By Willy Eya
To many Nigerians, the present House of Representatives is having so many distractions that impact negatively on the responsibility of the Green chamber. Those in this school of thought believe that the trending allegation over padding of the 2016 budget by key officers of the lower chamber should not be politicised. A group, The Initiatives, an intellectual resource base for the House believes that the current leadership of the House led by Yakubu Dogara is on course and should be supported for the overall benefit of the country.
Mr. Eseme Eyiboh, former chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information is the Dean of The Initiatives, and in this interview, discusses various national issues on behalf of the group.
What do you make of the rumble in the House of Representatives over allegations of budget padding?
The difference between democracy and military government is the existence of the rule of law. The rule of law primarily is the dividends of democracy and not necessarily the construction of roads or building of houses because the military government also constructs roads. What democracy brings are the liberty and the inherent freedom and rights. That is to mean that without the rule of law, there can be no democracy. And where is the rule of law domiciled? It is domiciled in Section 4, sub-section 1, which has vested in the legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in a National Assembly consisting of the Senate and House of Representatives.
So, appropriation is part and parcel of that legislative process. It is a law that originates from that legislative power. Even in that, the primary functions of the legislature is of course the issues of legislation, appropriation and oversight. The constitution intended for the people to participate in consonance with Article 25 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Participation is very key. And how does the constitution or democracy encourage participation? It is encouraged by making the legislature to be at its best. For example, no law should be passed without going through the legislative processes like first, second and third readings as well as committees stage and public hearing.
To what level does the people’s input count in the legislative process?
The intention of all the readings, committee stage and public hearing is to allow the people to participate. The people’s input is part of the legislative process. So, the responsibility of lawmaking can never be complete without the peoples’ participation. When the budget proposal is brought, the executive will engage the legislature and the legislature, through its various committees, will reach out to the people.
The importance of the legislature is so strong to the point that if the processes are not followed, we are inviting anarchy because the executive will sit down and say that it is going to construct road and the president will cash in on this to construct road in his state or zone; the vice president will put project in his area and the ministers will put projects in their respective areas but for you and I, who may not have the opportunity of having any of these persons, we will have to wait for our turn. And if by providence, you end up coming from a minority, you will wait for a longer time. So, the only thing that democracy has brought to us is the issue of constituency projects or zonal intervention.
But most Nigerians are not disposed to issue of constituency projects as it is seen as an avenue for the legislators to enrich themselves.
The issue here is not the zonal intervention or the semantics of whether constituency or zonal intervention. The issue is its relevance or impact on the generality of the people. That does not take the fact there may not be indiscretions and abuses. But like they normally ask: Must we throw away the baby with the bath water? The answer is no. So, what I am trying to say is that the Nigerian public is having poor perception on the institution of the legislature.
I am not speaking on behalf of the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara or the former chairman of the Appropriation Committee, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin. I am talking about the institution. If we allow an individual to bring down an institution that protects and preserves my right and your right, my liberty and your liberty, we have ended up at denying ourselves the opportunity to participate in governance. When appropriation takes place, the executive does the implementation. But if a project is appropriated for and its implementation fails, then an offence has been committed. The question would be: Why was fund allocated for the project and it was not executed? That comes to the principle of law that says that for a crime to be committed, the intention and act must be in marriage.
There are calls in some quarters for an investigation into the budget scandal. What is your take on that?
You cannot investigate an appropriation act because appropriation in itself is an assumptive document because you can’t have 100 per cent execution of these assumptions because it is just to guide government on implementation of its policies and programmes. I think that it is the outcome of that perception problem to single out an individual in an institutional process. Majority of Nigerians are still living with that illusion that there should be no legislature.
The thinking is that the legislators are not doing anything but stealing from the nation’s treasury but we have forgotten that the legislature is what has given us the liberty we have today. To say that that we should do away with the legislature means that we no longer cherish our liberty. Are we now saying that members of the legislature should go? We will be weakening our rights of expression if we do that. We must preserve the institutional integrity of the National Assembly, particularly the House of Representatives. While the Senate is the representation of the states on equality basis, the House of Representatives is about population, and anything that affects the House, affects Nigeria.
You seem to be vouching for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Are you absolving him of the allegations raised by the former Appropriation committee chairman?
The occupant of the institution of Speaker of the House, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, is a humble man to a fault. I will give you an example. He was the chairman of Customs Committee in 2007, when I was the spokesman of the House. So, most of the times, I was obliged by the then speaker to participate in public hearings, so that I can feed him back. In the course of this, there was this issue of waivers for importers of rice and $3 million was brought by one of the companies involved but Dogara placed it on the table and told members of the committee that the money was brought so that the committee will overlook certain things.
He, however, washed his hands off the money and asked whoever wants to take it to do so. So, when I read in the papers about Dogara’s involvement in corruption and all that, I said to myself that fraudulent attitude is lifestyle which one gets into when one lives a lifestyle beyond one’s means. But Dogara is not a man I know for that. I also ask: Is it the same man who washed his hands off $3 million and every other member of his committee ran away from the money and it was returned; is he the same man we are talking about in budget padding when every member of the House has the statutory responsibility to contribute to and by the provisions of the constitution; that input include to add, subtract, increase, decrease or even delete.
Going forward, what do you suggest as the way out of this impasse?
The Nigerian House of Representatives requires character, depth and somebody who has a reformed minded pedigree; somebody who can sit back and do a proper assessment of his person and the institution and now device a means of adding value to the institution. And if you ask me, even when I am not a member and may not be a Dogara fan because I am quite aggressive, while he is humble to a fault, I will tell you that he has capacity and has actually added value to that institution. And I think that we are making a mistake by not encouraging that development initiative.
We must encourage potential leaders because what is going on now in the House will make some Nigerians believe that going into politics will ruin their reputation. Most Nigerians know a lot about this budget padding thing but they don’t want to come out because of the public’s perception on the issue. Let us take Dogara and Jibrin out of it and begin to look at how we can develop the legislature by educating the public on the relevance of the institution.
What do you make of the move by the anti-corruption agencies to wade into the matter?
I have heard by way of speculation that the anti-graft agencies – Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) are stepping into the matter. But by the last law I read about the EFCC, it is statutorily empowered to deal with economic and financial crimes, while that of ICPC deals with public officers. I don’t have any problem with the powers they have, but under the Legislative Houses Powers and Privileges Act, can a legislator in the course of exercising his responsibilities as empowered in Section 4(1) be investigated and prosecuted.
If the answer is not in the affirmative, it means that there are questions over the involvement of the EFCC, ICPC and even the police whose budgets are in this appropriation, in this matter. If we allow the legislature to be disabled, we will go back to democratic dictatorship and nobody knows where the shots would be called from. We are insisting that democracy must survive and the only way it will survive is by making sure that we preserve that institution called the legislature.