In this interview conducted online by SAHEED SALAWU, the lawmaker representing Ede North/Ede South/Egbedore/Ejigbo Federal Constituency of Osun State in the House of Representatives, Honourable Bamidele Salam, speaks on the performance of the ninth National Assembly in the last one year, his personal achievements, the controversial Infectious Disease Bill, among other things.
It will soon be exactly one year since the ninth National Assembly was inaugurated, will you say the House of Representatives has in anyway justified its purpose in this one year?
Yes, I will say that, to a large extent, the House has been very productive in terms of law-making, oversight and advocating for the good of the masses. If I am not mistaken, as of February, the number of bills initiated by members was about 700. This is an average of 80 bills per month. That number must have increased significantly now in spite of the impact of the coronavirus on the sitting of the parliament in the last few months. The House has also considered and passed hundreds of motions on critical issues which touch on the lives of the average Nigerian.
We have been very proactive on the issue of security in a manner that has probably not been done in previous assemblies. The House leadership held meaningful engagements with the executive which resulted in better funding for our security agencies and inspired more confidence in the troops. I am sure you are aware of the fact that in an unprecedented manner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives visited states currently being ravaged by insurgency and banditry where he offered emotional and material support to Internally Displaced Persons. The House has also played key roles in the resolutions of disputes between the academic staff of tertiary institutions, medical doctors and other categories of workers and the Federal Government.
Worthy of note is the pivotal role being played by the ninth House of Representatives in addressing the issue of out-of-school children in Nigeria. This was sequel to a special sitting of the House dedicated to this issue on the 12th of March this year.
I must also add that the activities of the House in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant effect on the socio-economic livelihood of citizens are very proactive. We passed an Economic stimulus Bill to protect jobs and cater for the financial commitments of low-income earners especially on mortgages. The Speaker and the entire leadership of the House have successfully advocated payment of hazard allowances to frontline workers and provision of other incentives to vulnerable caregivers. In short, there are lots that have happened in the last one year in line with the legislative agenda of the ninth House of Representatives and I must say this is kudos to the selfless, inclusive leadership provided by the Honourable Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila.
Recently there was an allegation of some form of monetary inducement to pass a bill that would provide for mandatory vaccination and seizure of private property by government in times of an epidemic. What is your take on this?
It is unfortunate that some people will sit down in the corners of their bedrooms to create fictions and scandalize other people whose only offence is accepting to serve in public offices. The Infectious Disease Bill was initiated by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and two other ranking members of the House to cure the obvious defects of the Quarantine Act which was passed in 1926. The bill was a response to the emergencies of the times and ought to be seen in that light. Even though a few of us spoke in favour of having a wider consultation and greater public input into the bill, there is absolutely no doubt that the sponsors were well intentioned and being pro-active. The allegations of bribery by a certain group of persons was, with due respect, a very irresponsible one. Thank God that the Bill Gates Foundation has issued a denial while the newspaper which carried the story in its online edition has issued a rebuttal and published an apology. The Speaker that I know is an incorruptible leader. He has been in the House for more than 15 years, rising from minority to majority leader and Speaker and has never been involved in a scandal. Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila treasures his name and legacies. He is also a team player who holds national interest above sectional, religious or even political considerations in all he does. He leads by example and has never been known to foist his personal opinion on the House. Those who made the allegation of bribery against him and against the House knew it was false and I am in support of the decision to seek legal redress against them.
So, what is the situation concerning that bill?
Well, the Speaker himself, in deference to the weight of public opinion, decided that the bill be referred to the relevant committees of the House for public hearing. I am sure the committee on health is working on the modalities of conducting a public hearing considering the rules against large gatherings at this time. As soon as the public hearings are concluded, the report will come back to the House for consideration. I do not think there is any rational person who will insist that we continue to manage our emergency health systems on a 1926 Act. The Quarantine Act is obsolete and incapable of addressing the myriad of health issues in an increasingly globalised world. Whatever needs to tinkered with in the new bill to ensure that it conforms to best global standards will be addressed and I am hopeful that it will soon become law.
Now let us talk about your involvement with the Pensions Committee as vice chairman. How will you describe the present situation of things in the Industry?
To my own mind, the Nigerian pension industry is still in a state of evolution. I say this in view of the fact that countries like South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia which ranked on a lower scale some 20 years ago, have developed a more robust pension fund administration system that has made them globally competitive. Our Pension Reform birthed through the Pension Reform Act of 2004 and 2014 is a bold step in the right direction but there is still a lot that needs to be done to bring our pension system at par with those of countries in our categories. The informal sector which is the larger constituency of our population needs to be brought into the Pension system too.
One of the challenges of the present system is the refusal of majority of state governments to buy into the contributory pension scheme. They still prefer to deal in the old system of the defined benefit scheme which comes with lots of uncertainties. The present pension burden running into several trillions of Naira in the accrued benefits under the old scheme is another major cause for concern. I have hundreds of retirees from the defunct Osogbo Steel Rolling Mill and other government parastatals who are dying needlessly because they could not get their gratuities and pensions. Even though the present management of the Pension Transitional Directorate appears to be rising up to these challenges, I believe there is the need for a broad-based summit of stakeholders in the industry to address these concerns. It is time to be creative in solving this problem so that younger Nigerians will proudly offer to serve their fatherland.
It is also necessary to take a second look at some provisions of the Pension Reform Act, especially those which make it difficult for pensioners to access their contributions to meet urgent medical needs. A man who retired from public service was with me recently to lodge a complaint about his inability to fund a medical trip to treat his prostate cancer in spite of having a cumulative sum of over N10 million in his Retirement Savings Account. This is certainly not the intention of the drafters of the law. There is quite a number of issues which we as a committee are working on in collaboration with stakeholders in the industry. Let me however acknowledge the greater transparency and speed of our military pension system and those of other security services. It can only get better as we will surely leave some enduring legacies by the grace of God.
What has been your own impact both in lawmaking and constituency development since you were inaugurated?
I give glory to God and thank the people of my constituency for the privilege given me to represent them in the House of Representatives. While campaigning for the office, I did promise to be a legislator who will be meaningfully visible both at plenary and in the constituency. I have kept faith with this promise and have results to show. Three of my bills have passed first reading and they are pieces of legislation that will affect the public for good. The bills are the Sickle Cell Disease and other Inheritable Blood Disorder Bill, the bill to amend the National Directorate of Employment, meant to make the agency better positioned to create jobs for our youths and the Volunteerism Agency Bill, which will provide a legal framework for volunteerism and social work in Nigeria. The sickle Cell Bill is particularly dear to my heart as Nigeria, being the country with the highest number of sickle cell patients in the world does not have any legislative framework to cater for this category of citizens.
Similarly, myself and six other colleagues have just submitted a bill to create a pool of funds for the support of small businesses owned by Nigerians who are 40 years and below. It is the Microcredit Intervention Tax Bill and it will hopefully be ready for consideration by the House as soon as we resume from the Eid-el-Fitr break. I have been a major voice for the entrenchment of good governance and promotion of civil liberty in the House. This I have done through sponsorship of motions and contribution to critical debates on the floor. My assignment in the Pension committee has afforded me the opportunity of resolving scores of knotty issues affecting senior citizens in different parts of the country. At the constituency level, I have been actively involved with providing training, grants and other opportunities for students and youths in the four local governments I represent.
I launched ‘Operation 400’, which is to facilitate the starting or growing of 400 businesses in the federal constituency within four years. It started with boot camp which was adjudged unprecedented by participants and facilitators. I sponsored a summer class programme that ended with provision of educational grants and scholarship. I also facilitated a medical and welfare outreach for the elderly, in addition to other targeted programmes. I am happy to report that the rehabilitation of the dilapidated Ejigbo Town Hall, whose pregnancy was conceived by my predecessor in office, has been fully delivered by me. It is interesting to state that even though the sum of money released by the Federal Government was just 50 percent of the budgeted sum, we ensured that the contractor went the extra mile to deliver a town hall that befits the status of the ancient town.
As the implementation of the 2020 budget commences, many other projects which I am facilitating in several communities will come on stream. These are just bits I can recall at the moment and like I said, it is a great privilege to serve at a time like this.
What is your assessment of Governor Gboyega Oyetola of Osun State?
Sincerely, I will say it is too early to assess the governor. He has four years to show the stuff he is made of and has only been in office for about one year. Let us allow him to focus so that we are not accused of political bias. At the appropriate time, we will make our objective assessment of his government. Let me however add that I have had cause to commend him on the payment of part of the backlog of pensions and gratuities in the state. I hope he goes a step further to clear the bond which is the state government’s component of the contributory pensioners so that primary school teachers who retired in 2015 till date can get paid by the Pension Fund Administrators.
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