‘We Will Never Compromise Our Legislative  Powers’

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Ahmad Lawan
Deji Elumoye was part of a team of journalists who interacted with the Senate President , Dr. , on a wide range of issues of national importance including the number of bills at various stages of legislative work in the Senate, as well as, various interventions by the Ninth National Assembly in the last one year under his leadership 
What has the Ninth Assembly done differently in the last one year compared to the Eighth Assembly?

I don’t like this comparison of what the Ninth Senate has done differently compared to the Eighth Assembly. We thank God for being alive to be able to discharge our responsibilities as the situation permits. Right from the beginning we’ve said consistently that we are going to work for a united Senate, for the purpose of providing a very efficient service to Nigerians who voted for us in the first place. I’m pleased to say that we’ve done so much. We’ve been working with the government very closely in such a manner, that the productivity level in the Senate is higher than most other sessions because we have more time to focus and concentrate in delivering legislative interventions as maybe required.  I think we’ve done significantly very well compared to most of the previous sessions of the National Assembly. I’m not talking about the number of Bills passed. From February to June, unfortunately with the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear everybody is working far below capacity even as individuals because of the situation that requires lockdown. The National Assembly or the Senate cannot be different. At the moment, we will sit once in a week or two days in a legislative week. It’s not the way it should be but because of the current situation there’s hardly anything anybody can do in the situation of this pandemic. But I’m happy to say that even in this situation the Senate has done fairly well, we’ve over 400 bills in different stages of legislative processing, we’ve done so much confirmation than any other senate in one year, about 27 or 28 confirmation requests from the Executive arm of government. We consider that very significant because it’s the way to make government more efficient, when you have the governing council in place as against an individual somewhere probably a Minister or someone who will take advantage of no governing board.  In order to sustain the relationship that enhances our productivity we have a special committee, this special committee is between the legislative and executive arm of government that works behind the scene, it’s not an official body, you cant see it or hear about it. But it’s very effective and efficient. The Senate leader, House of Representatives leader, the senior special assistant to President in both chambers of the National Assembly are members, the office of the Attorney General has a representation and relevant committee chairmen. So,when there’s a Bill that has to do with an area the committee oversights and this is a decision the legislature and executive, that whenever there’s going to be a Bill that’s significant and could cause misunderstanding, the executive should bring that bill, we sit down let them explain to that committee, let them work on it, where the legislature will feel no this is too obvious we cannot accept this, this is where we think it should be, and then we have a Bill that will eventually come to the National Assembly and when it comes most of the areas that have the potential to cause friction would have been resolved, it doesn’t mean that once a Bill comes it will be passed, because we still have majority of the National Assembly who have their say, at least the possible areas of misunderstanding would have been reduced to a minimum, the main grey areas would have been settled and of course the relationship will continue to be good enough for us to operate and work to the benefit of Nigerians. I commend my colleagues in the Senate for keeping Nigeria in the front banner, we remain focused on our promise to Nigerians, because there’s no better focus. This National Assembly is a representation of 200 million Nigerians or so, therefore anything we do must be something that will ensure that there’s protection of their liberty, that there’s efficiency in governance. We had a situation in the past in some of the sessions of the National Assembly where most of the time some of the important bills will come and there will always be a deadlock, though they may be so important to making Nigeria better but because of serious misunderstanding and the inability to create the environment for the legislature and the executive to resolve the issues such Bills are either stagnated or probably if they originated from the National Assembly, assent will be withheld. And we believe that this is a challenge for the present National Assembly and mistakes can remain costly only if no lessons are learnt from them. But if you’re able to learn some lessons then there would have been benefits. We believe that this is as a result of what we’ve experienced in some of the National Assembly sessions. That gap between the legislature and the Executive that will not be resolved or narrowed easily has created so much loss to the country. It’s our challenge and this is an arrangement between us and the executive arm of government.

Where do you draw the line in protecting the principles of separation of powers?

Well, what I described here in terms of the relationship doesn’t mean there’s no principles in separation of powers, actually because there’s principles in separation of powers that’s why we try to reduce the potential areas of friction. The principle of separation of powers is what establishes and sustains the government especially in democracies that believe in that. You know that in Britain they don’t have that separation of powers, it still works for them but  our system is a replica of what obtains in the United States of America. I believe in it strongly, the legislature should always be there to provide the legislative intervention, but  I also believe that separation of powers should always be considered alongside checks and balances, that’s what makes the separation of powers more effective in terms of ensuring that there’s good governance. That’s to say that there’s absolute application of the legislative interventions of parliament and particularly when it comes to checks and balances you will be looking at how the parliament oversights the executive arm of government so that it prevents or stops possible recklessness. That’s what we are doing and it’s something we fought for since we came to the Fourth Session of the National Assembly, of course at that time we had a head of the executive who, I think, at that time either wasn’t probably advised on the provisions of the constitution as to the independence of the legislature or that they felt the legislature was an unnecessary appendage. We insisted that we had to do our jobs, and what are these jobs; oversight, legislation and representation but the oversight aspect is the one that keeps the Executive on its toes. So we’re not in any way compromising our legislative powers. We will never do that. But one thing I will always emphasize is my personal understanding  that the principle of separation of powers means the specialization of functions. Specialization is, as a legislator you make laws, executive you implement the laws, and judiciary you adjudicate and interpret the laws. None of the three arms can form a government, none of the three arms can work to produce any results as a government so it means that there must be interdependence, cooperation between the three arms particularly the legislator and the executive because that’s where the day-to-day running of affairs of government lies, and there must be mutual respect. The legislature must be given its due respect by the executive arm of government. There must be partnership, the government is one and the separation of powers only tries to ensure that there’s efficiency in service delivery to the people, that the citizens liberty is protected, so this should be our target. Therefore anything that will not undermine the independence of the legislature but will enhance the ability of government and the entire system, I’m for it.  I don’t believe that the National Assembly or the legislature should succumb to the desires of the executive but I believe in cooperation. Governance is about those who are governed, what are you able to do to improve the lives of the ordinary citizens? What is expected of any leadership whether it’s in the legislature, in terms of representation or the executive arm of government is transparency, probity and accountability as leaders of society.

Last year when you were talking about your legislative agenda, you were specific about Petroleum Industry Bill and hopefully by 2020 it would have been passed, this is June 2020, what has become of that Bill?

We promised so many things, like turning the budget cycle and of course the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill before the end of 2020. When we said we will pass the budget before Christmas or before we go on Christmas break, thank God the Executive worked so tirelessly and the budget was brought in October and by the grace of God we applied ourselves fully and we passed the budget before Christmas.
The Petroleum Industry Bill is not yet in the National Assembly but I know the executive arm of government has been discussing with us on what they are doing about the Petroleum Industry Bill. COVID-19 does not leave anything out and therefore the Petroleum Industry Bill probably will be submitted within June, I am not sure, but I’m optimistic. It has not come to the National Assembly because of the infraction we suffered from COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been talking with the executive especially those that are in the petroleum industry, the Minister of Petroleum and Minister of State Petroleum Resources, the GMD of NNPC, and others who are involved in this.

The 6th Assembly had the Bill (PIB) sent to it by President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, and that Bill ended up multiplying itself into three, we ended up with the three versions of the Bill so we didn’t know which one was which and at the end of the day none of them was passed. In 2011, President Jonathan again sent the PIB bill and it could not be passed, in the Eighth Assembly, now the legislature took it upon itself to produce three Bills of the PIB and none of them was approved  even though the first one was passed, but none of them was to come alone. As it is, the Executive has tried solo to produce a Bill or Bills that eventually have not seen the light of the day, the legislature took it up and produced Petroleum Industry Bills and none is still enough. What we’ve decided to do is, why can’t we now adopt a different approach, let’s bring the executive and legislature together and work on the Bill, so that Bill comes to the National Assembly only when we are sufficiently on the same page. That’s to say that let’s discuss what we think our petroleum industry in Nigeria should be like, how do we want it governed? Let’s produce a legal framework that will ensure that this petroleum industry in Nigeria is competitive. That we are able to attract and retain investments. That’s essential because almost every country now has petroleum industry and therefore unless we are competitive and have a legal framework that encourages the investments we are likely to lose those that are here definitely not able to attract any more investors in Nigeria. We’ve been working like that and our hope is when we are able to achieve that kind of Bill, now we can face the international oil companies who will also need to carry on  in such a manner they feel they have an environment where they can invest and make profit and their profit are protected but not at the expense of our country. Here we’ve been able to achieve a status of the government on one side and the petroleum operators on the other side and I think it will work. Whether we are able to pass it in 2020 or not I’m not sure about that, because we don’t know when this situation will become normal. The COVID-19 situation is a tough one for us, it slows down everything we do. One thing I can assure Nigerians is we are going to work so hard to ensure that once the bill or bills are brought to the National Assembly, we will work on them and see how we can ensure that our petroleum industry in Nigeria competes favorably with any other jurisdiction for the benefit of our people.

COVID-19 is impacting on everything including our electoral system. INEC said it’s considering the proposal for e-voting, what kind of reforms should we expect in the coming constitutional review, as far as the electoral process is concerned?

This is something we need to sit down with INEC, because INEC is the operator of the electoral environment, and anything it thinks is necessary for us to operate during this time of COVID-19 challenge, we should look into it but before then, we believe that the electoral environment should be as dynamic as it is, should receive our attention that will make it possible for elections to hold and outcomes to achieve the integrity that we will have the confidence of voters. I don’t want to comment too much on what INEC said because they need to explain to us what they mean by E-voting, the scope, what type of technologies they are going to deploy, how they are going to do it. I don’t want to comment further on that so that I don’t cause, unnecessary debate about it. We want to do constitutional amendment as well as amendment of the Electoral Act to further make the process better and we want to see a situation where all pre-election matters are determined before the elections, that’s to say that if there are issues regarding the primaries by political parties and their candidates, then such legal matters should be settled, before anybody is presented for election so that you don’t go with preelection problems or matters into the general election. We want to ensure that in our constitutional amendment, local government autonomy is further entrenched because we’ve lost it, we don’t talk about local governments anymore like they don’t exist. This is a tier of government that can do a lot to help us to deal with small and local issues. We believe that we should work to ensure that local government autonomy is protected by the constitution. We have a lot of interest in ensuring that we carry out constitutional amendment as well as working on the electoral act. But for the Electoral Act, the emphasis will be to engage with major stakeholders. INEC is the one that operates most of these things so we need to have a clear understanding of what they need so that we are able to give them that. We also believe that we should look at a constitutional way of getting community policing, everybody says the police is over centralized, I think there’s a consensus on  community policing. The police force has been working hard to ensure that it establishes the community policing in all the states. We had serious engagement with them, we had a report of our adhoc committee on security and that report was very emphatic on the need to decentralize and disaggregate the police force as it is today. We are working on it.

 In the last one year under your leadership, there have been a lot of interventions as regards insecurity,  by now, there should be results. What do you think the executive should do to address this issue?

Our security system is over stretched, we need more resources for  security. By resources I don’t mean just money, we need more personnel for the armed forces, we need more personnel for the police, Nigeria Immigration Service and almost all the agencies and paramilitary as well. The fact remains that in fighting insecurity, you need the people to participate fully, in countries where we think security is full proof, I believe it’s because there’s participation of citizens in ensuring that any suspect, for example, is reported. And then of course the resources in terms of equipment, machinery and then training. But what we experience today is we don’t have sufficient personnel, the resources available to security office are inadequate. Government is doing a lot to get more resources in terms of equipment and machinery. But we are also suffering from international politics, I know that our efforts to try to buy spare parts for  jets from a certain foreign government may take six to nine months while another country will write to the same government and maybe get it in one or two months. Something is not right, to some extent we are suffering from international politics, but that’s to say that it’s now one of our challenges that we will continue to engage with countries that we feel don’t understand what we are doing here. Secondly the inadequacy of the personnel. How many men and women do we have in the Nigerian Army? It’s so low that today almost all personnel are in one operation or the other, we don’t have any reserve, and because we are not able to have any reserve, nobody rests and everybody is overstretched. You can’t fight insecurity with inadequacy, even if we cannot get to the level of adequacy, we should get to a better stage where the personnel is more, better trained and resources available to them to fight are better. And I think federal government is trying to do that. I commend our armed forces for doing so much with the very little and Nigerians appreciate what they are doing, but as I said at the beginning the security of our country is the business of all of us, government has the responsibility but citizens too have the responsibility of reporting. We need to overturn this narrative for something better, for us in the National Assembly, we’re going to give government every possible support to ensure that the security outfits are at the top of their games within the limited resources available to us.

About the economy, the executive has been running to you to request for loans. how do you intend to assist Nigerians with policies or bills that will create jobs. The NBS recently said about 42 percent of Nigerians have lost their jobs, are there  alternatives?

We have a shortfall of almost 14.2 billion dollars funding gap for 2020 budget and with COVID-19 came with so many negative things that visited adverse outcomes on our people, we didn’t make hay while the sun shone. We didn’t diversify the economy or invest in the real sectors of the economy. Now we’ve come to a point where we have to address the infrastructural gap that we have but the resources are so low, crude oil at one point was selling for between 10 and 11 dollars per barrel around when this pandemic started in March. We have very significant projects that we need to put in place, like the Second Niger Bridge, Mambila Hydropower, East-West Road, Lagos-Kano Rail Line etc, but we don’t have the money. If you don’t have the resources and still need these projects, would you because you want to run away from taking loan say let me abandon all these projects or say I will take loan but I will ensure that all loans I take and every other resources I put on this project are properly, efficiently and prudently applied and deployed? For us in the National Assembly, we are conscious of the fact that this economy is affected by the pandemic if it persists you could lose over 20 million jobs in this country. The economy will go into serious recession, so you need to have the resources to invest so that the economy doesn’t go into recession and ensure that people don’t lose their jobs and therefore when the Federal Government is able to get concessionary, multilateral or bilateral loans with very favorable conditions of maybe one percent, what can you do? You can’t run away from your challenges, so we feel we should grant the request but we needed to scrutinize everything, the conditions, the projects; which we did. We approved the loans to ensure that our infrastructural development continues. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us our weaknesses in the area of our health facilities, we’ve seen the needs that we have in the social and health areas particularly and we are looking at opportunities going forward. So you need to invest in the health sector, you don’t have the resources. Government alone cannot invest enough in any sector, but government is supposed to take the lead then encourage the private sector to participate. Equally, the fact that we’re a mono-economy depending largely on export of our crude, we’ve seen how our economy could easily crash when crude price went down to 11 dollars per barrel. We have sang for a long time the song of diversification now is the time to diversify. Where do you diversify in the real sector, the real sector particularly agriculture has the potential to create employment opportunities for Nigerians. We have so much viable land that we’ve not put into use, energetic youths and people who can invest in large scale farming so we need to spend some money to ensure that the agricultural sector  provides the opportunities for our people. We need to reform the agricultural sector. We are not supporting the executive arm of government in a very frivolous way, we are very mindful, patriotic in the way and manner we endorse these requests and we are also very meticulous. Our committees on domestic and foreign loans have gone through all the papers to ensure that there’s justification for those loans and in fact in the Senate we only passed the request for $5.513 billion. There was 1.5 billion dollars request for states, we couldn’t see the justification and we said, ‘no’, we’re not going to grant that so it’s not everything that was requested that was accepted by the Senate. We assure Nigerians that we will always be guided by the need for our government to be efficient in the deployment of resources and of course in the process exploring other means of funding the budget, create channels that can minimize the loans we take.

On the renovation of the National Assembly, there’s so much misunderstanding, we’re hearing N27 billion then N9 billion, what’s the true position?And what’s been your low moment in the National Assembly?

My low moments truly was when we lost our colleagues, Senator Benjamin Uwajomogu from Imo, Senator Ignatius Longjan from Plateau and then Senator Rose Oko from Cross River state. These are colleagues that I know very closely and as human beings when you lose someone dear to you that should be your lowest moment not something materialistic. May their souls rest in perfect peace.
As for the National Assembly renovation, how I wish I were not a member of the National Assembly so that when I talk about it people will not read meaning into it. That National Assembly represents Nigeria, it tells our story. The renovation was misunderstood but sometimes you allow criticisms so that you give the people the feeling that this is democracy. People criticized it, we took it very calmly. It’s not a National Assembly building, it’s an FCDA building, National Assembly is to be accommodated by the Federal Government of Nigeria, if tomorrow relocation for our accommodation is changed to the international conference Centre, that’s where we are going to sit. Even if it’s a smaller place. We need to ensure that something as important as an arm of government, the people’s complex, is not allowed to deteriorate. N37 billion was estimated by the FCDA to be expended to rehabilitate the National Assembly complex because they have the technical capacity and this is their building just like the Presidential Villa. They maintain it. So it’s not our own. Some people did not understand it but given this situation of COVID-19- and the need to shave some of the things that are not very very relevant, we’ve reduced it to N9.2 billion and that’s the budget for FCDA to implement not the National Assembly.