I stand with Keyamo

By Ken Ugbechie

It was democracy in action once again last Tuesday at the National Assembly. Mr. Festus Keyamo, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment was before a Joint Committee on Labour of both the Senate and the House. He was invited to brief the committee on a very important matter: the directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to his ministry to employ 774,000 Nigerian youths in all the 774 local governments across the nation. It works out to 1,000 jobs per local government. Noble idea.

So, Keyamo marched into the hearing room with his team. The minister probably came in peace, to open the books of operation before the Assembly members, to answer questions and make explanations to Nigerians before the press. He wanted an open, transparent discussion. But as usual, our lawmakers have other ideas. It flowed from the belligerent tonality of their inquisition. It showed in their bellicose prodding, in their indignant visage.

Before the cameras and a battery of journalists present in the hearing room, Keyamo and his team were accused of being shady with the process. But Keyamo is a lawyer. Not the timid type. He’s also an activist. Bold, outspoken and full of spunk. Remember his case against Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi in those days. He has ruffled feathers. He’s never one fazed by the stage; never one intimidated by big names or occasions. In fact, he’s cut for the big stage, chiseled for controversies. Made for the maelstrom. Combustible yet organized. He’s of the late Gani Fawehinmi nursery of lawyers. From the tone of discourse, Keyamo felt his reputation has been impugned by the accusation or suspicion of opacity in the modus operandi for the 774,000 jobs.

The lawmakers were not smart. They had already worked up themselves into a frenzy of dander. They could not mask their irritation at a perceived wrong by Keyamo and his ministry. You could sense their fit of fury. It catalyzed into a paroxysm of indignation. The lawmakers were openly livid. I guess Keyamo sensed he has walked into an enemy territory.

First, like a trained war strategist, he kept his cool. The lawmakers were firing salvo after salvo. They shot arrows at his ministry, pelted at his character in a manner that even questioned his reputation. But he kept sealed lips; maintaining a stoic silence that is so loud in essence and message. You could hear the loudness of his silence echo through the space. And then boom, the lawmakers played their usual wild card. Perhaps, thinking they have sufficiently intimidated Keyamo, they wanted all journalists out of the hearing room with their cameras and appurtenances of duty. They want to discuss with the minister in secret after openly accusing him of doing a shoddy job with a slant of misdemeanor.

Again, here, they misfired. They don’t know Keyamo, obviously. He’s not one to succumb to cheap parliamentary bullying. He insisted that every transaction must be done in the open. He insisted that having been accused openly, he should give his own account openly before the full glare of the public. Fair deal. You cannot question his logic. If the lawmakers raised issues on the job programme before the press, the minister must give his own account before the same press, not behind camera, not under whispers in a closed session. This was Keyamo’s sin. The minister was standing on the strong ramparts of morals; the legislators were crusading on their usual gravy train. The ensuing altercation precipitated in the walking out of the venue by the minister after he was repeatedly asked to “get out” by some of the shouting lawmakers. It bears stressing that the minister in the full glare of cameras showed long-suffering, tolerance and courtesy to the howling mob of lawmakers. The legislators’ demand for an apology from Keyamo naturally fell on deaf ears. It was needless apologizing. Keyamo did no wrong hence does not owe the lawmakers any apology.

But Nigerians know better. The lawmakers wanted to call the shots in a clearly executive duty. They wanted to write the rules, spruce up the list of beneficiaries and turn the programme solely created for poor, ordinary Nigerians irrespective of their political affiliation, into a political carrot. Nigerians and Keyamo reject this. The constitution does not confer the lawmakers any privilege to execute a project of this nature. I invite them to read Section 88 of the constitution once again. They are to appropriate money and do oversight; an investigative legislative duty that allows them vet the books to ascertain whether monies appropriated were judiciously utilized, whether the list so-generated was politicized, whether gender diversity and other spelt out considerations were observed. But never to be the drivers of the project. It’s an Executive show. Let the executive, to wit, the Ministry of Labour and Employment, do its job. We’ve seen signs that politicians may have hijacked the process. In Lagos, for instance, it’s become an APC affair. It should not be.

When President Buhari initiated this project, he meant it to be for all Nigerians irrespective of political party, faith, ethnicity or any other primordial fault-line that define us. It was to help the poor without the darkling tar of politics. To achieve this diversity and ensure that only those who should benefit from this programme actually profit from it, committees were set up nationwide made up of CAN, NSCIA, NURTW, market women, CSOs, youth organisations, traditional rulers. But the lawmakers don’t seem to trust these people. They trust only themselves and therefore must be the ones to draft the list of beneficiaries. Crap!

Keyamo must stand his ground. What the lawmakers do not know is that Nigerians are sick and tired of the nuisance they have become. The legislature is the symbol of any democracy. It is the bastion of constitutional government and the voice and defender of the people. But not here. The Nigerian legislature is a trading outpost of merchant politicians whose mores and values are driven by greed and fuelled by insatiable craving for lucre.  What were they going to tell the minister in secret that they cannot openly tell him in the documenting glare of camera? Why this primeval predilection to secrecy? Why can’t they deal with the minister openly? If they have any shred of suspicion of corruption in the process, was it not better to openly expose such corruption? But alas, there is no such thing. They probably wanted to introduce their trademark variant of corruption into a process that would benefit poor Nigerians. This is why some Nigerians chant ‘away with the legislature’. But I differ. We cannot do away with the legislature, otherwise we won’t have a democracy. But we can prune it. We can run a unicameral legislature that is lean and mean, smart and clean. The current bicameral legislature is bloated, idle and I dare say, has a sprinkling of men and women who ought to be in jail, not in the hallowed chambers.

They have been dealing with ministers and heads of parastatals but they met a hard bargain in Keyamo. He will not blink, a true scion of his legal godfather, the late Gani Fawehinmi. This Keyamo is a hard nut. I know him.

Ugbechie is Journalist and Public Analyst