In this interview, the immediate past Chairman of the Board of Niger Delta Development Commission and former Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN), speaks on the proposed hate speech bill, the electoral process and insecurity, among other issues.
What is your view on the hate speech bill being proposed by one of the senators?
Democracy by itself without the rule of law is an incomplete proposition. Our constitution, which is our supreme law, has guaranteed freedom of speech. Therefore, any restrictions to this guaranteed right must be in the context and confines of that right. Democracy thrives in a liberal environment, an environment where debate, contestation, negotiation, consensus, persuasion, are vigorously allowed and pursued and ideas and views expressed and challenged. I appreciate the dangers of hate speech, which is indeed an issue of global concern, but I believe that extant laws have made enough provisions to contain these dangers, laws relating to libel, slander and the Cybercrime Act, among others. The Hate Speech Bill is overkill. What we can do is to amend our existing laws to accommodate the challenges of hate speech.
A section of Nigerians are of the view that there is a sinister motive behind the bill. Do you think so?
I wouldn’t know if there is any motive behind the bill. Nigerians are not only curious, but understandably cynical and suspicious of their leaders and the political elite who over time have given the ordinary person the belief that leadership is about self-service and personal aggrandisement instead of public service and sacrifice. I think the public suspects that the elite are seeking to protect their turf and privileges through the bill. You cannot blame them for the suspicion.
There is also the view that members of the 9th Assembly are rubber stamps to the executive. They kowtow to nearly everything from the executive. From your observations, does it appear so?
Classically the three arms of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary are separate and independent. Strict separation and independence are, however, in theory as in real terms there must be some level of cooperation to facilitate governance. Governance is too complex for absolute separation or absolute lack of separation of powers as the functions are interrelated. The key issue is what level of cooperation can be tolerated so as not to compromise or undermine the independence of the legislature, especially and make it redundant in providing the necessary checks and balances on the executive.
In my view, it is too early in the day to conclude that the National Assembly is a rubber stamp. The legislature and executive still have a long journey ahead of them and I believe that the National Assembly will be able to navigate that very narrow path of acceptable cooperation without losing the confidence and trust of the electorate in the discharge of its constitutional responsibilities and obligations especially of providing the necessary checks and balances and over sighting the executive.
You contested to return to the Senate for the fourth time and you challenged the outcome of the election at the tribunal. What is your assessment of our electoral and judiciary system?
Having only recently contested elections to return to the Senate, I am involved. I am hoping, therefore, that in answering this question it does not appear like a case of sour grapes. I will be very brief in my answer and will do so out of responsibility. I believe that I will not be saying anything new that the elections fell far below the acceptable level of integrity and this has regrettably been validated by the judiciary. If this erosion of electoral integrity continues the consequences will be dire as it will go to the root of the authority and legitimacy of the mandates of our elected officials. Legitimacy is the foundation of public authority.
Will you contest election into that same position in the future?
The future is in God’s hands. God has always guided my life. Mine is to exert myself to the limits of my endowments wherever I find myself.
You were the sponsor of the Freedom of Information bill which was eventually passed into law. Do you think the bill has had any impact on the polity since it was passed?
The Freedom of Information Bill now an Act of the National Assembly having been signed into law on May 28, 2011, which I sponsored, was essentially to guarantee the right to information within the control of public institutions to all Nigerians irrespective of age. It seeks to enthrone accountability in Nigeria’s public life. It was supposed to be a veritable weapon in the hands of the media and civil society and a death blow to corruption. Corruption sadly still thrives; the government remains largely opaque. The media and civil society are yet to fully deploy it in aid of investigative journalism and setting the agenda for governance. Many Nigerians remain unaware of its existence and availability. I think the Act has unfortunately been grossly underutilised.
There are proposals for increment in the Value Added Tax and other taxes that will be implemented in 2020. What does it portend for the economy and how do we cope with the envisaged inflation?
The increase in VAT has its advantages and downsides. The Federal Government retains only 15 per cent of VAT revenues, while 85 per cent is shared between states and local governments. This means these two tiers especially will ordinarily be having more revenue. On the flip side, however, since our economy is largely consumption-driven, the increase will negatively impact on consumption as it will reduce the purchasing power of income earners and discourage consumption and negatively impact on goods and services, not on the VAT exclusion list. It will increase the inflation rate. To cushion this, there must be policies to inflate the economy, increase productivity and reduce the infrastructure deficit.
People see some of the present administration’s policies as anti-people because of the obvious hardship that is pervading the land; do you see it in that light?
There is no argument that there is poverty in the land, there is foreboding poverty that is almost endemic, there is alarming youth unemployment and we have huge enormous security challenges, infrastructural decay, and deficit, the collapse of social services and deep-rooted corruption, among others. Our problems are legion. There is almost a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and understandably so. We have hoped for a better country for too long and we are losing hope that that paradise will come anytime soon. Naturally, a discussion of our problems has always been emotive, partisan and convenient. This is understandable.
When did these problems start?
They did not start today. Indeed, they are ancient in origins and have got worse with time. Recall the endless students’ riot and demonstrations from the 1960s through the 1980s, 1990s to date. The grounds and issues for those riots and demonstrations have been the same. The litany has merely increased as the scope. Dealing with these problems is akin to dealing with a person who is ill. The therapy or procedures necessary to bring the person back to health are usually painful sometimes including strong medicines, surgeries, radiation, chemo or radiotherapy, amputations, and restrictions, among others.
The patient requires attributes, patience to ensure the pains and cooperation with the doctors because what will be good for him will not be necessarily good to him. We should be patient and cooperate with the President who is the doctor in this instance. The measures we need to get out of the morass will definitely be unpleasant in the short and medium-term but will benefit us at the end. Fortunately, President Buhari’s integrity is not being questioned.
You were the immediate past chairman of the board of the NDDC and there had been comments about how the commission’s fund was mismanaged over the years, how would you react to the forensic audit being proposed for the commission?
In my inaugural address to the Board in November 2017, I had clearly stated that we needed to undertake a forensic audit of the Commission. There was a need to audit the commission’s finances, processes, projects, and programmes. The need for a forensic audit is obvious even to an uninterested bystander. It is badly needed and urgent. We had the benefit of a retreat prior to our inauguration and it was clear to all stakeholders that an audit and stock-taking were imperative. Mr President took an obviously correct decision in this regard. Having said this, the issue is how to proceed with the audit in such a manner that it is not overrun or compromised by the very many entrenched interests in the commission and the Niger Delta region and to ensure that it is an independent process. This was the aspect that was engaging my Board when it was suddenly and surprisingly dissolved midway.
As chairman of the commission, how did you tackle the execution of substandard contracts and abandoned contracts that are presently being questioned?
You cannot develop anywhere not to talk of a region without a plan. The development has to be methodical and systematic. This need was recognised early for the Niger Delta region and that was why President Olusegun Obasanjo launched with fanfare, the Niger Delta regional master plan in 2006, barely five years after the creation of the Niger Delta Development Commission. It was a stakeholder that generated a master plan which involved all stakeholders. It was a roadmap and timetable for the development of the region.
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, some of them mundane, others bizarre, the master plan was abandoned almost as soon as it was promulgated. There was, therefore, no methodical or systematic plan for the development of the region. There has been no development since. What we have had has been ad hoc, quixotic and impulsive interventions in the name of projects. The consequence has been a bazaar of contracts. It was so bad that the former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun referred to me when I was the Chairman of the commission as ‘‘Chairman of the other Stock Exchange” where contracts were bought and sold like stocks and shares.
My Board inherited over 10,000 contracts, many abandoned and many ridiculous. My Board terminated over N200bn worth of those contracts and was in the process of cancelling many more. I will not be surprised if many more contracts have been awarded since we left. The Commission has no technical capacity to manage that volume of contracts, yet contracts were continuously awarded impulsively. The issue of quality control naturally sets in. With improper and inadequate supervision contractors take advantage to maximise profits and minimise quality. This is compounded by budgetary issues including insufficient budgetary provisions for on-going projects. This erodes contractor confidence as they do not know when they will be paid and further encourages them to maximise their gains.
In the mix are governance issues like were those expected to manage and supervise projects have a personal interest in them. We had processes that were still largely manual, cumbersome, frustrating and less than transparent. For instance, you had more than 40 steps for payment. Then you have the issue of “expectations” of and demands on the Commission by some of the elites of the region, and of course, the issue of patronage.
The result is a bizarre bazaar turning the Commission into what I described in my inaugural address to my Board as a “contract awarding machine.” There is also the issue of undue political interference in the management of the Commission. The NDDC Act domiciles the powers of the Commission clearly in its Board but these powers have been usurped and hijacked by other political and extraneous political actors forcing the Commission to its knees. What the Commission requires now is the political will by Mr President to sanitise, reorganise, reposition and redirect the Commission from a contract-awarding factory that it is now to the development Commission that its founding fathers contemplated. The starting point is that Mr President must resume direct supervision of the Commission as contemplated by the NDDC Act.
The Kogi/Bayelsa governorship elections have come and gone, but a section of Nigerians believe that the conduct, under an APC-led Federal Government has dragged the country’s electoral system backward due to the alleged widespread violence and rigging. What is your opinion on that?
I had earlier commented that the integrity of our electoral processes is receding from the acceptable minimum thresholds. It is like every subsequent election gets worse than the preceding ones. Clearly, there is an urgent need to arrest this decline otherwise we will be saddled with the problem of corrupt mandates. An illegitimate mandate is the highest form of corruption as the purported holder will be pretending to authority over people he or she has not earned. The consequences are better imagined. It is therefore in every body’s interest that we get the electoral process right. The bigger danger is when this worrisome situation is validated by the courts. You cannot blame this degeneration that has become more or less a do or die political culture since our return to democracy in 1999 in the APC which formed the Federal Government only in 2015. The APC-led Federal Government, however, has a historic responsibility to sanitise our electoral process and restore public confidence in it otherwise we will be reducing our democracy from and ideal to seasonal ‘weaponised’ rituals called elections. In the long run, this will be dangerous for everyone, I mean everyone.
The PDP said it would boycott future elections if the electoral process was not reformed; they specifically accused the APC and INEC of colluding to rig elections. What is your reaction to this?
The APC made the same threats and allegations when it was holding the other side of the stick. I have already said enough about our electoral process save to add that I look forward to the day when our elections are so free, so fair and so transparent that election litigation will be unnecessary. God help us.
Insecurity is still a major issue in the country. In your opinion, what do you think the Federal Government is not doing right?
Our security challenges, particularly of the type we have recently faced- insurgency, kidnapping, robberies, communal clashes, farmers/herders conflicts, and others, are still grave and might remain so for a while. I say so because, in my view, the state of the economy has a direct bearing on security. I recall my NYSC days in the old Bauchi State (now Bauchi and Gombe), life was good and safe, our flats had no locks and the best time to travel was night.
The North had an economy then, the Bauchi Meat Factory, Steyr Motors, Tomato Factory (makers of the famous tomapep) textile mills in Kano and Kaduna, leather in today’s Borno and Jos, Peugeot automobile in Kaduna, among others. Food was abundant; we bought rice, beans, potatoes, onions, carrots, lettuce, cabbage and others in large quantities each time we were travelling home.
The biggest fish I ever saw in Nigeria was in Yola. I, therefore, have direct personal experience of the correlation between the economy and security. Having said this, we recall that once upon a time bombs dropped in our cities with abandon. Mosques were bombed on Fridays while churches on Sundays as if these were meant to illustrate their sermons. Strange flags flew in many local government areas in the North-East and these places were occupied by insurgents and declared to be part of their caliphate. We do not have any recent evidence of such happenings. I believe that the Federal Government is doing her best. – Culled from Punch.