Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Legislative Budget and Research, Hon. Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, aka MOB, is a lawyer and seasoned politician of the progressive stock. Although he is a first-term legislator at the National Assembly, he has paid his dues in politics and is looking forward to taking more giant strides. In this interview with Onwuka Nzeshi, the lawmaker disclosed that the campaign posters, which appeared on the streets of Ado-Ekiti announcing his governorship aspiration, were pasted without his knowledge. But the plot hatched by some unknown hands appears to fit into his own long term plans. Excerpts…
A couple of weeks ago, campaign posters bearing your portrait appeared on the streets of Ado Ekiti and other parts of Ekiti State. Were you privy to those posters?
Let me begin by thanking you for your interest in us and let me also thank the management and editorial board of your media organisation for making us proud in your contributions to the growth of democracy in this country. I must place it on record that this is not the first time I’m having to deal with an issue as to whether or not I would be running for the governorship in Ekiti State.
This was an issue in 2007; this was also an issue in 2011. In 2007, I didn’t think it was any serious issue because I was in the middle of a thousand and one things as a member of the cabinet of Lagos State. As a patriot, I was saddled with so many responsibilities that it would have been unfair for me to abandon such responsibilities to go and run for governorship.
Again, in 2011, at some point I also had to clarify what it was that I was actually running for because even after I had declared an intention to run for election to the Senate there were still rumours in some quarters that perhaps that I had something more up my sleeves. This was because of the level at which I campaigned and the comprehensive and scientific nature of the campaign that we were running at that time. But I am one person that whatever it is I choose to do, I try to do it most diligently and also put into it everything that God places at my disposal. I also don’t deny that to the glory of God, I enjoy a lot goodwill within the party, on the street and among my friends and peers; not for anything but because people feel that over the years God has helped me to demonstrate that I have a scientific understanding of issues of governance and what needs to be done.
So I am particularly happy and humbled that a lot of people see me as someone who can be entrusted with power.
Having clarified this, I must say therefore that it is not strange to me or it isn’t anything unusual that regarding 2014 there are also feelings in some quarters that I am most likely to run for governorship in Ekiti. But in all of these, I must not fail to add that unlike the situation in 2007 or 2011 when I could easily dismiss it because I didn’t really have any such intention, for 2014, it is a different ball game.
I am not granting interview today to declare that I am running for governorship in 2014; I am also not saying through this interview that I am not going to run. I will concede at this point that I am consulting. I am consulting with my God, I am consulting with stakeholders within and outside our polity; I am consulting with my family; I am studying the situation and I am also listening to people on the streets and in different quarters and praying that God Almighty would guide and lead me. I am sure that within the next coming weeks or months, I need to come to a firm conclusion and it is the conclusion that I draw that would determine what I would do going further. So definitely at this point I can say that I am in consultation. I have my own vision for Ekiti State like most of us do. No doubt about it.
You are a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria but the posters sighted on the streets of Ado-Ekiti said you were running on the platform of the Labour Party. How do you reconcile these conflicting positions? Were you actually behind those posters?
Yes, I must not fail to address the question of platform. If I am going to run or if I am nursing an intention, on what platform am I seeking or do I seek to run? Did I actually mastermind the pasting of the posters?
For any one who knows me well, it wouldn’t be far- fetched to understand and conclude that this must have been the handiwork of some other people who either see me as a threat of some sorts or they are just out to give a dog a bad name so that they could hang it. They must have felt that they needed to preempt me and it could be for a number of reasons. Was it to isolate me from the leadership of my party or just to destroy my political goodwill within the party and outside? Was it to compel me either to say yes I am a member of the Labour Party or I have come to join the Labour Party or compel me to deny membership of Labour Party? Whatever it was, I think that it was a bad move on the part of those who did it. Again, I am also consoled by the fact that what they did was like burying a political child with all the hands and legs outside for people to see. So at the end of the day nothing was hidden from the people. It was like playing the ostrich because when you are deceiving yourself and you feel that you have achieved something you have only succeeded in irritating some people. It was some kind of political irritation for me. It didn’t really bother me, but I felt irritated. I felt that I didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I have been a loyal and consistent member of the Action Congress of Nigeria from the very beginning -as the Alliance for Democracy (AD), Action Congress (AC) and now ACN. I actually have served as the National Director of Publicity for three years (2000-2003) and I remain a loyal and committed member of the party. I am not thinking of leaving the party at this time. If any one has to leave, I think it’s those who are trying to push me out that will have to leave the party for me. But I don’t think that the best way we can try to settle political scores is by trying to smear ourselves. Those who are familiar with my political antecedents know that whatever I choose to do, I do it well and very courageously too.
If I was going to leave the party, I would let the stakeholders know; I would announce that I was quitting. Again, if I was going to join any political party, I would discuss with the stakeholders and announce that I was joining. You have to join a party first before you can even run as a governorship aspirant and candidate of the party in an election. But I must say that what has happened in respect of those posters was a sheer macabre dance and attempt by some people to conspire against my own vision and political destiny. I am not bothered because it is one of those things you have to deal with in politics. Time will tell but definitely, I remain a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria.
Now with the governorship elections in Ekiti State coming up next year, do you really think you can confront the incumbent and pick the ticket?
It has not come to that yet. When that question becomes ripe, I will provide an answer.
What was the reaction of your party to this poster issue and the controversy surrounding it?
The reaction of the leadership of my party was very positive and I must say that I am highly encouraged by that. I was out of the country when the incident took place and a lot of people within the party showed concern. People called my number and left several messages on my voice mail, sent in text messages wanting to know what was happening and even when people could not reach me, they drew their own conclusions.
The National Chairman of the party, National Leader of the party, national officers and even the chairman of the party in the state made their positions very clear before any of them had seen me that I couldn’t have been the one that authorised the pasting of those posters. This is because I have been through a lot in this party and they are familiar with my antecedents and some of them could vouch for me. They didn’t see any reason why I should do such a thing without their prior knowledge. They know that I wouldn’t just wake up and say I want to leave my party. There must be a build-up to such an action. The situation must have become irrevocably bad or irreconcilable for me to ever consider that as an option.
As Chairman Committee on Legislative Budget and Research, how far have you fared with your assignment in the House of Representatives?
Before I assumed responsibility as Chairman, House Committee on Legislative Budget and Research, I was opportuned to have been given a chance to be a part of what I would call the interim extended leadership of the House. A few days after we were sworn in, Mr. Speaker invited me to his office and told me that he would like me to work with the interim leadership of the House in trying to do a number of things including setting an agenda for this House that would help make it obvious to Nigerians that it was not going to be business as usual. He felt that there was need for a radical departure from what has been the norm; which was consistent with the thinking of many of us who were just coming here for the first time and who were also concerned about not losing our own integrity.
Part of what he also wanted me to do with the interim leadership was in terms of trying to work on what appeared to be the negative image the House as an institution had come to assume in the eyes of the Nigerian public.
So he gave me an assignment as the Chairman of the Ad hoc Committee on Media and Public Affairs, which was an assignment I had to undertake for a period of three months before the setting up of the standing committees.
During this time, to the glory of God, I was able to work with the leadership of the House in trying to draw up a very distinct Legislative Agenda and the 7th Session of the National Assembly became the very first to come up with a codified plans and programmes.
It was at the end of all this that I was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Legislative Budget and Research. Our first assignment was to ensure the take off of the National Assembly Budget and Research Office (NABRO). The office was actually established by the 6th Session of the National Assembly but unfortunately it could not commence full operations before the end of that legislative session. We have concluded the process of secondment of members of staff of the National Assembly to NABRO. These are people whose professional background will make them fit into research on the budget and budgeting processes. Today, NABRO is functional even though I still would say that it is still work in progress. We are not there yet but there has been tremendous improvement in the last one year.
NABRO has played a major role in the consideration of a lot of bills and motions. We have been working closely with the House Committees on Finance and Appropriation on various issues that has to do with budgeting. In 2011 and 2012, we also played critical roles in the consideration of the Mid Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper submitted by the executive arm of government ahead of the national budget proposals.
Our committee through NABRO published a review of the 2013 Budget Proposals of the Federal Government to enable us advise the House on the way to go. It was our recommendation that gave rise to the $80 per barrel instead of the $75 per barrel oil price benchmark proposed by the executive arm of government.
The House agreed with us and approved that recommendation even though at some point there had to be a reconciliation of the position of the House with the position of the Senate, which recommended a benchmark price of $78 per barrel.
Both chambers had to shift grounds by a dollar each and that was how we arrived at the $79 per barrel used in the passage of the budget.
We have also been able to contribute to the budget mapping process. What we normally get from the executive arm is a one document proposal as to the expenditure framework and revenue projections for a particular budget year but we have now come up with what we call mapping through which our committee was able to break the budget down to geo-political zones. The essence of this mapping is not only to give a breakdown of the budget but to also help us capture how the budget has performed over a given period. It will help members of the National Assembly to see at a glance how much has been allocated to different sectors, projects and programmes and be able to ascertain the level of performance of the budget. This has made budget performance monitoring much simpler for the legislators in both chambers of the National Assembly.
In this way, our committee through NABRO is also making the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act easier because it is expected that members of the public would ask questions concerning the budget and we would be able to provide such answers. We are trying as much as possible to build the capacity of our legislators on contemporary budget principles through periodic training programmes here in Nigeria and abroad.
In addition to all these efforts we are trying as much as possible to ensure that the NABRO bill is laid before the two chambers and passed before the end of this year. This would give NABRO the much needed legal backing and enable it discharge its functions much more effectively.
What is your assessment of the ongoing constitution review? Is the House moving at a pace that would enable us achieve the desired results?
Well, constitution review is a continuous process all over the world. Again, constitution review is procedural and there are steps that need to be followed in sequence and we cannot afford to skip any of these steps. I am a member of the Ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review and I have been fully involved in is activities. We were in Port Harcourt for a retreat to enable us collate the views and some of the memoranda that has been submitted by institutions and members of the public. Part of the fallout of that retreat was the fact that we had to plan for a referendum; the senators also had their own retreat in Akwa Ibom State. Later, we went to our various constituencies to hold what we called People’s Public Sessions. We learnt a lot because the people at the grassroots were able to participate in constitution making for the first time. We were shocked by the results in some areas. There were some states for instance who didn’t want to hear anything about the creation of new states and these were the areas where you would think that the people would agitate for it.
There were some parts of the country where people didn’t want additional role for traditional rulers and these were in places where you would have expected the people to vote otherwise. These are things we would not have been able to determine if we had not involved the people. It was of course an eye opener and we had to go back to the drawing board to re-strategise and ensure that the popular wishes of the people are reflected regardless of what we think as individuals. So to that extent, I believe that we have made some progress and we are now at the stage where are trying to synthesise the various views and positions to see how we can move to the next level.
Some of these steps are things that would take time if we are going to do them thoroughly and that explains why it would appear that the work had been slow. But I think that going forward we hope to expedite action on the processes and I know that the Constitution Review Committee in both chambers are determined to ensure that we come up with the final proposal that the National Assembly will consider within the stipulated time for it to be relevant to the 2015 elections.
The House has for a long time championed the agitation for the autonomy of the local government, but recently there seem to have been a change in direction. What is responsible for this u-turn?
Well, I wouldn’t call it a u-turn. There are as many opinions as there are people and that is part of the beauty of democracy. The minority will have their say but the majority will always have their way. But I think that what is going on is more about what is right because we must identify what is an ideal situation. Sometimes, we try to juxtapose that ideal situation with some peculiar situations that may not be the ideal situation to be the best at certain periods. Ideally, what we should be talking about is total autonomy for the local councils. When you have local government autonomy, you can expect that it wouldn’t matter who is the governor of the state or which party is in control in the state; the council will still be able to function. But what do we have in this country today. The current constitutional provisions, which vests the authority and powers to manage the local government councils on the state government through the State House of Assembly has given rise to a situation whereby whichever party is control of the state government will control the entire local governments. Again, this has now been taken to a near ridiculous level of some of the governors not even conducting local government elections at all. I don’t know how a governor can safely imagine that he or she will be in government for four years and for that period appoint and re-appoint caretaker committees to manage the councils.
It leads to abuse; it enhances corruption; it denies the people access to have a democratically elected leadership level; it stunts the growth of development and denies the people the dividends of democracy. These are serious consequences and it is for all these reasons that we would say that there is a need for autonomy for our local governments. But on the other hand when you look at what is happening even at the federal level to what extent have we gone with the autonomy of the states? Probably because we have not attained that ideal status in our democracy.
As a matter of fact, what we practice now is just civilian rule rather than a democracy. A democracy is founded on the rule of law and equality of all men before the law; where there is one man, one vote and where it is easy for the people to change their leadership through the ballot box. How many of these elements do we really have? What we have more right now is civilian rule, which is still better than military dictatorship. As far as I am concerned, the real transition to democracy has just begun. Eventually by God’s grace, we would attain the democracy we crave for but people should not assume that that is what we have now. I guess that it is that assumption that a lot of people have that we already have a democracy that makes them take some of these puritanistic positions. What I believe that we should be agitating for at this point is the greater autonomy of the local government at the state level. If I had my way, what I would rather like to have inserted in the constitution is a provision that any state government that fails to conduct local government elections at least within one year of its assumption of office should be sanctioned. There is no provision for caretaker committees in the constitution; it is the creation of the state Houses of Assembly.
Is it not a contradiction that you have three arms of government at the local council level, yet the councils are rule by the state Houses of Assembly?
There are so many anomalies and discrepancies and that is why we can never give up on calls for a sovereign national conference. Nigerians still need to sit down and talk. Our government is planning to celebrate a hundred years of our corporate existence as a nation. Fine. I also feel that that is a period for us to sit down as a nation and discuss the terms on which we are going to continue. It is in our collective interest for Nigeria to continue to exist as a nation but let us redefine the terms on which we are going to be running this corporate organisation. There are so many things we need to discuss unless we are just deceiving ourselves.
Where are we on the PIB? The House appears to have gone to sleep on this bill.
The PIB is one bill Nigeria cannot afford to play with if we must move forward as a nation. The events of January 2012 including the mass protests over the removal of fuel subsidy can only go to confirm that as a nation we have been sitting on a keg of gunpowder and pretending that all is well. The issues that led to those events are some of the issues PIB seeks to address. But I know that, on the part of most members of the National Assembly, we are still trying to err on the side of caution. A lot of us believe that this is not a bill you can rush; you need to look at it thoroughly and ensure that it is understood by all relevant stakeholders. My only hope is that all the relevant stakeholders would not have interests other than the overriding public interest because that will make a mockery of the bill and all the efforts put into it. If there are other interests, then the PIB will be a highway to nowhere. But I still have reasons to believe that we are all driven and guided by the overriding public interest.