Right Honourable Sabit Adeyemi Ikuforiji, in his 12 years of membership of the Lagos State House of Assembly, was Speaker for 10 years and served two governors. In this interview with SUNDAY ODIBASHI, Ikuforiji says President Muhammadu Buhari has done well but advocates the imperatives for open communication in governance, including consideration for parliamentary system of government to make governance more effective and efficient.
IT’S about one year you left office after 12 years in the legislature, when you reflect on your legacies, what areas can you beat your chest and say you did well?
I thank God for His guidance and blessings upon me. I am 57 years now, and I spent the last 12 years more being in the service of my fatherland. Out of the 12 years I spent in the Lagos State House of Assembly, in about 10 years, I was Speaker of the most populous State Assembly in the country with 40 lawmakers. Kano State is the only other state that has 40 members in the State Assembly.
The fact that I led the House for about a decade is, on its own, something to celebrate. It is not common for someone to lead the legislature for that long. A few who had the opportunities for leading for two sessions, even those on one session, were either removed or in troubled storm, involved in one political upheaval or the other. So, I can beat my chest and say God had made the impossible possible in my life and in the history of legislature administration.
The legislature, for the period I led the House, remained the pacesetting era for legislation in this country. There was not even a moment when anybody had to come to calm us down. It was the most peaceful period. No legislature in this country, before or after, had experienced the progress, quality legislation, physical and human resource development as much as were done during my tenure as Speaker. So, there is a lot to beat my chest and celebrate; a lot to thank the Almighty God.
How did your leadership achieve harmony among members in maintaining lasting peace in the House?
I provided leadership on the framework of transparency and accountability. There was equity and fairness. Every member of the House had a sense of belonging and each lawmaker was a leader in his own right. So, there was trust and confidence in the leadership of the House.
A major issue is that it seems the greatest of the headaches with the legislature is money. The House fund was evenly disbursed to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.
The legislature is often accused of taking too much from the budget, why is it so?
People are unfair to the legislature. Everyone in this country goes about with the notion that the legislative arm of government or legislators are getting more budgetary allocations than they should. Accusing fingers are easily pointed at the legislators. Notwithstanding the very small percentage of the budget that goes to the legislature, more noise follows that small budget of the legislature than any other arm of government.
In my case, in the Lagos State House of Assembly, the budget of the House was something of about 1.2 per cent of the State budget. That budget took care of the Speaker, the 39 members, the over 400 public servants that constitute the Assembly bureaucracy, an additional 200 political appointees and other support staff attached directly to the legislators, in addition to the very House, itself, the physical edifice called the House of Assembly.
The noise surrounding the amount that is allocated to the House is a lot more than the noise that goes after the Office of the Chief of Staff to the Governor. Yet, the budget of the House is just about one third (1/3) of the budget of the Chief of Staff to the Governor, that is the Governor’s Office. No one remembers that the governor is just one person.
In Lagos State, there are 41 tickets for elections, including the governor, that is, the governor’s ticket which, of course, the deputy goes with, and the 40 constituency tickets of the honourable members. But the governor’s budget is three times the size of the budget of the House of Assembly. There is no question or public protest about that but everybody is complaining about the budget of the House of Assembly.
How was the budget of the House dispensed during your tenure?
A major chunk of the budget of the legislature during my tenure as leader of the House went into human capital development. Lagos lawmakers were the most exposed legislators that this country ever had. I ensured that members were exposed to best practices across the globe; attending seminars, workshops and conferences. The same thing went for the support staff; the head of operations, who is the Clerk of the House, to all members of staff. We did our very best in terms of developing the manpower. I spent a lot on that. Not even the National Assembly can compete with Lagos in that aspect during my time as Speaker of the House.
Again, on the relationship between the people that we were elected to serve and those of us elected to represent them, it was the most cordial in the world. Where in the world or this country can you find the masses of the people having easy or direct access to the governor, deputy governor or even members of the judicial arm; it is impossible.
The people had access virtually round the clock to the legislators. But because of the situation we find ourselves, the level of poverty or deprivation in the system, people are not too keen or too interested in the work they have sent the lawmakers to do for the community, the society or the constituency. They are more interested in what you are able to do for them, individually. That is why you have situations like lawmakers want to satisfy their constituents.
I was about to enter the Chamber one day before I became Speaker of the House, and my telephone rang. Then I picked and one of my constituents from Epe, then, (he spoke in Yoruba) saying “Honourable, I congratulate you, your wife just put to bed.” In Yoruba, if I’m your friend or we are of the same family, your wife is said to be my wife. So, I told him, I left Mayowa at home, she wasn’t pregnant. I knew what he meant. He was just telling me that his wife has delivered and the money to get the mother and the baby out of hospital and then, preparations for naming ceremony; that’s what he was calling for.
People are not looking into these issues; we are not looking at ways and means of curbing them. We keep hammering on how much the legislator is earning.
If someone is earning N5 million a month and you have hundreds of these hangers on who are members of this society, to take care of from the N5 million, what percentage of the money is actually left for the legislator. They are the problems of this society, problems of the government and therefore, the problems of the legislators. Those critics of the legislature are not looking into this.
Somebody compared the income of the Senate President with what they earn in Congress in the US. Yes, there are little problems in some states in the US where local legislators get little requests for support from their constituents but it is incomparable to what is going on here in Nigeria.
The day you get elected, everybody in your constituency sees you as the very well that they must draw water from to drink. No matter the amount of grammar you speak on the floor of the House, It is irrelevant to them. You are not performing your duty if they come around you and they cannot have those “little” supports they expect from you. When the children school fees are due and they want to you to give a portion for that; when they lose their mother or grandmother and they are due for burial, they expect you to give money to them. If you don’t give the family support, you are gone. Go back to them in the next election, you will fail. That is why most legislators abandon their duties and going after what is not supposed to be their duty. Everywhere today, legislators are marking first year anniversary with poverty alleviation programmes in the constituencies. It is not the business of the legislator to start buying grinding machines, sewing machines and distributing them. In most cases, these things turn out to be another drain, not as productive on the amount you spent doing those things. These are issues that we leave under the table and we keep scratching the surface.
Given these community pressures, where do constituency projects come in?
Really, it is not the business of the legislature to be implementing projects. We are operating the presidential system. Among the three arms of government, the legislature is responsible for making laws; the executive is responsible for executing the laws, while the judiciary is responsible for interpreting the laws. These are three different divisions with clearly spelt out responsibilities, at least theoretically. But in practice, they overlap.
Within us, we have problems in our respective constituencies. Nobody in the executive arm can claim to know completely the issues and problems of a state or the country as much as the people representing the sub parts.
Governor Akinwumi Ambode is the Governor of Lagos State, and by the way, he is doing well, he can take a tour of the state, he can go to the 40 constituencies, if he likes, but most times, he goes to the local governments, he may see problems first hand but it will not be very correct for Governor Ambode to say he knows the problems of the people of Bariga more than the honourable member that comes from there. Sometimes, the government, whether at the state or national level – the governor or president – could harmonise everything, they could see everything from the global point of view, sometimes, they could have helicopter view of the problems of their areas. But in Lagos, the 40 members know more of the problems of Lagos State than Governor Ambode. So, the idea of having constituency projects is to serve the people better. If it is said let every legislator nominate projects for his constituency or district probably annually or bi-annually, these go into the budget of the state. However, no legislator should be allowed to execute any of such projects. But if the legislature and the executive can come together and take up the issues of constituency projects, discuss what the problems are; of course, each representative of the constituency will have to go back home, consult and get what the people really want and these will come in as inputs into the budget; it is a good idea. But the idea of the legislator executing projects is not acceptable and that leads us to yet another issue which will be better for us to look critically at the parliamentary system rather than this absolute presidential system.
Why do you prefer the parliamentary option?
This issue we are talking about, if the governor is head of the parliament, that is, if he is also an elected member of the House, he is now prime minister or premier, as the case may be. Now, the 40 constituencies in Lagos elect one member to represent them and it is from among those 40 members that one person is, then, elected to lead the government. Everyone brings the problems to the table. This issue of the legislature and the executive is got rid of, the executive will be from among the parliamentarians too. So, we will all look at everything together; Approval of budget is among us, we do the lobbying of projects we need in our various constituencies; all these have to be in the budget. They end in the parliament.
Perhaps, this might reduce the cost of governance?
It is not perhaps, it will definitely reduce the cost of governance and make it more effective and efficient.
Are you advocating adoption of parliamentary system in subsequent constitutional review or conference?
It is something we need to look at critically, especially, now that our purse is even so lean.
Generally, what is your assessment of the development of the legislature in the past 17 years of democracy?
Nigeria is 102 years old. Using ths my analogy, our father, the first Clerk of Lagos City Council, Senator Fasero, is about 98 years now, so, Nigeria is just a little older. Senator Fasero has children, grand children and even great grand children. Now, one of his great grand children who is 17 years old, is mandated to oversight the activities of Senator Fasero and his wife, who is of the same age. So, this 17 years old boy will look at the activities, police Senator Fasero 98 years old and the 98 years old woman. Send that 17 years old boy to Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge and when he comes back, let him stay with our IG of Police to understand policing, let him go and attach with a Sheriff in America, or Scotland Yard, teach him all the techniques of policing, this boy after all the education, exposure, will not still have the wisdom and knowledge that Senator Fasero has. Will you start blaming this boy for not living up to expectation? He doesn’t have the experience of his grandpa.
Unfortunately, because we hurry to nowhere as Nigerians, it reflects in our life style; reflects in everything we do. We are in a hurry to get the legislature to over-perform. We forget the fact that the executive and the judicial arms have been there since the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914. Whether in agbada or khaki, we always have the executive and judicial arms. The experience those two arms have gathered over 102 years, the legislative arm that is assigned to oversight them, has not gathered. It is only about 17 years old.
I worked very hard to ensure the legislative arm of government in Lagos became independent of the executive. Despite all that we put in, we cannot say that the legislature is 100 per cent independent. Of course, all the arms have to work interdependently; one arm is still far in terms of ability than the others.
The legislature needs to get its axe together, we need to train, develop that arm so that our expectations can be met, so that the responsibilities that the constitution puts on that arm can be carried out effectively. As at now, there is still a gulf of difference. Quite unfortunately, most of those who are supposed to help out or who are supposed to do some of the things are too consumed in the usual Nigerian thing than getting focused or building institutions that will outlive them or that will make the legislature what the constitution envisages. There is still s lot to be done. It takes time and the attitude of the people, also, towards the legislature, must change. We must also allow the legislature to grow.
Even where we copied the constitution and the idea of presidential system, you see legislators going back to the House as many times as possible. The job of the legislator is not like that of the executive or judiciary. In the judiciary, judges go through law education in the university, law school and continue to practice. They stay on and continue to accumulate experience over time. The experience of a High Court judge or the chief judge or a judge of the court of appeal, and the wisdom that follows, are not things that he come about overnight. So, we must consciously make the legislature grow by allowing legislators go back to the Assembly as many times as possible if they performed. Experience for legislative business is not acquired from the colleges; it is a long service thing. It is something you get by interacting with those who already know, by going out, by interacting with legislators from other clime who already have the experience.
Watching what the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, is currently going through, would you support the idea of immunity for head of the legislature?
The immunity granted the legislator at present doesn’t make sense. You have a situation where your immunity is a few minutes immunity, whatever you say on the floor of the House, nobody can sue or do anything about that. That is not fair. The man you give the power to the purse and you make him see the treasury stashed with chips notes, dollars, pounds, Naira, Euro, is given full immunity. He can only look at the currencies, put them in his pocket and say they are going to use them for public good, and you give him full immunity. Haven’t you created some contradictions? The man who watches over him, ensuring that public expenditures reflect citizens’ needs, does not have immunity to do his job. There will be chaos because that man looking at what is on the table can get carried away. It is not fair that the man who is going to execute the law that I make is granted immunity and I, the head of the legislature where that law came from, have no immunity.
You know what happened to me over a period of time. For the entire Seventh Assembly, I was one day in the court, another day in the House throughout; when I actually oversee 1.2 per cent of the budget. The man who is in charge of 99 per cent of the budget has immunity. This immunity thing, it is either we keep it or we throw it out. It is not fair that the head of the legislature can be thrown into any form of controversy at any time, be drawn to the court, taken to the dock, when the executive are fully protected. Something is wrong somewhere. The system is such that if we want even the executive to perform – the president, the governor, – they should have somebody also that they are scared of, somebody who can put them on their toes. That is what is envisaged in the constitution. Unfortunately, that is not taken care of. If the governor can easily call on the director of SSS to pick the Speaker on any flimsy excuse or tell the Commissioner of Police to get him arrested, how do you expect that Speaker to be able to look into the eyes of the governor and say, governor, this one that you are doing is not proper. Something needs to be done. The idea of immunity is either forgotten or it should go round, let the head of the legislature also have it to avoid distractions.
It is now one year the All Progressives Congress (APC) took over the Federal Government, some Nigerians complain that President Muhammadu Buhari has not done well, some others say he has done well, would you say the APC change is working?
For you to build, you will have to first pull down. It takes longer time to lay foundation in marshy terrain than it takes putting the blocks over one another to the high heavens. Nigerians are always in a hurry going to nowhere. It is sad that we don’t look beyond the surface. It is a national malaise. The economy was already shattered, battered, before APC took over. To expect that in one year, the turnaround will be so magical, is an act of foolery. That one is not possible. Yes, there is so much pain; you cannot hinder the people not to complain. They don’t deserve the pains they are experiencing now. But there is no gain without pain. If we really want a better tomorrow, we must endure the pains of today’s restructuring.
However, President Buhari must see to it that real and actual restructuring takes place during his time. The destruction of the last years cannot be compensated for in a year. But I insist, the onus is on Buhari to ensure proper restructuring of this economy so that we don’t continue in the culture of mismanagement and misdirection. It is very sad that with all that God has given us, we still find ourselves where we are today.
Nigeria has got all it takes to join the comity of advanced economies, but it is like we pay lip service to the problems of the country. Misplaced priorities are our preferences. Until we have that orientation, redirect ourselves and re-commit ourselves to the serious business of nation building, we may not get out of the crisis.
Don’t you think getting the right leadership is also a problem?
A people get what leadership they deserve. Everyone talks of leadership; interestingly, the leaders of government, our society, communities, today, are from amongst us. The leaders of this economy, country, the constituencies, yesterday, were from our midst. Those who were leaders before now were from our midst. We blamed those who were there four days ago that they did not perform; we blamed those who were there two days ago that they messed up, those who left yesterday, we say they messed up, those who are there today, we are complaining about them. Why don’t we look at ourselves?
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Are you pushing the blame people who do not control public funds or policies?
I am one of those few lucky ones who have gone through the entire strata in this society, from the very lowest to the point where you say one of the leaders in the society. I have had the opportunity of interacting with members of this society, all possible groups from the very poor, the uneducated, to the ruling elite. The problem is all the same. Only very few are really committed to making this society better that the one they met. The masses that you probably, as a good person, a man who is community oriented, fight for or think about, don’t even think about themselves, don’t even think of the future of the society. What we do individually is so ungodly that you start asking yourself, what is the business of the Churches, all the Mosques that we find all over the place, all the so-called leaders. We are so ungodly about our society; we have become so selfish about life. Everyone is busy running after this vanity. We forget that the scripture says be thy brother’s keeper. In fact, there are very few families who are godly with themselves as members of micro families – husband, wife and children. Everyone is thinking of playing the smart one.
Have you, then, been constantly supporting President Buhari for a change in public attitude?
My support for Buhari is based on my perception of his person that at least this one does not see this terrain as the ultimate and final. I don’t see him as amassing wealth like the madness in us, the younger generation. So, he has this singular opportunity of sorting out this problem and helping out. That is why he should concentrate on institutional building. Like the corruption war which is uppermost in his administration, is worth it but that fight will outlive him only if democratic institutions, institutions to tackle societal problems, are built on solid grounds, solid foundations. The scripture says for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is the problem we have in the country today. Those who are shouting this Buhari after one year, where were they when the journey to this valley, this pit, started; when we were busy wasting the funds of the country, the resources that were at our disposal. Where were these people, that they now want Buhari to overturn the misfortune in just one year?
We need to be more godly. Buhari cannot do these things alone. Of course, this is not to say that the present administration does not have its own portion of the blame but we should stop condemning a man who is not responsible for our misfortunes. I want to believe that he is looking seriously into the problems and trying to tackle them headlong. I pray that he succeeds. I also implore him to employ tactics that will guarantee success.
Do you think the President is going in the direction of success?
So far, Buhari has arrested some of the decay in the system. He has been able to put a stop to the decline. It was a valley of no return. We have not got to the very bottom of the valley before he stopped it. Somehow, to push it back to the surface is not an easy task.
The government should also be more open about what it is doing. People must know what we are going through. It is not enough to have good intentions because the Yoruba will tell you that if you are roasting groundnut for a blind man, you must continue to whistle because the blind man will believe that the minute you are silent, you are already eating his groundnut. But if you continue to whistle, his mind will be at rest that you are working for him. Buhari should be open about the activities of his administration. His ministers should tell us what they are doing on regular basis. When Kachikwu told us that before scarcity will subside, it will be May, people abused him. He withdrew the statement but the scarcity continued. We didn’t have petrol until May. Let them tell us the truth of what is happening in government so that we know that the pains we endure, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
So, on regular basis, the President should communicate with the country not just asking one trumpeter to say it.
He has tried but the situation has been so bad that it is difficult to see any result. When President Barak Obama got into office, he got in at a very “wrong time”. But in the last eight years, he has worked round the clock; the statistics is there that he has saved industries, rebuilt the economy. The US economy is upwardly mobile right now. The figures and what is happening now testify to that. Buhari should do the same. He should tell us what we should expect next. That will help keep the people calm. As it is now, Nigerians are highly agitated.