Leader of the House of Representatives, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, tells JOHN AMEH why the All Progressives Congress government of President Muhammadu Buhari cannot do more than changing the psychology of Nigerians in its first year in office
Now that the All Progressives Congress-led Federal Government is one year in office, has anything really changed?
Yes, a lot has changed. The most important thing that has changed is the psychology of the Nigerian man. The idea that it is not going to be business as usual is change in itself. That is the very fundamental thing that one needs to change before every other thing begins to change. One has to change the psychology of the citizens; change the mindset and attitude of Nigerians, at least as far as corruption is concerned. There is nobody that can tell me today that a civil servant or public officer, or even ordinary Nigerian, will not think twice before committing any kind of perfidy or doing anything that appears to be corrupt. I am not saying that Nigerians are no longer corrupt or that corruption is no more, but the fact that one would think twice and look over their shoulders is the most fundamental change. Based on that attitudinal change, a lot of things will begin to fall into place. Thus, yes, in the last one year, there has been a lot of changes.
Despite the change in the psychology of the people as you claim, they now face harder times? Was that the expectation during the electioneering campaigns in 2015?
No. This is because of the kind of rot that was inherited by this administration: the issues with the petrol dollar, the crash in oil prices and all that; one cannot get that type of change overnight. Yes, I agree, human nature, and particularly Nigerians, want things to have happened as of yesterday, not even as of tomorrow. We are always in a hurry and it doesn’t work like that. This government has been in power for less than a year but the clamour for a drastic and dramatic change started even from the second month that we got in. The framers of our constitution and other constitutions in other parts of the world, in their wisdom, called for a four-year term for the President and eight years if the term was extended. They called for four years because they probably realised that it would take that long for the government to make any meaningful impact or change in the lives of the people. They didn’t put one, two or three years. If the framers, in their wisdom, called four years, I think that we must be patient; at least allow the government to go halfway. Particularly, under the circumstances in which this government came into power, I will continue to ask for patience and a little more tolerance. Those who mean well will see through this President that he is trying to clear the mess first. Sometimes, one needs to jump-start an engine to give it life again. And I think that is what is happening in this case.
What are the core economic policies or direction of the APC government?
First of all, a country’s economic policy is not talked about in the air. I am not an economist but a country’s economic policy is embedded and can be found in its budget. The first budget of this administration (2016 budget) is clear to all. It is the highest, most adventurous, most robust in history, at N6.06tn. Now, that tells you the direction of the policy of this government; that in the midst of lack, where the income from oil has gone drastically down, we are still bringing a budget of N6.06tn. It tells you that not minding what has happened, this government is adventurous enough to know that the policy has to be such that however it is sourced — borrowing or diversifying or broadening the tax net — one needs to pump money into the economy to stimulate it. Money stimulates the economy; from there, you deal with the issue of unemployment. In the budget you see social safety nets; you see intervention of N500bn pumped into the N6.06tn; agriculture has been given quite a bit and so on. Thus, the economic policy of this government, I think, is going the way it should: to re-jig the economy by pumping more money into it to add to capital projects. This government is determined to implement the budget. Prior to now, budget performance was 20 or 30 per cent. I think the highest at a point was 33 per cent. But, the current government has outperformed any preceding government in recent times in terms of budget execution, even if the budget it met was not its budget. That shows you the level of commitment of the President to the people of Nigeria.
Hasn’t the government reneged on its promise to pay N5,000 monthly stipend to vulnerable Nigerians for which the N500bn was earmarked?
I am not aware that the government has reneged on that promise. It is in the budget and the budget has been signed into law. I believe the government has already showed its good faith in keeping to that promise by including it in the budget. It is a thing that will be done in phases.
Did it worry you that for a government that wanted to jump-start the economy, it passed/signed its budget as late as May?
No, it didn’t worry me at all. Budget crisis, as it is famously called in Nigeria, is not new. It is not a Buhari or APC thing. I have been in government for over 12 years, there has never been a single year — right from (Chief Olusegun) Obasanjo’s administration to (Umaru) Yar’Adua’s, to (Goodluck) Jonathan’s — that there was no budget crisis. We had a crisis where even a former Minister of Finance had two budgets; she was implementing her own, whereas the official budget was under her table. We have had budget crisis, where even Yar’Adua decided he was going to go to court for interpretation. We have had crisis where even Jonathan cut tradition and sent somebody to present the budget. In the most advanced democracies — it is happening in the US right now — there is no time when it comes to money matters that one will not have a crisis. It is that singular document — the Appropriation Act — that determines your worth as a representative or President. There are too many contending issues as there should be. If it is a healthy disagreement; that is what is expected. That is why there are checks and balances. Let nobody try to paint it that it is about this government. No, it is not about this government. Secondly, people forget that the budget year did not end in December. Prior to now, budgets had been signed in March and this is May. People forget that the executive and the legislature came together and extended the implementation of the 2015 budget to March 2016 to make it one year, as provided by the 1999 Constitution (as amended). As of last year December, the budget would have only run for seven months. Thus, the 2016 budget was not five months late strictly speaking. If the previous budget was implemented till March, then this one was late by just one month.
But the budget crisis was unique this year. There were allegations of padding, delayed transmission of details and the President’s refusal to sign for nearly seven weeks. What is the limit of the role of the National Assembly?
Let me give a constitutional context and why, sometimes, it’s always a thug-of-war between the executive and the legislature. A lot of people in the executive believe the legislature should have no role in the budget. They believe it is a document that belongs to the executive. I am not particular about this government; it has always been like that. Meanwhile, the legislature believes that it cannot be so. Had it been intended to be that way, there would have been no need to even present the budget to the National Assembly in the first place for approval. There is a school of thought that believes that the legislature can only trim the budget but cannot add to it. I can subscribe to that argument. The constitutional provision in Section 81 that says the President should present the estimates will now make sense. That means I can move the budget figures around but not increase it. But, the problem here is that the work of a legislator does not begin and end with law making. The work includes oversight and the attraction of federal presence to those I represent. If I go around campaigning before election; telling my people I will do this, provide electricity here; if you elect me, I will do this, I will do that and on that basis they elected me into office, if I do anything otherwise, it’s tantamount to obtaining by false pretence. I come to Abuja and the only time I can fulfil those promises is once in a year; that is during the budget process. Now, I have the power to give you (executive) money to do what you want to do but I cannot subscribe to a notion that I am not allowed to make an input to protect my constituency. If anything goes wrong in my constituency, the people call me, not the President or any minister. But the minister, who is not elected, or his aides, have put certain things in the budget for the constituency where they come from. I, the elected representative, have no input for my people. In four year’s time, I am going home to ask for their votes again. What am I going to tell them? Meanwhile, the minister or his PA, who has put all these projects in my constituency, now comes to ask for their votes, what do you think will happen?
Why was it impossible for the executive and the legislature to reach some agreement on these projects before the budget got to the legislature, with the costs already captured? Why did you put projects in the budget at the National Assembly?
This point has been made severally that the best way to go about it is to work together from the very beginning of the planning of the budget. You are absolutely correct. Let us work on this thing together so that by the time the document gets to the National Assembly, it’s almost done. Both parties would have sat together and taken care of not their own interest, but the interests of their people.
The government said it had removed the ‘subsidy’ on petrol and a litre now sells officially for N145. The government earlier said ‘subsidy’ would stay. Are you satisfied with this?
No, I am not comfortable (with it), but I am pragmatic. My antecedents, when it comes to this issue, are known to all. I have always led the fight against the removal of subsidy. I have never believed in it. Even before the 2012 debate, which I led on the floor of the House as an opposition leader, I wrote a letter to then Acting President Jonathan, berating him for even thinking of removing subsidy. Once petrol price is increased, everything in everybody’s life is increased. That, for me, is a fundamental problem. It doesn’t make sense to me that a country, which is blessed with a natural resource is also importing that resource. It doesn’t make sense that you have oil in your backyard and at the same time price it as the international price simply because you are importing it. I don’t expect the price of tea in China to be the same with that of South Africa or any country that doesn’t produce tea. Subsidy is a good thing everywhere but why it is given a bad name in Nigeria? I asked those questions then. I was told it was the fraud in it, perpetrated by one per cent of the population. Now, my answer is that you cannot punish 99 per cent of Nigerians for the inefficiency of the government or the fraud of one per cent. What you need to do as a government is to plug those loopholes and deal with those fraudsters. But now, for the first time, I was at a stakeholders’ meeting at the Vice-President’s office with labour leaders. By the time a graphic picture of what was happening — with facts and figures — was reeled out and what was about to happen if we continued this way, much as I resisted, it was clear to me that we might not even have a country in a couple of months. I saw clearly that no state would be able to pay salaries in two months’ time; even oil-producing states like Bayelsa would not be able to pay salaries, if there was no federal allocation. Thus, I had to reconsider myself and my thoughts prior to now and what was in front of me. I came to the very painful conclusion that in the short term, deregulation was the best way to go and that in the long term, it would pay off for everybody. Again, this is not the government’s fault. Research has shown that other oil-producing countries are re-adjusting their subsidy regime. Even at that, I believe certain things should have been done prior to now. For instance, where is the political will to fix our refineries? It is like putting the cart before the horse to deregulate before fixing the refineries. It should have been the other way round so that we can subsidise production and not importation. The real issue is even that 70 per cent of the subsidy figure is made up; it’s not real.
People say it was hypocritical to oppose subsidy removal in 2012 only to see nothing wrong with it now that the APC government is in power. What do you say?
If we are to look at it objectively, 2012 was totally different from 2016. In 2012, oil was selling for over $100 and we had plenty money to throw around for subsidy. Hence, my position then was no; you could not allow people to suffer because you must remove subsidy. But 2016 is totally different. Oil prices have dropped. There is no money.
But why is the government still pegging prices if they have deregulated? Why keep Petroleum Product Pricing Regulatory Agency or insist on N145 per litre?
I have raised that question myself before. If you read the article I wrote in 2012, I did raise those legal questions. It is not just PPPRA, there is the Price Control Act; yes, all those things have to go if you want to deregulate and throw the market open to make the economy laissez-faire, like they say. But, I think this is almost like a home-grown deregulation; not deregulation strictly so-called. I think the government, knowing the nature of business in this country and how people can easily want to extort and take advantage (of things), has decided to re-define deregulation in the context of Nigeria. Hence, it’s not full deregulation, it’s half deregulation so long as you still have that cap. I am just thinking aloud for the government. If you leave it entirely open, it’s not impossible that the price will go to N500 per litre. Yes, we are deregulating but we will not leave it out there for you to do whatever you want; so, we cap it at N145.
The thinking in some quarters is that what all these translate into is restructuring the oil and gas industry which can be taken care of by the Petroleum Industry Bill. Why is this government, the National Assembly inclusive, not in a hurry to have the PIB in operation?
I think it will be wrong for anybody to throw the blame at the doorstep of the executive. On the contrary, laws are made by the National Assembly. You cannot throw your responsibility to another arm of government. If the National Assembly wants the PIB, the National Assembly will pass the PIB in whatever version it wants it. It is then that it will be sent to the executive for signature. If the executive vetoes the bill, it can be overridden by the National Assembly because the constitution says two-thirds can override the veto and the bill becomes law. The responsibility of passing the PIB or any other bill for that matter lies with the National Assembly. I believe that, like in most advanced democracies, there are always interests, especially in a diverse country like Nigeria. Ethnic interests, most especially as far as the PIB is concerned; geographical interests, even business interests from outside and so on. There are pressures and I believe the National Assembly should and will very soon do something. In the House of Representatives, we are working on a version of the PIB already and this is the time for the PIB to come back for quick passage in whatever version.
How soon will this be?
I will be very disappointed, if not upset, if by 2019 we don’t have a PIB. That is even too far. I will expect a shorter time-frame for the PIB to have left the National Assembly.
The issue of 360 exotic cars has generated controversies. The President is against it, Nigerians are against it. Why must lawmakers buy these cars, considering the fact that the country is not financially buoyant?
Let me say that I share in the sentiments of Nigerians that whatever we do has to reflect the prevailing situation in the country. But, I think the issue is that a lot of people find it difficult to break away from tradition. Not just tradition but the need for members, in some cases, to have utility cars. When I say utility cars, a lot of the work members do, especially with oversight, is outside the National Assembly. ‘Why can’t you use your personal car,’ many say; there is no question about that. Members also feel that whatever is done should also cut across; from state assemblies to ministries to whatever. It is human nature to kick when you think you are being isolated. But, I subscribe to the view that we should sacrifice. The issue of purchase of exotic vehicles or foreign vehicles has been taken off the table. If at all, I believe there is a consensus that it will be the locally-assembled vehicles in Nigeria. Nothing is going to be imported. But, to me, it will not be too much a sacrifice if members decide that there will be no need to purchase vehicles. However, don’t forget that 70 to 80 per cent of members are new. Left to me, I wouldn’t mind a situation where we break with tradition halfway. Let the new members have their vehicles so that they can use them to come to work. Let the old members continue to use the old cars they had before for committee work. Again, the reason old members need cars for oversight work is that these are cars that have been used for over four years can still be used but the terrain they travel has made the need to replace the cars necessary. For me, let the new members get new cars. Right now, they have no cars to even drive to work.
Are you saying it is not justifiable for the House to cough out N3.6bn to buy new cars in these difficult times?
I agree with it to the extent that the money could best be utilised for something else but we also have to look at it vis-a-vis, ‘are the cars necessary?’ A lot of people out there don’t believe the cars are necessary, perhaps, because they don’t understand the work being done. A lot of people believe that members of the National Assembly really don’t do anything. They just go to the National Assembly and come back home, so what do you need cars for? This is not true. National Assembly members travel with cars for three or four hours into bushes to inspect projects.
The anti-corruption war of your government is receiving commendation in many quarters but the opposition believes that it is one-sided. Do you agree?
I certainly don’t agree that it is one-sided. It may appear to be one-sided only because the opposition was the one controlling the financial strings of the nation for 16 years. They were the ones who had their hands on the plough; they were the ones who controlled the finances of the country. It was not the opposition or the APC that was controlling the security money meant for military operations against Boko Haram. Can they show me one member of the APC who collected money for Boko Haram and pocketed it or an APC member who controlled the oil industry? Let them show me one member of the APC who was at the Central Bank of Nigeria and was collecting boxes of money with notes written on toilet paper. Let them show me one. If they can come up with one, surely the government will go after such an APC member. Even at that, there are some members of the APC who had been fingered in one thing or the other and they are undergoing trial as well. The claim of one-sidedness is neither here nor there. For the purpose of argument, let me concede that the fight is one-sided. How does that take away from the fight? How does that take away from the fact that those who are being investigated should be? The war against corruption can never be 100 per cent in even the most technically-advanced countries. In every fight, there have to be scapegoats. It is those scapegoats that will serve as a deterrent to others. If the scapegoats were those who were the gate keepers to our treasury, so be their luck!
But people also say there are officials of this government today who actually funded the campaign of Mr. President, the APC, using state funds, which didn’t belong to them. Some were in the Peoples Democratic Party but are now in APC
I don’t know who they are talking about, but you work on evidence not on mere accusations. If anybody has evidence against one APC member, I have yet to see it. We live in a modern society. Everybody would have been rounded up in this country if we were to act on mere accusations without evidence.
What is your take on the ongoing trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal?
I am going to stay away from that one
How true is the thinking that the trial is political?
I have said I have to stay away from that one but if you want to draw me into a conversation on that, let me just say, based on what you just said, that it was the same argument that Nigerian came up with when (Nuhu) Ribadu was going after certain people during (former President) Obasanjo’s time, inclusive of Atiku Abubakar. That argument was there but the prevailing argument at that time was that let us concede for the purpose of argument that Ribadu was going after Obasanjo’s political enemies. But somebody needs to tell Nigerians whether or not people were guilty of what Ribadu accused them or not. That was the argument that many Nigerians put forward. That yes, assuming that he was vindictive, the question to be asked is, is it true or not? Now, I don’t know that the Senate President is guilty of anything. That is why we live in a society of laws. And it is only the court of competent jurisdiction that can make that determination.
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