Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele is the chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters. In this interview by TAIWO AMODU, he dismisses the misplaced public perception that the Red Chamber is an appendage and rubber stamp of the executive, among other critical issues.
The Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters you chair seems to operate on the model of legislative activisms. What do you have to say on that?
The times are different, and the leadership is also defined by the character of whoever is in the saddle. The ninth Assembly, from the very beginning, chose for itself some form of legislative agenda targeted at making it possible for Nigerians to see a radical departure from what had been the norm in this country in the area of its relationship with other arms of government.
Secondly, it is to also carry ourselves in a way that Nigerians will see some positive difference. This is not an attempt to undermine either the leadership or the membership of the previous sessions of the National Assembly, but we felt that something was going to change. In other words, this is not the time for any undue grandstanding. This is the time for us to identify what our vision is and work in that regard. We also believe that we must be able to drive certain reforms, and we identified different sectors where we wanted to push the reform – power, electoral and judicial reform.
This brings us to the second issue; that is, leadership being defined by whoever is in the saddle. I’m a product of collective struggle of the Nigerian civil society. It will be extremely difficult for me to forget where I was coming from. I see myself as a highly privileged person, having started early enough in life. At the age of 19, I was privileged to be elected as public relations officer of the Student Union Government. I graduated, did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and went to the University of Benin again to study law. I ended up again as the president of the Student Union and later as the president of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). I have been exposed early enough to leadership challenges and responsibilities. By virtue of this responsibility, I had to go to campuses across the country. Again, it was an opportunity to truly know Nigeria.
I came into government with a reputation and sense of communal ownership. At the commencement of the Fourth Republic in 1999, I was not in the country. I was one of those who fled the country. I was granted political asylum by the government of the United States. Again, I had to go back to school to do my master’s degree. It was like starting law all over again. This was between 1995 and 1999. I was practicing law and had what was like a dream job as a young man at the Harvard Law School, where we ran a pro buno legal services funded by Ford Foundation for the immigrant community and the less privileged who could not afford to hire private attorney. That was what I was doing so passionately when Asiwaju Bola Tinubu won governorship election in Lagos and he insisted that I must come to serve the people of Lagos with him. I served in his cabinet for a total of eleven and half years both as special adviser and commissioner. Later, I decided to go to Ekiti, my state of origin to contest election to come to the National Assembly and ended up in the House of Representatives.
The reason I went through all of these is to show that I didn’t get here just by chance. I had the privilege of being groomed at different levels. There is no way I will end up serving as chairman of Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, and Legal Matters that it will be business as usual. It would have been a disservice to myself and the various stakeholders who, I believe, had invested their time, ideological commitment and consciousness in me.
You are an advocate of true federalism. In the National Assembly, there have been bills seeking to establish federal institutions in different parts of the country, creating an impression of even unitarising the entity. What do you think about this?
The National Assembly can only make laws for the Federation. If each of the federal lawmakers will sponsor a bill, it has to be one on the creation of federal institutions. It is the prerogative of each state to either seek to establish its own university, polytechnic or college of education. Why is it so? It is also political. So much about what is going on in Nigeria is still about trying to also bring something to the community of every elected representative. Today, we are talking about development commission in each of the six geo political zone.
As to the need for decentralisation, I remain committed to true federalism and to the need of restructuring because it is the way forward. We cannot run away from it. Anyone who says he doesn’t believe in it is only pretending or doesn’t have a scientific understanding of what is wrong with our society and what ought to be done. There is a difference between what is and what ought to be done. What is right now is a structure partly handed over to us by our colonial masters and being fortified and perpetrated through a constitution given to us by the military. It was like a decree legitimised by an act of parliament. There will still be a need for “People’s Constitution” that will address very critical issues, including the issue of restructuring of our polity, economy, our means of sharing our common wealth. And the earlier we do this, the better.
I know of people who cannot go to their states of origin, but rather stay in Abuja for safety reason, and they feel something has to be done. But if you tell them of the need for a state police, they will still oppose it even though they are stuck in Abuja; they cannot go home. A lot of things are wrong. The Nigerian leadership is still playing the ostrich. And my hope and prayer is that we will come to terms with the reality of our situation before it is too long.
What is your take on regionalism?
I don’t think any of our regions will have any regret practising regionalism. The truth about this is, federalism also has its own advantages and it is much more fashionable if you look at it within the contest of global standards of governance. It affords the nation an opportunity to tap into the strength and diversity of the country. What is killing our federalism is that you have a centre that is almost an incredible hub at the expense of the state. What is the percentage of our budget that goes to the federating units? Some of the state don’t have the capacity to even do anything. We have a state where after paying salaries hardly can even do anything in terms of income generation. Everybody comes cap in hand to the centre. It is a problem. No country can grow that way. This is part of what led to the situation where some people were advocating that we should go back to the regional arrangement that we had before.
But the disadvantage is that today, we have a situation where the groundnut pyramid is gone which was the bastion of the economy of the north. The cocoa export which was the bastion of the economy of the Western region is flat on the floor. It is still possible for us to revisit all these things.
But because we found oil as a federal structure, everybody abandoned every other thing and our economy became monolithic. Today, by lip service, a lot of administrations had emphasized on the need to broaden the scope of our economy and take it beyond oil. But to a very large extent, we have not been able to work the talk in that regard. However, I see a lot of positive difference being made in that regard by the current administration. If you look at what has happened in the area of agriculture but unfortunately, COVID-19 is trying to almost wipe off the gains of all our efforts. But definitely we are getting to a point where rice importation was becoming a thing of the past and that was a good beginning. We are not there yet but we are already having a good beginning of walking our talk with respect to our dream of diversification of our economy.
What is stopping the political elite from adopting something similar to doctrine of necessity in embracing this culture of restructured Nigeria? Don’t you see the National Assembly midwifing this?
I agree with you. The National Assembly is capable of midwifing it. To a very large extent, the people we have in the National Assembly are elected representatives of the Nigerian people. But it is something that will go beyond just bringing a bill. When you bring a bill, you are trying to amend the constitution or enact some other laws as an act of parliament. But no act of parliament will take precedence over the constitution. The best is to seek to amend the Constitution. And then, it goes beyond the National Assembly. It is supposed to be the responsibility of the political class. The ruling class, which also includes the opposition parties, has a responsibility of trying to descend from its Olympian height and purge itself from this idea of monopoly of patriotism and knowing what is wrong with Nigeria. The ruling class, represented by the government of the day, will have to instigate it, initiate it and provide a platform for other stakeholders to come on board. You cannot run away from the critical issue of restructuring. My hope and prayer is that we are not going to pretend about it for too long or wait till the whole system collapses on everyone. But definitely, it is a question begging for an answer.
What is your assessment of the ninth Senate vis-a-vis the past and especially against the backdrop that the ninth Senate is seen as a rubber stamp legislature that silences the opposition?
The 9inth Senate, to an extent, is different from the previous Assembly. It is also the same. It is the same arm of government that is misunderstood and the least popular. Members of the public don’t understand the nitty-gritty of the workings of the parliament and sometimes when they criticise, they mean well. Like I always say, it is the people that will criticise the government, not the other way round. It is also the least popular. We have had some bills in the last one year that also didn’t help our popularity, regardless of the fact that the senators who sponsored these bills meant so well. But how are their bills perceived by the public and to what extent did that affect the image of the Senate as an institution and the individual senators. Unfortunately, a lot of people are yet to understand the workings of the parliament. When a private member bill is read for the first time, it doesn’t matter how bad it is, you cannot hold the Senate responsible. We have other 108 members who will access the bill and part of the process of the legislation is that the bill itself, after the Senators would have debated the general principle during second reading, will be subjected to public scrutiny. You could have a situation where the preponderance of opinions would have even killed the bill and that will be the end.
But a lot of time, the parliament is assessed based on the kind or nature of bills that are read for the first time and then people bring it down with comments and insinuations on social media. They mean well. We also don’t have a well organised system in parliament that can continually articulate the position of the parliament. Most of the time, we do damage control. People would have formed their opinion before you explain things. Even members of the fourth estate of the realm who work directly with us, a lot of time, don’t have the ideas of the inner workings because we don’t avail them the quality and extent of information that they need to properly report what we are doing. All of these still happen, and to that extent, I will say we are still like the previous Senate.
There is also the feeling that we collect a lot of money. The situation has gone so bad that people think what is going on in the National Assembly is sharing of money. And I’m one of those who have been trying to push the leadership on the need for us to publish everything, the salaries and allowances of members for the public to know. But again, those who don’t want to do it have their own arguments, for reason of national security and again which parliament anywhere in the world had done that. Secondly, how many judges and members of the executive have published their salaries and allowances? And of course, the agency responsible for public servants’ salary have not come out to say these are the salaries and allowances of A – Z categories of public office holders. Because that is not happening, you leave the public to do their speculations. Again, to that extent, we are not different.
However, we are different in one thing. We are committed to serving Nigerians without grandstanding. Lately, you have seen some situation in the parliament especially with respect to NDDC probe and the disagreement on 774,000 jobs. Were we to be a grandstanding Assembly, things would have degenerated and the relationship between the two arms of government would have almost collapsed by now. But we chose to remain consistent on our position not to grandstand. Does that make us a rubber stamp parliament? No! My own idea of being a rubber stamp parliament is a situation where anything goes, either out of compromise or timidity. But if what we are doing is a calculated attempt at trying to ensure that, one, while trying to recognise the doctrine of separation of powers as a cardinal aspect of democracy, we also recognise the need for inter-dependence for checks and balances. And in doing all of these, we also understand that we are living in a peculiar time.
The executive arm of government comes together with the legislature, the civil society and the Nigerian public on the need for us to begin to pass our budget early and the budget was passed in December. I will say that if being able to work with the executive to have an early budget for this country is part of why the ninth Assembly will be dubbed ‘rubber stamp parliament’, I believe it is in over riding public interest.
Beyond that, they brought all manners of loan requests. Some members of the public genuinely were concerned on why will the National Assembly approve any loan request for the executive? Again, I ask, what could we had done differently when the budget was passed with assumptions that the crude oil would be sold at a price of $54 per barrel and producing certain quantity per day, but because of COVID-19 pandemic, the price of crude oil nosedived from $54 to $24.
And the only thing the government can do was to think of alternative means of funding that budget because individual nation’s economy was going into recession and Nigeria was not an exception.
Part of the settled principle of economics is that when an economy is entering recession, you have to spend your way out by ensuring that money continues to percolate so that everyone has something and they keep spending.
Some other countries are going to the multilateral lenders to borrow money because they had also invested there. Some countries are taking more than they had invested for their economy not to collapse. And of course, because it is a law that before the government could borrow money, it will have to come to the parliament for approval. In over riding public interest, we could not say no.
For us here, nothing like partisanship on the floor. We had to go into an executive session, where whatever misgivings or concerns anyone would have, will express it. And the concern has always been about what are they going to do with the money, how is it going to be expended. And once we are able to reconcile our concerns in that regard, we will go into plenary, do the debate and give approval in overriding public interest. Will that make us a rubber stamp parliament? The answer will be ‘no.’
I›m saying a lot of these because I know and understand the inner workings of the parliament. The public do not know. They form their opinion based on the little information available to them. Again, it is the responsibility of the government to continue to explain to the people. At the level of information management, there is a lot of vacuum, and so much needs to be done to abridge that gap. Largely, the ninth Senate has been doing what we consider to be in overriding public interest and it has not been conspiracy in any form.
The Executive plans to borrow another N4 trillion to fund 2021 budget deficit, and adding it to the previous loans will make Nigeria debt N33 trillion. Are you not concerned about the country’s rising debt profile?
Yes, I’m concerned but I know by the grace of God, we will get over it. I’m concerned about the debt profile just as I’m concerned about the rate of unemployment and insecurity. I adopt a sociological approach to the issue of insecurity. If we were to have a better economy and create more jobs, the rate of insecurity would be lower. What is the alternative and how do we go about all these? Every other thing can shut down but the government can’t. It has to continue to pay salaries, do infrastructural development, create jobs, as well as secure lives and properties. All of these will cost money and where does the money come from? To an extent, the Internally Generated Revenue will have to improve. In some areas, the IGR is dwindling. Beyond all of these, you have to think of how to supplement the income that the government generates. This means that you can’t run away from borrowing and nobody is going to give you money except on terms.
But if we begin to look at the moral of rising debt profile, yes we should be concerned and sometimes wonder how we are going to pay. This is also bringing Nigeria to a point where it is not just anybody that can just say I want to lead, but people who have the scientific understanding of what it is to be done. If you don’t, it is only a matter of month that your weaknesses will be exposed. It is either the people wait for the next election to vote you out or, if the incompetence is so gross, they invoke the constitutional provisions to remove you from office.
I also foresee a situation in the future where the international lenders will have to wipe off some loans. It is not about Nigeria alone, it is a global concern. But can Nigeria fold its arms and let the economy go down because it does not want to be indebted? The hungry man wants to be fed, those working want to be paid. It is the headache of government how you want to get it done. These are issues that we have to continue to comprehend along and it is within that context that we have to continue to view the rising debt profile. The alternative to it is chaos, government not doing anything and allow the whole system to collapse and other world leaders will laugh at you. That is why the anti-corruption crusade must be supported to ensure that truly when these monies are coming in, they are being applied in a way that we will be able to explain to our generation what they are used for. As to the rising debt profile, government might not have a choice than to continue to source for money to fund the budget and other economic programmes.
From Tribune Newspapers.