The Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, who is representing Cross River Central Senatorial District in this interview with SUNDAY ABORISADE defends criticisms against the Nigerian senate and the recent police invasion of the National Assembly
Some Nigerians believe that the executive has been taking the federal parliament for a ride because of the passive nature of the Senate. They cite last Thursday’s invasion of the National Assembly by the police as a case in point. What is your comment on this?
Let me say that the show of force in the National Assembly by the security agencies last Thursday was quite unfortunate and totally unnecessary because the precincts of any parliament are supposed to be sacrosanct and their action was a violation of that. I will not be able to go into the substantive issues on why it happened or did not happen because I have been told that there are several court matters on those issues and being a lawyer, I will not be making any comment.
But clearly, there is a problem with our democracy today because the franchise is being exercised on behalf of the people. It is as if the people no longer matter in our democracy. That is why the classical definition of democracy is government of the people by the people for the people. That does not appear to be happening right now. Power has been hijacked, processes have been hijacked, so the people count for little or nothing. I think this must begin to be a serious concern to the political class. There is need for the people to reconnect with democracy and exercise their franchise directly, otherwise, we will run into a major crisis.
But is it not shameful that lawmakers now scale fences?
The precincts of every parliament of the world are supposed to be sacred and I am not aware of any law that prevents you from scaling the fence to your own place. So, as long as you are not trespassing, it’s in order.
Nigerians have given up on the senate, believing that the upper chamber has become a rubber stamp body for the executive. How do you feel about this?
I don’t understand you. Can you cite instances?
For instance, Nigerians are worried that the senate had yet to speak out on the billions of naira allegedly ferried to South Africa through the backdoor.
Well, first of all, we must have some historical perspective to the senate worldwide. From history, the senate is supposed to be most sedate and that is why even constitutionally, the entry requirements are higher for senators. The senate is supposed to be a mature institution; it is designed to stabilise the polity in times of crisis. It is not to be part of the problem of the polity. If you look at the historical role of the Nigerian senate, we have consistently played that role of stabilising the polity. We should not descend into the arena.
Nigerians believe that the recent showdown the senate had with the presidency was for selfish reasons. What is your reaction to this?
I don’t agree with you on that.
Some people say most senators have lost touch with their constituencies and that’s why they are demanding for automatic tickets?
It is not a question of whether a senator is popular or not. I have talked about the people not being able to make choices in our democracy, but that certain powerful people are exercising their franchise on their behalf. So, the negotiations the senators had with the Presidency/Peoples Democratic Party leadership was aimed at cutting out those powerful people. It is a fact that quite a number of senators are still very popular with their people but some forces are saying that they don’t want them again.
Are you saying that negotiating automatic tickets would solve the problem?
Yes, and if you stay connected to your people. The decision of who runs on a party’s ticket is the decision of the party. So, the party can decide through whatever means they want to present as their candidates.
Is it true that you are desperate to continue in the senate and because of that you have been all over the place?
Let me put the issue in perspective. What constitutes the institutional memory in the senate is the aggregate memory of each member. If you have a high turnover rate of members returning, it means you also have a high turnover of loss of memory. So, it is not in anybody’s interest in every election, seeing many senators going out of parliament.
But this argument of loss of institutional memory has been faulted by some people who claim that activities of the senate and that of each senator are well documented for reference for the incoming ones.
Let me take mine for instance. How do you document my network? You can only see the records of the bills. Do you know how I got those bills? So the National Assembly all over the world is a peculiar institution and that is why in most presidential constitutions, there is no time limit because they know that high turnover has a negative impact on the institution.
So you mean the issue of automatic tickets is not a selfish agenda of the senators?
The whole idea is to sustain the memory of the institution. I am not desperate. In case you have forgotten, I had a life before Senate. I am a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, I am not desperate. I have choices. The important thing is for the people themselves to make a choice. That is the critical point. Is it the governors that should decide for the people the person who will represent them or the people themselves?
A report said you sponsored an attack against a House of Representatives member, John Enoh, who is representing Etung/Obubra Federal Constituency and vying for a senatorial seat. Is that the case?
I am a man of peace and I don’t believe in violence. The report is not true.
Wouldn’t your refusal to participate in the rescheduled ward congress in Cross River State affect your chances in the next National Assembly election next year?
Well, I opted out of the election on my own. I am a lawyer and I have been in the bar for 36 years and 10 years as a Senior Advocate. So, going to submit to the congress when I know for a fact that there was a case in court would have been prejudicial to the proceedings and I must, at every time show respect to the institution of the judiciary. So I opted out but the judgement has now been given so the congresses can go on. It is just that the activity that started before the judgement is what I am worried about but I thought that we should have shown more respect to the judiciary and our judicial process.
Are you thinking of appealing the judgement or is it in your favour?
The court failed to assume jurisdiction on the matter but I will not be appealing. I accept the judgement of the court.
Why has it been so difficult for tax payers to know how much senators earn?
Jesus Christ !! Has a minister told you how much he or she earns? Has a permanent secretary told you how much he or she earns? Has a judge told you how much he earns? Why is it that it is the National Assembly members that should make public what they earn? Anyway, details of what we earn are in the public domain. Our salaries are fixed by the federal institution in charge of wages. It is the same body that fixes salaries for everybody. It is known to the public. But if you are asking me about how much it costs me to run my office, it is a totally different issue. Have you ever asked a minister, a permanent secretary or judicial officer how much it costs them to run their offices? What I can tell you is that in the last five or six years, the budget of the National Assembly has remained at N150bn annually. That amount covers our capital; it covers recurrent, which includes salaries and allowances of the senators, members of the House of Representatives, the bureaucracy of the entire National Assembly from the Clerk down to the cleaner. It also covers the legislative aides of members of the National Assembly. It equally covers the National Assembly Service Commission and the National Assembly Institute for Legislative Studies. N150bn is a fraction of what the country spends on fuel subsidy. It is a fraction of what the nation spends on waivers being granted to businessmen and companies. N150bn is less than three per cent of the national budget. So, why are Nigerians fixated on three per cent of the budget and they are not looking at the 97 per cent? It’s amazing that three per cent is getting 97 per cent’s attention. That is what it means.
You are a SAN, which makes you an upholder of the law, can you tell us how much you earn as a senator?
This is my payment details (presents a document that shows a net payment of N619, 000 per month). My salaries are fixed by the Revenue Mobilisation, Wages and Fiscal Commission. That is the guideline for everybody.
How much is your constituency allowance?
There is nothing like constituency allowance. There is no such thing. It exists only in the imagination of the public.
Why has the senate been silent on an international embarrassment involving the Federal Government laundering money to South Africa?
What is there to talk about? There is nothing to talk about because it is a security issue. We should not discuss security issues just to grandstand.
There are some loopholes in the constitution which lawmakers have not thought about amending, is it because lawmakers want to be exploiting them?
The process of amendment is still on course.
For instance, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission will need the permission of the AGF to prosecute a lawmaker and also some lawyers have argued for and against Aminu Tambuwal stepping down after his defection.
The EFCC requires the consent of the Attorney-General in every case. It is not peculiar to the cases involving the lawmakers alone.
What has happened to the report of the National Conference?
The national conference was an initiative of Mr. President. He set up the conference and the report was submitted to him. It is left for Mr. President to determine what he does with the report.
Do you think that the state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states has been justified?
Let me put it back to you as a Nigerian. Are you satisfied with the security situation in the North-East? Then if you are not satisfied with the security situation there, then something has to be done. Let us not play politics with security.
Some people say that you have reduced the dividend of democracy and constituency projects to giving out generators, sewing machines and the likes, do you think that is the best that senators can do?
Constituency projects, to my understanding, are projects that are secured in the federal budget for your constituency. People out there erroneously think that legislators are given money to go and execute constituency projects. There is no such thing. You as a lawmaker lobby and get projects that would benefit your constituents, put into the budget. That is what is called constituency projects. Any project by the president from the ministry would definitely be in somebody’s constituency. They are called constituency projects because the initiative to get them into the budget is from the legislator. We also have social responsibility programmes. For instance, I have a scholarship scheme. I have a small and medium scale business initiative scheme, I have a computer training programme. Those ones are paid for from my pocket and I can determine how I want to spend my money. I can determine to buy hairdressing items for people, it is my decision; it is my money.
After initiating projects in the budget, how do you ensure that they are executed?
As lawmakers, we monitor the projects from the moment they are accommodated in the budget. The procurement and execution now shift to the executive arm. They will award the contract, they would supervise and execute. The lawmaker’s role is just to monitor and make sure that the project is completed.
But we heard of cases whereby the executive deliberately delayed project execution till the last quarter of the year only for them to approach lawmakers for negotiations on how the amount voted for the project could be shared without executing the project?
I am hearing this for the first time. But if journalists have this evidence, they will help the society by publishing it.
Do you think it is justified for the senate to approve the president’s $1bn request as a defence budget?
If I think that it is not justified, I wouldn’t have voted for it to be approved.
Do you think that the money would be effectively utilised for that purpose?
It is for the relevant committees of the National Assembly to ensure that.
How have lawmakers imparted on the people in carrying out their oversight functions?
We are doing our best but it could be better. Legislative work requires experience, so the issue of high turnover also impacts on oversight. If you have experienced legislators, they will oversight well because they have done it again and again. They know how to go about it. If he is a brand new lawmaker, it will take him years for him to get used to it. So that is part of the implication of high turnover.
Is the senate not bothered about the economy, the fall in Naira and crash in oil price?
That is purely economics. I don’t know anything about it.
Is the senate not bothered that we keep spending billions of naira annually on subsidy when we can have efficient refineries in the country?
First of all, I don’t believe in subsidy. That has always been my position.
Is the senate likely to approve the subsidy already put in the budget for next year?
I don’t know. I can’t say. But my position is that I don’t believe in it.
The senate has approved some amount of money to maintain our refineries but they are still not producing up to capacity, do you think such spending has been justified?
The relevant committees of the senate would have answers to that.
Why do some people say you’re arrogant even though you’re a SAN and a former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Human Rights?
That I am arrogant? Can you mention one person who had ever told you that? I won’t know. Why should I be arrogant? I am not the party type. I am not the type you will find in a crowd. If you say I am arrogant because you will not find me in a night club or in a party, then so be it. I once chaired the Media and Public Affairs committee. So if anybody should tell me whether I am arrogant, it should be the media because they worked with me. So they should tell me.
There was a report that you once slapped a security operative for asking you to identify yourself, do you think you acted in line with your position as a SAN?
Jesus Christ !!! I don’t recall ever slapping anybody since I was born. Young man, I have my don’ts.