December 29, 2018

EKWEREMADU: What we need to explain to our Northern brothers

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…Why we need state police
…Mood of the nation will favour Igbo Presidency in 2023

Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremade was guest at Channels Television recently. Excerpts:

Recently, there have been two major issues that concern you. One was the recent attack on your residence, which was reported to the police. What is the situation with that?



The matter is still under investigation. I am not going to dwell much on it. It’s just an unfortunate incident for my wife, my son, and myself. I want to thank well-wishers, colleagues, and friends that showed concern since the incident happened.    My concern was, if it happened to me, I wonder what the situation with other Nigerians would be.

We need to ensure that everybody is well protected. That is the responsibility of government-    to ensure that lives and property of citizens are well protected. I am happy a lot has been said about this matter and I do hope the police will get to the root of it.

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The second issue is related to a court case that has to do with assets declaration. What is the situation with that?

The case is still in court, but just to update you, the Court of Appeal said that the Presidential Panel for the Recovery of Public Property has no power to fight anybody, as that is the responsibility of the Code of Conduct tribunal.    That is from the legal angle.

In terms of reality and fact, I have nothing to worry about because, what the law expects from me to declare all my assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau, I did exactly that. So, a panel suing me for refusing to declare assets to it, a panel trying to exercise the power it doesn’t have, is a non-issue. It is just a smear campaign. As far as I am concerned, I have nothing to worry about. My hands are clean and recent ruling of the Court of Appeal on similar matter shows I am right to refuse to breach the constitution.

Talking of the role of the South East in national matters, you are the most senior South-Easterner in the Nigeria political structure. There have been calculations about the South East producing the next president in 2023.    Is it just politics, agenda or there is a bigger and broader plan?

Let me clarify this: no one part of Nigeria can decide to take the presidency and succeed in taking it. What has happened over the years is that, the presidency of the country is dependent on the mood of the nation. In 1999, the mood of the nation was for a Southern President from the Western part of Nigeria. That was how Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became the President. In 2007 again when he was leaving office, the Peoples Democratic Party had zoned it’s presidency to the North, which was the mood of the nation at the time.

When President Musa Yar’Adua died, Goodluck Jonathan concluded his tenure and ran for one more term. He contested again in 2015, but the mood of the nation then was that the next President would also come from the North.    So, it wasn’t just about Jonathan or President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the mood of the nation. My projection in 2023 is that the mood of the nation would favour a President of Igbo extraction.

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Your party has nominated a running mate of the presidential candidate in this cycle from the South East, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar has said he would serve only one term. That seems to fit in very neatly into the 2023 projections. Is that really what is going on?

Well, we have to do all we can to maintain the unity of this country. Everyone would have to make a sacrifice to ensure that happens.    Buhari is concluding a four-year term by 2019. If he wins, he can only do one more term of four years, hence the expectation that the next President will come from the South.    If Atiku wins, he understands clearly that the next president, will come from the South East. So, it makes political sense for him to commit to one term.      Everyone is beginning to see the need and wisdom in ensuring that every part of Nigeria is accommodated at the highest office of the nation.

Let me bring you to your area of expertise, which is the legislature, where you have been Deputy Senate President for almost 12 years, which in itself is some kind of unusual record. How do you think the legislature has faired?

The legislature all over the world is usually misunderstood. People don’t give them the respect they deserve in terms of what they have done to ensure national progress. Well, for us in Nigeria, I would say we have done well. Given the fact that the parliament has suffered a lot of setbacks and many distortions, especially by military interventions.

We have done well in spite of those setbacks. Most of the laws that have provided legislative architecture for our country were done in the last sixteen years.    Talking about the fight against corruption, it’s on record that the EFCC Act,    the ICPC Act,    Code of Conducts Bureau Act, Nigerian communication Commission, which provided the boom in the telecommunications industry, amendment of a whole number of legislations    etc, were all passed in the last sixteen years.

But I think the most important thing we have done is the ability to restructure our constitution to be able to provide good governance for our people. We have done a lot in that regard since 2008 and even more recently.

Elsewhere the legislature develops with people having the opportunity to be there, grow in the system, learn the system, become experts at various aspects of the law and they become almost like authority themselves because they have been there so long. In America, you have a senator who has been in the seat for 25, 30 years. Here in Nigeria, there is this high turnover just as the Representative or senator is getting used to the office and election circle comes around, he or she doesn’t return to the seat.

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Has that impacted the performance of the legislature lately?

Answer: Definitely, we have recorded high turnover of parliamentarians both at the state and national levels. For me it is a major setback because over the four-year term, a lot of money is spent training these parliamentarians, exposing them to the best seminars and workshops. You learn from your colleagues. After four years, they are gone and then a new set comes in and you start all over to train them. By the time they have learnt anything, they are gone.

The reason is that we have this attitude of turn-by-turn. Some people would say “Oh we have agreed you would just do one term, you come back so another person has to go”.

That is not helping our situation at all because the idea of allowing people to stay long in the parliament is to have institutional memories. When you have someone who has has been in the National Assembly for twenty years, for instance, what that means is that you have seen two to three president’s and if anything happens in the act you can say let us call this person and ask him how was this handled in the past and he can provide institutional memory. You know, he would have attended so many parliamentary organisation meetings all over the world. Of course, he would have made some friends across the globe as well. So, that if there is anything that has to do with diplomacy in respect of the country, somebody can offer some advice and can say I have a friend in this country, I have a friend in this organisation I can speak to. That is why people are left in parliaments for so many years.

There are no term limits for legislature the way there are in other arms of government?

Yes. Definitely, that’s the thing. I think maybe in Mexico that’s where you have a term limit for parliamentarians. But even at that, it is a single term of six years but after another tenure of six years, you can come back to do another six years. It is unlike the executives in Mexico, which you do just six-year single term and you go. So, each country tries to encourage this idea of keeping the parliamentarians as much as possible in order to maintain institutional memory.

Let me bring you back to constitutional amendment you were talking about a bit earlier.

For quite a while, you have sat on that because as Deputy Senate President you chair the joint committee on constitutional reform and you have done that over the last circles. How have you gone about it because constitution amendment process is very tedious.

What has been your experience? In the process of implementing amended sections, have there been specific gaps you noticed you didn’t fill?

I think the one that probably comes to mind now is the issue of timeframe within which we conclude election petitions.

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In 2010 we figured that it took so much time to conclude election petitions. There were instances where matters go to election tribunal and by the time you conclude that matter, the time for the office has expired.

For instance, I had an experience when I came into the Senate in 2003. I had a colleague from River State. He had an election matter that started in 1999. So, the matter went to the Tribunal. The matter was still on by the time we met them in the Senate 2003 and he had then been re-elected and then the court now came to the conclusion that he was not validly elected in the first one. Meanwhile, he had concluded the tenure and was re-elected.

So, we now said okay, we have to do something about it. We now amended section 285 of the Constitution to place time limit within which election petitions must be concluded. You have to file your petition within 21 days from the conduct of the election. So, in 180 days the petition would have been concluded. If there is any appeal arising therefrom, the Court of Appeal must deal with that within a period of 60 days and then, if you go to a Supreme Court, another 60 days.

We thought we had captured the whole essence. It didn’t occur to us that there was another matter, which is the pre-election issue. What we amended was the issue of election petitions. Now the issue of primaries still lingered in the courts for years; some of them that started in 2015 are still there at the Supreme Court.

We now decided in the last exercise to amend section 285 further to now include pre-election matters and I will use this opportunity to explain a bit of it so that Nigerians can understand because most people do not know about it.

Let me also say that out of 15 of such amendments sent to the president, the President has signed five and incidentally, the issue of pre-election matters is one of those the President has signed.

The implication, therefore, is that matters that took place prior to the election it self- things that have to do with primaries, the issue of who won the primary election, the issue of whether INEC had followed the rules, whether the Electoral Acts or any Acts of the National Assembly has been breached – have to be concluded within a definite period.

So, what we have provided that any such complaints must be filed in court not less than 14 days after it occurred. So if you go after 14 days, the court will not entertain the matter any longer. And once it is filed, if there is any issue that is technical- like jurisdiction and all that – the court will not touch it.

They will have to wait until after the matter is concluded so they can be taken together with the whole aspects of the matter and even at that, that matter must be concluded within 180 days, just like the election petitions. If there is any appeal arising there too, it has to be dealt with within 60 days. So, that now has put to a halt this issue of pre-election matters going on forever and I guess that this will also help the system.

Its seems that even almost 20 years into this democracy, there is still not much clarity about the role of the executive in the budget process and the role of the legislature, which is what leads to friction. Friction then produces delay and then everybody starts to blame everybody else and then at the end, the country suffers. Now, you have been around this budget circle for many times, what exactly is the crux of the problem?

Well, basically all through history, it has always been accepted that public funds belong to the people and it can only be managed by the representatives of the people, which in most cases are the members of the parliament. That is why if you look at sections 80 and 81 of the constitution, it is saying that there must be an appropriation bill, which is like the estimates from the executive to the National Assembly saying this is what we want to do.

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It then becomes the responsibility of the National Assembly to take it from them and look at it and do whatever they want to do with it in terms of amendment, restructuring to ensure that the monies are evenly distributed. They say two heads are usually better than one; we need to find out that they did the correct thing because sometimes you will discover that the executive will be appropriating or budgeting for some projects that have already been completed.

When Yar’Adua was President, he brought budget, we decided to look at the budget of the Ministry of Works. We set up a Committee, which I headed, to look at the whole thing that was budgeted for the Ministry of Works. We discovered that some of those road projects had since been completed and they kept on budgeting for them from year to year. We saved a whole lot of money, which we used to do what we call regional projects, which were distributed among the six geopolitical zones and then that took care of a number of projects. So, you can see the wisdom in presenting the estimates to the National Assembly for them to have a look at.

In the last amendment to the constitution, there were some aspects of the revenue that were of concern to us. We discovered that we are a country that doesn’t save money. So, we decided to amend Section 162 because under Section 162, all monies coming to the federal government must go to one account called the Federation Account. But it goes further in that Section to say that these moneys must now be distributed among the federal, state, and local governments and no provision was made for savings.

So, when the federal government wanted to do savings, of course, the governors went to court saying what is called the excess crude account? Now, because of the political nature of it, that matter is yet to be decided, but the truth of the matter is that, it is unconstitutional.

In view of this, we decided to amend the constitution to make a provision for some sort of savings before distribution to the various tiers of government. Regrettably, even though it passed through the  National Assembly, it passed through the State Assemblies, but the President refused to assent to it because I think there were some aspects of it too that the president found a little conflicting. This is because in that amendment, we also talked about the issue of presenting budget at appropriate time by setting a timeframe for both the executive and the National Assembly.

Then under Section 82, if the budget has not been passed in a particular year, the president or the governor, as the case may be, can authorize expenditure based on the estimates of the previous year for up to six months into the year. We said no, that is too much, let’s limit it to three months. This will put pressure on both the executive and the legislature to expedite the process of the appropriation and then there will be more responsibility in the appropriation process. Again, that was part of this Bill that was not assented to.

So, sometimes you meet some frustrations in trying to push these reforms, but we are not going to get tired of trying.

Something else that seems to create some level of disaffection in the polity, it is done everywhere else within the system, but when it happens within the legislature, it tends to generate a great deal of heat and that has to do with the issue of people moving from one party to another. Most recently that happened, it created a storm. That storm was so loud that it was about to consume even the stability in terms of leadership of the National Assembly  particularly the Senate. What’s the situation with that now?

Well, in case of the executive, you can move from party A to party B, but in the case of the legislature, you have this restriction that you can’t move from party A to party B unless you can show that there is a faction in the party. But parliamentarians most times take advantage of that provision without looking at the proviso and then just keep moving front and back and because the court process has been quite slow in dealing with the matter, most political parties are reluctant to file actions against a member of their party that has moved from their party to another.

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But it is something we need to work around because sometimes it is difficult to apprehend why people had to leave, but sometimes they feel dissatisfied with the way they are treated by their political parties and so they have to respond in a particular way.

I think the issue of internal democracy in parties and the issue of making sure that people are accommodated within the concept of true democracy in a political party, this can also help to assuage members of the National Assembly and even state assemblies so that they don’t have to get into this temptation of moving from party A to Party B.

The other issue is this issue of trying to stop people because you have done one term so you need to go, so when they are not sure of getting ticket because of that principle or arrangement, they now migrate to another political party where they may have opportunity of trying. Therefore, there are so many reasons that are responsible for this.

But I think it is something that overtime, we will be able to come over it because even in a place like Ghana, you can’t even talk about moving from one political party to another. For them, they don’t even understand that it exists because it is not part of their political culture.

There were other amendments, which were brought. Some of them suffered setbacks and difficulties because a great deal of politics was involved and it also involved people outside the legislature. If, for example, you take the issue of federalism, that suffered setback,  and some people were quite surprised because of all the hues and cries about restructuring under various formula.

It seemed the legislature had bought into it,  but then at the critical moment, it seemed as if quite a number of people backed out, maybe they weren’t so sure, maybe you can use this opportunity to tell us what happened,  until now,  that matter has not fully been explained.

Yes. You are right. In 2014, we had a comprehensive amendment to the constitution and what you are referring to, which is devolution of powers from the federal government to the states, was quite and extensively dealt with. We moved a number of issues such as railway,  power, aviation, to the Concurrent List. It was quite successful.

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It went through the National Assembly, went to the state, passed through the state and was sent to the President for assent. It was at that place we had some issues, but eventually we went to the Supreme Court with the federal government and the Supreme Court sent us to go and settle. We were dealing with that until the term of former President Jonathan expired and we lost that opportunity. It was a very heavy loss to the nation because we addressed several key issues to straighten our federalism.

So when we came back in 2015, we started the process all over again. Because politics came,  this issue of restructuring came in, and people became unnecessarily anxious….

You said unnecessarily,   why did you say that?

Yes, because I believe that when you are using the word like restructuring, it becomes complex to some people. But essential of what it’s saying is devolution of powers,  giving more powers to the component parts of the country so that the federal government will be slim and the powers will now be mostly at state level. That way, you make the federal government less attractive. All this competitions for the centre will not be there again and the states will now develop at their own pace and then have a lot to do and generate funds and lots of responsibility as well.

I think we have not been able to explain these benefits adequately to a number of people, especially our brothers in the North. So, when you talk about restructuring, for them it becomes something to be anxious about. It is something we need to sit down and explain to our people that it is a win-win situation for everybody. The federal government as presently constituted is not in a position to carry out all the responsibilities contained in the Exclusive Legislative List. It is not going to happen.

Look at what is happening with the security, for instance. As long as the security is in the hands of the federal government alone, it will continue to have problems because security itself needs to be devolved at least to the state level   because each state needs to have security that will fit into their own circumstance. Today, we have Boko Haram in the north east. So, if we have state police, they are going to get people who will be trained to fight insurgency. In the South East, for instance, we have kidnapping.

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If we have state police, those police will concentrate and learn how to deal with the issue of kidnapping. In Lagos too,  we have different scenarios, that is why we need to ensure that each state of the federation will have their own police so they will be able to decide which priority they will give in the issue of security. If, for instance, a governor decides to put 20 per cent of the state’s budget into areas of security and the place is secure, it is most likely people will move from places that is less secure to places that are well secure to go live in those places and also do business.

But our problem is that when we identify a problem, instead of identifying a solution, we tend to run away from the problem. So, what has happened is that people are afraid that governors will misuse it. But that is not going to happen because other countries have the same type of system we are prescribing for our people.   The question is “how have they been able to deal with it to ensure that nobody abuses it?”

Human beings are actually the same. The Bible says that the heart of man is desperately evil. When you say man-Black, White,  whatever you call it-  they are the same. It is the way you apply your laws, especially the efficiency of the security agencies that will determine how far people can obey laws. What they have done in other countries is to set up a system that makes it impossible for anybody to abuse the system.

Let’s give an instance in Nigeria. We have state judiciary,    courts in the states,  how many persons have complained that the governors are using the state judiciary to persecute them? The reason is that we have an NJC (National Judicial Institute) that controls the judges- whether they are federal or state. So, if we are afraid that the governors will use the police to intimidate their opponents, then we now have a National Police Service Commission that will be able to discipline the people, which will conduct    police affairs in the states and appointment some of the top hierarchy and regulate what they do.

Just as it happens in the judiciary, the Commission will continue in such a way that the impartiality of the police will also be secured.   It is part of what I proposed in the Bill to create state police which I sponsored along with several of my colleagues. This is exactly what they did in Brazil. They have done it in Australia, Canada and other places they have made it impossible to be abused, because the primary thing is to ensure the protection of lives and property. Once we are able to achieve that, we put measures in place to ensure that system is not abused.

It would appear that if it was left entirely to the National Assembly,   the devolution of powers or the strengthening of powers of the local government would have gone through. But many legislators have a close relationship with their governors and it will appear as if many of the governors don’t want the local government to be completely free, autonomous or independent. How does one meander around that at the level of the legislature?

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You see, we have to decide the structure of federalism we want. Some federal states have two tiers,  they have the state and they have the federal government, like what they have in America. Some would also have a system where the federating units include the local government, just like they have in India. But our own is tricky. You cannot really say whether it is a two-tier federal system or three-tier because if you look at Section 7 of the constitution, it is saying that the state will ensure that there is a system of government that is democratically elected.

What you have done simply is to say that the local government is the business of the state. But when you go to Section 162 of the constitution, which talks about revenue sharing,  it’s saying that this revenue will be shared amongst the federal, state, and local governments. So, you’re talking about three tiers.

This is what we wanted to synchronize for us to ensure what actually we want; and most people believe that the better thing to do is to allow states to decide how many local governments they want. But  the problem here is that in the constitution, some people already have advantage in terms of more local government and therefore more revenue. So, they won’t listen to you because what that simply means, therefore, is that you want to abrogate the local government where a lot of people are already making money. Others, therefore, are saying, let us strengthen the local government to remain a third tier of government across the country. What that means, therefore is that those who have lesser number of local governments would be stuck and of course creating more local governments as provided in the constitution is also very difficult. Again, the governors want a situation where they will control what happens in the local government because of the so-called State Joint Local Government Account.

So, the last effort we made was to separate this account so that money could go straight to the local governments independent on the states. It wasn’t a novel thing, anyway, because it has happened in the past. In 1997, I was a local government Chairman under UNCP (United Nigeria Congress Party),  I was elected. That period,  allocation for local government came directly to the local government. So, we benefitted from that system and it worked.

It helped us to do a lot of development at local government level. Therefore, we believe that we can do that again. But because the states want the pool of resources in which they can do other projects, most states make sure that doesn’t  happen. So, when we finally passed this at level of National Assembly, it went to the state! As I speak with you, it’s still lying there in the State Assemblies.   So, we hope they will be able to do something about it.

One of the powers that the National Assembly, particularly the Senate, has is the power of confirmation of nominees from the executive for various positions. That generated a great deal of controversy. At some point, the VP was quoted as saying that there are certain categories of nominees that do not require Senate approval. The Senate responded by quoting law as well that it is not correct. Who is right over the issue of power to confirm nominees according to the law?

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First of all, let us understand the history of this issue of confirmation. We drew inspiration regarding our 1999 constitution from America. So, we chose to run a presidential system of government as opposed to the parliamentary we had done in the 1960s.

In America, they have also provisions for confirmation of certain appointments and like in the Nigerian constitution; it is in the domain of the Senate. So, the American Senate confirms certain categories of nominees. So, we simply borrowed that from America.   You can’t even contemplate, for instance in America, to send the name of a nominee for an appointment and before he gets to be confirmed, he starts the work. You can’t even contemplate it. But it happens in Nigeria and it is still happening.

That is what started the conflict with some people encroaching on the powers of others. The thing that makes democracy to survive is what we call the separation of powers and unless we begin to respect that doctrine of the separation of powers, we will continue to have problems with our democracy. We must know the limits of one another. That is why we have checks and balances so that we don’t have excesses.

But if you now say you will just appoint any person and post him to wherever, somebody might be tempted to appoint people from one family or from his own family and post them to all over the parastatals and agencies of government, or makes them ministers. But because there is power of confirmation, then there is this restriction so that the right thing could be done to ensure federal character, to ensure that the right people are brought on board. That is why it is very necessary that this issue of the confirmation right of the National Assembly must be respected.

You may be in the executive today as we have seen before and then tomorrow you might be in the legislature. You may say you have the latitude to do whatever you want but when you come to the parliament, you will now be able to see the wisdom in making sure that some other people have another look at these appointees to ensure that they are qualified; to ensure that they are evenly distributed and ensure that they are people with capacity.

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That is the critical point and I don’t see anything wrong in retaining the powers of confirmation for the National Assembly. There is nothing to be in a hurry about, to tell somebody to go ahead and start a job for which confirmation is required when he has not been confirmed and you say he or she is acting. That is part of the things that cause tension. The best thing to do is to call the members of the National Assembly and say look, this is urgent, please do whatever you can. This is called lobbying. It is the approach. But when you just throw it at the National Assembly and tell the man to go and start, what you will expect is crisis.

These things are just human relations that sometimes we take for granted; and that is what is causing most of the problems.

Another subject that has caused tension recently and I know it is coming to the National Assembly is the issue of the minimum wage. It has to come to the national assembly because it has to be made into law before anything can happen to it. In other countries they have minimum wage and they have designed it in such a way that it doesn’t come up like this in debates all the time. How do you think we could go around in resolving this?

Well, one of the major issues around the subject of minimum wage again has to do with the structure of our federalism. Right now the issue of wages is on the Exclusive List and so only the federal government can negotiate and decide what the minimum wage for the country will be. That is why most times when they bring this document to the negotiating table, they will not surrender easily because if the federal government has the capacity to pay, there are states that may not have the capacity to pay and those states can keep resisting it.

In the past, we    suggested that we put salaries and wages on Concurrent List so that each state will determine how much they can pay but labour had resisted it at all material times and may be they have their own reasons. So, that is critical.

As for me as an individual, I believe that the minimum wage we have in Nigeria now cannot sustain families; it is not a living wage; it is not enough to keep a family. There is need to increase it. Even when we are talking about 30,000 as minimum wage, I don’t believe that is sufficient. We need to do something much more than that. All we need to do is to cut expenses in other areas because these monies of course, will have to be spent; people have to pay tax on it and it can also expand the economy. As you can see, recently South Africa increased her own minimum wage and this is a country within the continent that is competing with us in terms of the economy. So, we must make sure that we have something that will be able to take care of any person working in Nigeria.

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A lot of people are watching us, many of them are apprehensive about the elections, maybe even more than they were in 2015. What would you say to them to look out for that in your view will determine what exactly is going to happen come February 2019?

INEC must continue to assure the people that they are going to be neutral. We can never get tired of saying it. The same thing with the security agencies- the police, the army and the other security agencies that are involved in election. They must keep saying we are not going to favour any particular party, we will not allow ourselves to be used by any candidate or any political party. These assurances are also very important and as I said they can continue saying these even if it means sounding like broken records, they need to keep saying this.

The international community must be on everybody’s neck to say that they will not accept any result that is less than transparent. Once we have this consciousness and everybody is committed to it, I am sure we can get it right.