In this interview with OLADIPO MAGAJI, Speaker, Kwara State House of Assembly, Dr Ali Ahmad among other sundry issues explains why the legislature restricts the pension of former governors and deputy governors in the state. He also highlights the achievements of the 8th Assembly under his watch.
The 8th Kwara State House of Assembly under your watch did so well that some even accused you of being antagonistic to the executive. What informed some of your actions that could be termed as radical?
The legislative House has very limited, although very important powers spelt out in the constitution and it does not depend on one’s likes or dislikes. This includes exposing corruption by acting as check and balance,does budget for the executive, and investigates how appropriated money is spent through oversight functions among others. This is also the function of press and that is why democracy recognises it as the fourth constitutional arm of government. And once the House is able to expose corruption, it is now left for the press to take it further just like we did in the case of Harmony Holdings, the House can’t charge them to court. So what has been pushing us is that we don’t want to agonise on what we would have done or not after we have left because I don’t think I would ever be speaker of Kwara state House of Assembly again. This is once a life time opportunity. My advice to others is that once your occupy a position of responsibility, see it as if you will never come back.
You are leading a one-party assembly, how were you able to resist the temptation of being a rubber stamp speaker ?
Yes, the pressure is on you and there is the tendency to defer to the executive arm more than anything. But the reality is that it will be the people of the state that will suffer and regret after your tenure. The governor you believed you are serving rather than the state has his functions and name to bear. Being a one party legislature gave me the impetus to be cautious and asked whether we are doing the right thing or not. Now that we have opposition, I believe it is toothless because we have been doing everything the right way. Today we just announce the one of the opposition members, Saheed Popoola as the chairman of Committee on Public Account because that is the right thing to do as opposition must be the head of such committee.
Do you think the 8th Assembly under you has been able to put in place quality laws that would further enhance the wellbeing and development of the state?
Since the creation of Kwara state, we are probably the highest in laws passed. However the one I would consider as landmark legislation is being the first that would pass private member bills since inception unlike before where you have to wait for the executive. I am very proud of that and sure the 9th assembly will do same which has started happening in a few states. We have the bill on health insurance where we put about a billion naira in this year’s budget to cater for the down trodden. Why the effect has not been felt I think is that the banks are not sure whether the incoming administration will implement which boils down to lack of understanding. This is a law that any government must carry out. The health insurance management is about to capture those vulnerable people that can’t afford their hospital bills from the wards and provide them with cards that will cover their treatment, consultation and drugs in Kwara hospitals with the payment of just N1000 per annum. It’s an avenue where the rich people and government will contribute money to subsidise the health requirement of the poor people. The bill on Urban and Regional Development that seeks to take care of the proliferation of the filling stations in the state is also another landmark for us but it is still not properly implemented. The legislations against dealing in human parts and the one that further extends where you cannot produce and consume alcohol within Ilorin metropolis are also there and one of those that we are particularly proud of is the one that restricts the pension law of governors in the state because it is political and people think we cannot touch which we did.
Can we say your legal background assisted you on how you have fared thus far?
I don’t think it has anything to do with legal practice but just (having the courage) to do things right. Hon. Saheed Popoola, the only APC member among us might be surprised over his appointment but that is the right thing and we don’t need his permission to do that. We have carried everybody along and that is why we don’t have issues of throwing chairs and fighting which is very common in other state assemblies. I hope this is the culture that the next House will follow.
Looking at your political career all these years from being an personal assistant to the state governor, commissioner for Justice, House of Representatives member, to the Speaker, would you have loved another reordering of your political career?
I think everything is all about service once you are invited by your community; it is not by choice because you are not the only one. I have seen people who have moved from a higher office to a lower one and they served creditably well. Service is not about your career progression or a straight line thing. The community interest should be paramount.
Your tenure as the attorney general and commissioner for justice witnessed construction of the Judges’ quarters and high courts across some part of the states, what is your take on what we have now?
Kwara State should rank among top five jurisdictions in the country where litigation is very competitive with legislative excellence. We have so many NBA chairmen and other national officers practicing from here. We need more high courts because some are in deplorable conditions, but more importantly, we need to keep up the quality of what we have. I am no longer in the executive; fund from the judiciary comes from federation account and allocation from the state. Whenever budget is brought, we try to approve whatever they have for judiciary but we have issue about releases. Now the judiciary will soon be autonomous through the constitutional amendment. When we have two arms struggling for autonomy, we focused on our own which we now have gotten and I hope the next House will fight for autonomy for the Kwara judiciary which will have federal intervention soon. Then,they will able to construct needed courts. Kwara legislature is among the about two that are autonomous nationally because of the understanding between us and the governor. Although it is constitutional, the governors will fight and resist it very seriously and it might be on for four years because it is reducing their own financial autonomy.
What inflames your passion for assisting people despite your lean purse?
One has to do that as a politician. Some of the people do not care whether you passed the most beautiful laws. And you can’t blame them because the system has neglected them. It is what you give that can put meal on their table, they only know you as their president, governor and everything. So you try to balance it. Some people only need good governance unlike these set and you have to continue to give in line with the ability of your resources. We thank God for the impact and happiness we have brought to them with the little we were able to do.
Is legislative independence fully activated financially and otherwise in Kwara?
It is only the financial aspect that has issue; money is the only aspect that binds us together with the executive which is only on quarterly subvention which is in the budget. Our monthly survival doesn’t depend on them because we get our fund through first line charge. For me, that is okay and the best thing to do. Once you start taking money for capital projects, you also become subject of oversight. It is better to let the executive do it and we have limited request for the capital projects.
How would you say you are leaving the legislature compare to how you met it?
A lot better. Unlike the quarters for legislators which were sold during the time of Obasanjo, now we have legislative quarters. We have taken it as a challenge to get mortgage as legislators to own a house and spread the payment in four years. It was a fantastic idea. Those of us not from Ilorin have comfortable houses in the same place now and I hope the ninth legislature can do the same for their members. The public hearing building that we are constructing was not a happenstance. We ignited the interest of people in what we were doing and all our rooms became very insufficient as a people centric assembly.
Is there is any provision in the House rule that talks on the election of a new speaker?
Yes, and that is it should be a ranking member.
Does it mean we already have a known speaker now or the rules can be amended during inauguration?
That is not my headache, I have spoken to my friends in APC and each time you get different answers. I would have been happy if they are unanimous and say this is our speaker for me to start relating with him, showing him the way, but they all want different persons as speakers. I have been receiving designated speakers from other states whose names I would not mention for mentorship but unfortunate, I cannot relate with my own because anytime I want to think about what happen on the first day, I just say this is not my headache.
What is your view on Part-Time legislation?
I would not subscribe to that now and if you believe money being spent on legislature is too much which is popular with Nigerians now, then we need to do a rethink. It is the media that is driving that narrative. If we make the National Assembly part time and we have a dictator president, he would overrun everybody. The legislature is not just making laws but also a place to where we vent anger and discourse that is full of tension. You find people from different religions and tribes. No legislator has 10 percent of what a minister has but media people don’t want go there. How can a minister be controlling N14bn in private company like the case of one Minister? Nigeria would have been turned upside down by the press if it was a lawmaker, in this case it was just reported. It may be politically correct to say legislators earn the highest salary in the world but based on financial consideration I won’t support the idea of running a part time legislature. Even now that is full time, legislative work has been reduced by 20 percent. The media have hanged the legislature and anything they do is wrong but whatever the executive do is right. The problem with the legislature is that the Nigerian state is using the judiciary to decimate its powers. That is what the media should focus on. The judiciary in my view doesn’t have right to stop a legislative process just like the court cannot stop an executive process like assent to budget. It is when the legislature is allowed to work, we can then say we have graduated. But now everybody is not law abiding, including the judge, legislature and the president. A law abiding judge will not give an interim order stopping a constitutionally mandated legislative process as we are currently doing and sadly, it is now becoming the norm.
The House recently directed its members to be putting on local attires on Wednesday to encourage locally made products in the buy Nigeria to grow Nigerian campaign, why didn’t this come in form of legislation?
You don’t make laws for only 24 lawmakers. While the directive is only for us now, it might catch up with the populace about five years time. The governor has told us the executive council will start it in a couple of days. If the whole populace then buys into it, we can make general law setting aside a day to only use what is produced in Kwara in order to enhance the buy Nigeria to grow Nigeria concept which would help our economy tremendously. We hope the ninth legislature and incoming governor will carry it forward.
The lawmakers veered into farming in line with the call of the federal government for diversification of the economy, what is the progress report so far?
We observed unexpected outcome like any other farmer; one being the herdsmen alert, one of our planters also got burnt. These drawbacks limited our success but we got a very good yield. For lack of time, we would have further exploited the initiative. Lawmakers who don’t own farm before have now tasted it and now have individual farms and our aim of exposing people to the opportunity inherent in farming was achieved. It is the future way to go.
How did you come about the revolutionary Administration of Criminal Justice (ACJA) bill while at House of Representatives?
As a lawyer who has practice in two jurisdictions before in US and Nigeria, we saw how the US justice system works compare to ours. At the National Assembly, I saw the bill has been on but not in perfect form. It was not easy, some colleagues were going into ministries and juicy committees raking in million but we couldn’t. This was a 500 clause bill we know could impact the legal profession and justice delivery system in the country but nobody is interested. Fortunately we have development partners, lawyers and judges that assisted us. It nearly failed because it was signed on the last day of the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration, thanks to the former Attorney-General and minister for Justice. Thank God today, ACJA has changed the criminal justice system forever but we are not there yet. There is the issue of implementation, funding and the civil aspect of justice delivery which is now in total mess. The criminal aspect is now faster like three years but the civil still takes up to 12 years. We have done our bit, let others take it from there.
Do you have any regret being associated with the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki?
Not at all. I will leave my comment till about two years from now on what Saraki has been able to do with the Nigerian Senate. We now look at the records of those before and after him. Now because he has this raging battle with the executive, Nigerian will not know what they have or missing in Saraki until when he is no more there. Thank God, it is the same president and we will have same parameters to gauge the situation. I still believe in my heart that we don’t put the right people at the right places in Nigeria. If Saraki becomes the President today, Nigeria will never be the same again. We have met with both APC and PDP senators who are regretting that Saraki is not coming back but they say different things outside (for politics). It is unfortunate that Kwarans do not know Saraki because if they did, they would have said even if we hate his structures, let us return him and change the governor, reps members, senators and House of assembly members. In fact I expected the elders of Kwara to say nobody can be Senate President in Kwara State and if we lose it now, we don’t know how many decades that we can have it again like it was done in a particular North Eastern states were the elders stopped others irrespective of parties not to contest against the speaker who has the prospect of retaining his position if he wins. Saraki would have been the ninth Senate President, this much we know and he has attracted billions of naira worth of project to Kwara State with thousands employment in his first year.