Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila
With the House stepping up the heat on the President via its impeachment moves over budget implementation, rejection of the PIB for being submitted at the beginning of vacation and House angst over SEC DG, Aruma Oteh’s, reinstatement, as well as the perceived unseen hands of the presidency in the Farouk Lawan affair, the relationship between the House and the Executive is at a low, low ebb. Minority Leader and House Minority Whip, Representative, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila has been in the thick of it all, especially in the last two weeks with some rather interesting brickbats flying between him and the presidency. He had a lot to say on these and more from the United States last Thursday when he fielded questions from Funke Aboyade. Additional questions from Jude Igbanoi and Tobi Soniyi. It’s sharp! It’s witty! It’s vintage! It’s hot!
You have stated this week, that you are not perfect and are no saint but that that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing concerning impeaching the president over budget implementation. Sounds laudable, high falluting even. But. Why should Nigerians believe you? They’ve been down this road before with your fellow House member, Mr. Integrity, Hon. Farouk Lawan.
No one’s perfect and I think I was merely stating the obvious. People make mistakes and errors of judgment. What happened 10 years ago was an error in judgment in that I trusted someone to carry through my instructions. I lived in America for many years and never ran foul of the law. I have also been in the legislature for same number of years, 10, with all the many scandals but never been found wanting. I believe individuals should be judged individually and not collectively. There are many bad and unscrupulous lawyers out there, that doesn't make you, Funke, a bad lawyer. Perhaps there are corrupt judges out there but I am sure there are many or even a few good ones too. Ditto pastors. My name is Femi Gbajabiamila, his name is Farouk Lawan. We look, sound and reason different.
Coming down hard on the President on budget implementation is for the benefit of Nigeria and the Nigerian people if only Nigerians could appreciate the importance of a budget.
Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, yesterday explained that 100% budget implantation – which you demand of Jonathan by September when the House resumes – is hardly achieved even by global best practices where 80-90% is the norm. Would you say this puts paid to your demand? Would you now reconsider your demand in the light of what appears to be superior and persuasive reasoning?
It's unfortunate that the Finance Minister who should know better gave such a misleading statement. It's even more unfortunate that some take whatever she says as gospel perhaps because she is expected to know. If what she says is true, then what exactly is the meaning of budget deficit? How do you get a deficit? What is meant by balancing the budget? How do you balance a budget? I am very disappointed she stood truth on its head in this instance.
But let's concede for a moment she is right. In the United States where she got all her experience from is this the way the President or Executive decide not to implement budget? Just on their own? Is there no process? Don't forget the budget is a law that came via a legislative process. You cannot cherry pick what part you want to implement and what part you don’t want to implement without recourse to the body that made the law. Sounds like the naming of unilateral right? Exactly!
There is a process called impoundment, there is a process called virement and more importantly there is the process of amendment. If there is good faith you could bring the Appropriation Act back to National Assembly explaining why there is a need for amendment. You don't just sit in a caucus and decide what to obey and what not to obey. Look, the Chairman Water Resources gave a report of about N6 billion being allocated for water projects. N1.3 billion of the N6 billion was for the Finance Minister’s village, another N1.5 billion for the Presidents place and N3 billion for the rest of the country. Yet she is not elected but you say those elected should not bring development through the budget to their areas. It’s interesting when you say you can't implement budget 100 percent but all our salaries including hers are implemented 100 percent. Doesn't make sense! It is also important to clarify another wrong impression she created. The House is not saying the budget of N4. 7 trillion which should be for the whole year till December should be implemented 100 percent by now or September. She sold Nigerians a dummy. The 100 percent is in reference to what is released every quarter. If you are to release N20 billion in a quarter to a ministry, then don't release N4 billion. That's gross underperformance especially from the revenue generating sources, they have surpassed their target.
No one in the House is saying spend or release the whole N4.7 trillion by September; far from the truth! If it’s true that 200 vehicles were recently purchased for vehicles for a conference which I don’t know to be true how can you then tell Nigerians you have no money to execute projects that will give them good schools, hospitals, roads and put food on their table? So for me there is nothing superior or persuasive in her reasoning. And to say that the budget cannot be implemented because of projects elected members put in for their people is disingenuous to say the least. For God’s sake they signed the budget! Like I said just one water project alone in her constituency ran to the tune of N1.3 billion. That's just one! Yet it's the National Assembly members that bloated the budget. Give me a break!
The real reason, some say, of the House’s impeachment moves is the drastic reduction by the Executive in constituency allowances for House members. A case of a petulant, spoilt child playing tit for tat perhaps?
This may be a good time for you to explain to me what exactly this constituency allowance is because I know no such thing. If what you are talking about are constituency projects then again I think an elected member who goes through the rigours of campaigning and traverses his constituency promising the electorate he will bring development and federal presence has an obligation and promise to fulfil and is more deserving to have projects for his people than an appointed employee who is not beholden to them. Now having said that you talked about reduction. The money for the projects have never, and I mean never, been paid to a legislator in the 10 years I have been in NASS. I have never brought a contractor. Contractors are brought by the Minister who awards the contracts. All these stories bandied here and there are untrue and I believe the Minister knowing the opprobrium Nigerians have for legislators slipped that statement in for good measure. You don't play tit for tat with the lives of those you represent.
Can you justify the provision of constituency allowances for the Legislature? Are they not usurping the functions of the Executive? Are the amounts not truly scandalous in a country where the majority are impoverished? And where these allowances have barely made an impact?
Again, there is no such thing like constituency allowance as you put it. If you are saying constituency projects are a usurpation of the functions of the Executive, certainly not. If I represent you and you need street lights or a road or hospital on your area who do you go to? Do you go and tell the President in the villa or call him? Do you call the Minister of Health or Works to say you need this? Do you not see me and blame me for the decay or lack of infrastructure? How do you want me to effect these things and at same time say I am usurping power of the executive? How does that work? All over the world legislators are meant to influence projects to their constituency. Have you heard of earmarks or pork barrel legislation in the United States that practices same presidential system as us? The Finance Minister should know better as she is a product of that system.
It is widely believed that the Honourables in any event pocket those allowances or at least most of it. Can you really justify their continuation?
Again, no legislator is given any money to go and execute projects. I can't say it too many times. There is no such thing the question of justification does not even arise. It's all a misconception.
Which of the budgets do you want the president to implement? Is it the one the executive sent to the House without provisions for constituency projects? Or the one loaded with provisions for constituency projects by the House?
There is only one budget, the one that was signed into law. That's the one the President has a legal and constitutional obligation to sign. There are no two budgets. It is unfortunate that they have capitalised on the disdain Nigerians have for legislators. Nigerians have played into their hands and allowed them to pull thick wool over their eyes! I wish I had the budget here with me and we could subtract constituency projects from the other budget as you put it; do the arithmetic together and you will be surprised to see how little the difference is. The bulk of the budget is from unnecessary things inputted by the executive and repayment of unnecessary loans and questionable debts that should never have been incurred in the first place.
Other reasons adduced include the President’s reinstatement of SEC DG, Arunma Oteh, despite strong opposition by the House. Given that she thoroughly rubbished and humiliated Hon. Herman Hembe - and by extension the House - during the hearing on SEC by the first panel and turned the tables on him, could the impeachment move be a retaliatory one against the President?
It's unfortunate if some people are saying this. The argument sounds almost unintelligible. We cannot move forward as a nation if people continue to ascribe desperate and ridiculous motives to what people do. Conspiracy theories are just that - theories. The issue is very narrow. Is the budget implemented or not? Has there been a breach of the law or not? Thank God no less a person than the Vice Chairman of PDP has come out to say the President has committed impeachable offences. Or is he angry with Aruma Oteh too?
Don't you think the House is overreaching itself by trying to impose some of its resolutions on the Executive, like the one insisting on the sacking of MS Oteh?
If resolutions are not meant to be taking seriously then we should expunge them from part of our legislative activities. It is unheard of that the US congress would pass a resolution and the President or anyone would disobey it. First you must understand that sometimes it could take two years to complete the process of enacting law. In some cases Bills even don't make it to completion before the next election cycle. In the meantime issues of national importance come up every day, for example fuel subsidy, strikes, et cetera, that require a quick fix. The only way to do this is by resolution. This is why I have proposed an amendment to the Constitution to give joint resolutions of both Senate and House the force of law. For God’s sake the doctrine of necessity came by way of a resolution. It wasn't overreaching then was it? Now on the issue of Oteh, forget everything else. The law says she is not qualified. How do you get around that? Are we not sworn to defend the laws?
Yet another reason is said to be the Farouk Lawan scandal. Again, is this a retaliatory move?
However much you dislike the House please give it some credit. Even the Farouk is probably laughing wherever he is at this preposterous suggestion!
In view of the bribery allegation that tainted the report of the Farouk Lawan committee, do you think that the report is still credible?
The report is tainted. I will admit that. The question is to what extent. You see the report has not been said to include any name that should not have been included. The bribery allegation only speaks to the removal of names that should have been included. So at best it can be argued that there are names that have escaped the list. The question is: are there names that are on the list that should not be there? To the extent that there is no such evidence then the report remains credible.
Secondly, I liken it to a decision of a supreme or appeal court panel of say 7 justices. The decision is sound, well reasoned and thorough. It is applauded by all. It then comes out that the chief judge who probably only delivered the judgment but did the least work had collected bribe money unknown to the other 6 judges. Do you throw away the judgment. Perhaps yes perhaps no. This committee report is the work product of 7 men one of whom on his own did the unthinkable.
There have been allegations that you were privy to the bribery scandal between Lawan and Femi Otedola. Is this true? Otherwise how much do you know about the issue?
Really? Interesting. I heard about it for the first time from Hon Faleke, a member of the committee and newspaper reports.
The House had its credibility tainted by the Farouk Lawan bribery saga. How do you think the House can regain its credibility and earn public trust?
It will take a long time but I believe with hard work trust can be earned over time.
Are there no other alternatives the House can explore to resolve the rift between it and the Presidency instead of the impeachment option?
There are and should always be alternatives in life. In this case whatever the alternative it has to be in the best interest of Nigerians.
Your explanation on the sanction on you by the state of Georgia Bar Disciplinary Board was admirably candid. A few gaps though. You said the paralegal you hired made away with the money and couldn’t be traced? Really? In the United States? Can anyone go missing with a social security number? Besides, didn’t you do background checks or get his details when you hired him?
Really? He was Nigerian like me who I met about a year prior. You will be surprised how many people in America use false names and identities undetected and unknown to unsuspecting others. I hired him because I thought I was helping another Nigerian who could not get employment.
How dazed are you in the face of the revelation of your involvement unethical practices in the US?
I have given a detailed response to all the allegations, innuendoes and lies. It was not something I hid. I had discussed it with friends even when I got the letter from the State Bar. Indeed, it is well documented in the book on me launched in June. The author, Wale Okediran, was surprised when I mentioned it to him and insisted it must be included in the book. For me I thought if he was writing about my political memoirs, et cetera then it should be a part of the book. I had nothing to hide at all. For me I did not take a clients money, I was just negligent in its handling and did not follow strict ethical rules. As the records show, the payment was made months after I left America. If I was dazed, it would be to the fact that lies were woven and spun around the story. I am not one to shy away from a fight I am a veteran of many! I only ask that it be a clean fight.
Is it not fair to accuse you of playing to the gallery and playing cheap politics as Minority Leader with your proposal last week that the House reject the PIB because you were going on recess? If you were that concerned could you not have proposed that the House tarry a while to at least begin looking at it, considering its troubled and chequered history and the fact that its non-passage is holding up investments in the petroleum sector – a very critical part of our economy?
No one wants the petroleum industry sanitised any more than the House. The point I was making was very simple. It has been the usual practice when there is an important matter at hand either the budget or an important Bill for the Executive to pass the buck and try and sell to the Nigerian people the wrong impression that the Legislature is the reason for the delay. We had been asking for the Bill for a while and then Executive had promised to send into us in June. Bringing it July 19 the very day we were proceeding on a 7 week vacation was to achieve what exactly. They waited till that day, why? Why couldn't they just keep it with them till we got back? Of course sacrifices could and should be made at times and we should cancel our break when need be. Can this be said to be one of those times? Especially when you do not know the faith in which the Executive was acting? This House cut short its break twice this year when the occasion demanded, so we have no problem with making sacrifices as you put it. In this case I do not believe there was a need under the circumstance.
Don't forget the summer break apart from Christmas is when people get to spend with their wives and children. We will attend to the Bill when we get back. I was not playing to the gallery but merely pointing out an important issue to the unsuspecting public that may have gone unnoticed. I did not want a situation where the Executive will turn round and say look the delay is with National Assembly, we sent the bill to them since July.
Now that PIB is in the House, how long do you reckon before it is passed?
The Bill will be given accelerated hearing but I cannot say how long it will take. One thing I can assure you is that it will be looked at with a fine tooth comb and we will not sacrifice thoroughness at the altar of speed. We must get it right first time as I'm sure you will agree.
Do you think the opposition in the House, which you lead, is really playing the role of engaging the ruling party’s policies and offering viable alternatives?
We absolutely are, like never before! We started from the policy of imposing a speaker on the House and have continued to on issues and policies that are anti-people and inimical to the people of Nigeria, such as the fuel pricing policy et cetera. But let me say this because it will not be fair if I don't: whilst we may drive or lead some of this opposition, a good number of our PDP colleagues are on board with us due to their nationalistic outlook.
Legislators, federal and state, are now being hauled before the courts to have their day - former Speaker, Dimeji Bankole, Hon. Herman Hembe, Lagos Speaker Adeyemi Ikuforiji, Farouk Lawan and counting. Does this suggest we take a closer look at the oversight role of the legislature? Should lawmaking be part time?
No. It suggests we take a closer look at the Executive. I believe that Nigerians are beaming their searchlight on the wrong class. That’s why some of us are pushing for an independent EFCC and the separation of the office of the Attorney-General from that of the Minister of Justice. Now don't get me wrong, any legislator found wanting should face and feel the full weight of the law. Yes, we need to retool the modalities of oversight not oversight itself and such retooling must be done by the National Assembly itself.
How do you feel when yet another legislative scandal breaks?
Naturally I feel bad. We however must also look at the whole thing holistically. Is corruption peculiar to legislators or politicians or is it more endemic? Is it a Nigerian problem? Go and read Richard Branson’s verdict on doing business in Nigeria. It's damning! Legislators and politicians did not drop from the sky. They are a subset of the larger society and come from the same pool. Replace every legislator and replace with new ones you will likely get same thing. We have to be honest and tackle the problem frontally. From your gateman, to the church pastor, to the teacher who collects money from a student for exam questions to bank directors, et cetera everyone is corrupt!
We must look for the reason and deal with it. Is it poverty? Is it the cost of living, et cetera? We must find the root cause. It is after you diagnose an illness that you can adequately deal with it. Punishment is not the answer. That comes after you remove the reasons for it. Why, for instance, would you punish a boy who steals so he can eat and not die from hunger? How do you punish a man who takes bribe because he has to pay 3 years rent to shelter his family when in a sane society he is only required to pay for a month? Or how do you stop a worker whose monthly salary is spent on transportation to and from work from being corrupt? Or a policeman who cannot even maintain his uniform? These are the issues. It's all about good governance and providing the basic necessities. Do that and you will significantly reduce corruption.
The Legislature is perhaps the most dramatic feature of democracy, considering that an Executive and Judiciary exist during military rule. Has the Nigerian Legislature justified the clamour for representative democracy, given its less than stellar records?
The answer is a straight no. Having said that I still believe it’s the best form of government and over time we will get to the promised land.
Would you say a background as a lawyer - such as yours, Speaker Aminu Tambuwal and House Majority Leader Mulikat Akande - is desirable for legislative office and competence?
That may help but is not necessary. What is desirable and necessary is to have men and women who mean well for this country who believe in its potential and who are committed to its development and are ready to harness its resources for the greater good and benefit of all and for a life more abundant. That's all that is needed.
How would you rate Speaker Tambuwal, especially on how he is trying to improve the House’s standing before the public?
A great guy! Detribalised and nationalistic in his approach to governance. He has an incredible capacity for work and hardly sees things from a parochial or narrow partisan prism.
The Olympics start tomorrow. It presents the most powerful optical proof of our brain drain as we shall be seeing Nigerian sounding names adorning the colours of other countries. Is the House dealing with this problem in a comprehensive and lasting way?
Wow, looks like everything rests on the House! Let's put it simply: if you don't make your country attractive enough for your citizens to want to live in, they will leave for pastures greener. The House will continue to make laws for a better Nigeria we can all be proud for.
Let me quickly say governance to an extent is for everyone to be involved in. If you have any ideas please bring such through any member. That way you would have made your own small but significant contribution to nation building