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How Obasanjo, governors changed trajectory of National Assembly membership — Masari

Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari is a two-term former governor of Katsina State who served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 2003 and…

Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari is a two-term former governor of Katsina State who served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 2003 and 2007, when the issue of the third term agenda was born and killed. As a critical stakeholder in one of the most tumultuous moments in Nigeria’s 25 years of uninterrupted democratic rule, he shares his thoughts on how far the country has come, lessons to be learnt from some of the moments, and lessons for the future. Excerpt:

As a former speaker of the House of Representatives and a former state governor, you have been an active player in Nigeria’s 25 years of uninterrupted democratic journey. What is your assessment of this journey so far?

Well, first, let us thank Allah for giving us 25 years of uninterrupted civilian administration in which we have critical voters who didn’t know and didn’t have experience with military rule.

And again, we witnessed the transfer of power from one administration to another administration, as well as from one political party to another political party. So, for all these, we thank God for preserving our democracy and for preserving our country.

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Yes, 25 years may be a longer period in the life of a man, of a person, or of an individual, but not for a nation, because 25 years to build a nation or to continue building a nation; the best one can say is that it is work in progress.

We have witnessed regional shifts of power successfully, and this is also a plus for democracy. We have seen a Northerner as president from the North-West; we have seen a president from the South-West; we have seen a president from the South-South. So I think, keeping the political tempo the way it is going, Nigeria will certainly experience political stability, which will usher in progress.

But like all democracies, going through the histories of countries that emerged after imperial governments, either in Europe or Asia, they struggle and hope they come to be where they are; it has not been easy. It was full of challenges like those we are facing now.

We are facing Islamic fundamentalists in the name of boko haram, in the name of ISWAP. We are having bandits, insurgents, and divisive forces all over the country; like we read, that has happened in some countries.

Some are criminal in nature. Some are based on tribal or regional sentiments. Some are religious sentiments that we have witnessed and are witnessing, and they are part of the process of building a nation because other countries have faced similar situations and have emerged successfully.

Of course, everything that is human has its own errors and mistakes. But it is up to those in authority today to learn from the mistakes of the previous administration, correct them, make sure they don’t repeat them, and improve upon them.

The ordinary slogan by ordinary people, unfortunately including the elites, is that it is our turn. I think we should do away with it, that it is always the turn of Nigeria.

But of course we have to do some political balancing in order to create hope and provide comfort for all the nationalities that make Nigeria, so that the opportunities are open to all. That’s important.

 

The time you spent as speaker in the House of Representatives witnessed one of the most turbulent or dramatic periods in Nigeria’s 25 years. I’m talking about the third-term agenda that nearly rocked the boat of the democratic system at that time. Looking back now, would you say we have learned lessons from that experience?

Well, at least you can say yes, because nobody has attempted to amend the constitution since then in order to prolong or elongate his own tenure or to give him another opportunity.

What was fundamentally wrong with that—well, one could say morally wrong—was that those incumbents, both the president and governors, at that time wanted to benefit from the amendment. Probably, if they had come up with something that we have realised based on experience that eight years is not enough, we are thinking of making it 10 or 12 years, but we will not be beneficiaries; maybe some people will say that yes, it was with good intention. But the leadership at that time wanted to benefit from the amendment and continue in office. So, people felt it was morally wrong.

And again, given the nature of Nigerian politics, some people rightly felt that it was an attempt to stop their ambition. And some people also felt that amending for the third time would leave room for amending for the fourth time. And then we can have a president who can be in office for life because the door has been opened.

So really, it was a very difficult period. But when we, as presiding officers in the leadership of the National Assembly, decided that okay, while it is not wrong for anybody to ask for a constitutional amendment, it is also not wrong for anybody to oppose it.

So, we said, okay, let the process be in accordance with the constitution. It was clear that if the process is in accordance with the constitution, it will never happen because those against it need only 121 votes. Those for it need 240 votes in the case of the House. The same goes for the Senate.

It could have happened if it had gone to the state assemblies, because the serving governors at that time would have benefited. But the critical issue is that the country was lucky that it never passed the National Assembly.

Obviously, I think the 5th Assembly has allowed the constitution to work. And the constitution worked in favour of those who were opposed to that amendment.

 

Your predecessor as speaker, the late Ghali Na’aba, once said in an interview that the crop of federal legislators that came in 1999 remained the best because they were not influenced; their elections were not influenced by governors and presidents at that time. But, maybe from 2003 onward, he suggested that their emergence had become highly influenced by the change in party politics. Do you subscribe to this?

In every state and in every community, there are leaders. When we came into the PDP, there were leaders in the state

who were leading the party and allowed the process of nominating based on the party constitution to take place. So, even in Kano (where Na’aba came from), there were leaders who stood firmly to make sure that the constitution of the party was followed.

And, you know, at that time, the contest was not so keen because some people stayed out because they were afraid of investing or getting involved because there was apprehension that the military might come back.

So, like he rightly said, the governors did not influence the legislatures in 1999. But even then, the legislatures of 1999 had leaders in their states and communities.

But the leadership structure was changed by Obasanjo; instead of the party chairman being the leader, the governor became the leader in the state while he, as the president, became the leader, the national leader. So, I think that gave the governors and the president enormous power, not only in governance but also in the party.

Certainly, by 2003, you can say most of the people came to the House with the blessing of their governors. But, you know, in the National Assembly, somebody may come with an idea from his state. But coming to the National Assembly, you will find that that idea, if he cannot subsume it into the national interest, that idea will die. He will now gradually start to see himself more as a member of the National Assembly, representing Nigerian interests, than with the parochial attitude that he had earlier. If not for that, how did some of the legislation, especially the third term, die? Because all the governors would have benefited, only a few of them came out, especially those from the South West, to oppose it.

So, obviously, you could say there was a difference in terms of those who came in 1999 and those who came after. Yes, naturally, there are differences because the leadership at the state level has changed. Now the governor is the leader. So, obviously, the selection process was influenced by him.

 

Still on the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature. Do you think this influence has benefited Nigeria? And I would like you to also speak about the different styles of leadership that we have witnessed at the National Assembly with the Executive. Your leadership was different, obviously different from the one that preceded it. And in the subsequent one, most recently in 2015, we have had a more cantankerous relationship with the National Assembly leadership and the president. Then in 2019, it became what some Nigerians started calling a rubber stamp National Assembly. Some have also used that to describe the present one. What is the best form of relationship that Nigerians should envisage and hope for in the National Assembly and Executive relationship?

It should be a relationship that does not compromise the principles and a relationship that is not confrontational, because if it becomes confrontational, the general population of Nigerians will suffer.

Then, if it becomes a cooperative relationship with respect to each arm of government, obviously the country will benefit. But anything else can create chaos.

You see, in 1999, Obasanjo, who was a former military head of state, didn’t work with the National Assembly. He had no experience dealing with or relating with the National Assembly, he had no experience. He saw himself as a president coming from prison to rescue Nigeria. That rescue was in his own image, not a collective image. He may be wrong, and he may be right. But certainly, on some issues, he was wrong. On some issues, he was right. After all, he was a human being. We are bound to make those mistakes.

All of us came to the legislature in 1999. We were never in the National Assembly before. Few of us were in the National Assembly between 1992 and 1993, under Babangida, and they never had powers like the 1999 National Assembly.

A few of us participated in these constitutional conferences, which do not have powers like the National Assembly does. So, in terms of real legislation, we were all new. Because I don’t think I can remember, in 1999 we had a legislator who participated from 1979 to 1983. I very much doubt it in the House of Representatives. So, we were all green horns. With a green-horn president who was a military head of state. He was the legislature, he was the judiciary, and he was the executive because, under the military, he has the Supreme Military Council, of which he is the chairman and dictates everything.

So, by 2003, the scenario had started to change. Even Obasanjo has started to change because he has now seen the limitations of his powers.

Certainly, when I became Speaker, we saw some improvements. Definitely, there were improvements in terms of relations between the National Assembly and the Executive.

Even then, we disagreed, and we agreed to disagree. You know, you don’t have to go to the marketplace and abuse your wife so that everybody will know you are the husband.

The critical bills that Obasanjo presented in the National Assembly were seriously dealt with, but not in the manner he had wanted. The Labour Reform Bill, the Pension Bill—these were critical bills—and the Constitutional Amendment Bill—I can count many bills that came to the House during his period and went back to him with major amendments that he signed. Even the tax reform bill was among the last laws that we passed in 2007.

So, by 2015, you know, the party really had candidates. The party had candidates for Senate President and Speaker, which were obtained based on the experience the National Assembly had when Aminu Waziri Tambuwal defiled the zonal arrangement of the PDP and emerged as Speaker against the zonal arrangement of the PDP.

So whatever happened in 2015 was not new. It started in the house. And again, with the type of president we had in 2015, once he stands on principle, on something he believes, that’s where he stays. Unlike Obasanjo, he will not talk, and he will not fight. He will not be in the media. But you know where he stands. So from day one, there was this problem.

But in any case, they managed to reach 2019 with a few serious issues. Of course, they had their problem in the National Assembly, and some of our chief executives and some of the heads of some agencies lost their offices because of the way they tried to intervene or handle the crisis in the National Assembly.

So by and large, yes, and you could see the leadership of the National Assembly, before the end of their tenure, left APC to join PDP. But in 2019, anybody who knows Sen. Ahmed Lawan will never see him as a docile or leader of a rubber-stamp assembly. I have been with him since 1999.

Under my leadership, he was a committee chairman and, in fact, a member of my inner caucus. On several occasions between 1999 and 2003, I had to intervene between him and the chairmen of the committees we both served on.

Anyone who knows Ahmed Lawan cannot call him a rubber stamp person. But the problem is that you pressmen, in particular, like to see blood. When there is no blood, you say, Ah, they are not fighting.

No, I know Ahmed Lawan. I can vouch for him now, today, and tomorrow. I know him. You can’t make Ahmed Lawan a rubber stamp. I don’t think so.

 

Many people feel that Nigeria has derailed from plans and goals that necessitated the creation of a local government tier of government, which is to get governance closer to the grassroots. Some said it was because of the overbearing influence of governors, starting in 2003 up to date, where you see some states don’t even have local government elections. Do you share this view, and in what way can Nigeria improve its local government administration to benefit Nigerians?

Look, I think there seems to be confusion in the constitution. We can say the constitution is unique to us. You created local governments; you have mentioned them by name in the constitution. At the same time, you said the state house of assembly should legislate for them and that there should be a joint account. And in the joint account, there is a lacuna.

So if you want to operate a real federation, the federating units should be the states and the federal government. Then allow states the opportunity to create local governments or come back to the constitution and really create a third tier of government, which is the local government, with full powers like the governor, who is not under the president.

Then you have to ask, do you want to have the states and local governments also independent of the governors? So that’s where the confusion is. 

Nigerians will have to say what they want. If you want a real three-tier system of governance where the local governments are independent, then you remove them from the states.

 

Often times, people call you a democracy child because you always celebrate your birthday on May 29. You turned 74 this year. I know last year you said you were handing off partisan politics, or elective positions, and that you were no longer interested in contesting.

You see, more than two years ago—it is not about last year—I made it very clear that after I finished my tenure as governor, I would never contest for any elective office again. I would not be very active. But I will be supportive of the government and of my party, and I can take any assignment that is given to me by my party, provided it is not too demanding. And I can take an appointment given by the federal government, provided it is not too demanding.

Well, for me to be in the field, well, I may escort somebody, but certainly not myself. I don’t want to see my face on any poster or anything else again. In fact, I have decided to keep quiet.

 

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