HON. BENJAMIN KALU is the member representing Bende Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, he spoke recently with our correspondents, Doris Igwe on the ongoing budget defense, constitutional review, why the southeast should join the APC government at the center and other issues. Excerpts:
Hon Bende Federal Constituency
Ques: So far in the ongoing budget defense session, are there some critical observations, very unusual that you have made on personal level and at the committee level?
Ans: I must commend the executive for taking the budget presentation and defense seriously, the same way that the head of government took it seriously and came to the Calendar of presenting it early enough for us to work on it and get it back to the public beginning of next year. Today, we met with the minister of Agriculture who did not send his perm sec to come. He came himself. The other day we met with Fashola, the works minister who did not send anybody, he came himself. And I can go on and on. The minister of health was with us the other day, they came themselves. That shows the commitment to the expectations of Nigerians and the mandate given to them in their office and the requirement of the constitution that they must get the appropriation of their budget done by the National Assembly. I think it’s becoming a tradition, it’s a good one that this reversal of the budget Calendar from what it used to be what it ought to be which is January to December as allowed by the provisions of the constitution has come to stay.
One thing was starting that initiative by the 9th Assembly in collaboration with the executives, another thing is sustaining it. And what is happening now is very impressive because there is cooperation from the two arms of government to make sure that this budget Calendar kick start again for the second time from January of 2021 which is healthy for our economy. Am really impressed with the level of turn out, participations by the various MDAs, heads of MDAs as well as the commitment of the house. The members have decided to stay back, nobody is traveling to make sure that we get this work done. Most of the committees will start turning in their reports to the appropriation committee which is very very impressive, I must say. For me, that is one thing I have noticed about this budget presentation that is good.
On the other side, what I’ve not observed so well is the impact of what Covid-19 brought on the budget. I’ve not seen MDAs really integrating the innovation introduced by covid-19 in their budget which is the use of technology to reduce cost. For example virtual meetings to reduce amount of trips and travels. If you put all the MDAs together and put the amount appropriated yearly on local travels and international travels, you will see that it is very huge. And with technology, we will save 50% of the amount we are currently spending on travels, on local trips and the rest of them. And I have also not seen reduction on international trainings because most universities in the world; the Harvard, the Oxford, most of them have gone online for their trainings. It doesn’t reduce their credibility, it doesn’t reduce the efficiency of the work they are doing with their students so why are we not adopting that approach to training.
Ques: But some training requires physical presence.
Ans: Yeah but very little of them. There are so many trainings that we sit in a room and have the facilitator sit in America to give us the same content. We are not going to oversees to kiss these facilitators, we are going there to learn from the contents of what they are providing and it can be on virtual presentation and it will save a lot of cost of international trip and also because of covid-19, it reduces the impact of people getting sick which impact on the man hour, the labour force. If we have a lot of people falling sick, it affects the productivity of the country. So I’ve not seen the budget of various MDAs incorporating this, not even one. I belong to many committees, as the media person I have presence in almost all the committees to make sure that the image of the house is sustained while doing the budget hearing to make sure that we pick up the things that will make us answer people like you. And I’ve not seen any of the budget with the integration of the innovation that was introduced by covid-19 which is Technology. Which is suppose to shift the tradition and convention and introduce innovation for you to be more productive. It saves time, it saves cost, that I’ve not seen. I’ve also seen that some people come to us not prepared. They come with the mindset that National Assembly doesn’t know what to look out for. They are not as thorough as they are suppose to be. So they do any garbage in garbage out on the documents and they come before us and expect us to accept it. When the numbers are not adding up, when there are extra budgetary expenses, we don’t allow that. We call them to order and make sure that those things are taken care of before appearing before us again. One other thing I’ve personally observed is that due to covid-19 and the inability of the House to fix all the air-conditioners in the rooms, sometimes we make their presentation to be quicker than it supposed to be to enable us go back to dissect their documents because we cannot be in the room due to the protocol for too long and because the place is not well ventilated. But generally speaking, there is a big cooperation between the National Assembly and the executive in this presentation of budget and budget defense.
Ques: there are about 400 agencies, in the cause of this budget exercise, was there any cause by the lawmakers to thinker with the numbers? Are they all productive? Are they all serving and helping the economy?
Ans: To be honest, some of the agencies are mere duplications, and the National Assembly is looking at those. We can consolidate some of the functions of agencies to reduce cost. The present leadership philosophy, economic leadership philosophy currently is to block leakages of revenue and to reduce cost of governance and also finish up projects that are on-going as against getting involve in brand new projects. Now base on that, it calls for restructuring where necessary to achieve that cost reduction expectation of this government. If there are two or three agencies that could come under one, why not if not. It’s one of the things that the house is going to look at to see how we can through motions and resolutions or through the establishment acts that established some of those agencies see how we can collapse them into one establishment act by repealing or amending or repealing an old act and bringing up a new act that will incorporate most of the interest of those various smaller agencies into one for the sake of better control, efficient work and higher productivity as well as reduce cost. National Assembly is looking at that because that’s the yearning of Nigerians. We have so many applications telling us that there are too many agencies doing similar jobs, why can’t they come together and we are seriously looking into it but you know, it takes time and it was not created by this government. You are aware that most of these agencies we’re created before the coming of this government.
Ques: The constitution amendment is coming up and Nigerians feel that 2014 National Conference should feature, should be implemented, the recommendations should be implemented. Now, don’t you think because they clamor for restructuring and so many other issues coming up, now how is this constitutional amendment going to incorporate some of these yearnings of Nigerians?
Ans: ln amending a constitution, so many things come into play and so many information are harnessed to educate the framers of the constitution, to educate the drafters of the constitution, to educate the people amending the constitution or reviewers of the constitution. Constitution review is not something you just go to a template somewhere adopt and apply. It is a function of understanding the wishes and the ambition, the desires of the citizens. How do you harvest the desires of the citizens? How do you harvest the ambitions of the citizens? It is by going into what has happened before now what was documented. So the report of the constitutional conference if need be, will be called into use. The opinion of the public if need be, will be called into use. Remember, a lot of people are going to send in their memoranda, an office is going to collate it, analyse and incorporate it in the process of constitution review. No stone is going to be left unturned during this constitution review. We are going to search for information that reflects the wishes of the people, the desires of the people and we are not going to be very discriminatory on which document to call in and which one to reject. As long as it has the mandate of the people and it reflects the wishes of the people. This constitutional review committee which I am a member will reflect that. Will accommodate that. We take that seriously. So be rest assured that this constitutional review committee is under the leadership of a competent hand. The Deputy Speaker. He is a very thorough gentleman, He operates like the speed of light but not compromising quality due to speed. So you can be rest assured that he is going to task every member to deliver at his best in making sure that the document that we prepare is not for us only but for the people of Nigeria.
Ques: An average lawmaker in the Nigeria parliament, how much does he take home as his salary?
Ans:You people keep asking this question as if you are unintelligent journalist. I’ve answered this question over and over again, why is it difficult for you to make use of freedom of expression. I am not the institution, the institution is sitting on a tripod. The Senate, the management, and the House of Representatives. My answer will be different from the answer of a Senator and the answer of the person that is working with the management. So why do you want my answer to the exclusion of the rest. The question becomes, there is revenue mobilization allocation and physical/fiscal policy commission, you go there and demand from them, they will give it to you. Go to the management, the Clerk of the National Assembly is there, go there and rely on freedom of information act and request for what you are asking for and it will be given to you. But suffice that to say, it is very painful that Nigerians are not asking the right question. We are known all over the world as very smart people, how come, when it comes to this topic we pretend to be unintelligent. Why do we have this question coming up over and over again? Because of the N128 billion given to an arm of government, not a ministry, not a department of government, not an agency of government, a full arm of government. The budget of Nigeria if it is shared into three, to the three arms of government, do you think the national assembly will be getting N128 billion? If it is shared into three? This arm is the same like the executive. The executive arm, the legislative arm and the judiciary, they are at the same level, on the same platform, no one is greater than the other. And Nigerians have not deem it right to look at the percentile representation of their money, where it is going to, and they are focusing on N128 billion out of N13 trillion. N128 billion is about 0.8% of the entire national budget. Now tell me, you are looking for your money, and you leave 99.02% of the money and you are spending two, three years looking at 0.8%. They should start asking the right question. Nigerians should ask what is happening with 99.02%? The greater of which is with the executive and these agencies that you are mentioning. Nigerians should support us to use less than 1% to oversight them. We are not asking the right question.
You are giving me a job, by section 88 and 89, you are giving me a job to follow your money, audit your money, look after your money, make sure that the money we are appropriated, the N13 trillion is used for the right thing. Which consultant will charge you less than 1% to oversee your project of N13 trillion, which consultant in this world, in the private sector will come to be the consultant in charge of a project of N13 trillion and you are giving him 0.8%, the least they will charge you is about 10%. And if you are talking about 10%, you are talking about the budget of the national assembly, if they are consultant, if they were consultant overseeing this N13 trillion, then it should be about N1.3 trillion. That is the truth. The budget of the national assembly was 5% of the entire national budget before, it went from there to 4%, from there to 3%, today as we speak it is at 0.8%, less than 1%, budget office will tell you this and it has not changed and yet the exchange is going up, purchasing power of the money that you are paying house of Representatives members is still in the same place that it was. The same amount of money that was paid to the 4th assembly, 5th assembly, 6th assembly and what it was able to purchase is a far cry from what national assembly members are earning now and what they are able to purchase.
Now, granted but not conceding that national assembly members are earning all the money that you people claim they are earning. Let me ask you a question, which of these arms of government is closer to the masses? Which of them? I am a lawyer by training, I have friends in the Judiciary, he is in my immediate constituency, you don’t see any Judge interacting with people in the rural areas, people coming for school fees, coming for hospital bills, coming for burials, coming for my house has fallen down, or I need to buy fertilizer, my stomach is running. So if he takes his salary, it goes to him and his family. How many ministers of the federal republic in the executive have you seen close to the rural people. How many, that they can knock on their doors and they open and they solve their problem of I don’t have clothe to go to school, I cannot pay my school fees, you don’t see that. How many governors in your own village where you come from, how many times have your villagers had the opportunity of sitting down with their governor or the minister from your area? Zero. They only see them in public functions. But we eat with these people. It is only the national assembly that represent this government. The Buhari that they see is Benjamin Kalu when am in the village. The governor that they see is Benjamin Kalu when am in the village so if there is any problem that they have, as long as they have seen me which represents the government, they will table it. And there is no excuses you tell them, no I don’t have money for that, it is that your salary no matter how little or how big, it’s from there you pay school fees, it’s from there you pay house rent, it’s from there you pay hospital bills e.t.c. And what has that now done to the government? It reduces poverty, it reduces pain, it reduces the agitation that would have been activated by hunger. The little we share with our constituents keeps them calm not to take to arm. Let me repeat, the little we share with our constituents with the little we get, the little we share with our constituents keeps them calm not to take arm.
Ques: What is your take on the defection of a governor to your party from the PDP?
Ans: Let me tell you, the governors are becoming wise, the governors of the South East are becoming wise. You can not alienate yourself from the circle and desire to be the Lord of the circle. How? Are they going to import you into the circle? Participatory observation has always proven to be the most credible observation. You must be involved, engagement, it is when you are in the circle that you will discuss your matter. People will build confidence around you, people will see how you manage things and they will be able to assign responsibility to you. The circle now is the party that is in power. There is no Micky mousing. The party in power now is APC. Unless anything happens tomorrow or next tomorrow. But as it is now, the earlier we cue in into building a formidable party of our zone, forgetting all these sentimental dispositions that harvest nothing for us in the circle of leadership, the wiser we become. I tell you the truth because when I heard the news that the Ebonyi State governor was coming on board or that he is on board APC now, my heart was gladden, that is how a wise man behaves. My father in-law use to say, he was a professor of chemical engineering, prof. Onuoha, Good bless his memory, he use to tell me; a wise man do change his mind sometimes because there is a way that seemeth right unto a man, it doesn’t mean that that way is right, you pause and do an appraisal, if the governors have started doing appraisal and they are beginning to find out that to get to the destination they are looking for, they need to change location, change direction, it doesn’t stop them from being great. An appraisal makes you retreat one step backward to enable you jump two steps forward. That said the governors are becoming wise in the South East. I wonder why it took them so long, that’s the truth, because at the moment, the current reality of our economic regional integration structure is not strong enough to be able to warehouse a regional political platform. Who will fund it? From where? How? So, build your base, strengthen your base before you begin to talk about regionalism, regional party. I preached this to one of the prominent sons of Igbo land few years ago and he was adamant and said he wanted regionalism, I said okay. Fair. Today, he is onboard, because I asked him the same question, I asked him, where will you fund regional party outing from? This one is APGA, this one is PDP, this one is APC. How will you fund it? It is when you come together and go with one platform and then you know that with that platform you can achieve what you are looking for. People will build confidence in that platform, spend money in that platform. But now, the region cannot continue the way they are; so splinted that we are not able to come with our own stake to the table during negotiation.
Ques: So in your own estimation and calculation, do you see the South East producing the president of Nigeria come 2023
Ans: It depends on their participation. The time is still far, we are in 2020 for goodness sake, the time is 2023, that is why, the earlier they get this wise, and consolidate the better they can negotiate. South East needs to consolidate, it’s not a journey of one man. No one man in southeast can come up and say I want to be president, that I will make myself president, the person is deceiving himself. To make a president is a function of so many things: alliances, marriages between region, understanding give and take, and it takes time. So if southeast desires anything, it is of right, let them package themselves well. So coming into APC is one of the strategic steps. It’s not because you are not able to run an independent party but you will keep being small party and small parties are not invited when national issues are being negotiated. You can win in your little cocoon with your small party but allow the big boys with the big parties to discuss national big issues and the more they discuss national big issues in isolation of you the more your region is impoverished. So you need to integrate the region, regional agenda into the national agenda. The regional agenda should not be isolated from the national agenda, the South East must infuse the regional agenda, whether it is regional economic agenda, regional political agenda, regional social agenda. The South East alienation, self alienation from the national agenda, it is suffocating, it is under developing the region. If I was the governor of any state and am in another party, this is the right time to join the ruling party, because it is a disservice to the people you are governing. When you because of your own disposition, philosophy alienate your people from benefiting from the center, if there are appointments you are limited because you are not of the ruling party. Join the ruling party and build up a strong base.
Ques: Situate the same situation now in Abia where you are coming from currently PDP is in power, what do you think will happen in 2023?
Ans: What will happen in 2023 is that APC will take over the state. That’s what will happen, they know it. PDP knows that we will take over power in 2023 but the governor there is a wise man, am still praying that he will join APC
Ques: You mean governor Okozie Ikpeazu?
Ans: Of course l am hiding it? I am praying that he will join APC. He is a second term Governor, he is not looking for anything in the seat than to position that state in a way that legacies will speak for him when he is no longer there. And the best thing to do is to infuse his agenda into the national agenda so that the people can benefit from the bigger pot. What is the gain of isolating yourself from the national agenda and then be fighting alone? There is no wisdom there. People will say there’s nothing to be proud of there
Ques: But PDP is re-strategizing to come to the center
Ans: There’s no amount of re-strategizing that will bring PDP to the center. Nigerians have not forgotten where we are coming from. I was a member of PDP, I was a local government chairman under PDP, I was a national chairman of PDP in diaspora, I controlled six provinces when I lived in South Africa, I was one those first people that opened PDP in diaspora. I went to Australia, so I was part and parcel of PDP, from 1999 the early days of PDP. I can also tell you that majority of members of PDP have seen that though APC may not be perfect, but there is hope working with APC.
Ques: Am particular about Abia, what if Abia people say no, we still want PDP in our state.
Ans: Abia people will not say no. They are not looking at the colors of the party, they are looking for what will bring the dividends of democracy. They are wise people, you will see what will happen in 2023. Let me tell you, in 2023 it will not be the color of the party that will win Abia State, it will be the credibility of individuals that will win elections in Abia. If the electoral act passed through and there is anything like independent candidate, you will see that people will forget the big parties and they will go for individuals that they have proven over the years. So Abia people are no longer interested in the party color of PDP they have been there for years, during Dr Orji Kalu days and then when PPA came in, only tenure then they went back again to PDP. I mean, what does the magic is not the colour of the flag, what does the magic is the people oriented person that understands a clear need assessment that knows how to do needs and assessment of the people and be able to make himself available to sacrificially make an impact devoid of self. That is what Abia is looking for. Abia is looking for a government that will make sacrifices devoid of self.
Ques: Irrespective of the geopolitical zones, Abia north, Abia South, Abia center as it is today, am talking about making that impact. Does it just happen or anybody can come from any zone?
Kalu: No no no, I have been a preacher of balance, I have always been a supporter of equity and fairness. The equity rotation was going in circles, it went from North to Central, when it was at central, people were saying Okezie Ikpeazu should not come back. I went on the television and I said no, I am supporting an Ngwa extraction because you cannot do two tenure in Abia north, and it goes to the central, you do two tenure and then when it gets to South, you want them to do one tenure. I was not part of it. I made my position clear, the video is there. They interviewed me, I said no, for me, it is going two, two, two, they should finish their circle. But after going round, a clock should not start going anti-clock wise. The clock should continue in the rotational pattern that it started with. It should not go back. It should continue the click-tock, click-tock should go round, so that it back again, that way, it creates a sense of balance. I Am an advocate of that, that this clock should not go anti-clock wise. So it is the turn for Abia north now. But am sure Abia north has credible people who Abians would like to represent them in the government and anybody that they are going to elect, let it be somebody who will serve them well. It’s about the title, it should be about the service.
Ques: What if it is you.
Ans: (Laughs). Are you casting a vote now?