By OMONIYI SALAUDEEN
Since he beat a tactical withdrawal out of the political scene after his last gubernatorial ambition in his Katsina home state, literally nothing has been heard of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Bello Masari. He kept sealed lip on so many national issues. The reason for his attitude is still a matter of conjecture. But now that many concerned Nigerians are fretting over the danger of gradual erosion of national cohesion, he broke his silence. Calmly and with philosophical fortitude, he dismissed some raging controversies heating up the polity as unnecessary in this interview.
What is your take on the controversial issue of onshore/off shore dichotomy?
I have made my position very clear on this. There shouldn’t be any controversy over the issue of onshore/off shore dichotomy. There was an act that was passed by the last National Assembly. And of course, the act is not sacrosanct. So, anybody who is not comfortable with any act passed by the National Assembly can propose an amendment by way of private members’ bill. To me, it is not controversial.
When you look into the history of onshore/off shore dichotomy, it was first introduced in the House between 1999 and 2003. Because of the controversial nature of the bill and the fact that it involves a lot of money, those littoral states were asking for 500 nautical miles and the President then proposed something far less. For so many reasons, the bill didn’t scale through. It was later reintroduced by the presidency after the consensus of all stakeholders to adopt political solution to the problem.
If you could remember then, the late attorney General of the federation went to the Supreme Court over the matter. And when he was asked by the media, he said whatever was the decision of the Supreme Court, the issue would require political solution. So, there was this political solution of taking 200 nautical miles from the continental shelf, instead of 500 nautical miles with the view that the controversy would become a thing of the past as exploration and exploitation of oil go further deep into the sea in the course of time. For so many reasons, most of the oil companies are going off shore. You will also recall that there was a decision of the Supreme Court on the matter.
By then, the Governors’ Forum or anybody challenging the decision of the court would have gone to court. But they didn’t. In any case, if the governors have suddenly realized the need for a review, they are entitled to ask for a review. Anybody who feels he is not comfortable with what is on ground today has the right to submit an amendment. For me, there is no controversy.
The only controversy is that some people are trying to play to the gallery as if they are promoting something that other people are not promoting or fail to promote. Anybody can promote a private members’ bill seeking for a review of the act. So, I don’t know why people are trying to achieve cheap political score. You know, whenever there is an issue, it touches on money, religion, regional politics. And some people like to play to the gallery. I am not part of that.
Despite all attempts made to review the constitution, there has always been an incessant agitation for restructuring of the Nigerian polity. Do you see the need to restructure the present federal system?
Amendment of the constitution shouldn’t be a ceremonial issue. It is purely a legislative matter. When we came in, we inherited a constitution from the military. So, there was the need and agitation to amend the constitution. But after the initial amendment, all other amendments should be treated like any other act of the National Assembly. I think we should move away from making ceremony out of the issue which makes it look as if amending the constitution is a project.
Constitution amendment should be a continuous exercise. It should be a normal function of the National Assembly. So, the more you make it a ceremonial issue, the more you make some issues to be attended to controversial and sensational. In the end, a lot of resources will be spent and the outcome may be very little. Despite the huge amount expended between 2003 and 2007, our exercise ended up with nothing because of selfish issues that were introduced into it. There may be some need to amend some aspects of the constitution, but we shouldn’t make ceremony of it. We should make it as normal legislative activities of the National Assembly.
What about the second leg of the question regarding the agitation for restructuring of Nigeria?
It depends on what you mean by restructuring and what you intend to achieve by that. I think for me, it is really high time we ran away from unification aspect that was introduced into the running of the affairs of the country as if we are under a military government. If we are running a federation, I think we should run a federation. What is of necessity in Borno, for instance, may not be the same in Lagos or Akwa Ibom State.
For example, under the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission, a salary structure was fixed for councilors, Chairmen of local government, state and National Assembly members and parastatals. I think they should limit themselves to the presidency because a councilor in my ward should not be earning the same thing like a councilor in some parts of Port Harcourt where revenue of a local government is even more than my state revenue.
This is a simple area where the state government should determine the salaries and allowances of political office holders. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to fix a uniform salary. Basically, you determine salaries on the basis of income. Such uniformity cannot work in a federation because there is divergence of culture, tradition and income.
Another example is a situation where the Federal Government passed a uniform policy on education saying that the minimum teaching qualification in primary school should be NCE. And they want this to be done in Lagos and my local government. We have a target to reach the university level but let us as a state come up with policies that would lead our children to achieve that.
If you insist on NCE as the minimum teaching qualification, how many NCE graduates do you find in my local government? At another time, they passed a national health policy and they want it to be implemented by all the states. Why? States should be allowed to fashion out policies based on the peculiarity of their needs and within the limit of their resources. Agreed, the Federal Ministry of Education can set standard on education. But it should be left to the state to formulate policies that will lead to the attainment of those standards.
Today, you cannot go to the university unless you pass WAEC. Even after JAMB, you still have to pass post UME before you are admitted into the university. It is the responsibility of the states to produce students that will qualify for admission. It is not for the federal government to come up with a national policy on education and then say NCE should not teach in primary school. Where are the NCE graduates? Even if they are there, how much are the states getting to pay. Instead of allowing the states to fix salaries commensurate with their revenue, they are passing a uniform policy. All this uniformity is part of what is creating the problem.
My governor should not behave like governor of Bayelsa. He should not behave like governor of Rivers. He cannot behave like governor of Lagos because their income is different. But what do you have today? The governors are competing over the issue of who has the best of fleet and who is the most well-dressed. They have abandoned the responsibility of leadership by doing something totally different. Salary structure should be fashioned on the basis of income of each state not on artificial basis. This is why anybody who finishes as a councilor even if he is from the remote part of the world will always want to be in the headquarters.
So, rather than being a leader within his community, you now find a situation where the system creates miniature elite in the community. As such, he can no longer live there. The system should be allowed to produce leaders who can easily live and assimilate within the people without necessarily having a wide gap between themselves and their communities. Today, if you are a councilor, within two or three months, a gap has been created. Your taste has changed. Probably, you may even go for a new wife. By the time you finish, you become a senior beggar in the urban centre because your salary has stopped and you cannot go back to your community and live the way you have been living before. All these things are products of uniformity.
This is not the kind of uniformity that is desirable for us in Nigeria. According to the statistics recently released by an international agency, the southern part of the country now records 80 percent school enrolment, while the North records just only 20 percent. The same thing goes for literacy. How can you have uniformity in this huge gap? So, if you are talking of restructuring within the context of doing those things, I think I am with you. I am not afraid of restructuring. And I think every community should live within the limit of resources in that community. When we were growing up, there was discrepancy of salaries among the village heads and the district heads on the basis of how much you brought to the territory.
What connection do you then see between the agitation for state autonomy and resource control?
What do you mean by resource control? I don’t understand what people mean by resource control. The resources in Nigeria are of two different kinds. If you are a cocoa farmer, you probably own the land, got the seed, the insecticide and also did the labour. In that wise, you have control because you are putting in something. But because God has blessed you with something and you say you have resource control. What resource? What have you put in? Resource control is about putting in and getting out something.
The only thing I can say is that it is good to come up with an acceptable revenue formula that recognizes and appreciates where we are getting the resources and compensate the communities. Beyond that, no community can claim resource control. How can you claim oil control which lies so many kilometres underneath? So, there is a world of difference between agriculture and oil resource. In agriculture, people put in something. In the case of natural resources, you put in nothing. But I think there should be a recognition of the community interest because the exploitation of oil damages the environment.
So, you cannot come to a community, exploit the resources there and live the people as poor as you met them. That is absolutely wrong, absolutely unacceptable. For me, I think all these issues about onshore/off shore dichotomy and resources control require more of political solution than a legal option. After all, we are not made for the law; it is the laws that are made for us. So, obviously, no matter what the constitution says, no matter the pronouncement of the courts, it is only political solution that can lead to an enduring resolution.
I don’t want our leaders in the North here and the leaders in the south to take it as if it is a fight between northern governors and south-south governors. It is all about coming together and having equitable formula that will address ecological damages. If we don’t address them, these are the kind of things that will over burden the revenue that we are getting. In this kind of situation, we need leaders who are imaginative, who have the political-will and the capacity to do certain things.
Do you see the imperative of having state police in view of the security challenges currently facing the country?
Introducing state police will not solve the security challenge we are facing. Already, the governors have become emperors in their state. They have manipulated the local government system. Today, no local government is functioning as provided by the constitution. Instead of elected chairmen, they have caretaker committee all over the place. Whereas, what the constitution says is to put in place a democratically elected local government. Again, the funds for local governments are being diverted by the states.
Ordinarily, councilors are supposed to sit and prepare budget on the basis of revenue they are expecting and pass it to the state House of assembly. At least, where I come from, no local government is operating on the basis of budget. So, if you create state police and put them under these emperor governors, you will be in your house with your wife and somebody will come and pick you up. Even the Chief Justice of the Federation said it is the politicians that emaciated the judiciary.
So, give them police, seven days to the election, they will arrest all of you, frame you and luck you up. For me, I don’t believe that state police will address the security challenge facing the nation. The issue of insecurity in the North is the failure of leadership. I am not saying the current leadership because successively there had been systemic failure of leadership. However, there are certain things the occupants of offices today need to do other than to use public office to be stealing. But what is happening now? Every governor will tell you that he has spent N2 billion because of security.
So, insecurity has become a source of siphoning government funds because they don’t account for it. Last year, the governor of my state spent over 150 per cent on security. He over spent the security vote. It was the only budget he implemented by more than 100 percent. All other ones are below 30 percent. If we are not making capital investment, we are not making progress. So, the insecurity issue is a platform for them now to steal public money. Therefore, I don’t support the issue of state police.
So, you hinge all on leadership problem.
Everybody has a role to play in providing good leadership. Good leadership starts with you providing the right personal leadership to your family, to your community or town. I am not entirely putting the blame on the people in authority today. But when it comes to the question of who is responsible, they are responsible. And you can see this in the way and manner the state resources are being misused or are being controlled by one person as if it is personal money.
Go on the road, you will see buses carrying inscriptions like governor so-so mass-assisted transit bus. Is it his father’s money or his mother’s money? The monies we expend on behalf of the people are not our personal monies. For them to be parading public property as a form of assistance is insulting. You can only assist with your personal money not public money. It is this way of managing our resources that is causing insecurity in the country today. Public institutions have collapsed. All our children are going to private schools.
How can public institutions be good? In my school days, we were in the same school with children of first class emirs in the North as well as children of federal and regional ministers. Today, even the children of educational secretary in a local government who is directly involved in providing education are in private schools. So, there is no more morality in governance. All this breeds insecurity. So, you have an army of unemployed youths, ready and willing to be used for whatever purpose. Unless we as leaders change our ways and stop doing things the way we are doing, insecurity will continue. Yesterday, it was militants from the Niger Delta.
Sometimes ago, it was OPC in the South West. Now, it is insecurity in the North. Whatever method you use in bringing it down, if you don’t address the fundamental problem, another group will still emerge under a different name. Central to it is the issue of poverty, illiteracy, joblessness and insensitivity on the part of leaders. Above all, when it is time to choose a leader, people are not allowed to choose their leaders. Governments at all level manipulate the security agencies; manipulate the INEC to rig elections.
How do you view the fresh attempt by the National Assembly to review the present constitution?
Already, we have sufficient laws. What we don’t have is sufficient followers of the law. Once there is a law, we should try to look at the positive side of it and how we can make it work. But in Nigeria it is always about how not to make it work. Sometimes ago, Obasanjo said there is a difference between my cup is half full and my cup is half empty. If it is half full, there is a hope that it will be full. But if it is half empty, it means it is going down.
Your leadership in the House of Representatives is one of the most stable in this present democratic dispensation. But today, the House has been engulfed in one crisis or the other bordering on scandal. Why do you think the House is so susceptible to the crisis of this nature?
You see, the House consists of 360 members unlike the senate that has 109 members. If you look at the age also, you can see that naturally there is more vibrancy in the House because of the advantage of age. Again, they are mostly people on the move. But if you look at the senate, on the average, there is a certain level of maturity because someone is already going down. So, obviously, in terms of age and experience, you are likely to find this kind of experience.
Therefore, the challenge before the House of 360 members is certainly going to be different. Handling of the House is more complex and more difficult than the senate. Of course, there are times when you find the older generation in the House but they are not up to 20 percent of the total population. In other words, people on the go are more likely to make more mistakes or even run into problems than the older generation. Again, some people come into parliament as a way of compensation.
The governors use the National Assembly to compensate either friend or people who have challenged them in one contest or the other. I think persons coming into the parliament should be somebody who is interested in making law and being a true representative of the people. Apart from that, they are normally under pressure at home. Sometimes the pressures are being instigated by the local leadership.
What were the challenges you faced with the vibrancy of the House as you have said?
When I was there, I consider the House as a classroom. In a classroom, you are all equal. Again, as a classroom, age should be no barrier about how you relate between A and C. We were in the same chamber, occupying the same position. If I am 60 years and you are 30, our ages have merged to become one. So, I was able to break barrier of age between me and the members but not barrier of maturity. Maturity is what age and time have given me.
You also have to recognize the fact that everybody in that chamber is qualified to be Speaker. Above all is the issue of managing the resources of the House. If the management of the resource is open, there will be less conflict. When I was there, everybody knew how much was given, how much was distributed and how much was left. We were open and transparent in terms of management of the resources of the House.
Was there any particular moment when you were under pressure from your colleagues to take a position against the executive?
Throughout our stay, no bill that came from the executive went back as it came. We had to accommodate all the interests; we had to address the fears raised by the members. To that extent, we had so many quarrels with the executive but inside the office. We had to explain to them our position and the position of members. But you know, every time executive sends bill, they want it the way it comes.
So, we had our disagreement but we did not go to market place to announce our disagreement. You don’t have to go to market place and slap your wife before everybody knows that you are the husband.
It appears that the opposition is more vibrant now than when you were there as the Speaker
I think the opposition has always been within the PDP. In fact, there was more opposition then than what I am seeing today. Despite the character of the person who was the president then, there was more opposition and the opposition was within. And even at that time, you must commend the Alliance for Democracy which now turns to Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) for their strong opposition.
They were good at opposition because they always opposed from the position of knowledge. Even when they were trying to play politics and divert away from position of knowledge, you could see it. They opposed on the basis of information and knowledge. To be honest, they were more articulate than any other person. Between 2003 and 2007, the ANPP opposition was more vibrant than before.
In 2003, they brought in highly educated members into the House and they gave us a tough time together with AD but we were friends. And we appreciated the fact that we came from different political parties and our collective goal was to make Nigeria better. Above all, the personality of the current president is different from the former president. You know Obasanjo will always be Obasanjo.
I don’t know what you mean by that
People reading me will know. Obasanjo will always be Obasanjo. He never gets tired.
Tired of what?
Of doing what he is doing.
What is he doing?
Even the day before yesterday I read him doing the same thing. You know him; you were in Nigeria between 1999 and 2007. I don’t want to preempt some of the things that will be coming up in a book form. So, let us leave it at that. But Obasanjo will always be Obasanjo.
What exactly is your position now? Are still in CPC or you want to go back to PDP?
No, I am still in CPC.
Then, how do you see the leadership crisis rocking the party?
You see, CPC went to the election barely 10 months after registration. And despite all the scheming and sabotage from PDP and security agencies, CPC was able to get senators, members of the House and some members of the state House of Assembly including one governor. The PDP virus was injected into CPC.
They planted some moles into the party. Some of them are already planning to go back to PDP. And some are still very much with us. The national leadership of the party, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, has recognized that and set up a committee to look into the issues. The committee has carried out its assignment and will soon submit its report to the board of trustees and I believe they will take care of it.
Are you still nursing the ambition to take another shot at the governorship position in your state?
If it was damage I have done with my political ambition, I think I have done enough damage. And if I have added value, I think I have added value into the political system. I think there are certain positions we should allow other people to come and try. So, I am not a desperate politician. There are certain things which I will never do to get to a position. For me, the process is better than the outcome. I don’t belong to a group of politicians who believe that outcome justifies everything.