Opeyemi Bamidele: 25 Years of Uninterrupted Democracy Worth Commemorating in Nigeria

Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, a  lawyer, human rights activist, and politician, is the Senate Majority Leader and a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress. He is an indigene of Iyin Ekiti, Ekiti State. He was a senior special assistant on political and intergovernmental Relations to the Lagos governor, commissioner of youth, sports and social development and commissioner for information and strategy. Bamidele, leader of the 10th Senate, speaks with a few journalists on national issues, including the nascency of Nigeria’s democracy in the successive 25 years, the global interplay of global political economy and national insecurity’s impact on Nigeria’s socio-economic and political stability. The longtime legislator also explains the intricacies of lawmaking and the parliament’s cordial relationship with the executive arm of government and highlights the burden of re-elections, constituents’ demands and their attendant consequences on high turnover in the National Assembly. The Senate majority leader also weighs in on the creation of state police, autonomy for local governments and ultimately, the single-term six-year rotational bill being considered in the House of Representatives. Sunday Aborisade presents the excerpts:

Nigeria marked its 25th anniversary of unbroken democracy. What is significant about this silver anniversary?

To the glory of God, it has been 25 years of uninterrupted democratic rule. Why is it significant for us to commemorate it? It is because of who we are and where we are coming from. For people to appreciate it, they will have to appreciate the historical context within which people embrace the commemoration of the 25-year unbroken democratic rule. We went through a situation where our democracy at independence went through some teething challenges like any other young democracies worldwide. Unfortunately, as it were then, our military took advantage of those teething challenges to terminate the entire democratic establishment. For three decades or thereabout, we were faced with a situation where one ‘corrective’ regime came to take over from another ‘corrective’ regime. As a federation, this led to a near-stagnation of our growth. Today, it has been 25 years of learning democratic practices. It has also been 25 years of nation-building.
It has been 25 years of nurturing nascent democracy. It has been 25 years of understudying the basic rudiments of democracy. It has been 25 years of learning to operate democracy based on the rule of law. It has been 25 years of learning to make the votes of the electorate count. It has been 25 years of learning to operate democracy in a way that we will not be left behind by the comity of civilised nations. We are all learning the fact that there is no alternative to democracy, especially in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria. So, for me, it is worth commemorating. It is not really a celebration. Rather, it is a commemoration. I believe we have come some way, and we still have some ways to go.

Within this timeframe, how will you assess the roles of the National Assembly?

In the last 25 years, the journey of the National Assembly cannot be dissociated from the journey of Nigeria as a whole. Like I said, it has been 25 years of trial and error in some areas. It has also been 25 years of learning to be democratic in other areas. For the nation, it has been 25 years of trying to enthrone and entrench parliamentary democracy. Different people, elected by Nigerians, have served in different capacities in the parliament both at the national and sub-national levels. At the national level, we have a bicameral legislature, which in design comprises the Senate and House of Representatives. At the sub-national level, we have the 36 state houses of assembly. In any case, our Constitution says the states shall be in charge of local government areas (LGAs) and make laws for local government administration.

Even at that level, the states have encouraged various LGAs to operate parliamentary arms for the purpose of making laws. The councillors, as the elected lawmakers at the local level, have been part of our history for the last 25 years. Within this timeframe, we have largely grown. We are also learning to allow a virile tradition of democracy to be built in a way that will produce ranking parliamentarians. But the turnover has been extremely high in the last 25 years. Again, it is because our democracy has remained nascent for a long time.

What are the factors that lead to the high turnover of parliamentarians?

First, people get elected and come to the seat of power in Abuja. Most times, they do not remember that they left people behind in their various constituencies. When it is time for another election, that’s when they go back home. And their constituents will say to them: ‘We elected you for years, and you have not really been part of our lives. It will be difficult to give you another chance to represent us’. Second, it can be a question of misunderstanding on the part of the people. I am referring to the people who do not have a thorough understanding of the role of parliamentarians. Because we are in a nascent democracy, unfortunately, a lot of legislators are still distracted by the attempt to be part of the economic survival of the people. In another four years, legislators will not go back to their constituencies to give an account of how many bills they have initiated, how many oversight functions they have carried out or how many motions they sponsored. Contrarily, most people will ask them, ‘How many people did you empower in the last four years?’ Unfortunately, legislators now find themselves in a situation where they have got involved in all manners of empowerment programmes. They buy generators, refrigerators, deep freezers, motorcycles, tricycles and all manner of things to share among their constituents in the name of empowerment. In a clime where there is an executive arm with the mandate to empower people and have the resources to do what they are supposed to do, it should not be the job of legislators. Today, however, it is part of what they are coping with.

But what are the key factors distracting legislators from their core constitutional obligations?

Legislators now want to carry out enough empowerment programmes in order to secure re-elections. It is part of the nascency of our democracy that we are talking about. In the last 25 years, we have seen a kind of metamorphosis. We have gone through different stages. But the good news is that things are getting better by the day. In every National Assembly, things are getting better than in previous years. Unlike before, the votes of Nigerians are beginning to really count with the introduction of technology into our electoral process. With the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System and the use of technology to report electoral results, the votes are beginning to really count. Everybody is becoming more conscious of the fact that you cannot do anything wrong and get away with it. What you do or do not will count in your favour or against you.

So, our democracy is maturing. The parliament is getting more mature. I emphasise parliament essentially because it is the bastion of democracy. In those days when we used to have military coups, the only arm of government that was terminated was the parliament. There will be an executive arm government, even when it was populated by soldiers or their cronies. The judiciary will always be there regardless of whether it is a military regime or a democracy. It is usually the parliament that first suffers when democracy is under attack. In the last 25 years, a lot has happened, and legislators have learnt so much. There have been attempts to also fit into the thorough understanding and practice of parliament procedures in a way that we can be seen to be complying with the global best parliamentary practices and procedures. This is what we call our gains or the gains of democracy in the last 25 years.

What are the key achievements of the 10th National Assembly?

The 10th National Assembly has done well in the last 12 months. However, it is something I like to handle in a very delicate manner. This is because I have to draw some delicate balance between sounding self-serving as an actor within the institution and also not too self-serving. This is crucial so that people will not think we are giving ourselves a pass mark unnecessarily. On this note, it is for the public to assess or score us. As it is said, it is for the people to assess or criticise their government and not for the government to assess the people or criticise itself. In every sense of modesty, however, the 10th National Assembly is living up to its obligations under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of the people across the federation.

The 10th National Assembly is running at a very critical period in our federation when our economy is almost on the floor. We have a new national government working to salvage our economy due to a number of reasons. First, part of it is crucial economic decisions or policies that we take in the country. Of course, each of these decisions has far-reaching implications that we deal with. Second, it is partly a result of the global economic recession. This is a global challenge and not a peculiarity of Nigeria. Third, this can be ascribed to the security situation, with which nearly all parts of the federation are grappling. This has made it impossible for the majority of our farmers to wake up and go to their farms. All these forces are meant to have serious implications for our economy. Part of it is responsible for the food crisis that we are facing in the country.

Beyond insecurity, we can also look at what is going on globally. The war situations between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza are having a grave impact on the global economy. We must understand this within the context of international political economy to be able to explain some of the things that are happening in our country today. It is not about the administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, GCFR, not doing what it is supposed to do. If we had in place at this time an administration that does not have a scientific understanding of what is going on and what should be done, our situation would have been worse as a nation. We are in a dire situation, but there is a lot of hope based on the economic policies the government is putting in place and the courage to make some of the decisions that it is taking. Things will come together for Nigeria, and definitely, our situation will be better. Regardless of what we are going through, I have no doubt that our tomorrow will be better than our today.

The relationship between the executive and legislature is quite cordial. Can you explain the factors responsible for the cordiality?

Our Constitution provides for the separation of powers. To begin with, it (the cordiality) does not matter. If the president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, as well as the president of the Senate and the chief justice of Nigeria, are siblings, our Constitution still says they must see themselves as the heads of thre different arms of government. So, that separation of power is there. Also, our Constitution provides checks and balances among the three arms of government. How does it happen? The legislature makes the laws. The executive must assent to the bills before they become laws. The judiciary is waiting to look at the sanctity of the laws which the legisature enacted and the executive assented to.
On the other hand, the appointment of the CJN and other principal functionaries of the Supreme Court, as well as the heads of courts, will have to be confirmed by the Senate. The president will have to swear in the CJN. So, checks and balances will always be there. No arm of government can do it alone. Our Constitution, quite interestingly, recognises the need for collaboration among the three arms of government. The truth about it is that we cannot but recognise when to apply each of these constitutional principles. People often misunderstand these principles.

As a result, they label legislators the ‘rubber stamps’ of the executive. People who made this statement do not recognise the need for collaboration, which our Constitution emphasises. By the constitutional provisions, the truth about it is that when we are going through this kind of socio-economic and political situation, there cannot be a better time for the legislative arm to collaborate with the executive arm. We must continue to make laws for the good governance of this country. We must continue to amend the existing laws in a way that will suit our socio-economic and political realities. As much as possible, this is not the time for grandstanding. That is what I always want Nigerians to realise. It is no longer about any institution or any arm of government. It is about the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Our people are facing stark economic situations. Our people want the best that life can offer them. In spite of our peculiar circumstances, our people need protection from the global economic meltdown. Our people want an end to insecurity irrespective of where they live in the country. Our people want an end to poverty. All these aspirations cannot happen unless there is synergy between the executive and the legislative. Like I said, it is not time for grandstanding.

There is a proposal before the House of Representatives to introduce  rotational presidency and  single term of six years. What is your view about this proposal?

Every democracy evolves. Ours is an evolving democracy, too. But we have to take into consideration our peculiarities and the context within which it is being practised. Some of our colleagues who feel strongly about it in the House of Representatives think there is a need to ensure that the politics of re-election does not distract from governance or take away the focus of somebody elected for a four-year term and interested in getting another four years. With this arrangement, they believe, the focus of the president or governors elected for four years will not be distracted from providing good governance. When you are elected president or governor, you will only govern for two and a half years. The last one and a half years will be devoted to the politics of re-election. I am sure it is the politics of re-election that is driving the movers of that bill. Second, the need to rotate the presidency is a question that has been agitating a lot of Nigerians and friends of Nigeria for a long time. Those who are behind the bill have their reasons for promoting it. Let me make this observation.

We are a bicameral legislature. In other words, no chamber of the National Assembly can, on its own and by itself, pass a bill into law and present it for the presidential assent. When the House of Representatives is done with the proposal, they will send it to the Senate for concurrence.

At that point, senators will also need to sit down. This entails our own understanding of the kind of democracy we need to adopt, how to manage our democracy and what our constituents really want. Still, we will need to take a cursory look at the bill and take a position on whether we want to concur with what our colleagues in the House of Representatives have passed. I am aware of the move in the House of Representatives. Like the rest of Nigerians, we are also watching how the proposal will go. But the essence of having the parliament is to continue to make laws based on our realities or the need to broaden the horizon of our democratic practice. It is the right direction.

The review of the 1999 Constitution is ongoing. This has renewed the agitation for state police and autonomy for local government. What does the Senate think about these issues?

In summary, the issue of autonomy for our local government is an issue on which the National Assembly has already taken a position. We voted in support of local government autonomy in the previous attempt to amend our Constitution. It is an issue that Nigerians should take up with the state government rather than the National Assembly. The truth about it is that it is an issue that will require a constitutional amendment. No amendment to our Constitution can sail through without the support of two-thirds of the state houses of assembly. Our governors have a role to play in resolving this issue. Personally, I am for local government autonomy. I am also for the state police as well. I am convinced that it is the right thing to do. It is the way to go. It is also consistent with the global best practice. In order to protect our military, ensure they concentrate on their constitutional roles, and safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of this country, there is a need to have a state police that will help strengthen our internal security so that our military forces can return to their traditional roles.

There are thousands of abandoned projects across the federation. Yet, the National Assembly annually makes provision for constituency projects. Why should the National Assembly prioritise constituency projects over abandoned projects?

We are concerned about the challenge of abandoned projects in the country. It goes beyond constituency projects. One of the motions the Senate is currently dealing with identifies 8,000 projects across the federation as projects that have been abandoned by different previous administrations. The projects cut across virtually all sectors of the economy. However, the incumbent administration is working hard to decisively address the challenge of abandoned projects. With respect to N100 billion set aside for constituency projects, this has been largely misunderstood, either by those who really want to mislead the public in this regard or by the lack of transparency that appears to have trailed the implementation of the projects in the past. If you divide N100 billion by 109 senatorial districts and 360 federal constituencies in this country, no senatorial district or federal constituency can boast of N1 billion constituency projects. What is the whole idea of constituency projects?

The constituency project is not money put in the pockets of senators or members of the House of Representatives. It is the fund set aside for the implementation of projects in all senatorial districts and federal constituencies.

The idea behind it is that when you ask the National Assembly to pass a budget, every senator and member of the House of Representatives wants to see something in his or her community. If you take N100 billion out of N28.5 trillion, what percentage will it give you? It is not even up to one per cent of the budget. That is the only fund allocated for the implementation of the project in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. At best, some legislators do not even get more than a few boreholes or solar streetlights in their constituencies. This is how it works. But people talk about constituency projects as if it were the money given to legislators to put in their pockets and spend. Not at all. In essence, it is all about projects sited in various constituencies and senatorial districts for the benefit of the people at the grassroots.

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