Hon. Benjamin Okezie Kalu represents Bende Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives. He is the Chairman of House Committee on Media and Public Affairs. In this interview, Kalu recognised that the executive arm of government was doing a lot in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, hence, the need for the House to support and pass a bill that would make their efforts a reality.
Q. You are aware that some members travelled abroad, came back and were alledgedly said to have ignored coronavirus screening at the airport. What do you have to say on this?
A. Thank you very much. You raise a couple of issues that it was alleged some members who travelled came back into the country without passing through the coronavirus screening.
Secondly, that there was a letter that came to the House of Representatives from Mr. President on the same issue. From my assessment of the government intervention with problems we are faced with, first, it is important to note that it’s a trying times for citizens of the world, not only Nigerians.
This pandemic is affecting big countries as well as small countries. In the same manner, it doesn’t respect social status, economic status or political status.
Because of the biological composition of members of the House of Representatives is not different from you that is interviewing me now, or different from the man that carries his bag and arrived at the airport. Nothing, absolutely nothing should stop him or her from passing through screening machines which the NCDC in partnership with the Ministry of Health has put in place to make our place secured. so I encourage every Nigerians, Parliamentarian or not; governor or not; a commoner, a market trader; whatever you call yourself, if there are mechanisms put in place in this period that we are faced with crisis, I plead with you to be humble enough to make use of them. If not for your sake, for the sake of your neighbour, your brother, your children and your parents.
Q. A letter was purportedly written by the Chief of staff to the President, Mr. Abba Kyari. Can you confirm that the letter was genuine, particularly that you have reacted to the letter in a way.
A. Yesterday, my phone did not stop ringing from all over the world, such that every news agency want to hear my opinion on that letter to confirm authenticity or otherwise of that letter.
Like you know, authenticity of document is drawn from the source from where it emanates. That document as laid and circulated, the source is doubtful for obvious reasons. Manner of communication forms structure and all of them. The source is doubtful because we all know how the President communicates with the Parliaments. In the usual tradition, the Speaker would announce a letter from Mr. President, and am sure, you did not see the Speaker reading a letter from Mr. President, so attaching importance to that letter with regards to where it is coming from is not something we should bother ourselves, but suffice to categorically state that the purposive interpretation of the content of that letter is useful.
It has risen the consciousness that there is a mechanism in place that when you come and see those things that would make you safer, make use of it. Whether it comes from the Chief of Staff is irrelevant. Whether, it’s addressed to the House of Representatives or Senate is irrelevant and that’s why I am pleading with members not to see it as an attempt to cast aspersion on the integrity of members of the House.
The letter is to showcase the effort the Executive is making to make us safer and we should interpret it in that line and to that extent, the attention it has raised, the trending element of it is that there is a measure that everybody should do.
Q. But do you think what the government is doing is adequate to tackle the scourge of coronavirus?
A. Another issue you have raised is whether what the Government is doing at the moment is enough.
It may be adequate, it may not be enough. It may be adequate considering our situation, it may not be adequate considering our population. What is our situation? The global economy has changed. All projections have failed. All the global economy calculations have failed, all because of coronavirus.
The oil benchmark of $57 per barrel when we did our budget is today below $30. How do you now fulfill the expectation of that budget?
Your case is as good as mine that more than 50% of what we projected is not there, and knowing that crude oil is our major source of revenue. So, it calls for thinking outside the box. It calls for restrategising which I believe, the executive is doing.
This era is not an era of calling executive names when they are making effort. The ninth Assembly will not do it. We will only raise alarm when they are not doing enough. Look at when the Executive called for a meeting, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) immediately pumped N1 trillion into the economy. Moratorium was given and another N100 billion was released.
On our part, we passed emergency economic stimulus bill, 2020 in making the executive to do more by granting moratorium for those who are using the Federal Mortgage Bank facility for them to arrange how they will pay their mortgage without losing their houses by the time coronavirus had come and gone.
We are a people oriented Parliament. In that bill as well, is a provision that enable importers of certain essential goods enjoy free import duty as long as it concern health. Health kits and equipment and the rest of them.
We are trying to bring the sufficiency element; how the service they are providing; and they cannot operate outside the enabling act. That’s why we suspended the recess we were to go two weeks ago to fine tune what is needful for Nigerians before we go on recess.
Q. What is the direct benefit of the bill?
A. The benefit of the bill as well, is to save owners of companies in terms of the tax they are paying especially, PAYEE. What is the idea behind it? The idea behind it is to ensure that employees would not lose their jobs because of what the management is going through. So that the management will not say because of coronavirus we are laying off staff.
This law we are bringing is to save jobs, save houses, bring in more equipment especially as it concerns health. Going forward as well, you know there is shortage of isolation centres.
Today, there is a motion to convert secondary schools into isolation centres. You could recall that students of secondary schools have been recalled back home and the schools are vacant. Instead of constructing new ones, today we move a motion that schools be converted into isolation centres.
The motion also gave mandate to the President and governors to ensure that isolation centres spring up in all the states of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is how the House is committed in supporting the executive to achieve their aims which is cushioning the impact of coronavirus. The economic impact as well as the health impact.
Q. In the last 24 hours, the media was awash that certain lawmakers travelled abroad but came back and they supposed to have isolated themselves which they didn’t. What is your take on that?
A. Of course, anybody coming from the countries that have been listed, you know the job of the House of Representatives is to take the mouth of the country once in a while. If the Committee on Foreign Affairs will go and oversight activities of the Nigerian embassy in New York, will you tell the Committee not to go especially if they are already there before the outbreak happened.
However, they have to obey the health policies that are now in place to curtail the spread of coronavirus. You see there is no way the House of Representatives members will not comply. This speculation that they didn’t comply, we have asked for video. At the airport, there are cameras. Airlines have manifest and it is traceable. Why not exhibit evidence that actually House members shun screening machines and refused to subject themselves to the coronavirus test.
Why did you allow them to pass through immigration because I passed through the screening machine myself. I passed through it. The position of the screening machine was very good. You pass through it, before you meet the immigration and if you pass through it without being screened by the machine, operators have right to tell the immigration to turn you back. Immigration is a paramilitary agency there and they have right to take you somewhere and force you to test, no matter who you are.
So, I don’t want to believe that any member did that because they supposed to know, but if there is an evidence, because the law says, he that alledges, must prove.
Q. Aren’t you worried that the response of lawmakers to the coronavirus pandemic is too low considering the fact that they haven’t called for the state of emergency against the outbreak?
A. All the things I have mentioned shows that we are making steps towards the right direction, but it’s one step taken at a time. We are watching developments. Am sure the NCDC and the Taskforce on Coronavirus was set up by the President immediately the scourge start spreading which is a step in the right direction.
The Ministry of Health, the NCDC, the Presidential Taskforce are made up of credible members. One of them is the SGF that I respect so much for his intelligence. We will see the need for declaration of emergency if we get there.
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