Presidential Senior Special Assistant (SSA) on Legislative Matters (Senate) Senator Babajide Omoworare speaks with BOLAJI OGUNDELE on the Executive/Legislative relations and its implications for good governance.
How does it feel being the middleman between the Presidency and the Senate?
It is almost one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The reason is you are caught right in the middle because a senator is a senator for life. You are not just a sitting senator; you are now on the Executive arm of government and you appreciate issues. You must understand, analyze, and distill views from both perspectives. I think what will make it easy, which is my own solace, which is what I have been doing, is to always look out for that which is the interest of the people. Secondly, I thank God that I was in the Seventh and Eighth Senate, and almost every shade, color, and opinion between the Executive and Legislature I have tasted. I started my stint in 1999 under the defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD) in Lagos State (as a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly) when Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was the governor and we had a good relationship.
The challenge in 1999 was not between the AD and the PDP or the APP, as it were then. Out of 40 members in the House, we had 37 AD members and three APP members from Epe/Ibeju/Lekki axis. Out of the four members from Epe, only one is from our party. All the rest from Badagry, Ikorodu, and everywhere else, were AD. We didn’t even have PDP. By 2003, we had just one PDP in the Lagos State House of Assembly and 39 AD members. We almost had 100 percent. We lost only Badagry with a margin of fewer than 300 votes. So the challenge we had in 1999 was that of intra-party friction whereby you had Asiwaju Tinubu who contested against Funsho Williams of blessed memory, and it became almost where did you belong? That was the issue, but relationships were smooth, there was no need for a lot of fine-tuning.
The second term, of course, was also smooth. Now, I was in the opposition when I got to the Senate in 2011, and we were really opposing the PDP led government. Unfortunately, I was also in opposition in 2015 when I was reelected and in the APC. I was opposition because I believed you have the right to contest and become Senate President and I’m talking about the Senate Presidency of Dr Bukola Saraki. But, I thought after that period, there would be some semblance of harmony between the Executive and Legislature, especially because we are of the same (political) party (APC).
If, a person is coming for screening and confirmation and it is in the interest of the people to do it swiftly, and just move on. It must not be left for political decisions to be taken first and foremost or political innuendoes to be drawn that this why I’m not doing it, which takes me to the issue of people saying the National Assembly of today is a rubber stamp. I ask, which rubber stamp? If they are doing their work, we should be praising them for doing it well. Let me give you one example. The President of the Court of Appeal came for screening and confirmation and it was done swiftly like every other instance.
We are talking of recommendations from the National Judicial Council (NJC) to the President before it was forwarded to the Senate and there was screening and this screening was done openly and she was confirmed and somebody said it was too swift. I was even told that the confirmation of the NDDC was done swiftly before Mr. President withdrew their nomination. But this is how it was meant to be because the other option is to grind the wheel of development and bring governance to a halt, which we are not doing. I count myself lucky that I’m working in this office at a time that the Executive and the Legislature have seen a reason why they should work together and with the benefit of hindsight of what transpired during the 8th Assembly when the wheel of governance was brought almost to a halt.
What is responsible for the current understanding between the two arms of government?
With the benefit of hindsight, I am a legal practitioner by profession. In the past 30 years of my life, I have practiced law and I have been a legislator, both at the state and national levels. I have consulted on strengthening the legislative arm of government and I’m a lobbyist, more or less. I am an advocate of cordial relationship, without infringing on the doctrine of Separation of Powers. There must be a separation of powers; the Executive must do its job, the Legislature must do its job and the Judiciary must do its job as well. But in Separation of powers, there must be checks and balances and these are replete in the Constitution. The President cannot appoint at a particular level, the CJN, the judges of the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, the heads of the High Courts, National Industrial Court and the FCT High Court, the ministers and the statutory bodies set out in section 153 of the Constitution, the Revenue and Fiscal Commission, Federal Civil Service Commission, Federal Character Commission and so on, the President cannot appoint them without the parliament.
What democracy tries to do is not to give absolute power, so that power will not be abused absolutely by one arm of government. It tries to say that you cannot accomplish something without the other arm of government. Just like the Auditor-General cannot be appointed without the parliament having a say and the Auditor-General cannot be removed without the parliament having a say. The president can sack a minister, but he cannot remove even a member of those commissions I mentioned without a two-thirds majority of the Senate, which is the Chamber that does confirmation. This is not an accident, it is deliberate to ensure that the president is not autocratic and at the same token, the parliament is not allowed too much power without the president having a say.
One of the main functions of the parliament is lawmaking. The parliament cannot make laws on its own without the president’s assent under Section 58 of the Constitution and 59 when it comes to monetary issues, budgets, and the rest of it. In the same token, if the president withholds his assent, it goes back to the parliament to upturn that with two-thirds majority votes, which veto the authority of the president and so on so forth. This interplay of power is done deliberately. I will say that so far so good, this is what has played out. What we must always have at the back of our minds is: what is the good of the people in all of these things we are doing? How many lives are we securing? What is the welfare of the people that we are taking into cognizance when bills are being made and passed and the president signing off on bills? That, I think, is what matters most.
With such Executive/Legislative alignment, can they not be accused of conspiring against the masses?
I have thought of that and I will juxtapose that position with when they don’t see eyeballs to eyeballs. When I was a sitting senator, I always disagreed, even at the committee level, at a point in time, when the Senate decided to invite the Attorney-General to explain why the preferred charges against the Senate President than at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. My views were very clear then and I made it very clear publicly that our rules are very clear that any matter that is subjudice, we can’t look into it.
Number two; it is settled law that the Attorney-General’s position is a position that should not even sit in the cabinet. He is sitting in the cabinet as Minister of Justice or for Justice as the case may be. The Attorney-General is not answerable to anybody that is why the Attorney-General does not need anybody’s consent to file an action or to withdraw an action from the court, which is called Nolle prosequi. That is why we must have an Attorney-General that is worth his salt. Just as you rightly said, people have a right to be wary when the parliament speaks with one voice. The reason you have a parliament is that we must disagree, we must have different views that’s why people are brought from different constituencies, different views, different backgrounds, different idiosyncrasies; we must disagree. People must be wary too when Executive and Legislature agree all the time; I have not doubted that. But, I’m saying there must be a reason that they do so, and because it’s not sensational it does not mean that they do not disagree.
My challenge is that we cannot make some issues sensational because we will not run the government if we make them sensational. The Executive, with the recently revised budget, and the Legislature did not disagree on it, but I know it wasn’t exactly what the Executive sent to the Legislature that was sent back. The president said it in his speech. The president signed it and said we don’t have to fight. That is maturity in governance. There is always room for accommodation. The president asserted under Section 59 of the Constitution to the revised budget, despite the fact that it was not what was sent to the National Assembly. If what was sent to the National Assembly was brought back, they will say they are rubber stamp. It was not what was sent to the National Assembly that was brought back. Yet, the president signed it. The president understands the fact that the legislature and the executive will not always be on the same page.
What would you consider your achievements since you assumed office?
Number one, we have taken advantage of the good relationships between the Executive and Legislature that is an inherited advantage. You know I was part of those who midwife the good relationship. Without any apologies, I’m an advocate of the Executive and Legislature being on the same page. I’m not saying each one should let go of its independence. Number two; let me just elaborate a little more on that. We are taking advantage of that by ensuring that we have put in place both the blessings of the Executive and Legislature, what we called the Executive/Legislative Agenda Committee. The way governance runs is that you must have planned before you come into government; it is like running a business. If you don’t have your business plan, your feasibility study, your liability report, you are to fail.
In November last year, the Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Attorney-General met and agreed to work together on bills to reduce frictions, to share knowledge on issues, to bring the ideas of the Executive and Legislature to the table so that we will disagree to agree on issues. There were bills that the president did not sign in the last dispensation. Some of these bills have been reintroduced, especially as Private Members bills. We won’t want a situation whereby they are passed by the parliament and the president did not assent. The reason the president did not assent to those must be brought to the fore and we will discuss it. You can’t have such discussions on the floor of the parliament. So, we have succeeded in doing that and that is very important.
My office has also succeeded in pushing a lot of approvals. You can’t even blame someone that is not being watched. A chief executive cannot work effectively as expected when there are no boards and commissions, just because we could not get confirmation from the Senate. We made the best use of the harmony to ensure that most of these bodies that are meant to check chief executives of those agencies, departments and parastatals and commissions and boards are put in place to do their work. A chief executive of a commission will not think he is the sole administrator of the commission. He will have other people to check him whilst of course the president is checking that particular parastatal. We have done a lot of that. We have confirmed career ambassadors, we have non-career ambassadors, we are working on now and this is the best time to do it. We are trying to see how we can make the best use of the vacations we have when the parliament is not sitting. We look at what is outstanding, a lot of bills that will have positive effects on the economy. For the first time, the Finance Bill, in over 40 years, was passed. The Finance Bill is a bill that backs the budget up. Articulate what will fund the budget, all the revenue-generating act will be put in place and it is done yearly.
So, one act will amend about six acts; will amend the Customs and Excise Acts, will amend the Value Added Tax, will amend the Personal Income Tax Act, will amend Corporate Income Tax Act, will amend, the Capital Gains Act and so on, with a view to ameliorating the circumstances of Nigerians, providing funds without adversely affecting the purse, wallet of Nigerians. Instead of it to be in eternity without review, every year is an opportunity to review what happened the previous year with respect to the bills that have to do with the funding of the budget and to see whether to increase or reduce and push good governance forward and to also ensure that we are not adversely affected.
We are able to do that and we are also able to pass the Appropriation Bill before the end of the year, January to December cycle. We have been breaching the Constitution all the while which is defined in the interpretation section of the Constitution. That is a financial year, from January to December. So, we have been able to bring that back and I can assure you that it will continue. MTEF has been brought, which is the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, FSP, in furtherance of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2007. Once we bring that in, the budget will come as soon as the National Assembly resumes from its recess, we finish it and we will have more time to scrutinize it than we had the last time and I’m sure it will be signed before the year runs out by the Grace of God, by the President to start implementation by first of January.
We have so many amendments to extant acts that will have an impact on the economy, have impacts on employment, have an impact on the grassroots.