Dogara Justifies Immunity for N’Assembly Principal Officers

• Says it will shield legislature from emasculation by executive 
• Reveals FG has dug up N1.5bn stolen loot buried in Abuja farm 
• House has halted deliberation on grazing bills,
• House has halted deliberation on grazing bills,
• House has halted deliberation on grazing bills, ministers are answerable to lawmakers, speaker insists
By Alike Ejiofor
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, has justified the attempt by the National Assembly to pass legislation extending the immunity shielding the president and state governors from criminal prosecution to the principal officers of the legislature, stating that though there was an outcry, especially on the social media against the move, those against the legislation had effectively conferred legitimacy to the ongoing trial by the federal government of Senate President Bukola Saraki and his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, for alleged forgery of the Senate rules.
He insisted that the independence of the National Assembly must remain sacrosanct, cautioning that in the future it might be impossible to stop the executive if its goal is to emasculate the legislature.
Dogara, who spoke with journalists at the weekend in Lagos, also pointed out that he could never have imagined the scale of corruption the country had witnessed, adding that the magnitude was such that the federal government was in the process of recovering stolen money running into billions of naira which was buried in farmlands in Abuja.
Though he did not give the precise amount recovered from the farm, he said he was informed that an estimated N1.5 billion cash had so far been dug up.
The speaker also revealed that the House had halted discussions on the controversial Grazing Bills in the National Assembly because they were highly contested issues that were unhealthy for the country.
He added that ministers remained answerable to the National Assembly and wondered why the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, who appeared before the Senate for confirmation, would now claim that he was not answerable to the Senate.
Speaking on the Senate forgery case, Dogara, who tried to refrain from commenting on the matter on the grounds that it was already before the courts, however noted that if the trial was aimed at strangulating the National Assembly, then the country’s democracy would run into problems, pointing out that the National Assembly in any country is the bastion of democracy.
“Where you do not have an independent National Assembly, you definitely will have some kind of totalitarian tendencies in the government.
“In the past, there had been stability with regards to the work of the judiciary and the executive because usually, during military regimes or interventions, the institution that was suspended was the National Assembly and for obvious reasons. So under those circumstances, the body that made the laws was the executive.
“However ours is a democracy that is still evolving, it is not as nascent as it used to be, because we still have a lot to learn. But if the goal is that they want to strangle the parliament, then definitely, we are going to run into serious problems and that will be an affront, a serious affront on democracy and that will be totally unacceptable.
“But since the matter is in court, it doesn’t mean that when allegations are made, that they are true. It doesn’t. A lot of people have been charged in courts before and at the end of the day, insufficient evidence was given,” Dogara explained.
He, however, clarified that the Senate and the House were not demanding that its lawmakers must be exempted if the evidence against the presiding officers being charged to court was weighty and compelling.
“As it is, I haven’t really seen the papers, I haven’t seen the charges, I don’t know whether there are grounded or not but I have asked, as a lawyer too, that I need to see the nature of the evidence against the presiding officers who are being charged to court in a case of forgery.
“And if there is a compelling case, we won’t say they should be exempted because we are legislators,” he added.
Linking the trial to the ongoing discussions on the propriety or otherwise of the conferment of the immunity clause on the principal officers of the legislature, the speaker acknowledged that a lot of people had expressed divergent views on the issue.
He said: “So if the view is that we are not entitled to immunity, then it will mean that we are conferring some kind of legitimacy to this kind of (forgery) trial because in the future, we cannot stop any government that says it wants to proffer charges against a presiding officer and at the end of the day, if the goal is really to emasculate the National Assembly, that will easily be attained.
“But like I said, without an independent, effective National Assembly, there are bound to be problems in any given democracy. This thing was said long ago by Lord Acton when he said, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.”
The speaker also pointed out that many people believe that the country does not need a bicameral legislature but argued that those who fashioned democracy and governance had reasons for creating these institutions.
“A lot of people ask why do we have the Senate and the House of Representatives, why can’t we even have one house? But like they say, if you think that education is expensive, why don’t you try ignorance? These are reasons behind the creation of all these institutions.
“Social scientists sat, they looked at the act of governance and said, look, this is the best way to guarantee liberty. Their first task was that a free person can engage in virtually everything – in wealth generation, he can use his freedom to advance democracy – and they were careful not to compromise individual liberties and they crafted this system of government to make sure that leaders remain true to their oaths of office.
“However, when there is compromise or an attempt to strangulate these departments of governments, you will find out that the government does not function,” he argued.
Dogara debunked the view that the anti-corruption war was one sided, acknowledging however that the process of fighting corruption had raised eyebrows among the populace.
“If the goal is just to arrest people, charge them to court and thereafter nothing happens and no one is convicted then the purpose will be defeated, because with a conviction, even if you are not jailed, that has a way of deterring people.
“The fact that you are carrying that negative appellation as a former convict has the potential to deter people from corruption in the future. But if I am just arrested, charged to court and maybe some money recovered from me and at the end of the day nothing happens, a lot of people may not be deterred in the future from engaging in corrupt practices,” he explained.
He also decried what he called the massive looting of the treasury, stating that he could never have imagined the scale of corruption that took place in the last administration, where people took money running into billions and buried them in farms.
“As we are speaking now, they are recovering monies from someone’s farm somewhere around Abuja. It is very unfortunate where people stole money just for the sake of stealing.
“If you were the one who was in charge of fighting corruption, you would have even been shocked by the scale of the problem,” Dogara added.
Speaking further on the alleged selective war against corruption, Dogara said the fight would naturally be focused on those who served in government.
“You will recall that the PDP had been in power for a number of years – for more than a decade – and if you were to weigh members of the opposition that are in government now and had the opportunity to serve, those that would have tendencies to engage in pilfering of resources, majority will come from the PDP, except we are not being realistic,” he said.
Dogara, however, agreed that not all members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) were saints, pointing out that APC also spent money in the course of the electioneering campaigns.
He maintained, nonetheless, that there was no evidence yet to prove that government officials at the time transferred money to the APC campaign, stressing that the bulk of the money that was stolen was channelled towards the PDP campaign.
The speaker insisted that the fight against corruption was not one sided and cited the case of one of the closest aides to President Muhammadu Buhari (retired Brig-Gen. Ja’afaru Isa), who was also picked up by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
“He had been one of the most dutiful, one of the people that was very, very close to the president, yet he wasn’t spared when evidence was adduced that he benefitted from the arms procurement funds and he had to refund the money.
“And recently, one of the closest people to the Presidential Villa as well (retired Air Commodore Umar Mohammed) was picked up. He has been detained and questioned, some recoveries were made from him and if the intention was that the fight should be one sided, I can guaranty you that if that were to be the case they would have been sacred cows, as these two amply qualify as sacred cows that should not be touched,” he added.
Speaking on the controversial Grazing Bills, Dogara said deliberations on the bills had been halted, as they were a highly contested matter in the body polity.
“My take on this is very simple. I have had cause to talk to some of the promoters of this bill to say hey, there is this unhealthy discussion about these bills in the National Assembly, so let’s just halt and have a small group of people that will take a look at some of these issues from the contributions of Nigerians and let’s advise ourselves before moving on and as it is, that is where we are.
“We want to listen to the opinions of our citizens, because at the end of the day, it is government of the people, so we are going to do what majority of our citizens want and not what a few want to be done.
“As the House of the people, we cannot run away from it, so ultimately, it is the will of the people that will triumph in this matter. So right now, we have halted all further processes on these bills,” Dogara explained.
Speaking on the allegation of a “government within government”, which was made by Saraki at the outset of the alleged forgery trial, the speaker said the Senate President had his own sources of information and had been in the system far longer than himself (Dogara).
According to Dogara, for Saraki to have made the allegation, this might have meant that he had access to certain information that lent credence to what he said.
“But that is ultimately within the purview of the light that is available to him. In my own case, I cannot say that I have seen a situation where a cabal that sits in government can make a decision.
“I don’t know, but I believe that since he is the one that said it, he will be in a better position to throw light on this and I wish he were here so that he can better educate us on this government within a government,” Dogara stated.
On the refusal by the AGF, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), to honour the invitation of the Senate to explain the rational for instituting the criminal suit against its principal officers and the desirability of seeking a Supreme Court ruling on the refusal by some ministers to obey the summons of the legislature, the speaker said: “The provisions of the constitution are manifestly and patently clear about powers in pursuance of a resolution published in a gazette.
“In the case of Diezani (Alison-Madueke), what she did was a clever way of saying there was no publication in a gazette and so we had not complied with the constitutional provision to compel her (to appear).
“That was neither here nor there, but the constitution is very clear that in pursuance to our resolution published in a gazette we can invite any authority in Nigeria or any place to give evidence in clear exercise of our legislative powers. It is manifestly provided for in our constitution.
“We will see what we can do if it is necessary to approach the court again, maybe the Supreme Court, to say pronounce on this. But if you have a clear crystal definition of the law like that and someone who is a lawyer says he is not bound by that, maybe the same discussion will arise even if the Supreme Court says that you are bound to appear if you have been summoned before parliament.
“However, what we should correct more in Nigeria is this culture of impunity. It is not a question of law, it is just a matter of when an individual feels that to some extent, I can manoeuvre my way through the system so I’m not bound by the provisions of the law.
“But like I said before, due process, the rule of law is the foundation of any democracy to the extent that it is not the government of men but the government of laws. Anyone who knows and believes in our laws will not have any difficulty honouring the invitation of the National Assembly except that person feels guilty.
“The attorney general has had cause to appear before the committees of the National Assembly in the past, especially when we were dealing with the issues of Kogi State, MTN and others. So it is a bit strange to say he was not going to honour the Senate invitation because he is not answerable to them.
“It is left for him to explain, but like they say in law, you cannot approbate and reprobate.”
On the legislation being considered by the House to improve the budget implementation process, Dogara said very little progress could be made without appropriation and the right legislation to improve the procurement process.
“If you recall, the budget was passed not long ago, and I had cause to talk about the Procurement Act yesterday. If you are to procure, by the standards of the law that we have in place, it will take you, in some cases, a minimum of six months.
“So we are looking at the possibility of amending the Procurement Act itself because this is the only way we can guarantee that money is pumped into the economy, because right now, if you have the money and you want to pay for procurement, the procurement process is just ongoing and it could stretch to November judging by the standards that we have in place for this procurement process to be complete – and before you start drawing on the money, it is almost December.
“This has been the process and I think it is unacceptable. So very soon, we are coming up with an amendment to the Procurement Act in two respects. Number one, to shorten the procurement process to a maximum of two months because now, there is virtually nothing that you cannot get on Google.
“All you need to do now is Google prices and it will give you virtually everything. So I don’t see any reason why you will spend six months doing analysis, financial bids, technical bids and all those kind of things when you can sit down with your laptop and in a few hours you are done.
“So we want to reduce the procurement process and then the issue of payment for mobilisation, which is another big problem. It is pegged at 15 per cent. But we believe that it is unduly restricted, more so when we have this FX issue right now.
“This means that if you have a contract with an offshore element, 15 per cent of your payment may not even procure half or even a quarter of what you need.
“So we want a situation where we will raise the bar to not more than 50 per cent. Accordingly, the procurement entity will apply its discretion in saying this contract has some offshore elements, so let’s pay 40 per cent, 45 per cent or the maximum of 50 per cent to the contractor or say everything will be locally sourced so let’s pay 15 or 20 per cent.”
When asked for his views on the growing clamour for the restructuring of Nigeria and the adoption of the report of the National Conference as a working document by the House Committee on the Review of the Constitution, the speaker said discussions on the country’s restructuring were healthy, but would rather keep his personal views to himself because of his position as an arbiter on the subject.
“I agree with the fact that there should be no off limits discussions on restructuring. It is healthy, it is going to lead us to a destination, but I don’t want to prejudge the issues because I know that these issues will come very soon to me as an arbiter and if I let the cat out of the bag, it will be too obvious that I have taken a position.
“So I don’t want to say this is my position in this, I want to maintain neutrality, even though I have my own sentiments about the issues.
“The House committee has said they have adopted the conference report as a working document and that is only because they are the ones responsible for crafting bills that will lead to review of the constitution.
“It is only when those bills are crafted by the committee and transmitted to the larger House that the debate will take place and that is why I am saying I do not want to give an opinion on this, even though I cannot run away from the fact that as a citizen, as a politician, I have to see things from the angle of an enlightened person. But if I say I don’t have a position, I will be lying.
“I just wouldn’t want to just put it there so that it doesn’t serve as a clock to the debate that will soon take place. Let’s wait for the debate and see, I am sure that the proposal is going to come before the House of Representatives.
“I wish the Senate had done the same so that when we are arriving at a decision it is not going to be difficult. But if the Senate passes a different version from the House, the job is going to be left in the hands of a very few people called the Conference Committee.
“So at the end of the day, it is the Conference Committee’s will that will prevail and you don’t know who will serve in that committee. But if it is done in the Senate and in the House, it means that we would have laid the issue to rest.
“So that is where the challenge is. I sincerely believe that we have to do something differently in this country because if we continue doing the same things as we have in the past, we cannot run away from the same outcomes. And the outcomes can never be different, that is the truth,” he stressed.