amidele Salam, the House of Representatives member representing Ede North/Ede South/Egbedore/Ejigbo Federal Constituency, in this interview with Yusuf Akinpelu, says the ₦37 billion intended to be used for NASS renovation is a misplaced priority. Mr Salam also speaks on what he would do to stop the move.
He also speaks on the clamour for a reduction in the cost of governance and other matters affecting the legislature.
PT: The leadership of the National Assembly believes that the ₦37 billion renovation for the NASS complex is long overdue and justified as the building is dilapidating. Can you say this of the building?
Salam: I have been in the NASS for six months now. Yes, there are parts of the building that are obviously failing mainly for lack of proper maintenance but I can tell you that over 70 per cent of it is still very okay. The truth is that there are more important, more critical infrastructure needing urgent attention. It is a matter of setting the right priorities.
PT: Are you saying if the money is eventually released, it would go down the drain into private pockets?
Salam: I am not saying that. My position is that it is a wasteful, needless expenditure that does not reflect our present economic realities. That money, just like others voted for similar purposes in other arms of government, should rather be spent on projects that will create jobs for millions of Nigerian youths and improve on the quality of life of our people.
I was a member of a committee that investigated cases of abandoned projects since 1999. I felt ashamed at the discoveries we made. Over 90 per cent of abandoned projects was as a result of paucity of funds. Critical roads, schools etc. awarded as far back as 2001, 2003, 2005 have only reached 15 per cent completion because there was no money voted or released in several budget cycles! Aren’t these more urgent than renovating some cosy offices?
PT: So, as a member of the House Committee on Works, how do you feel that the National Assembly renovation gets more allocation than FERMA would get to renovate federal roads in the country?
Salam: I feel this is unjustifiable in any way.
PT: If you were the Speaker of the House of Representatives what would rather do in this case. Remember the Senate President said the president himself authorized the money.
Salam: I would simply go back to the President and tell him that going by the avalanche of public reactions to this proposed spending, there is a need to bring a proposal for a virement of the money and similar ones in other budgetary heads. The Speaker that I know is a man with a conscience. He is a grassroots leader himself and must have heard the loud voice of our constituents against this part of the Appropriation Act.
PT: There is what they call “easier said than done”. Is this the case here?
Salam: Well, if there is a will, then nothing is difficult to do. We are not in the House to represent ourselves. Our oath of office is to serve public interest
PT: So, as a member of the House of Representatives, what would you do to stop this upon resumption?
Salam: I will definitely bring up a motion and probably a bill to amend the Appropriation Act to reflect the views of my constituents on the proposed spending. I know there are other members who are of the same mind. We will work together on this.
PT: But your party is in the minority. How would you push through?
Salam: This is beyond party boundaries. The current poverty in Nigeria does not separate its victims along party lines. Every Rep member who went home for Christmas will understand the need for us to frontally tackle unemployment and poverty in Nigeria.
The important thing is to present a convincing argument and I know there are many others who will see the merits in this position and support it.
PT: What can constituents also do to block this money from being coughed out?
Salam: Unfortunately nothing much. The best they can do is advocacy which is being done on so many platforms already. We are their voice in parliament and must do the needful.
PT: Does this means power does not belong to the people?
Salam: The power of the people is as enshrined in the constitution. They vote and recall. That is how democracy works. Any other thing is anarchy.
PT: Some could argue that your stance on this is because you are a member of the opposition party, PDP. The Johnathan-administration apportioned over ₦40 billion for the same purpose in 2013. How would you react to this?
Salam: I was not a member of the National Assembly in 2013 and may not know what was appropriated then. Whether in 2009 or 2019, it is unjustifiable and unwise to spend more money on making leaders look good than on improving the living conditions of the majority of citizens
PT: Don’t you think at the heart of all these, the huge allowances lawmakers get is the most important money that needs to be cut, not necessarily the ₦37 billion in question?
Salam: I support all measures necessary to reduce our cost of governance and have more money for real development. This may include a downward review of emoluments of public office holders, not just lawmakers but everyone holding a public office from the local to the Federal level.
PT: Some of your colleagues have advocated for a unicameral legislative house, and some said we should trim down the number of legislators we have per state. Did they speak your mind?
Salam: I have always been an advocate of leaner government at all levels. I believe our present structure is not only bogus, but it is also inefficient. I am of the view that a constitutional amendment should be undertaken to restructure the Nigerian federation to bring our institutions of governance in tune with our social, political and more importantly, economic realities.
A state must not have more than seven commissioners, federal cabinet members should be a maximum of 15 while the current size of the National Assembly should be drastically reduced to one-third of what it is. The truth is that we can not afford what we currently operate but we are living in denial.
A country with over 200 million population and terrible social and infrastructure deficit as ours should not be spending more than 70% of its annual budget on recurrent expenditure. It is simply not sustainable and the place to start is from the size of our government.
In practical terms, the Senate should be made up of 1 senator per state, meeting on part-time basis (to confirm appointments, approve loans, emergency powers etc.) while the House of representatives should have only one-third of its present number sitting as a full-time parliament.
PT: The 2020 budget itself is dotted with a flurry of vague, fraudulent projects. You were a part of the process that passed this budget. How did this happen?
Salam: Unless there are specifics, I may not be able to react to this
PT: For instance, the Presidency’s Office of the Senior Special Assistant on MDGS (OSSAP-MDGS) had an increment of ₦5 billion increment in its budget. This add-on, among others, is for the “supply of goods, fertilizers rice, maize and beans in Katsina” and “supply of tricycles, motorcycles, sewing machines,” each of which will cost ₦500 million; as well as “supply of new Toyota Hiace buses, utility vehicles SDG intervention,” which would gulp ₦1.92 billion. How do you justify these frivolous spending?
Salam: I have no issues with any of the items in this head as long as they will be faithfully implemented to have value for money.
PT: The current legislative house has been accused of being a rubber stamp. Your debates on the floor of the House seems to show you agree with this.
Salam: The House of Representatives is not and cannot be a rubber stamp. The powers and responsibilities given to the House are as enshrined in the constitution and does not in any way envisage that it will always operate in parallel lines to the other arms of government, especially the executive. There is an interdependence of the two arms of government and that is in the larger interest of the public. I sincerely don’t know how debates in the House suggest being a rubber stamp.
There had been many instances where the House had faulted acts carried out by MDAs and ordered a probe into critical activities of the executive arm. What needs to be understood is that the parliament has a majority from the party which controls the Executive. This will ordinarily mean some measure of synergy between the two arms, especially on the issue of policies. What those of us in the minority can do is to raise alternative views on those policies but in the final analysis, the majority will have its way.
PT: But how do you reconcile this with the case of a tax bill that was passed by the Senate without senators seeing the content. Or that of the Reps wherein the report on the Army’s Operation Positive Identification was not seen by members yet was passed. You objected this that day.
Salam: This is one problem we have raised several times and which I hope the leadership and management will address in the new year. A lot of times, reports are not available for a good length of time to enable members to make informed contributions. It is not even good for the image of the legislature.
PT: What should be done by the two Houses to improve the delivery of constituency projects. Or should it be scrapped?
Salam: I do not believe that constituency projects should be cancelled. Rather, we should identify the fault lines in the present system of executing constituency projects. The reason is that if you take a budget of ₦10.6 trillion in a year it is very possible that most constituencies, without the constituency projects, would be unable to have a feel of the federal budget.
However, with the experience in the recent past, there is a problem of implementation. For the capital releases for 2019, zonal intervention projects (ZIP) was 40 per cent. You can’t release a 40 per cent allocation and expect a 100 per cent performance. What we need to do is to be more realistic by limiting it to projects that can be funded 100 per cent.
In addition, I also think it is possible to streamline the kind of projects that can be accommodated under ZIP. For example, (we could have) electricity projects, water, education and health. These are specific projects that easy to track and no community in the country does not need at least one of them as basic needs.
PT: What is your stance on the hate speech bill?
Salam: Those who initiated these bills are making a mountain out of a molehill. That’s my personal opinion, with due respect to those who initiated them (the hate speech and social media regulation bills). We have quite a number of socio-economic challenges today in Nigeria that should attract our attention, rather than magnify the issue of what kind of opinion someone holds about another.
In any case, there are enough laws in our statute books to take care of some of the concerns these (new) laws are claiming that they want to address. We should rather devote our energies as lawmakers to critical issues affecting Nigerians, which has not allowed them to sleep with two eyes closed; which has made the average young man not to be sure of where his next meal will come from; the huge deficit we have in housing; the challenges we have in social and health insurance.
These are more fundamental issues I think should take our attention. I don’t think there is any serious challenge posed by this clause on comment on social media. That’s my position.’
PT: You have shown to be a dissenting voice in the House. Aren’t you afraid of being stabbed in the back?
Salam: There is nothing to fear about standing for the truth and following one’s heart. I am also aware that a number of my colleagues share in the aspiration to make Nigeria better for the majority of our people. It is in our interest that we stem rising unemployment and insecurity. Any legislator who travels home and stays for two weeks must know what it means to have so much poverty in the land.
You cannot have a quiet time with your family for one hour, from morning till night, people are (always) coming to ask for one help or the other. Most of the things they need help for will be unnecessary if government works; issues like school fees, medicare, jobs and food. So it is in the interest of the parliamentarian that we take radical, sacrificial steps to reform our economic and political system. Anyone who is angry with such calls truly needs some more education.