Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara recently fielded questions from a team of journalists including Nseobong Okon-Ekong. Excerpts.
Some Nigerians believe their leaders are not doing enough to make impactful laws. What strides have been recorded under your leadership?
Democracy is about due process and the Rule of Law. The deeper your laws, the deeper your democracy. I don’t know of laws that impact negatively or positively. Democracy doesn’t just work, it is the people who have to make it work.
Laws are there to cover every strata of human endeavour in Nigeria, from agriculture, commerce, solid minerals and youths development; we have the laws. Citizens must harness opportunities provided by these laws. That’s what makes the difference.
In the last three years, we have passed into law about 224 bills, and that includes the 21 Constitutional Amendment Bills and most of those Bills have been graciously assented to by Mr. President. We have processed about 1,500 motions and handled nearly 700 public petitions for the redress of some issues that they may not be prosecuted in court, maybe due to the cost of hiring a legal practitioner. The Parliament has done that.
At the commencement of our administration, I empanelled a committee of experts consisting of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and law lecturers to look at the entire count of laws that we have in Nigeria since 1800 and recommend to us what we can do to bring them in line with international best practices. They sacrificed so much without much compensation. They devoted their time and at the end of the exercise they turned in about 300 bills, most of which have been processed. In one sitting, we read about 130 bills for the very first time in the history of the House of Representatives. I am not aware of laws that will positively impact on the lives of Nigerians that we haven’t touched.
What has been the input of the House of Representatives to strengthen democracy and ease of doing business?
Democracy is just like the proverbial elephant; you can only debate it depending on the angle at which you touch it. To have a robust democracy, you have to consider certain factors. Some brilliant scholars in Harvard, I think Levitsky and Ziblatt, did a wonderful research on how democracy seems to be dying and it was published this year.
They stated the need to look at three indices that show that democracies these days hardly die at the hands of men with guns. According to them, democracies die when an authoritarian leader is elected, when governmental powers are harnessed and abused, and thirdly when this leads to repression of the citizens and the opposition. To have a robust democracy, the factors must not come into play.
It boils down to how elected leaders employ their institutional prerogative; by this I mean how the coercive instruments of state are deployed. This is exemplified when leaders treat the opposition as friends, and not as enemies. Once these are lacking, you don’t have a robust democracy. You and I can determine whether these are present in the context of the democracy that we practice in Nigeria.
I can assure you that the House of Representatives stands for the truth at all times in line with the Oath of Office we took to defend the Law and Constitution of the country. We have been able to stamp our foot and when the government is wrong, we say it is wrong. This is the right direction to follow. When the government is right, we praise them. We have been able to maintain a very delicate balance, as you know all democracies are fragile.
Relating to the ease of doing business, we had a tactical committee on exiting the recession. The Committee made far-reaching recommendations and we’ve always worked with the Executive relating to the ease of doing business. In the struggle to rebuild our economy, we have always cooperated with the Executive. In some cases, we passed some of those bills within three days. You might be surprised that ordinarily, these Bills would have taken months to process within the legislative chain but we ensured that within days. I must also commend the Vice President who is the Head of the Executive in charge of this laudable initiative which has ensured that businesses that had left Nigeria are even coming back.
From the World Bank ranking of 2017, Nigeria moved 24 points upwards and was placed among the top 10 countries that have improved their business environment, so in the global ranking of the ease of doing business Nigeria has moved upwards by 24 points. That is due to the efforts of the Parliament coupled with the leadership that the Vice President is giving as the leader of the Economic Management Team in Nigeria.
Some people in your political party weren’t sure you had the qualities to lead the House, but they now appreciate your style of leadership. How have you been able to hold the House together?
I don’t know if the discussion was that I couldn’t lead the House. It was a matter of personal judgment. All I remember was that for certain reasons, someone else was preferred by the party to be the Speaker. Talking about capacity, however, King Solomon, undoubtedly the wisest King who ever lived that said he had looked under the sun and realized that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favour to men of skill, but that it was time and chance that happened to them all.
I’m deeply thankful to members of the House of Representatives for putting me there as the Speaker. Every day has been a learning curve. You know it is not easy for anyone to say he is coming prepared to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria. This is for a variety of reasons; number one, you’re presiding over a colossal gathering of 360 members who are equal in all aspects as there is no Master-Servant relationship. As a matter of fact, as you’re seated and presiding over the House, your vacant seat is staring at you. Anytime you walk into the chambers having lost the confidence of two-thirds of the members, you’ll simply go and take your seat.
On daily basis, you come across problems, some parties may describe as wicked, not on account of the problem, but because of the frequency and the way the problems defy the usual tools. You have members who want to see you on daily basis. Assuming you give appointments to 20 members out of 360, just 20 and each person wants to take at least 30 minutes, how many days will it take to listen to all members?
If there are issues up for discussion, you try to garner as much opinion as you can possibly accommodate and at the end of the day, when the position is taken, of course not all the opinions will win, but even those who are losing will be convinced that the end product or decision taken was done after due consultation of all. Look at the words of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire who spoke of his successes and attributed it to diversity in council and unity in command. I think that is what has played the magic and everybody should listen to all shades of opinions so that at the end of the day when a decision is taken, it can be as if we each made the decision ourselves.
How do you think, the Not too Young to Run Bill will help youth inclusion in Nigeria?
I worked with the Not too Young to Run Movement. From day one, I saw this group of committed young people who were pushing for this Bill to be passed and thankfully that is now history. I want to say without any fear of contradiction that it is just the first hurdle for us; I don’t think there is any guarantee somewhere that young people will find a place within the political environment right now, but it was one long and necessary step to take in this journey.
If you look at the youth body, it comprises a large part of the population because half of the world’s population now is below 30. In rural Africa, the youth will soon overtake other demography in terms of population. We felt it was necessary to provide a seat at the table for these teeming young people who should take responsibility for decisions they make. They should not only be heard but should also participate in decisions that affect them; that’s the only way we will be investing in the future of our country.
The Bill has been celebrated and the Movement that started in Nigeria has become a global revolution. As a matter of fact, our Parliament was recognised at the United Nations for pushing through this piece of legislation, so it is something that is celebrated across board. The youth themselves must now be prepared because you see, age is just like money; it’s not a question of how much of it you have, but how well you invest. They have to invest in generating the capacity that would make them compete because no one is going to say because you’re a young person and as the constitution has been amended you can now aspire to any position you desire, and people will fold their hands and say just go and run for elections and win.
When they came to me on the eve of the passage and signing by Mr. President, they were so excited and it was the leader of the Movement that informed me the President was going to sign the Bill the next day. I warned them that apart from the capacity to compete, they must also prepare for the next phase of the struggle, which is actually campaigning and winning elections. I told them that since they were able to put themselves together to fight for this piece of legislation, there’s nothing they can’t do if they’re able to bring themselves together again, because now I don’t know if we might have to resort to affirmative action on this as political parties deliberately allocate some seats to the young people, and where you have the requirements to pay millions to aspire for some particular positions and the young people do not have such means, it should be waved for them.
Unless we do that, after removing the legal and constitutional barriers, we may discover that we have social, monetary and other barriers that may stop them from realising or taking the benefit of this piece of wonderful legislation; so, it is a work in progress. The enabling environment still has to be worked out for the young people to ensure that at least the law is effective and that we have young people seated at the table where decisions affecting them are made.
What will you love to be remembered for during this 8th Assembly?
Almost all Assemblies in Nigeria have carried a certain attribute that is linked to them. In Ghali Na’aba’s House, it was the independence of the legislature; there was constant in-fighting between the Parliament and the Executive. In Masari’s House, it was the issue of third-term; they had to stamp their foot and ensure democracy was saved. In Etteh and Bankole’s House too, there were countless issues that were resolved.
For this Eighth House of Representatives, I want people to remember us for defending our democracy. I want Nigerians to remember the Eighth Assembly as one that had the courage to say ‘no’ when there was a need to do that. It is a very difficult thing to do. It may sound very ordinary, but it is very difficult. This is due to the fact that we live in the midst of an epidemic of sycophancy.
When you have sycophants, all they do is to interpret body language and try and read the leader’s mind so that wherever they feel the leader is going, that is where they go. I want Nigerians to remember us as a people of courage and one that fought for the common man. As a matter of fact, we have passed the North-East Development Commission Bill and that is due to the violence in the North-east. One of the things threatening our democracy is actually violence. If we lose the fight against violence, there’s no way we can maintain our civilisation.
For instance, in the North-east where we have the issue of insurgency, schools have been destroyed, hospitals, police stations, in fact anything that is a representation of governance has been pulled down. It is like we have been dragged back to the Stone Age, and that is what violence can do.We must never lose the fight against violence. We have done these on behalf of the common man.
I’m championing a Bill on business competition and customer protection and hopefully the President will soon sign it. If that Bill is Passed into Law, a lot of good things can be expected to begin to happen to the common man: Our markets would be more efficient as prices would be driven by economic fundamentals and not by few monopolies occupying certain markets and dictating prices as is the present case in Nigeria; that will bring a lot of succour to consumers in Nigeria.
We can also talk of the Corporate Manslaughter Bill which I personally sponsored, it’s been passed to the desk of the President and if it is signed, all these corporate entities and business undertakings that were enshrouded deep in law – only people who have read law very well will understand this – it would be very difficult for you to prosecute a company or business concern where for instance its activities have led to the death of an individual, because of a theory that we call the doctrine of identification. You have to identify someone who is an alter ego and it has to be shown that it is his action that actually led to the death of the person before you can be granted conviction; it was totally impossible to convict any corporation as they can bury the responsibility for such crime down the corporate ladder.
When this Bill is however signed, if your culture tolerates the kind of activities that leads to the death of an individual, you’re automatically responsible as a corporation. That is how we are organising our laws and fighting for the common man. In conjunction with another Hon. Nnenna who is the Chairperson, Foreign Relations Committee, I pushed a Bill on a commission on light weapons due to the clear and present danger it is posing to our people at the moment and the threat to security. This is to tackle violence, protecting the common man and the vulnerable, that is what I want the Eighth Assembly to be remembered for.