Hon. Peter Akpatason is the member representing Akoko-Edo Constituency, Edo State, in the House of Representatives and former President of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG). In this interview with Prolific Publisher, Ahunna Ejiogu, the lawmaker, in his usual unapologetic verbal expression shares his views on Federal Lawmakers’ Salary, National Minimum Wage and Corruption. Excerpts:
PROLIFIC: What will you say are the lessons learnt from the power sharing that rocked the National Assembly; and its negative impact on the APC?
AKPATASON: The power sharing in the National Assembly has a wide range of implications; both positive and negative. But, I will like to start with the positive impact: As a very practical person; I feel that in a political situation, there must be a balance of power, because, the essence of politics is the welfare and security of the governed. And in the absence of competition, the masses stand a chance of being short-changed or undermined. But in a situation where there is competition, the masses become the central focus of political activities. The major gain of the 7th Assembly (the immediate past assembly) is that the people assumed their rightful place in Nigerian politics. This is so because, when APC came on board as a very strong opposition, the then-ruling party could no longer continue in that era of impunity. And so, politicians realized that if they don’t do well, the people have their right to tell them that they are not going back, because there is alternative. In the absence of alternative, the level of impunity and political rascality could be very well embarrassing. But when there is competition, the people gain. The power-sharing crisis that rocked the National Assembly cannot be completely eradicated from the scenario that I just explained… We have a ruling party which is APC and the PDP which is the major opposition party. For the good of Nigerian people, we must have a very stable and well organized opposition. I am here because of the people and I think that is the advantage of what happened in the National Assembly. There will be more robust opposition. There will be a better competition. APC will sit up and cannot just go to bed. APC will not take the people for granted. That is my happiness about it. I don’t see anything wrong with it, actually. I don’t see anything wrong for one party having the speaker, deputy speaker and senate president; while the deputy senate president comes from another party: they are all Nigerians. We may be coming from different political platforms, but what is the objective of the PDP? Is it not for the good of Nigerian people? What is the objective of APC? Is it not also, for the good of Nigerian people? Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it; hence both parties’ objectives are for the interest of the Nigerian people. We are all Nigerians; and I want competition for the good of our people. The negative side is that; APC is not a united party because of the party leadership. Well, I don’t know whether it is the entire party leadership, or, one or two individuals who control power, took a decision; and at the end of the day, some party members in the House, who were not comfortable with that decision decided to disobey the party; by way of still going ahead to contest the election into various positions. And they won the election against party supposed candidates who survived the primaries. The primaries itself, which was hurriedly packaged was a bit strange to the people- something that was totally new and had not happened in recent times. The disobedience that followed that is what has resulted to internal disaffection and squabble in the APC. I think that is the major negative impact. Secondly, I as Comrade Peter Akpatason, believe that there is something positive here too: which is the fact that; those in APC who thought they could take some people for granted; those who thought that South-South is not relevant in Nigerian politics; those who thought that South-South can go to hell because they thought they had the number and could win every election, have learnt a hard lesson. Given that; everybody has woken up; and they too have realized now that, no man is God. Everybody is important. If they had been magnanimous enough, to say; despite the fact that some zones in the federation could not throw up the numbers they had for APC; these same people should be carried along, in the face of equity and fairness. The greed and selfishness of what they did is the reason the APC is where it is today in the National Assembly. For me, it forms a learning point for us. I call it a positive impact because, it happened so early and the party will have to learn quickly to recover from it and position very properly for the big task ahead.
PROLIFIC: What would you say, were the lapses of the 7th Assembly?
AKPATASON: I would say that the 7th Assembly was a huge success. Like I earlier said; I believe in competition. I would not call it political disobedience; but I think that it was competition. Tambuwal came on board in 2011; and his party didn’t want him to be the speaker. But he had the courage to say, ‘No, I think I have something to offer’, and presented himself and Emeka Ihedioha for election. The general masses, starting with the legislators elect at the time had confidence in Tambuwal and we all gave him our support in the election. They emerged speaker and deputy speaker respectively and they performed very well. Those of you out there might think that these guys didn’t do well in certain areas: there are areas we couldn’t have done better given the certain type of relationship that existed between the executive and the legislature. We came up with a whole lot of bills and motions. We came up with a lot of relevant outcome that the executive refused; either to give access or to implement; simply because they felt they didn’t give consent to the emergence of the leadership of the House. That again threw up competition. And the legislative and the executive arm of government acted as watchdogs to each other. That was how Nigerians regained their place of relevance in the political setting in this country. Everybody was conscious of his or her own responsibility; and people were more focused on their job so that they would be rated highly by their employers (the Nigerian people). You can see that, anybody who is not popular today cannot win elections; not even if you have money. Nigerians can vote you out with all your money. There is no godfather today that can impose his choice on people. It started in 2011 and it will continue forever in this country. Impunity must stop; and it is already fading. The 7th Assembly made major contribution in that direction. When it comes to job proper; apart from asserting the independence of the legislature; even in terms of doing the job of law making and oversight function, I would say the 7th Assembly did exceedingly well. Our performance was well above average. 7th Assembly successfully reviewed the constitution. The House of Representatives had the Petroleum Industry Bill. A whole lot of very strategic bills were passed into law. In terms of oversight, we were able to redefine the concept of oversight function. We were able to call MDA’s to order. We were able to prune down spending, budget etc. We were able to ensure increased accountability through various probes. We were able to unearth a whole lot of leakages that had hitherto bedeviled the country. In the process, some of them were plucked, some of them couldn’t, because, even though we have the power of appropriation and the oversight responsibility of inquiring into the activities of the MDAs, we don’t have the power to implement reports and recommendation. And because of the issues between the National Assembly and the Jonathan administration; in most cases, they ignored our recommendations. The area I think requires urgent improvement is the transparency in budgeting: I don’t think we achieved more in that area because; it appears to me that some people were not even willing to scrutinize the budget. I came up with a bill, which I titled, “Mandatory Budget Report” which was aimed at mandating Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government (MDAs), to give status report on every project in this country on a periodic basis, maybe every six months or even quarterly. But that bill was fought by the powerful forces. I will represent that bill again in this 8th Assembly. That bill is a bearer of Change. If they floor the bill this time again, I will summon supporters. I have a strong interface with the civil society movement, trade union movement etc. I can engage them when the time comes; so that we can put the bill in the public domain. The 7th Assembly reckoned with the e-Parliament (the use of information technology to drive the process of legislation). But unfortunately, I think we failed woefully in that area because, we were not even successful in e-Voting, and that is a bit primitive. I believe that the Dogara and Saraki government will not disappoint us this time around.
PROLIFIC: What should Nigerians expect from the 8th Assembly?
AKPATASON: When you talk about the expectations of most Nigerians from the legislature; I think most of it is misplaced actually. There is this wrong conception about what happens in the parliament: you hardly hear people- except civil society groups and a few technocrats. You hardly hear people complain about the quality of what we are doing in the National Assembly. Nigerians should be concerned about the quality of what we are doing here; like the quality of representation, quality of debates, and quality of our bills. People are not talking about that. They are busy talking about salary. I am not saying that salary is not an issue. These people who are talking don’t even know what the salary looks like. Comprehensive salaries and allowances of lawmakers at federal and state level are determined by revenue mobilization in appropriation committee. That is an executive order. They determine what we earn. Recently, I hear people say that federal law makers earn about Eight to Ten Million Naira (N8, 000,000- N10, 000, 000) on wardrobe allowance. The allowance of a senator in a month is not up to Fifty Thousand Naira (N50, 000). They earn up to five hundred and six thousand naira annually (N506, 000) and the members of House of Representatives earn less than that. Before I came to the National Assembly, I was earning more than that. The salary that we earn includes; car loan, furniture allowance etc. yet, the summation is still not up to One Million Naira (N1, 000, 000) per month. And some of us were earning more than that before we got here and yet, people are shouting. I give financial assistance when it pleases me, and when I think it’s necessary. Before, I visited orphanage homes when necessary. I gave people assistance as at when due or when I consider it should be done. But today, the situation is different. People don’t know that. Several people troop into the National Assembly looking for assistance. I have a bundle of bank teller transactions of constituents and non-constituents alike- people who have serious challenges, but you can’t do without helping these people. Some of them, even when they don’t really have much problem make huge demands on you; simply because they can vote for you or can work against you. And in this stance, you just have to sacrifice. There are a lot of demands; both frivolous and good ones. They keep coming in. People are expecting the National Assembly to cut down their salary. But we cannot cut our salary because; we don’t have the power to cut salary. They should go to the federal government and ask them to reduce the salary, if there is a way to do that. The budget of the National Assembly has been reduced because of the dwindling oil prices. Our traditional bill was One Hundred and Fifty Billion Naira (N150, 000,000,000); but it has been reduced to One Hundred and Twenty Billion Naira (N120, 000, 000, 000). There is a Thirty Billion (N30, 000, 000, 000) reduction. If you compute the percentage you will know that it is a reasonable percentage. And what this means is that everybody should be ready to make sacrifice. That money, One Hundred and Twenty Billion Naira (N120, 000, 000, 000) is not only meant for 360 members of the House of Representatives and 109 Senators. All the capital projects for the House of Representatives and Senate come from that budget. We have the legislative institutes, research institutes, national assembly service commission; all of these are funded from that money. Then if you go to some MDAs that are not even up to a quarter of National Assembly, that do not have half of the personnel we have in the National Assembly, they have up to Three hundred to Four hundred Billion Naira (N300, 000 000 000- N4000, 000 000 000) budget. What a House of Representatives member gets is not up to what a Director gets. The focus should actually be on how money is spent on projects: Are our projects overinflated or do we get value for money? People are clamouring for salary reduction from poor workers. What do they receive that you actually want to reduce? Is it because of the drop in oil price? It is actually not because of the drop in oil price, but because some people have stolen the money. They are not talking about these people, but instead, they are looking at the law makers- lawmakers who don’t have access to budget. Do you know that the money for our constituency projects is domiciled in the MDAs? We don’t have access to that. We name the location; they award the contract and execute the contract if it pleases them. But people out there think we are keeping such money. We don’t overhead like every other government official out there. Whatever you get for running your office, you retire it just like any other officer. We don’t have security vote like the local government chairmen, governors etc. I don’t think that there is any lawmaker that gets what a commissioner gets, lest a minister. The expectations of the people on the National Assembly are not properly situated. Outside that misguided quotation, I think there are still few who are expecting that National Assembly should improve on the level of transparency in budgeting; both the national budget and the National Assembly budget itself. I think that that is the most realistic expectation of the Nigerian people. Some Nigerians are also focusing on some critical areas of legislative needs like; the review of the constitution, Petroleum Industry Bill- that has not been passed by the Senate, and electoral acts- we are thinking of how to refuse some existing but almost obsolete laws. On a whole, I think Nigerian people are good people irrespective of whether people get things right or not. And I think the most important thing is that collectively, we carry out our responsibilities in such a way that we are able to improve the quality and quantity of the dividends of democracy that gets to the people.
PROLIFIC: Can corruption truly be curbed in Nigeria?
AKPATASON: Basically, Corruption in Nigeria is an epidemic. For instance; somebody found money in an airport and returned the money and was not properly rewarded. In the course of that; a journalist interviewed people and I heard somebody say that if she were the Good Samaritan, she wouldn’t have returned the money. In all honesty; so many people will not return the money. So corruption is everywhere. Both the poor and the rich are guilty. The rich are the greediest anyway. The poor are not helping things: I engaged some student union activists and all I heared from them was money, money, money… In our days, we fought for students; as an industrial unionist; I fought for workers. We didn’t fight for our pockets. But today, everywhere is corrupt; is it the student union, trade union movement, labour movement, even the churches and mosques are no exception?Everywhere there are issues of corruption and we must look at it holistically. I believe that President Mohammadu Buhari has the background of zero tolerance to corruption. I believe that he has lived an exemplary life and I also believe that, to fight corruption in this country, we need a champion- a disciplinarian with President Buhari’s kind of antecedent. That is, the reason why I personally went all out, including spending additional money to preach the gospel of Buhari. I didn’t do that for him; but I did that for the generation yet unborn because, I believe that he has got what it takes. At 72, I don’t think he will start learning the habits and tendencies that were never there before. And I tell you, the fear of Buhari is already engulfing the whole place. People are already speeding up. People are already thinking of how to negotiate. Even though he appears slow now; I think he actually needs the time to put things in their right perspective. I believe he will deliver in the area of the fight against corruption. But in any case he seems to be derailing; we who campaigned for him will remind him to remember why the people put him there. There was power of money: it was massive and yet people defiled all that and went ahead to vote for Buhari. We didn’t look at anybody’s financial inducement but did what we believed was right by voting for Buhari. In honesty, during the elections, we saw dollar flying all over the place; and yet people ignored all that, and went ahead to vote for Buhari. In the general elections, we were almost consumed by the great falls of the then-ruling party in the South-South. Some of us were almost chased out of our homes, but we still insisted, fought and delivered. Also, in the South-West where some people boasted that PDP was going to win; the South- western people and the North delivered APC. This is because people believed that Buhari can fix the situation. I believe tackling corruption is the starting point: I believe every other thing will take a queue. By the time a lot of issues are exposed and a few persons are jailed; many of them will take a flight out of this country.
PROLIFIC: How have you impacted on NUPENG since you left as president?
AKPATASON: I left the oil workers on the hands of Comrade Igwe Achese and Babatunde Ogun. They are tested and trusted leaders and they are doing their best. We offer advice when and where necessary. I attend meetings of NUPENG because I am still a NEC member of NUPENG, until the end of Igwe’s tenure. Anytime my services are required, I am always available. NUPENG remains my primary constituency. Moreover, Labour gave me the opportunity to be heard, else, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to the level where I am today. My role today in NUPENG is advisory and mentorship.
PROLIFIC: As a Labour leader, do you support the increment or reduction of the Eighteen Thousand Naira (N18, 000) minimum wage?
AKPATASON: I don’t have a direct answer to that but let me give you an idea of what I think. I believe that Eighteen Thousand Naira (N18, 000) salary is grossly inadequate for anybody in this country. As we say in Labour; Eighteen Thousand Naira (N18, 000) is a take-home that doesn’t take the workers home. This is the reason why a lot of workers get indebted at the end of every month. Some would say; people should live according to income; yes, but there is a minimum standard that is required in any country. Honestly, Eighteen Thousand Naira (N18, 000) cannot pay good rent, transportation, electricity bills, medical bills, feeding, for anybody. However, I have always tried to perceive things from the balance perspective. While I am looking at the adequacy or otherwise of the figure, Eighteen Thousand Naira (N18, 000), we are also looking at the factors of affordability and sustainability. It is important to balance both factors because, if you kill the goose that lays the golden egg, you will see plenty of eggs to eat that day, and die of starvation thereafter. So the company, the ministry and the agency where the workers work is their farm. And if the farm is no longer sustainable, even the workers’ work is at risk. So we must look at how to balance affordability and sustainability; because we have the calculus of coercion to get it done. To get it done, these people are coerced and intimidated to agree on what is not doable; and they end up calling for workers’ salary reduction. My own policy has always been to make sure that we sustain the number and agitate increase in the salary of workers, never a reduction; unless through natural severance, retirement and pension; and not a situation where redundancy will be introduced because the wage bill has become unbearable for the organisation. I am not saying workers should not ask for increases but we have to be realistic and look at the level that is sustainable. But when it comes to the ministry, there is an aspect I think we should also let the public know: What they call a wage bill in most cases is a bloated statistics because there is this thing they call ghost workers- the number is so embarrassedly high to the extent that a lot of that money that they put into that budget goes into the pockets of a few thieves, either in the name of permanent secretaries, directors, deputy directors, managers, assistant managers they stuff the wage bill with inexistence names. This government must look at how to completely eradicate ghost workers from the ministries. I came up with a bill in the seventh assembly in respect of ghost workers; again, that one was vehemently resisted. It was dead on arrival. Even my own friends floored this bill. Later, I asked my friends why they didn’t support my bill and they said, “you know you were fighting some people…” I said, “yes, I was voted in to come and fight corrupt people…” And they said, “okay, you can go and fight them…” The situation was bad as that time. But I am bringing back that bill this time around; and I am going to give it another name. This is a new assembly and I don’t think that the mentality is the same. The new members of the House of Representatives are hot. I think they are ready to work. More so, the number of civil society and labour people in the House of Representatives has increased and I believe that we will be able to get things done.
PROLIFIC: Do you support for the federal government to have a negotiation with Boko Haram; as the best way to seize the attacks?
AKPATASON: The western world negotiates with terrorists; but they will come out and tell you that American government official will not negotiate with criminals. If a consultant does it on their behalf, then, what is that? There are several ways to get it done. I will not say outright Yes or No. This government is a different government from the past one. So their approach must be different also because we are not satisfied with the previous approach. However, there is need to thoroughly evaluate the situation and the characteristics of this particular situation that we are in; and the peculiar nature of it; before determining the strategies. On that point; if the facts on ground support some sort of negotiation; I will personally not be averse to it; especially if that is going to give the people of North East some peace. In the Seventh Assembly, a friend and a colleague of mine told me that he could not go to his constituency, because his constituency at that time was no longer in Nigeria but in the Republic of Boko Haram. We have had a bad situation with Boko Haram, from the previous government to the present government; and it is still not averted yet. People are dying. People are internally displayed. Some Nigerians have fled to poorer neighbouring countries because of the insurgency. So we must put everything in the basket to find a solution to the crisis in the North East.
In fact, in a presentation to the then-president, Olusegun Obasanjo; as the president of NUPENG; supported by then-president of NLC, Adams Oshiomhole; I advised him (Obasanjo) to call for truce to see how he could engage the Niger Delta militants. It was necessary because, even if he plans to develop the Niger Delta, the environment will not be conducive enough given the threats of the militants. My advice was seen in bad light then, but however, when President Yar’ Adua came; he saw reasons with it; and decided to grant amnesty. Actually, Yar’dua is the champion and hero of the peace we are enjoying in the Niger Delta today. So today, we have to do everything possible to totally deal with Boko Haram be it negotiation or whatsoever stringent means.
PROLIFIC: Would you say that Boko Haram insurgency contributed to the crumbling of the Jonathan administration?
AKPATASON: Not at all. General ineptitude, lack of foresight and the preponderance of sycophants around Jonathan- the good man- collapsed that government. Jonathan is a good man but I am very sad that he was not able to decipher the kind of manipulations that were happening around him. He deferred too much to the manipulators. Without an apology; I can say that Ngozi Okonjo Iweala did not do anything good for Jonathan. She contributed to his failure. She contributed immensely to the negative perception of Jonathan by the Nigerian people; using the wrong policies she put in place which became erroneous at the end of the day. He had a lot of actors that could not come up with the right policies and programs. They were busy deceiving him. It is very unfortunate.
PROLIFIC: Do you support the sanction of Death Sentence for corrupt government officials as practiced in Asian countries?
AKPATASON: We are not like the Arab and Asian world. We are closer to Western Democracy than some of these countries in Asia. In my own opinion, I believe that capital punishment is good for serious offences like; rape, murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and perhaps, proven cases of corruption. Although it will be very difficult to prove who is corrupt enough to deserve Death Sentence. However, I think that there is need for stringent and very serious sanctions for corruption; including, stripping the culprits of all their assets and prohibiting them from holding political or public offices forever in their lives.