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A former President of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), who is also a civil society activist, Sani Zorro, was a member of the Eighth House of Representatives.

In this interview with AKANI ALAKA, he spoke about his term in the National Assembly, the practice of democracy in the past 20 years, challenges the country is facing in dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency and attendant problems of displaced persons and other national issues.

What’s your assessment of how far we have done in the practice of democracy in the past 20 years we have been on it?

Democracy is adjudged the best way to deliver governance for the benefits of people worldwide. In Nigeria, we had a faulty start in the sense that we experimented with democracy immediately after independence; we didn’t go far before the system was sabotaged.

Then, we had military rule consistently for decades.  But in this Fourth Republic, we have had back-to-back elections- with a change in parties that formed the government in 2015.

Doing 20 years with a back-to-back election is a major achievement. And that is why some analysts even feel that the democratic journey that the country has embarked upon in the past 20 years is irreversible – the drawbacks, the challenges and the crises that the system has thrown up notwithstanding. It is supposed to be a learning process and we learn every day.

How well would you say the three arms of government have fared and contributed to the growth of Nigeria’s democracy?

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Each of them has to be analysed carefully in order to arrive at the correct assessment of what we have been able to achieve under the system. For instance, in the case of the National Assembly, through legislations and other tools open to them for interventions, it has been able to reinforce and protect democracy in these past 20 years.

I can give you so many examples. For example, the amendments of the Electoral Act, even the latest one that was not assented to by the president was calculated to improve tremendously on the previous one.

For instance, the rejected one would have entrenched the use of card readers or any other device that may come in later that will be an improvement on the card reader and so many loopholes for election rigging would have been blocked.

There have been so many amendments to laws that we inherited from the military. And then, there have been laws to back existing institutions of government that were established without a law.

For instance, some of the universities that were established even under the immediate past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan had no constitutional backing and they are federal institutions. Now, if you have an institution that has no legal backing, it means its existence could be challenged. The degrees could be challenged or not recognised.

In the case of the House of Representatives, we had over 90 committees, patrolling all agencies, parastatals and ministries to keep a watch on them as part of our mandate of oversight. With these committees, the National Assembly has been able to monitor compliance to Appropriation Acts, enforce things like the quota system in the system of selection of people into offices.

These are mechanisms and laws that help to aggregate how the country should be run as a federation; ensuring that all the components of the country have a sense of belonging. But it is still work in progress, as you will still discover that certain states or sections of the country predominate in certain sectors – whether of the polity, economy and so on.

But if there has been no oversight, it would have been worse because, under the executive, it is like winners-take-all kind of game. On the other interventions that I talked about, I had the privilege of initiating through the Speaker of the House, the hosting of aggrieved groups like Nigeria Medical Association, National Association of Resident Doctors, Nurses and Midwives, Academic Staff Union of Universities and other organised unions, including Nigeria Labour Congress, that either went on strike or threatened to go on strike. In those cases, the National Assembly – either on the initiation of the Speaker or the Senate President waded into the crises and we either got a temporary relief or we were able to get the partners – the executive together. 

Now, the Judiciary, especially, the apex court has acted not only as an apex court it is but also as a policymaker with some of its judicial pronouncements. For instance, since the 2007 verdict on the pre-election matter between Rotimi Amaechi and then Governor Celestine Omehia and others, it is now established that once you are wrongly imposed as a candidate for any elected office and you did not win the primary, you are running for the office in vain.

This was a concrete contribution of the judiciary and the latest of such verdicts at the Supreme Court level is on the Zamfara issue. This will ensure that as we go along, parties and political actors will begin to conduct themselves in a manner that is responsible. There are so many other things that the judiciary has settled as an arbiter in this way.

What about the Executive branch of government?

For the executive, someone from that branch of government may be in a better position to say we have done this, we have done that. But for me, I will not limit my judgment of the executive to provision of infrastructure alone because that is what most governments in Nigeria usually claim – each of them will tell you we have added these megawatts of electricity, we have done these roads, we have built these hospitals and even, up till now, we are not tired of commissioning boreholes and all those things that we are not supposed to make noise about.

But if you look at agitations that are taking place worldwide, it is on the central issue of rule of law. So, if you want to score any government, you better look at its records as far as compliance to rule of law is concerned because what we are practising is a constitutionally-run democracy.  So, on that count, has the government performed? Nigerians must also switch to assessing and evaluating the performance of the executive – whether of states, local or federal governments based on that rule of law.

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This is because at all these stages, what is involved is human rights and entrenched in the Nigerian Constitution is the UN declaration of human rights. So, to the extent that the framers of our constitution, who are really futuristic decided to entrench it into the constitution meant that they want the issue of the human rights of the citizens to play a central role in governance. So, if you are to go by the UN declaration, you will discover that no citizen is supposed to go to bed hungry and his or her rights to everything are clearly spelt out.

So, in that case, you have to evaluate the government according to such parameters, as to whether there have been extrajudicial killings, loss of lives and so on. It is also on that basis that you will assess the security or the insecurity in the country because the security apparatus is supposed to ensure the security of lives and property.

So, the government must be weighed on that scale. And when it comes to opportunity for its citizens to prosper, if you look at the various parts of the constitution, you will see that there are economic objectives, there are social objectives; these are objectives of the Nigerian state. So, you must judge the administration at any level to see if we are complying with all these.

Members of the civil society have also been hammering on the refusal of the National Assembly members to make details of their allowances and remunerations available to the public….

This has been a persistent claim and a legitimate one for that matter since probably the last 16 years. And the National Assembly has not come clean. The only effort that I know was that we encouraged the Speaker to find a way of communicating what we actually earned officially in order not to allow individuals to be talking on their own since the National Assembly is an institution.

So, the Speaker managed to take a step that would have probably put this issue to rest when he constituted a NEEDS Assessment Committee under Clement Nwankwo, who is one of the leading activists in that sphere.

There was no representation from the National Assembly in the committee, except the secretary who was the immediate past Director-General of Nigeria Institute for   Legislative and Democratic Studies whose contribution was only to provide a secretariat for the committee. There were representations from Nigeria Union of Journalists, Labour and other groups. Their task was to go and take a look at what we earned officially, then, the running costs or whatever comes the way of Nigerian legislators in the course of discharging their constitutional responsibilities, compare it with what is obtainable in other West African countries, African countries at the continental level and also draw parallels with what is happening outside of Africa.

I have made every effort to see to the official release of that NEEDS Assessment report because that would have provided a way forward for us on that issue. Secondly, in February last year, I also moved a motion,  which led me to be made the chairman of an ad hoc committee that would have probed the remuneration of all politically-elected and appointed public officials in the executive, the legislature and judicial arms of government at the federal level. Now, what we wanted to do was to expose the remunerations of let’s say, the staff of the NNPC, Central Bank, NPA, FIRS, National Assembly members, judicial officers, including the justices of the Supreme Court, and let Nigerians have this body of information.

The motion said the purpose of generating and exposing the information would be for public documentation and access in order to enhance the Freedom of Information Act. And I will tell you that Nigerians would have had the shocker of their lives if they hear about the hundreds of millions that public officers in the oil sector or the Central Bank cart away as pensions and other severance allowances.

In fact, it can spark up a riot. But I don’t know how, because in about two months before we closed, I reminded the Speaker that the Committee had not been funded to do the job we realised that there was no time to advertise, summon those concerned and those who needed to come for public hearings.

But I believe that part of the ninth National Assembly agenda should be to do this. It is in the interest of the nation. And also, don’t forget that the non-governmental organisations were also behind legislations like the Not Too Young To Run. It is from that sphere that the pressure came and we all had to queue behind them.

They have done a lot that we have not appreciated. What the Bring Back Our Girls has done in bringing to international consciousness the fate of Chibok girls is not a mean achievement because the pressure compelled government and all its machinery to act in the manner they did. Even the media itself that has the constitutional responsibility to serve as the watchdog and set agenda is a member of the civil society.

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But it is still the civil society organisations that still act to protect the media against the ‘superior forces’ because the power of the state is so overwhelming and except there are interventions by civil society groups that became a phenomenon towards the end of 20th century and are still prevailing all over the world, state power everywhere would have resulted in dislocations and major crises in the polity because of the way they see things through security perspectives  Public order is in variance with the democratic aspirations of the people to be free. They are more obsessed with law and order, even if it means protecting tyrannical regimes.

Some people have also argued that Nigeria’s democracy is militarised, do you agree with this assertion?

Yes, there is ample evidence to support that. But what I considered wrong in our leadership generally is the fault that clearly lays in the leadership recruitment processes. 

It is the flawed leadership recruitment process that has, for instance, brought about the massive monetisation, as reflected in our campaigns and that is why the actors that came to power are people who are not supposed to be there at the three tiers of our government.

The greater numbers of people that have found their way into power at the three tiers of government are not supposed to be there because they are lacking in patriotism. The motives that activate them to seek for those offices are anything, but the contributions to the development of either their constituencies or the nation.

Three, you will discover that the system is manipulated in favour of the selfish interest and that’s what governance has become. Those who are in government are mere agencies of principals when they are supposed to be the principals. So, godfatherism is very, very obvious.

And if you will like to trace it to military rule, your perspective will have ample evidence to show why this is so. Why? Whenever we attempted to bring the country back to democracy when we were still under the military rule, it is the military that dictated the number of parties that would be formed – like under the short-lived Ibrahim Babangida diarchy – ‘a little to the right and a little to the left’ parties.

Though they have reasons behind that at that time, what we actually had was a diarchy because eventually, when there was a National Assembly, you will remember that their powers to legislate were limited to archives and monuments and such other issues that are inconsequential.

They were not to do major things like appropriation. And at any rate, the military regime did not allow a president to emerge from the process. So, the military was the executive while the legislature was dominated by people they recruited and populated the party, which they also funded with.

So, that’s why the press invented the concept of militicians – they were militicians and each of the militicians then began to speak glowingly of military rule or the military ruler, rather than democracy. Those who had the knowledge and were enlightened about democracy and an end to military rule were toppled.

Don’t forget that Iyorchia Ayu was toppled when he sought to be different and replaced by another person. Under Obasanjo, all the five states in the South-east produced a Senate president before he finished his tenure. So, from 1992 to date, it is the military that has actually had the advantage of sponsoring people more into political offices and the portion of those who emerged through the true democratic tradition or civilian rule are not many.

Another evidence that should still strike you is that someone that wants to run for an election in Anambra or in Rivers will want to go to Minna or and take a photograph with one of the Generals or go to Ota farm for blessings or whatever they call it.

Some will go to TY Danjuma. But clearly, these former military officers are power centre’s; that’s what it means. These are military people that still have vested interests in the polity and still dictate to a large extent, how we should behave, who should do this, who should do that. And you will not believe it – these people still have ways of influencing appointments of committee leaders even in the National Assembly.

They ‘say this person, give him chairman of Army, give him this and that.’ And it is done because the leaders also in the National Assembly or such places also go to them either for blessings or support, validation or whatever. In the executive arm, the selection process of the ministers and so on, these people have hands in them.

For instance, I know of a state in the South-south whose minister was not known to the governor or anybody in his state and that was the case in some many places. It was powerful men that nominated them because his wife is from that state and he is from another part of the country. So, it was his wife that nominated him through the retired General.

Even, in the North-west, there was an appointment of a minister that was not popular because the person so appointed was not known to the state. So, an appointee emerged without the knowledge of the governor, without the knowledge of the stakeholders and he will go and represent that state – because constitutionally speaking, each state must produce a minister – and he will go and pretend that he is their representative.

There was an appointee I know in the South-east, who is just like a thunderbolt – in fact, he was not a member of the ruling party; he was in another party.

So, when he was called to sit down with members of the party in the state, he was telling them that when I was ‘invited’ to serve – because he feels that of all the people in the state, who are in politics and have competencies in so many areas, he was the one chosen, though he didn’t belong to the party. So, he was being arrogant to them by their own definition because he believes he is a special person.

So, from my involvement in politics as an elected person, what I have seen is that this politics, the more you see, the less you understand. The abracadabra is too much.

As a journalist and even, a former president of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, how would you describe your experience as a member of House of Representatives?

It has been a very exciting and rewarding experience. Rewarding in the sense that I have gotten a lot of insight into how that arm of government works and why it is unable to work in so many aspects. Why it is unable to meet the expectations of the people; its limitations, potentials and its strength. I think I can reasonably talk about that.

Secondly, my exposure to legislative activities has also enriched my background, as a newsman because, on so many occasions, I have had to switch from being a legislator to being a newsman so that I will have a platform to observe people from a detached point of view.

So, with the mindset of a reporter, I opened my mind to know as much as I could, even though the institution is so wide that you will not know 50 per cent of how its activities are conducted, except probably if you have had two terms. It’s a very, very wide and deep institution with a lot of activities. If you were a chairman of a committee, I can tell you that there is no way you will give attention to two other committees, though each member belonged to no less than six committees. So, if you are a chairman of a standing committee, you may spend the four years not attending the meeting of another committee.

Committees’ works are so engaging and intensive, depending on how you apply yourself. But let me also say that it is also frustrating if you go there, as a reformer with the ambition of changing the world, then you will be frustrated.

You were also involved in efforts to select the leadership of the House at the beginning…

 Some of us, including some old members, sat down and said we wanted to approach the election of the Speaker and the leadership process of the National Assembly from another point of view.

So, what we did was to constitute ourselves into a group, which we called the Eighth National Assembly Patriots. So, we drew up an agenda that included robust engagement with all those who aspired to be Speaker before the proclamation of the National Assembly. And we also came up with certain criteria that would enable us to assess, evaluate and judge them.

One of such was that we were going to instigate public debate between the aspirants. If over time, the non-governmental organisations, the media especially, would during every election cycle host debates, to allow voters to judge them on the basis of what they said they would do and other parameters, that should also apply to National Assembly so that right from the word go, people would know the kind of persons, jostling to be the Senate President or the Speaker.

But at the end of it, we were unable to deliver on that. So, you can see that some of us wanted to influence the process for good in order to inject the element of purposefulness that is informed by patriotism, good conduct and so on and so forth. But we were overwhelmed. But the struggle continued on the platform of the National Assembly because it is a very complex place where lobbying and contending interests clash with each other.

Sometimes, what you will want to be adopted, as motion will often time run counter to the interest of certain groups – be they sectional, professional and so forth. You need to see debates, for instance, when it comes to things that will affect the accounting profession.

You wouldn’t know that the National Assembly is loaded with accountants as a group until such debates come up. It is also when certain arguments come up that you will know that you have a concentration of lawyers in the National Assembly. So many people have become lawyers, but you will never know because you have not seen them practise.

But they will rise up to defend the profession. When it comes to time for making legislations, you will think you are in a normal court. Sometimes, they imprison the debates, especially, the clause by clause considerations. The process can be so stormy because everyone wants to prove that he is a lawyer and he must make his own contribution to the legislation.

But I must say it was a very vibrant chamber that I worked in, with various competencies on display, with contending, vested interests. But we were lucky that we had a leadership that was competent as far as presiding over those plenaries, communication with Nigerians and protecting the perceived interests of the parliament are concerned.

I can remember we had so many sessions with security chiefs, whom we summoned to come and discuss why we are having security challenges in one part of the country or another. But you still wonder that why is it that of all the motions that sailed through, asking the Governor of Central Bank or oil companies or some government agencies to come to the National Assembly, they will never come and nothing will happen to him.

Why is that?

It appeared to me that the National Assembly is also limited and could be influenced one way or another. It also means the National Assembly is a vulnerable institution and I had listened to a debate where a member stood up and moved a motion, eulogising the achievements of an entrepreneur, who clearly is a businessman doing a contract for government and the motion will sail through.

The businessman is the one who is supposed to go and advertise himself in the media and pay. But because the National Assembly is such a vulnerable institution, you will get two for the price of one.

When that happens, you just find yourself in a difficult position. And you cannot oppose the motion because you don’t know why it is on the order paper; you don’t know the person being spoken about and you don’t also want to risk your own motion also being brought down no matter how good it is, just because you have opposed his own.

So, it is a very tricky place to survive, especially if you have an engaging mind. But on the whole, I think it was good. I championed the cause of labour; we had the labour caucus, even though we were few. Unfortunately, only four of us had a journalism background as opposed to about 23 when the National Assembly started in 1999.

I would think that there is a need for certain professions like journalism or the media as a whole to have representation in the National Assembly. I wouldn’t know how it would happen – whether the media can congregate and sponsor a person or when they see a journalist that is aspiring for the office they should come to his support.

Also, the security agencies, I think it is very important if we could have more of them in the National Assembly so that they will share their perspectives when security issues come up. You will discover that except you are in the security circle, you wouldn’t know their thinking and it’s a closed sector – you are either in or out.

I have had instances of engaging with them on the Committee that deals with Intelligence and so on and every now and then, they were complaining of underfunding. And I agree with them that except there is increased funding, there is no way they will work.

The security and the Intelligence organisations – including the police, if you are to compare their budget to that of infrastructural outlay that the military has in Egypt, for instance, or the factories the military has in the United States and such places where they owned big hotels, farmlands, shares in hotels and so on, so that they do not just rely on government appropriations, you will know why the insurgency in the North-east has been on for over 10 years.

The Boko Haram ragtag army that is into guerilla fighting that we could have dismissed in a few months, we couldn’t because the resources are not there. Why I also said we must have them permanently as members come to into the National Assembly and that they should play the role of creating understanding between them and other lawmakers, who do not have security background is because of the clear case of aberration in the employment of Nigerians into the bureaucracy.

The employment process of the military, paramilitary groups and the intelligence community, I can tell you that now – a letter from a National Assembly member is weightier than the qualification of a Nigerian. That’s the truth. And it is not only the National Assembly members, who have contributed to such a situation. Some of the employment lists emerged from the Presidency and all other influential circles and that’s what is determining access to scholarships and jobs that are considered lucrative in some selected organisations now.

What would you say are the effects of this?

It’s unfortunate because some of those recommended for employment into the military or the police or the para-military organisations were drug addicts, many of them were not physically fit and when it comes to drilling them, they collapsed, some of them even died.

Many of them did not have the physical fitness, which is the key criteria for such employments. Some of them are dullards and are not supposed to be charged with generating intelligence, much less, analysing what it is.

Unfortunately, also, because of the extent at which politicians have intruded into that recruitment process, if you apply for any of the jobs now, you have to produce the so-called indigeneship letter, which the chairman of your local government will sign for you. But in so many cases, if you or your family or parents did not belong to the ruling party at that local government, they will not give you, no matter how qualified you are. So, these are the kinds of things that need to be reformed.

I belonged to a committee that I loved because it has to do with civil service reforms, but I can tell you that as far as I can remember, we had only three meetings during the four years I was there. And that was because the leadership was a one-man show and probably also, did not attach importance to public sector reform.

But we should have actually agitated for that reform to take place and monitor the reform agenda of the executive arm. The judicial arm has not even commenced any reform and we must deploy all the torchlights and every other thing we are capable of beaming on that sector because some of the measures taken by the anti-corruption agencies by exposing some of the things they have done are just a tip of the iceberg.

If the other two arms of government have been affected by the viruses of corruption, the tyranny of leadership, lack of accountability, transparency as well as other ills, if we had beamed the searchlight on the judiciary, it would have been revealing. It’s only when something happens that you hear the top judicial officers talking about it.

What of the police? We need to reform the police, the intelligence and the security agencies generally. We need to reform every sector. I must say that I got ready to engage as a legislator and why I say so was when I looked at all the available things that could help to shape my focus of the legislature, I said let me fall back on the mantra of our political party, as a compass to shape my attitude to politics.

That’s ‘Change’….

‘Change’ was the mantra of the APC and that was also what the president was also talking about. I now considered the president the ‘change sponsor’ and those of us in the parliament are the change champions. So, whatever the president sponsored was what we are going to work on. But instead, what we had was a complete disconnect between the parliament and the executive right from the word go.

Apparently, there are people in the executive arm, who still view the National Assembly as an institutional irritant. Some extremists even consider it as an enemy institution to the executive arm. Now, the way and manner that the two presiding officers – Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara – emerged also complicated matters.

The manner they used in coming to power – by aligning with the other parties and because their own parties also did not endorse them became a major source of friction that defined the attitude of the executive to the legislature for the four years. So, what we had was a harvest of crises, lack of harmony and lack of collaboration for the four years.

The executive and the National Assembly were just managing the relationship. But if you look at what transpired under Bankole and the late Yar’Adua, they had the best of relationships.

And, personally, I do not subscribe to having a rubber stamp parliament anywhere. But that notwithstanding, there must be a level of collaboration and understanding between the two arms of government.

You served as the chairman of the committee saddled with seeing to the welfare of persons displaced by crises, especially, Boko Haram insurgency in North-east Nigeria.

You are always in the news, talking about the deplorable conditions in which these displaced persons were living. Why do you think Nigeria as a country is finding it difficult to cater for this vulnerable segment of its citizens and now that you are no longer heading the committee, how can the problems be tackled?

The House Committee on IDPs, Refugees and North-east initiatives is the mainstream committee that operates along with the Committee on NEMA. Our committee deals with internal displacement, refugee crisis as well as the crisis that affects what they called ‘other populations of concern’ – where you have migrants, asylum seekers, returnees, stateless persons among others.

The Senate did not consider it fit to create such a committee. But our committee had the privilege of benefitting from exposure to training, capacity building as well as sharing in-country experience and that’s why we were always at the centre stage, doing advocacy on behalf of the internally displaced persons or these persons of concern.

Apart from doing legislation for them, we were also doing oversight functions. It was a very frustrating experience because the two main agencies that are active in this field, the one that deals with issues of refugees, IDPs and what have you and the one that particularly deals with issues concerning the fallouts from the insurgency in the North-east did not operate with my committee.

They were dodging our oversights and I think it was simply because they misunderstood their job schedules as political appointments and, therefore, they should just go and be giving patronage to politicians and do politics. They believe that they were compensated because of their involvement in politics. For instance, each of the chief executives of these agencies then was a pioneer national officer of APC.

So, they are entrenched. They are known to the Presidency and, therefore, they look down on the National Assembly.  It’s like “who are you to oversight me when I have suffered, I have made contributions to the emergence of the president or the government that is in power, why do you want to patrol what I do? Why should I be answerable to you?”

I think that was a major factor. Secondly, there is a lot of corruption in that sector too. Otherwise, they shouldn’t have been dodging oversight functions. And one example I can give is a situation whereby for the entire duration of the work of the committee, one of the agencies never advertised for all the procurements it did in terms of food, non-food items, medicals and so on involving tens of billions of naira. And you will continue to hear credible stories about how an individual was given billions of naira contract without going through the procurement process.

So, they just go to the Bureau for Procurement and I believe, compromise or reach a deal with them and they will give them a waiver. You can say it is not against the law to go and get a waiver. But the fact that the agency never advertised for all the procurements it had done and is always seeking a waiver under emergency procurement should show you that something is wrong.

When I discovered that was the problem, I did my best to compel them to comply with the law. And I brought the attention of the Speaker as well as the other people, who appointed me and I was confident that members of my committee knew these facts.

They knew that I was giving leadership with integrity. I never benefitted from a N100 contract whether from the Presidential Committee on North-east Initiatives or National Commission For Refugees.

If anybody had any shred of evidence that I sent anybody with a letter or to bid for a contract for a company in which I have an interest, I challenge that person to say so. I do not think other members of the National Assembly can say so. Secondly, I was the only member of the House of Representatives who declared his assets publicly. When the leadership of the NLC came to the National Assembly on protest and I was sent by the Speaker to address them, I also read a paper of all what I possessed publicly and handed it over to reporters.

Except for Shehu Sani, who declared his assets publicly, including his wives, I cannot remember any lawmaker who did that. So, substantially, I have complied with the dictates of my conscience. I gave a good account of myself as a professional journalist, who was aware of his constitutional responsibilities to call public officers to account.

But, of course, if you adopt this kind of attitude, you are at the risk of isolating yourself, making enemies of people. Any leader that does not operate the business as usual model, they will say he is wicked and all kind of things.

But I know my limit, if I push to the extent to which I could, I am sure there are people who will see reason with me. But they will be in the minority. So, I was happy during our last handshake with the Speaker, he commended me and said, ‘oh, well done, I am sorry for the limitations and the imperfections and so on.’

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I don’t know if that’s what he told everybody. But that’s what he told me. And he said you’ve done extremely well and so on.

But how would you rate the performance of the committee?

It was frustrating in the sense that the National Assembly or my committee was unable to get many things, which would have enhanced the welfare and conditions under which more than 2.5 million IDPs in the North-east are living.

This also includes the conditions of internally displaced persons everywhere – because the issue with the displacements is that it has three main sources and triggers – conflicts, construction activities, that is development – I tell people to look at the kind of land space that our universities are occupying; people often forget that that place that a university is occupying was either a farmland over a village where thousands of people depended on.

So, when you acquire the land, those people are displaced. Then, there are communal strifes, like the persistent Jukun/Tivs clashes in the border of Taraba and Benue, which has persisted and has led to displacement of persons in Wukari and Markurdi. Then, this herdsmen/farmers clashes have led to whole villages being consumed and lives lost.

The factor of climate change in the displacement of people is now also a reality. Most parts of the four local governments that I represented as a constituency have had their rainfall span shortened to three months or less. So, even crops like millets, sorghum that withstand low-level rainfall now wither away. So, we have been experiencing crop failure in these local governments, which share a contingent border with the Niger Republic. 

We got a major breakthrough with the establishment of the North-east Development Commission. At least, there is now a legal platform to tackle that particular problem and if they will follow the law, they will be able to provide resettlement, rehabilitation and other objectives of the Act.

As we were closing in on the 2019 budget, the people of Zamfara were lucky to initiate and got passed a N10 billion that will serve as a sort of mitigation package for the losses they have suffered from banditry.

That too is very important and it has to be over sighted by a committee similar to the one I presided over. I do hope that the committee will also have the capacity to see other parts of Nigeria where we have such incidences.

Then, the major challenge in the sector has to do with institutional rivalry between NEMA and Refugee Commission. NEMA reports to the office of the vice president while the Refugee Commission reports to the office of the Secretary to the Federal Government.

I did everything I could to push through an amendment that NEMA and the Refugee Commission should actually operate under the Ministry of Interior in the absence of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.

The reason is all these displacement issues are interior matters and everywhere else in the world where you do not have the Nigerian model, those refugees and other agencies operate under Interior where they have partners like the Immigration Department.

How can you implement migration policy without the National Immigration Service? It is impossible because they are the ones that are physically at the border.

If you want to be an asylum seeker, you would have to fill a form and those who are on refugee determination status committee are members of the National Immigration Service, Ministry of Interior and so on. So, it’s better if you work under one umbrella. NEMA is there, the Refugee Commission is there. If a meeting is called now, the NEMA must go to get permission from the office of the vice president before they will participate. The other one will have to go to the office of the SGF.

If a decision is reached, each one will also go to report independently to their principals. That’s why since 2012, the National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons has not been approved at the Federal Executive Council.

Do you have any regret that you did not return to the House?

There was no regret. Actually, I didn’t want to go back because I discovered that the environment is irreconcilable with my ideals. I didn’t know that it was that harsh.

If I must be frank with you, what is described as the ‘constituency pressure’ is something I cannot continue with – a situation whereby every day, if you are able to handle 1,000 calls, you will receive 1,000 calls before dusk. 

And 99 per cent of the calls is to ask you to fund the wedding function of a supporter; buy a motorbike for someone; pay for the naming ceremony of someone or to repair his collapsed house; he wants to buy roofing sheets or he wants his son to be sponsored to a school in Sudan or Uganda – things that are purely personal. Now, I don’t like telling lies and I have experimented with all sorts of responses, including sharing money from my pocket and so on to help out.

I believe in being charitable – even before I became a member, I had a foundation which focuses on education and so on. But when the demands are that overwhelming, it becomes very difficult, because when you keep promising people that I will do it and you don’t do it, they will hold on to that. Now, most of the people also believe that you are to subsidise their living.

For some of them, it is not only subsidising – because they voted for you, they believe that you are to undertake everything about them and their family. And I represent one of the most underserved, pauperised communities in the country.

It’s where there is no government service, no water, no education, nothing. Some members of my constituency derive services from the neighbouring Niger Republic, in terms of medical services and every other thing. But I don’t feel defeated. I tried my best, but as a person, I don’t want to be making promises that are not implementable.

Secondly, the political turf in Nigeria is so hostile because of your political opponents locally and if you are not in good terms with your governor, who is the number one tyrant in the state, there are also local riff-raffs that can stone you, do all sorts of things to molest, to embarrass you even in your hometown.

It has never happened to me in my hometown, but I have seen it happen to so many people. Their cars were smashed, damaged – you will see the political thugs, brandishing local weapons, fighting over you and so on and I now looked at the purpose of my going to parliament and say, ‘look, I didn’t go to the parliament with the intention of making money or gaming the system to my benefit, so, why do I have to go through all these?’ 

And, sometimes, as a human being, when I looked back and say, by 1990, when I became the President of the elite Nigeria Union of Journalists, some of my members were professors, as the chairman of the editorial board of Guardian Newspapers, some were PhD holders, working in the Daily Times, including in the Concord where I worked.

The least of the members of the committee, even as of 1990, were people who had advanced degrees. And if I could function – not on account of my own level then, but with the support I had, I could connect with the aspirations of my members, I did fairly well, made a name for myself and still relate with that constituency, then, why should I be messed up by people, who I had pity for, but they did not understand? It is very distracting. The pressure will not allow you even to concentrate on the main task that you are elected to do.

Why do you think that is so?

I also realised that our democracy is being practised the African way. Every democracy is defined by the culture and the tradition of the people. That’s why when you win an election, drummers will come to your house and they will be eulogising you that you are a lion who has crushed a small hyena – that is the person you defeated.

And that drumming will not stop. Each time you go home, the drummers and the people will come to eulogise you and abuse your opponents. It’s all part and parcel of our own democracy, but personally, I am not given to things that I consider unserious. I am more of a literary person, who will want to engage in debates, things that stimulate the brain. So, I also realised that you cannot change the world. You can only impact the little space that you have. And age is not on my side at 60.

So, at 60, those guys that are saying ‘not too young to run’ have a point – they want to sack us. So, it is better that we respect ourselves and clear the way for them. And at any rate, you must also agree with the fact that there is life after everything you have done, so there is life after parliament.

What’s next for you now?

I want to bounce back, as a professional journalist because that is the only job or profession that I think I can practise better. I have had exposure to the executive arm of government, as a special assistant to a minister at the ministry of finance, ministry of national planning and I had always taken away experiences that worked for me.

I have served as the senior special assistant to the president on mobilisation for some time. So, at least, I have a small peep into how the executive works and now, I have got the legislative experience, and, of course, I am from the trade union and civil society orientation where I had stayed longer.

So, I understand how they function and why it is important to work with them as well. I have travelled to 81 countries. As a member of the National Assembly, I only visited four countries out of the 81.

So, my visit to these countries was as a journalist or in pursuit of personal businesses and so on. So, before coming to the National Assembly, I had a well-built profile and exposure, and that’s why I thought it would be an opportunity to contribute to national discourse over issues that would have to do with development, in the sphere of human rights and so on. And that’s why my contributions to debates in the legislatures were of advocacy. I did not participate in things that I consider as outside of my competence.

So, I think I will also have some rest, catch up with friends, who also invariably feel that now you have made it, you are now swimming in millions and so on, you were running away from them.

They forget that it is not about money, you have now gone to another environment where the people you see and interact with on daily basis are a new set of people, who are your partners as long as you are there. So, if you are used to visiting a place, where you sit on the bench to discuss with friends, that time is not there for you again.

Even, you will have little time for your family- so you are also deprived of so many things. I am happy that about 19 members of the House now were once members – some had lost elections in two or three previous sessions. But they have come back.

The parliament does not like high turnover – every time there are new members, it means fresh training because it is a technical part of governance. Everything we do is different from what they do in the executive or the judicial arm.

So, they will have to train you before you will take off because you didn’t have that background. I and so many other people feared about the sort of decline in the quality of representation the National Assembly has been witnessing.

Because of the high turnover of lawmakers?

Yes, if you look at the era of Ghali Na’Abba, for instance, you will discover that consistently, there has been a decline. Those people were much more robust and vibrant than these latter sessions of the National Assembly.

In fact, I was told by someone, who had served as a minority leader that in their own time, they met twice as a caucus every week to look at all the motions and bills that would be tabled in those legislative days and take positions. Members of the majority party would also sit and adopt the same thing.

Throughout my stay for four years, I don’t think we had up to three caucus sessions. It was only when the president was coming to present a budget or when there was a crisis in the party.