Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Ghali Umar Na’Abba, in this interview with CHIBUZO UKAIBE and SUNDAY ISUWA, speaks on cost of governance and the quality of political engagement.
As a chieftain of the National Consultative Front (NCFront), what’s your overview on Nigeria’s current political experience?
We are supposed to be operating a democracy but unfortunately it’s not operated the way it’s supposed to be. So today we are faced with a very serious problem that has to do with the refusal of a lot of people to operate democracy the way it is supposed to be operated. Democracy is supposed to give us some stability, increment in individual life, and provide us the tools to live with one another in peace and harmony. But 20 years after, those things are not delivered to us. Instead, we are getting the opposite in the form of insurgency, kidnapping, poverty and corruption. It is this situation that forced some of us to begin to discuss and accept that Nigeria cannot continue to be run like this, there must be a philosophical framework. With the benefit of experience, most of us have concluded that until there is internal democracy in our political parties we will never get anything right, no matter how eager or desirous the leader wants to make a difference. So we are trying to make internal democracy cardinal within our political party. The effect of its obliteration is far reaching, it’s beyond what people imagine it to be. It’s the reason for parties not growing and the economy not growing. Unless we repair this damage we will never get it right.
But how do you intend to convince those who control the structure and levers of power in parties to heed to this concept?
They will not heed because they profit from it. We must employ the instrumentality of the law, we must sanction, very seriously, any party that refuses to conduct free and fair primary elections into the party structures during congresses. Any governor who becomes a stumbling block whenever congresses are taking place and refuses election to take place must be sanctioned because it is from that innocuous process that all the dangerous things happening in the country start. But a lot of people are not looking in that direction. Whenever there is going to be an election, the governors will call contestants to Government House and decide who will contest and who will not. I know of a governor whom if he is not the one who bought forms for you, the forms will not be deemed as legitimate. So that is how they operate, these are the results of the nonsense we have in the country today. This situation has thrown the country in disarray.
The amendments to the constitution and Electoral Act are ongoing, will your group make a presentation to the National Assembly for stiff penalties against people or parties who did no respect internal democracy?
We are making such presentation particularly with regard to the Electoral Act. In the case of the constitutional amendment we have put in place a committee to draft whatever our wishes are in regard to the constitution for future purposes. Work has just begun a few days ago and you know it will take time. The way we want to do it is make it profound in the sense that is not like past constitutional making exercises which were self serving. We want something that will work for the interest of the country and that is not easy. Right now the fault lines are too many, different sections are pulling the country in different directions.
Your political movement intends to metamorphose into a party via a merger. Does it not bother you that Nigerians might not buy into it considering the experience they have had with the APC?
I’m a politician, I’m not a business man even though I do some business. But when I say I’m not a business man I’m sure you understand what I mean. Most of these people that you see parading themselves as politicians are not really politicians, they are all businessmen because a politician is someone who is in politics because of his people and whenever there is a conflict between his private pursuit and public objectives he will sacrifice his private interest for the public; that is a politician. Some of us are politicians, some are from civil society and all of us are concerned with the way our country is being run by these businessmen. We want to contribute our quota so that things will change. For example, today, most people are in politics do not know what is called party dues. In 1979, when I was a member of the Peoples Redemption Party, I was paying party dues every week and when I was going to join the party I bought the membership card and every week I paid my monthly dues. These are very significant. All of these are part of the political education that should be going on. However, the APC never belonged to the people, it belonged to those who contributed money to operate it. So there are politicians and there are politicians.
So far, we have APC, PDP and may be some other parties that may not have huge funds. Which of them are you going to merge with?
We have just set up a committee. We are critically looking at all of these things but you will also agree with me and also pardon us because the level of sophistication in politics has not reached the position where we may get all we want, especially when we have not reached the level of idealism that we want. You know in the process of trying to be something most times we have to accept certain things.
What’s your assessment or perception of the current National Assembly, especially in the light of insinuations likening it to a rubber stamp of the executive?
My perception of the National Assembly is still related to the issue of internal democracy. There must be criteria that will define how people come to the legislature as far as the independence of the legislature is concerned. So where the process is faulty like in the absence of internal democracy definitely certain things must be casualties and in this situation the casualties are the federal and the state legislature. I cannot blame those who are there for the legislature not being independent, rather I would blame the process and those who allow the process to be like that and this is the fact. I’ve been there and I know how I went there. I know how I maintained myself there and I know what it takes to make a legislature independent and otherwise. I know that it is a process because if the process has been good you will definitely not end up with legislature that is not independent but because that is what those with the levers of power want it to be, that is why it is like that. Right from the party they have cornered how aspirants will come into the national and state assemblies. A lot of times, those in the National Assembly do not want to be there but because they are recruited to be there and they are not interested in the first place, that is why you see that in the state legislatures and even in the national legislature attendance is very poor. If there is internal democracy people will compete to come to the legislature because that will even show that there is interest in coming to the legislature and interest in the work of the legislature. That they will contest freely and win fairly and when they come they will concentrate on the job and be regular in attendance. These things are dialectical. So we in NCFront want to give politics some meaning. We want to ensure strict observance of the rules.
With the present state of the economy, the labour union protesting non payment of the minimum wage and the debate over an over-bloated federal system, do you think it’s time we have part-time legislature to save costs?
In administering any country, once it’s agreed that it must be administered very well, cost doesn’t count because people must bear the price of leadership. Having a good leadership that provides good governance and the enables citizenry to move in the country freely without fear of bandits, without fear of insurgence, without fear of hunger and so on and so forth, I don’t think cost should matter to attain these things. However, we must talk about efficiency. I was for a very long time one of those who believed that this system of separation of powers with the two chambers in the National Assembly is the best system. Since my university days, I remember when I was in the Amadu Bello University in 1977-78, when the Obasanjo military administration embarked on constitution drafting. We would invite scholars to argue which was better between the presidential system or separation of powers and parliamentary system and my mind got inclined to accept that the presidential system is better, which eventually was the government at that time and it was practiced between 1979 and 1983 and it’s also in practice at the moment. But having participated in it at the highest level, I’m convinced today that the parliamentary system is more accountable. In the parliamentary system, the head of government and all the ministers must be members of the legislature and it is easier to deal with them at that level than in a presidential system where the president is locked in the villa and there is nothing one can do. And the tendency or proclivity for dictatorship is there.
I worked with a president who had that proclivity. The only thing that saved us then was the moral authority of the legislature, otherwise the damage would have been more enormous. So I will agree with you that maybe we can do one chamber in view of efficiency and not necessarily cost because we must bear the cost for good and quality leadership, it is very important. We can’t afford to put leaders in a position that whatever they do they must be looking over their shoulders. We must make them comfortable, especially for lawmaking which is a vast activity and the more knowledge the legislators have the better for a country. So it requires quality people who will come and legislate qualitatively for the people.
What’s your position on restructuring?
I need to see some powers devolved to states. That alone I can accept. There are people who are proposing other things like going back to the regions which I know is not possible. For example, in Northern Nigerian, South West and South East, it will be difficult to return them to regions even though I know people who are nostalgic about how things used to be. But you can group maybe two or three states together in a way that will make governance in those states more representative so that they can live together and work together.