The former Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin, tells JOHN ALECHENU how lawmakers commit budget fraud, the reason he is tackling principal officers of the House and his relationship with Speaker Yakubu Dogara and Majority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila
Some have claimed that your anti-corruption crusade against the House of Representatives is an attempt by you to settle a score with Speaker Yakubu Dogara, who used to be your ally. Is that correct?
If it was a quarrel that had led to the exposures of the monumental ills going on in the House of Representatives – theft of our collective wealth; abuse of office and trust; and massive budget fraud – then, Nigerians should pray even harder for this kind of personal fights to happen daily. I think people are not being fair. Instead of them to concentrate on the gravity of the allegations that I have made, somebody is asking why I am exposing the ills in the House. Why I started that is no longer relevant. Nigerians forget things easily. I have been in this struggle for five years. I was Chairman, House Committee on Finance – why are people not making reference to what I said back then? All the problems that are being discussed today were raised between 2011 and 2015. Many people lose their jobs and keep quiet. I won’t keep quiet. When you see somebody talking like this, then most likely, this is what he has always wanted to do. But he hasn’t had the opportunity to do it.
I have said a whistleblower is not necessarily a saint. But people often support him (a whistleblower) because what he reveals is usually beneficial to all. This issue is beyond Jibrin. If someone has any issue against Jibrin, he should write a petition and take it to the anti-corruption agencies. I will go to the agencies and respond to the petition. Nobody among the 359 members of the House has written a petition against me to the anti-graft agencies. I had written a petition against the Speaker and three other principal officers in the House. I am talking about people who committed budget fraud of N40bn, another budget fraud worth about N20bn and there is another budget fraud with a cumulative sum of N284bn. I am talking about a person who diverted Federal Government projects to his farm; short-changed members in the N10bn Sustainable Development Goal projects of 2015; used subterranean means to create a new House rule that is the subject of litigation; and a man who collects rent from multiple sources. I have also exposed the fact that members are collecting votes for running costs. I am not saying money should not be voted for lawmakers’ running costs. The point is that this money is (sometimes) diverted to private pockets.
Are you saying your current anti-corruption campaign in the House is not an expression of your bitterness for being removed as Chairman of the House Appropriation Committee?
I will say Nigerians should continue to pray for this kind of bitterness. It is a blessing to the country. More people should become embittered and expose the ills of our country; and look at somebody in the eye, no matter how highly placed he is and tell him the truth. Like in my case, I am so convinced that I can look at the Speaker, the number four citizen of the country, and say, ‘You are a fraudster.’ That will teach people a lesson that they cannot abuse their office.
Did you quit as the committee’s chairman or were you fired?
They are saying I was given the sack. But I need you to understand that I resigned. Okay, let’s take it that I was removed as the chairman. Even if I voluntarily resigned, I would still do what I am doing. Let us understand that I came into the parliament at a young age. They put a lot of fear in me. They would say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this. It will affect your career. Nobody will trust you again.’ But I have grown. I have matured. I am 40 years old. I am strong internally and I don’t care. If (what I’m doing) is going to affect my career and if it is anything that has to do with illegality, I don’t want to get involved. I know that someday, this country will look for somebody who is honest and straightforward. On that day, I will be called upon. Even though such opportunities do not come often, the legacy I want to leave for my children is a good name. I don’t want to be part of the ills of the past. I didn’t say I am a saint. I said I had made a U-turn and would never go back to the past. I will fight all the ills. I am equipped to fight them. And, with the support of Nigerians, we will win. Even though I have repented and become an activist, I am not immune to investigations.
Is running cost not something a lawmaker is entitled to?
Those who have capacity for the work in the House of Representatives today are no more than 20 per cent. So, 80 per cent of the lawmakers do not have (the) capacity (to do the work). They sit in the House of Representatives because of jumbo allowances. These allowances, which are actually meant to run our offices, are diverted into personal pockets. It is certain that if the allowances are taken away, those who go to their constituencies to sell their property to fund elections will not do it again. This is because they know there is no way they will recoup their money. Even the voters will be forced to vote (based on) their conscience. It will have a multiplier effect. It (removing jumbo allowances) will clean up our electoral system. We will have in the House, people who are willing to serve their people. Let’s invest all our energy in cleaning up the system. Some say, ‘Oh, Jibrin was part of them.’ So what? People need to focus on what I am saying. If anyone has a case against me, he should write a petition against me. I will defend myself.
Why did you say President Muhammadu Buhari’s silence since the scandal broke is a blessing in disguise?
What do you want Mr. President to say? If he comes out to make a statement (about the crisis in the House) today, so what? I have tried to make people understand why they should not force the President to talk. I am an insider in the House. All they (lawmakers in the House) want is for the President to show the public that he is behind Jibrin and that will dilute my allegations. They will then say, ‘Oh, the Presidency is sponsoring Jibrin to fight the House of Representatives. After all, the Presidency did not support Dogara in the first place.’ They will not remember the fact that it was Jibrin that was at the forefront in the fight to make (Yakubu) Dogara (the speaker). I know that the anti-corruption agencies are working day and night. The Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Ibrahim Magu) set up a crack team led by a smart, young detective. If you see the discovery that they’ve made so far, you will be shocked. I don’t want to dilute their work. The President’s silence is good for this crisis. It has allowed it to mature on its own and Nigerians are now convinced that nobody is using Jibrin. When the crisis started, they said (Bola) Tinubu was the one sponsoring me. Later, they said Femi (Gbajabiamila) was using me. The one they would have held on to – and it would have made sense – was if the President had come out to say anything to support me. If I was not a part of the past, I would not have insider information I have to fight the system (the House). Let’s look beyond the issue of the past. I am willing to go to jail if I am found wanting. Today, if I am arrested, prosecuted and convicted, while on my way to jail, I will still be exposing the crimes in the House of Representatives. The corruption in the House of Representatives is massive. I have not exposed more than 10 per cent of the corruption going on in the House of Representatives. It is that bad.
You’ve served as chairman of the committees on finance and appropriation. At what point would you say corruption crept into the budget process?
Two points: One is at the standing committee level. What usually happens is – like in the case of the 2016 Budget – the Speaker connived with some committee chairmen. These chairmen were about 10. We have 96 committees. We are not accusing 86 standing committees. We are talking about 10 committees. Usually, the budget fraud is perpetuated by a few strategic committees. What the Speaker usually does is to have a (private) discussion with them in a bid to insert some items in the committees’ reports. That is done behind the back of members of the committees. That normally happens on the last day the standing committees meet to discuss the budget. Somewhere along the line, when the secretariat of the standing committees finishes the report and forwards it to the appropriation committee chairman, the speaker and some principal officers will sit down with the chairmen of the standing committees to insert some items into the budget. More often than not, these insertions are fraudulent.
I should say, however, that some insertions can be legal. When they make these illegal insertions, they take it to the appropriation committee. At the appropriation committee level, the chairman will decide whether or not to tolerate these illegal insertions while discussing with the principal officers. In my own case, I pointed out that the insertions were too much. That was the beginning of my problem. To make matters worse, apart from the fact that they (the insertions) were too much – there were over 2,000 insertions which amounted to about N284bn – the insertions were essentially fraudulent. I told the Speaker, ‘Look, you can’t go to the public with this budget.’ But, did I have a choice? I was the appropriation committee chairman. Anything that happened, they would tell me to speak to the media. So, Nigerians were asking me questions that I could not answer. They said, ‘But you defended this budget.’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ It is because I was made to defend it. How many times do you defend things that you do not believe in, in government? I defended it in my usual passionate way – just like I am using all my energy now to expose them. That is the first stage where the budget gets messed up. If the appropriation committee chairman is compromised, everything goes on quietly. But because I refused to compromise, there was a fight. The Speaker, along with Leo Ogor, Yusuf Lasun and Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, fought against me.
What is the second point?
The second phase is the period when the appropriation committee puts the report together and then takes it to the Clerk of the National Assembly. At that point, the Speaker took the appropriation committee chairman’s secretariat away from me twice. That had never happened in the history of the parliament. Why are people not asking questions about why he took the secretariat away from me? By the time the budget came back, I didn’t know what to say and we continued to fight. They hurriedly said they had fired me. I had told them earlier that I didn’t want to be the committee chairman any longer. They suspected that if I stepped down as the chairman, I would expose them. For days, I spoke with the Speaker about my intention to leave that office. There was nothing they didn’t do on earth to keep me within that system. They said, ‘Okay, if you go, you are not supposed to talk.’ I told them I would not talk. Then, they asked me, ‘Which committee do you want?’ I replied that I didn’t want any. I told the Speaker, ‘If you don’t announce it today, I am going.’ He got scared. He requested to have a meeting with me at 10 pm. I went (back) to my office and (and the next thing I heard was) an announcement that I had been fired as the appropriation committee chairman.
The House of Representatives is trying to blackmail the country by saying we have powers of appropriation. I, Abdulmumin Jibrin, believe that the power of appropriation resides in the National Assembly. It empowers the Assembly to add, reduce, expand and extend (items in the budget). The makers of the Nigerian constitution did not envisage that such power would be abused. There is no law that is meant to protect fraud. For example, the executive brings a proposal to construct a building for N1m – and everybody knows the building can’t cost more than that amount of money. It goes to the House, then to the chairman of the House committee in charge. The chairman then uses his power of appropriation to make it N4m. Will you tell me that is not an offence? Or, for example, the chairman knows that the project cannot cost less than N1m and he reduces it to N500,000; it is sabotage against the country. I want Nigerians to stop calling what had happened ‘padding.’ It is budget fraud. The rightful way of using the power of appropriation is, for example, in a local government, where there is need for an electrification project. The council has solar boreholes and irrigation schemes. Another solar borehole and an irrigation scheme are inserted into the budget, but what the area needs is electricity. The chairman and members of the committee realise that solar boreholes were provided for in the previous budget and the projects were executed with a proof. They can use the power of appropriation to take away the solar borehole project and bring in the rural electrification project. They have not committed an offence.
What is the quality you saw in Dogara that made you to support his emergence as Speaker?
What happened to me was an error of judgment. I had written and apologised to my party for that. It is one of the (most) bitter and, at the same time, one of the best experiences I’ve had in life. The human being is the most interesting thing to study. What happened was that we came out of the 7th Assembly with bitter experiences and we were determined to get the best person as the Speaker. We have a lot of new members in the current House and those of us that returned are few – and even a fewer number of us held sensitive positions in the 7th Assembly. The best qualities I think a Speaker should possess are capacity, being temperate and cool-headed, and the ability to bring people together. Femi (Gbajabiamila), my good friend, with whom I get along well – a brilliant lawyer, intelligent and smart – understands the rules of the House. You cannot beat him when it comes to the House rules. But Femi is a bit hyper. I have had that conversation with him to say, ‘Look Femi, you will shout at your colleagues and there will be a shouting match while sitting on that seat (of speaker). Dogara, on the other hand, was Chairman of the House Services. I didn’t know him that much. But he came across as quiet. You will hear people say, ‘Oh, he is a man of God.’ I have come to realise that is a dummy he has been selling to the public. You see him come to the chamber looking quiet. He is a brilliant guy; he looks calm and organised. (But) we were deceived by his looks and the surface psychoanalysis of his personality. We felt we should give him the chance (to become the speaker). It was a risk that I took.
At what point did things start to fall apart between the two of you?
That was four weeks after he assumed power (as the speaker). His personality changed completely. Traditionally, when a member loses someone, the speaker pays him a condolence visit. We lost a member but Dogara didn’t bother to visit the family. He is that arrogant. We agreed that he should reduce the number of committees to reduce the cost of running the House. Rather than do what we agreed on, he increased the number and refused to talk to anyone. He was to use the appointment of committee chairmen to unite the House. He, however, chose to do it his own way. Members could not talk to him. (But now) this crisis has humbled him.
Have you enjoyed any form of support from Nigerians?
A lot of Nigerians have been supportive. I want to specially thank former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He’s been encouraging me to hold on. But you know, in his usual way, he would say, ‘All of you people are the same. But I am happy that you’ve pulled out of them and you are exposing them. We will continue to give you support.’ That occasional intervention has helped me to stay on track. I believe that a lot of members of the House of Representatives are corrupt – but, not all. There are still a few that are honest. They have integrity. They are pained by what is happening in the institution. They are overpowered. I remember there was a statement Obasanjo made some time ago that there were lawmakers who came to Abuja in trailers and are now driving cars worth between N20m and N40m. He is right. That is the problem we have in the House of Representatives. We need to do background checks on people before they find their way into the House.
Do you think your 180-day suspension will stand?
Legally, it cannot. There was precedence. The constitution is clear: you can only get a member out of the House through recall and the constitution is supreme. The Legislative Privileges Act only allows the House to suspend a member for one sitting day. The House rules stipulate that you can only suspend a member for only 14 days. Therefore, legally, there is no way this can stand. They only suspended me because they wanted to save face. I raised allegations but they have not responded.