From Judex Okoro, Calabar
Mr. Daniel Asuquo is a three-time member of the House of Representatives on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), representing Akamkpa/Biase federal constituency of Cross River state. In this interview, Asuquo, who is a member of various committees-Petroleum downstream sector, foreign affairs, inter-government and agriculture- spoke on some national issues including non-implementation of constituency projects by the present administration, APC style of leadership, election, PDD’s chances in 2023 and the social media bill.
Barely seven months into the 9th National assembly, can you say the legislature has really lived up to its billings?
The 9th National assembly so far has been trying to gather steam. We have passed some bills and motions that impact positively on the lives of the Nigerian people. And I can tell you that since this assembly, there are no contentious issues that have come to the National assembly that the two chambers have not bared their minds wholeheartedly. I can recall that one of the most critical issues that have come to this assembly was the passage of the money bill, which is the appropriation Bill. For the first time, the bill was passed within a time frame and the extent of work done would be actually known when the implementation of the money bill commences. The flaws would be known also when the implementation starts.
For now, I know that the books were closed not in line with the President’s promise. When the President laid the budget before the National assembly, he said there would be roll over of the 2019 projects into 2020 and that is not what we saw in the President’s presentation when we started looking at the details of the budget. So, we are going to see a lot of abandoned capital projects. We have been having lots of abandoned projects year-in-year out especially under this dispensation. This is because of late implementation and late release of funds. Therefore, I cannot say I am excited about anything in the National assembly. This is the dullest moment of my legislative year. Imagine going round during electioneering, promising the electorate a few community projects and then you end up not attracting anything because of non-release of funds. Agreed that we are not the executive that carries out the implementation, but we also participate in the process, which is making provisions. So, you make provisions in 2017 and 2018 and before the year ends, it is fully executed. Then in an election year of 2019, you crown all the promises and then again it is abandoned half year because funds have been mopped out. So if you see a new budget come in, in 2020 just about three or four months when the 2019 budget was trying to gather momentum and releases were technically 40 percent, so where is the 60 percent of the funding that should finish those projects. If you look at it critically in those MDAs that are supposed to implement these projects, whether they have reflected it in terms of debts (that is supposed to be outstanding) or in terms of carrying it on as on-going projects, they are not here either except the ones a few people have personal interest in.
So what happens is putting new things on top of old things and it is very discouraging. Only projects suggested by the executive that you can see funding. The work the legislature does on those projects hardly finds itself in the next successive year. This is a big problem and it is high time Nigerians began to ask questions. The greatest problem facing us right now is that Nigerians have become so docile that they think that magic can happen. However, the President can have good intentions by coming to the National assembly and make nice presentations, but what happens after that is the crux of the matter. And before the President made such speech, did he look through what he is presenting to know if the projects of last year would actually be rolled over. It is not there at all and we have hammered on this severally. You see the same budget every year and then we end up being bashed by our constituents. Therefore, some of us cannot keep quiet.
Is this style of governance not worrisome considering the fact that this APC came on the mantra of integrity and change for the better?
It is, indeed, worrisome because the basis of many Nigerians supporting President Buhari was based on integrity. Whether the integrity is reelected in the business of government or his pronouncements is what Nigerians should look at. Also have we as legislature, who stand on the side of the people, been doing what other legislatures do in other climes in terms of checking some of the excesses of the executive. What we are running in this administration is simply a ‘paddy-paddy- government’ and then speaking from both sides of the mouth. I don’t hide my feelings when it comes to governance. When President Buhari is doing well, I commend him and when he is not doing well, I also speak out because on the issue of budget, you don’t make pronouncements when you don’t have details of it. When the assembly picks up the budget and start working on those details deeply to reflect it, they say it is budget padding. At the end, you have three sets of budgets-zonal intervention, constituency projects, which is called mandate, and then you have the ministry which is the one they believe is the real one. I have stated it severally that the people that have the mandate of Nigerians is the elected officials. So in the executive, the only two elected officials-the President and the Vic President-while the other elected people are senators and the House of Representatives members. Every other person takes instructions from the President or the Vice President. So, the bulk stops at the President’s table. In other words, we expect a responsible government rather than this selective implementation of projects and selective introduction of projects. However, the harmony between the legislature and the executive is commendable, but let it not be at the cost of stampeding the independence of any arm of the government.
But the President had said that trillions of Naira had been spent on constituency projects and no much result. Is it not an indictment on the part of the legislature?
You know in Nigeria, it is good to bandy figures because they are very gullible and excited in hearing that. But I know in the midst of all these, we still have some Nigerians who would want to know how the trillion were spent and how much were released. Let the Presidency circulate what was released. I am happy that ICPC is evaluating constituency projects and they would see the trillions of Naira projects. But for those my colleagues who did not execute projects based on money released so be it. The MDAs handling these projects should also be investigated.
The Social Media bill is attracting scathing criticisms from Nigerians and the Minister of Information has insisted that there is no going back. What’s your reaction to the bill before the Senate?
For me, there is absolutely no need for the social media bill. From the content and the letters of the bill, I don’t know what my senior colleague intends to achieve because we are not in a military regime. This is a full democracy which has founded its roots. So, any draconian bill or action would not get my support and my constituents. In a democratic setting, we must be tolerant of criticisms because that is the only way to check our excesses of those appointed or elected. Those in service are doing it on behalf of the Nigerian people and not for themselves. The mandate was given to us on trust. So, why can’t the electorate criticise us. The criticism that is junk, you do away with it. Besides, we don’t need more laws on how to gag the media. We already have enough laws in this country. What we need to do is to sharpen it because over time, traditions and behaviour of people may necessitate some amendments. I do not see anything democratic in that bill and I am sure Nigerians would continue to kick. The present APC government is a beneficiary of freedom of speech of the former President Jonathan government. Some characters in this APC government once called people, even the former President, all sorts of derogatory names and nobody gagged them. Between 2012 and 2015, there were series of protests against the PDP government and heavens did not fall. So, why bring up such a bill this time that you think it is right time to gag Nigerians from criticizing your administration. Most times, Nigerian government acts when there is an international outcry. What has happened in recent times has shown so much disrespect for rule of law and flagrant abuse of human rights. This is pure double standard.
Do you think PDP is really doing enough as a leading opposition party and ready for 2023?
Well, I think PDP has its own internal problems. But also, I think the party is doing excellently well in the face of this draconian kind of government. Again, the irony is that those who supported the change of government are the ones being hounded today by the same APC. From what is happening you can see the party is not sleeping. Elders of the party have been meeting and talking of the way forward. And you should expect something better as we move on. And now that 2023 has become a national discourse, the party should do its best to bring out good and quality candidates that would represent us in all elections across the states. If you have to take power because somebody has done something right, then you must check yourself to find out if you are really prepared to outdo that person. We have given APC a chance; we have seen their flaws and we are waiting to see whether they would correct their flaws or add more damage and then we pack all and go to the electorate to decide. But unfortunately, we don’t have an electoral system that can even guarantee free and fair election. If you look at what happened in Kogi and Bayelsa elections, it shows clearly that Nigeria is heading towards part of war in an election time. Now government at all levels put in everything they have from federal to local government to bastardise their citizens and the system. Even the security agencies collude to rig election for government in power. We are not afraid of going into those kind of elections because two things would happen-either you go to war and win or don’t even go. So, when you are preparing for election in 2023, you prepare for war because your opponents are in government and they would bring in all paraphernalia of government as displayed in Kogi and Bayelsa elections. 2019 was even very modest though it came with so much inconclusive and anywhere there is inconclusive, just know they are coming with all the security apparatus and to buy votes. So, these people who criticised the PDP government have come to do worst things in just about five years than PDP’s 16 years. I have seen both sides of the divide- ANPP and PDP. But the worst we have seen so far is the new trend of winning election where you must empower the security agencies to work for you against the wishes of the people and to buy votes which have now become a tradition. Now, you budget to buy votes. Where are we heading to? And if people go out of their way to borrow money and empty their accounts, why are Nigerians expecting magic from them? You put these people in debt and they would go there to recover their money and pay back to the political godfathers and bankrollers of those elections. I hope as we approach 2023, Nigerians should pray. I have read that the President said he would guarantee free and fair elections in 2023. He should back the pronouncement with the passage of electoral act which introduces electronic as well as checks and balances.
There is move to ban oversea medical treatment. What is the implication to our health sector?
Those working with Mr. President and considering their enormous responsibilities, should be up and doing in their responsibility. Before President makes such a pronouncement, they should, of course, crosscheck the implications. You are banning people from going abroad, didn’t you go abroad for treatment. Besides, don’t their wives and children go abroad for medical treatment? So, if we are repenting in 2020, fine. But let us lead by example. No doubt, it would cost Nigeria less; there will be less capital flight. Again, in making such a pronouncement, it should be in tandem with other tiers of government; so the aim and objective would be more acceptable and effective. We want our health centres, medical centres, general hospitals and universities teaching hospitals to work. But the attitude to work, funding and monitoring of those critical sector as well as brain drain must be addressed first before you ban foreign medical treatment. Most medical or paramedical student, who just graduated, thinks of going outside to practise because of better pay and working conditions of service. So, how do you address such? So, there must be a discourse on the way out of this before we pronounce ban.