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‘It is wise to have another glance at parliamentary system’


Ghali Umar Na’Abba

Former Speaker, House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba, spoke with Leo Sobechi on sundry issues as Nigeria marks 59 years of independence, arguing that there are genuine reasons to take a second look at the parliamentary system of governance as the country grapples with many issues of development. Excerpts:

In Nigeria, there is a new cabinet and we are talking about the 59th independence anniversary, which means by next year we will be talking about Nigeria at 60. From your experience, what essential features of statecraft do you think the country needs to move forward together and progressively?
In 1999 Nigeria decided to accept democracy, a system within which its leaders should be recruited. Unfortunately, not everybody understands this democracy. Twenty years after we started, we have still not begun to see the kind of changes that democracy ought to have brought to us and this is because people at the highest level have been rallying around it to the extent that today there is virtually no election within our political parties and in the absence of election, we are talking about dictatorship, arbitrariness or authoritarian rule.


I will like to see a situation whereby our political parties are allowed to grow by allowing elections to be done internally and I will like to see a situation where the national orientation agency is given the mandate to train those people in authority in our political parties from the ward level, ward executives of our political parties; they must be given tutorials as to what is democracy, why we are practising it, what it is meant to bring about and how to operate it and even the relationship between our political institutions must be exposed to these people because most of them do not know.

A lot of them think that democracy is a license for people to do as they wish with the resources of the people and this is not the case. There must be a level of education and intellectual activity and intellectual prowess in anybody that intends to participate in this system; even the citizenry must be mobilised in such a way that they understand what democracy is all about. Up till now, the majority of our people are treated as if they are slaves and this must be tackled.
The world, the continent, and our country are all in turmoil, but what do you make of this uncontrollable spate of insecurity in the land?

My own belief is that this spate of insecurity is a result of many years of bad governance. For many years there has been a disconnect between those in government and the people. We must expect these kinds of problems whenever there is bad governance. And it is a measure of how bad governance has become in this country that we have been suffering from so much insecurity.

You will agree with me that it is the absence of economic and social security that has been fuelling insecurity. I must, however, commend the current administration for its effort so far. Of course, because of the enormity of the problems inherited by the administration, it is impossible for the tide to be stemmed within a short period of time, more so with endemic corruption.


I believe that in time the problem will be substantially solved, but that is also a function of how much cooperation those in authority receive and, on their own part, how much cooperation they give to all attempts to solve the problem. The authority needs the people as much as the people need the authority to solve this problem and my expectation is that the Federal Government will continue to dialogue with local communities in order for these problems to be exposed in their right perspectives so that they can be solved, because unless the problems are understood from the social point of view, it is going to be very difficult to solve them. It is not an issue for just the military or the police; most of these problems started as social problems and they ended up as national security problems. This is my take on what is going on today in our country.

Do you think the government has been engaging the people appropriately?
I believe there is an improvement from the time the administration started. The engagement was not pervasive, but increasingly I see the administration engaging the people; it has improved. My prayer is that it is going to continue to improve. It is very difficult running a government, but I know that this administration is concerned about its image, especially as far as security is concerned, because this administration campaigned on the tide of the fight against corruption, solving the security situation and solving the problem of unemployment. The administration is very sensitive about these problems and I believe that there has been a remarkable improvement in the level of dialogue and engagement with those concerned. Like in Zamfara State, the government is engaging the others and the security situation has substantially improved in that state and that would not have happened without the active collaboration of the Federal Government. The Katsina State government is similarly approaching the problem in the same way Zamfara State government approached it and we are seeing some results and, as I said, these things will not stop overnight, but there is an improvement.

It all boils down to the issue of intelligence gathering, because recent events like what happened in Taraba over a kidnap kingpin and the case of soldiers making away with N400 million, most Nigerians say there appears to be collusion or insider involvement of some security personnel fueling the climate of insecurity. What do you think are the causes of these and how do you think they could be addressed?
I believe that as somebody that has served in government at a higher level, there are certain problems that are very difficult to expose because exposing them is also going to compromise the security position. So, rather than exposing these problems, attempts are made to solve them without compromising security. There are situations where people who serve at the highest capacity engage in a lot of things, but they cannot expose them up to the end of their lives, because exposing these things compromise even the security of the country. So, some of these things are solved through what is known as quiet and preventive diplomacy and I believe that in a lot of cases this government has solved a lot of things through this quiet and preventive diplomacy. There are some things, however aching and worrisome they are, you do not expose. But the government is not comfortable with situations where, for example, the N400 million caught with some military personnel is concerned and other cases that are almost similar.


A lot of officers complained that there appears to be indiscipline in the force like extending the stay of service chiefs without necessary upward mobility. Could this also be a contributory factor?
Of course, in the ruling of the affairs of the state, mistakes are bound to happen and I believe that in time government itself will see a reason not to continue to do these kinds of things. Like in the military, discipline is needed and the military is the kind of institution that needs some level of exemplary leadership. In its absence, you will find out that those in uniform begin to lose confidence, and when they begin to lose confidence, the security situation in the country will definitely be compromised. I believe that the government will learn from its mistakes and make amends.

Just as you pointed out that some states governors like that of Katsina are taking proactive measures to contain the issue of banditry, do you think this profitable kidnapping for ransom will ever abate, especially in the North?

I believe that it will abate. A lot of kidnappers when interviewed complain that they are tired of the business because they are always on the run; they are not comfortable; they are always on the run, running from place to place to hide which is not a comfortable life. So, a lot of them indicate that they were even better in the days before they started kidnapping than they are today. When collecting ransom; at the same time, they do not have the freedom to enjoy whatever ransom that they get. So, they also complain that they are tired and want peace achieved within their community and the government, but you will see definitely in this type of enterprise that there are renegades that will not stop. Crime in any society cannot be completely eliminated but it can be substantially converted and this is my take.

Another headache is the pastoralist versus farmers’ crisis in the South. Some state governors, with a ready example being Benue State, promulgated the anti-grazing bill. But, based on the structure of the country and the constitution, enforcing the law is still the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government as every prison is federal. How do you think state governments can implement their own blueprint on security?
In this respect, I very much advise that the issue of state police should be revisited because these crimes happen in the states. It is the states that have territories and, in any case, it is not wise to have State Houses of Assembly that make laws without a corresponding arm to enforce the laws of the state. So, on the issue of security, I believe governors must have a hand in it and what is important is, safeguards must be made such that governors do not misuse the state police, but I believe that state police is desirable in this country for effective policing.


After 20 years, do you think that the legislature has gotten that confidence and capacity to make laws for the good of the state, irrespective of political considerations?
I do not think that state assemblies have acquired sufficient capacity in this country. The State Assemblies have been operating under the shadows of their governors and where the governors do not allow the election to take place, you find out that they recruit people that do not have the capacity to serve in the State Assembly, as lawmakers. So our state Assembly has not grown since 1999; that is why I always advocate that there must be internal democracy in our political parties. It is only when there is internal democracy, competition, and inclusion that this democracy can grow, but so far it has not grown and it must be allowed to grow. It is only when it grows that our legislature, not only in the state but also the Federal legislature, can grow.

Given what played out during the election of principal officers in the National Assembly, do you think even the federal legislature has the necessary constitutional independence and confidence to do what is right by way of legislation?
I believe that those elected to preside over the two chambers of the National Assembly are qualified to preside over the affairs of the chambers and I know them personally and I believe that they are committed democrats and I believe that they would do whatever is possible to make progress in our democracy. Having said this, I believe it will be presumptuous also to judge them at this level; so, we should watch out and see how they are going to operate.

Within the past 20 years, a pool of former speakers and floor functionaries has formed. Is there a way this pool of former floor-functionaries comes together to provide institutional balance and support for the leadership of the federal legislature?
There has always been an interaction between serving members of the National Assembly and former presiding officers, both at an informal and at a formal level. A lot of times, they invite us to attend their functions and a lot of times, they ask us for advice which we give; so the interaction subsists. However, I would like to see the interaction become more intense and more formal.


Recently, passions were inflamed in South Africa over the issue xenophobia. What do you think should be done to stem the tide of Nigerians being the butt of anger and violence overseas?
It is very sad that Nigerians are being attacked in South Africa. Nigeria did so much to ensure that the Apartheid case in South Africa was obliterated. Nigeria spent so many resources on the issue of Apartheid. In fact, we even lost a head of state because I remember it was just days after the late General Murtala Mohammed made that famous speech at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) where he attacked the United State’s Secretary of State over Apartheid in Angola that he was assassinated and we were reliably informed that the CIA was behind the assassination. So, it is very surprising that South Africans will start attacking Nigerians. However, what I will like to see is a situation whereby this issue is thoroughly investigated so that blame would be apportioned in a manner that is just, fair and equitable.

In the life of the 8th National Assembly, a group of members from the green chamber numbering about 70 suggested a return to the parliamentary system of government. Do you think that having practised presidential system for 20 years, based on either cost or some observed pitfalls noticed, it is necessary to take another look at the parliamentary system?

Well, most of the systems of separation of powers and the system of fusion of powers have their advantages and disadvantages.

People argue that the parliamentary system is more accountable and, for a country like Nigeria, the parliamentary system will be more effective because when you have the government and the lawmakers sitting together in one chamber, it provides a platform for the government to understand the implications and ramifications of what they are doing and to also understand fully what they are supposed to be doing. In the system of separation of powers where you have the executive arm separated from the legislative arm, a lot of times, you see conflict characterising the relationship even though friction must always subsist. It is believed that a level of cooperation is necessary for the two arms to work together and flourish but a lot of times that is not the case. It is wise for us to have another glance at the parliamentary system which we practised in the First Republic even though not to the satisfaction of many people, but with the benefit of hindsight, since we have practised the two systems, we are able to adopt among the two, which one we believe can best serve the country.


The National Assembly’s plan to purchase cars for members created a rumpus. How needful is that at this point in time, especially given the economic situation in the country?
I believe that in every job, mobility is very necessary and since the members cannot afford to buy cars, I think that the system must provide facilities with which they can engage in their jobs. Transportation is necessary for any meaningful job to be executed. So, I have no problem with legislators being bought vehicles in other for them to carry out their functions.

What advice do you have for the country to critically appraise the cost of governance vis-a-vis the demand for good governance?
The cost of governance must always be looked at or juxtaposed against the needs and the requirements of the country. We have a country that is diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally and people complain about two chambers at the federal level. We have the House of Representatives and we have the Senate.

The House of Representatives is voted for on the basis of the population of the state and you find out therefore that states like Lagos or Kano have 23 and 24 members whereas states like Bayelsa, Gombe, and Zamfara have about 5, 6 or 7 members respectively. So, you can see the disparity and that is why the Senate was created in order for the system to provide for equality. So, when you want to balance, there must be some cost attached to that balance; so everything is an opportunity cost. I believe that this system of balance has done so much to address the system of equity and so we have to leverage on these things, the issue of equity against the cost of governance. It is an opportunity cost. Whichever one we choose must be in the collective interest of the country. Having said that, it is important to say that every sector of this country enjoys a sense of belonging and this cannot be measured against the cost.

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