Senator Victor Ndoma Egba (SAN ), is a three-time senator of the Federal Republic having been in the upper legislative chamber of National Assembly since 2003. A member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party PDP representing Cross River Central, he is currently the Senate Leader.
In this interview, in Abuja, a day preceding the last plenary before the National Assembly annual recess, he spoke on his experience in the Senate, the controversial Petroleum Industry Conference Bill, calls for sovereign national conference and legal effect of National Assembly resolutions. Excerpts:
You have been in the Senate since 2003, and you are a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, how has it been?
It has been an interesting challenge because we are dealing with an institution that has been the most vulnerable in the three arms of government.
During our political days, I know we have had several episodes of military interventions. And when the military intervened. The first casualty is usually the legislative arm. So that has gone with a number of challenges. One, we have not had a kind of consistency that other arms of government have had.
Ours has been in episodes, each time the military leaves, we come back and pick up the pieces. And when they come again, we are terminated to square one. So, our growth has been a kind of episodic and that comes with a number of consequences. The effect, in terms of capacity is that, you don’t have that kind of progression in capacity building that will give such institution the kind of strength it requires at this point in time.
And even in terms of facility, we have not had the kind of growth in facility that we will like to see. Then, thirdly, we have had the challenge of very high turn-over. And the legislative requires consistent experience because of its very nature. Every member here is kind of sovereign.
So it moves around with its network, it moves around with its experience. So the day he (legislature) goes, we don’t have any handover note. He just carry his private belongings along with him.
A lot of experiences have been lost as a result of this turnovers. But by and large, I think we have tried to stand our ground in spite of the challenges that I have mentioned. The senate in particular has always risen to the occasion. The senate, worldwide, has tried to stabilize the polity. I think there are very critical times the senate was needed in this country, and it did not fail.
As a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, how would you say your legal background has impacted on your legislative capacity?
There are two different scenarios. Life in the court is totally different from life in the parliament because in the court you are guided by the rules of court and evidence before the court and then convictions. But here you have 109 senators; therefore you have 109 perspectives and 109 opinions on the same issue and usually not always the same. Even when they appear to be the same, there is no way you won’t see that one opinion is different from another. There are lots of political considerations that go into our output. So it is totally different.
But what the rank of SAN has done for me is that you have to be more reflective and introprospective. You take it very slowly and also you have to be very carefully in considering all the issues because when you speak with so much authority, you try to be sure that whatever you say, whatever opinion you have would be an opinion that would illuminate the issue, not confuse it.
Why has the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) so contentious for the senate to pass into law, what is it about the PIB bill that is so controversial?
The PIB is not before the senate, it is not before the National Assembly. We had a PIB Bill on the first reading and we went through it and found out that there were new versions, so we couldn’t conclude.
I have heard Mr. President saying that he is going to forward the bill to us at the end of June. So, even the President had seen that the bill is not before us. As I speak to you (18- 07-2012), we are yet to receive the bill back. So there is no bill before us, there is no PIB before us. And we cannot pass a bill that is not before us.
Many Nigerians are wondering why is the bill so contentious, can you shed more light on it?
It is controversial and contentious because it is not with National Assembly. The National Assembly does not have any PIB yet. The contention is on the pages of the newspapers. So, you just wait till when the President says he has submitted the bill, then we can start a debate on it.
The Senate is about embarking on another Constitution amendment but there are some arguments and opinions that the process is not representative enough; and that Nigerians don’t have a say in the grundnom . What is your take on this?
I don’t know what they mean by that because in the first place we have sovereignty that we enjoy in our economy. And that same transition has helped in the legislative arm of this country. Our approach to Constitutional amendment has always been to open it up to the public. Remember the procedure used in the first three amendments, first time we successfully amended the Constitution, under a civilian administration.
We had very several consultations, we started with inviting speakers of the various Houses of Assembly and we held extensive zonal hearings. I led the zonal hearing in the South-South. I remember that it was fully attended. People participated, from the governor down.
And then we had a national public hearing in Abuja. So the public hearings have always been very extensive and it is not going to be anything less. This would start with a retreat, speakers of the various Houses of Assembly would be at the retreat. The retreat would enable us adopt a better approach to this exercise. We have already called for memoranda from the public.
The response has been very good. So, we have a clear idea of what the issue is. And then we are going to open the process again to an elaborate and extensive public hearings in all the zones and also in Abuja. This will give the people the opportunity to canvass their views on sovereign national conference.
Now we have only one sovereignty and that one is from the 1999 Constitution. Where will the sovereignty for this country be derived from, from which document? What will be the law to guide a sovereign national conference? Even if we are to have sovereign, which is constitutionally speaking it is impossible because we cannot have two sovereignty.
Even if we should have a sovereign national conference, you still need a law to inaugurate the conference and to guide the conference; who will pass that law? We cannot have two sovereignty. If people are not happy about the sovereign national conference, well, fine and good.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of association and freedom of speech. You can associate and discuss whatever you want to discuss and whatever be the outcome, let it be sent to the National Assembly. We will treat it as a resource material.
But to imagine that there will another sovereignty, without first setting aside the Constitution, which could be unconstitutional, that could be a coup. Where will it be deriving the other sovereignty from? I think it is just a futile course, speaking on a sovereign national conference in that circumstance.
But the law says sovereignty belongs to the people, so if the people are now calling for a sovereign national conference, what do you make of this?
The people in Kado market or the people in Wase market in Calabar, which of the people? Yes, all Nigerians are aggrieved, I am a Nigerian and I am saying as an authentic Nigerian that you cannot have two sovereignty. So another Nigerian will say that sovereignty belongs to the people. Yes, but the Constitution also belongs to the people, you cannot have two sovereignty.
What people are saying is that they don’t have any input into that sovereignty you are referring to, because it was done during the military, this time around, they want to be part of the process .
Under what frame work? You don’t just do it by proclaiming it; there must be a frame work. So who promulgates that frame work, when you have a Constitution that states out things should be done. So I feel that when you say sovereignty belongs to the people, the sovereignty that was given by this Constitution also belongs to the people.
Another dimension of the argument is that the National Assembly is afraid of what will have to their position if we are to have a Sovereign National Conference, what do you have to say about that?
Our provision is stated by the Constitution, which is the grundnom today; a fundamental document created by the Constitution. So how do you mean by saying that members of the National Assembly is afraid of their position? No other law has come to set aside the Constitution now, and if any other thing is done, it will be coup. So members of the National Assembly have no reason to fear or worry.
We just want to be convinced by those clamoring for a sovereign national conference, where that other sovereignty will be derived from? We want to be educated, we want to be guided.
Recently, outside this country, the Deputy Senate President advocated for regional government made up of the six geo-political zones of the country, what do you to say about that?
Well, that is Deputy Senate President’s opinion. There are people who also are clamoring for more states. Even if the Deputy Senate President may be receiving request for the creation of more States. You have two of the spectrum. The present States structure of this country, is no longer viable.
And it is very obvious that a viability is a structure for creating more states; when the current states structure has become unviable, so if you go and add to the current structure you will just be adding unviabilty to unviability.
For me, I have had the course to say on the floor of the senate, and I say it again, if you take the tragetry of our development, When we had three regions; the regions were in high competition with one another. And that is why in terms of aggregate, Nigeria was considered the fastest growing economy at that time. And at the time, the economy of the eastern region was isolated as the fastest growing economy anywhere in the world. Why? It is because the stability units were politically and economically viable.
That is why it was possible to have leaders emerged from each of the regions, who had the authority and confidence to guide their people. That is why it was possible to have an Ahmadu Bello University in the north, Obafemi Awolowo University in the west and Nnamdi Azikiwe from the East.
Now politically speaking, since we started fragmenting the regions and the States, have we had leaders of that level of viability? No! What we are seeing happenning now in the North could not have happened if we had an Ahmadu Bello. But because the structure at the time was politically viable, it was able to produce viable leadership.
Now beyond political viability, we also have the colonies of vibrating units. Up to to the twelve States structure, I think States were still viable. By the time we got to the nineteen states structure, we started seeing question marks about viability.
But once we got pass the nineteen States structure, States lost their viability. All they do at the end of every month was to come, cap in hand, to Abuja to collect money. So, I think we must put on our thinking caps. We must go outside the box and reflect again very deeply on the nature of our federating units and the nature of our federation.
So for me, in a few words, I will say that clearly the evident before us show that the current State structure is unviable. What the alternatives are, I cannot say.
Your submission seems to foreclose creation of more states?.
I think I have said what I need to say. Whatever conclusion could be drawn from what I’ve just said.
Let us talk about resolutions in the National Assembly, there is this contention that a couple of resolutions have been passed on the floor of the House, by the Senate and House of Representatives, and such resolutions just ended there. Do the resolutions of the National Assembly not have any force of law?
They don’t! And if you look at the Constitution that creates the National Assembly, it also defines the power of the National Assembly and the limits of these powers. Now our powers to investigate are enshrined in section 88, I think, of the Constitution. And it gives us power to expose corruption, expose loopholes, with a view to strengthening our system and reducing corruption, inefficiency or waste.
So our constitutional duty stops at exposing corruption. The moment we have exposed it, the responsibility for implementation rests with the executive arm. Well, we still have the responsibility to strengthen our laws, reducing corruption, inefficiency or waste.
And the responsibility for adjudication, after the executive has done what it is suppose to do, now goes to the judiciary. So our responsibility stops at exposing corruption, inefficiency or waste. That is the constitutional limit our responsibility.