By Soni Daniel, Editor, Northern Region
Senator Ita Solomon Enang is the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), and has many years of cognate experience in National Assembly Matters having served as Chairman of the Senate and House of Representatives Business and Rules Committee at different times. A lawyer by training, Enang serves as a bridge between the Presidency and the National Assembly, defending Mr. President on one hand and upholding the rights of the lawmakers on the other hand.
In this interview, the Akwa Ibom State born politician defends the rejection of 40 bills passed by the NASS for presidential assent and explains why it was imperative for Buhari to reject the controversial Electoral Bill early this year. He also talks about how he is able to relate between the Presidency and the lawmakers in the midst of frosty ties between the two tiers of government.
Four years after, how do you assess the relationship between the Presidency and the National Assembly?
I would describe the relationship as very robust, productive and constitutional based. That has aptly enabled the National Assembly to concentrate more on its core legislative functions since there has been little politics to do while the President has also focused on his assigned functions: the President has always considered all the issues necessary for assenting to bills dispassionately and in the best interest of the law and the people of Nigeria and not on the basis of any other consideration.
Is this why we have more bills passed by the NASS and the President has rejected no fewer than 40 bills in less than four years? Is that a good omen for a country?
Let me first of all commend Mr. President on the attention he has given to bills and other legislative measures because it is under his first term administration that the highest number of bills have been passed by the legislature. We also commend the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives, Senator Bukola Saraki and Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara because it is under their leadership and management that the highest number of bills has been passed.
Rejecting bills is part of the functions of the President or a governor; assenting to bills is another part. Remember when a bill is passed and transmitted to the President or a governor, he cannot add or remove anything. In other words, the President or governor cannot therefore edit and so if there are things that are considered as impurities, if there are constitutional infractions, if there are issues of policies, if the bill passed is dealing with a matter which there is law already regulating it, if the bill passed is on a matter where there is already an existing law, the President will not assent to it, or if it is a bill which ought to amend an existing law and then you go to bring an originating law, the President will not assent to it.
Again, if the bill passed is on a matter which is outside the legislative competence of the NASS but within the competence of the state House of Assembly or local government, the President will not assent to it; if it is a matter which ought to be done by any other means, for example the Ajaokuta funding bill, the President cannot assent to it.
As of the time the legislature passed the bill to fund Ajaokuta Steel Plant, the 2019 budget was with them and so they ought to have related with the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, Mr. President, Minister of Finance, Minister of Steel and Solid Minerals and source for the N1billion for the bill to be assented to by Mr. President. But that was not done to an appropriation bill.
It is very rare for the legislature, on its own, to originate appropriation. Second, it is a bill on a matter where you seek to take money from the Federation Account and the Excess Crude Account (ECA). Don’t forget that the money in both accounts belongs to the three tiers of government and not the Federal Government.
For you to spend any money from the ECA, you must first obtain the approval from the National Economic Council, NEC, which must be sanctioned by all the governors and thereafter passed over to the Federal Executive Council for approval to lay before the legislature for the purpose of appropriating.
Therefore if you seek to appropriate money from a source of funding which does not belong to the Federal Government, does not belong to the President and is outside the powers of the President, he cannot assent to such bills. Don’t forget that Mr. President had sworn to defend and protect and defend the Constitution, and cannot assent to any bill that offends the Constitution of Nigeria.
The Petroleum Industry Bill, for instance, makes provision for 10 percent of the money to be spent by the Petroleum Regulatory Commission as management fee. The President considered and rightly that, that money will deprive state and local governments of money that belongs to them because the Petroleum |Regulatory Commission is an agency of the Federal Government and that it was excessive for the commission to use such amount of money as management fee.
For instance, we have the Climate Change Commission Bill, which was also rejected by Mr. President on the grounds that its functions would sweep away the core mandate of the Ministry of Environment. Most of the countries that have the Climate Change Commission don’t have environment ministries to avoid overlap of functions.
It is better to have one and do away with the other because they are basically doing the same thing and when international partners want to do anything with Nigeria, with competing agencies, it would make it difficult to know who to deal with.
The same thing applies to the Transport Commission Bill, which the President declined assent on the grounds that it was meant to make the Ministers of Works, Aviation, Transportation, NPA, Inland Water Ways and NIMASA report to the commission and not their respective ministries.
It is wrong for an agency under the Ministry of Transportation to sponsor a bill that seeks to subsume the parent ministry and its functions. Once the President gets such a bill, he would ask for the implications of signing it into law and would unfailingly decline assent because of its inconsistency with the Constitution of Nigeria.
Is that why he refused to assent to the Electoral Bill despite many rejections and readjustments by the NASS?
The President clearly stated the reason why he declined assent to the Electoral Bill. First, it was wrongly drafted. The second reason was that when the President pointed out what was wrong to the bill, the National Assembly corrected the mistake but did not integrate it into the original bill and remove the offending provisions, which he objected to, before forwarding it again for assent.
What was wrong before and what was to be integrated?
There were many things which were wrong and NASS members agreed when the President raised those objections. But instead of integrating these corrections into the former bill and removing those objectionable sections, they simply forwarded only those things that they corrected to the President as stand-alone matters and did not include the other ones. When the Presidency raised the issues, they said the Chairman of the committee was reprimanded. The Chairman told me the President ought to have incorporated those corrections to the one they sent earlier before signing it but the truth is that the President cannot touch the bill.
But the argument of the President was that the timing was wrong, being too close to elections?
No, that was the second one. The third one was that when we sent it back and drew their attention and they eventually incorporated it only a few weeks to the elections, the President pointed to the fact that it was rather too close to the elections and declined assent. He took into cognizance of the time it would take to bring into effect the provisions of the new law, which would have automatically affected the method of planning and voting and what to acquire for the polls. Take for instance, the electronic voting method which would take at least six months to secure all the facilities needed for the operations and so on.
But the bill did not talk about electronic voting but electronic transmission of results.
No, it was for both electronic voting and electronic transmission of results. They were all in the bill. There were a lot of things recommended by the new bill. However, the lawmakers appeared to have forgotten that Nigeria is a state party to the ECOWAS Protocol, which provides that no new legislation should be made to the Electoral Act at least six months to elections. President Buhari is the Chairman of ECOWAS and he could not been seen to be breaching the protocol affecting the entire West Africa and Africa on elections in his own country and particularly an election concerning him.
The feeling among many Nigerians appears to be that the President and his party were not ready to change the Act so as to use noticeable loopholes to their advantage. If it is not so, is the President ready to send a new bill to the NASS for a law prescribing full electronic voting in future elections?
What I know is that the NASS has reworked it and they are going to send it to him and, when they send it, he will look at it again.
The expectations of Nigerians was that when Buhari assumed office, he was going to deviate significantly or even marginally from the ugly situation where appropriation bills are unduly delayed but we have even sunk deeper into it; what is responsible for this?
I am sure you remember that the President came in 2015 and that year, he presented his budget in November and the NASS took up to April to pass the budget.
In 2016, it was the same scenario and, in that 2016, because of delayed presentation and the short period of implementation, NASS made an adjustment to the budget cycle and agreed that it should operate for 12 calendar months from the date of assent into law.
Regarding this year’s budget, it was officially passed by the NASS on May 1 and, as we speak, we are yet to get the copy transmitted to the President. When the President receives the budget in May, he will have to take the normal constitutional period which may not take up to 30 days to examine the budget.
360 members of the House of Representatives and 109 senators took five months to examine the budget, so the President will take a little while to take a look at it and see the issues involved. Yes, we may say the budget is passed late but, in actual fact, it is not passed late. A budget is passed late when it is passed at a time when there is no budget for the country to operate or at the time when the subsisting budget has elapsed or had been repealed or ceases to exist.
The budget for 2018 was assented to on the 20th of June and we still have up to 20th of June 2019 to operate the budget. We can say rightly that there is a subsisting budget that was passed in April/May and it may be transmitted in May.
In actual fact, other than the necessity to align the economy with that of the private sector and the normal situation of returning the economy and the budgeting cycle to January to December, I would say that the budget is not passed late.
I know that in President Buhari’s second term, the priority would be to make sure that the budget is received in October/November and passed in December and implementation starts in January.
Would you then say whether Nigeria has made legislative progress under President Buhari or has the nation stagnated?
Nigeria has made the greatest legislative progress under President Buhari because it is one government that has told the legislature to stick exactly to its constitutional functions and he will stick exactly and precisely to his. Thankfully, there has been no time for too much politicking as was the case in the past and not much of concessions which have the potential to undermine the Constitution.
Therefore, the legislature has concentrated on passing bills, which has led to their passing more bills than any other previous legislature. The legislature has concentrated on looking at the work of the executive than previous administrations and this is somehow misunderstood which is not; it is oversight.
Again, there have been situations whereby the public seems to believe that when the legislature asks questions about any executive action, they will say there is confrontation or that they are confronting Buhari, no; the legislature is simply doing its duty. The President himself is in support of such scrutiny of his officials and agencies. But he maintains the simple rule that everyone should not allow their duties to cross the line of the other to avoid misunderstanding.
That is why the President does not interfere when many top government functionaries are charged to court for one reason or the other. He wants them to do their job without looking at his body language. In the main, that presidential disposition has led to a great amount of work by the legislature and the relationship has kept the legislature very active.
But the Presidency and the APC appear to have refused to learn any lesson in the selection of principal officers for the NASS and they may run into the same trench it fell into in 2015.
We have learnt lessons and we have taken every step to avoid the 2015 scenario and this is handled by the party and the government is not keeping his eyes away because the President is the leader of the party.
As part of that carefulness, there have been consultations, lobbying, and interactions across party lines with the executive being present in the caucuses where the party has taken most of these decisions and where the members of the NASS have taken a decision as to who they want to have as their leaders.
As of today, the returning and members, as well as members-elect, have met and taken a decision that, in the best tradition of the parliament, it is the next highest-ranking member of the party that returns that normally goes up to be the leader.
As of today, Ahmed Lawan is the highest and longest-serving member of the NASS in Nigeria. He was elected to the House of Reps in 1999 and he served till 2003. From 2003 to 2007, he was elected to the Senate and he has served there for three terms of four years making 12 years.
What of Ndume, who also claims to be the most qualified to become the Senate President, has vowed not to give way for Lawan?
No, Udume came in 2003 to the NASS.
But have the APC and the Presidency explained to him that he is junior to Lawan?
No, you don’t need to explain any of that.
What if he picks a form on the day of the NASS election and teams up with the opposition to embarrass the APC and the Presidency as it was in 2015?
It is not a question of picking a form, it is a question of the members nominating him; it is not him going to fill a form. So what has been done now is that the party has approved that the highest-ranking member should take the seat. As of today, Senate President Saraki is not returning, DSP Ekweremadu has returned but he is of the minority party; the next highest person in the majority party returning is Lawan.
If you go to the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila is the most senior person there having come to the House in 2003 and has been consistently there till now; he has done his 16 years in the House of Reps. Yes, there are two people who have done 20 years but he is the highest-ranking member in the leadership as of today.
After Speaker Dogara, who is returning but he is in the minority party, the Deputy Speaker is not returning and after him is the House Leader and the House Leader is Femi Gbajabiamila and so he is the highest ranking person and so, automatically, he takes the seat and the rest follow; that is the best parliamentary tradition.
And the members themselves, with the leadership of the party being with them, have taken this decision and the party has endorsed that decision for them. Yes, what the party and the leadership are doing is to ensure that we show enough respect to each of the senators and members contesting for any office and to accept that they have the right to go for any office but to also liaise and plead that, by parliamentary tradition, which we have all been beneficiaries of, we should allow the situation to be.
We are not saying that ‘if you do this, we will do this to you’, no. They have a right having been elected as either Representative or as senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to be in the NASS. We are only working to assuage them to see reasons with us and to build consensus and, as of today, we are conscious that we are going to have a situation of a consensual nomination without opposition.
Are you conceding some positions to opposition?
That would be the privilege of the presiding officers when they emerge but we are not telling them that ‘you are not going to get anything’.
That is in terms of committee positions. But the party Chairman says the party is going to get all positions.
I am not to counter what the party Chairman has said but the best parliamentary tradition is taking account of, in the course of lobbying, allowing the members of the PDP to vote as one and queuing behind Lawan and Femi Gbajabiamila. There will be trade off, there will be other issues and there will be accommodation of PDP members and other political parties but the most important thing is the best strategy to get to the seat and, when we get to the seat using any strategy, we will respect all parliamentary traditions in the overall best interest of the country.
Every senator is a senator irrespective of whatever party he belongs. His vote counts and not the party he belongs. If we need to amend the Constitution today, APC does not have enough number of persons to have two thirds; so you need to build a consensus which is what we have done.
I am sure you may have noticed that there has been calm in the contention for these offices just because consensus has been made and we are nearing a situation of a unanimous candidate.
As of today, we are sure that the number of senators rallying round Lawan is more than two thirds and, since we seem to have that, we are not saying that the rest does not matter.
We want to have a unanimous 109 votes for Lawan to win so that it will not appear as if there was a contention and a divided Senate, so that the second term of President Buhari will not have the kind of turbulent beginning as the one that is about to end.
Again, we want to ensure that no senator is treated as if he belongs to the other side and they start building factions of those who supported the present or new leadership so that we have a smooth takeoff and the same in the House of Representatives.
As one of the two most senior representatives of Mr. President from Akwa Ibom State, what success story will you tell Akwa Ibom people from the Buhari presidency?
The most of that is in the area of social investments. Mr. President has not discriminated against us in his social investment, housing programmes; Tradermoni; the school feeding programme; GEEP, etc.
Have all of that taken off in Akwa Ibom?
Yes, they took off a long time ago. There is a housing programme that is done directly opposite the teaching hospital along Abak Road in Uyo by the Federal Ministry of Housing, Works and Power. The Minister has been there twice to inspect and those houses are already being sold to people and people are moving in.
What we have done is that we have caused collaboration between that agency of the Federal Government and the Niger Delta Development Commission to provide access roads to the site because, within the estate, access roads and solar powered street lights have already been provided. NDDC is constructing a road to that place now.
I am sure you are aware of the road between Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Abia states which has been awarded for the sum of N54 billion.
Has work started on that road?
Work has started and they have done many kilometres. They have done from Ekom Ita right down to Mbam Itam; they have tarred both lanes. This road is from Otukpani in Cross River through Itu Bridge in Akwa Ibom-Cross River. But the company is yet to start the Cross River end of the project.
Some days ago, the Federal Government awarded another road project from Umuahia to Ikot Ekpene and another one from Aba to Ikot Ekpene. These are high impact projects worth billions of Naira to change the landscape and add value to the people.
Now there is the other road from Aba to Ekparakwa to Mkpat Enin through Ekparakwa to Ette in Ikot Abasi linking the East-West Road and there is another one that starts from Azumini through Etim Ekpo and all these to come and link here and that one was awarded to CCECC and they are on site now.
What we are trying to do and what the President has directed is that as much as possible, let NDDC partner so that, instead of being a single lane reconstruction, it can be a dualised road so as to fit the standard of what is obtainable in Akwa Ibom now.
The Federal Government appears to be at loggerheads with Akwa Ibom government because if you ask Akwa Ibom people, they will say ‘well, we are in the opposition, we are not really involved’. What are you doing to bridge this gap and give a sense of belonging to everybody whether you are in APC or PDP?
I think the state government is the one doing that because they want to use that to deceive the people that they are not doing this because they are in opposition. But if they were being treated like people in the opposition, the President would not have released all the money due to the state to the state.
As of today, Akwa Ibom has the highest allocation in the country every month since 2015, so what are they being denied of? The governor has access to the President and the Vice President. The President and the Vice President do not treat state governors as if they are of the opposition; they treat them as governors of states of Nigeria and accord them every privilege and assist them in anything they want.
When they needed funds for budget support, they were given. The Federal Government has given Akwa Ibom the Paris Club debt refund running into over N100 billion.
A few weeks to the elections, the Akwa Ibom State government received N78 billion from the Federal Government being the cost of federal roads that were constructed by the Attah and Akpabio’s administrations. The Federal Government did not say it is a PDP state ‘let me use that money and complete other things or other projects’ but it gave them the way he gave other states.
And it is when they want to misapply this money and they do not want to let the people know that this money has come that they blackmail the Federal Government so as to turn the eyes of the people away from the amount of money that is coming to the state and rather put the Federal Government in bad light so that the people will not ask them where the money has gone.
What I have done as a person and as a leader of the party is to draw attention and publish a book detailing all the amount the state has been collecting from the Federal Government since the governor came to power four years ago. This comprises the monthly allocation to the state, the monthly allocation to each of the local government, the annual allocation from the ecological fund, the amount refunded to the state from the Paris Club and the sum given back to the state as refund for the roads constructed by the Attah and Akpabio’s administrations.