INTERVIEW IN BRIEF
Hon. Zakari Mohammed, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Publicity, says the morally correct thing government should do is to check the activities of those diverting subsidy and not pass the burden to Nigerians. On Boko Haram, he says we can not stop them by mounting road blocks. Excerpts
The impression many Nigerians have is that the House of Representatives has not carried on as it is expected to because of the circumstances of the emergence of its presiding officers. What has been your experience in the last five months or so?
I will actually say that the experience has been heart-warming. We believe that we are covering a new realm especially in the process of law making. We believe that the legislature, which is an arm of government, has the basic responsibility of making laws for the good governance of the people of Nigeria.
That is exactly what we are doing. People are wont to say that what are those things that make us different from the last House? I believe that even the emergence of the presiding officers of the House was through a process that was seen as the resolve of the seventh session of the House of Representatives, to break away from the trend of the past, to assert the independence of members in terms of their thinking and contribution to project Nigeria.
The question people ask is: What have we achieved?
I want to say that in terms of motions and bills, in the last six months, we have passed about 87 motions on issues that are key to our healthy living.
People have argued that the very nature of the emergence of the presiding officers of the House has weakened the House because of the tendency of the presiding officers to be over cautious to issues that they should have tackled more aggressively; and to be over courteous to the leadership of their party?
I disagree with this assertion.
The leadership derives its powers from the members.
The leadership is the creation of the members.
You will find out that the turnover from the sixth assembly was high in terms of new members.
Six months is too short to be able to determine how far we have fared.
But we are on course.
What we do in the National Assembly is no other than making laws and carrying out our oversight functions. Why we are different from the other House is that when we came in, we said we needed to be guided. That explains why we came out with the Legislative Agenda. We are strictly adhering to this Agenda as our guiding principles for the next four years. Steadily, we will get there.
The presiding officers emerged through a democratic process and they are very wary of the pitfalls of the past. The presiding officers cannot just carry on without feeling the pulse of those they are leading. To that extent, the speaker and the deputy speaker have fared well in the last six months. They have tried to carry members along in all aspects. That is why even when Standing Committees were constituted; the usual hue and cry that follows such exercise was not heard. This is why, for the first time, the House remained united after the constitution of the committees. The leadership has tried as much as possible to be plain and just. We may have our own moments of disagreement on a few issues, but we have always found a way to resolve our problems. Because we do not attack ourselves physically, some people think we are not working. But I want to assure you that we are all committed to making a difference by writing our names on the sands of times.
To what extent have the problems inherited from the sixth assembly (especially the N10billion borrowed by the last House) affected the running of the present assembly?
The sixth assembly had its challenges and it found ways that may not look conventional in solving them. However, we are learning from the past and that is why the seventh assembly is quite different. We believe that if we have problems, we have to face such problems holistically rather than using short term measures.
We have learnt from the mistakes of the sixth assembly in terms of managing the affairs of the House and its finances. That is why it appears as if the leadership is very cautious. Yes, it is cautious so that they will learn to do things in a more transparent, just and equitable manner.
Some people have said that because of the repayment of loans, the committees of the House of Representatives are cash strapped such that their oversight functions are being affected.
I disagree.. When we came in, we said we were cutting down our running costs by 64%. We have prioritised our activities in such a way that we’re operating according to our areas of needs. That is why some people are interpreting that to mean that we are having financial difficulties.
As I talk to you now, most committees have their running costs that can run basic committee activities. The issue is that there is just no money that you can continue to blow for the sake of blowing. We said in our Legislative Agenda that we want to ensure fiscal conservatism.
We want to cut down on the cost of governance. That is exactly what we are doing. What we are asking for now is for the other arms of government to do so, so that the excess can be deployed to other useful areas.
We cannot continue with the trend whereby the recurrent expenditure will blow our budget year in year out.
Despite the persuasion of the president on the need for the removal of subsidy on petroleum products, members of the House of Representatives have remained adamant in their opposition to its removal. Is it not curious that majority of members who are from the president’s party would oppose one of his key policies?
We need to get it right.
As elected representatives of the people, we are on oath to make laws that would ensure good governance and ameliorate the sufferings of the Nigerian people. The legislature is the most vulnerable arm of government. Judges move around with armed police escort; ministers move around with armed security escort but we don’t. We are closest to the people. We know what the people are facing. Our position is that, if you are not subsidizing oil, what other thing are you subsidizing? World over, oil producing countries subsidize the prices of oil products.
Last year, we spent close to N500billion in subsidizing petroleum products. This year, we have spent close to N1.2trillion. By the end of this year, we may have spent N1.5trillion in subsidizing fuel.
The question is: where is the money going to? This is one of the questions that we want answer to. We believe that money spent on subsidy is sustainable. If it is sustainable, government should do it. If they are saying there is a cartel anywhere, the president has all the powers to go after the cartel. Every Nigerian is under the command of the Commander-in-Chief. Let him go after members of the cartel and label them economic saboteurs.
They cannot be greater than Nigeria. We believe that the president and the security agencies can go after them so that we can put this behind us once and for all. We cannot because of failure of institutions transfer the consequences on Nigerians. If you remove subsidy and a litre of fuel goes for N150, there are some parts of Nigeria that the litre would go for N250. It will affect food, medical delivery and all aspects of our living. The question is, what role are we playing as a government?
We don’t want the situation in the country to deteriorate to the point that when you are identified as a government official, people will stone you on the street. That is why we are saying the president should address the issue of saboteurs and those stealing huge sums of money because of their not being transparent in dealing with government. We believe that if these issues are looked into, it will be discovered that the figures being paraded as petroleum subsidy are bloated. Although majority of members of the House are from the same political party, we are talking about the Nigerian people. Posterity will hold us responsible if we see this and we refuse to comment. We need to handle the issue of subsidy fairly and with the interest of Nigerian masses at heart.
What is your view about the planned re-introduction of toll gates on Nigerian roads?
My reaction is two-folds. In some parts of the world, roads are concessioned. The Federal Government can say we will leave two lanes for instance to the public while concessioning other lanes to a company that can collect tax to maintain the road. If the toll gates are managed via concessions and done in such a way that our roads are better, then no problems.
For instance, from Abuja to Lokoja, if you concession it to a private concern and allows him to collect tolls while maintaining the road, I think it will afford government the opportunity to use money that would have ordinarily been used to maintain this road to be deployed to other areas. If it is going to be done via concession, then I am for it.
We should move from the era of government spending so heavily on infrastructure that will end up as a private concern. There is no way a private investor will put his money and allow it to waste.
Do you think that the security challenge in the country is being handled appropriately by government?
One of the issues the president briefed us about when we met with him was how the security challenges in the country are being handled.
To some of us, we believe that there is so much more to be done. On the face of it, with the explanation he gave to us, we believe they are the right steps in the right direction. There is so much area to cover in this security challenge. My advice is that more money should be spent on intelligence gathering and our intelligence officers should be able to melt into the society so that they can have more credible information. If that happens, we would be able to know their sponsors and government would be able to check this challenge.
We cannot achieve this by mounting road blocks. Not by stop and search. Our security agencies should change their intelligence gathering technique. If they know that their ring leaders are being caught, they would change.
The president should declare a state of emergency on security in the country and task all our service chiefs to order. They must get cracking. A government that cannot provide security has no business being in power.