Dogara: My Fears with the Corruption Fight

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Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara was in Lagos recently, where he met with journalists and also fielded questions on the state of the nation, especially the fight against corruption. He said if government is unable to convict persons accused of diverting public funds, then the entire effort would amount to nothing. Shola Oyeyipo presents the excerpts:

What do you think about Buhari’s anti-corruption war?
You will recall that the fight against corruption is one of the cardinal promises that the President made before assumption of office. He had course to say that we have to kill corruption before corruption kills us and I know he is committed to fighting corruption to a standstill. The process of doing that has become a subject of concern to some people.

The EFCC is actually the agency, as we all know, that is in charge of this fight and if you look at what it has done so far, there is even a discussion as to whether they are proceeding in the right direction and whether it is not time for us to sit down and do an assessment of how the fight has been in view of the fact that in the last one year, I do not think there has been any major conviction.

It has always been a case of this person has been arrested and detained and some things have been done or he has been charged to court and then the story ends there. Whether if we continue like this, we will succeed in fighting corruption, only God knows. If the end is just to arrest people, charge them to court and thereafter nothing happens, no one is convicted; because conviction, even if you are not jailed, 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. But if you look at the massive looting of the treasury, actually, I have been in government for quite some time, I never, never, could have imagined the scale of corruption that we are witnessing right now where people took lots of money running 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. And I guess part of the problem we have is that the scale of the problem far outweighs the anticipation of the agencies, so, if care is not taken in the process, we may not get things right. They will have to keep their heads level to be able to be in charge of this fight and to do it effectively.

But do you agree the fight is selective?
If we are talking about corruption, naturally, it will relate to those that had opportunity to serve in government. You will recall that, especially, that the PDP has been in power for a number of years, more than a decade and if you were to weigh members of the opposition that are in government now and had opportunity to serve, those that would have tendencies to engage in pilfering of resources, majority will come from PDP, except we are not been realistic.

Even though we can’t claim that all the members of APC are saints, you pointed out that APC spent money in the course of the campaign, but where did this money come from? Because as it is, we haven’t really had any had facts about government officials forwarding money to the cause of the campaign; a majority of the money that was stolen was channeled towards the PDP campaign.

You know that this arms purchase monies, for instance, virtually everything was given for the prosecution of PDP campaign. I do not think a dime went to any member of the APC. We were all in government then. I can’t remember a discussion like that then but I knew when some of the funds were being given to some of our friends as well but I believe that no one that is of APC stock was given that money. The whole thing was scripted.

I don’t think the fight has really been one sided. If you recall, one of the closest aides to the president, I don’t want to name him, when he was picked up everyone was shocked that that man could be picked up. He had been one of the most dutiful, one of the people that is very, very close to the president, yet he wasn’t spared when evidence was adduced that he benefitted from it and he had to refund the money.

And recently, one of the closest people to the Villa as well, 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 or if it were to be a case that would have sacred cows these two amply qualify as sacred cows that should not be touched.

I sincerely believe that the problem is that of evidence. If there is anybody in the APC government that perpetuated corruption and didn’t get dealt with, it could be that there is no evidence before the government right now and I know that there will be more that will come under serious searchlight of the anti-graft agencies and it doesn’t matter where they are. One thing I will say is that in a civil society, what is important is the issue of justice.
Justice comes first even before the issue of wealth, or power and everything. Following from justice is wealth and equality. Without that, you cannot even have democracy. So, for us to succeed really, we have to apply the rules across board. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of the ruling party or in opposition; if you are corrupt you have to be dealt with.

How do you see the alleged senate forgery case?
On the Senate forgery case, so much has happened. By virtue of my training, when a matter is in court, I really do not want to offer an opinion on it because as we say, it is subjudice. But I must say that there is an importance attached to all these institutions of democracy, where you have the case of government’s power been carved out and vertically or horizontally shared. They are all for some purposes.

I believe 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 has been stability with regards to the work of the judiciary and the executive because usually, during military regimes or intervention, the institution that was suspended was the National Assembly and for obvious reasons. The body that now makes the law is the executive body. Ours is a democracy that is still evolving, it is not as nascent as it used to be but we still have a lot to learn.

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 is given.

And in a case of forgery, forgery is a criminal offense and the standard of proof – the burden of proof – is beyond reasonable doubt. The Senate has spoken. It is an issue that all of us including the Senate and the House of Representatives will have to really sit down and analyse.

As it is, I haven’t really seen the papers, I haven’t seen the charges, I don’t know whether they are grounded or not but I have asked, as a lawyer too, that I needed to see the nature of the evidence against the presiding officers that are being charged to court in a case of forgery. And if there is a compelling case, we won’t say he should be exempted because we are legislators.

Can you justify the clamour for immunity by lawmakers against this backdrop?
I know that right now, there is an ongoing discussion about the propriety or otherwise of immunity being given to presiding officers of the National Assembly. I have had attacks on the social media and the conventional media. A lot of people have expressed divergent views. 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 trial because in the future, we cannot stop any government that says it wants to prefer 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 is bound to be problems in any given democracy. This thing was said long ago, long, long ago by Lord Acton, when he said “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A lot of people believe 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? There are reasons behind the creation of all these institutions.

Can we discuss the allegation of government within government?
I guess the allegation of government within government followed the charge that was preferred against president of the Senate and the deputy Senate president. We deal with the issues based on perception and sometimes, based on the light that is available to us. The Senate President has his own sources of information, he is a close watcher of development of government; he has been in the system far longer than me and so, for him to have made this allegation, it means he had seen certain things or certain trends 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.

What’s your relationship with the presidency like?
In the last administration, there were instances where the National Assembly summoned an appointee of the executive to appear before the National Assembly like in the case of the former Minister of Petroleum, Diezani Allison-Madueke. Now, the Attorney General of the Federation has refused to appear. This is a man that appeared before the Senate for screening and now, he is saying he is not answerable to the Senate, that he is an appointee of the president. Have we returned to that era?

In specifics, what are the achievements of this APC government?
Recently, we have been engaging ministers on diversification of the economy and that will take me to the last issue on the performance of the APC government. You can imagine if all the minsters had said no, we are not responsible to the House of Representatives or to parliament and we will not come. There can’t be that discussion. We had interfaced where for the first time, ministers were called upon to come to our plenaries and explain how they were doing in the targets they have set for themselves to ensure that it is not just talks because talk is cheap.
We have always had discussions about diversification of the economy, why is it that it wasn’t done? So this time around, we want them to tell us, through the instrumentality of the parliament, to speak to Nigerians about the goals they are setting for themselves, the targets, so that we can clearly understand the basis for holding them to their own targets or milestones that they have set.

So we had that discussion, we listened to them, we have heard all they have said they will do in the next year, the third year and so on and so forth. We will continue to press on that to ensure that at least, they deliver. We have a course of reviewing what they are doing, otherwise nothing will be done. For us to get to where we want to, we have to do things differently and it is part of doing those things differently.

Are you concerned about members of the executive not honouring invitations of the parliament?
On this issue of the executive and the need to get Supreme Court decision on the issue, whether we should approach the court and ask for interpretation of our powers to summon ministers, I don’t think that is in doubt. 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, 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. That was neither here nor there but the Constitution was 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 if it is necessary to approach the court again, maybe the Supreme Court, to 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 look, you are bound to appear if you have been summoned before parliament.

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 maneuver my way through the system so I’m not bound by the provisions of the law. But like I said before, due to process, rule of law is the foundation of 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.

Do you want to address the Grazing Bill?
We have had bills introduced on the issue of grazing and I know that it has become a highly contested matter in the body polity. I believe that as leaders, we have responsibility to halt discussions that are not healthy in the polity. That is not the kind of thing we should encourage but as to whether we should have the discussion at all, I agree that whether things are pleasant or unpleasant, like I said before, we just have to entertain them in a democracy.

It is only in the course of entertaining them that it is adjudged to be unhealthy to the system that we can put them aside. 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.

The debate on the amnesty programme is also controversial. What’s your take?
With regards to amnesty, I don’t think the government has stopped the amnesty programme. The contention, as I heard, is that the funds appropriated were not enough. It is not the case that there is an outright ban on amnesty programme. All of us believe that this is the right way to approach this. We were in government when this decision was taken and we sincerely believe that it provides a great window for managing this crisis in the Niger Delta, so it is one of the things the executive can’t simply wish away without some dire consequences.
I believe that the only way out is engaging these militants. We have to do everything possible within government to ensure that we rein them in so that we can have the needed peace. Not even just for economy exploitation or economic benefit of the whole country, but to ensure that that the region develops too, they need the peace because development always flees violence.

Wherever you have violence, it will never develop. Development and peace and violence cannot cohabit. It has never been the case in history. So, even in the interest of the people in that region, they need the peace for development to take root. As leaders, it is our responsibility to point that out to the stakeholders in the Niger Delta to ensure that there is peace and whatever can be done to guarantee this peace should be done.

Do you believe in the calls for restructuring and the adoption of confab report by the constitution review committee?
There shouldn’t be any off-limit 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 alteration to 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 have an opinion as it is, even though I cannot run away from the fact that as a citizen and as a politician, I have to see things from the angle of an enlightened person and so, 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 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 and we in the House pass a different version, 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 and who will serve in that committee. But if it is done in the Senate and done in the House, it means that we would have set 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 been doing before, we cannot run away from the same outcomes. The outcomes can never be different. That is the truth.

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It has always been a case of this person has been arrested and detained and some things have been done or he has been charged to court and then the story ends there. Whether if we continue like this, we will succeed in fighting corruption, only God knows. If the end is just to arrest people, charge them to court and thereafter nothing happens, no one is convicted because conviction, even if you are not jailed, has a way of deterring people