***Says those querying legislature’s budget of N128bn, lawmakers ‘jumbo’ salaries unintelligent
***‘How we will review Constitution’
***#EndSARS: Our position on protesters
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
The National Assembly is contemplating a reduction in the number of federal ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) in the country to save the cost of running the government, according to Hon. Benjamin Kalu (Bende Federal Constituency of Abia State), spokesman for the House of Representatives.
There are at least 428 federal MDAs in Nigeria. Kalu spoke to Sunday Vanguard on the heels of the second economic recession in Nigeria in five years.
“To be honest, some of the MDAs are mere duplications and the National Assembly is looking at them. We can consolidate on the functions of the MDAs to reduce cost”, he said.
The spokesperson also speaks on how NASS will carry out constitutional amendment, the legislature’s budget of N128billion, lawmakers’ ‘jumbo’ salaries, the backlash against protesters involved in #EndSARS and the role federal lawmakers will play in rebuilding states where properties were destroyed by hoodlums in the course of the protests among other issues. Excerpts:
What’s your assessment of the 2021 budget defense sessions? Do you entertain any misgiving?
I must commend the executive for taking the budget presentation and defence seriously the same way the head of government took it seriously and kept to the calendar of presenting it early enough for us to work on it and get it back to the public at the beginning of next year and I am impressed that they took a cue from there and they have been coming.
We just met with the Minister of Agriculture who did not send his perm sec to us. He came himself. The other day we met with Works and Housing Minister Fashola who did not send anybody but came himself and I can go on and on.
The Minister of Health was with us the other day. All hands appear to be on deck to reverse the budget calendar from what it used to be to January to December in 2021 which is healthy for our economy.
On the other side, what I have not observed so well is the impact of what COVID-19 brought on the budget. I have not seen the MDAs integrating the innovations introduced by COVID-19 in their budgets which include the use of technology to reduce cost especially on virtual meetings to reduce trips and travels. If you put the amounts in the MDAs together and the amount appropriated yearly on local travels and international travels, you will see that it is very huge and with technology we can save 50% of the amount we are currently spending on local trips and the rest of them.
I have also not seen reductions in international travels. Most of the universities across the world, Harvard, Oxford, have gone online for their trainings, it doesn’t reduce their credibility, it doesn’t reduce the efficiency of the work they are doing with their students and so why are we not adopting that approach to training?
I have also seen that some people come to us not prepared. They come with the mindset that the National Assembly don’t know what to look out for, they are not as thorough as they ought to be and so they will do any garbage in, garbage out and they expect us to accept it, the numbers are not adding up, their extra budgetary expenses, we don’t do that; we call them to order and make sure those things are taken care of.
So, generally, there is a big cooperation between the National Assembly and the executive in this budget defense.
There are four hundred and something agencies. In the course of this budget presentation, was there any thoughts by law makers to tinker with the number?
To be honest, some of the agencies are mere duplications and the National Assembly is looking at them. We can consolidate on the functions of the agencies to reduce cost.
The present economic leadership philosophy is to block leakages of revenue and reduce cost of governance and also finish up projects that are ongoing as against getting involved in brand new ones. Now based on that, it calls for restructuring where necessary to achieve cost reduction expectations of this government.
There are two or three agencies that could come under one, it is one of the things the House is going to look at through motions and resolutions or the Acts that established some of the agencies and see how we can collapse them by repealing or amending the Acts for the sake of better control, efficient work and higher productivity as well as reducing cost and that is the yearning of Nigerians because we have so many petitions telling us that we have too many agencies doing similar jobs.
But you know, it takes time and the situation was not created by this government.
The budget of the Presidency; of the President and his Vice on travels is still high as it used to be in previous years. So talking about cost reduction, would you want to reduce that as a parliament or leave it as it used to be?
Our job as the National Assembly is to be the watchdog and we have oversight functions. Our job is to look at the numbers before us, it doesn’t have to be the President and the Vice President or the agencies of government, nevertheless, we deal with the judiciary as well as the executive, we look at the numbers that they are bringing to us and see how workable those numbers are in view of the challenging times and, if they are workable, we allow it, but if they are not sustainable, we say no to them and I am sure that is why the electorate elected us and this is for the interest of the people.
It is not an attack, or to create acrimony or rancor; no, it is for the interest of the tax payers who have given us that confidence of overseeing, looking after their hard earned money.
Constitutional amendment is here again and many Nigerians feel that the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference which many think may have the solution to the clamour for restructuring should be adopted. How is this constitutional amendment going to incorporate some of these yearnings as put together in the 2014 National Conference?
In amending a Constitution, so many things come into play and information is harnessed to educate the framers of the Constitution, to educate the drafters of the Constitution, to educate the people amending the Constitution or reviewers of the Constitution. Constitution review is not something you just do, there is a template.
It is a matter of understanding the wishes of the people. How do you harvest the desires of the people? It is by going into what has happened before that was documented. So, the report of the Constitutional Conference, if need be, would be called into use, the opinion of the public, if need be, would be called into use.
Remember, people are going to send in memoranda and they will be collated, analyzed and incorporated into the process. So, no stone is going to be left unturned during this constitutional amendment.
This constitutional review committee which I am a member of will reflect that.
The #EndSARS protests that erupted recently in parts of the country rattled the National Assembly and the Presidency, and the Federal Government appears poised to prosecute some of the promoters. Does that sit well with the House?
I don’t think you got the Federal Government right. The Federal Government will never prosecute those who are expressing their rights constitutionally. There is a difference between those who protested and those who were vandals.
There is a difference between those who protested and the honour of what they believe in for there to be change and as citizens they own that right; freedom of expression, freedom of association as allowed by the Constitution.
Nobody can deny them that right. But if in the expression of that right, you stepped on the toes of the law, the limitation of your right is the commencement of the right of the other person.
Therefore in exercising your freedom of association or freedom of expression you must have at the back of your mind the dictates of the law.
So the National Assembly will never support any attempt to silence those expressing their rights under the Constitution, no. But the National Assembly will support every move against hoodlums.
The real protesters did not destroy properties, the real protesters did not burn down houses, the real protesters did not cause havoc but those ones who came and infiltrated the camp and started destroying cars, houses and all the rest of them, they should be prosecuted and the National Assembly will support their prosecution.
In rebuilding the worst hit states, what role will the House play?
It is taking interventions that will enable the executive to have the backing of the law to specially intervene where was greatly impacted. So any collaboration that the executive may demand from the House, we are willing to do it to make sure we rebuild our nation.
How much does an average lawmaker in National Assembly take home as salary?
I am not the institution. The institution is sitting on a tripod; the Senate, the Management and the House of Representatives. My answer will be different from the answer of a senator and the answer of the person that is working in Management. The Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission; these things are tabled there.
Go to the Management, the Clerk of the National Assembly is here and request for it and it will be given to you. But suffice to say it is very painful that Nigerians are not asking the right questions.
We are known all over the world as very smart people and how come when it comes to this topic we pretend unintelligent?
Why do we have this question coming up over and over again because of N128billion allocated to an arm of government, not a ministry, not a department of government, not an agency of government, a full arm of government?
The budget of Nigeria, if shared to the three arms of government, do you think the National Assembly will be getting N128billion? This arm is the same as the executive arm and the judiciary.
They are at the same level, on the same platform. None is greater than the other and Nigerians have not deemed it right to look at the percentage representation of their money, where it is going to and they are focusing on N128billion out of N13trillion. N128billion is about 0.8% of the entire national budget.
Now tell me, you are looking for your money and you leave 99.02% of the money and you are spending two, three years looking at 0.8%? Nigerians should start asking the right questions.
They should ask what is happening to the 99.02% which is with the executive and these agencies that you mentioned.
Do you know that lawmakers borrow money to add to what they get here to be able to solve the needs in their various constituencies because the expectations are high and the resources are low?
Nigeria should support us to use less than 1% to oversight them. By Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution, you are giving me a job to follow your money, audit your money, go after the money and make sure that the money we appropriated, N13trillion, is used for the right thing; which consultant will charge you less than 1% to oversee your project of 13trillion?
The least they will charge you is about 10% and if you are taking about 10%, if the National Assembly were a private consultant, it should be about N1.3trillion.
The budget of the National Assembly was 5% of the entire national budget before, it went down to 4%, from there to 3% and, today, it is at 0.8%, less than 1%; the Budget Office will tell you this and it has not changed and yet foreign exchange is going up whereas the purchasing power of the money that you are paying House of Reps’ members it is the same place.
The same amount of money that was paid to the 4th Assembly, 5th Assembly, 6th Assembly and 7th Assembly is a far cry from what National Assembly members are earning now.
Now granted but not conceding that National Assembly members are earning all the money people claim they are earning, which of these arms of government is closer to the masses?
I am a lawyer by training and I have friends in the judiciary, it is my immediate constituency. You don’t see any judge interacting with people in the rural area with people coming for school fees, hospital bills, coming for burial, coming for “my house has fallen down or I need to buy fertilizer, I need to do this and that”, no judge will be seen.
If a judge takes salary, it’s for him and his family.
How many ministers are being seen close to the rural people, that they can knock on their doors and they open and they saw that it is problem of “I don’t have clothes to go to school, I cannot pay my school fees?”
They don’t see that? How many governors in your own village, how many times have your villagers had time to sit with their governor or minister? Zero!
They only see them in public functions but we eat with these people. It is only the National Assembly that represents this government. The (President) Buhari they see is Benjamin Kalu when I am in the village.
The governor that they see is Benjamin Kalu when I am in the village and so if there is any problem that they have as long as they have seen me who represents government, they will table it and there is no excuse that you can give them, it is from that your salary, no matter how little it is, that you attend to their needs.
It is from there you pay school fees, house rent, hospital bills, pay this and that. And what has that got to do with government? It reduces poverty, it reduces pain; it reduces the agitation that would have been activated by hunger. The little we share with our constituents keep them calm not to carry arms.