INTERVIEW: Why National Assembly budgets, lawmakers’ pay should be made public — Gbajabiamila

The Leader of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Festus Owete, Mohammed Lere and Hassan Adebayo, speaks on his defeat in the race for Speaker, why Nigerians are not sympathetic to lawmakers, the huge salaries and allowances earned by the lawmakers and other issues.

Excerpts:

PT: I am sure not many Nigerians will say this 8th National Assembly Eight Assembly and especially the House of Representatives where you are Leader has impacted their lives and worked for the betterment of the country in the last one year. What is your take on this?

Gbajabiamila: You may be right. Many Nigerians will not say so but unfortunately a lot of Nigerians do not understand the work of the legislature. When you talk about impact at the legislative arm of government, it is like even saying what impact the judiciary has on Nigerians. When you talk about impact, direct impact, the work of the legislature is not something you see; it’s not physical. It’s not roads, it’s not the building of schools, it is not the things a man sees. It is different from a governor or somebody in the executive who can easily point to this and say this is my impact and this is what I have done.

The impact of the work of the legislature, I think, is indirect. It’s not direct. You make laws. I am sure you heard when I read out the number of bills sponsored at this 8th Assembly in one year. We have about 700 bills and they are bills that impact on Nigerians but they are not things you see. They are not direct impacts. They are not roads that you walk on. They are not schools that you go.

As far as the House is concerned, there has been tremendous progress. The House has received several bills perhaps more than the 7th, 6th and 5th assemblies and we will continue to do that. Motions have been raised on the floor of the House on issues that have to do with corruption and the oil industry, issues of agriculture, and practically every face of national life. So, I will say the House has made a lot of impact but not things that you can touch.

PT: You are expected to make good laws for the country. But in this area, you (lawmakers) seem to be lacking?

Gbajabiamila: Honestly, I don’t agree with you. Let me just tell you, just a week ago, I sponsored a students’ loan bill. Once that bill passes and becomes law, it becomes something that you can see as impactful as it addresses a situation where indigent students cannot pay for school fees. They have their admission letters and these are very smart kids but they cannot pay school fees due to no fault of theirs or maybe because of their situation in life. Then, they go around begging, prostituting and doing all sorts of things. But now you have a bill that establishes an education bank and gives students free loans more or less to pass through school without any interest and you don’t have to pay back until two years after you start working. Can somebody tell you that you won’t see that as an impact?

But there is a process that will take you to the first reading, second reading, public hearing, third reading, concurrence, and then the president’s assent, and then it becomes law. I just mentioned that because it just happened last week. So, I really believe Nigerians should be patient and should not look at legislature like if something happens and the country catches cold, it is the fault of the legislature. No, we are doing our work and we are pursuing our mandate very faithfully.

So I can tell you several bills that have impacted on Nigerians. Sometimes, legislature brings up bills and you hear commentaries like ‘that one does not concern us’ or ‘why don’t you face this? As far as the legislature concerns national interest, they think legislature can only face one thing. Legislature is supposed to be able to multi-task. You can’t tell me that the problem is health sector therefore I should not look at the other sector and that’s what we do and Nigerians should be very patient and begin to follow and observe our proceedings and the bills. Maybe, it will come to the time when we will start publishing these bills on the pages of newspapers, so we can educate people as to what we do.

PT: But will you say the crisis you had at the initial period affected your output in the last one year?

Gbajabiamila: I don’t think so. I think however long it lasted as soon as the crisis was over we bounced back fully. So, there is no crisis in the House anymore. That’s the issue. Like you said, it lasted for one or two months, which is to be expected in politics. But we have since put that behind us and it hasn’t affected us. If it had affected us in the first two months, we sure have made up with the number of bills and motions that have been passed on the floor of the House.

PT: Is there anything you think can be done to ensure improved compliance with the resolutions of the National Assembly? As National Assembly correspondent, I have seen good resolutions of the house but the level of compliance is low.

Gbajabiamila: Firstly, there has to be a reorientation of the executive this time. Motions and resolutions, even in the American system that we copied, do not necessarily have the force of law, but I don’t believe there will ever be a resolution passed by the US Congress, even though it does not have the force of law, that the President of the United States or any other executive will dare disobey because of repercussions. It will affect the US if he wants to contest elections because the constituents of the members of the Congress are monitoring those resolutions. And if the President does not obey those resolutions, that can have consequences for him and for his party during re-election. If you disobey resolutions of the Congress, you are disobeying constituents of the lawmakers that pass resolutions. Perhaps why resolutions don’t have the force of law here is because the Constitution says the National Assembly shall make law through bills, although there’s a section which provides that it can take over the state assemblies. Perhaps a constitutional backing should be provided so that a motion that passes by two- third majority of the Senate and House of Representatives should have a force of law and become binding.

PT: Is this part of the constitution review?

Gbajabiamila: Yes, that’s what I am saying. It will be part of the amendment that we will do because there is no point passing resolutions everyday without compliance. Seventy per cent of the legislative work on that floor is through resolution. Perhaps, only 30 per cent is bills and you cannot make a law through a bill if it is something that needs to be addressed right there immediately. Then, that’s why we have resolutions. Things come up every day on daily basis but bills can take a year or two. There are some things that need to be done right there and then.

I will take you to the United States. If you disobey the resolution of the Congress, apart from political repercussion back, there are ways, instruments and manners the Congress can use to frustrate you to rein you in. They frustrate budgeting process. They can have financial instruments. They can do all manner of things. But if you do that in Nigeria, because the legislature is held in (and am sorry to say maybe deserved or not deserved) disdain, the Nigerian public will, in most cases, be on the side of the executive.
But if you are here telling me that resolutions are not obeyed, those of you who can make it possible for us to rein the executive to obey our resolutions will fight with us if we do that. In America, you have heard of government shutdown by the congress. If you try to do something here they say you are looking for this. It is a loose situation; we are in a very difficult environment as legislators.

PT: So was that’s what happened during the 2016 budget process?

Gbajabiamila: We realized the fact that when the National Assembly is engaged in a sort of battle or some kind of misunderstanding with the executive, we are always at the short end of the stick. Sometimes you just have to allow the executive to have their way because, again as I said, Nigerian public are not sympathetic to us. Even though, at the time and quite honestly, we are fighting their course, they believe you are fighting for yourself.

I give you an instance. I will criss-cross the length and breadth of my constituency, campaigning and begging for votes, promising to bring this and that and if you send me to represent you when I get to Abuja I will attract the federal presence to the constituency. A lot of people think the only work of a legislator is to make laws. No! Apart from making laws, there is even a more important mandate that is to attract federal presence to your constituency and the only time you can attract federal presence to your constituency is during the budget cycle. I make promises and based on those promises I am elected. If I don’t perform and ensure the promises are captured in the budget, in criminal code, it is called 419, obtaining by false pretence.

Nobody knows a minister of health in my constituency. Who do they call? It is the legislator. So, if you tell me I can’t include a dilapidated school in my constituency in the budget, then that constituency can never be represented in terms of federal presence because the minister does not know. I am the one that knows the problem in my constituency. Then, you have a Special Assistant to the minister or the minister taking projects to his constituency. But when we told Nigerians during the budget impasse, they said “oh legislators they have padded the budget.” It is not padding; rather, it is including what your constituencies have told you. In America, an advanced democracy, you hear of earmarks. Legislators don’t go home with nothing.

PT: But you have constituency projects which you execute?

Gbajabiamila: First of all, what I just described – the dilapidated schools, transformers, block of class rooms – are the constituency projects. I have never executed constituency projects. I have never been given money to do constituency projects. You work to see what is put in your constituency.

That is where experience counts. In any legislature, experience counts. What I can put in my constituency, the influence and the experience I am going to bring to bear, a new member may not be able to match. But he will get there to that point too. He will cultivate the relationship and garner experience over the years. That’s how it works.

So, the issue of constituency projects – the ministries have their contractors who registered with them. All that is required from you is to identify the area in your constituency, the projects you want, they put it in the budget and the ministry puts it in the budget. Some legislators may introduce a contractor to the ministry. That’s not bad. So far the work is done I don’t have problem with that.

PT: The National Assembly has not refused to give the details of its 2016 budgetary allocation even though they represent the people as you rightly said. Now, you don’t defend your budget before any institution but MDAs come to you to defend their budgets. Yet, you have refused to give details of your budget since 2012. Why?

Gbajabiamila: Well, my own opinion has always been that, because there is so much demand for transparency, let us publish this thing on the pages of newspaper. Not opening it is more damaging, reason being you hear a lot of speculations, you hear a lot of figures flying, outrageous figures! I always wonder if this was true and want to know if somebody was cheating me somewhere. I believe if you publish your account or budget breakdown, there will be a reasonable man out there that will say ‘oh, my God we’ve been wrong all along. This is not even enough. How come they pay this as transport allowance for a man who flies to Lagos and back every week. Where does he get the balance? For a man who is representing Ikoyi, how come this is what they pay him for office allowance? This cannot even meet the cost of a room space, not to talk of an office space.’ In a lot of these things, members have to augment their allowances. Rent is paid across board for everybody. They don’t consider whether you are from Ikoyi where rent is expensive or Ekiti where rent is relatively cheap. So that’s why I say open this thing, let Nigerians see it and determine whether it is enough or outrageous.

It is always good to be objective. I say this because I was one of those outside during that time of N2.5 million to renovate quarters during the first set of members that came to the National Assembly. I was one of those people that were crucifying them. But when I came in, I was shocked because that you are a lawmaker does not mean you should be sleeping on the floor. By the time you put your AC, TV, furniture, fridge, carpet and add all these things, it is way more than N2.5 million. But there we were shouting.

PT: Ok. Why is it difficult for you guys, lawmakers, to disclose the exact amount you earn as salary and allowances? Every Nigerian is aware you earn more than what is specified by Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission.

Gbajabiamila: Let me say this, every human being – whether you are legislator, engineer or student – the first reaction (to request to know what one earns) is psychological. It is a lot of privacy. People don’t like to disclose them for whatever reason. Whether it is because of your child, dependants or spouse, people just don’t want to disclose it no matter how little or big what you earn is.

Let us pack that to one side. Two, people don’t differentiate between salary and allowance. There is a big difference. And that is why under most tax laws, allowance is not taxed. You don’t tax allowance because it is not yours; it is for a specific purpose. When people were comparing earnings of Nigerian and American lawmakers, they were comparing apple and orange. They are comparing an American lawmaker’s salary with Nigerian lawmaker’s salary and allowance. Even respected magazines like the Economist are saying Nigerian lawmakers are the highest paid in the world. Of course you will be the highest paid if you are comparing somebody’s salary with another person’s salary and allowance.

Now, I challenge you and I challenge anybody to get on the internet and Google-search American Senator’s allowances, not salary. I have done the research. We are talking about a minimum of $5 million for an American Senator per annum. What’s my salary as legislator? My salary is under N1m. But you are comparing somebody’s salary alone with my own salary and allowance which is meant for another thing. Now, if you want to compare orange and orange or apple and apple, you compare what I earn as salary and that of America’s lawmaker, then, you know whether I am the highest paid or not. Don’t forget an American lawmaker does not pay for school fees or rents for his constituents. He does not buy Okada (motorcycles) or pay for naming ceremonies. Of course, I am not bothered. But you compare what demand is made on American Senator and his Nigerian counterpart.

PT: Why is it that the average Nigerian despises the legislature?

Gbajabiamila: It’s because you are the closest to the people. You are from the people and they believe you are now earning too much money. That’s why I always say we should publish these things; so, that people will know what you earn. For instance, on transport alone, I spend not less than N100,000 to and from Lagos a week. Multiply that by four, that’s N500,000 a month except you want to drive 12 hours to Lagos.

PT: In a National Assembly where there are lawmakers who scarcely come for plenary sessions, sponsor motions and bills, do you really think Nigerian lawmakers deserve what they are earning, even what RMFAC specifies?

Gbajabiamila: Two issues: one they don’t come to work; and two, they don’t sponsor motion or bill. If there is any such lawmaker who doesn’t report for duty, I have problem with that.

Having said that let me explain why some lawmakers don’t attend plenary. The number of seats in the House chamber is almost thrice the number of lawmakers. So, the chamber will always look empty. Two, if you say somebody does not come for plenary, it does not mean he is somewhere sleeping.

A lot of members are either in one committee meeting or actually being at the office doing research on a bill or motion you are interested in. Sometimes, you are even receiving constituents. Is that wrong or right? Again, I always like to make comparative analysis. I have been to the American Congress, not once. The US Congressmen, who you in Nigeria think deserve money they get don’t just go to plenary. Plenary is for important vote. US Congressmen are there in their offices working. The only time they go to plenary is when there is an important vote. I have been there twice. When there is an issue that is important for them to vote on, when it is time to vote, they leave their offices and register for the vote because in the first place your constituents have to know which side you are. So, while plenary sessions are very important, there are reasons why people miss them. People do important work in their offices.

On the sponsorship bill, it is not about number – if you expect all members to sponsor bills. Go and do the research, in most advanced democracies, in one year or session, maybe 40-60 bills. It’s not about quantity but quality of bills. In a year, in America, Germany or Britain, they pass maybe five bills, but meaningful ones. I have seen all sorts of bills, ridiculous bills on the floor of the House. And the reason why these members are doing this is because of the emphasis people outside are placing on the bills, so you have unnecessary bills.

PT: Why is that the House does conclude investigations regarding its members? There is once example, allegation of bribery against Farouk Lawan.

Gbajabiamila: A very difficult question to answer! You have to look at it case by case. In Farouk Lawan’s case, the investigation was overtaken by event. The matter is in court. The guy is facing criminal trial. Now, if you come out with an investigative report and he is found not guilty, it will be prejudicial to the court trial. If he is found guilty, it will affect him, himself, in getting fair trial in court. You can say it is in abeyance because of the court case. We concluded one, involving our member, yesterday.

PT: You lost the position of Speaker of the House narrowly. At that point what was on your mind exactly?

Gbajabiamila: There was feeling of disappointment. But immediately, I told myself God’s will had been done. I am a very firm believer in God. And you can’t question God. Of course there was treachery. The expectation was high. We thought we had it.

PT: What’s your take on party supremacy and independent legislature? You’re one of the advocates of independent legislature. You’re saying leadership should emerge by free will of the members yet you were one of those anointed by the party for last year’s contest. Is there no conflict there?

Gbajabiamila: There is no conflict at all. In any democracy in the world you have to understand the party system. Independence of the legislature and the party supremacy are not conflictual. A party can have preference. If a party feels that a man or woman represents and push the ideals, policies and programmes of the party better than this man or woman, the party has the right to have its preference.

There was no imposition. Because the party did not want imposition, it called for mock election. If there was imposition, there would be no mock election for members to exercise their free will. So, the party can guide you that this is what we believe best suit our party. But then, you have the right to go ahead to do whatever you want. But later you have to face the party later. You cannot say you don’t need the party to guide you but when it is time for election you say you need the party. So, I think the independence of the legislature and party supremacy can work together. Even in America, there is always an establishment candidate. In the coming election, the establishment candidate of the Democrats won but that of the Republicans did not.

PT: Are you satisfied with APC performance in the last one year? Are you aware Nigerians are suffering? Do you have any hope in 2019?

Gbajabiamila: Am I satisfied? I am satisfied. Are people suffering? Yes. People are suffering a lot, not just suffering. But who is to blame? What is the reason for the suffering? For me, it is two things. One, APC Government met a near comatose destroyed economy. I don’t care what anybody says. Completely destroyed! We are witnesses to mind-boggling amount said to have been stolen. We are talking in terms of billions, no more millions in Nigeria. We are talking in terms of dollars. Billions of dollars that was meant to fight Boko Haram which they were accusing APC of sponsoring going into private pockets and sending soldiers with bare hands and if they don’t go you court martial them.

The second reason is what’s going on across the globe. Nigeria only makes money from petrol. Petrol price fell from $100 per barrel to $30. If you are a farmer and one year there is natural plight which destroys your crop, not by your mistake. That’s what happens in relation to the crude oil price. Your children are going to make an incredible adjustment. Buhari came and met $30 per barrel and manage it. Going by trend of the last administration, even that $30 they would steal it. Go to all oil producing countries, they had this hike (pms price) since December. People are suffering, It is terrible. It is called crude awakening. Opposition will say it is the fault of the president but the ruling party will say it’s what we met.


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