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Senator Babajide Omoworare is secretary of All Progressives Congress Senate Caucus. He is a veteran legislator, who was in the Lagos State House of Assembly from 1999 to 2007 before winning the Osun East senatorial seat in 2011. In this interview with Gboyega Akinsanmi, Omoworare speaks on the national conference and other national issues. Excerpts:
Do you think the report of the Senate committee on constitution review is still necessary with the ongoing national conference?
The report of the committee is still necessary because the process of the constitution review is the business of the National Assembly and, to some extent, the Houses of Assembly. Do not forget section 9 of the 1999 Constitution provides that two-thirds majority vote is required for the amendment by the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is a corresponding resolution required from the state Houses of Assembly. When it comes to amendment to section 9 of the constitution, section 8, which deals with creation of states and local governments and Chapter IV, which deals with fundamental human rights, four-fifth of the National Assembly is required and majority support from the state Houses of Assembly. If it is still necessary, the national conference is one of the debacles we have to carry in Nigeria. A lot of us have requested for sovereign national conference with the attendant result that the constitution will actually read “We, the People of Nigeria.” But with due respect, Mr. President has a lot of advisers, who do not advise him well.
But some people have argued that President Goodluck Jonathan has the power to convene the national conference without recourse to the National Assembly. How would you react to this?
As a parliamentarian who has contested in different political offices since 1999 and won, I know separation of power does not mean the president should not collaborate with the National Assembly. I am of the view that what Mr. President should have done is to make majority members of the National Assembly to buy into the idea of national conference and not make it appear as if there was a hidden agenda. My experience is that people will resist. Even if they keep quiet, there will be quiet resistance. If people think there is a hidden agenda, I think Mr. President should have approached the National Assembly, get the buy-in and bring a bill to authorise the national conference. I have heard people say it is inherent in Mr. President to convene national conference. Inherent? What is inherent? Inherent where? I have not seen anywhere that is inherent. Just like Mr. President did not bring the expulsion of Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, which he called suspension, before the National Assembly, he did not bring the idea of national conference. Democracy is supposed to be open. Mr. President knows what to do. I know Mr. President approached the parliament when there was need to remove a member of the Federal Character Commission. It requires two-third support of the National Assembly. Based on good reasons, the two-third was given to him. It is wrong to run government militarily. This is a military hangover. A lot of people around must have had their orientation under the military regimes and must have advised that the executive president has the power of life and death. Sincerely, the president does not possess such power.
Is there any bill before the National Assembly seeking to legitimise the national conference and, perhaps, also its outcome?
To be candid, I am not aware of such a bill. What I am aware of is that the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, moved in the Senate to further amend the 1999 Constitution. You know it is an ongoing process. One of the clauses is to enable the National Assembly to initiate the process of introducing a new constitution. So, there was this move to add “Or the President”. At the second reading, it was obvious that the clause was unpopular and the same was withdrawn. As I am speaking to you, we have not voted on it. The day we are supposed to vote on it, we were about two-thirds present, which means almost all clauses will not pass. So, I think in good faith, the senate president intimated that voting should be postponed. But that particular provision has been withdrawn. From the grapevine, that was not the initial position. The initial position was to an amendment to the 1999 Constitution that empowers Mr. President to introduce a new constitution based on the report of the national conference.
Why are we wasting our time going through this process? It is like we are putting the cart before the horse. Even if there is referendum at the end of the day, it is a law principle that if you put something on nothing, it will not stand. A body is sitting at the moment; money is being expended; the budget has not been approved; and the body has been working without the legitimate authority of the institution that is saddled with that responsibility. This institution comprises people that were duly elected, though there may be some members who have issues pending in tribunals challenging their elections. At least, majority in the National Assembly does not have issues challenging their elections. It is safe to conclude that the lawmakers are the people chosen by Nigerians. They will really be delegating some of their powers since sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria. If the presidency had brought a bill to amend the constitution or a bill to legalise the sitting of the national conference, we would have saved ourselves all these controversies.
In the absence of any law specifically authorising and legitimising the sitting of the national conference, what will become of the conference’s outcome?
Actually, I do not know. I cannot speak on behalf of the Senate. I am not the Senate President. I am not the Chairman of Senate Committee on Information. I can only express my views. It is like we are groping in the dark. By the grace of God, that is still the National Assembly of Nigeria. We must respect that institution. Mr. President must not see such institution as an adversary or opponent. Do not forget that Mr. President did not even deliver the budget speech. The precedent we had was that of President Umaru Yar’Adua of blessed memory. He was ill at the time. But I believe the president has some challenges to do with confidence when it comes to the parliament. I think that is wrong.
A president looks forward to meeting with the representatives of the people. In fact, the State of the Nation address should have been done voluntarily. It does not require a law. It does not require an act. It is what the president should do out of custom because there are provisions already in the constitution that enables the president address the parliament if he thinks it is important. So, the president may inform our leadership that once or twice a year, he wants to come and address the parliaments on burning issues so that we can form an agenda together. If there is a transformation agenda, I do not know anything about it. For me, it is the PDP agenda. It is not an APC agenda. It is not an agenda of Nigeria. The president can only make it the agenda of Nigeria by bringing it before us and telling us what he intends us to accomplish within four years based on the factors that exist in the country today. In that light, he needs to tell us what he intends to do to tackle unemployment, fight corruption, address insecurity, solve epileptic power supply, bring down fuel to N40, revive all refineries, address and build a lot more. These are things that are discussed generally at the State of Nation address. For the rest of the time he has to spend in office, we must embolden him. Do not forget that the forum is not about questions and answers alone. After he might have left, the parliament will fix a date for robust deliberation on the president’s speech. It will be a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate on what the president has done. We then send our resolution to the president on our perspective.
It appears the Senate is no longer ready to pursue the fuel subsidy probe because no one is talking about it after you moved a motion seeking the removal of subsidy on kerosene. Is that the end of the probe?
I do not think so because in the wisdom of the Senate, our amended resolution was that since the Senate Committee on Finance was still having a look at the issue of subsidy globally and the issue of fund remittances from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to the Central Bank of Nigeria, the committee has been asked to make special findings on the issue of kerosene subsidy. The issue of famous $49.8 billion has not been resolved. We do not know whether it is $10 billion or $20 billion. The committee is working on it. But my own prayer is that after all the essence of paying the subsidy is to reduce the pump price of kerosene to N50 per litre and when we took a study, kerosene is sold at N120 on the average, from Sokoto to Yenagoa and Lagos to Maiduguri. We demanded explanation why people are still being paid trillions of naira when the products are not available. When it comes to kerosene, we have removed the subsidy. Our calculation is that it will not be more than N120 in any event. Perhaps, when a serious government gets to the office, it will now remove it to alleviate the suffering of the people. We are still awaiting the report of that committee. It will be debated, and my further view is that we need to address the issue of corruption in Nigeria and we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
Refinery licenses were issued to some companies towards the end of the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration and not much is currently being done to build the refineries. Why has the National Assembly not intervened in this area?
Those licenses were just issued for the sake of issuing the licenses. The only serious effort I have seen so far is the one Dangote is working towards. This will cost a lot of money. Yes, we need the Dangotes of this world to mop up people from the labour market and to do what they are doing. Sincerely, they are relevant to the economy. Again, we need a lot of small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) to also do their own beat. When it comes to oil sector, we need smaller investors. It is not going to fall within the SMEs, but smaller investors that can build modular refineries that can cater for Osun State, for instance. Such refineries can cater for just Apapa and Victoria Island alone. But we need to look at the economy. Why are people still importing? When Dangote finishes his refineries, the federal government will stop fuel importation like what we see in rice and cement. It will now give monopoly to one man. So, these are the issues we need to resolve in Nigeria. We are of the view that petroleum products should be refined in Nigeria with a view to reducing the pump price..