In this interview with select journalists in Abuja, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, speaks on the achievements of the House under his watch in the last years, Not-too young to run Act, and other matters. MUYIWA OYINLOLA was there
Some Nigerians believe that most of their leaders in the position of authority are not doing enough to make laws that will affect people positively. What are the giant strides of the House recorded under your watch in the last three years?
I know that democracy is all about due process and the rule of law, the deeper your laws, the deeper your democracy, but I don’t really know of laws that either impact negatively or positively on the lives of the people on their own. Democracy doesn’t just work, it is the people who have to make it work for them. Laws are there to cover every strata of human endeavour in Nigeria, from agriculture, commerce, solid minerals, youth development, name them, we have the laws.
The question however is whether the citizens are harnessing the opportunities provided by these laws, as that’s what makes the difference. It is citizens operating and harnessing the provisions of the laws that exist in the country that actually bring the difference.
In the parliament, under the last three years of our leadership, we have passed into law about 224 bills, and these include the 21 Constitutional Amendment Bills and most of those Bills have been graciously assented to by Mr. President. We have processed to the region of about 1,500 motions and we’ve handled nearly 700 public petitions from citizens who are petitioning the National Assembly for the redress of some issues that they may not be able to prosecute in court maybe due to the cost of hiring a legal practitioner to do so.
At the commencement of our administration, I empanelled a committee of experts consisting of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and law lecturers – some even taught us in the university – to look at the entire count of laws that we have in Nigeria since 1800 and recommend to us what we can do to bring them in line with international best practices.
They sat for some months – some of them sacrificed so much, in fact without much compensation – but they devoted their time and at the end of the exercise they turned in about 300 Bills, most of which have been processed. In one sitting, we read about 130 Bills for the very first time in the history of the House of Representatives, so I’m not aware of laws that will positively impact on the lives of Nigerians that we haven’t touched.
What has bethe input of the House of Representatives to strengthen the democracy and to make the ease of doing business more effective?
Democracy is just like the proverbial elephant; you can only debate it depending on the angle at which you touch it. For us to have a robust democracy, you have to consider certain factors. Some very brilliant scholars in Harvard, I think Levitsky and Ziblatt, did a wonderful research on how democracy seems to be dying and it was published this year.
They stated the need to look at three indices which show that democracies these days hardly die at the hands of men with guns, unlike in those days where coups would put a violent end to a democracy. This time around, according to them, democracies die when an authoritarian leader is elected, when governmental powers are harnessed and abused, and thirdly when this leads to repression of the citizens and the opposition.
For you to have a robust democracy, you must ensure that these three factors don’t come into play. It boils down to how elected leaders employ their institutional prerogatives; by this I mean how the coercive instruments of state are deployed. This is exemplified when leaders treat the opposition as friends, and not as enemies. So once these are lacking, you don’t have a robust democracy, it is now for you and I to determine whether these are present in the context of democracy that we practise in Nigeria.
The one thing I can however assure you is that in the House of Representatives, we stand for the truth at all times in line with the Oath of Office we took which is to defend the Law and Constitution of the country. We are by that obligated to pay obeisance to anyone in authority. We have however been able to stamp our foot and when the government is wrong, we say it is wrong. This is the right direction to follow.
When the government is, however, right we apportion the appropriate praise for that. To that extent we have been able to maintain a very delicate balance, as you know all democracies are fragile.
Relating to the ease of doing business, we had a tactical committee on exiting the recession you spoke about, which we just exited. The committee made far-reaching recommendations and we’ve always worked with the executive relating to the ease of doing business and I’m glad you raised that. In the struggle to rebuild our economy, we have always cooperated with the executive in the line of most of the Bills that have been transmitted to us from them.
In some cases, because of the passion we have for the lawmaking role we have assumed, we passed some of those Bills within three days. You might be surprised that ordinarily, these Bills would have taken months to process within the legislative chain but we ensured that within days, they were passed. I must also commend the Vice President who is the Head of the Executive in charge of this laudable initiative which has ensured that businesses that had left Nigeria before are even coming back.
From the World Bank ranking of 2017, Nigeria moved 24 points upwards and was placed among the top 10 countries that have improved their business environment. In the global ranking of the ease of doing business Nigeria has moved upwards by 24 points. That is due to the efforts of the parliament coupled with the leadership that the Vice President is giving as the leader of the Economic Management team in Nigeria.
You just spoke about leadership, how has the journey been so far these last three years especially when some people in your political party weren’t sure you could lead the House. How have you been able to keep the House together?
I don’t know if the discussion was that I didn’t have what it takes to lead the House, it was a value of personal judgment and I don’t think there was that call. All I remember was that for certain reasons, someone else was preferred by the party to be the Speaker.
Talking about capacity however, I think it was King Solomon, undoubtedly the wisest King who ever lived, that said he had looked under the sun and realized that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favour to men of skill, but that it is time and chance that happens to them all.
Ultimately, I’m deeply thankful to members of the House of Representatives for putting me there as the Speaker. For me, every day has been a learning curve in this position. You know it is not easy for anyone to say he is coming prepared to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria. This is for a variety of reasons; number one, you’re presiding over a colossal gathering of 360 Members of Parliament who are equal in all aspects as there is no master-servant relationship.
As a matter of fact, as you’re seated and presiding over the House, your vacant seat is staring at you. So anytime you walk into the Chambers having lost the confidence of two-thirds of the Members, you’ll simply go and take your seat as the seat is always staring at you when you’re sitting over there.
On almost daily basis, you come across problems, these problems are the sort that some parties may describe as being wicked. Wicked not on account of the degree of the problem, but because of the frequency and the way the problems defy the usual tools used to resolve problems. You have members who want to see you on a daily basis.
Assuming you give appointments to 20 members out of 360, just 20 and each person wants to take at least 30 minutes, how many days will it take you for instance to listen to all the members?
The levels of difficulties show that it is almost impossible for someone to come fully prepared to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and you know because you’re all equal, anybody can bare his mind, but what has really helped me is to ensure that we escalate constructive conflicts.
If there are issues up for discussion, you try to garner as much opinions as you can possibly accommodate and at the end of the day, when the position is taken, of course not all the opinions will win, but even those who are losing will be convinced that the end product or decision taken was done after due consultation of all and sundry present and after all opinions have been collected and processed.
So, in order to round off on this, what I will really say has helped me, looking at the words of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire who spoke of his successes and attributed it to diversity in council and unity in command. I think that is what has played the magic and everybody should listen to all shades of opinions so that at the end of the day when a decision is taken, it can be as if we each made the decision ourselves. That is what has kept the house thick and going.
Recently the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill was passed and you played a very big part in that role of pushing the Bill. How do you think that this will help youth inclusion in Nigeria?
I worked with the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Movement and from day one when the Bill was introduced, I saw this group of committed young people who were pushing for this Bill to be passed and thankfully that is now history. I want to say without any fear of contradiction that it is just the first hurdle for us; I don’t think there is any guarantee somewhere that young people will find a place within the political environment right now, but it was one long and necessary step to take in this journey.
If you look at the youth body, it comprises a large part of the population because half of the world’s population now is below 30. In rural Africa the youth will soon overtake other demographies in terms of population. We felt it necessary to provide a seat at the table for these teeming young people who should take responsibility for decisions they make.
They should not only be heard but should also participate in decisions that affect them; that’s the only way we will be investing in the future of our country.
The Bill has been celebrated and the movement that started in Nigeria has become a global revolution. As a matter of fact, our parliament was recognised at the United Nations for pushing through this piece of legislation, so it is something that is celebrated across board.
I must, however, caution, like I said it’s not enough; it is a necessary, logical first step that we have taken and I am glad that we have taken that. The youth themselves must now be prepared because you see, age is just like money; it’s not a question of how much of it you have, but how well you invest. They have to invest in generating the capacity that would make them compete because no one is going to say because you’re a young person and as the Constitution has been amended you can now aspire to any position you desire, and people will fold their hands and say just go and run for elections and win.
When they came to me on the eve of the passage and signing by Mr. President, they were so excited and it was the leader of the movement that informed me the President was going to sign the Bill the next day. I warned them that apart from the capacity to compete, they must also prepare for the next phase of the struggle, which is actually campaigning and winning elections.
I told them that since they were able to put themselves together to fight for this piece of legislation, there’s nothing they can’t do if they’re able to bring themselves together again, because now I don’t know if we might have to resort to affirmative action on this as political parties deliberately allocate some seats to the young people, and where you have the requirements to pay millions to aspire for some particular positions and the young people do not have such means, it should be waived for them.
Unless we do that, after removing the legal and constitutional barriers, we may discover that we have social, monetary and other barriers that may stop them from realising or taking the benefits of this piece of wonderful legislation that has been crafted; so, it is a work in progress. The enabling environment still has to be worked out for the young people to ensure that at least the law is effective and that we have young people seated at the table where decisions affecting them are made.
You are being commended as a man of the people and a role model to millions of Nigerians, what will you love to be remembered by during this 8th Assembly?
Fortunately for us, almost all assemblies in Nigeria have carried a certain attribute that is linked to them. In Gali Na’aba’s House, it was the independence of the legislature; there was constant in-fighting between the parliament and the executive. In Masari’s House, it was the issue of third-term; they had to stamp their foot and ensure democracy is saved. In Etteh and Bankole’s House too, there were countless issues that were resolved.
For this Eighth House of Representatives, I want people to remember us for defending our democracy which is at the core of the oath that we took when we became members on our inauguration. The reason being that a lot happened, for some of us who were barely old enough, we knew how people struggled for us to have this democracy. It is therefore something we must cherish and ensure we preserve. I want Nigerians to remember the Eighth Assembly as one that had the courage to say no when there was a need to do that. It is a very difficult thing to do, it may sound very ordinary, but it is very difficult. This is due to the fact that we live in the midst of an epidemic of sycophancy.
When you have sycophants, all they do is to interpret body language and try and read the leader’s mind so that wherever they feel the leader is going to, that is where they go to. We have had a House that has however been able to hold its line despite this, and I want Nigerians to remember us as a people of courage and one that fought for the common man.
Check for instance in the Northeast where we have the issue of insurgency, schools have been destroyed, hospitals, police stations, in fact anything that is a representation of governance has been pulled down. It is like we have been dragged back to the Stone Age, and that is what violence can do, so we must never lose the fight against violence. We have done these on behalf of the common man.