Babajimi Benson is the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Defence. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Benson who represents Ikorodu Federal Constituency of Lagos State speaks on poor welfare of Nigerian soldiers in the war front, as well as other legislative and national issues.
PT: Nigerians, including the House of Reps, have called for the sack of the service chiefs and nothing has been done yet. This is coupled with the fact that killings and insecurity have persisted across the country. Are you not worried?
Benson: The buck stops at Mr President’s table for sacking of service chiefs. Members whose constituencies have been victims of Boko Haram have come to the floor to do their job, to bring out the cries of their constituents to the parliament.
The parliament has heard them, the parliament unanimously sent a resolution on what should be done on those matters to Mr President. However, our resolutions are advisory so it is up to Mr President to decide to take it wholeheartedly or to use his military strategy because he is a general, he knows where the shoes pinch. As a general, he knows who should be the driver of his security architecture. In the fullness of time, I know he will do the appropriate thing, but for now, I think he has left them maybe for strategic reasons.
PT: Many believe that the legislature is ineffective because most of its resolutions are not being implemented. Do you agree with that?
Benson: I do not agree with that because the legislature, if you look at the constitution, is the number one organ of government. The legislature, we are are a lawmaking body and we also drive policy of government. So the legislature is extremely important.
Maybe what you want to say is that having a bi-camera legislature is expensive but I believe that the House of Representatives has held their heads very high and we are the most effective of any arm of government we have in Nigeria today.
PT: Are you in support of unicameral legislation?
Benson: Yes because it makes things cheaper, the House of Reps already covers 360 federal constituencies in Nigeria so if the House looks into that and they put it up to vote, I may be in support of a unicameral parliament.
PT: When you say the sacking of the service chiefs for instance stops at the doorsteps of the President, does that mean some of the resolutions passed by the House are not necessarily important because we have a couple of them like that?
Benson: We have a couple of resolutions that have not been implemented and we have a couple that have been implemented so at times, because it has to do with national security and the president is a general, he sees a lot more than we see so he has his strategic reasons for keeping them.
PT: What would you say about the personnel deployed for the fight against insecurity? There have been complaints about their welfare not being taken care of.
Benson: I visited the Lafiya Dole theatre and I saw what they’ve done with so little and I believe the welfare can be better. I believe the people fighting and putting themselves in the forefront for Nigeria to be safe deserve to get premium welfare and its part of what my committee is looking at to ensure that their welfare is up-scaled and the money gets to the troops as and when due. It’s part of the reason we went to the theatre itself. Our report is still being deliberated upon, we saw a lot as well and in the fullness of time, the report will come out and state what our fact-finding mission has been able to unearth.
PT: Defence has got the largest bulk of allocation and we are still advocating for more support. How much of attention have you given to that which has been allocated initially?
Benson: Very good question. If you look at the budget, you will see over 800 billion dollars was devoted to the Defence industry. If you take a critical look at that you will see that 80 per cent of that amount is devoted to welfare, which leaves 20 per cent that is devoted to purchase of critical infrastructure to spice the war to protect Nigeria. If you now critically look, you will also know that government does not fund its budget 100 per cent, they fund 40 or 50 per cent or maybe 60 per cent at best. If you are devoting 20 per cent to the military to purchase hardware infrastructure and you are not paying 100 per cent, you only pay a percentage of it because of the envelop system of budgeting that we do. If you benchmark that 40,50 or 60 per cent against other countries, because we all need to do a comparative analysis to know how far we are behind in having critical infrastructure to defend our country.
We had a retreat the other day and there is a saying that I saw “a nation cannot have economic growth without security and cannot have security without a a vibrant economy”. The price and premium we should pay on securing ourselves should be huge. If you look at prosperous countries of the world; China, America and UK, you will be amazed at how much they devote to their security budget because once there is security, economy will thrive. We don’t spend as much as we should be spending on critical infrastructure and Nigerians just look at that amount allocated in the budget. There is a difference between appropriating money for defence and releases. We should ask ourselves how much has been released, not appropriated. If we find out how much has been released, we would have more empathy, more sympathy for our armed forces who go to the line and put their lives down.
PT: Are you not bothered that a critical sector like the defence is also suffering from lack of funds after appropriation?
Benson: We are looking at it, that is why we are having all hands on deck to ensure that releases are more promptly executed and released, and also looking for other ways.
Like in other countries, it is probably only in Nigeria that we fund military on the budget. In other countries, there are different ways of funding their military because it is very critical to have the military in place and it is very critical to have your territorial integrity defended and having internal security appropriate, it has a nexus on how developed you would be.
PT: Talking about the military support fund you recently sponsored in the House, many Nigerians have described it as another way of siphoning money from the public. What do you think of this perception?
Benson: I want to plead with Nigerians to understand the predicaments we are in. When you look at the budget and look at the amount, only a small fraction of that budget is devoted to purchase of equipment and to safeguard that public opinion perception that the money would be siphoned, we proposed that the board of that fund should be structured, we deliberately brought in the private sector to be part of it to complement the military. It is not a military affair only, we said that the MD of the sovereign wealth fund should be included. If you recall the $300 billion Abacha loot, the American government insisted they must go through a sovereign wealth fund which is a very structured organisation we have in Nigeria. We deliberately brought that agency and put it in the board. We said that a Nigerian that is Forbes magazine-rated should also be appointed, we said that the chairman of the oil and gas companies (IOC’s) should also be on the board because we have maritime issues when you are doing oil and gas and we also have militants issue. We said that chairman of the telecommunications companies should also be on the board. We also said a retired CBN Governor should also be put on the board, so these are people who will add value and integrity on that board.
PT: If you are talking about security, won’t it be a futile effort if we are not paying so much attention to education because most of these criminals, they recruit people who are not educated? Why are we not paying that much attention to education?
Benson: I agree with that, you cannot use security and law enforcement agencies to kill poverty. One of the things we always hammer on is that governors in those areas should also live up to expectations, they should provide jobs and upscale their educational facilities. Last week we had a one-day session on how to give the Almajiri kids a better life but it is part of the holistic package we are trying to do, to ensure that our kids are well-educated. I believe that there are some already established interventions for education, UBEC etc. they should be more critically supervised and enhanced so that we can really see the dividends of democracy in that area
PT: How long does it take for next of kins of fallen heroes to get their benefits?
Benson: I had this discussion with the chairman of the military pension, they said that before they pay, they meet the specific agency concerned (ie Airforce, Navy or Army) to be able to send the file and evidence of death to them, once they get that, they pay as soon as possible or immediately. But it is that bureaucratic process that at times stalls the prompt payments.
PT: But some still don’t get paid despite completing all the processes…
Benson: Are you sure they submitted to the appropriate channel? What we like to do is that if it is brought to our attention by way of a petition, we will go to the appropriate channel to find out why there is a delay, it could be a process delay. But they should not be delayed in getting emoluments or the payments due to the deceased family.
PT: Should the bulk of people waiting all bring a petition to the House of Representatives before they get their benefits?
Benson: I’m saying that some people who have those kinds of petitions approach me. I’ve dealt with petitions like this in the past, they do act on them and we get results.
PT: How would you say the 9th assembly has impacted on Nigerians?
Benson: I think the ninth assembly, being an assembly that has adopted the name ‘nation building, a joint task’, to the best of our ability, have done our best and stood in for Nigerians. So far so good, we have spent close to nine months and we have tried to fight the cause of the common man, you can see that in our bills and motions.
PT: Legislators are believed to be a group of high-earning government officials. This proves to be true because when you compare an average Nigerian leader with an average Nigerian on the street, the difference is always clear. What would you say about that?
Benson: I would say unfortunately so, we earn more than is right. But again, I will give myself as an example. I earn a lot; but that a lot goes back to my federal constituency. I have six local governments in my federal constituency.
Let’s use a hypothetical example: I spend ₦50,000 a day — which is a drop in the ocean — in one of these local governments. That’s ₦300,000 in the six local governments.
Let’s assume I do that for 30 days in a month, that’s ₦9 million. So little but when you aggregate it, it eats up a lot of money. And I don’t even earn that amount in a month.
Yes, so many representatives earn so much but have responsibilities so so so so so much. Legislators get deserving requests daily.
PT: But this is not your function as a lawmaker?
Benson: It’s easier said than done. Your job (as a lawmaker) is also to represent. That representation means a lot to the constituents. As a representative, I cannot close my eyes to people who are in need. We have a lot of people who are in need. You see a first-class who cannot pay school fee, students who can’t buy JAMB form.
More so, I inherited a salary and allowance that I know that from that, I can be able to help the less-privileged. Because people don’t have access to facilities and amenities, we have to interject as politicians.
PT: In one sentence, sir, how much do you earn?
Benson: My salary? How much do we earn? (beckoning to another lawmaker sitting close) ₦600,000 or so.
PT: Asides your salary, don’t you think the reason your constituents are demanding so much from you is because they know that the allowances you get are so huge? Yet they, and even the press, still struggle to know how much it is.
Benson: I was giving somebody an analogy the other day. In Lagos, we have 24 representatives. Each rep, because we are 24, gets less than ₦50 million. When you remove taxes, VAT and so on, it is reduced. We also know that the budget releases are not 100 per cent.
Only 40 or 50 per cent gets released for me to execute a constituency project that is domiciled in a federal ministry I have no control over. All I have to do is to nominate a project and say locate it here. So I get ₦15 to ₦20 million out of what is due to me, and I have six local governments.
But the perception out there is that that money for constituency projects they put in the representative’s pockets. So everyone wants a piece of the cake.
It is domiciled in a ministry; the ministry writes a letter of award to the contractor; they pay the contractor as and when due based on milestone; the contractor has a performance bond that he domiciles at the office of the ministry.
It’s a perception thing that the National Orientation Agency and everybody needs to come on board to understand the role of a parliamentarian.
PT: Both houses of the National Assembly have bills on regional development commissions at different legislative stages. Some believe this would balkanise Nigeria. Do you believe this too?
Benson: As the ninth Assembly, the constitutional review committee, which would start work soon, has a very strong role to play in ensuring that this country is restructured. Because what those zones want is that they want a better take, arrangement, benefits from this entity called Nigeria.
If the constitutional review committee can do their job efficiently, I’m sure all these demands for development commissions would fizzle out.
PT: Suspicions are rife on the intention of the House in keeping its budget a secret. Why hasn’t the National Assembly opened its budget?
Benson: Part of what we agreed upon as the ninth Assembly is to be as open as possible. I think there were efforts to open the budget but I don’t know how far they have gone into doing it. I know that in the fullness of time that would be done.
PT: How did the House arrive at the decision to buy 2020 Toyota Camry cars for its 360 members against made in Nigeria?
Benson: It’s numbers. The Toyota Camry cars were more readily available. I subscribe to the Innoson idea but I don’t think you can get that number (400) in the shortest possible time.
It is something the House is looking at, that going forward, we should start building the capacity of our local industries. Innoson for me is a fantastic, brilliant idea but they need to ramp up in terms of capacity so that Nigerians and MDAs would be able to patronise them.
PT: It is believed that those vehicles are given to lawmakers as loans. How do you pay back?
Benson: They deduct it monthly from our salaries.
PT: If a member comes in halfway, how is the deduction made?
Benson: That would be better explained to you by the House Services Committee. I’d be the wrong person to give you a brief on car issues. You know we work in committees.
PT: How would you rate the leadership of the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila?
Benson: Mr Joint Task? He has done very well. He carries everyone along. I like the way he gives the first timers to learn very quickly. He gives them second chance to perfect their breach. He’s done very well. He’s been able to steer the ship appropriately.
PT: He (the Speaker) recently celebrated his mum’s birthday in Dubai. Although he claimed it wasn’t funded by public funds. He is your friend and compatriot, do you think that excuse is genuine in a country with one of the highest population of poor people in the world?
Benson: Whether he’s number four citizen or not, his mum would still have elected to do her party in Lome or Benin Republic. The woman is 90. So she may have a reason to throw her party outside of Nigeria. She was the first chairman of Surulere Local Government and she is also a woman of means.
You may question that. But I don’t think it’s the Speaker that took a choice to hold the party outside of Nigeria. I think it’s a choice thing by the mum. Truthfully, members of the parliament were not invited. I also understand the feelings among Nigerians that the number four citizen should have encouraged his mum to hold her party in Nigeria but I don’t think he was the one who instructed his mum (to do so). In terms of hierarchy, amongst his mum’s kids, he is number four. Would it be fair to say as the number four citizen’s mum, don’t have your party in Dubai? Although I understand what Nigerians feel about it.
PT: Each time I’m in the gallery, I’m always curious why we often have too many empty seats. Granted, the seats are more than the House members and some are often out on committee assignments, but this is not to say some don’t come at all.
Benson: In America, for instance, legislators only come to the Congress when they have issues to discuss. Congress in session is Congress in exhibition while Congress in the committee room is Congress at work. So the work of the parliament is in the committees.
Secondly, I’m aware that infrastructure that would enable members to sign in electronically are currently being put in place and very soon would be deployed. Tracking attendance in an automated way would come up in this ninth Assembly so constituents would be able to monitor how often their members come to the plenary. But, like I said, the major work lies in the committees.
PT: This interview will not be complete if we don’t talk about your party, APC. The PDP has said it would take Lagos away from the APC. You might say this won’t happen. But the APC Lagos is currently facing crisis. Do you think the APC still stands a chance in that state?
Benson: PDP’s claim is laughable. They should first win a ward in Lagos before they talk about winning the general election. Political parties would always have crisis, disputes, differences. Most importantly, what matters is conflict management resolution. I think that has kicked in.
In the fullness of time, a stronger, more vibrant, more nimble political party would emerge. We are going to emerge stronger. This is same for the national APC. Like George Bush said, you impose peace with a war. The disputes have come, it would come out more peaceful and stronger.