By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
Honourable John Chike Okafor represents Okigwe South Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. He was a Commissioner for Finance in Imo State and seconded the nomination of Speaker Yakubu Dogara. In this interview, the former banker explains why emoluments and overhead of government officials should be reduced. He also speaks on other national issues. Excerpts:
Recently, it was alleged that members of the National Assembly collect N9.2 billion as wardrobe allowance. What struck your mind when you heard about it?
I don’t know whether you call it allegation. I woke up just like every other Nigerian and I read in the papers that lawmakers are taking home almost nine point something billion naira.
As I speak to you now, there hasn’t been any correspondence between the National Assembly Commission or the National Assembly Management to us to say this is what our remuneration is. If you ask me, I don’t even know what I am supposed to earn.
And I can’t be bothered. What is important is that one has found himself in a position of service to the nation and that is what is important.
But I have also made inquiry, I am a concerned Nigerian. I went to the National Assembly and the information I got is that if you break down that billion, what a member of House of Reps should be taking on the average is about 18 or 19million. And that amount is not wardrobe allowance. My rent is built in there; even my car loan is there.
And if you take it from the point that we are 360 plus 109 senators, the figure that is being branded about, the N9 billion, in fact, people have already started calling me from home, our constituents are calling, “oga ha, 9billion”, it is alarming, it is embarrassing.
But to put it squarely, it is not my responsibility as a lawmaker, there is a body, a statutory body, the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission that determines what every public officer earns.
I think the legislative arm of government has been so much vilified. It appears that the Nigerian media doesn’t seem to have a good relationship or is not favourably disposed to the legislature.
This is because any information from National Assembly especially when it has to do or concerns the welfare of the members, it is taken out of context and exaggerated by the media.
President Muhammadu Buhari had promised to cut cost in the running of government. Do you subscribe to the reduction of the salaries of public office holders?
I will look at it from the point of an economist, than from a lawmaker who has found himself in public service. The country is experiencing an economic situation that needs revolutionary remedial measures to be put in place and what is it? Of course our economy is monolithic, it is dependent on oil and we are not in control of the fact that plays out in that market.
So the law of demand and supply and pricing of excess crude has affected what Nigeria received in the last two years.
I sat in Imo for the last three and a half years as the Commissioner for Finance till late last year; I know what I am talking about. I sat in Federal Allocation Account Committee interfacing with all key players, departments and agencies and I know that our economy is experiencing a serious downturn.
And having said that, since we are not in control of receipt, there is another index that we can control; that is our expenditure. And in trying to control our expenditures, the very first and the very critical part that we should look at is our overhead and that is where the question comes in; it is not just the salary of lawmakers, it is not just the salary of those of us at the federal level, down across the three tiers of government; from federal, state and local government areas, there is a need for downward review so that we can free a lot more funds to be able to fund infrastructure, provide security, provide jobs, fund education, fund health care; it is a simple economic balance.
Cost here includes overhead, salaries, emoluments of everybody. The president is looking at his own, the vice president is looking at his own, if and when the ministers come, they should also be looked at. I am an advocate for a cut in overhead, a cut in salaries and wages of every political office holder.
And if we can deal with the labour, then we should also look at the civil servants. We are all drawing money from the same coffers, but I know that one is a bit sensitive and it could cost a lot more controversy.
But for those of us who have been elected and accepted to serve our fatherland and who have taken oath of office and oath of allegiance, the onus is on us to be patriotic enough to ask that the government and, if I have a way as a member of the National Assembly, I would want to pass a motion to compel us as a government to do something about that because that is the only way we can free a lot more funds, save a lot money to make available to a responsible government like we have in place now. So I agree that there is a need to do that.
But you can only bargain, you can argue with what you know. I don’t know what the salaries, what the emoluments and take home of lawmakers are as I speak to you now because it has not been communicated to us.
Nigerian workers are said to earn about the least in the world. Don’t you think such motion could cause uproar within the labour circle?
No, it would be insensitive to come up with a bill that would look at civil servants. I am going to go all out to see how we can look at our laws and come up with necessary legislation that would compel us, everybody to look at that, starting with political office holders, whether elected or appointed. It would be a little bit insensitive to look at that of public and civil servants.
Some persons are saying that the processes that brought about the presiding officers of the two chambers in the National Assembly were faulty. What is your take on that?
I disagree that the process was faulty. What does the law say, what does the rule say?
It is the prerogative of the members of the legislature to determine their leadership, especially the presiding officers. There are other positions that are party-based; those positions are to be determined at party levels; in this case now, majority and minority parties and you cannot do that without recourse to the leadership of the parties.
But when it comes to the election of the presiding officers, in the case of the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President and in the case of the House of Reps, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, what the laws says is that it is the responsibility of the members of the National Assembly to determine who leads them.
So if anybody says that the process that produced these four people is faulty, then the person should come and show us where and how the laws of the land have been contravened.
There is a call for the Deputy Senate President and the Deputy Speaker, House of Reps to resign. Do you subscribe to that call?
I have not heard about that.
Some people want the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, to resign because he is of the PDP, and some persons are calling for the resignation of the Deputy Speaker because some APC chieftains say the emergence hurt party interests.
Well, I am hearing that for the first time. I don’t know what happened in the red chamber. But I can tell you what happened in the green chamber where I sit.
The Deputy Speaker was duly nominated and voted for and he won with a very wide margin and I am sure his votes cut across party lines and I am not sure anybody is calling for his resignation.
And in the case of the Deputy Senate President, I don’t know what you are talking about also. Was it only PDP members that voted for him? He ran against somebody and it was an APC candidate that he ran against and won. Was it only PDP that voted for him? APC also voted for him.
I think we should go beyond party lines and begin to look at individuals. I think those of them in the red chamber voted for an individual and he won. And I am not aware that anybody is asking for his resignation.
Political parties imposing candidates on the leadership of the National Assembly
It is not abnormal, it is not a crime. It is part of lobbying, it is part of adoption, and it is part of coalition. Prior to the elections that we had, you would agree with me that there were adoptions here and there.
But some APC chieftains are opposing the choice of Dogara as Speaker and Saraki as Senate President.
This is ego play, the ego war, it will disappear. These people have emerged and, before their emergence, some at the level of the leadership of the party took positions for and against. So when it didn’t go your way, you do not expect the person to jump out immediately and begin to hug and clap hands, it is a process, it will play out.
You played an important role in the emergence of Dogara as Speaker. What motivated your interest?
When we came in during our induction, a couple of aspirants for the position of Speaker spoke to us. I attended meetings where one or two or three aspirants spoke to us. And I can tell you, listening to the three of them that attended the meetings, Dogara stood shoulder high and above every other aspirant.
And to me it was a personal decision, not influenced by any group, leader or anything. Listening to him, this man has vision, idea, and the background to lead me. It is about me now, not about anybody else. It is about Chike Okafor coming to the House of Reps and having a Speaker that he can look up to considering where I am coming from.
I was trained in the organized private sector, worked in the bank and rose to a very senior management position. I have been under different leadership, management position, I have looked up to different mentors in that field of life, banking.
Then I also found myself in public service, becoming a Commissioner for Finance and a member of executive council where I had a governor and a deputy governor, I had a Chief of Staff, I had an SSG, I had a Speaker and Deputy Speaker; these are people that are high up there and I was relating with them. And I also became a member of Federal Allocation Account Committee, where the Minister of State for Finance was the Chairman. I found myself holding committee positions, serving either as a chairman or in various ad hoc committees for over three and a half years.
So I have seen leadership play out, politically, in business, socially. In the university I was a students union leader, I was an activist. So I stand out to say that Chike Okafor has come to understand what and what he would want to see in a man that is going to lead him at any point in time.
So when I came in here for my induction, spent a couple of days and weeks and listened to these aspirants, I became convinced that Yakubu Dogara is a better man to lead and I went all out for him.