By Justina Asishana, Minna
The 8th Assembly of the Niger state House of Assembly came to an end with the Speaker of the Niger state House of Assembly, Ahmed Marafa Guni speaking to newsmen. In this interview, he bared his mind on the journey as leader of the House of Assembly in the past four years. He also spoke of the high and low moments. Excerpts:
SUKUK bond rejection by the House was reported to have caused the frosty relation with the executive. It is also said to be the reason that many members did not win their tickets to return. Can you confirm this?
There was actually a love lost between the executive and legislators as a result of the fallout of the Sukuk request that was presented to the House. What really happened was that I was confronted before the presentation of the request that there was going to be a request to access certain facility from sukuk. That was the first day I heard the work sukuk, I was told the Commissioner of Finance will brief me.
When the commissioner came, I asked what the fund going to be used for. The reponse was that it was going to be used on projects that would enhance our IGR because as at then, even till now, we had challenges in our IGR. When he gave me that response, I had no objection to it. I agreed that it should be presented and the request was then presented and out of my wisdom, I didn’t allow it to be discussed then and there in the House. If I had done that, I am sure the request wouldn’t have lasted up to five minutes in the floor of the House, they would have outrightly rejected it.
I was able to set up an ad-hoc committee comprising of two member from each of the senatorial zones so that they would go, look at it critically and debate it based on the peculiarities of their zones. The member representing Paikoro chaired the Committee and after all consultations and meetings with relevant stakeholders, they weren’t comfortable with certain explanations that they got. They also had issues with the interest rate because the loan was supposed to be at 17 percent interest. Secondly, there was suppose to be a consultant who would take some substantial amount of money that we felt was not really commensurate with the transaction. In fact, the committee made a lot of observations on that request and even the distribution of the projects were sort of lopsided to one zone to the detriment of other zones. I had a preview of the report before it was presented and after going through all these observations, I called on the executive and told them the sukuk bond may not fly due to the observations from the committee.
Yes, the state will be taking N21 billion for projects and at the end of the day, the money will be expended on just five to six local governments out of 25 local government area of the state. Definitely, for some obvious reasons other local government will complain. When they asked for the way out, I told them to earmark N100 million per local government, which would amount to N2.5 billion. I asked that N2.5 billion be earmarked and projects will be seen to be going on in these local government areas, I told them it would douse the tension that would arise from other LGAS that won’t benefit from the entire fund. The Governor accepted that idea and instructed that I discuss with the commissioner of Finance to see how possible that would be. Unfortunately, when I met the commissioner, his response was that before sukuk approves to give you a loan, you must have gotten the projects you want to do and once the projects were approved, there is no going back or adjustment. He said that the projects that have been earmarked has been approved and there was no way they could make adjustment into it. I told the commissioner then that we will not take that. I told him it was the state that was borrowing the money and they cannot dictate on what to do with the money. Moreover, we will pay interest on it.
That is when we started having issues with the Executive. I noted that in that case, the whole exercise was not worth it, if they could not accommodate N21 billion, if they could not restructure N2.5 billion, then what was the essence. We kept dragging but made no headway. I was so passionate about it so that it could fly. I even suggested that the projects should be brought down to N50 million which would make N1.3 billion or thereabout. The commissioner said he would get across to the consultant and see if they could accommodate that.
While we were still on it, they started discussing about the interest of members. I told them that I am the head of legislators and I advised that if they were comfortable with the project of N50 million in every constituency, the best thing they could do for any member was to allow him identify a contractor who would do the work in his constituency. You don’t need to give any member N1 because I wont approve any member given any money out of the loan. He agreed and said he would discuss with the governor. He went and unfortunately during council, he misrepresented the information to the governor. He told the governor that members asked for N50 million before they would approve the sukuk bond. Already, I was beginning to receive heat from my members on why I should say they should not give us money, only for me to hear this shoking revelation. Fortunately, after the council, I met with the governor who was fuming and demanded to know why we are demanding for N50 million each for us to pass Sukuk. I told him it was false information.
After two weeks, I then received information from him that the whole issue about sukuk bond should be suspended but I felt after constituting a committee who have spent energy, time, resources and worked round the clock for two weeks, then all of a sudden, the executive will just write a letter and say we shoud suspend the whole thing, it wont be fair to the members of the committee if their reports was not really carried. So in my consideration, I suspended his Excellency’s letter and mandated the committee to present its report so that Nigerlites would have an idea of what was really happening, that was my greatest mistake.
When the committee report was read by the chairman, for obvious reasons, we had some judases amongst us, even before then. They ran to the executive to tell him that the Speaker was planning to disgrace him. So, when eventually the report of the committee was read, it proved that it was my intention to disgrace his Excellency. But why should I do that? This is a state matter, it is not my matter. Even when the sukuk bond request was presented, I know the pressure I received from certain quarters. That was the beginning of our issues because he was arguing that why should I refuse to take a correspondence he sent to me. I told him, the order paper had already been prepared before his letter came and there was no way we could adjust it and what we had in our order paper superseded any correspondence.
The letters were for my consumption. It is just out of respect that I read it on the floor of the house. Ordinarily, I am was not supposed to read your letter. I am just meant to take action on it. Reading the letter is to give you the respect and show that there is a cordial relationship between the legislators and the executive. He had some people around him who felt insulted with our actions and kept advising.
It is insinuated that the Sukuk bond is being repackaged and would be brought to the 9th Assembly.
On repackaging sukuk, I don’t know because I am not part of the executive. It may not be far from the truth. There are some projects that are ongoing and meeting up. The state do not have the financial muscle to carry the projects. Definitely, they must seek any alternative to fund the projects and maybe the sukuk may be their last resort.
Why did the Assembly block the Governor from adding more Special Advisers?
His Excellency contacted me that for some obvious reason he wanted to add some special advisers because at some point, we had some challenges on the distribution of political appointments and certain local governments were been marginalized while others were being favored in terms of political appointments. The Governor called my attention that he wanted to balance such distribution and he wanted to appoint two additional special advisers to take care of certain local governments that were actually being left behind, I advised him that adding two special advisers will still create problem because there are three zones in the state and automatically if you are giving two special advisers to some zones, the zone that will be left out will definitely complain, I urged him to make it three and he agreed.
He made it three but already there were 15 special advisers on ground, some of them had no offices and most of them do not have cars at that time, most of them were even complaining of not having N1 as impress, we asked what is the essence when even the 15 special advisers that is on ground were not taken care of. Some of them do not even have access t the governor. As aspecial adviser to the governor and you don’t have access to the governor, then what is their function, who are they going to advise? So all these things came up, some of them came to complain to us. So when he sent the list to he Assmbly, we did not see the wisdom in him adding more special advisers when he could not properly take care of the ones on ground.
The issue came at a time when our morale were already down because of the non release of the Constituency social service. However, the refusal was not on the basis that he refused to release the funds for the CSS, we had our reasons already on ground that we were going to reject the letter because the complaints we were getting from the special advisers on ground. It was just a case of coincidence and not a deliberate act. It was never a denial because of the non release of our CSS
Have you been requesting for money for members to approve budgets?
We have not collected N1 as far as I have been the Speaker in the past four years, we never received N1 to enhance the approval of the budget. It is part of our responsibility. In 2015, they brought N500,000 for each member and I rejected it. I told them to take it back. We returned the money, they thought the money was little but I told them that we came in as an agent of change and things need to be changed. If we start on this note, then at the end of tne day, we will not be able to sustain it. I returned the money without the consent of the members and when I eventually told the members, not all were happy but I thank God most of them are better now. and I am happy that we took the decision.
What is your take on the implementation of Local government autonomy?
It is a good step which has been assented to by the national assembly and it has been transmitted. It is left to us to agree or disagree. The last time, Niger state was among the nine states that approved the autonomy of local governments but unfortunately it didn’t fly because we did not have two third of the states to agree on that but as it is now, I am afraid it will fly but I think the governors may want to use their office to suppress it but if any state does not pass it, Niger will surely pass it. If they can get 24 states, then I think local government will start flying but if not, it won’t fly.
What about the autonomy of state assemblies. What are the benefits?
The autonomy of the state assemblies and judiciary is already a done deal because it has already been assented into law by Mr. President but the only thing left now is the implementation process and the Presidency constituted a committee on the implementation and they are to present their report June ending. The fear of most assemblies is that if the resources are going to the legislators and judiciary could come from FAAC, it will be okay, unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. However we were able to conclude that whatever comes to the state will be placed in one basket and it would be shared on the three tiers pof government on certain percentage that will be agreed upon by a committee to do the sharing. When the sharing formula is agreed upon, then whatever is due to any tier of government will be given to them. As far as I am concerned, we have made tremendous progress and I am sure soon, assembly will have their autonomy in the next two months.
On the benefits of the autonomy, it will be a case of benefit and discomfort. The only benefit I can say is that it will reduce some bottlenecks often associated with the legislators and judiciary when it comes to assessing certain funds from the executive. But by and large, it will be a relief to the executive in certain cases because as it is now, based on the last agreements, proceeds will be shared not on budgetary provisions but on what is available to the state.
States will no longer go through the turmoil of going to borrow money to meet up with some obligations, there won’t be a stable fund coming to the legislator, executive or judiciary, it will be what comes at the end of the month, so if in a month, we have a rosy inflow, everybody will smile but if it is otherwise, everybody will have to fast. The situation where the executive will continue to act as the shock absorber, the era is gone. And this may translate to crisis.
Example, if the assembly usually gets N3 million as overhead monthly and at the end of the day, you cannot get even one million, it will raise issues. The only benefit is that it will stop the era of going cap in hand begging the executive to meet your approval or meet your request. Once the inflows come, they will bring all the money to your account. The supremacy fight between the legislators and judiciary will reduce. The executive will no longer have so much power over the other arms.
The greatest challenge will be on the legislators and the judiciary on how to manage their own affairs. The judiciary that is so bloated with staff, only God knows how they will be able to take care of their staff, the same thing with the legislators. Even added to it, capital projects would still be embarked upon by each arm. To be sincere, in the first year, it will bring crisis because this is something that they are not used to, so how do you manage it. Nigeria state House of assembly expects that whatever comes should be shared by 27, it wont augur well with the legislators. It will be a crisis situation in the next few years.
How would you evaluate your tenure in the office?
It wasn’t easy but I tred my best. There were some situations I had to give up some parts of my allowances for the running of the house, funding of the generator, corpers allowances are being done out of my money. When I tried to slash the committee allowanmces of the members, they resisted it. Leadership is not easy but once you are there, for some obvious reasons, you will not want to be out of that place, it is not pleasure, believe me, there are sacrifices you will have to make.
Let’s talk about the Speakership position, many of your colleagues are going to drag this seat with you. How will you feel if you don’t return as Speaker?
As far as issue of leadership is concerned, initially, it was giving me concern I must confess, but as at today, I am very comfortable with whatever is the outcome. There is this saying that says that every disappointment is a blessing. Most likely there is a blessing that awaits me if I do not return as the Speaker. Because what I am already envisaging on that seat , only God will save whoever is going to lead the house ,it is not going to be easy ,it will be ten times tougher than the session we are leaving now. I have not disclosed my interest in retaining the seat with anybody. But if I win or not, I will give my best to the Assembly.
How were you able to stabilize the house in the four years you were speaker?
The magic fomular is to be sincere and transparent, have a good heart to accommodate everybody, believe in the Almighty and don’t be greedy.
What has been your greatest achievement as speaker?
Being able to lead a trouble free assembly in the past four years is a great achievement for me especially with the way other assemblies were in turmoil. I have been able to ensure that there is a harmonious relationship between the executive and the legislators even at my own detriment