Mark Gbillah, a member of the House of Representatives and senatorial candidate of the Labour Party for Benue North-west District, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Bakare Majeed, talks about the rise of Labour Party, why the National Assembly seems not to be carrying out legislative oversight on the CBN and NNPC, and the inefficiency of the opposition in the 9th House.
PT: People still see the Labour Party as a “social media” party. In your state, Benue, is there anything on the ground?
Gbillah: I can understand when certain so-called established political parties feel threatened by the level of acceptability that the Labour Party has at the moment, particularly with regards to the popularity of our presidential candidate, that is, His Excellency, Peter Obi. Unfortunately, they take it for granted because they think that they have established what they call structures on ground but they forget that these structures are individuals – are people who are feeling the brunt of the failure of their parties’ past and current administrations as well. So, it is important to point out that they made this grievous mistake, forgetting that recently, I believe they referred to the EndSARS movement as a social media hype but you see how it translated to millions of people across the country. These individuals that you see on social media, they live in houses, they live in the community. A recent poll by Bloomberg News that was conducted showed amazing support for the Labour Party across the country.
So, I think those people who do not recognise the imminent change in this country should be wary because Nigerians are tired of the failures—there is a new generation, a new demographic of Nigerians who are just reaching voting age. Some of them who previously did not vote are mobilised and motivated this time to vote because things have gotten to a head again in this country where something has to change. And in the Middle Belt, I can assure you that the Labour Party is the party to beat because I am sure you will agree with me that the Middle Belt is replete with civil servants. That is the civil service region of Nigeria. These are people who have been suffering with failure in payment of salaries, who have been suffering with the inability to have a living wage. So they identify with the Labour Party and they are identifying with the yearning of the Nigerian people for change. This is the region which probably has the largest number of retirees and pensioners in the country. And those people are waiting to show the entire political players in Nigeria that they want to take back their country and have a new Nigeria.
PT: While what you have stated appears to resonate with urban youth, how about the rural people?
Gbillah: Let me say this in two ways. First and foremost, even before the commencement of campaigns, you need to realise that we are in the information technology age and era. Now, even though our telecommunications companies have not done a good job of covering underserved areas of the country. However, to a large extent, every community has network coverage with access to the internet. Now, those people in those rural communities we are talking about are even more agitated about the failure of government. They are even more enthusiastic about the Labour Party, which has now provided them an alternative to what they had known and that has failed them up till now. And this we discovered when we started to have certain consultations in those areas. And you can be assured that as we have commenced campaigns now, we are going to reach out to them and tell them. So we have enough time to educate them appropriately. For those in the North, who are being misguided about this perennial fear of the South-easterners – perennial fear of an Igbo man, by telling them it is not about ethnicity. What have the people who are from your ethnic orientation and religion done to you that you think you should be loyal and continue to wallow in the same circumstances you have been suffering over the years? So, it is important that we recognise that even in the rural areas, a lot of awareness about the Labour Party has been created and we intend to do a lot more of that going forward.
PT: In Benue State, there is the “Yes Father” wave by the APC guber candidate, there is also the PDP led by Governor Samuel Ortom. Let us use your own election as a case study, can you defeat Governor Ortom?
Gbillah: First and foremost, Benue State showed in the last elections about being a rather more enlightened electorate than other parts of the country. If you remember, we had candidates from APGA and Labour Party, who emerged in the House of Representatives. So, that means we have learnt how to vote based on the candidate, not just the party. So, let me start with the regards to my own election and that is exactly what I am appealing to the Benue people in my zone – to look at the candidacy – me, the governor, the candidate of the APC or any other party and to look at who, in terms of legislative competence, experience, delivery and performance is more likely to be the best choice to represent them in the Red Chamber. So, this is something that I am doing with the understanding that our people have that knowledge to separate the establishment from individuals. And if you remember that in 2015, a sitting governor (Gabriel Suswam) in the establishment party (PDP) lost his attempt to go to the Senate. It was only in 2019 that he came back to win because as at (of) that time the APC government had exposed itself to be a greater failure than the PDP. So, these things have happened in Benue State. So you can see that our people are educated and are educated enough to differentiate. Thank God for the Electoral Act, that is also a major game player in the scheme of things. It provides to a large extent a more level playing field. I am not saying it is perfect but to a large extent, people’s votes – as long as we stay and protect the votes, it will count. And then you begin to see a difference.
PT: Away from politics, you are a member of the House ad hoc committee investigating the PMS subsidy regime. Nigerians have seen loads of investigations on the subsidy regime. Is this one of those investigations without outcome?
Gbillah: Yes, I am part of the ad hoc committee on the subsidy regime. It is important to note that we have found a couple of anomalies that we have identified. Vessels that were reported to be bringing in petroleum products were found to be crude oil tankers which makes it impossible for that record to be correct because crude oil tankers do not carry refined petroleum products. These are things we are going to bring to the fore in our report and we are going to require the NNPC and those marketers to refund all such money to the government and we are going to put a searchlight on any of such claims.
And we have also identified the inefficiency of certain decisions of government that have led us to where we are because fundamentally, the reason why we are destroying our commonwealth and destroying the future of our children with subsidy is that we are not refining in Nigeria. And several administrations have come in that they are doing turnaround maintenance and it has turned out to be a cesspool of corruption – of pilfering of the country’s resources.
This current administration again has come that they are rehabilitating the refineries. We are going to take a cursory look at whatever is being done and hold them accountable. One thing I want Nigerians to know is that NNPC is constituting itself as a quasi-government on its own and this administration has been using it as a means of financing their activities and so they are not encouraging proper oversight of the institution called NNPC. So, Nigerians need to know they need to elect the right people in the legislature who will eschew partisan inclination and be able to stand up and confront what is going on in the NNPC because, as we speak, every attempt to get to the bottom of issues at NNPC is resisted from the Villa because it appears that it is a milking cow for the administration to utilise for whatever purposes they want to. And I am one of those who is looking at the option of instituting legal action by myself if I do not think that my institution is allowing us to do our work openly in the legislature, because there are certain issues that have come up that I am hoping the report will capture. So far, the Chairman of the committees and those of us who are members of the committees are insisting that those issues be highlighted in the report and we don’t want this report to be another one of those reports that will not see the light of the day. This is because our target and focus is the complete removal of subsidy. Nigeria does not need to be bogged down just because of a single petroleum product, we are mortgaging our future as if life will not go on without petrol.
PT: Will it be correct to say the current House lacks the political will to take on the NNPC?
Gbillah: I agree with you, that is the situation. Because I am privy to the fact that a lot of times when issues arise, there are calls to the leadership from the (presidential) Villa about toning down on these issues. It is unfortunate that there are too many concerns about political correctness, about protecting the political parties, instead of protecting the country. There is no longer any patriotism being displayed but partisanship and protecting the image of a party, the leadership of the party and the government. So, I agree with you. I personally have not seen the resolve to confront the administration – like some of us did. Because I was elected under the APC and I was one of the most vociferous critics until I had to leave because they wanted to victimise some of us for criticising their lack of performance. This is what we expect from legislators that are no longer representing their parties. When they are in that position, they are representing Nigeria. But they seem to be that concerned a lot of times with the interest of the government and the party. This trumps national interest, and it is affecting the performance of this current House and that, I dare say, would be the bane of this House when the records are looked at in the future for posterity’s sake.
PT: Speaking about a strong legislature, some have also pointed out that your party failed to field candidates for some legislative seats. If the idea is about changes, are you not planning to fail like that?
Gbillah: Let me start on the issue of people not emerging, you are referring to those currently in the system and that means you are concluding that they are the best.
PT: No, I am talking about the current election.
Gbillah: In almost every position, the Labour Party has candidates, a few of whom are even sitting members of the House and the Senate. In Benue State, we have fielded candidates in almost every position and we are believing that the wind of change – the real change, not just change anymore, the real change or true change will blow again in 2023 and Labour candidates will emerge in large numbers because the election into national positions is on the same day. That, I believe, will carry a lot of momentum even at the state level. But this is a question that our presidential candidate has been asked several times; that ‘don’t you think you will have an issue ruling without the majority in the National Assembly?” Remember that he has had that experience before in Anambra State, this is not the first time. So, it is important that leadership is about being able to work with even those who are opposed to you and to be able to achieve the results you desire. Remember, Nigerians who gave him the mandate will be observant and protect the mandate they gave their president. And we as members of the party, we will always appeal to them – the Nigerian people. We want to get to a place where people determine what happens, not political actors. Even if in the National Assembly they try, which they will not because a president in person of Peter Obi will have a harmonious working relationship with the National Assembly and they will see a greater response and transparency in executive operations. You will not see a situation today where agencies of government, ministers, heads of agencies disregard the National Assembly, you will not see that anymore. They disregard – they do not willingly divulge information we require to do our work. They do not cooperate with the National Assembly. A president, in the person of Peter Obi, will promote the proper implementation of the budget. He will promote proper oversight over NNPC, over CBN. These are the critical institutions that have become quasi-governments on their own under this administration where no accountability is provided.
PT: Talking about CBN, there was a motion you moved on your account being frozen by the CBN. Several Nigerians, including EndSARS activists, also experienced the same. What is the status of the motion?
Gbillah: It is very critical to hold the CBN accountable. I have it on record that the CBN is in the habit of freezing accounts without any court order. They do so and they run to get a court order when that individual raises an objection after the fact. So, you can imagine when it becomes public that an institution like that violates the law, how much it will affect their operations and their rating in the global community? But this is what is happening under Governor (Godwin) Emefiele, where they think they are a government on their own. They disregard, even the EndSARS protesters were affected. Unfortunately, Femi Falana was able to get legal reprieve on their behalf. But there are several Nigerians who have suffered somehow because of this impunity by the CBN – freezing accounts at will.
It is even used for political victimisation as far as I am concerned. Which is what I suffered. Because I was engaging in a scheme to promote contribution – crowd-funding for the beneficiaries of the COVID-19 intervention. Not a single penny of that money was lost. But when they saw that people were gathering money, they froze those accounts and it took over a year after the police investigation that exonerated me from any wrongdoing was completed – those people suffered. That is where I got the details that CBN froze those accounts without a court order and there is evidence in that regard, thinking that as a responsible House, we will rise up to the challenge.
Unfortunately, the Chairman of the Committee on Banking and Currency (Victor Nwokolo) seems to be a stooge of the CBN governor and he is unable to carry out the investigation that this House has passed. Unfortunately, the speaker (Femi Gbajabiamila) granted him that latitude to do so. Although I appreciated the fact that the Speaker eventually said that the motion – after I raised it severally – should now be taken away from that committee, he has not taken it to another committee to investigate. So I will still follow up in that regard. I have instituted legal action against the CBN for the breach of my fundamental rights and I am seeking claims because that incident that occurred – about them freezing my account without due process – affected me because all those individuals started to malign my character and person, thinking that I was the one that defrauded them.
And the CBN illegally started to pry into my transactions without any order of any court of law. This is not allowed, this is not within their power to do. CBN has an illegal unit they call the Economic Financial Intelligence Unit, who claim they do financial investigation. But the CBN does not have any power to carry out any financial investigation, it is an illegal unit that Nigerians should be aware of. These are the things I wanted to raise in that motion that we were supposed to investigate. It is an illegal unit, the CBN governor should be held for flaunting legal provisions. The law simply says if there are any suspicions about something, they should get court order before freezing the account and refer the issue to relevant investigating agencies; EFCC or the police to carry out the investigation. But the CBN now acts as an authority in itself. It freezes accounts and investigates. Who gave them that power?
PT: Back to the Labour Party, is there a long-term plan in the event that your party fails to win the presidency?
Gbillah: There is a long term plan. You know that it is only in Nigeria, in other climes, a Labour Party is usually one of the main parties. In the UK, Germany, France, parties that have to do with labour are prominent in other developed climes. That is what we want to build in Nigeria. For a country that has a majority in the working class that are civil servants, that is their constituency. The problem is that they have not been mobilised and motivated. Because they alone can deliver the leadership of this country if they rise up to their responsibilities. So, that is what we want to build but we don’t just want to build it upon the civil servants alone, but also on ordinary Nigerian people – to see in this party a better future and better opportunities because of the ideals of this party, where we promote accountability and transparency, and we will not promote money bags and peculiar interests. So, this is the kind of ideology that we want to build on, this is something we want to start to build on, and because this is something we don’t have in this country. We don’t have political parties with ideology that people follow. We want to build a political party with an ideology that people can follow. If you are coming to Labour, put your money aside, you need to be able to provide the dividends of democracy and have the capacity to do so. Yes at this point, there is a purée of individuals that are involved, the party to a large extent is trying its best to make sure that it is the people of repute and credibility. As we begin to emerge, there will be more efforts to scrutinise the people…
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