In this interview with Tordue Salem, the leader of the Senate, Sen Ali Ndume, bares his mind on the fight against corruption, the budget and other National issues.
Your colleague Sen Kabiru Marafa has gone to court seeking to stop the Senate from possibly suspending him. His argument is that the present Senate leadership came through forged Rules. Do you think it will be right for you to proceed with any punitive measures against him in contempt of his case against the Senate in the court?
I really would have preferred not to react on the issue of Senator Marafa. But I just want to say one thing with regard to the issue: you cannot be living in a glass house and be throwing stones. I don’t think I will want to add more to it than that, but as a member of an institution, there are certain things that may be against your personal ideas, but as a member of an institution, there are rules that you must operate with. Besides, Marafa’s case is something personal and Marafa as a personal friend did not tell me this. I am hearing this for the first time from you. But I think there are better ways of handling these things.
So will you suggest that the committees looking into his alleged disparaging statement against the Senate should set aside the matter for you to settle it without recourse to administrative formalities and the court?
This is a matter of privilege and i think the best thing is for him to go before the committees and fend himself of the allegations against him. Then the committee will write the report and it will be debated. I don’t think that going to court will solve the problem.
Last week you presented two Executive Bills that are very focal to the thrust of this administration, which is the battle against graft. Could you give highlights on these bills?
One of the Bills is Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Bill. The bill seeks to re-enact the Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Act, 2016 and the other one is Criminal and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill 2016. Those two bills are intended to enhance or to assist the fight against corruption, and we are looking at the laws and loopholes in them. You know we have challenges in the fight against corruption, so we are looking at ways to synchronize with international best practices. Nigerians will have the opportunity during the second hearing to hear the highlights of the Bill and we are going to conduct a public hearing on the Bills. We had a conference with various agencies before to look at doting the Is and crossing the Ts. The intention of the Money Laundering Bill is to give teeth to the anti-corruption agencies to be able track monies transferred offshore and the Criminal and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill, is to enable Nigeria and other countries that are signatory to share information and arrest criminals wherever they find themselves. That is the intendment of the two Bills, and i think that so far, they have been well received.
The EFCC says some senior lawyers are frustrating the war against corruption. The lawyers argue that even the accused, must be represented. What do you think?
My reaction will not be as a senator or a person who is the leader of the All Progressives Congress in the Senate, but as a Nigerian Mohammed Ali Ndume. The issue of corruption is a serious crime against humanity. It means taking something away that does not belong to you and it is a very serious criminal offence that i, believe government should use whatever power it has to stop or to fight. A preventive measure is better. As for me, I have been advocating for a preventive measure. What is a preventive measure? For me the proof of innocence for properties or wealth acquisition should be put on the accused. It also appears that the war against corruption is gaining serious momentum. Yes, people are now going on the streets to campaign against corruption. Like I told you, corruption kills. Look at the foreign exchange account was almost to zero level. They took away everything. And then unfortunately this is the time that savings from the rainy days would have been useful. It is now that we would have financed our foreign exchange demands. We don’t have the money or the dollars to support the foreign exchange demand and had there been there were laws to check these excesses they would not have had the audacity to loot the treasury with impunity in the past as they did. Now our foreign exchange is low, so that transfers the burden of proof to the alleged looters of the treasury. Majority of Nigerians believe that if we don’t kill corruption as it, it will kill us, including the corrupt. Even the corrupt will not be safe, because they believe that where they took the money to they will be safe, but they won’t because the masses will find them there and attack them.
The chairman, Senate Committee on Appropriations granted an interview sometime ago, suggesting a more realistic benchmarking of the 2016 Appropriation Bill. He said the Senate may consider suggesting to the President to withdraw the Bill and align the benchmark with the current economic realities. What do you say to him?
As Senate leader, I am not aware of that, but one thing I am aware of, is the fact that for the first time, we and the Executive and the House of Representatives leadership are collectively working on the 2016 Appropriation Bill. This has never happened in the history of our democracy. But again, this is the government of change, and I guess that is what is responsible for that change in our approach, and I believe that this budget should be worked on collectively, as the Executive is favourably disposed to, and that is what we are working on. In working on this budget, we are looking at not only the side of the expenditure framework, but we will also look at the income framework. That is the sources of the income. The benchmark, the reality of our crude oil daily production estimation, the value of the dollar; all of these because of the challenges we are facing. So the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the appropriate MDAs (Ministries and Departments of government will sit down and look at these. We have already sat down twice to examine the realities on ground and one of the areas we are likely to talk about, is the benchmark. The benchmark was pegged at $38 per barrel, but it is currently hovering at around $35, and we are saying that if it persists like that, we may have to look at the benchmark, but we don’t have to look at the whole budget as such, and fortunately, I think we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the benchmark pricing, because of the recent decision by Russia to freeze their crude production, and that is ultimately going to increase the crude oil price; international crude oil price will go up and i think that is what it looks like and besides, the experts in the international market, are very positive that oil price will go up, and that is why we are not in a hurry to tamper with the benchmark. So I will not say at this time that the budget will be withdrawn, because by next week we are thinking of the compiling or finishing the compilation of reports on the budgets by various committees and we are looking forward to submitting the budget to the President before the end of March.
The Senate resolved last week to mandate committees to submit their reports on the Appropriation Bill in one week for finishing touches and onward transmission to the presidency?
No, we are saying that the committees are given further one more week to interact with the ministries and their counterparts in the House of Representatives. So from Tuesday next week, we will start compilation of reports of the various committees.
But is it possible that committees can round off this enormous work within this short time?
Yes of course. They are working on it. In fact, some committees have already started submitting their reports. So we are very positive that they will be able to meet the deadline next week. We had set for ourselves earlier, the target of the 25th of February. But because of the challenges that we have coming from various MDAs, we will not be able to do so. But we are looking forward to getting this budget passed by end of March, so that we will have the President assent to it and we will have a budget in the beginning of April. Also we intend to have a period of 12 months budget. Not from the day of passage, but from the day of assent by the President, as constitutionally provided.