By NBF News
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What is your take on the Constitution amendment process in the National Assembly? Has the Senate arrived there yet?

We haven't arrived there. We have never had a culture of amending this Constitution. So, we are just beginning to crawl before standing up and taking a few steps and we cannot be so perfect with the first start. So far, the Senate has passed two amendments, waiting for the House (of Representatives) and if the House concurs, then it would go to state assemblies.

I have listened to a lot of comments, particularly in respect of some of the amendments. There is a section that has to do with indictment by a commission of inquiry and tribunals, which we deleted. The rule in most parts of the world is that you are innocent until proven guilty. Our system here is that you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent even in the Senate and state Houses of Assembly.

Some council chairmen are currently being tried before the court of law, but they are still on their seats. So, why should you say because a commission has indicted somebody and he is not even under prosecution, then he is disqualified from standing for election? You will never know when that case will finish.

We amended that because it doesn't make sense. Does it make sense to you that a case you know can go on for 15 years unfinished, and because of that, you are disqualified from standing for an election? At the end of the day, you can be found innocent. Meanwhile, there are serving people who are under trial, not even indictment, but they are still maintaining their seats. Does it make sense?

The key issue should be conviction and that is why you can be indicted. If the government is serious and has enough evidence, let them try you and get conviction and when you are convicted, even if you are on your seat, you lose it. But if you leave anything for anybody to manipulate, democracy and Nigerians will suffer for it. You should make it impossible for any government at whatever level to manipulate or frustrate anybody. We have enough experiences and we should learn from them.

Most of these things are politically motivated. Let government be serious in prosecuting people it thinks it has enough evidence against. Let's eliminate the room for manipulation.

People have also cried foul over cross-carpeting. If you want to promote internal democracy, let the parties be responsible in terms of leadership. Being in a political party is not the same as serving a jail sentence. If parties know that except they have internal democracy they are likely to lose high-level members, it will make sure it has internal democracy.

But if you create a system where somebody thinks that once you are there, they can toy around with you anyhow, even if it is against your basic principles, then you are not promoting democracy. We saw it recently in the U.S. A Republican changed to Democrat and he didn't lose his seat in the Senate. A Liberal man lost the primaries. He became independent and he was elected. He still remained independent. In the United Kingdom, it is the same.

So, if we are really practising democracy, why should we look at now that people have moved into the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party)? Supposing tomorrow all the people move out of the PDP? Let there be complete liberty. If you inhibit liberty in anyway, you will pay a price for it in future, particularly if it is a constitutional matter. If it is mere legislation that you can amend, that is different. But you must never limit liberty and freedom of association in the Constitution. It will be undemocratic and in the long run, it will not benefit Nigeria. It will not benefit the growth of democracy.

Another issue is the time frame for the disposal of election cases…

(Cuts in) Ideally, what we thought is that cases should be concluded before people are sworn in. If the election tribunals work very hard and the membership has been reduced from 5 to 3 so that you can have as many tribunals as possible, all cases can be finished before people get into office. At the beginning, that may not happen. But, at least, it will not be as it was. You can have overwhelming number concluded with a few remaining.  As we make progress, things will take shape and we will end up having a situation where cases can be concluded before people assume office.

People are saying that the reduction in the number of Justices in the tribunal might create room for bribery. A single Judge will sit and pass death sentence. Is there anything more important than life? How many Judges sit in the High Court to pass sentence on an individual?

There appears to be a contradiction on the amendment as it relates to INEC. You gave autonomy to INEC but the power to appoint the chairman still resides with the President. You gave the power, financial though, but you took it back with the other hand.

The President has the power to send the name subject to confirmation by the Senate. We always compare ourselves with Ghana. In Ghana, that is still what happens, and even in Ghana, his appointment is for life until retirement, which is different from Nigeria. The issue is that the Senate should do its job well in screening.

Secondly, the President in nominating any chairman or member of the INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) should actually make sure that he is unbiased and nominate some of the best materials Nigeria can produce.

In any case, our amendment has also removed this issue of belonging to political parties. As it is now, you cannot even be a member of INEC until you are a card-carrying member of a party.  We have said now that they must never belong to or be associated with any political party. That is part of the amendment. If somebody is nominated and you can produce evidence that he belongs to or is strongly associated with a political party, then we take it seriously. As a matter of fact, you can go to court with that evidence and the court can declare that he is not fit to be a member of the commission because it is a constitutional provision that he must never belong or be known to be associated. So, people should look at all the other things done in order to make them neutral, in terms of belonging or associating with a political party.

What is wrong if the commission appoints its chairman?

You have just said that it is easy to bribe three members of an election tribunal. Impliedly, you are saying that even members of the judiciary can get bribed. If that is the case, what makes you think that the same problem will not get there? Let's stop thinking that there is somebody that is more pious than the other. But let's see what improvement it can make.

Personally, it doesn't matter if it is the NJC that makes the recommendation. But the totality of views is that what prevails in majority of countries in the world is that this nomination comes from the executive. There are few countries that nominations come from the legislature. Nigerians will always find somebody to blame, anyway, for something, especially when that thing turns out not the way that somebody expected. But let's look at the totality of the situation and see what improvement can be made in the system. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow, what you are suggesting may come to be. But our thought is that for now, these are sufficient safeguards that can be built into the system.

One of the amendments has to do with the qualification to contest elections. Do you think that qualification is enough if you have to achieve what you have just stated?

You can see some people even crying foul that some people would be disenfranchised. But already, the Constitution has disenfranchised people because it says minimum of O'Level. But this O'level, you can have F9 and it is still O'Level and you have your certificate. Just because you have it, you can be a Minister. But I think we should call a spade a spade.

This is not about cheap publicity. If you want to go into a particular line, encourage people to go to school, study well and attain the minimum level of qualification. There is no part of this country that you will go and you will not find enough qualified people, even above the level that is stated. In any case, that amendment does not cover the local governments because it is only the state assembly that makes laws in relation to local government election. So, if the states think that primary school certificate is enough, they can equally make a law at state level that pertains to local government election.

But the local government is not a dumping ground. It is a serious level of government and you equally need highly qualified and experienced people at that level as you need at higher levels. So, it is time for Nigerians, if they are serious to really take up the challenge and set some minimum standards. It is not going to solve the problem, but at least it will propel people to study more.

What do you think is wrong with Nigeria today?
How I wish I knew. Among other things, we don't seem to be respecters of law. One of our hobbies is always setting up commissions to do this and that, but not so good in implementation. You have so many reports and the recommendation in most cases are similar or the same. But there is no implementation.

Generally, we tend to want to be a little bit selfish.

When you get to a position you assume that your first responsibility is to your kith and kin, not your country, whereas it should be the other way round. We should be nationalistic. Our first responsibility is to our nation and as we discharge that responsibility, other things will follow, as long as whatever we do is not against our collective interest as Nigerians. We have a number of problems, but these are not problems that are not surmountable. Other countries have had worse kind of situations, but then the world is not going to wait for us forever. We cannot continue to be lucky. So, time is not on our side. We need to move expeditiously to address these problems.

In your opinion, why are credible people in this country not contesting elections?

It is because the party structures generally have been hijacked or manipulated by individuals that may make it difficult for this kind of credible people you are mentioning.

Are we getting this right now?
Until we have internal democracy in all the parties and until our citizens get more educated and government addresses the issue of poverty, we will never get it right. People tend to be bought over easily because of the level of poverty and level of illiteracy. So, there is the government providing good governance. There is the issue of the people at the helm of affairs putting the country first and bringing reforms that will make it possible for people to bring out the best materials they can bring at all levels so that those best materials can be in a position to give you good governance.

Let's look at the 2010 budget. Why did the Senate raise it from N4.09 trillion to N4.6 trillion?

I'm not in the Appropriation Committee, so I'm not conversant with the details. But there are some that I'm aware of. For example, the executive made additional request for expenditure in the amount of about N240 billion. Out of this N240 billion, Police Trust Fund alone is N80 billion and that is one single request from the executive.

You are equally aware that there is a tradition that the National Assembly will at its discretion do what you call geopolitical projects, where each senatorial zone is asked to submit some projects of interest to it, either ongoing or new projects as the case may be, and that provision takes about N100 million.

This is just a tradition. It is not that money will go to members. If you have a project that is ongoing but not well funded, you can choose to agree that more funding should go to that project. If you have a new project that you want to propose, which will touch the lives of the people immediately, you may agree that such sums also go into new projects. If you add this two that we know and everybody is aware of, that automatically gives you an increase of N340 billion. So, when you look at the difference between N4.0 trillion and N4.6 trillion, already N340 billion is for the things the executive brought or is aware of. As the committees bring their reports, there may be areas of absolute need to adjust by way of making some increases. If such increases were made, they could not have been more than N60 billion or N80 billion, which is a very rational thing, considering the size of the budget. But the only addition that originated from the National Assembly is N100 billion.

I asked the question because some people believe that Senators increased it in order to feather their nest

That is why I'm giving you this explanation that N340 billion were written requests by the executive. N100 billion is additional to accommodate National Assembly priority projects in their senatorial zones, which can be old projects or new projects, to give a sense of belonging to National Assembly members that they have a way of making inputs to matters that concern their constituency. If you take out this N340 billion, which you can classify as the increase the executive has made, the only increase that would have originated from the National Assembly should be about N80 billion and the Senate and the House (of Representatives) harmonized this.

A committee may come with its report that as a result of their oversight work and as a result of the defense of the budget, there is an area of under-funding. Naturally, you won't close your eyes to areas of serious under-funding. If you are going to put in money and at the end of the day, because you have not put in a little more, the money will go to waste, you won't say that you are not going to consider any kind of increase. So, if you look at that particular increase which you can isolate from the executive, it cannot be more than N80 billion. And these are all capital projects, mind you. It is not a recurrent expenditure you just put in money here that you are going to take out for whatever purposes.

How has the global economic recession impacted on the nation's external reserves?

We have deflated our excess crude. I understand we have less than $5 billion in our excess crude account. Of course, accruals for this year were not computed as at the last time I had this information. So, accruals for this year, you have to add it. If it is up to a billion dollars for example, you may say we have excess crude of about $6 billion.

What is being done to shore it up?
If you look at other economies of the world, you will see that there is need for a boost in public expenditure. This is not a time that you will say that you want to cut down on public expenditure because public expenditure is really the mover of domestic economy. So, it's a way of trying to come out of the economic recession. The thing is not to spend more than what we can afford. But as long as we can afford to reasonably spend in a way to boost the economy and as the economy gets a boost, then you can begin to build back the reserve that would have depleted. Other countries don't even have reserves to fall back on. We are lucky that we have such a reserve, but it doesn't make sense to consume all of that reserve because you have a reserve. I see it gradually climbing because the benchmark given for the budget is reasonable. It will reduce pressure by other stakeholders in the federation account for distribution of excess crude.

Why you have this political pressure is that you use unreasonable benchmark and accumulate so much. Look at this public sector wage and allowance adjustment. It cost money and if government is unable to even meet the basis, there won't be even industrial harmony for it to look at the above basic issues. So, this is a trying moment. I don't see us building the reserve with the same speed that we did before. But, we will surely be able to build it back while expanding on public expenditure in a reasonable manner as to build the economy.

Well, that is excess crude and not foreign reserve. Foreign reserve is still over $40 billion. But legally speaking, you shouldn't even have anything like excess crude, going by the spirit and letter of the Constitution because it says all revenues have to be shared. But this is the nation's interest that those who share the nation's revenue see the necessity to save for a rainy day, so that it can be used to stabilize distribution in a period of lean resources. This is what has bailed and stabilized the revenues accruing to different tiers of government.

What about our foreign reserve?
We have foreign reserve of over $40 billion. I was reading about Pakistan having a foreign reserve of under a billion dollars. I don't think Ghana has a billion dollars of foreign reserve. But it is not about the size of the foreign reserve. You can have huge foreign reserve and it won't make sense. It is the quality of service delivery at home that makes sense. So, we should pay a lot more attention on value for money in terms of public expenditure at all levels of government.

You can't compare even Nigeria that has less than a billion dollars in foreign reserve. In terms of services and even security, you can't compare us to Niger Republic or to Ghana in a lot of respect. So, let's not lose focus by thinking that because of the size of foreign reserve, you are a big man or you have come of age. It is the quality of public service delivery that we have to pay a lot of emphasis. Foreign reserve, yes, but let it be responsibly managed so that we don't lose as a result of bad investment. I believe the Central Bank is responsibly managing our foreign reserve.

Let's look at our debt profile. What exactly is Nigeria's debt profile?

The foreign debt is under N4 billion and this is multilateral. The domestic debt is the problem and that is what contributes to the illiquidity in the banking industry. Nobody can tell you what the domestic debts are because if the Federal Government knows its own domestic debts, what of the states? Are the states sincere about their own domestic debt, because domestic debt is not just the amount you borrow? It is the amount you have not paid your contractors for work done; the entitlement of your workers that you have not paid. All those are domestic debts.

Are we not supposed to articulate our domestic debts?

We are supposed to, but one of our problems is statistics, and until we acknowledge this, we will never evolve policies and programmes to address them. We are lacking in reliable and comprehensive statistics and until you have reliable and comprehensive statistics, it is going to be impossible to plan. This statistics will have to come from local government and state governments. Sometimes, the states and local governments may shy away from giving you reliable statistics, thinking that you are going to use that for different purposes other than having a comprehensive national statistics. So, we have a lot of ground to cover in terms of bringing a sense of harmony between our tiers of government.

Can't there be a law mandating them to come forward with the statistics that will enable the government to plan?

We cannot set a law. We should run away from laws. We have so many laws and we are always making laws. The problem is implementation. We should refrain from continuing to make laws and look at how we can build consensus and move together. Otherwise, we will be a country of limitless laws but no implementation. The Constitution has given every tier of government its own powers and responsibilities and that is why it is through collaborative discourse that you can get a lot of things done.

Also, the electorate when voting, they should make sure they vote the right caliber of people, whether at local or state level because the right caliber of people will understand the necessity for having collaboration in terms of doing all the things that I have mentioned.

Are you satisfied with the recent cancellation of the sale of NITEL by the Acting President?

Well, he must have acted in the interest of the nation. There is an ongoing review and investigation and I wouldn't want to make any further comments until we know the outcome.