From Timothy Olanrewaju, Maiduguri
The independence of local governments has been a subject of debate for a long time now with many looking onto the National Assembly to address the problem through a review of the existing law in the constitution. But Senate Leader, Sen Mohammed Ali Ndume said some powerful governors who prefer to continue to control the Joint Account, were blocking efforts to achieve autonomy for local government administration in the country.
Ndume who represents Borno South in the senate in this interview with some journalists spoke on various issues.
How would you react to the criticism against the 8th National Assembly that it is promoting bills that seek to protect members’ interest?
There are two issues that could make some Nigerians feel this way. One is the issue of pension to presiding officers of the National Assembly and it is on record that some of us opposed that. But this is democracy. It is a process that I feel the presiding officers of the National Assembly is just one among all equal and therefore, they are not supposed to be entitled to pension. But I am of the view that anybody that stayed in the National Assembly consecutively for the period of 16 years; that is four terms should be considered for pension because even by the civil service rule, if you work for 16 years, you will be entitled to pension and those that fall by the way are given severance allowance. My proposal which did not fly is that instead of that, any member that served for four terms should be entitled to pension and the severance allowance which that pension enjoys should be deducted from his pension on pro-rata basis.
So, you end up giving him a small amount. For example, if I have collected severance allowance for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd terms and by the time I’m entitled to collect pension, my pension will now be determined by the amount less of my severance that I have been paid. But the proposal that the principal officers should now be enjoying pension like president, governors, chief judge, passed through. Even when the constitution review committee met recently to now review or update the motions/amendments proposed in our Lagos Retreat, I still stood on my ground and canvassed that my proposal be reconsidered and I am still going to argue that till the end. Even if I don’t get my wish through, at least, I will have my say and this is the beauty of democracy. Remember even the proposal has to go to all the 36 states of the federation and 24 states must endorse it before it becomes law.
The second issue is the recent amendment to the act establishing the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal. This bill did not emanate from the Senate but House of Representatives. Our responsibility is to concur. In the 8th senate, I proposed that instead of leaving any bill either coming from the House to suffer passage because we did not concur, we now say we dedicated every Thursday to the consideration of bills especially those that are concurrent so that we can look at it holistically to either agree or disagree. That was why it was placed on the order paper.
During our debate, we came to a stage that emotion came to bare and when emotion is on display, judgment is impaired. I then moved the motion that it should be stepped down to another legislative day so that people can calm down. As far as I’m concerned, there is no big deal about the whole thing. Laws are not made for an individual. The Senate is not about Saraki and Saraki is not the Senate. He is the Senate president and not senators’ president. We cannot and it very insulting to us for anybody to say we’re doing the bid of the Senate president because many of us are fit to be the Senate president. Beside, everybody knows that laws are not passed in retrospective. If you make a law today, it does not affect or invalidate the previous laws. Even if this law will be in effect, it will not be of use now to the Senate president or whoever.
There are two critical things that the bill seeks to do. It seeks to reduce the age which is what is in the law now for the chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau from 50 to 30 years. I was personally in support of that ab initio, that if somebody can be a member of the House of Reps at the age of 30 and senator at the age of 35, then I see nothing wrong with such age becoming the chairman of the bureau. But two of our members put up an argument that you need an elderly person with experience as chairman of the bureau to deal with issues under its jurisdiction. With this argument, I realized it matters and I shifted ground from my initial position to join the proponents of 50 years as it were in the law. There and then, we rejected the proposal of the House of Reps which says the age should be 35 years. The second issue here is that of number. Currently, the number of members of the Code of Conduct is two and unless they agree on an issue jointly, there may not be problem. But if they disagree, then there won’t be judgment. Supposing one of the judges in the case involving Sen Saraki for instance now says the accused is innocent and the other says no, he is guilty. Then what will happen? There will be impasse and that is why we’re advocating that the number be increased to five and that the minimum number of judges to sit at the tribunal should be three. The essence is that if two judges are not there, the three other judges can decide on a case before the tribunal. If three judges decide, the chairman can break the tie in case of such impasse in verdict. This is the thinking and it passed.
The other one that generated controversy is the subsistence law of the act which is not the responsibility of the National Assembly. I stood my ground here because I believe we cannot go into the nitty gritty of the tribunal. That is when you establish the tribunal, you don’t make laws to say the directors should do ABC, the years they will spend before moving them to the next level or that you issue them query when they are late or did not do their job. These are laws that are called subsistence laws of the land. The final issue is the confirmation of the tribunal judges. That is, their appointment ought to be confirmed by the National Assembly as it is with that of the ministers or heads of government organizations or agencies. I think what I will say is that the 8th Senate has not been very fortunate with the media. The bill in contention went through the House of Reps but the press didn’t notice or raise any issue about it until it came to the Senate. Now since it is contentious, there is a problem because we do not concur in harmony with the resolution of the House of Reps. Even if we did, it will still get to the table of the president and Mr President can decide not to veto it and when it comes to the Senate like that, we need two third to veto it.
Some Nigerians are wondering why the President is seeking the National Assembly’s approval for about $30 billion external loan to finance some capital projects while his government says it has recovered huge sum of money from its series of corruption probe. Don’t you think the recovered money would have been used for the said infrastructural development rather than borrowing?
People are exaggerating the situation. First, all the money recovered are not Federal Government money yet. Until the court so declare and sometimes up to Supreme Court level, it is the money in the custody of the government but does not belong to it yet. Even if it is now declared that it belongs to the government, it must go to consolidated account for distribution to the three tiers of governments. Even when that is done again, the money must be appropriated by the National Assembly. So where is the money? This is what many Nigerians should understand.
Why is the local government autonomy becoming difficult to achieve or is the National Assembly not favourably disposed to its reforms and development at the local level?
No, the National Assembly’s disposition on the local government autonomy should be clearly understood. I’ve been a member of the National Assembly committee on constitutional review three times. Consecutively, I was a member in the 6th assembly, 7th and now I am also a member in the 8th assembly. We proposed the independence of the local government administration in the 6th and 7th assemblies but the proposal did not fly. We’re trying again in the 8th assembly and I just hope it will fly this time around. The decision is actually coming from the state level. The state governors are in control and some people just believe the state governments should be in control of the local governments. But I am one of those who believe in the independence of the local governments completely though not everybody can speak the way I do on the matter. Governors are very powerful in this case and most of them want to be in control and will do everything possible to ensure their position is maintained on the matter while some don’t really care. Joint account is the problem and it is the main reason why some of these governors won’t want autonomy for the local government. It is being abused in some states but aside from that, other states including FCT have no problem with the Joint Account thing. For example in FCT where there is a minister with four municipals, their monies are paid to them as soon as allocation is ready. This is how it should be done but a situation where you have about 500 local governments under caretakers is a big problem and not healthy for our democracy and development.