Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila
Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, the House of Representatives member for Surulere I Federal Constituency of Lagos State on the platform of Action Congress of Nigeria, is the House Minority Leader. In this interview with Gboyega Akinsanmi, Gbajabiamila reflects on some of the topical issues in the polity. Excerpts:
Politically, what are some of the things the country was supposed to have done in the preceding year that it did not do? Politically, 2012 was one of the most violent years in the history of Nigeria. The issue of insecurity, terrorism and violence was turbulent. It was the most turbulent episode that we had. I am not going to blame any person for what was done that was not supposed to be done. But we need synergy among the security agencies, especially the Nigeria Police and the Armed Forces, among others. We also need synergy among arms of government: the executive, judiciary and legislature. If you remember, we invited the president. I personally moved the motion to invite the president to the National Assembly to discuss the issue of security. But people made politics of it. Some even argued that we had no right to invite the president.
Many analysts insist you do not have the right to extend such invitation.
Actually, we have right to invite the president. But it was not whether we have right to invite him or not. It was a question of working together for the good of the country. The president and his team do not have the monopoly of knowledge. The National Assembly, too, does not have it. But when we put the two together, as custodians of our democracy, we will have a better approach to tackling our challenges. There may be areas the legislature needs ideas. There may be areas where the executive is facing challenges. In fact, we do not even know the problems the executive is passing through. We do not know their challenges. These are the reasons we need to sit down together and talk. The president once invited us to the Villa, and we went. Why can the National Assembly not invite the president?
How would you evaluate the federal government’s approach to the fuel subsidy controversy?
I am so concerned about the sincerity of the federal government about this issue. The present administration has set up several panels and committees to look into the management of fuel subsidy and verification of the documents. One of the major financiers of the oil companies is the Access Bank. The bank’s managing director, Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, who wanted to recover his money, was appointed to verify the claims. Of course, he is going to verify claims that will be the benefit of his bank and establishment.
That does not make sense at all. I have said over and over again that Aig-Imoukhuede is not an independent person. There is a conflict inherent and a potential conflict of interest. Because he wants to recover his money, he would not verify whether the claims are authentic or not. For me, subsidy is not the issue. I may be one voice alone out there.
So you think fuel subsidy should continue?
But I am of the view that subsidy should stay. The issue is the operation of the subsidy. The issue is whether we spent N2 trillion on subsidies. No, we did not. So, let us know how we produce and how much we subsidise. I am sure if we do authentic verification, at the worst case subsidy cannot be more than N400 billion or N500 billion. You are building the presidential villa for a huge amount of money and you cannot subsidise your people. What sense does that make? You are building a house for the vice president for N16 billion. He is going to live in the house for just four years and another vice president will come.
But you cannot subsidise your people to live a better life if that is just what they are going to get from your administration.
Tackle the fraud in subsidy and we will not have problems. Other countries subsidise in one area or the other. Tea is subsidised in China, transport is subsidised in the United Kingdom, and agriculture is subsidised in the United States. If you do not want to subsidise, you build necessary refineries. So, there will not be need to import. If you do not import, then you produce locally and there will not need for subsidy. You cannot punish Nigerians for inadequacy and inefficiency. For me, it is unfortunate.
The state of the nation address is one of the key issues being pushed by legislators in the current constitution review exercise. How would this address affect governance, if enacted into law?
I do not know where that clause will be. We do not have to put everything in the constitution. The constitution is supposed to be a guide of fundamental principles of how we operate. However, it will be a good law for the country. But I do not think it should be in the constitution. I think it should be a law on its own. It should be a law passed by the National Assembly and not a constitutional provision. The idea is commonsensical. You govern a people, and the people you are governing are stakeholders. Even though they give blank cheque, you must carry them along. There is the state of the union address in the United States. But Nigeria is a complex state. We have various interests. We have varied interest groups. Even if they say we need the state of the nation address, the corollary question is, what will it cost? What will it take away from the president to brief the country once a year, even if it is twice a year?
Some would argue that the country already has many addresses that may stand as state of the nation addresses, such as the Independence Day and Democracy Day addresses.
The Independence Day address is not enough. We have a lot of issues he needs to speak on through the state of the nation address. We have political issues. We have social issues. We have religious issues. We have security issues. We have economic issues. It creates a sense of belonging. You cannot be far removed from the people you govern. As a representative, I hold regular constituency meetings. What is it all about? It is to brief my people on what is happening in Abuja and what is happening in the constituency. I do not isolate myself. If I can do that, the president should necessarily brief the whole country. I support the idea, but I do not think it should be in the constitution. It should be a stand-alone law.
A report by the United States National Intelligence Agency predicted Nigeria’s collapse by 2015. The predicted time is just around the corner. With the diverse challenges being faced by the country, do you suspect that the forecast may be coming to pass?
We should question what they have seen. They really must have seen something that we have not seen. It does not necessarily mean that what they said is true. But we cannot discard everything they said. The operative word in the report is ‘may’. They did not say it would break up. In other words, all the ingredients that sometimes cause breakup in other countries they have seen appear to be present in Nigeria. Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue. We should address the main issues and prove them wrong. We are not supposed to write them off or bad-mouth them for saying what they thought. The main issue is how we make sure we put them to shame. I do not think they want Nigeria to break. They have done a scientific study and probably comparative analysis with other countries. And they thought it might happen in Nigeria.
The governors are resisting autonomy for local governments under the ongoing constitution review process. Don’t you think the governors are going too far?
First, we have to determine whether we want to practise federalism or not. We cannot mouth federalism and not practise it. Anywhere in the world, federal structure is a two-tier system, unless we want to have home-grown federalism. If we have three tiers, it is abnormal. Local governments are merely administrative units of the state government. That is why the creation of local government, even under the present constitution, is left purely to the state government. You have zero local government if you want. Local government is actually not mandatory. The National Assembly is just to make a consequential order after the local governments are duly created by the state government. Consequential means as a consequence of that creation, this is what you should do. The constitution does not give the National Assembly power whether or not to accept the creation. This is the language they use. But we have turned it upside down and are playing politics with it. Like I always say, there is a difference between autonomy and independence. You can be independent and not autonomous. You can be autonomous and not independent. If created, local governments should be independent, but they do not have autonomy. Independence allows a local government to run its affairs the way it wants it run while autonomy means the local government is not accountable to any authority.
Some years back, Lagos State created additional local governments. Why did the National Assembly refuse them constitutional recognition?
They played politics with it. The time of that creation was during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was riding roughshod over every person in the country. President Obasanjo had an issue with former Governor Bola Tinubu at that time. Politics was played. But let us talk about the constitution, mainly. Even the Supreme Court made the pronouncement in favour of Lagos State Government. The court pronounced that even though the process of the creation had not been completed, the federal government had no right to withhold the local government allocation. The court gave a consequential order that the allocations be returned. Unfortunately, because we had a National Assembly dominated by members of the Peoples Democratic Party, it was a difficult thing to sell. I cannot understand why people violate the constitution. I cannot understand why people breach the order of the Supreme Court.
Policing is a big challenge for Nigeria at the moment. Now that the 1999 Constitution is being reviewed, what would you recommend for the country?
I believe you are talking about the issue of state police because it is a common sense. For me, it makes sense if you devolve power. If you devolve powers, it will have more effects, constitutional effects. It is not just about concept. It is about true federalism. When the government at the centre has more to do, it becomes jack of all trade and master of none.
These people are in a better position to understand the local problems. They know the environment. They know the people. They know the terrain much better. They know the culture. The state governments are more equipped to tackle the security challenges, even financially based on their revenue. And again, it is the international best practice. I always try to borrow from the advanced democracies as to what will work in Nigeria. You find out globally that the developed countries have effective police. The states do not just have their own police. The municipals too have their own police. So, it is not just the states. The councils have their own police. And that does not affect the federal police. If our present policing system is not working, why can’t we borrow from the advanced democracies? The chief executive of a state is the chief security officer of the state. State police is an answer to the crisis of policing in the country. The argument against the idea is baseless.
Opposition parties are currently working on a merger arrangement. Are there fresh signs that the talks will give birth to a party strong enough to break PDP’s stranglehold on the polity?
Really, everything is on course. The merger talks are going on fine. At the end, we are going to have one formidable party. It may be formed by three opposition parties. It may be four parties coming together at last. We are going to share a common ideology. I believe it is good for the progress of Nigeria. I have always been making a case for a two-party system or a three-party system. It does not offend the constitution. It does not violate the constitution. At least, the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of association.
For me, two-party system or three-party system is what the country is going to have at the end of the day. Definitely, it will help the country if the merger comes through at last.
Really, the presidency does not want the merger to work. The reason is simple. If it works, the merger is a problem for the ruling party. It will definitely cause problem for the ruling party. It is going to give the ruling party stiffer challenge. It is in the interest of the opposition parties to come together and form a common front. And then, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. So, the ruling party will fight the merger. But the merger will work.
But are you optimistic about the prospects of the merger this time?
Each party has set up a committee to negotiate the modalities of the merger. Before now, opposition parties used to work on their own in the National Assembly. We now work as a team, though we have not discarded the identities of our parties. But we are working together on various issues that concern the National Assembly and other national issues too. That is the essence of the opposition. It is a natural metamorphosis for us. If we now merge, we will now work together as an opposition party. In the case of Labour Party, its leadership has a working relationship with the ruling party and the president. That is what we heard.
But we were able to bring lawmakers to our fold. It is politics. In this light, there is no permanent friend. There is no permanent enemy, too. There is only permanent interest. We will continue to chisel down slowly. But surely, we will get things done.
As Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, are you always carried along in the running of the lower chamber?
If it is the House of Representatives, I am carried along almost 90 percent. If it is the issues that are strictly their party affairs, they may not carry the opposition along. If they do, they do that at their own peril because of our number. I do not think there is so much difference so far. There may be 10 percent issues that are fundamental to their party. When we get to the chamber, we always see the consequence of that. So far, we have been working together. There is no much challenge other than getting ourselves together, being united, getting a good ideology and taking over from them.
For me, there must be free and fair elections. Sometimes, we may have good ideas. We may have good ideology. But if there are no free and fair elections, there may be a great challenge. That is why our votes must count. The PDP has not met our expectations over the years. It has failed. I am not expecting anything from the ruling party. I am expecting the PDP to lose so that this country can have a breath of fresh air.