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Bamidele: Fuel Subsidy No Longer Serves Interest of the People


Gboyega Akinsanmi holds a conversation with Chairman, Southern Senators Forum and Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele. He explains among others, his resolve to contest the 2022 governorship race in Ekiti State, how he survived gunshot by Providence on June 1, 2018

About three and half years ago, you were shot at the flag-off of Governor Kayode Fayemi’s re-election campaign. Immediately you found yourself on the ground, what went through your mind?

It is an event I will not like to discuss without first returning all the glory to God Almighty. It was a fatal experience. To the extent that I was conscious of what was going on, I was not conscious for too long. To the extent that I was conscious, I found myself between life and death. On the one hand, I faced the realities that it might lead to death in terms of fear that would grip any person in such a situation. I wondered if that indeed was going to be the end of a chapter. On the other hand, I was full of faith and hope that I was not going to die. However, I did not know how God would do it. That was why I described it as finding myself between life and death. If I were to walk by sight, I had no reason to fear death at that moment. But by the grace of God, I was able to walk by faith. That was actually what sustained me all through the ordeal. From that moment till today, I could remember being carried from the ground. I remembered the first shot went through my thigh. That took me to the ground. As I was hitting the ground, the other bullet came right through my stomach.

It was a terrible experience. At every point, I found myself fainting as I was losing blood on the way to the hospital until I became totally unconscious partly because I had then come under the influence of anesthesia. But all through that I remained conscious, I was full of faith, and that faith really saw me through. There was no time to call for ambulance. There was no time to get a stretcher or any of those things. I remembered being lifted from the ground. I was thrown into a waiting jeep, which was the official car of His Excellency, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. I could also remember driving through the gate of Ekiti State University Teaching Hospital. Governor Fayemi tapped me because I was losing consciousness. I could remember telling him: “Your Excellency, I will be fine. I will not die. I will live to declare the glory of the Lord in the land of the living.” That was the scripture that came to my mind immediately when the incident occurred. It was a wonderful experience. It was a test of faith. It was also an opportunity to experience the glory of God.

After serving Lagos State for more than years, you returned to your home state. What informed your decision, considering limitless opportunities you had in Lagos?

It is a natural thing. Charity begins at home. Before I got the opportunities to serve in the Lagos State Executive Council, I spent my early days being relevant as a student leader or as a youth leader, operating more as an Ekiti man everywhere I went, whether in the University of Ife, University of Benin or in Lagos State where I began my career as a lawyer. I also had part of my post-secondary education in Lagos. I attended Baptist Academy, Obanikoro for Higher School Certificate (HSC). At every point, I tried to be relevant in my own little way. Coming to serve as a cabinet member in Lagos State was really what I needed to carve a niche for myself. Again, it was God that made it possible. I was privileged to be under the tutelage of the most fantastic human being I ever met in my life. He is an unassuming African man and a very dignified Nigerian, His Excellency, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, whom I did not meet as a governor.

I did not even meet him as a politician. He was one of those who believed in me early enough in life as a young professional. As soon as I came out of the Nigerian Law School, he began to give me briefs. Then, he was not in politics. He was the Treasurer of Exxon-Mobil. He gave me some briefs to represent his own mother, Mama Abibat Mogaji, who was then the President-General, Nigerian Market Women and Men Association. She had a lot of challenges with some factional leaders, struggling with her for leadership. She had a lot of cases in courts. Tinubu gave me some of these cases to represent her in court. It would take some level of trust to encourage a young man fresh from the law school to be involved at that level. That was one of the things that gave me early exposure to practice in the courtroom. In 1991, we had reasons to be politically involved together.

He was aspiring to become the senatorial candidate of our party, Social Democratic Party (SDP). Young men, like me too, felt that I should also aspire to fly their banner for the House of Representatives. Tinubu and I happened to be within the same senatorial district. It is history today that I lost my own primary, then Option A4, by one vote. But Tinubu won his own primary. We all worked together for him. He also won the senatorial election. As soon as he was sworn in, he invited me to work with him as his Special Assistant on Legal Matters. I left my practice behind to join him in Abuja. By the grace of God, we have been together since then. We were together in the National Assembly for the brief period he was there. We ended up in the trenches together. Also, we were together in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). We ended up in exile together. At some point, he came back home to contest election. When he returned home, I was very busy.

I had just finished Masters in Law. I moved to New York to write the New York Bar Exam. I passed the exam and got what looked like a clean job for a young professional with the Harvard University Law School Immigration Clinic, where we were providing pro bono legal services, who could not hire their own private attorneys. Ford Foundation provided fund for the programme, and Harvard University Law School was understudying us as the practical part of its curriculum. That is what I was doing when Tinubu became the Governor of Lagos State. After he became governor, he insisted that I should come back home to serve the government and people of Lagos State. Eventually, I agreed to his request to return to Nigeria. I returned in March 2020. I was first appointed Senior Special Assistant on Political and Intergovernmental Relations.

Under one year, I was appointed Special Adviser and was seconded to the Office of Deputy Governor, then Mr. Femi Pedro. In 2003, Asiwaju appointed me the Commissioner for Youth, Sports and Social Development. I finished the tenure with him till May 29, 2007 when Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN) assumed office. Under Fashola, I was reappointed to serve in the State Executive Council, then as the Commissioner for Information and Strategy. I was in that position until February 2011 when I left to contest federal legislative election. That was the first time I contested election in Ekiti State, not because I could not have contested in Lagos State.

I also felt that regardless of how much God has promoted me in life, it is always important that we identify with the yearnings and aspirations of people of our local community, who may need us in such a way we have to forgo our relative comfort zone that we may be operating. It was that feeling that made me go to Ekiti State. It was not because I felt I was the best thing that could happen to Ekiti or because I knew it more than those who were there. It was because I was convinced that I would be a strong addition to the progressives in Ekiti in trying to build the economy and polity of the state and improve on the quality of life of our people. Since February 2011, I have remained consistent in trying to be part and parcel of the politics and life of the people of Ekiti State. To the glory of God, I have been able to make modest contributions to the growth of the state.

The governorship contest in Ekiti State has started already. Are you contesting again? If you are contesting, are you confident of winning?

Following consultations with God Almighty whom I first sought in trying to take a decision, I have concluded that I will be contesting the next governorship election in Ekiti State. Following meetings with various stakeholders including friends, political associates and party leaders, I have come to this conclusion. This is informed by my own personal policy and conviction that no man owns himself to himself alone. Rather, you own yourself partly to yourself, partly to your family, partly to your extended family, partly to your community and largely to the society. At the end of it all, you will be accountable to God Almighty, who did not just create any of us without a purpose in life. I have come to a conclusion that I will be contesting the next governorship election in Ekiti State. With this conclusion, I am in talks with various stakeholders. At the fullness to time, I will officially declare my interest to contest governorship election in 2022 and do the needful including picking the nomination forms as prescribed by the party, getting on the field to canvass for votes among party members, who will eventually decide the candidate to fly the flag of our party, All Progressives Congress (APC) in the gubernatorial contest. I am trusting God that at the end of that, I will be in the position to fly the flag of our party in 2022.

Fiscal crisis is a major challenge for governments at all levels. Following the recommendation of the World Bank, the federal government has decided to end the fuel subsidy regime. Is fuel subsidy removal an answer to fiscal crisis?

Fiscal responsibility has become critical to economic and national survival globally. Also, fuel subsidy has become an issue of national controversy. There are a lot of Nigerians, who have come to a conclusion that it is more of a fraud than fiscal reality. One thing that nobody can take away is the fact that it has become really difficult to pinpoint the positive impact of the so-called fuel subsidy. If a government is supposedly subsidising a sector or service and it has come to a stage where it is extremely difficult to lay hands on the actual deliverables, then such a service is no longer sustainable. As the nation continues to make budgetary provisions year in year out, it only helps to serve the purpose of a few people without the majority of the people feeling the impact.

Where did the subsidy go in the past? Even in the last five years that Nigerians have become very interested, we have not been able to find specific deliverables. If you look at these issues, then you begin to think as a patriot. Perhaps we can do without it. Whatever is being allocated to fund subsidies can as well be taken out and be invested in something more tangible so that Nigerians can see. There is no doubt in the fact that part of the reasons we are witnessing fiscal crisis is the strength of our economy itself. It is an economy that is losing its strength. It is an economy that is monolithic, relying heavily on the sale of oil. It then means that market behaviour, to a very large extent, determines what happens to our economy. It also means if oil prices are going up, we have more money. If oil prices are going down, we are in trouble.

Even though oil prices were going up, we were not getting the benefits because our daily production was going down quota. It did not matter that oil prices were going up because we did not meet out production quota. We did not have enough barrels to take advantage of the rising price of crude oil. This is another major reason for fiscal crisis. Of course, we have not been able to explore the non-oil sector of our economy. We all talk about the non-oil sector. This is one administration that has taken different initiatives aimed at turning our economy around. In the last three years, insecurity has led to a crisis situation where a lot of our farmers are out of their farmlands. Also, there are some parts of the country that either experience drought or excessive rainfall.

Mineral development is supposed to be another source of income. Over 80 percent of mining activities in Nigeria today are illegal. Because it is illegal mining, they are not accountable to government. They are not bringing anything to public accounts. The combination of these issues is responsible for fiscal crisis that we are experiencing in the country. That is why it goes beyond the issue of fuel subsidy. However, it is also a contributing factor.

We have humongous domestic and foreign debts. Even, the Senate approved another loan request for Mr. President. What informed the decision of the Senate?

For us in the National Assembly, overriding public interest will continue to be our watchword. Sometimes, in describing an elephant, it depends on the direction you are looking at it. If you are having its side view, you may describe an elephant as a very huge animal. If you are looking at it from its ear, you have a different description of an elephant. If you are looking it from the back, you will use what you see to describe the size of the elephant. In the National Assembly, we have a more global view of the situation in the country. The Senate is a non-partisan institution. Various political parties, which are represented in the National Assembly, are just the vehicles that brought us in. But the moment you are sworn in, you become the Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or Honourable Member of the House of Representatives.

I laugh sometimes when the opposition leaders criticise the Senate for approving all manners of loan for Mr. President. But they forget that Chairman of the Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, Senator Clifford Ordia was elected on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Senator Ordia means well for the country. It is not about political party. What we see is different from what most Nigerians see, to be precise. If I were not in the Senate, I probably would see things differently. But we have the global view. We have the picture of the extent of money the federal government has to spend in terms of expenditure profile. We have clearer picture of the revenue profile. We see how far away we are from realising our revenue target. Each time the request for loans comes to the Senate, part of the question we ask ourselves is: what is the implication of not approving it? We can decide not to approve. But we have to ask ourselves that question. What are the options left for the administration?

Autonomy for the judiciary is still an issue. It is founded in the 1999 Constitution (as amended). A court of competent jurisdiction has directed the state governments to implement it. Presidency has equally issued a directive for the same reason. What is the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters doing to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Constitution?

There are two sides to it. One is ensuring that necessary legal provisions are made, which requires legislative action. The other side has to do with implementation. When it comes to the legislative action, the National Assembly has done well in addressing this issue. Specifically, the 7th and 8th National Assembly addressed this issue. I am proud of what was provided for to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the manner money will be released to the judicial arm of government. That is why it is provided for in our constitution that any money standing to the credit of the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue of the country shall be transferred directly to the National Judicial Council (NJC).

Also, similar provision was made for the judiciary at the state level. The provision states that any money standing to the credit of the judiciary in the Consolidated Revenue of a state shall be transferred directly to the judiciary. The law is made. The constitution is certain and guaranteed. Let us go to the next level, which implementation. That is where the problem is. The federal government is religiously implementing it. In this fiscal year, I can confirm to you that a sum of N110 billion budgeted for the judiciary was transferred to the NJC. It was not only transferred. The judiciary was classified as the first-line-charge institution. Also in this category are the INEC, National Assembly and National Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately, while that is going on at the national level, that is not the situation in most states of the federation. However, some states are already implementing it. But most of the states are not implementing it. That is what led to the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) to embark on a strike that lasted three months early this year. We are making appeal to the authorities in the states to ensure that they implement it to the latter. That is as far as law and its implementation is concerned. As well, the economy of it is important.

The judiciary needs more money. Even though the federal government transfers directly the budgetary provision of the judiciary to the NJC, is the money enough? It is not. In the current year, the budget of the judiciary is N110 billion. If we take N110 billion of N16.4 trillion, it is less than one percent of the budget. That is an arm of government. Then, you can argue that they receive their money promptly. How much is the money? We will continue to advice and take any step we can take by way of legislative action to ensure that more fund is allocated to the judiciary. Obviously, President Muhammadu Buhari is listening to the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians in this regard.

That is why in the 2022 budget proposal, an additional sum of N10 billion was provided. That is the second time the Buhari administration is increasing the budget of the judiciary in two years. In 2020, the budget of the judiciary was N95 billion. But the Buhari administration increased to N110 billion in 2021. Again, in 2022, it has been moved to N120 billion. It is a welcome development.

But it is not yet Uhuru. If we are talking about the independence of the judiciary, that is an aspect that a lot needs to be done to ensure that there is full implementation and constitutional provisions to guarantee it through fiscal independence. Fiscal independence is making sure that allocation goes directly to the judiciary so that the CJN will not carry its files to get approval from the president. In the same manner, a CJ will not carry his files to wait in the anteroom to get an approval. That is the concept of judicial independence.

In the recent time, the appointment of judges is lopsided across the federation. In some cases, merit has been sacrificed for nepotism. Should merit be sacrificed on the altar of favouritism in appointing members of the Bench?

The appointment of judges all over the world is not meant to be an arbitrary exercise because it is not something that should be subject to discretionary practices. There must be a standard. And Nigeria is not an exception. There are procedures for the appointment of judges. The procedures set the minimum requirements that anyone, who desires the office of a judge, must attain. Also, there is a standard as to the mode of appointment. Part of our own concerns is to continue to ensure that there is no deviation from this standard. There is no doubt that a lot of Nigerians, even in the legal profession itself, have become really concerned in recent times as to what they perceive as a deviation from the normal standard.

As a committee oversighting the institutions of the judicial and legal profession in the Senate, we are also interested in this issue. We are currently in consultation with the leadership of the Bench and Bar. Part of what we must guide jealously is the independence of the judiciary itself and ensure that the legal profession is handled in such a way that there is no undue interference. As the elected representatives of the people saddled with the responsibility of oversight, we must not shy away from our role to ensure that there is sanity in the process, there is stability by making the procedures predictable. If it ceases to be predictable, it becomes subject to an arbitrary exercise of discretion.

I think that will not serve the purpose of justice in this country. Even when we receive petitions with respect to the appointment of judges, we always take up those petitions with both the Bar and Bench. Sometimes, we found the petitions and issues were unfounded . Each time we found substance in the petitions, we insist on the right things being done. For instance, when the FCT High Court announced 33 names under the auspices of the NJC, we did all we could as a committee to ensure that the leadership of the Bar and Bench look into these petitions. That is part of what caused delay in finalising the appointment. At some points, only 11 out of the 33 were given clearance in 2020. It is a growing concern that we cannot run away from. We will continue to do our best to ensure that Nigerians do not lose hope in the judiciary, for any reason including the manner and mode of appointment of our judges.

With this growing concern, what advice would you give to the NJC?

The NJC should continue to stand firm in the implementation and realisation of its mandate. Also, it should continue to rally all the stakeholders because it is not the NJC that is involved in the appointment of judges. If it is the state high court, for instance, there is a State Judicial Committee that is always in charge of their appointment. There is Judicial Service Commission. If it is any of the federal high court, there is Federal Judicial Service Commission and even the Chief Judges, who will make the initial recommendation, are in a position to help screen the aspirants very well. They should allow the Bar to play a prominent role.

Those who are to be appointed judges are members of the Bar. Professionals know themselves. When they say this aspirant, though he is one of us, is not worthy to preside on the Bench, such an opinion cannot be waved aside or dismissed. Rather, it should be taken very seriously. There are members of the public, who have been litigants who appear before a judge and they were represented by certain lawyers. If they come around to say this lawyer represented me and I can tell that he is not fit and proper person to sit on the Bench, we should listen to such members of the public and investigate the merit or otherwise of such claims. So, the appointment of judges should be taken seriously. That is my own advice to the NJC. The appointment of judges should not be taken lightly.

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