The chairman Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele (APC Ekiti Central), says political elites are obstructing efforts to restructure Nigeria. He also spoke on other burning national issues. Taiye Odewale. Excerpts.
As a strong advocate of true federalism, what do you think about bills before the NASS seeking to establish federal institutions in different parts of the country creating an impression of a unitary entity?
The National Assembly can only make laws for the federation. If each of the federal lawmakers will bring a bill, it has to be one on the creation of a federal institution. It is the prerogative of each state to either seek to establish its own university, polytechnic or college of education.
It is political. So much about what is going on in Nigeria is still about trying to also bring something to the community of every elected representative. Today, we are talking about the Development Commission in each of the six geo political zones.
As to the need for decentralization, I remain committed to true federalism and to the need to restructure because it is the way forward. We cannot run away from it. Anyone who says he doesn’t believe in it is only pretending or doesn’t have a scientific understanding of what is wrong with our society and what ought to be done.
There is a difference between what is and what ought to be done. What is right now is a structure partly handed over to us by our colonial masters and being fortified and perpetrated through a constitution given to us by the military. It was like a decree legitimised by an act of parliament.
There will still be need for people’s constitution that will address very critical issues, including the issue of restructuring of our polity, economy, our means of sharing our common wealth and the earlier we do this, the better
I know of people who cannot go to their states of origin, but rather stay in Abuja for safety reasons, and they feel something has to be done. But if you tell them of the need for a State Police, they will still oppose it even though they are stuck in Abuja, they cannot go home. A lot of things are wrong.
The Nigerian leadership is still playing the ostrich but my hope and prayer is that we will come to terms with the reality of our situation before it is too long.
What is your take on regionalism?
I don’t think any of our regions will have any regret practicing regionalism. The truth about this is, federalism also has its own advantages and it is much more fashionable if you look at it within the contest of global standards of governance. It affords the nation an opportunity to tap into the strength and diversity of the country. What is killing our federalism is that you have a centre that is almost an incredible hub at the expense of the states.
What is the percentage of our budget that goes to the federating units? Some of the states don’t have the capacity to even do anything. We have a state where after paying salaries, can hardly do anything in terms of income generation. Everybody comes cap in hand to the centre. It is a problem. No country can grow that way. This is part of what led to the situation where some people were advocating that we should go back to the regional arrangement that we had before.
But the disadvantage is that today, we have a situation where the groundnut pyramid is gone which was the bastion of the economy of the north. The cocoa export, which was the bastion of the economy of the Western region, is flat on the floor. It is still possible for us to revisit all these things.
But because we found oil as a federal structure, everybody abandoned every other thing and our economy became monolithic. Today, by lip service, a lot of administrations had emphasized on the need to broaden the scope of our economy and take it beyond oil. But to a very large extent, we have not been able to work the talk in that regard.
But I see a lot of positive differences being made in that regard by the current administration. If you look at what has happened in the area of agriculture but unfortunately, COVID-19 is trying to almost wipe off the gains of all our efforts. But we are getting to a point where rice importation was becoming a thing of the past and that was a good beginning. We are not there yet but we are already having a good beginning of walking our talk with respect to our dream of diversification of our economy.
Why haven’t the political elites adopted the doctrine of necessity to restructured Nigeria and isn’t the National Assembly capable of midwifing this?
The National Assembly is capable of midwifing it. The people we have in the National Assembly are elected representatives of the Nigerian people. But it is something that will go beyond just bringing a bill.
When you bring a bill, you are trying to amend the constitution or enact some other laws as an act of parliament. But no act of parliament will take precedence over the constitution. The best is to seek to amend the constitution. And then, it goes beyond the National Assembly. It is supposed to be the responsibility of the political class.
The ruling class, which also includes the opposition parties, has a responsibility of trying to descend from its Olympian heights and purge itself of this idea of monopoly of patriotism and knowing what is wrong with Nigeria.
The ruling class, represented by the government of the day, will have to instigate it, initiate it and provide a platform for other stakeholders to come on board.
You cannot run away from the critical issue of restructuring. My hope and prayer is that we are not going to pretend about it for too long or wait till the whole system collapses on everyone. But definitely, it is a question begging for an answer.
What is your assessment of the 9th Senate vis-a-vis the past and against the backdrop that the 9th Senate is seen as a rubber stamp legislature that silences the opposition?
The 9th Senate, to an extent, is different from the previous assembly. But it is the same arm of government that is misunderstood and the least popular. Members of the public don’t understand the nitty gritty of the workings of the parliament and sometimes when they criticize, they mean well. Like I always said, it is the people that will criticize the government not the other way round.
It is also the least popular. We have had some bills in the last one year that also didn’t help our popularity, regardless of the fact that the distinguished Senators who sponsored these bills meant. But how are their bills perceived by the public and to what extent did that affect the image of the Senate as an institution and the individual Senators? Unfortunately, many persons are yet to understand the workings of the parliament.
When a private member bill is read for the first time, it doesn’t matter how bad it is, you cannot hold the Senate responsible. We have other 108 members who will access the bill and part of the process of the legislation is that the bill itself, after the Senators would have debated the general principle during second reading, will be subjected to public scrutiny. You could have a situation where the preponderance of opinion would have even killed the bill and that will be the end.
But a lot of time, the parliament is assessed based on the kind or nature of bills that are read for the first time and then people bring it down with comments and insinuations on social media. They mean well. We also don’t have a well-organized system in parliament that can continually articulate the position of the parliament.
Most of the time, we do damage control. People would have formed their opinion before you explain things. Even members of the fourth estate of the realm, who work directly with us, don’t have the ideas of the inner workings because we don’t avail them the quality and extent of information that they need to properly report what we are doing. All of these still happen, and to that extent I will say we are still like the previous Senate.
There is also the feeling that we collect a lot of money. The situation has gone so bad that people think what is going on in the National Assembly is sharing of money. And I’m one of those who have been trying to push the leadership on the need for us to publish everything, the salaries and allowances of members for the public to know.
But some are against it for reasons of national security and again which parliament anywhere in the world has done that. Secondly, how many judges and members of the executive have published their salaries and allowances? Besides, the agency responsible for public servants’ salary has not come out to say these are the salaries and allowances of A – Z categories of public office holders. Because that is not happening, you leave the public to do their speculations. Here again we are not different.
However, we are different in one thing. We are committed to serving Nigerians without grandstanding. Lately, you have seen some situations in the parliament especially with respect to the NDDC probe and the disagreement on 774,000 jobs.
Were we to be a grandstanding assembly things would have degenerated and the relationship between the two arms of government would have almost collapsed by now. But we chose to remain consistent in our position not to grandstand. Does that make us a rubber stamp parliament? No. My own idea of being a rubber stamp parliament is a situation where anything goes, either out of compromise or timidity.
The executive arm of government came together with the legislature, the civil society and the Nigerian public on the need for us to begin to pass our budget early and the budget was passed in December.
I will tell you that if being able to work with the executive to have an early budget for this country is part of why the 9th Assembly will be dubbed rubber stamp parliament; I believe it is in overriding public interest.
Beyond that, they brought all manners of loan requests. Some members of the public genuinely were concerned that why would the National Assembly approve any loan request for the executive. Again, I ask, what could we had done differently when the budget was passed with assumptions that the crude oil would be sold at a price of $54 per barrel and producing certain quantity per day, but because of COVID-19 pandemic, the price of crude oil nosedived from 54 to 24 dollars?
And the only thing the government can do was to think of alternative means of funding that budget because the individual nation’s economy was going into recession and Nigeria was not an exception.
Part of the settled principle of economics is that when an economy is entering recession, you have to spend your way out by ensuring that money continues to percolate so that everyone has something and they keep spending. Some other countries are going to the multilateral lenders to borrow money because they had also invested there. Some countries are taking more than they had invested for their economy not to collapse.
Because it is the law that before the government could borrow money, it will have to come to the parliament for approval. In overriding public interest, we could not say no. For us here, nothing like partisanship on the floor. We had to go into an executive session, where whatever misgivings or concerns anyone would have, will express it. And the concern has always been about what are they going to do with the money, how is it going to be expended. And once we are able to reconcile our concerns in that regard, we will go into plenary, do the debate and give approval in overriding public interest. Will that make us a rubber stamp parliament? No.
The Executive plans to borrow another N4 trillion to fund the 2021 budget deficit, and adding it to the previous loans will make Nigeria’s debt profile to be about N33 trillion. Are you not concerned about the country’s rising debt profile?
Yes, I’m concerned about the debt profile just as I’m concerned about the rate of unemployment and insecurity. I adopt a sociological approach to the issue of insecurity. If we were to have a better economy and create more jobs, the rate of insecurity will be lower.
What is the alternative and how do we go about all these? Every other thing can shut down but the government can’t. It has to continue to pay salaries, do infrastructural development, create jobs, secure lives and properties. All of these will cost money and where does the money come from?
To an extent, the IGR will have to improve. In some areas, the IGR is dwindling. Beyond all of these, you have to think of how to supplement the income that the government generates. This means that you can’t run away from borrowing and nobody is going to give you money except on terms.