Hon Michael Opeyemi Bamidele represents Ado-Ekiti /Irepodun/Ifelodun Federal Constituency of Ekiti State in the House of Representatives. In this interview with BABA YUSUF, he talks about the oversight responsibilities of the House and how Hon Farouk Lawan, the former Chairman of the Fuel Subsidy Ad Hoc Committee who was recently involved in a bribery scandal, has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Why should Nigerians still have faith in probes after the controversies and scandals trailing the pension fund, capital market and fuel subsidy probes?
Nigeria is operating a constitutional democracy and our constitution provides for three arms of government. The National Assembly is one of those arms at the federal level i.e. the legislature section 4 of the 1999 constitution is very clear as to the responsibilities and functions of the National Assembly and one of its cardinal responsibilities is to exercise oversight functions as guaranteed in our constitution. Democracy is not where anyone would want to rule without being criticized. Democracy is not meant to produce Kabiyesis, Obas, Obis or Emirs. They are meant to draw up leaders who are indebted representatives of the people and if you are an indebted representative of the people who wants to rule without being criticized, then something must be wrong.
Having laid that as a basis, let me now say that the essence of the oversight functions is for elected representatives of the people in parliament to be able to look into whatever the agencies of government are doing, it can be enquiries, it can be investigative hearings, it can be probes. And in any case the National Assembly has not conducted any probes, there is no probe going on, what the National Assembly has been doing is to make enquiries, without any attempt at trying to criminalize anyone.
We don’t prosecute; all we try to do is to ask questions. Why would anyone be allergic to this? The offices we all hold, in all of government are public offices, we are not running our private enterprises. We are not here as entrepreneurs, we are here as servants of the same master, the master being the citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria whose interests we are here to serve.
So, if asking questions or making enquiries, or conducting investigations for overriding public interest is what they call probe, that they are scared about, then it is unfortunate, there is nothing that can be done about it, for as long as there is a parliament, there must be oversight functions. We just have to make up our minds, do you want to kill this parliament, because if you want to undermine or take away the oversight authority of this parliament, then you want to kill this parliament, you want to kill this democracy.
Military regimes that usurped power for close to three decades at different times performed; they built more roads, more hospitals, they provided more infrastructure. It wasn’t that they did not do anything but at what cost and with whose consent? Did they have an over sighting authority? No, that is why they were called a military regime, that is why they called it a rule of force, not a rule of law. So, if with all the military did, Nigeria still rose up to say the military must disengage from politics, it is because people wanted something better than a Bonarpatist regime, it was because people wanted something better than a dictatorship of any form. We cannot substitute a civilian dictatorship for a military dictatorship. Our people asked for democracy and democracy is founded on the rule of law, democracy is founded on the principle of powers balanced by the principle of checks & balances. And people should just get used to the fact that we are running a democracy.
We have said that Nigerians are concerned about a lot of things; everybody should go back and look at our legislative agenda, which we announced at the very beginning of the 7th House of Reps session. We made it clear that we will stand up and ensure that the poor and the less privileged found their silent voice in us as parliamentarians and that we would ask questions without caring whose ox is gored, that we will also subject ourselves to scrutiny and if we found any one of us being in violation of either the constitution or the standing orders or rules of the House, we will impose sanctions and today we have demonstrated that resolve.
There are allegations and counter allegations; Hon Farouk has a right to defend himself; I would concede that one to him. While that is going on, we have relieved him of certain responsibilities, we have appointed someone else to chair the Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy and we also have relieved him of his position as Chairman of the House Committee on Education. But more importantly, because people have said we should have taken stiffer penalties, what could we have done more than that? We believe in the rule of law and we must follow due process. He is a Nigerian and he is also entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
So, we cannot take a decision that is preemptive of what the security agencies that are supposed to be carrying out the investigation arrive at. We could also not do anything to preempt what the House committee on Ethics and Privileges will arrive at. Our standing orders state that the Speaker can suspend any erring member of the House of Reps from participating in the business of the House for that legislative day. That is for one day, but if it turns out to be a more serious violation, the Speaker can on the approval of the House, suspend that member for a specified period. So, those who are expecting that we should have suspended Hon Farouk, should state on what basis we should have suspended him? We have a House Committee on Ethics and Privileges which has a responsibility to conduct investigation into any allegation against any member and make appropriate recommendations to the House. We have just referred the matter to the committee. So, would there have been due process, which we are committed to if we had suspended Hon Farouk today without the committee on Ethics having taken a decision on the matter?
These are issues that people need to understand but as far as we are concerned we have made our position clear, we stand by the report of the Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Nigerians want to know, they have a right to know and in exercise of their right to know, we have to ask questions on their behalf, otherwise we have no business being here. We are doing the job we were elected to do, we will do it without fear or favor, without let or hindrance and as much as possible, we do not mind whose ox is gored as long as it is in the overriding interest of the people.
What steps is the House taking to ensure that this type of scandal does no occur in the future, to damage the integrity of the House?
Well, I will put it this way, there is no pretending, the House of Reps is a reflection of Nigeria. We are 360 people here, from different backgrounds, different professional backgrounds, different moral backgrounds, different constituencies and whatever is happening in the House of Reps is a reflection of what is happening in the larger society. We can only hope for the best, we can only hope that the majority of us will continue to subscribe to our oath of office, to the content, form and character of the legislative agenda that we unveiled, as much as possible.
None of us has been elected as a policeman of other Honourable members; all of us have been elected to discharge our responsibilities in the best interest of our constituents. That is why I can not determine in what manner, any member will chose to represent his or her constituency. For instance, we believe it is Hon Farouk’s constituency and not the House that is in the best position to determine whether he can continue to represent them. And that is why our constitution provided for a recall process that makes it possible for those who elected us to recall us if they so wish in conjunction with INEC that must conduct a referendum to recall a member whose people have lost confidence in. But as far as we are concerned these are not issues to determine on the floor of the House. And let us separate an individual from an institution.
Hon Faruk Lawan is an individual, the House of Reps is an institution and it is the custodian of the powers vested in the legislative arm not us as individuals and if any member goes on a frolic of his own and gets involved in things that are capable of putting him in a conflict of interest then that must be separated from the position of the House. And that is why we are saying that we stand by that fuel subsidy report because those who are trying to setup Hon Faruk wanted to rubbish the report. So, if you say because Hon Farouk has been accused, you want to rubbish that report, it means that 17 companies that have been established of having collected foreign exchange to supply what they refused to supply in the name of subsidy, will walk away free because you have rubbished Hon Farouk.
No, the House of Reps adopted that report and we are standing by our adoption, whatever anybody feels Farouk has done that is in violation of our standing orders, he should be left to be taken care of at the level of our internal control mechanism. And we are already doing that but as far as the fuel subsidy report goes, the law must take it’s course and the executive arm of government must prosecute those that have been found wanting. Thank God, the President has affirmed that all those that have been indicted will be prosecuted and we are waiting, the international community is waiting, you cannot throw away the baby and the bath water. We must learn to separate individuals from institutions.