The moment I ensure that federal infrastructure that services it is in place, then we move to the next level.