The Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Hon. Benjamin Kalu discusses a wide range of issues including the review of the 1999 constituition and the much awaited Petroleum Industry Bill with Udora Orizu
Northern governors recently declared support for FG’s move to regulate social media. What’s the position of the House on this? Will the lawmakers pass or reject the bill when it’s re-introduced?
The Federal Government has the right to introduce executive bill to the parliament, but not every executive bill from the presidency gets passed. It’s not the decision of the parliament to pass bills, it’s the decision of the constituents, citizens who this bill seeks to serve. And they make this decision through their representatives. Before a bill becomes an Act, there’s a part reserved for the public, it’s called the public hearing. That certain group of people put themselves together in support of executive bill doesn’t mean that, will be the position of the National Assembly. The position of Nigerians should be the position of the National Assembly and this is reflected in their contributions during public hearing , so when such bills comes , it will go to public hearing when all stakeholders views will be collected and a decision will be made thereafter.
How many members are in the constitution review committee, we know in the Senate there are 58 members, but for House we only know the Committee Chairman. Also, will the Committee likely decision be in tandem with the Senate and complete everything by June 2021?
Constitution Review Committee is always constituted in this manner, one member per state, including the Federal Capital Territory. But beyond that the Speaker has his own discretion to add more members to the committee, in this instance, he has picked up few members among the young parliamentarians, and also included few women on the grounds of gender balance. Young parliamentarians in the sense that these are the ones who are going to be in Nigeria for a longer period of time, so they know the kind of things they expect this country to be, the kind of laws that will help them advance this country’s development, democracy. The Speaker in his magnanimity has included young parliamentarians in addition to that one one per state. If you want to compute the number, that’s the formula you’re going to use. I’m one of the people the Speaker nominated to be in that committee. On the timeline, the committee met recently, and they are working on the programme of action, which I can tell you that the committee is under a serious minded, well experienced chairman, that’s the deputy speaker, Hon. Idris Wase. If you know him very well, you know that he operates with the speed of light when he’s handling responsibilities. If you sit under him during consideration of reports or bills, because of his wealth of knowledge, a thing that’s suppose to take four hours will take two hours. So I can assure you that he’s the right person for this all important committee. He has the leadership skills to be able to advance the constitution review expectations of Nigerians. So June or July, whatever it is, it’s going to be fast, as fast as possible. But content is not going to be compromised by speed, what Nigerians are looking for is not how fast you conduct the constitution review but how well and thorough and all embracing, how you’re able to harness the ambitions and desires of Nigerians. On claims that paucity of funds is stalling the exercise, like you know, paucity of funds has always been the problem of National Assembly, expectation is high, but I’m sure that because of the political will, the 9th Assembly is placing the constitution review on the front burner, certain adjustments will be made to prioritize this particular objective and adjustment will be made to the expenses of the National Assembly to make sure that the objective is met. Because It’s top on our legislative agenda, Nigerians are looking forward to that and we will put our money where our mouth is in funding this.
On EndSARS, what’s the House doing in regards to it, there have been promises by the government, the leadership met with the executive, what has been the outcome, are they implementing the five point demands of the protesters. What is the way forward?
The House is doing it’s best in handling this, we will be presenting a bill on Police Reform and other related matters, within two weeks, this is in line with the resolution we raised in October, we also hope to use the Budget to support Mr President in actualizing some of these 5-point demands. We’re using this budget to make sure that the youth element is captured in it. It may not have been so rosy for the youths in the country, but let’s also give credit that Not too Young to Run Bill was passed by this administration in its first term in office. What we’re trying to do now is to see how we can energize and enable these youths to be positioned to even enjoy the benefits of this Bill. Because most of them don’t have the will to push in and enjoy, by incorporating and positioning them, creating economic opportunities for them, integrating them into governance, they will become active participants on how things are done in this country. We will make sure the budget for youths in this particular budget is increased from what it was. Also we’re going to look beyond the Ministry of Youths and we’re going to look at every other budget that’s coming before us to see how much of youth elements is in that budget, if not we will question it. For example we’re going to look at the law of Federal Character Commission, to see the integration of youths, when you say equitable distribution of opportunities it must be done in percentages, so that we don’t just leave it open ended. We should also break it further down by incorporating how much of this will go to youths, women, that formula will be accommodating the interest of the youths.
Several caucuses in the National Assembly have called for probe of Lekki Tollgate killings. What are the lawmakers doing to ensure justice prevail?
I sympathize with the families that have gone through so much pain by losing a member of their family or by experiencing pain suffered by an injured member of their family, this is because an injury to one is an injury to all, and injustice to one, is injustice to all, I condemn the use of force, the House condemns the use of force on peaceful protesters, and we will always condemn the use of force because it’s the exercise of their rights but we will not speak for those who went outside the boundaries of that freedom of expression. Because any form of criminality in the name of public gathering or expression without reference to the provisions of our law will not be tolerated. Now the House of Representatives is going to entertain motions in regards to this upon resumption in a few weeks, and we’re also waiting to read the resolutions of judicial inquiries set up by the state governments across the nation. It’s important to wait for their outcome because it’s not good to predict or preempt the outcome of those hearings, let’s allow those investigations to be done without bias, and objectivity. Then following from there we will refer to it, in coming up with a resolution by the House, so at the moment now let’s allow the states to do their part while we wait till our resumption to present a motion or resolution to that effect, because this happened when we paused plenary session. The Speaker recently came back from Lagos, where he went to see the level of damage to this nation, because it’s not a damage to Lagos alone but Nigeria, Lagos belongs to all Nigerians and it’s our Centre of Excellence, it’s our pride, if you touch Lagos , you touched other geopolitical zones in Nigeria. And when the Speaker said what was lost was about N1 trillion, it’s a lot of money. He didn’t go to Lagos because he’s from Lagos but because he’s the Speaker and a National leader who felt that our economy has been affected by the destruction that took place in Lagos. So let’s wait for the judicial inquiry report and we will take it up from there.
Some Heads of Ministries, Department and Agencies tend to ignore summons of the National Assembly. The Speaker of the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila and Chairman rules and business Hon. Abubakar Fulata recently sponsored a Bill which has been passed for second reading, seeking a fine of N500,000 or two years imprisonment or both for anyone who ignores the summon of the lawmakers. Don’t you think the jail term is unnecessary?
First of all, I want you to know that this is not targeted at the Ministries, Departments and Agencies only, parliaments all over the world is just like the judiciary they cannot afford for people to be contemptuous of it, it goes against the express provisions of the constitution. We hope what we’re working on will solve this problem. We’ve seen our report and the ball is now in the court of the Executive. The sword of punishment must be sharp enough to avoid disobedience and encourage compliance, if it is not strong and sharp enough it will inspire neglect and disobedience. A law that you make must have adequate provision to punish those who go against it, it’s to inspire you to comply. If there’s a reason why you will not attend to such invitation, I’m sure there’s also provisions outlining exceptional conditions where based on one two three four, you could not do three four five six and in that case I think the punishment will not be meted out on those who fail to comply. So for me the punishment should be strong enough to make people take parliament serious.
Nigerians are not new to Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) controversies, this is not the first time the lawmakers are probing the activities of the Commission, what difference will the just concluded investigation make?
Our job is to investigate, when there’s a report against the expectation of the office of those who are serving through that agency, but once we do our report, it goes back for consideration and then back to the executive and that’s the truth. Once we push it back to the Executive the ball will now be their court.
Speaking of NDDC probe, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, in September, paid a visit to the National Assembly during which he met with the new management of the legislature as well as the House Committee on NDDC, the visit generated speculations, that his visit might be to soften the ground as the committees put together their reports on NDDC. What’s your view on this?
Akpabio didn’t visit the House when the Committee were putting their report together, the committee’s report has already been submitted before he came to say hello to the new management, that’s the clerk of the National Assembly who just resumed office. We don’t respond to speculations, his visit was just like any other official visit. To his committee, he has the right to visit his committee in the House, anytime he wants. They have the right to come in here and engage with various committees, either for executive bill that’s coming on board or challenges they are having in their various ministries. It’s part of their job to make sure they work closely and report to the committee that’s in charge of their MDA.
There is strong indication that if the Petroleum Industry Bill is finally passed into law by the National Assembly, the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) and Petroleum Equalisation Fund (PEF) may be scrapped, even some Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have called for repeal of the PPPRA Act, saying that the continued existence of both bodies is a fundamental flaw that contradicts the deregulation policy in the downstream sector, would you still advise PEF and PPPRA remain while considering PIB?
As I have always said this, the purpose of doing this PIB, is to make sure we benefit from the industry at its optimal level and we restructure the industry in a way to be able to drive that objective of benefiting at its optimal level, rejig it, the outcome will now give you what you were expecting to harvest. A lot of things are going to be put into consideration. A lot of things are going to be considered in passing this Bill, the interest of Nigerians , the interests of the IOCs to make sure that it’s a win win for everyone. Because if there’s a win win situation it will drive the economy. On the issue that whether we’re going to scrap the PPPRA and PEF or not, I think that’s going to be determined by the public, during public hearing and we cannot determine that , the public hearing will determine this, wherever the public goes, we’re going to go with them, because they own the PIB.
For almost two decades, Nigerians have been on a journey with PIB, with a lot of anticipation and promises, which failed overtime in previous assemblies. Do you believe the 9th Assembly will break the PIB jinx?
Yes, I believe the 9th Assembly will break the jinx. We’ve broken a lot of jinx. The leadership of Femi Gbajabiamila is a jinx breaking administration. People never believed that we could reverse the budget calendar but we did, and there are a lot of first things that we’ve done in this administration. We have our own magazine it’s out there, we started recognizing the public participation in government, celebrating people who play a role in uniting the country and so on. We donated our salaries which has never happened in the history of any parliamentary administration around the world. Nigerians are not talking about that because to them even if you donate 90 percent of your salary, they will still not appreciate it, these are some of the things we’ve broken. We are going to break the jinx of constitution review and that of Petroleum Industry Bill, because the political will, commitment, structure to deliver is there. And it’s on the front burner when it comes to our legislative agenda.