Nigeria as many political analysts have blamed nearly every problem Nigeria faces on its unitary system of government handed down by the military. In this chat, a lawyer and ranking member of the House of Representatives, Hon. Uzoma Abonta x-rays the contradiction in Nigeria’s federalism in this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI
The NLC and TUC recently called for a strike action over the increase in fuel price and electricity tariff but called it off at the last minute. What is your reaction to the aborted strike?
I think God loves Nigeria. The strike would have caused us a lot of pains, injuries and loss of economic activities. Nigeria is at the brink of economic collapse and if we push it further it could get into a recession or depression or whatever the economists call it. I think we should seek realistic political and economic solutions rather than embarking on strike. The effect of COVID-19 on the economy is already enormous, we cannot say it all and adding another self-imposed sit at home, another self-imposed quarantine, strike or whatever you want to call it, may not be too healthy for us. I am not saying they have no justifications to embark on strike.
I am not saying they are not pained enough to go on strike, but I think we can look for a middle course, we can look for a soft landing because strike at this present time that we are struggling to breath because of COVID-19 and bad governance, will not help us.
Therefore, I want to also plead with the labour unions to sheath their swords. Their grievances are right, their annoyance is right but they should not because of anger, about some confused persons who are at the helm of affairs in Nigeria, throw the nation into darkness. They should be pathfinders, they should be directing the masses on where to go so that we get out of the quagmire we have found ourselves because of mal-administration.
The PDP tried to implement this same deregulation policy and removal of subsidy in 2012 but the then opposition, APC frustrated it. Why are you people in PDP not paying them back in their own coins?
Well, we do credible opposition. I am not among those that do what I call legislative rascality or even executive rascality. Now that they have come to do deregulation and increase the pump price of fuel, I can only tell those that participated in Occupy Nigeria Rally to look for a way and apologise to President Goodluck Jonathan. They should all bury their heads in shame.
They used opposition then to spoil a government that had good intentions and was forward looking. We can’t behave as them, and we can’t be as mad and as rascally as they were in Lagos occupying Nigeria on 2012. Where are they now? Shame unto them. We cannot now mobilise to Occupy Nigeria because deregulation and subsidy removal are the only things that can put us on a sound footing as a country. But before then, certain things must be put on ground.
So we cannot say because we are opposition now, we will condemn sound economic principles. So we cannot say because we are opposition then we will look at certain policies that would be useful to us and we say that it is not right.
We can only say do it in a right manner, at the proper time, with the proper setting, taking into consideration the totality of all. You cannot just do one thing without considering others. It is like somebody who is suffering from appendicitis for example and you are giving that person just Panadol.
No. You must be able to carry out an operation and you give your patient some painkillers to kill the pain of the surgery. Nobody will do a major operation without killing the pains. Have they now killed the pains? No! Where are the El-rufai taxis and buses? Where are the railways? Are they working.? You must do certain things to kill the pains of the operation. They just wheeled Nigeria into the theatre and cut us into two, with not even Panadol and that is why Nigerians are in pains.
So we are saying that the government in power should look at those things that would cushion the effects that would kill the pains arising from their actions. It is insensitivity. During the COVID-19 we came out including the House to say give the people free light, don’t even charge them at all. Is COVID-9 over now?
Why are you increasing the electricity tariff? That is policy summersault and that shows that they are confused. It also shows that they are not stable and that they don’t plan before they make pronouncements. We agreed here that government should prevail on providers of certain basic social services such as telecommunications and pay television, not to charge for now until were are out of COVID-19. In other climes, the government even paid certain percentage of rent for tenants so that citizens do not suffer.
They subsidized all these things. I am saying that as opposition, the time is not ripe for this increase in the prices of these services. To do it now is like you don’t care about the sufferings of the people. We are not yet out of the COVID-19. There is no palliative and now you hike up everything? If they had agreed when Jonathan scrapped subsidy in 2012, by now the pains would have gone and we would have been reaping the benefits.
So opposition does not mean spoiling things, it means putting them to notice to do good. That is the kind of opposition we in the PDP are doing and we will continue to do so. We are credible. Nigerians have now known the intentions of Jonathan and that he meant well by doing what he did in 2012. The reality has dawned on everybody including those who opposed him at that time.
It has become obvious that APC lied to Nigerians about fuel subsidy as they have confirmed that huge sums of money has gone into it since they came to power. Would you push for a probe into their running of a secret subsidy regime?
I wouldn’t use the word “lied” but I cannot find a budgetary provision for subsidy in the last five years. Now that they have come up with huge figures of what they were paying through the back door while telling Nigerians that there was nothing like subsidy, I think Nigerians can now see the difference. In the legislative parlance, it is extra budgetary expenditures. They have been running foul of the Appropriation Act by spending money not approved by the National Assembly. Now we are witnessing the most opaque oil subsidy regime we have ever seen in Nigeria.
The amount they claim to have used in subsidy in this regime surpasses over and above what the previous regime used on subsidy, yet you said there was no subsidy. I don’t want to say they lied. Do you know whether it was borrowed fund or grants that they used in running the subsidy?
We have borrowed so much now that we don’t even know what we are owing. It could also be a borrowed fund or dashed fund or a grant but I cannot find that amount of money in the budgetary provisions for these years. So, how did they get it? They should give us some explanations. I will begin from the house, by asking the government to tell us where they got money to do this subsidy. It is then we will know whether they lied or not.
Nigeria recently celebrated 60 years of independence but some Nigerians have expressed a lot of frustration about the country and want the union dissolved. Is there really anything to celebrate?
I have always said and believe that as Nigerians, we can use our big size, and diversity to grow for the benefit of all. But from what I read some of us are saying that the 60 year old marriage don try, make them divorce. Some say their pikin don suppose grow by now.
Others are saying we don’t even have pikin, we are still crawling and at 60. You are crawling because Nigeria is overloaded. At 60 nothing to celebrate because of our structure and we need to restructure if we must move. At 60 we need to see a visible thing that can impress us. At 60, we are battling with insecurity. At 60, we are battling with economic problems. At 60, we are battling with extreme hunger. At 60, Nigeria is still listed as one of the poorest countries. At 60, what can we say we have achieved as a country? Is it good water? Is it good road? Is it electricity?
At 60, we lack all the necessary things that we need to live like decent citizens of a country. We are told life starts at 40 and life expectancy in Nigeria is now pegged at 60. So, if you look at life expectancy index, Nigeria has almost outlived its life expectancy going by the Nigerian or African standard.
We are called Federal Government of Nigeria, but for many years we have been running a unitary system of government. The centre is overloaded and that is why the vehicle called Nigeria can’t move. You can’t take a small car like a Toyota and give it a load that a trailer will carry, it won’t move. So that is the problem of Nigeria.
The way Nigeria is structured presently it is difficult for us to move forward. Therefore at 60 we should go back to the drawing table and restructure Nigeria. I challenge you to look at these facts dispassionately.
Now, look at Nigeria 60 years ago and look at the economic advancement, in terms of GDP then and now. You will see that we were marching forward at some point and started marching backward many years ago. I will illustrate. In 1983, somebody that was being paid N500 was actually earning $500 at that time and it was a big money. Now, that person that was earning N500 in 1983 lived well. In 1982, a brand new Peugeot 504 (PAN) with insurance was N6,500 and they will give you one year service free. Today, N6,500 cannot fill the fuel tank of a vehicle. Can you see where we are getting to?
In 1982, if you are found with N7,000 they will call the police for you, but today, a school boy will hold N7,000 and nobody will think anything happened. So how did we get here? Where and how do we get out of here? So at 60, all we should do is gather together our best brains from across the land to go back to the drawing board. There is nothing to celebrate. It calls for a solemn gathering and a call for fasting and prayer. We should go to the Eagle Square, call all the pastors and bishops and Imams to pray for Nigeria for a change.
We need to look for how to shed the excess load we are carrying. Nigeria is overloaded at the centre and that is why without the monthly FAC (Federal Allocation Committee) meeting, some states cannot work. They need the FAC to be able to pay salaries. If we want to see positive changes, we must do positive things. We must decongest Nigeria so that every components of the federation, can practise true federalism or what some call fiscal federalism, where you can grow at your pace, limit and timing. If you go to United States, what obtains in New York it is not the same with what obtains in Texas, or Maryland or Chicago. Every state is running according to its own ability and resources. So we must review all these things for Nigeria to move on.
As of now we are not even moving; we are not even stagnant; we are rolling back down the hill and we need a wedge to hold the vehicle from crashing. We need to stop the vehicle for a while and then remove the excess load so that can take off again. If we don’t wedge it quickly and do the needful, it will roll back, crash into a ditch and scatter.
Everybody is saying restruc- ture, but nobody has gotten the will to restructure. We need to restructure because what we have now cannot take us far. Why have we not getting things right even after several amendments have been made to our constitution? I was speaking somewhere and I told them that this constitution have suffered several alterations because it is not homegrown and because it was not made by the people, for the people.
If you open the constitution, it says “we the people of Nigeria… Was I a military man then? So how can it be we the people of Nigeria? It was made by the military junta, the supreme military council forced it on us, it is not our constitution. Upon returning to democracy in 1999, all we should have done was to subject that constitution to a healthy plebiscite and any section that does not fly should have been deleted.
Every session we come, we do alterations; we have done first, second, third, fourth, going to the fifth alteration. So we have multiple pieces of the constitution here and there we must be able to put them together. So why not subject the whole thing to a plebiscite, any one that does not meet the standard remains out of it?
That is a very clean way to do it and then we can now say we the people of Nigeria have done this by us and for us, otherwise this one was done by about 12 members of supreme military council and some lawyers whom they recruited to do the job for them. There have been several reports of political reforms and national conferences with good recommendations that could help this country. Where are the reports? Is there anything we can pick from them? We need a collective Nigeria. We need a total Nigeria. We need a united Nigeria. Our diversity is our strength if we manage it well. I am looking forward to when we are going to have a united Nigeria, where we would be strong enough to do business so that we can now be the real giant of Africa.
Is there any way the National Assembly can adopt this plebiscite method that you talked about on this current constitution review?
Well, what we are also doing, as prescribed by this constitution is a kind of plebiscite but on representative capacity. Whatever we do is being sent to the states for the state houses of assembly to also vote; so it is an indirect plebiscite we are doing but in piece meal. We pick only sections canvassed by us, debated by us, collected by us, approved by National Assembly and then sent down to states for their inputs, which comes through their votes. We are representatives of the people, the state houses of assembly are also representatives of the people but we know how independent they are with their governors and that is why when they asked for local government autonomy and legislative autonomy, it failed. Could that be the wish of the people?
No, it was the wish of the governors then. Therefore, what I am saying that we should be more pragmatic and realistic for the constitutional alteration to be meaningful and realistic. There are a whole lot of sections that have either outlived their usefulness that should be amended or otherwise.
What is the controversy about the Water Resources Bill in the National Assembly?
For me, the controversy about Water Resources Bill is that we don’t have jurisdiction to talk about that bill. We don’t have the powers to discuss that bill, it is ultra vires because the content is not in the exclusive legislative list. Go to the constitution, look at Sections 63, 64 of the Exclusive List, you will see the restrictions put there. The Land Use Act is an existing law, tied to the constitution where lands are domiciled in the state.
This Water Resources Bill is now saying river bank, your bore hole, your reservoir, the one in your pot of soup, the one in your fridge, that all belong to the Federal Government of Nigeria. If we pass such a bill, it means that we won’t even scrawl, we will all be sitting in one place waiting for the centre to do everything for us. We are trying to decongest the Exclusive List and you are now bringing more things to the Exclusive List.
When the Federal Government will now begin to superintend over the use of water in my village, in your village and in everywhere, can’t you see that it would be cumbersome? It would amount to Nigeria being overloaded the more. I am saying that we should not even try it because it will amount to amending the constitution using a law.
They should allow us to bring out the Land Use Act from the Constitution, amend it before we can talk about whether Water Resources Bill can come or not. The water bill offends constitutional provisions, it offends our sensibility, it offends the federal character; federal character which presupposes that the component units of the federation will have some bit of autonomy. You are saying the river, the waterfronts and the water banks will be administered by the federal government.
So there is everything wrong with Water Resources Bill and the House must follow our rules in bringing up the bill for consideration. The Supreme Court has said it severally that where there is a prescribed rule, if you do not follow that rule, any decision reached is a nullity; you will have to begin the journey again. I contend strongly that the rule was not followed when the House purportedly passed that bill and we have used legislative mechanism to also correct what I deemed legislative mistakes or error.
Given the kind of passion with which the government of the day is driving this bill, what if it is brought back and they use their numbers and so called rubber stamp leadership to pass it?
If you are talking about numbers, the APC may have the numbers but I want to also believe that if we are looking at legislation, law making, party sentiments are not and should not be the sole consideration. Let me also ask you, the man holding the “rubber stamp” is his state not bordered by water? So will he stamp his death warrant? Is APC not in the north?
Don’t they have water? We are saying good laws for the people and it is not about numbers and I am not talking of what we are going to do, I am talking about breach in the constitution.
Can we through an Act being proposed in the House amend the constitution? The answer is no. So is the Water Resources Bill not offensive to the constitution? Yes, it is. Does the water bill not contradict the Land Use Act? Yes, it does. Water is life, we are told. Land, we are also told in elementary economics, is the first factor of production and now y
ou are saying water in the land, water in the sea, water by the sea bank, water by the shore, water everywhere belongs to the federal government. We are saying this in sympathy to the Federal Fovernment, Federal Government you are carrying too much load, we want to help you to take away your load so that you can run, or at least move. We are not saying it because we don’t like those who brought the bill, we are saying it because the bill offends our constitution, the bill offends the existing laws, the bill will put too much load on the Federal Government, we want the federal government to move, we want to lighten their load.
The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is back to the National Assembly for the fifth time. Why do you think it has taken so long to pass this legislation?
A: I came to parliament in 2008 and I met the PIB and I am doing 16years now and PIB is still with us.
Yet, we are still talking about pump price, deregulation, this and that. Why are we treating symptoms of our sickness when we know the real sickness? Why are we treating symptoms of our sickness when we have diagnosed and known the main problem worrying us? If we had done PIB at the time it was first conceived, we won’t be worrying about pump price of petrol today, it would have been in the past. Let me use this opportunity to plead with the Federal Government to take the issue of PIB seriously. I once said they should treat it as a project, complete it on time so that Nigeria may move forward. Look at other climes, the Arabs, what have they done with the oil industry?
Why is our own different? Look at how they have unbundled their oil sector, why is our own different? So I plead with them that enough is enough of this joke. If they don’t want to liberalise the petroleum sector and encourage investments, they should tell us so that we don’t keep wasting our time. You don’t give people hope when you know you don’t mean business.
My fear is that the oil sector is dwindling; it is almost going, so the PIB is even late. It will be of no use if the oil trend continues the way it is going and with the scientific inventions and daily discovery of alternative energy. Are we going to drink the oil? We should turn our attention to the serious scientific developments around the world because people are now talking about electric cars.
We should make hay while the sun shines. If I were the government, PIB should be achieved in the next six months and let’s see how we can manage the oil sector better. This sluggish and piecemeal approach may not be good for us at the end of the day. I want to challenge my colleagues that we should draft a proper PIB if the one from the executive does not satisfy the yearnings and aspirations of our peopl