Governors are Nigeria’s biggest problem – Ex-minister


A former Minister of National Planning and Director-General of the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies, the academic arm of the National Assembly, Prof Abubakar Suleiman, in this interview with Leke Baiyewu speaks about the cost of running the National Assembly and governors’ influence in the polity, among other issues around the legislature.

The National Assembly has been described as the most expensive in the world. Do you think that view is exaggerated or there is a justification for it?

If they say democracy is expensive, maybe we can start the conversation. But to single out the parliament and say it is expensive, I don’t know what it means. Let me give you a good example: there is this notion by some Nigerians that parliaments – to be precise, the National Assembly – are the ones that spend or take all our money. That has been the perception. Perhaps, it was this perception and misconception that informed the conclusion that having two arms (Senate and House of Representatives) at the national level is too much and, therefore, something needs to be done. I want to debunk that notion or that perception with some facts. One, the notion or the misconception that tends to believe that the parliament, especially the National Assembly, takes all our money; that they are thieves, that they are this and that…the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Which money are we talking about?’

What about their remuneration and welfare package widely called ‘jumbo pay’?

How much is the jumbo pay? Going by my background, I have been part of the executive, when I served as a minister, and here I am (in the legislature). As an intellectual from the university, I can make a scientific conclusion on it and I am not trying to defend anybody. As a minister, for instance, my entitlements in terms of remuneration – salary and everything (allowances) – may be less than N1m, but in terms of vehicles and other things, I don’t think any senator enjoys that. That is one. Two, in terms of privileges that we enjoyed as members of the Federal Executive Council, they (lawmakers) don’t enjoy it. Third, depending on the ministry you occupy, if you are a Minister of Works or Petroleum Resources or Defence or Transportation or Finance, one minister of these ministries is equal to 90 senators in terms of opportunities to acquire wealth if you want to. This is because a Minister of Works has the power to disburse up to N1tn, for instance. Yes, you will go through the normal procurement process but, at least, the buck stops with you. No senator, in fact the 109 senators don’t control N1tn. The entire budgetary provision for the entire National Assembly is not up to N300bn. This year alone, the Federal Government budgeted over N20tn (N21.83tn)), the National Assembly does not control N1tn. It does not get N300bn. So, if the executive is spending about N22tn and the National Assembly is getting less than N300bn, who controls the remainder? That fund is under the executive, but nobody talks about it. They are not expensive. They don’t steal. Our accusing fingers should not be pointed at them but at the people who control less than N300bn. If we ignore that organ of government that sits on over N20tn, and our focus is now on the organ that sits on N300bn, where lies the justification?

Talking about the amount allocated to the National Assembly, how is it spent?

Let us say N250bn was allocated to the National Assembly, out of that amount, don’t forget that we have two components of the budget – recurrent and capital expenditures. People have forgotten or are ignorant of the fact that the National Assembly comprises of about four agencies and all these agencies share this N250bn. Under the National Assembly, there is the National Assembly Service Commission, Public Complaints Commission, NILDS and National Assembly Budget and Research Office. Then, we have the National Assembly Management. All these are besides the parliamentarians – senators and representatives. All these, together, are the ones that share the N250bn. So, where lies the justification that they are too expensive? When you talk of oversight (of the ministries, departments and agencies of the Federal Government by the lawmakers), it is part of the N250bn. When you talk of training – some overseas, it is out of the N250bn. By the time you do the allocations here and there, I think you will sympathise with the parliament.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, has repeatedly claimed that the National Assembly is underfunded? Are you confirming this to be true?

You can make your deduction from what I have just said; if actually N250bn is what goes to all these five bodies as well as the lawmakers. Okay, if you want to carry out an oversight of the NDDC and the money budgeted for the oversight by a committee is less than N3m, how do you do an effective oversight? Is it hotel accommodation? Is it transportation? Is it the logistics? How do you do effective oversight? As long as the National Assembly or the parliament is underfunded, the vulnerability or propensity to be intimidated by the executive or the MDAs is high.

And corruption may set in, don’t you think so?

I don’t know what you mean but that is the tendency. If you are well taken care of, in terms of provision for recurrent (expenditure), operations and aides – I forgot to add aides to the list of beneficiaries of the National Assembly budget – things will go on well and this tendency for them to be lured by an MDA will not be there. Then the corruption you mentioned will be minimal.

If Nigeria is to continue maintaining the bicameral legislature, what would be your justifications for it?

I think we have the wherewithal. The founding fathers or initiators of bicameralism for Nigeria were not unconscious of the diversity of this country. They were not unconscious of the multiplicity of the ethnic and religious groups. They were not unaware of the country’s population and size. That was why they thought that for inclusivity and more participation of the different ethnic groups, the best bet was to have a bicameral legislature. When we are at peace we forget about our critical national crises that have led us to where we are today. Nigerians rarely quarrel or fight on the issue of economy. When you look at the various crises that have engulfed this country – the critical ones, they have to do with the question of inclusion, the issue of alienation and marginalisation. We rarely fight on economic-related matters. You talk of the Civil War, the post-June 12 (1993) crisis, all these religious and ethnic crises in Nigeria, they bother on inclusion. Some people believe they are marginalised or alienated. Look at the Niger Delta crisis, it was all about that.

How does this system address these issues?

The point I am making is that if we have more platforms or forums that give room for more inclusion of people, the better for us as a country. For instance, if it is about state creation, some minorities believe that they are being ‘swallowed’ by the majorities in some states; give them a state. Some people said ‘how can you elect three people from each state for the Senate and my ethnic people are not there?’ That is what the House of Representatives has addressed. While the Senate is about equity, the House of Reps is about going deeper into every nook and cranny of each society for them to be involved in lawmaking at the center. So, they have come to play two different roles. If we now say one should go, you have further increased the problems we are facing. Even if we can have three, as long as it will address the questions of injustice or having a say in governance, the better for us.

Will that not impose an additional financial burden on the country?

It is not a burden. Even if you look at the money we are spending now on the National Assembly, it is inconsequential when compared to what goes to other sectors in the executive. It is not a burden at all. It is about planning. The only thing you can say is getting these Houses to be more responsive, effective and efficient in discharging their duties. To me, that is (what is) important and these are the issues we should address.

What do you make of the call for a part-time legislature?

It does not make sense. Lawmaking is not the plenary you see (on the floor of the chamber); it goes beyond plenary. The real task of lawmaking is done at the committee level, and committees meet almost every week. Even when you see them go on recess, it is either they go for training or other things. It is only a few times that they have. Nigeria is facing a lot of challenges; there are many problems. This country of over 200 million people does not require part-time lawmakers. Our lawmakers must not sleep; the executive must not even slumber. So, having a part-time legislature, to me, does not make any sense. They were on break, so to speak, because of the election and all of a sudden the naira issue came up. For instance, they were on break and all of a sudden, we had this issue of fuel scarcity. So, the challenges before us are so numerous that we don’t need part-timers; we need people that will work 24-hours. If we can even deny them recess or holiday, it is better for us. People who are talking about part-time (legislature) are trivialising governance in Nigeria. In fact, they have trivialised the quantum of challenges we have in this country, maybe because of my background as a political scientist and a former minister; I have seen it all. We don’t require part-timers as lawmakers.

You recently criticised governors for using their domineering influence to cause high turnover of members in the National Assembly. What can governors do if party members decide to vote for their choice candidates at the primaries?

The governors are our major problem. When you want to rank problems and the actors that propel these problems, Nigerian governors are our problem. And if there is anything we can do to them, better for us?

How are they the problem?

They have created a lot of problems. When there are issues that bother on the plight of Nigerians, you hardly see them coming on board. But if there are issues that bother on their selfish interests, at times they hide under collective will to say ‘yes, we are patriotic; we are speaking for the Nigerian people.’ Look at the issue of constitution amendment: local government autonomy, state police and legislative autonomy, what has been their role? They stood against it. Are they representing the Nigerian people? Is that what their people have asked them to do? Since they control enormous resources, they use the resources to suppress the local governments. Most of them hijack the local governments’ allocation and give the local councils peanuts. That is why today, the local governments all over the country are no longer viable. Look at the issue of autonomy for legislature or state assemblies, they stood against it. Only a few of them allow the local governments access their funds from the first line charge. Look at the issue of the high turnover (of lawmakers); once they don’t like your face, no matter how vibrant a member of the Senate or House of Reps is, their will come to pass because they control resources and they use those resources to buy over their people. They starve their people and when the election comes, some of them roll out money to buy votes. When there are policies and laws that will serve the interest of the people in their various states, they stand against it. If a governor wants to remove his deputy, he lobbies the members (of the state House of Assembly), give them money to remove (the deputy). I can count and you know them – the numerous programmes, projects and initiatives of the Federal Government that governors have stood against.

So, when I talked about the issue of high turnover, the point I was making was that, must leadership recruitment or recruitment for the National Assembly and state House of Assembly be at the mercy of the governors? I can cite good cases from all over the states, including my state (Kwara) where an experienced senator who was a Majority Leader at the state level, a medical doctor, one of the best senators in the ninth Assembly had to be substituted for a novice. Both the experience you need in lawmaking and the qualification are not there. How do we explain the substitution of a medical doctor and former lawmaker who has done very well in the Senate with such a person, in a senatorial district like Kwara Central – Ilorin; a place that produced a former President of the Senate; a place that produced the current Chief of Staff to the President. It does not make sense.

How about these governors finishing their second term of eight years and finding their way to the Senate, where people now call their retirement home?

We have said that they should not turn the National Assembly into their retirement home, and that we should come up with a constitutional amendment or a law that will stop them from getting there. It is now left for the National Assembly and the state legislators to do something about it. When it comes to lawmaking at that level, it will get to a stage that they (lawmakers) won’t have power to even control them (governors). But a lot of them (lawmakers) too, because they are products of this poor governance, they believe if you are to advance this bill the governor will not return you (in the next Assembly). But there must be a way to stop these governors from turning the National Assembly, especially the Senate, into a retirement home. I have said this on several occasions and I am repeating it: they have not been adding value to what they (lawmakers) do there. Look at the array of ex-governors there now, hardly will you see two or three that have really added value. So, what are you coming to do? Must you, after leaving the state government, come to the National Assembly as a senator? Is it a must? Are there no people in your constituency or state that could represent the people? As I said, some of them do it out of ego and (superiority) complex. They believe that if a senator is there (from their senatorial district), they have to bring him back and go there too. ‘If I don’t go there, he will senior me.’ You know that as a fresher, you may not get the chairmanship of a committee. That is one. Two, some of them do not want to go there (Senate) and be sitting with other senators from their state who were selected by them. ‘I asked John to go there. How can I be sitting with him there?’ Some will say ‘I want to be senator. Come home, let me give you something.’ I think this needs to stop. If they are adding value, fine! But they are not adding value.

There are members of the National Assembly who have spent several terms running into over 20 years. There is a debate on whether lawmakers should spend longer time in the parliament to gain more experience or they should be replaced at intervals to allow fresh ideas in the chambers. Which is better for the country?

The more experienced lawmakers we have the better for us as a democracy.

Will spending more time, say 40 years, in the parliament not shut out other competent members of a senatorial district or constituency?

Given the nature of our politics, nobody should be allowed to be there for 40 years. As a matter of fact, nobody should be allowed to go for more than four or five times, because of the nature of our system. We are not the United States or the United Kingdom. The more experienced senators we have the better for us but there are some societies where it is about zoning and rotation, where you must allow for the formula to work. Where there is no problem about that; for instance, where they keep re-electing somebody so that they could be President of the Senate or Speaker of the House, if there is a consensus at that level and they see that the person is adding value, so be it. The point I am making is that while we should encourage having experienced senators, it should not be done at the detriment of rotation or zoning. We should allow other people in that state or constituency to have a say by making sure they too are elected into either the House or the Senate.

Should we have a law that puts a cap on terms?

No, I don’t think we should have such a law. It is about understanding. It is about convention, and I think we are getting towards this the way we are going in Nigeria. I don’t think we need a law for now. The more democracy evolves, I hope one day we shall get to that stage where law will not even speak but understanding will speak. And when understanding will speak, people will key into it.

There is another debate as to how to properly assess the performance of lawmakers. Is it about the number of bills or quality of debates on the floor of the chambers?

Two years ago, our institute conducted a research on public perception to know the opinion of the public about the ninth Assembly: what they (people) expected them (lawmakers) to do and what they are doing. Interestingly, most of the respondents believed that lawmaking is part of the responsibilities but almost 60 per cent of them believed that it is not just lawmaking, that constituency projects were also part of their responsibilities. ‘Give us something.’ ‘You have to bring something to our constituency.’ That is not the duty of a legislature, but because of our level of development, which is very low – underdeveloped, the constituents believe ‘we do not send you (to the Senate or House) to go and speak grammar.’ Yes, debate, discourse and contributions on the floor add to the quality of lawmaking. But to the constituents, that is not what is important. To constituents, how have you been able to facilitate road construction, provision of water, school or hospital for their area? To them, that is key. To some, how responsive are you to the needs of the constituents in terms of, ‘My mother’s burial is tomorrow, I need money’, ‘My baby’s birthday is tomorrow, what will you do?’, ‘I am sick,’ ‘I want to pay school fees.’ Some people believe these should be their role. But, in a normal and sane society, the indices with which one would adjudge serving parliamentarians is their contribution to lawmaking, be it through debates, motions or bills. Lawmaking is not just about one person; it is about one person with other people supporting and, through synergy, agreeing on which way to go.

What about the issue of oversight?

The extent to which you know a vibrant lawmaker is in their contributions in the cause of ‘oversighting’ the executive and other arms of the government. A lawmaker that is always very inquisitive, interrogative and investigative of what the MDAs do and is able to bring it to the other members of the National Assembly (via motions) is seen or adjudged to be doing well, efficient and effective in discharging their responsibilities. These indices, in addition to being critical of the MDAs, uncompromising and patriotic in judgment, could be used to judge who a good lawmaker is. Also, you judge a fine senator or House member from how representative they are in terms of standing up for their people. If a lawmaker could, through whatever means – motion or bill or lobbying –get so many projects for their constituents, in an African context, that is representation. These are the three indices we can use, not to go to the committee level because there are some committees that are very critical, like the Public Accounts Committee. There are some ad hoc committees too that are very critical. All these are subsumed under representation, lawmaking and oversight and anybody that has been seen to have discharged their responsibility in these three key areas effectively and efficiently, in a way that we are getting results, must have been seen to be a good lawmaker.

What is the specific role of NILDS in the National Assembly institution?

The National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies was a creation of an Act of Parliament. It was established as an agency under the National Assembly to enhance the capacity of the parliament in Nigeria – the parliamentarians, the parliamentary staff and other critical stakeholders. It is a capacity-building institution, a think tank, a research institution and it is like a parastatal under the National Assembly with the mandate to develop the intellectual capacity of the critical stakeholders in our democracy, starting from the legislature. Initially, it started as National Institute for Legislative Studies in 2011, assented to by President Goodluck Jonathan then. But prior to that time, the institute was a metamorphosis of a policy and research project in a department under the National Assembly, and it was conceived to address the intellectual lacuna in our legislature, knowing full well that the legislature is a critical arm of the government. You cannot talk of dividends of democracy and good governance without the legislature. In fact, in ranking the various organs of government, the parliament comes first. But the same parliament has suffered a lot of travails on account of military intervention in Nigerian politics. Due to this instability, it could not garner the kind of experience and skills it should have. When democracy returned in 1999, people thought we must have a department or an agency that will train them (parliamentarians); enhance their capacity, put them through and serve as the intellectual hub of the parliament. That led to the establishment of NILS. In 2018, there was an amendment to the Act that set up the institute and this amendment came on account of the belief that we could not keep talking about training legislators and parliamentary staff without the other critical stakeholders in a democracy, like the political parties, the NGOs, CSOs and the electorate? What about the Independent National Electoral Commission? These brought about the 2018 amendments in 2018. Since then, the institute has been known as the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies.

What are the achievements so far recorded by NILDS?

Since its creation, it has performed wonderfully in fulfilling its functions. The achievements so far recorded have been very awesome. The institute started with the four major departments – Legislative Support Services, Research and Training, Administration and Finance and Democratic Studies – but it was able to expand. Today, we have nine departments. Through these departments and structures we have been able to actualise our mandates. We have trained a lot of legislators. At the point of entry, legislators need to be inducted; they need to be trained and exposed to the tasks ahead of them. Since 2015, our institute has been performing this role. We have provided technical assistance to the legislature in terms of drafting motions and bills, scrutinising briefs and presenting to them informed policy guides that will aid their discourses, debates and resolutions. We have provided a platform in the form of dialogues, conferences and workshops for them to critically look at issues so that they can come up with resolutions and laws that will be in tandem with the aspirations of Nigerians. The institute has also been a main researcher. Any policy, resolution or law made that is devoid of a serious research outcome is bound to fail. Our institute is the only organ under the National Assembly that conducts research for the parliamentarians.

Are there other things you do?

Most importantly, we conduct refresher training from time to time for the national, state and local government parliamentarians and their parliamentary staff via our Department of Training and International Cooperation. We conduct research especially for committees (of the National Assembly). Committees are the backbone of lawmaking. So, we conduct training for committees depending on their needs. These training are either demand-driven or supply-driven. For instance, the Public Accounts Committee; this is a very essential committee of the National Assembly or any legislature which requires exposure to know what to do. So, we assist such committees. We train members of the parliament, the parliamentary staff like the clerks, not only at the federal level but also at the state level. We conduct a series of training and workshops for members of the National Assembly Service Commission and the state Houses of Assembly Service Commission. Before now, our services were largely concentrated on the National Assembly, but in the last four years, we have done so much more for the state Assemblies than the National Assembly because we believe that politics and governance starts from the grass roots; it emanates from the local environment. So, if you don’t develop the capacity of the local parliamentarians and the parliamentary staff, you cannot get any result at the national level. We have done so much with about 22 state assemblies in the last four years. We do this directly on our own and we partner with donor agencies to actualise this.

One of the critical mandates of our institute, which has to do with training and capacity building, is the establishment of postgraduate programmes. When people hear ‘NILDS’ they won’t know that we do what a university does too. For the past seven years, we have been running postgraduate programmes and we are doing this in affiliation with the University of Benin. As of today, we are running about seven Master’s courses, including LLM, Master’s in Party Politics and Election Management, Master’s in Legislative Drafting; including programmes in official reporting. We have graduated about six batches of students at the Master’s level. We do HND too. In other words, anybody with at least a second class lower division and five O’Level (credits) is entitled to apply and the same requirements expected of you in any conventional university is what we accept too. Once you are able to scale through, you get the admission.

Should it be compulsory for a lawmaker to have a certificate from NILDS?

We encourage our lawmakers, those with first degree, to apply. We have PhD holders as students. They obtained PhDs somewhere but because of the specialised nature of our programmes, people want to learn more. Legislation is a specialised skill, endeavour and environment. You could be a professor, you need to know about how laws are made and how oversight is conducted. So, we encourage lawmakers and their staff, and quite a number of senators and House of Representatives members as well as parliamentarians from the state level have graduated from this institute. That is how far we have gone.

The Punch

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