N200m for ex-govs can’t get a house in Banana island – Okonoboh, Edo State Speaker.
In this interview in Benin recently, the Speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly, Dr. Justin Okonoboh, speaks on the controversial Pension Rights Law, which was amended to include N300m worth of houses for the immediate past governor, Adams Oshiomhole, and his deputy, Dr. Pius Odubu
Why did you think it was necessary to review the law to include N300m houses for former Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, and his deputy, Dr. Pius Odubu, at a time when the country is in recession?
It was an existing law. What they (citizens) do not know is that laws are not made for specific people. When a law is made, it is for everybody who falls under what the law is talking about. Laws are not made for particular periods. Any law you make can operate in periods of recession; it can operate in periods when there is abundance. A law is meant to last forever, except there is need to adjust the law. The social media, these days, have become a tool for mischief. People went to town, either ignorantly or out of mischief, to start suggesting that it was made because of a particular group of people and that it should not have been made at this period. There is no period you cannot make laws.
The amendment we made has not even become law yet; it has not been assented to. No budget has been made for such an amount. Even if there is a budget, it still depends on the availability of funds. And because they (critics) have a particular set of people in mind, they are telling us that those people already have houses and the rest. But they have forgotten that we are in a new era; time will come when you will find governors without houses. I campaigned with (President Muhammadu) Buhari in 2011. It was then that we discovered that he had only two houses; one in Katsina State and the other in Kaduna State. He did not even have (a house) in Abuja.
Governors are going to come that would really work for the people and would not be interested in anything and they might not even have houses. So, whether you have three million houses or you do not have a house, it is a law. Some governors might say that they do not want the house, (but) it is a law. These are things that people look forward to when they are in offices, and it might reduce the tendency for them to want to keep acquiring here and there. It (the law) already operates in three states. So, I do not see any reason for the hullabaloo. I expected that when people hear things like that, they would come and ask us and then, we would explain to them rather than go to town to talk.
But some people have said that the amendment was made at the instance of the immediate past governor and that it would not benefit his predecessors. How do you react to that?
Some even believe that we have to be giving the amounts involved to the former governors every year. No! When laws are made, they are not made in retrospect; from the day we start, it is forward. All the governors and deputy governors that will come will benefit from it, but if you are impeached or removed from office for any reason, you cannot benefit from it. It is for those who have served meritoriously, to encourage them.
Don’t you think that it was a wrong time to do so with the recession and economic challenges the country is going through?
Some say that N200m is too much. We do not believe so. I live in Lagos; N200m cannot buy you a house in Victoria Island, let alone Lekki or Banana Island. When we make a law like this, we must put something that will make the law to last for at least some time. I can tell you (that) in 10 years, N200m will mean nothing. People who want to build a house then would be talking about a billion naira or something like that. So, a law must be made in such a way that, next year, you do not start doing an amendment. That is why the budget is there. And it is subject to availability; we didn’t give any time limit. For the people (governor and deputy) who just left their offices, if it is (after) 20 years that the state has the money, that is what the law says. So, it is not something that will stretch the state’s resources or anything. So, we want those who do not understand to come so that we can explain to them.
Civil servants get peanuts even after working for 35 years and that is even if they are paid, but someone serves as governor or deputy governor for four or eight years and gets entitled to so much. Do you think it is fair on civil servants and pensioners?
That is where (critics) are missing it. We are not making laws for pensioners. We want pensioners to be paid. But what we did was a law (with) no budget. It has nothing to do with money or finances now. It is just a law. After we have made the law, if the executive so chooses to put it in the budget and it comes here, it still depends on availability of funds. At that time, they would not be blaming us; they would have shifted over to the executive. I have said that it is a law for two million years, except it is amended or reviewed; it is just a law.
Would you say you have done the right thing, if you consider the life of luxury governors have in office, in addition to security votes they get and other funds, to still use state funds to pamper them after leaving office?
What the law knows is that they were on salaries and allowances. If you are imagining other things, they are not known to the law. I want people to know that this is not a person; it is a law.
Don’t you agree that the pension benefits may not be in line with the desire of the new administration?
It is in line. There is nothing enforcing executive to implement it at any particular time. In fact, this administration might find it difficult to do it; maybe the next government would do it for them. The part of the amendment that is time bound is the one that has to do with the cars that must be changed every five years. So, if they say they cannot afford it now, so be it.
Some Nigerians believe that the motion was even Oshiomhole’s idea with the speed with which it was acted upon. Is that not the case?
No, he did not have a hand in it. It was strictly a bill of the House. I do not know what you mean by having a hand in it; the ex governor has never had anything to do with it. What power does a governor leaving office have over the House? I visited him (Oshiomhole) recently, but I do not want to say that he was lonely. I went to his house that used to be filled with people but there was nobody there. He was leaving and had no such force over the House.
How do you react to the claim that a former Speaker of the House, Victor Edoror, was suspended for rejecting the bumper pension packages for the former governor and deputy governor?
First, we had two laws. The first one was about virement; the governor (now former governor) wanted sub-headings. That was what the former speaker spoke against and he spoke outside House rules, because for that bill, some members had moved and seconded the motion. I had thrown the question to the House to say ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’ and the ‘ayes’ had it. I had also hit my gavel before he jumped up to say that we had not followed due process. I told him that he was already outside the rules but whatever he was saying was noted; I just gave him that respect. Actually, I should have dealt with him for that because you do not get up except the Speaker said you should speak. That was for a different day entirely.
The day we did this amendment was the day he was suspended. He did not even say a word but that was not why he was suspended. The reason he was impeached was because of financial misappropriation. A committee was set up to investigate it by the erstwhile speaker (Elizabeth Ativie). He was invited by that committee but he did not show up and then it (the committee) wrote an interim report indicting him greatly. I felt he should have a fair hearing. The report came to my table recently and for the sake of fair hearing, we set up another five-man committee to look into at all the issues, so that he would have a chance to attend. It is to submit its report in three months and within that period; he should be on suspension while he is being investigated. That was simply what we did. It was not connected to anything we were discussing in the House.
Some groups have protested against the recent action of the House of Assembly. Do you agree that the protest was justified?
Well, we were elected to speak for Edo State. There is no time Edo State will speak with one voice; it is not possible. Some will have dissenting voices. Even in the House, most times, we do not speak with one voice; that is why we have the ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’. When we come out with any report, we do not expect that everybody will just take it and applaud us. Some might have something to say against it. I was actually told that some civil society organisations were coming today (Monday) to close down Ring Road and I was prepared to address them. That was why we did not sit on time. We waited till 11am but they did not show up.
We had even decided while sitting that if they showed up, we must go out to talk to them because though we were elected, we are not perfect people. They have to rise up on their own to tell us where we are missing it. We must work with civil society organisations. But at their level, it should not have been about taking to the streets. We should not be talking on the streets. They should bring out all their points against this law and submit them to us. We can invite them and we all talk. If it were a new law, we would have had a public hearing. But it is not a new law.
But many of the CSOs want the law to be reversed. Is that not a just call?
Why? Based on what? They could be speaking from an emotional point of view. They could be speaking from a point of ignorance, thinking that the law was made because of a particular set of people. But it is for all. Who knows who will become the governor tomorrow?
What will the House do if the current governor rejects the bill or amendment?
If we feel the bill should go, with two-third majority, we will pass it. If we feel that there is urgency, we might use a two-third majority to pass it into law.