Chairman of the Senate Committee on National Identity and National Population, Sen. Kabiru Marafa, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, backs former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s call for transparency in the National Assembly
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently wrote a letter to Senate President Bukola Saraki, accusing the National Assembly of corruption. Do you agree with him?
Did he say the 8th Senate?
He said the National Assembly…
I remember, I saw the excerpts of the letter and he was talking about laying bare the budgets of 2000, 2005 and 2015. He was not particular about the 8th Senate, I think.
According to Obasanjo, the National Assembly illegally augmented salaries and allowances above the approved template of the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission. Is this true?
I have not seen the letter written by Obasanjo, I only read it on the pages of newspapers. I learnt it was addressed to the Senate President and the Speaker (of the House of Representatives), and the Senate President did not read it on the floor of the Senate and he didn’t make it obtainable to all senators. I cannot really comment on the content; I don’t like speculation. But, I saw the response of the Senate President and he said very soon he would reply the former President. Part of what I read is that he wants the National Assembly to lay bare its budget and I think that is a genuine call. The Senate President equally agreed with the former President that we would take steps to do that in the near future.
Many Nigerians are curious as to why the National Assembly does not reveal the details of its budget. Why is it so?
I am not in the leadership, I cannot say why it is not so. But I am one of the people that believe that the National Assembly should make its budget detailed. Like I told you, the response of the Senate President seems to agree with that. This is a new government, whose purpose of existence is change — and a positive change for that matter. With the introduction of the Treasury Single Account and the introduction of the zero-based budgeting system, I think, like I always say, the National Assembly should lead by example. I believe in the call, if that is the call; I believe that is a voice of reason and the National Assembly should do the needful to make the budget available to all Nigerians to see what it is all about.
How then do you justify the N120bn to N150bn budgeted annually for the National Assembly?
That is one aspect on which I agree with Obasanjo about this budget. Sharing money should not be the basis of the performance of legislators. Maybe the less they earn the better, I don’t know. But, I think whatever he is saying is right and I support him that the National Assembly should lay bare their budget. Let everybody know what we have and what we are doing because the tragedy is that people will just look at our budget — this year, I think it is N115bn — and someone will just pick his calculator to say ‘109 senators and 360 House of Representatives members,’ punch in N115bn (divided) by these numbers and say this number of senators is getting this or that. I think that is wrong — absolutely wrong! The National Assembly is an institution; each senator and each member of the House of Representatives is entitled to about five aides, which is even too small if you are to function very well. You are expected to touch every aspect of the country. A senator or House of Representatives member is expected to be an engineer, a nurse, a doctor, everything! How many people have two or three degrees? You need to rely on some people to do some work for you; to find out some things for you, if you are to function properly. If you multiply these five aides by 109 and 360, how many people are there that they pay salaries?
Then, we have sergeant-at-arms; we have verbatim reporters, clinics, the National Institute of Legislative Studies, the Public Complaints Commission; all these are part of the National Assembly and they are being paid from those salaries. I am not defending the National Assembly but I want Nigerians to be informed so that they can ask questions like what Obasanjo asked. I think it is a step in the right direction. Bring out your budget, lay bare your budget; let us do what is the in-thing today, that is, the zero-based budgeting system. I support the zero-based budgeting system 100 per cent. Let us also key into it, so that everybody will see: Senator Marafa — this amount; senior legislative aide to Marafa is taking so-and-so amount; and the same goes for whatever I take to do my oversight work. I think the zero-based budgeting system is one of the most laudable things this administration came with and every Nigerian should support it because you can see at a glance where the problem lies and where it does not lie. The moment you look at it, you see it.
In the past, you see where a non-governmental organisation would be given about N10bn and they would just say ‘X billion naira for salary’ and you don’t know whose salary this is. Then, you have ghost workers. But with the zero-based budgeting system, you would have to come up with names. ‘I have Mr. A, he is the general manager of so-and-so place and this is his salary, all the way down to the messenger and this is the total for salaries.’ Anybody doing oversight can easily check and see who these people are. You can come and say ‘You said you have X, B, C and Y staff. Where are they? I want to see them.’ Like I said, the zero-based budgeting system is a good thing and everybody should be on board to key into it. It is very important when you compare it to what we used to have in the former envelope system. The envelope system was just an avenue to waste all of Nigeria’s money because when you need N1,000 and you are given N500, what do you do? You just end up spending it on something useless.
Is it ideal to budget N4.7bn for cars, with the economic situation that the country is facing?
(Cuts in) I have already spoken my mind on the issue of cars. I said I don’t think it is the right thing to do. We should abandon it. That is my opinion and I stand by it.
But is the National Assembly doing enough on austerity measures?
I think this is the problem with Nigerians; we tend to just say things without properly looking at the implications of everything. If you want me to function, you have to equip me very well. It is just like what we are saying about the military now: You want to send them to Sambisa (Forest); you want them to fight and you talk of austerity measures. You say you cannot buy this type of gun or that type of armoured car or that type of jet fighter and you want them to fight. You cannot have your cake and eat it. If you want the legislature to work properly, you have to equip it very well; know what you are supposed to give it and what you are supposed to deny it. I went for a course in the International Law Institute in Washington DC and one of the resource persons — a senator of about 36 years who had finished his service and was delivering lectures — told us that the chairman of the defence (committee) is entitled to 12-24 aides and eight of them are entitled to consultants of PhD level. You know the US is involved in so many military operations all over the world, and as the chairman of that committee the two of them are the ones that oversee everything the military does everywhere. For you to carry out your job properly, don’t forget that the parliament is the holder of the money; they (the lawmakers) are the ones that control the money. You will need to be well informed. You cannot do the job alone, for God’s sake!
If you look at the presidency now, Mr. President is entitled to many ministers, special advisers and so on. It is because he oversees the whole country. You cannot say because there are austerity measures, he has to now do away with two ministers or three advisers and so on. Our problem in Nigeria, honestly speaking, is not about the budgetary sums, it is the corruption that is done outside the budgetary amount; that is what Nigerians should pay attention to; that is where the problem is. It is not what you take legally. If they say ‘Pay him N10m,’ it is not the N10m that is the problem; maybe you will find out that N1bn is being misappropriated somewhere. We should pay attention to where the leakages are, not what civil servants or public servants take. What we see is not the problem. If Nigeria says ‘They should have one or two aides each,’ then, so be it. They will see the result in their performance. I think we should be bold to say that this is what we have — I am entitled to five aides and they are at different grade levels, from typist to senior legislative aide that can be an officer up to level 16. These are the people that help me to do a lot of work.
You, the press, have a lot of work to do because part of the problem is that the Nigerian public doesn’t even know the work of the legislature. It is always reduced to plenary; what is shown on the television on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. What you see in the plenary doesn’t represent (up to) 25 per cent of the work of the legislators. The bulk of the work is at committee levels — oversight, investigations, public hearings, so many things that people don’t see. But I have seen so many times when somebody would just look at the television and say if he doesn’t see so-and-so person sitting, he would say they are absent, whereas they may be doing something else somewhere.
Considering the controversy that surrounded the leadership of the 8th National Assembly, do you think the jostle for power is a justification of Obasanjo’s claims?
I don’t know but I think they are two different things when you are talking of power and budget. The jostle for power came and it ended almost immediately after the elections. What you saw recurring initially in the Senate is the constant abuse of the laws of the Senate and the laws of the country. I think, maybe, that is what you are mistaking for the jostle for power.
But there are senators and members of the House of Representatives who have been occupying seats since 1999. Shouldn’t younger people be allowed to occupy those seats?
If you look at where we borrowed this system from, like America, you have senators that have spent over 40 years occupying seats. You have members of the Congress that are occupying seats for over 40 years. The longer you stay the better. The only thing you should query is their performance and how they win elections. If they win elections freely and fairly, I don’t think there is any cause for alarm.
As our democracy takes its root, you will find out that the people that frequently change their legislators will be at the receiving end because one of the things you talked about now, which is the constant fight or jostle for power, is likely because the rules of the Senate are constantly abused. If you remember, what we said right from the beginning was that the Standing Rules were forged to pave way for the emergence of the present-day (Senate) leadership. Following that, there was an abuse in some of the rules of the Senate, which gives precedence to this issue of experience.
Seniority is an inherent thing in the legislature anywhere you go anywhere in the world —a second-timer is ahead of a first-timer; a third-timer is ahead of a second-timer — to the extent that in the United States, a new senator that comes to see a senator that is serving his 10th term — that is, in his 40th year — will not be attended to so easily. He (the new senator) will have to book an appointment. Granted, he is a colleague of the older senator, but he would have to make an appointment to see him. You don’t expect a first-timer, for instance, to be met by the Senate President, for example. The National Assembly is an institution but it is so large that you would need to know your way around it. Besides, the makers of our Constitution were not fools. They knew what they were doing when they limited the Executive arm to two terms of four years each and they didn’t put a limit on the legislature because in the legislature, you are supposed to be nurtured to mature in it to know every nook and cranny and how to go about your responsibilities.
Are you saying experienced lawmakers are better than young, new ones?
Part of what we are fighting today is the jettisoning of this issue of seniority to the advantage of newcomers, which is putting the entire Senate upside down. The issue of giving (a new set of) people the chance to (into the Assembly) come does not arise. What we should be talking about is free and fair elections. Now, if the people feel that Senator A or so-and-so member of the House of Representatives should represent them over and over again, I think that is their prerogative and they stand to benefit more. I will give you another example: let us take, for instance, Benue-South Constituency that had the Senate President. Assuming they (the constituency) bring in a new person, can that person come to become Senate President? Would you say that a constituency that has one of their own as the Senate President would not be prouder than having an ordinary senator, or maybe someone that chairs the Committee on Defence and Army or the Committee on Appropriation or the Committee on Foreign Affairs, for instance? You cannot bring in a new senator, unless there is a high rate of this attrition we are suffering now.
If there is no old senator, then there is nothing you can do. You have to make do with what you have. But you will find out that even in the international arena, you would not be respected. If, for instance, you have a first-timer as chairman of a very big and important committee and he goes on an international assignment and he meets with his foreign counterparts. If you meet a senator from the United States, the first question he will ask you is for how long have you been in the Senate? And if you tell him that it is your first time, he will just tell you, ‘Okay, I am coming.’ The next thing will be for him to send his personal assistant to attend to you because he won’t have time for you, since you wouldn’t even know anything.
In essence, I don’t think this issue of giving some people the chance to come is the right question. What we should be asking is proper voter education and free and fair elections. If the people know what they are doing and they voted the right person, I think it is to their own advantage to maintain a good person. But if the person is not performing for whatever reason, he should be removed. That is why there is election. We don’t say you are elected once for 40 years. It is not all people that are tested; some people come in the political arena as new names; nobody knows their pedigree and there are no parameters to check their performance, experience or depth. When you (new lawmakers) come on board, people will look at you, what you have done, how much you have impacted on the lives of your constituents and the nation in general, then they see whether you measure up.