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Northern legislators are indeed bench warmers – Dr Yerima

Some of them are semi illiterates, some are secondary school leavers and half baked diploma holders. Most of them cannot read and understand motions and…

Some of them are semi illiterates, some are secondary school leavers and half baked diploma holders. Most of them cannot read and understand motions and bills. They cannot understand debates on the floor of House, so they feel inadequate in the chamber. So to keep away from embarrassment and inferiority complex, they don’t attend sittings. I quiet agree that a first degree should be made the least qualification to be a member of the National Assembly. Secondly, the social background of these members is another factor. Most of them are business men; car dealers, contractors, petty traders and hangers on of politicians, particularly governors. Their aim of coming to the House is simply to make money and increase capital. So, the National Assembly is seen as way of making fast and easy money; legislation is secondary. Most of them see the National Assembly as a fashion centre, where they display their white gowns, cars and handsets. So many of them have turned legislation up side down. To cover their inadequacies, they go to their constituencies and start buying cars, motorcycles, fertilizer and distributing to the electorate, as well as painting class rooms etc. I know of a member who bought a jeep for a governor. So, legislation is no more about motions, bill and debates in the chamber. It is about providing what the executive is supposed to provide using their allowances. Third, the mode of election too is a factor. The governors have pocketed the political process. So, they chose only the candidates they want,  to the National Assembly and they do so with the knowledge that these people will one day come and challenge them. So they chose only those who are docile. I know of a governor who is afraid of any educated person and such a governor will not like someone who is highly educated and intelligent to be in the National Assembly coming from his state.

You just made broadside allegations. Can you mention some of your colleagues who have, in your own words, turned legislation up side down?

No, I wouldn’t want to mention names but I do know that some members have been in the National Assembly for about ten years now and they have never made contributions on the floor of the House. A large chunk of them, from 2003 to date, have not uttered the word “Mr Speaker“ on the floor of the House as Ujudud Sharriff, (a columnist with Daily Trust) has said. They don’t attend sittings and they pay chamber attendants to write their names in the register.

But don’t you think that their constituents are also to blame?

The process of recall is cumbersome. And I’m sorry to say that most of the constituents don’t even know that this clause exists. It is not easy to recall a member because it requires at least 2/3 of the members of the constituency. Now, who spear heads the recall process? Who pays for the logistics?

It is the duty of the legislator, having known what is required of him constitutionally as a member of the National Assembly, to tell his constituents that his primary duty is not to build classrooms and paint hospitals and provide motorcycles. It is his duty to inform them even if it is at the expense of his seat. But largely, they do this, as I said, to cover their inadequacies. Second, they do these as a bribe to return to the National Assembly. The political consciousness of these requirements on the part of the constituents is not simply there. So it is expected that the legislator should explain to his people his primary responsibility.

In this regard, don’t you see this as failure of the political parties to provide the right voter education?

 Political parties are also responsible and it boils down to what I have said about the process of selection. In collusion with the governors, political parties chose candidates who can dance to their tunes and it cuts across all the political parties. In 2003 and even in this dispensation, there are members who went to the House but never contested for that position and after the election, Professor Maurice Iwu just gave them certificates of return.  There are cases which the courts have dealt with and currently a member has appealed to Supreme Court.  So, the political parties are as guilty as the governors. They don’t want to educate the electorate to know their rights in the process of election. And even if the electorate comes to know their rights, at the tail end, their votes will not count. So, it is not the candidates who they chose that ultimately go to the National Assembly.

You earlier proposed a first degree as the basic qualification for a legislator. Are you proposing same for people who will occupy executive positions?

The work at the legislative arm of government needs an educated person to be able to read and understand and interpret the constitution of Nigeria, to understand and interpret some of the laws of Nigeria, to understand and interpret the rules of the House. So, you have to have a knowledge of what a motion is, what a bill is and what it contains and what it requires, before you now research on that particular bill or motion. So, that you can come with facts and figures and argue your case for or against that particular motion or bill. Most members of the National Assembly don’t have that knowledge.

I’m surprised that someone like you who has played progressive politics is advocating for the constriction of the political space, by proposing that only degree holders should be eligible   to be elected as federal legislators…

To some extent I agree that my proposal will shut out some people. But the issue is that every profession has its own qualification. I’m a Phd holder and I’m being addressed as a doctor but I can not just go to the hospital and start administering drugs on people. A military man has specialized in military tactics, you can not make him a farmer. So, every profession has its needed pre-requisites. But even now, some people have already been shut out; for instance why don’t we allow primary school holders? There are some very good, experience people, those who read in the olden days, who have primary school certificates, who are far better than the half baked diploma holders we have now. But the system, the constitution has shut them out. What I’m saying is, yes there is this danger that you have highlighted but it is far better to go with this danger and improve the system. The closure of the political space that you talked about is not going to be dangerous to the system. I do know that just because you are a degree holder, that does not make you patriotic and a good legislator. I know some legislators who have Phds who happen to be the most dangerous, stealing people’s money left, right and centre. But we are talking about the larger spectrum and contributions to debates.

You once described the deliberations in the National Assembly as mere “beer parlour“ debates. Could you explain what you mean by that?

In terms of debates, I think it will improve because I believe that a degree holder can to an extent, read and understand motions and bills and understand the constitution and the rules of the house.  I made the remark when I was a legislator, simply because most of us did not go for research when talking on sensitive issues. We just talked like men in beer parlours who go there and gossip. So, you find out that the debates were really shallow. I don’t know what is happening now because I don’t even watch proceedings on television. For you to debate meaningfully at the chambers you have to go for research and come out with facts and figures to buttress your points. So it needs someone who understands the process of research and what is required in that particular bill or motion. When debates are shallow, they are beer parlour debates and I believe that it can be improved upon when the entry qualification is raised. In fact, it was Governor Gabriel Suswam of Benue State who first suggested this and I really support him. If Suswam was a diploma holder, he wouldn’t have done well at the appropriation committee. How can a diploma holder or secondary school leaver chair a committee like House rules, education, foreign affairs?

In your time, how many motions did you move and how many bills did you sponsor?

I sponsored at least two bills and several motions. One of my bills did not pass the first reading because there was some politics. That was the amendment bill on the PPPRA law. I wanted a clause inserted in the law that before the agency can increase the price of petroleum, it must get clearance from the National Assembly. A committee was formed but politics truncated the noble intentions of the bill. But they’re were a whole lot of debates.