The relationship between the Executive and Legislature in a presidential democracy is always a delicate one because both arms of government have enormous constitutional powers and usually exert these powers to checkmate each other. Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Joy Ifeyinwa Emodi, speaks in this interview Onwuka Nzeshi on how she manages this relationship. She also says Nigerians need not harbour fears about 2015
After a long wait, the National Assembly has finally transmitted the 2013 Appropriation Bill to President Jonathan for his assent. What is your reaction to the whole drama of budget passage and delayed transmission?
Well, I feel relieved that at last we have scaled another hurdle. The short delay in time between the actual passage of the budget and its transmission to the President was due to some processes that you cannot circumvent if we must do a thorough job. However, this does not detract from the landmark achievement of the early presentation and passage of the budget. In retrospect, you will agree with me that it is the concerted efforts of the Executive and the National Assembly that culminated in the unprecedented early passage of the budget. It is a significant milestone in the relationship between the Executive and Legislature since the return of democracy in 1999.
What do we expect going forward?
As soon as the budget is signed into law, we expect the Executive and Legislature to rise up to the collective challenge of ensuring its full implementation for the benefit of all Nigerians. The Performance Contracts, which Mr. President entered into with the ministers remain valid and will surely help ensure an excellent budget performance and service delivery in the 2013 fiscal year.
I commend the members of the National Assembly for the work they have done on the budget but I also want to remind them of the task ahead with respect to the Petroleum Industry Bill. It is expected that the PIB would receive expedited legislative attention and passage in the early days of 2013 and in the form that will not deviate from the overall intention of reforming the oil and gas sector.
As a crucial link in the interplay of power between the Executive and Legislature in Nigeria's presidential democracy, how has it been being the chief lobbyist of the Presidency at the National Assembly?
Well, every assignment comes with its peculiar challenges. Basically, democracy is virtually the same everywhere, so long as it has the requisite democratic ingredients such as liberty, rule of law, checks and balances. But importantly, whether the three arms of government are more distinctively partitioned as in a presidential system like ours or less distinct as in the parliamentary system, I believe it is still one government working for the people.
I think it is an honour and a privilege to be the President's Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters. I cherish the job because it gives me the advantage of experiencing the two worlds at the same time. As a former senator, it gives me the opportunity to bring my modest experience and goodwill at the National Assembly to oil the wheel of governance by ensuring that both the Executive and Legislature work together for the common good. Executive-Legislative relations have never been such a smooth ride anywhere in the world. But once the various arms of government are united in purpose or goal, divergent views on how best to achieve the goals can always be reconciled when they arise.
The key thing is communication and dialogue. As God would have it, we have a listening President whose display of political maturity is a great asset to democracy. I always believe that others are in a better position to assess my strengths as well as my weaknesses. I can only say that ensuring that the communication line is always open between the two arms of government has helped me in great measures. I also endeavour to lay issues before Mr. President exactly the way they are. No "eye service". I also think that I have related long enough with quite a lot of the lawmakers, especially the leadership for them to trust me. Trust from both sides is a veritable instrument to succeed on this job.
How would you describe your relationship with members of the National Assembly?
I can say very cordial. It is my constituency, they are my former colleagues and they have shown me so much solidarity and understanding. The leadership especially has been wonderful partner in progress.
What is the relationship between the National Assembly and President like now?
Very cordial also; they are working together to give Nigeria a transformative leadership. I always ensure there is constant communication between the two arms and they both are achieving results. This is, for instance, the first time since 1999 that the annual budget will be passed before the beginning of a financial year. It is a feat worth commending and it is evidence they are getting along pretty well.
Nigerians generally believe the President is slow in articulating policies and executing his programmes. What is your view on this perception?
It is not true. Being thorough is not being slow. Look, democracy does not run like a military government where everything is done with immediate alacrity and with just one man issuing orders. In democracy, you must consult. Some policies will also need some legislative framework and you must have it go through legislative due process to receive the backing of the law. This is for example what he is currently doing with the PIB to reform the oil sector for more transparency and efficiency. Mr. President is the consulting and thorough type committed to the rule of law rather than a one-man show that would want to force his whims and caprices down everyone's throat. Besides, democracy doesn't function that way and I must tell you that Mr. President is achieving results.
The ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution has attracted some negative reactions from some sections of Nigeria including lawyers who question the right of the parliamentarians to alter the constitution. In your own opinion, does the National Assembly have the powers to solely review the constitution?
Section 9 of the 1999 Constitution is clear on how the constitution can be altered. It is clearly circumscribed. Don't forget that I was once a member of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review. Indeed, the National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to drive the process. But I don't think the word "solely" applies. And the National Assembly has never since 1999 shown any inclination to going it alone. Don't forget that the state Assemblies are constitutionally involved as every amendment would need the assent of at least 24 state Assemblies, which is two-thirds, to scale through. The National Assembly has always carried all the stakeholders along. I am also aware that the executive, judiciary, civil society, town unions, etc are all making inputs into the ongoing process. I also recall that Mr. President hosted a retreat on constitution amendment for the civil society and professional groups. It is a collective effort managed by the National Assembly.
You were chairman Senate Committee on Education. How has your experience in the parliament helped you to cope with your present job and what legacies would you say you left behind during your days in the Senate?
I think being Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education is one of the best things that have happened to my political career. First and foremost, I was an educationist and a lawyer before venturing into politics. So, I had the latitude to combine my passion, experience, and political masterplan perfectly well.
One of the things I had always noticed was the lack of entrepreneurial education in our clime leading to high rate of unemployment. So, I championed that with a lot of zeal and ensured the policy thrust was also backed up with budgetary allocations each financial year. I am happy to note today that our institutions of higher learning are making the most out that singular effort. I was also a staunch supporter of unity in diversity, hence my insistence always that Unity Schools must never be scrapped or privatised. This is a vast country in dire need of unity and I think it will be a serious disservice for anyone to scrap or underfund any institution such as the Unity Schools that would help our people, especially children of diverse backgrounds to interact more and understand themselves. Thank God the Unity Schools were neither scrapped nor privatised and my committee played a very important role to stop it.
I believe in access to education by taking schools to the people and making them conducive and attractive for learning. Such idea as school feeding started during my tenure and with Prof. Obaji as the Minister of Education. Thank God many state governments have also embraced it. I believe it is one thing to enrol people in school, but it is yet another to keep them in school. The homegrown school-feeding programme was a very effective strategy to keep pupils in school and it also helped to improve their health. I also championed more boy child education in the Southern states such as Anambra State and girl child education in the North.
In particular, I tried to make the schools girl child friendly. Most of our schools didn't have toilet facilities. Where they existed, the girls were subjected to using the same facility as the boys and many of them dropped out of school due to this. I said no, it is not proper. We started correcting such by providing conducive facilities and factoring it into school construction and renovation projects under UBE.
In fact, I severally insisted that the federal and state governments must declare emergency in the education sector to arrest the rot. No nation makes lasting progress unless it first gets its education right. I also championed teachers' welfare.
At a point the ASUU and Federal Government were at loggerheads. My committee facilitated the dialogue between the federal government and ASUU that led to improved salary structure for the lecturers. What education do you want a paltry-paid teacher to give? But I also insisted that ASUU and other education sector unions must as well be reasonable in their demands. My committee also championed the increased age of retirement for professors from 65 to 70 years to enable the nation tap from their rich experience.
My bill on civic education was the first bill to be passed by the 6th Senate. I also introduced a bill to address the HND/Degree dichotomy in employments, which is both unnecessary and unfair. I also introduced a bill for effective management of our federal scholarships. The bill sought to establish a Federal Scholarship Commission to replace the existing poorly managed department in the Federal Ministry of Education.
Given the demographics of Nigeria with 63 per cent of its over 160 million population under the age of 25, do you think that this administration is prepared to meet the developmental needs of this young and ambitious generation?
Yes indeed. While it has been challenging given the system corrosion inherited from the military especially, the President Jonathan administration has left no one in doubt that it is youth friendly and is ready to prepare our young ones for a better future through the Transformation Agenda. This year alone N426.5 billion was proposed for the education sector. I do not think the figure that will eventually be passed by the National Assembly will be very different. Now, that is commitment because the best you can give to our youths is education. The administration also established nine federal universities to create more access to tertiary education. It is also addressing youth unemployment through the Subsidy Reinvestment Programme (SURE-P). Yes, there are myriads of challenges, but there are also the commitment and commendable efforts by the President Jonathan administration to make the difference.
Some critics of the administration have described the falling standards in our educational system as our most intractable problem. Do you agree with this assertion?
They are right when they say that standards have nosedived in our educational institutions, but it is not correct when you say that it is intractable. It is being addressed. However, we have to be realistic enough to understand that the standard fell over decades and would therefore also need time to be addressed. This administration has also shown commitment to addressing these challenges.
However, let us not forget that the education sector is only part of a larger system. If the entire system raises the bar, education standard too would benefit. For instance, some of the poor characters in the university actually start from home. Teach a child the way he should go and when he grows, he or she would not depart from it. That is what the Holy Bible says. So, if you lowered standard in your home and allowed a child to grow up with reprobate mind, to lack integrity, to be materialistic, and to be wayward, how much help would the university or polytechnic really give? At sixteen years of age, the child's character is already formed.
Looking at the pace the power sector reform programme has been going, do you foresee a Nigeria with uninterrupted power supply?
Yes, of course and in the near future too if we take into account the immense investments and reforms both the current administration and the ones before it have made. It is an age long decay.
It won't take a day to revamp, but it will surely happen. The power sector received the highest budgetary allocation this year. That is N742.6 billion. That shows that the President Jonathan administration has great plans for the power sector as a catalyst for industrial and social transformation.
President Jonathan has shown a lot of commitment to the 35 per cent Affirmative Action and has put in place so many other policies beneficial to women and children. But have these policies really translated to better life for women and children across the country?
Thank you very much for that acknowledgment. Indeed, Mr. President has blazed the trail in this direction. Nigerian women have never had it this good under any previous administration. Besides the unprecedented number of women on the Federal Executive Council, women have been appointed into very many sensitive positions. It is the first time a woman would emerge the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
The list is endless for both women and children.
However, you must understand that the President is a very unassuming and modest person. He believes in quiet achievement, hence he doesn't make much fuss about his achievements and while the publicity people are doing quite a wonderful job, they also have to take a cue from the body language of Mr. President. But on the whole, I have no doubt that Nigerians are seeing and appreciating his genuine efforts to uplift women and children.
Nigeria is approaching 2015, the year the next general elections would be held and many are becoming apprehensive about what may happen to the stability of the country then. What do you say to this?
There were actually some sad incidents that occurred in the run-up to and during and after the 2011 general elections. I think that some people have not forgotten what they saw during that period, especially the post-presidential election killings. That could account for such fears. But I don't think we need to harbour fears about 2015, but rather proffer suggestions and intelligence to the government on how to make elections safer and less contentious.
We also have to promote internal party democracy in all parties and make the whole electoral process inclusive, open, free, fair, and credible as largely witnessed during the 2011 election. For me, there is nothing to be afraid of as the government is equal to the task.
I believe that whatever challenges that may be on the road to 2015, when we get to the bridge, we shall surely cross it together, united, and stronger.