interviewBy Suleiman M. Bisalla
Senator Omar Hambagda who was elected to the Senate on the platform of the ANPP from Borno State, chaired the subcommittee of the National Assembly Constitution Review panel between 2005 and 2006. His committee looked into the tenure of executive officers which became very controversial and eventually scuttled the constitution review process. Hambagda, in this interview, gives detailed account of what happened. Excerpts:
Senator Ibrahim Mantu said recently that the third term issue which became very contentious during the Obasanjo regime was a product of the sub-committee you chaired. Can you explain how it came about?
The sub-committee on the executive which I chaired comprised 15 people, and 12 of us were at that meeting. We had all the items under the executive section of the constitution on the agenda, and we had to take decisions on each of them. The caveat was that we had to be unanimous on any recommendation before we would submit that recommendation.
When we came to the subject of tenure, one of the members suggested maintaining the status quo, that is two terms of four years, and one person supported him. Another person suggested three terms of four years and curiously, six people supported him, making it seven (plus the mover of the motion). And at a point I expressed some kind of shock and one member who supported the two terms of four years beckoned me to take it easy, and I did. Then another member suggested two terms of five years, and one person supported him. So we had three recommendations. One, two terms of four years with two supporters; three terms of four years with seven supporters and two terms of five years with two in support. That made 11. I was the chairman so I didn't vote.
We decided that since we were not unanimous on anyone of them, our number was too small for us to go by majority, so we decided to submit all the three recommendations to the bigger committee that had 84 members, that would eventually have to go to public hearing. So that's how the three terms came. Three terms was only one of three recommendations from the sub-committee to the main committee which was chaired by Senator Ibrahim Mantu.
So once it reached the main committee, it ceased to be within the domain of my sub-committee and the main committee continued to deliberate on that. And as far as I am concerned, no one ever approached me over the three recommendations. A member made a recommendation and democracy means that people should air their voices, no matter how bizarre, and you have to attend to them, especially under the circumstance when the great majority of members voted an idea otherwise I wouldn't have been a democratic chairman.
Now, as far as I am concerned even at that point, I always believed in one term tenure of seven years. But by the time we were sitting, there was so much press propaganda against the single term. So at the beginning of the meeting, I stated that we should avoid single term because there was too much opposition from the press on the single term even before we started, so that would likely sway the opinion of Nigerians. So we decided not to even talk about single term otherwise that was what I believed in and that is still what I believe in today. I believe in it because first, there is so much waste every four years. You spend one year trying to understand the situation; the second year, may be you begin to work; the third and fourth years, you are campaigning for second term. Worse still, so much money meant for development purpose is diverted for political purpose. The end result is that no incumbent ever loses, only in very few cases where perhaps the governor falls out of favour with his mentors. Under the circumstance it will be self-deceit for us to be wasting so much money that we would have used for development to organise elections every four years.
Secondly, if a government has a programme, it will only make sense if it has a longer period to implement that programme. That will provide for greater stability. Every four years when another government comes, assuming that we do good elections, then there will be new policies every four years and that will not provide for good planning and ultimately, good governance.
The third issue is that Nigerians seem to have surrendered their ability to vote out anybody from government no matter how bad he is. If Nigerians had confidence in themselves they will not have assumed merely making the tenure of governors and the president three terms of four years would automatically put Obasanjo back there. So everybody's thinking was focused on Obasanjo, yet we had the power of the vote to remove him. Look at what happened in Senegal. The law provided for three terms but the people voted the man who made the law out. Why can't Nigerians develop that capacity instead of trying to zero in any major decision on an individual?
If you believed in single term why would press propaganda prevent you from tabling it before the committee?
No. You see, press propaganda is quite capable of preventing you from talking. You know this press propaganda was precipitated by the views of the constitution review committee that was established by the executive arm of government under Obasanjo. And they came out with the recommendation as input into the review process of the National Assembly. When that single term came up, the press just came out against it. Because of that I had to hold back my arsenals. Democracy means that if a government does not perform you should vote it out whether it is two terms, three terms or 10 terms. That is why there is voting. But since we don't have the capacity to vote people out, we should spare the country all the resources that are being wasted and provide for just one term.
But at the Port Harcourt retreat the suspicion of Nigerians heightened because people believed the leadership circumvented due process and adopted the tenure elongation clause; how did it happen that way?
No I don't think it is correct. There were over 100 amendments that were tabled in Port Harcourt. Every single item was proposed, debated and votes taken; so I don't think that that is correct. Of course that is where I blame Senator Mantu for wasting all the resources that were voted into that project. There were six committees and each one made recommendations. There should have been six bills so that any component that Nigerians feel very strong about could go, and not for the whole thing to be thrown out because they were put in a single bill. The whole thing could not go for second reading and that was the end of the matter. Mantu was told to split these things into several bills but he refused; we don't know why. But that caused this country a lot of money. A lot of money was invested in that project including public hearing in all the six geo-political zones. A lot of money was spent but because there was one contentious issue, and he knew that there was a contentious issue.
We told him to split them into several bills so that any one that members of plenary did not feel comfortable about could be thrown out, after all law making is about political interests and there would be lobbying both for and against any decision of the national assembly. And all parties will have their reasons for agreeing or not agreeing with a particular recommendation. That means that those that did not pass through the litmus test of democracy, that is majority vote, will be thrown out. But we threw out everything, only to start from the scratch in the sixth Senate.
When you were submitting your report you knew there was a contentious issue; did you warn the larger committee about the possibility it could scuttle the process?
No I didn't warn anybody because it would cease to be a democratic process. They had eyes; they had ears; they had brains. And this was not going to be done inside a room, it was going to be done in the full glare of the public and there would be a lot of opinions. You see, development is not achieved by convergence; it is achieved by divergence. If you do not diverge from existing status quo you cannot create anything new. Human development came by divergence not convergence, so when there is a new and wild idea, it is even exciting to pass it on to the greater majority so that it can be debated and put to rest permanently or adopted if it justifies its merit through the process. So you don't warn anybody over that kind of thing.
How do you feel that your name kept being associated with the inglorious third term idea?
First of all I believe in democracy and as far as I was concerned and still is concerned, there was nothing wrong that the committee did. The committee acted in consonance with democratic tenets and if anybody thinks that only his idea should be pursued by a committee then that person is not yet prepared for democracy. Till today I don't feel anything.
Would you like to dispel insinuations that you were heavily bribed to push through the agenda?
(Laughs) Then who paid me? If nobody ever approached me over the issue then where would that payment come from, from the sky or from where? Look let me. Tell you something, when you are put in a position of responsibility, you take decisions, whether they are perceived as right or wrong, and you have to stand by them. By and large, that tenure issue was not recommended by those people in a vacuum. It was recommended alongside constitutional provision for rotation, which would last 60 years, by which time Nigeria would have become a nation where every part of the country would have had a taste of the presidency.
Now we threw out everything and we had to go through this PDP constitution on rotation. That didn't help the country. It created bad blood. But if something was in the federal constitution there would have been no question of debate. It would have been a straightforward thing. And then we recommended two vice presidents. The first vice president would come from the same constituency as the president. Then the other vice president would come from another zone. In the event of the death of the president, the vice president from his constituency would take over and then we appointed another vice president from his zone so that that zone will continue with its tenure to the end before we move to another zone. The arrangement was conceived in response to the realities on the ground in Nigeria.
When Mantu opted for a single bill did you sense any motive?
No, I didn't sense any motive. The leadership of the Senate took the final decision and I believe he must have had his reasons which he used to convince them that one bill made more sense. I was not part of the leadership so I don't know what transpired and how he convinced them. But we did advise that they should be split into several bills.
What have you been doing since you left the Senate?
Since I left Senate I have been feeling very good. I have not been doing much; there is an organisation, Centre for Research and Policy Development, which I have associated with. We've been talking about transparency, good governance and so on. We've been organising series of conferences in conjunction with the office of the Accountant General of the Federation. We've been talking to public servants, senior officers in states and at the federal level, trying to highlight the ills of corruption and drum into everybody's mind the danger ahead of us, the elite in Nigeria, an endangered species; the impending revolution in Nigeria if the elite does not change its corrupt attitude. The elite will even find it difficult to survive within the system. We've been talking about the present security situation in Nigeria which is propelled by corruption because the resources that should go round and keep everybody working is being cornered by the elite.