MINORITY GOSPEL: Slash our allowances — House Minority Leader Femi Gbajabiamila
Published:13 Jan, 2013
Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila is the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. In this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU, the lawyer speaks on the cause of conflicts between the House and the Executive
How does it feel being in the opposition in a House that is dominated by the Peoples Democratic Party?
It is an experience that is interesting, challenging, fulfilling, tasking and worthwhile. Sometimes your arguments win in debates, sometimes they do not. The opposition is important because it is an important aspect of any democracy. It is challenging because sometimes you raise issues that will almost land you into trouble but above all, the opposition is striving. It is a wonderful experience.
Have you ever been intimidated by the overwhelming majority?
I am not a type that gets intimidated; I cannot be intimidated. When the opposition raises issues, it is interesting to know that we have some leaders in the majority who relegate their political party affiliations and background to consider such issues because they are of national importance and are for the betterment of the people. We may have some challenges but we have never been intimidated.
The House has made some discoveries through several probes but Nigerians are losing faith in the House because almost all the reports are unimplemented.
We are playing our role in a democracy. We probe and submit our reports; it is for the Executive to execute those reports. It is not for us to execute them. When we try to execute, they say we are overreaching our boundary. We did a report on the Security Exchange Commission and recommended that the Director-General be removed for certain reasons but the Executive has refused to execute it. We have also refused to appropriate money to the sector but Nigerians are still criticising us. I will do a piece on that very soon, just to make Nigerians understand better what we are doing about SEC. The National Assembly is not overreaching itself, as far as the SEC is concerned. We are working within our legislative powers. It is not childish like most people will want to say but this is not a topic for today. I will do a report to give a broader and more objective analysis of what happened between the SEC and the National Assembly.
Is it not possible for the National Assembly to do a follow-up on the reports to ensure proper implementation and prosecution?
We do follow-ups and one of them is on the SEC matter and the DG. One of the ways of doing follow-up is to say, ‘You know what? We cannot tell you this person is not fit to hold office and at the same time appropriate money for her to spend.’ Therefore, we have withheld appropriation for that section. That is one way of following up your resolution and ensuring that your resolution is implemented.
Many Nigerians believe until the allowances of lawmakers are cut and legislature is made part-time, the National Assembly will not perform better? How would you react to this?
It is a remedy, if it’s thought out properly. If it is a remedy, it’s absolutely welcomed by me. But I think it’s not about allowances neither is it about being full-time or part-time; I think it’s about commitment and doing the right thing. I think it is about putting the right people in the right offices. If you cut the time and allowances, as long as you don’t have the right calibre of people that will deliver what needs to be delivered, you are going to get same results. It is called ‘garbage in garbage out.’ For me, it is a welcome development if we look at it.
What I want to say on the issue of allowances is that we should take a global look and see whether truly, Nigerian legislators are the highest paid in the world. From my research, they appear not to be but if that is the case, then, we should look at it, slash it wherever we want to slash it. Anything that will give better performance, I am all for it. What is important is that we grow our democracy and deliver the dividends to all Nigerians wherever they may be.
Again, it is not enough to talk about allowances without talking about what the followership is also expecting from the legislators. When they start comparing a legislator in America with a legislator in Nigeria, what they forget is that there’s no basis for comparison. What are the demands of legislators in America? The legislators in America are not expected to pay house rents, school fees, or use their money to sink boreholes. There are several things legislators here do and you don’t have a budget for that. Many legislators do these out of their pockets.
Yes, if you want to slash the allowances for legislators, please go ahead, and slash it. But, you also have to deal with the whole picture and make sure people don’t come to these same legislators and start to make unbearable, unbelievable and unpractical demands. These demands are not made on other legislators in other parts of the world. A legislator in America that earns N100 a month keeps all the N100 to himself but a legislator in Nigeria, that earns N300 a month, is expected to spend N350 out of the N300 on the constituents. And that is why you see today, legislators who are out of office are in penury because all the so-called basic allowances are spent on the constituency. I am all for slashing of allowances, if we can slash the demands as well.
People believe they are not seeing what they should see despite the fact that there are allowances for constituency projects. Why is this so?
This is another misconception, unfortunately. Constituency projects are never given to National Assembly members. I have been in the House for close to nine years – this is my third term – I have never been given a kobo for constituency projects. Never in my life! And nobody is given money for constituency project. Constituency project means you identify something that may be needed and it is only a limited amount. You identify something small that is needed in your constituency and it is put in the budget, that is your constituency project. For instance, I might decide that we need to fix a federal road in my constituency. That might be the constituency project. It may be N30m they will give each member but they will not give them in cash. It will be included in the budget not that they will give you money.
The House protested the percentage level of implementation of the 2012 budget. Is there a plan to do a follow-up on the implementation of the 2013 budget?
What happened in 2012, for me, is a good thing. It is a foreshadow of what is to come in 2013. We have made it clear that it is not going to be a business as usual. We have thrown down the gauntlet and it is for the Executive to take it up. The budget is meant to be and must be implemented. We did it in 2012; it got to a point where serious repercussions were about to happen. I am sure that the Executive fully understands that our language was hard. Our rhetoric was very serious and direct — implement the budget or face the consequence, which is what will happen in 2013.
How independent is Nigeria legislature?
Nigerian legislature is very independent. Maybe we were not in the past. That is what we have done in the seventh assembly; to ensure independence. At the beginning when we were sworn in, we independently elected our leadership of the House. It had never happened before in the history of Nigeria, at least not in recent times.
At the House, the ruling party normally dictated who was going to be the speaker, leader, etc. We were not going to have any of that and we made that abundantly clear. And we have followed that path of independence in all our decisions. That is why people think there is conflict between the Executive and the legislature. There will always be conflict because they are two separate arms of government. There will always be conflict, as long as the conflict is healthy and it is for goodness of the Nigerian people. We say ‘welcome conflict’ as long as it moves the country forward. I have no fears or worries about the independence of the National Assembly anymore. Besides, the opposition has grown in number unlike what we had before. So, that independence has been enhanced.
Does the House have any plan to empower the anti-graft agencies in their fight against corruption in terms of legislation?
We are working on it. We have set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Law. If the EFCC is being influenced by the Executive, we are working on tightening that law by amending it. I have a process of the amendment of the EFCC, where the Attorney-General of the Federation is no longer relevant in the operations of the EFCC. We are working on that; it is a bill that I sponsored — that, the AGF can no longer, under the constitution of the EFCC, issue what is called nolle prosequi. Hopefully, we will strengthen the EFCC and other anti-corruption agencies.
What are the prospects of the merger of the opposition parties in the 2015 general elections?
The process is ongoing and it is going on smoothly. The good thing is that it started early. The problem with the last time was that the parties came just before the electionsand that did not give us the time to meet all the necessary legal hurdles and requirements set up by the electoral law. Now we have started in good time and in earnest. I truly believe that this time around, we will have a single party forming an opposition. While we are doing that, we will ensure that elections are free and fair.
What are your challenges with tackling the ruling PDP that has the finance and government machinery on ground?
Challenges have always been in Nigerian politics. Some see it as a competition, others see it as a battle. The challenges we are looking forward to would be not just a battle of wits but a battle of issues.