Honourable Bitrus Kaze was member of the sixth and seventh National Assembly and a staunch member of the Peoples Democratic Party. In this interview with ISAAC SHOBAYO, Kaze speaks on the recent Executive Order on financial autonomy to state legislature and judiciary, covid-19, the crisis rocking Plateau State chapter of the PDP, among other issues. Excerpts.
RECENTLY, the federal government granted financial autonomy to Judiciary and state houses of assembly. What is the advantage of this development to the two arms of government?
The autonomy of the judiciary and legislature is very important, I am proud of the 6th and 7th National Assembly because at a point in time the National Assembly both the Senate and House of Representatives actually voted for the financial autonomy of the state legislature but that bill failed at the state level, because two thirds of the states couldn’t support it and so we lost it. But the National Assembly passed it. But I do not think that fundamental constitutional problem can be remedy by presidential order. What should be done is amendment to the constitution to give effect to the fact that the state legislature, their financial autonomy should be determined on first line charge. Immediately, there are funds coming to the state that of the legislature should go straight to the legislature and ditto that of the judiciary. That would free them of the master-servant mentality, especially between the state governors and state legislatures. By the time the legislative arm is able to stand on its own, travelling, conferences, bills, salaries, allowances, among others, will be carried out without recourse to the executive arm or the governor as it is being done in the National Assembly. Then the country will see a more effective, more alert and more responsible state assemblies across the nation.
Most of the governors seem to be frowning on this development. What do you think is responsible for this?
They are against it and jittery because of self- interest. If the funding comes to the state assembly from the first line charge directly from the federation account, hitting into the account of the state assemblies, it will give them mental, psychological and moral independence. Therefore, the state assemblies will be able to act on their own without any control by the state governors. Secondly, a state legislature that is independent financially can actually bite the governor. We may perhaps begin to see state legislators that are kicking against gubernatorial excesses or executive excesses. And from all indications and their bodies languages, the governors are not comfortable with all these.
Going by our current experience, Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the rot in governance in Nigeria. What should the government do to remedy the situation?
It would be foolhardy and insincere if I blame President Muhammdu Buhari administration exclusively. The rot in our health system has reached a level that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation came out publicly and confessed that if not for covid-19 he wouldn’t have known that our health system was that rotten. One of my first contributions when I went to the sixth Assembly was to say that if we really wanted to get thing right in this country, we should consider making a law that government functionaries must only patronise government clinics, schools and institutions. If those in government are forced to patronise government institutions, they won’t joke with them. But I was cautious to say and note that it would infringe on the fundamental freedom of choice. Because of that choice that people make by taking their children abroad, the rotten health system of Nigeria has exploded like covid-19. As I said, I cannot exempt myself because I am part of the leadership. All these happenings portray leadership in bad light and, perhaps, we should look at post-covid-19 Nigeria with leadership taking more responsibility than any other thing.
Many Nigerians are of the opinion that the country is still lying prostrate 21 years of this democratic dispensation (cuts in).
If there is any gain at all, it simply means that democracy is still alive or a semblance of it because under the administration of President Buhari, the fundamental freedom of Nigerians has been compromised a lot. People are no longer free. We reached a level whereby a 70 years old was jailed for insulting a governor or insulting a president. We have more serious issues to attend to than attending to frivolous things. If you are facing criticism, all you have to do is to double up. Under President Buhari, I don’t think we have moved an inch better. Naira has continued to deteriorate; unemployment is on the high side. Unfortunately for this government, one of the worse legacies they have is that they have continued to pile up Nigeria’s international debt and that is not good for our future generation. I thought we have a president who is disciplined financially and who is not extravagant. After TSA and all the anti-corruption war, recovery of money in dollars from Abacha alone, many did not know the rationale behind this excessive borrowing. The Buhari presidency shows itself more as a government that is relying on international funding than a government that is prudent. They said there is no more importation of rice, then where is our hard currency going? Why are things so bad for the common man? As for me, when they say one thing what we see is another. All these cannot just be explained.
Your party the Peoples Democratic Party in Plateau State is known for incessant crisis and gradually becoming object of friction despite its popularity in the state. The recent measure put in place by the National Secretariat, that is Caretaker Committee, has plunged the party into crisis again. What is your assessment of the situation?
To be fair with the party, relevant sections of the party’s constitution envisage that there can be emergency or where the constitution says such is necessary. There is a court judgment by Her Lordship Justice Monica Longpan then as Appeal Court judge and she expanded the fact that assuming the entire party is struggling in a plane and all crash lands what would happen… it becomes necessary to appoint a caretaker. Assuming all of them decided to leave PDP and go to another party what happens? It becomes necessary to have a caretaker. The point is this: there are instances where the party will be forced to install a caretaker. What is causing the ripple is not the institution of the caretaker but institution of people who are contestants. When you have somebody who is contesting election and he is also a judge in that election, the likelihood is that people who are contesting election with them will see that as foul play. That is what is causing problem right now in Plateau PDP. You cannot be a judge in your own case; it is against the rule of natural justice. In any case, why would you have a seven-man caretaker committee in one state when the tenure of the executive has expired and in another case you said the executive whose tenure has expired should transmute into caretakers? Certainly, you cannot do two things at once and you expect to be accorded the credibility that you deserve. The tenure of the serving state executive in Plateau State is gone. The only thing to be done is to provide a level playing field. You cannot be a caretaker and be interested in contesting election.
This crisis has led to the formation of a parallel caretaker committee. Is this not a setback for the party that is struggling to reposition itself ahead of 2023?
This is a political party that is in opposition, lost power in 2015 and appears not to have learnt from its mistakes. Otherwise how would you explain all of a sudden the noise that we hear, the concern on both sides? If both sides are fighting over the same position, it could be concluded that it is as a result of the absence of justice and fairness. If there had been confidence building measures on both sides, this would not have happened. Ordinarily, the executive whose tenure expired is supposed to say thank you and leave and allow other people to organise the election. What is causing the problem is that the people whose tenure has expired are still insisting on sitting tight in the name of caretaker and nothing in the party constitution envisaged that a contestant would want to be a judge in his own matter. This is not a re-contest because their tenure has expired.
But elders within the party such as Senator Jonah Jang, Senator Jeremiah Useini, among others, seem to be watching from the sideline without any move to resolve the impasse. Are you not disturbed by their postures?
I am very careful in saying this, if our key stakeholders command the confidence of everybody and they truly display neutrality, this problem doesn’t need to go anywhere and if they call everyone of us to a round table and say ‘you that your tenure has expired, do you want to contest?’ If their answer is yes and the elders tell them that you will not be a caretaker, the matter will be resolved. If there is mutual understanding, respect and neutrality among our elders and leaders, it would build confidence in followers and contestants. But where one elder takes side and the other takes another side, the likelihood is that even the leadership of the party at that level would have been divided into two. Unfortunately, that is what seems to be manifesting at the moment. We have been doing PDP 1 and 2 since when Senator Dariye was the governor of the state. This has been in phases and practice from time to time, and we have failed to realise that fairness is inevitable I have been saying it that if PDP did not kill impunity, impunity will kill PDP and if PDP did not kill imposition, imposition will kill PDP. There is no fairness and genuine playing field. When you denied somebody or group fairness, the likelihood is that they would resort to unfairness as means to achieve their aim.
Is this not an ego war among the key stakeholders, because there is an insinuation that the crisis is a result of the moves by the major stakeholders to have full grip of the party structure in the state…
There is no question about that. I think it is an ego war, but it also goes beyond that. There is temptation. I don’t want to call them elders, because they are our parents as well, but they are more agitated when it is electioneering time more than us the younger ones. They are not contesting; they have held positions at different times; they have been leaders at national and state levels, but we can’t explain why they are becoming more agitated during congresses and primaries more than the younger ones. What do they want again? In fact, they have told us that one of their legs is outside and the other one in the grave…
With the crisis festering, what do you want the national secretariat to do?
The national secretariat must provide a level playing field for everybody; there must be fairness in reality across board for everybody. The constitution of the party spells out the organ of the party that is responsible for communication, but we don’t know what is happening in the case of Plateau State.
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