In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES‘ Bakare Majeed, the Chairman House Committee on Media, Benjamin Kalu, speaks on the plan to renovate the National Assembly complex with N37 billion, the House legislative agenda, delay in the passage of PIB and Electoral Bill and other issues. Excerpt:
PT: You have been very vocal about the need to renovate the National Assembly complex, Does the leakage on Tuesday validate your concerns?
Kalu: You see, Nigerians need to understand how the parliament operates, and also how we are accommodated. The fact remains that this property is under the Federal Capital Development Administration (FCDA). It remains that this property is maintained by the FCDA, not the National Assembly. But our duty is appropriate for the Federal Capital Territory as well. They don’t have a house of assembly for Abuja and they presented N37billion.
So when Nigerians say we presented N37 billion — it was presented by those who manage this property. All we needed to do was to ask if it was enough or more than enough as we do for any other MDAs. And at the end of the day, we agreed that N37bilion should be allocated for this iconic building that defines the Nigerian space—the architectural space. Was the N37 billion appropriated by us made available to the FCDA? To say yes is to deceive the general public and for the general public to assume in the affirmative is also an assumption hinged on ignorance. So, what is the truth? The truth is that N37 billion was appropriated by this House, and COVID came, and the impact of COVID affected everything, including the amount that was appropriated for this particular property.
Therefore, the need to phase the renovation became important. And the first phase amounted to N9 billion, and N9 billion was what was appropriated. You know how the government operates. They don’t give you the cash of N9 billion. There is a procurement process as allowed by our procurement law, which must be fulfilled. Unfortunately, our Procurement Act allows a couple of months for the procurement process to finish and there comes the rain. Nigerians need to know that what has happened now re-emphasises our position all this while, that we need this place to be taken care of. We are not going to be here forever. It is not our father’s house, but we need to be taken care of here. Look at my phone (the intercom), I cannot dial anybody. I cannot call the next aide through this phone. I cannot call any member of the National Assembly. It was designed for me to stay here and talk to the Speaker and through the intercom speak to the Deputy Speaker and members of other committees, but none of these is working. If I want to call my staff I will either call them on the cell phone or use my doorbell. All these have to do with maintenance. You see these (CCTV) cameras here, they need to be overhauled for the security of the members of the National Assembly. For good video and picture capturing, these cameras need to be overhauled — they need to be maintained. You go to some toilets and they are not functioning. You go to our hearing rooms and the air conditioners are not working. We had to bring in air conditioners that we hired to be able to keep the place air-conditioned and for us to work. It ought not to be so.
But this is not the only parliament that has seen leakage, even in America, it is not the only parliament, let me read you something, “Jennifer Steinhauer in Washington reported through the New York Times that Capitol Dome is in peril by 1300 cracks, amidst partisan rift, ‘The Capitol Dome, the nation’s grandest symbol of federal authority, has been dinged by years of increment weather, and its exterior is need of repair. The Dome has 1300 known cracks and breaks. Water that has seeped in over the years has caused rusting on the ornamentation and seen in the interior of the Rotunda, just feet below the fresco. Like most of what the federal government is on the hook to fix– like highways, bridges, and airports– the Dome is in peril both by tough economic times and by a politically polarised Congress. While the Senate appropriated funds to repair the Dome, which has not undergone renovation for 50years, their house counterparts say there is no money right now. In that way, the Dome is a metaphor for the nation’s decaying infrastructure.” This was in 2012 in America. We are talking of a country 250 years of democracy.
Nigerians need to know that it is not the fault of the National Assembly that the place is leaking. We raised the alarm about the dilapidated state of this early enough. I have raised this issue several times like you mentioned. I was the first to complain that the places people go to the toilet, the water system is not functioning well and that leakages will be hitting us soon, and it is here. So most of the things we have complained about have been reemphasised by an act of God.
PT: But some would argue that the leadership of the National assembly and the executive are in the same party, what happens to the “legislative diplomacy”?
Kalu: In the spirit of separation of power– even though we are three arms, we are one government. But in upholding that principle; the spirit of checks and balances should not be compromised. The spirit of independence of each arm of government should not be compromised. Therefore, the mandate of the constitution on each arm of government is clear, the limit of operation of the legislative arm, and the beginning of the operation of the executive arm to the limit, and the same for the judiciary.
When the executive arm leave their job for the legislators to do, there is an infringement into the duties of the executive. Therefore, ours was to raise the alarm because the public comes here. This is a public property. it belongs to the Nigerian people; it is beyond us. Nigerians own here. This (referring to his office) is like the embassy of Bende Federal Constituency. This place belongs to my federal constituency. If it were to be a national cake, this place belongs to the Bende federal constituency. They have a right to be here, knock on this door and come in.
Now, if my traditional rulers or leaderships of faith-based organisations or stakeholders come for a meeting and the House collapses on their heads because we refused to raise the alarm, then we have not fulfilled our legislative functions. After raising the alarm, the next job was to make the law, that would reflect that desire, and it is the constitutional mandate for us to make laws, to carry out legislative functions. That we have done by the appropriation bill that has become an Act, the budget.
PT: What about members who openly opposed the renovation?
Kalu: Some of those who spoke against it spoke out of ignorance. You know it is not everything that you should politicise. The facts about certain things speak for themselves.. You cannot use less amount to do a lot of work. This is a big facility, a big infrastructure for this nation, housing a full arm of government. Remember that the executive has pieces and pieces of buildings all over the country, belonging to the executive. Also remember that the judiciary has piece and pieces of federal courts here. Almost every state has a federal high court, that is a fact, and it accommodates the members of the judicial arm. But this particular arm of government is the only arm housed under one roof.
When you equate the expenses of the executive in operating their various accommodation locations across the country and that of the judiciary and for them to carry out their functions against what is needed to fix here, you will know that Nigerians are just complaining out of sentiments.
You should know that those members who spoke against it do not have facts and figures, considering the inflation rate and the exchange rate. You say the money is too much to fix this iconic building. You can say so if you want to fix it in a way that it will spoil tomorrow. Do you know this is my third office? I changed offices until I got to this place. Do you know what was chasing me? The smell from the toilet could not allow me to function in my office. This is because when you are working, it is smelly, which means the drainage system and the water system need to be worked on.
You need real experts to get this job done. So, we should not be looking at the amount of money we are talking about but we should look at the amount of work it will achieve. And gladly, the strategy of phasing it will not put a lot of burden on the national purse. So Nigerians should support this place to be fixed. It is very important that they do that.
PT: The 9th House clocked two years some weeks ago. What is your assessment of the e-Parliament as promised in the legislative agenda? What is happening with electronic voting?
Kalu: So far so good! The issue of e-Parliament is one of the global best practices as far as parliamentary practices are concerned. The 9th Assembly decided that Nigeria should not be left behind, especially the House of Representatives in view of climate change, which is caused by deforestation. The need to go paperless became a driving force behind that decision. What the installation has achieved was to capture most of the parliamentary procedures into soft copies, distributed to members during plenary without littering the place with papers. It is more cost-effective, more sustainable and it is readily available.
Unlike before when members will forget House rules (Standing order) at home, some will forget their constitution and will not be able to make reference to them during a debate, most of these documents have been captured. All you need is to touch a button. We are as thorough as votes and proceedings of the House and you can go back using the date of the particular sitting to call up a particular piece of activities or resolution or motions of the day.
So it is useful, but as you know, technology and innovations, when they come, initially they will battle with tradition. Tradition will always fight innovation but when the usefulness of innovation outweighs the impact of tradition, innovation will become the new order, it will become the new norm. We are heading there. To tell you that we have gone entirely e-parliament, it will be to deceive the general public. But has the right step been taken, the answer is yes. Is it yielding the right fruit, the answer is yes. Do we want it to be sustainable, the answer is yes.
There are so many things that we can do with that particular e-parliament that we have installed. The facilities that we have installed, are we maximising it at the moment? Not yet. But we are getting there. One of them is the e-voting that you mentioned. The technologists are working on it. We want it to be very efficient before making use of it. Vote capturing is very important. We don’t want errors while using it. I am sure that when we are back from our vacation, the technologists will have finished work on it.
PT: Some would argue that you have already crossed the halfway line. For instance, in your legislative agenda, it was stated that members will be voting electronically, and when the speaker inspected the installation in September last year, he harped on e-voting,
Kalu: Everything you said is correct. It is correct in the sense that one of the key roles that e-Parliament will fulfil is data capturing on the mode of voting. That is not all to that particular technology. We have succeeded in getting the other part working. I am sure that given time, they will also perfect how we can effectively use that. And that includes training and educating the members on that aspect because they are now aware of how to access their documents online through that particular platform. Once they are done with that voting aspect, which members are looking forward to, training will be done as expected for new technology and we will start using it.
When you say two years have gone and we have two years left, you are talking about technology here. We might have unforeseen issues in the implementation of the technology. We might want it to start working in five days and on the fourth day, there might be one nut or the other that they need to perfect. It is not unusual. We are expecting that the good hands that have handled it will be able to fine-tune them and educate us because we are looking forward to it. Members want their votes to be captured as one of the achievements that we want to record in this parliament; that we will have voting patterns on issues and our constituents would know how we voted on certain motions. They can use that to judge us, saying “We asked you to vote this way, you voted this way.” That is part of the transparency and accountability elements this House registered in their legislative agenda. It is one of the things that we want to achieve. Just like the public desires, we are also putting pressure on the technologists who are running the implementation of what we asked for. It might even start after our vacation.
PT: Petroleum Industry Bill and the Electoral Bill remain the most important legislations. However, several deadlines for their passage have been missed. Nigerians are still waiting. What is going on?
Kalu: It is important to note that the House has proposed in these two years 730 motions and resolutions. And the House, as one of the instruments of the legislative functions, which is bill, has done about 1400 bills. These bills include an executive bill, which is the PIB bill. You are aware that it was a private- sponsored bill before now. So, the body language of the executive towards it did not lead it to obtain assent from the president despite all the job done by the past assembly. They laid the foundation over the decade. The 9th Assembly took it as a mandate in the legislative agenda that in the view of the energy transition that is currently happening globally, Nigeria will not be left behind. Our inability to pass this bill is a step towards underdeveloping Nigeria when it comes to the energy sector, especially, the oil and gas. I said so in consideration of the competitiveness of our current laws for the sector when compared with other available opportunities for the IOCs in the continent. The law must be structured in a manner that will become a win-win for the host country and the IOCs, and even better competitiveness in comparison with other newly found oil nations across Africa. This is because there must be a selling point for the IOCs to bring the funds. The selling point could be the tax regime, the deductions that are made on the financial burden. Every investor wants to know his exit route. When he is going, is it going to be a loss through that exit or a gain? It is only when it is profitable that they would come in.
Therefore, the seriousness of this 9th Assembly to get it out of the way cannot be overemphasised because oil and gas are only going to be valuable for a while. As the day goes by, after 15years, the value of oil and gas will be going down. The window that we have now, we must structure and tailor our legislation in a way that we will be able to benefit maximally from what is available for the sector. Therefore, we promised Nigerians that before our vacation this bill would be passed and we are committed to it.
You saw me coming out from the PIB section. We sat down from 11 ‘o’clock, till 4 o’clock. We summoned the minister of petroleum, we summoned the GMD of NNPC and we have been deliberating on this bill. We will meet again next week Tuesday, to fine-tune the grey areas. The bill is in order, just a few grey areas that need to be fine-tuned – issues of frontier states, the host community and others. Hopefully, we will be able to meet the time we have set for ourselves.
PT: If I can deduce from your statement, during the public hearing into the bill, one of the major concerns for the IOC was taxation. Have there been meetings with IOCs?
Kalu: In the course of making a law, we draw up stakeholders and administration lists and we reach out to them in advocacy for that particular bill, for their input.
PT: Even after the public hearing?
Kalu: Even before the public hearing, we sought the input of the stakeholders, because it is not all the stakeholders that will come for the public hearing. That would help us to tailor the bill and reduce altercations during the public hearing. And when it gets to public hearing, we harvest inputs from stakeholders formally. So, if you attended that public hearing, you will agree with me that the IOCs were represented there and they made their presentation there.
So, their concerns were considered in the cause of framing this bill as it is. We are still working on the bill. Here is a copy. We have narrowed it down to these grey areas. So in the end, the interest of the IOCs must be protected, but not to the detriment of our nation. We must balance it in a way that it will become the beautiful bride that every investor will like to bring in money. The investors are looking at this law right now. If it goes well, it will bring in money and if it goes bad, they will not come. That is why we have asked the lawmakers to remove sentiments, sectionalism, ethnic interest and other interests and put Nigeria first to make sure we don’t drag our feet anymore and so that we can join the comity of nations in the energy sector to embrace the transition that is happening. We are committed to it and definitely we are going to get it out of the way, and Nigerians will be glad we did. In both the Senate and House, we have a joint committee, and we are working seriously.
PT: And the Electoral Act?
Kalu: We are introducing a whole lot of new dynamics into the democratic space, hence, the need to be more careful in finalising and fine-tuning it. It was that need that made us put the amount of energy we have put into it. It is at the final stage of fine-tuning and the next will be the clause by clause consideration and passage by the House. That also, we are committed because Nigerians need it to help us sanitise the democratic climes, and global best practices, using that legislative instrument because we know it is very significant. We are committed to sorting it out before our vacation. We are seriously pushing towards that and many are projecting September. Our target is to do it before our vacation. If there is any reason unknown to us, that would be the act of God. But for now, we are good to go, to push it before our vacation. If there is anything for it to increase, that we cannot control and we will adjust. But for now, our timeline and target is to get it done before our vacation.