John Gaul Lebo, just completed four action littered years as Speaker of the Cross River State House of Assembly. Early on his last day in office as Speaker, he granted www.calitown.com, an interesting interview put together by Editorial Assistant, MfonObong Ntiero. Excerpts:
As speaker of Cross River State House of Assembly, can you modestly look back at your time in the House?
Of course. I still remember 11th of June 2015, when I was elected Speaker of the House. When I stepped into my sit, the first thing I did was say a silent prayer to thank God in advance that I’ll complete the four years in good health and I’ll leave as a better human being and make personal progress. I came here as Speaker armed with a firm resolve to serve and be better dedicated to execute my functions; doing all these while nestled in God’s hands. See, anytime God favours me with an opportunity in life, I tend to thank Him in advance. That I standing here today, at the end of the divine opportunity to have been Speaker, is a testimony that, what I asked God in the beginning, has happened. I thank God too that I didn’t use this opportunity, even with all the pressure, to become a cultist. I still have the best relationship with God and then I went there with my life and I’m very healthy and strong and young and I’m leaving the place still young, strong and healthy being that I was never ill one day, never had any accident, never had any mishap, flew several times but never had any issues, was never impeached or even threatened. I had a good relationship with my colleagues and then I’m leaving the House in peace and then a lot of people can say that there is progress in the House and I expect that my colleagues will continue and build up from there. So, for me the House of Assembly was a political experiment that worked very well. Of course you know that I’m a product of a political opportunity created first by Sen. Liyel Imoke but managed and brought to light by Sen. Ben Ayade; I see that that experiment has worked out well, I expect people to learn from my lessons and where I made mistakes correct them, that is the experience of life and then in the areas that I feel I’ve done well, I hope to speedily document lessons learnt.
One of the things we can point to and commend you about is probably your ability to give the Cross River State House of Assembly a prominent face in the media. Now going forward, do you think that this relationship with the media should be maintained or jettisoned?
Well, the future of leadership is governance and governance is now emphasises social governance. People are no longer waiting for the traditional governance institutions to govern them. Social media has become a legitimate enabler of governance and catalyst too for enhancing governance. What the House stands for and functions on, is no longer a complicated exercise because anybody can seat in his or her comfort zone, Google search the functions of the House and get very ready and accurate answers. And when the same person looks at these functions and the performance on the ground, they can say if the House is performing or not. The media today comes complemented and packed with social media which is a legitimate public space where people do informed analysis of the effect of laws, the role of a Speaker and you cannot run away from social governance. So, the future for me of the legislature and the House of Assembly of Cross River State is for them to better the relationship with the media. I’m happy that during my time as Speaker, we cultivated the friendship of the media, who in turn helped shape and publicise our activities. Indeed we have been able to publish the Cross River State budget up to date, all the public account reports etc. I hope that going forward, the House should have a very functional online platform from where regular interfaces with the media and constituents will be enhanced. People must be able, because of the creation of the legitimate public spaces in social media, to set the course of action, working with those doing legislations on our behalf. Today’s constituent is able to create his own course of action, his own legislative agenda and drag the legislator into it. He can rate you as either a success or failure and they don’t need your consent to do that so. I feel that moving forward, the new House leadership must learn that we have even moved from the era of industrial revolution, entered the technological revolution and now the digital age beckons; which is the age of robotic artificial intelligence of mental reality. You cannot stop it. People are making progress mentally and intellectually and institutions are making progress so I believe that the House of Assembly must look at it’s communication strategy.
With the benefit of hindsight, where do you think you people didn’t do well?
One of the areas I feel that my Assembly didn’t do well is that we were unable to keep that legislative governance in the constituencies. Our colleagues were unable to bring their constituency to the table, we were unable to create a public conversation between the people of our constituencies in line with the future of their leadership and governance. We didn’t have many town hall meetings, to help us do a needs assessment, what we just saw was just empowerment schemes by members but we never brought our constituents to the table to argue issues with us, so more accountability will come. I believe that the members must move in this direction and make sure this is also replicated at the state level. People must have that regular engagement, to help them know if their House of Assembly member has proposed a bill for this and this, what is the implication of xyz bill and then argue with their and people first before coming back to the House to argue. People should argue out the content of the bill or say we’re opposed to it and then our argument and the position we take must originate from the content of what our people have agreed on.
One of the things that was almost like a common feature from critics of your time as Speaker of the House of Assembly was the constant referral of the House and members as a rubber stamp of the Executive. How do you come through on that?
Ok, once you get into a leadership position, you must have a strategy, a leadership strategy and then you come plain to the gallery. One of the worst mistakes any leader will make is to go to a leadership responsibility with a sense of catch-up. Your strategy must be out and in that strategy, you’re going to face challenges, criticism, but you must create a course of action and create a direction. I believe that as a leader there is nothing else you need to do, just create a course for other people to take actions and then that must work.
As Speaker of the House of Assembly, my strategy was very simple, an independent House of Assembly, simply performing her functions. When you go on ground, this is the reality:
1.You are an administrator of 178 civil servants, 10 directors, and then you have an institutional government to manage.
2. You just suddenly realise when you get to the office as Speaker that you are the leader of an arm of government. As independent as you are, you are the leader of one arm of government and there are three arms of government, the Executive that control the finances, the Judiciary that interprets the law and you, who make the laws.
As Speaker, you don’t have access to public funds, you don’t have access to revenue mobilisation, you don’t have access to revenue, every of your expenditure will be paid with the consent of the Executive and with the support of the Judiciary. As a leader if you don’t create a relationship management strategy with the other two arms of government, you will fail from the beginning. Now the greatest concern that some of your colleagues will have and of course naturally is that as Speaker, you are first of all a Chief Welfare Officer of the House, the Constitution has not created any other function for the Speaker to the public beyond the fact that he is the presiding officer of the House of Assembly and he is going to preside over 24 other of his colleagues. If your colleagues feel that you are not taking care of their welfare well and things are not going well, they will remove you. The perspective that the public has about you fighting governor or doing this one, is for the history books. You will end up as foot note in history but for you to be in the pages of history, you must create a relationship management strategy.
So when I became Speaker, I decided to look for a relationship management strategy.
First of all, that relationship management strategy is to ensure that we understand our role under the Constitution and try not to do anything that is illegal or unconstitutional no matter the pressure and I can assure you that almost hundred percent we achieved that. If the governor brings a budget and the Constitution says your responsibility is to look at the budget, make inputs on the constituencies and pass the budget, you cannot function outside of this constitutional role.
Let me be stark and real now. People said a lot of things about the state budget estimates and what the House should have done. Now, learn this: the budget will be as big as possible. If the Executive bring a budget estimate for instance of 1billion naira, why do you think as House of Assembly member it is me now that will go and remove it and reduce it to 500 million, why won’t I leave it at 1billion? We will leave it there because the budget is first of all a prosperity agenda of the future. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the money is there to spend, it simply means that, in the days ahead, if I have X amount of money, I will spend it like this. Because we see logic in what you have said, we ask you to progress. So what people fail to understand is that the day that I mismanage the relationship between the House of Assembly and the Judiciary we are going to have a case in court and at the end of the day I will be removed as Speaker and my colleagues will end up having one issue or the other and then most of the bills that we pass can be set aside by the Judiciary, this is the painful truth.
How has this relationship management benefitted members?
As I leave as Speaker, none of my colleagues is owed salary or overhead allowance that is due to them, because I managed our relationship with the Executive well. At the time I became Speaker, only about nine of us were returning members, from the lot that didn’t return, I was able to get four of them into Executive positions as Commissioners in the state and by the grace of God, I expect that more than 5 or 6 of my colleagues who couldn’t make it to the House of Assembly will get appointment positions. That is the product of that relationship management strategy and I choose to follow good relationship management strategy, I choose not to be rascal, I choose not to be a social critic, I choose not to be a vain human rights activist, to fight against government that I’m part of, I choose not to misunderstand myself and my role as Speaker of the House.
Other people will come, let them choose their strategy. If their strategy is to wear boxing gloves and face the governor, I wish them well, I pray that that will also yield results for them but at the end of the day, you must manage, you must understand the body language of your colleagues, what are they looking at? What is their main concern? Everyday when I wake up as a Speaker, I try to scoop around my colleagues and I’ve kept that good relationship, what are we looking at? If the issue is welfare, I abandon everything and make sure that their welfare is taken care of. If the issue is that they are passionate about this or they are concerned that certain actions of the Executive are not going well, I create an Executive session with His Excellency, to call his attention to the matter. I’ll round up by saying that, there’s a Yoruba proverb that says that, anybody you are close to, don’t shout, whisper. So we’ve had that opportunity when things go wrong, we have Executive session and whisper to the Executive to correct the wrong.
If they call us rubber stamp, we rubber stamp constitutionality, we rubber stamp legality to do what is right. We never have at any point done anything that is wrong and where the Executive is wrong, we call them to order through the Constitutional means and we have ensured that overall, since I sat as speaker, Cross River has seen some peace in terms of the relationship between the arms of government. We didn’t fight, we didn’t quarrel, we didn’t hear that the Speaker and commissioners of the governor are fighting and all of that. That can happen and progress will be stopped in a small State like Cross River State, a lot will happen. So my strategy was to keep up a good relationship management strategy and it worked for me.
If you were to talk with whoever emerges as Speaker of the House of Assembly, with the wealth of experience that you have in one sentence, what will you tell the person
First, he should adopt some of the lessons I’ve learnt as speaker.
1. I’ve learnt what I call Mental Accounting. The world is like an accounting solution put on a spreadsheet. Everything is planable, you can calculate it, you can design your plan and you must manage all of those options available to you so they should take proper mental accounting and ensure that you fix your target.
2. You must have a timing mindset. in other words, you won’t be there for eternity. From the beginning I knew I was going to be speaker for 4years and 46 months, I knew I was going to have 196 weeks, I knew the number of hours and minutes that I’m going to spend as Speaker and I designed my strategy in such a way that during that period, I’ll achieve certain bench marks. So I expect the other person to use that as an example.
3. Finally, he must design what I call the black box mentality. Everytime, you must come to the fact of accepting defects, flops in life and deficiency as a human being, be more attracted to investigate the reason why certain things you did, did not work. And that can only happen when you pick up your black box and look at what point you did go wrong. Every time you fail, it creates a guarantee that you may succeed in the next step if you understand why you failed.
And finally, I expect that whoever becomes Speaker must try to maintain a good relationship between himself and his colleagues, the Executive and the Judiciary. And he must try to ensure that the House still remains on the constitutional course.
Point us to your achievements.
I served as chairman of the Nigerian Speakers Forum on constitutional amendment, I had the opportunity of having 2-3 meetings with the presidency and we were able to achieve House of Assembly autonomy, made up arguments and got it well, where I felt that the constitutional amendment for local government was drafted in such a way that it would conflict with the power of the National assembly. I fought and alongside others, killed the constitutional amendment of the local government law which was to transfer power to the National Assembly.
As Speaker, 113 bills were presented in four years, under my leadership, 86 passed. About 103 of these bill were all private member bills, that means the bills didn’t come from the Executive that is the show of autonomy and independence. It has never happened before. Check the whole country, we have the highest number of private bills that means that the state executive council never at any point sat down and drafted bill and sent to us. All the bills came from the ingenuity of members and went to the state Executive Council and were accepted by them. So when people talk about rubber stamp, I don’t know how or what their concept is. And then most of all, 68 agencies of government were created by us and all of those offices were constituted by the government, all of them. We set our benchmark and I’m very happy that we met it. My colleagues should learn from my experience, look at my black box and also learn from it.
Now, Cross River State budget; we have these superficial budget figures that we have to cope with year in, year out and it doesn’t look sincerely critically that what we budget for is what we are able actualise on the ground. What are your thoughts on this?
Ok, first of all, my thinking about the budget process was altered by his Excellency, Sen. Ben Ayade. When you walk with somebody most times you have to adapt some of his philosophies. In a proper examination, I support the Ayade budget philosophy. There are two types of budget; it was the Envelope budget before the other type of budget that looks at the budget as a prosperity agenda. Some people look at budget as a planning tool, some look at it as the exactitude of how much you can afford. It’s all a different model. They call one envelope budget and one deficit budget. I know that I may not be able to afford 1 billion every year but I budget that if I have 1 billion, this is how I will spend. That is deficit budgeting. The envelope budgeting is that, I just feel that I’ll have up to #2000, so I budget for 2000. People have different options but most planned strategies feel that the budget is first a planning tool and is a prosperity agenda and the budget is an instrument of growth. So what the budget offers will express its future aspirations on the people and create hope for the community. So, when you have that kind of mindset that the budget is a prosperity agenda you will not budget according to the size of your pocket, you will not budget according to how much you have. Remember that Ayade’s major economic philosophy is to decouple Cross River from depending on federation allocation and he was looking at an economy where he will design certain infrastructure that forever will serve as a turning point in Cross River history. So if you have the super high way, the total value of the super high way is 460 billion, the deep sea port put together is about two hundred and eighty something billion over a period of 5, 7, 8 or 10 years as the case may be. Now if you put those two figures together, first of all you will know that from the beginning of your budget you’d start with the deficit of at least about 6-7 hundred billion naira. If you add even 300 billion as your total economic recurring expenditure, that is how your budget gets to a trillion.
Ok, it is because if you take out the super high way and the deep sea port from the budget, your will turn probably less than 200 billion but because government sees the super high way and deep sea port as a prosperity agenda that must be followed in phases or that has been articulated under the present administration, it is going ahead with this figure. So for me, what I expect people to do is to understand it from that point of view. For every year if we generate a 100 billion, the expenditure has been taken out of it. That’s the philosophy that the governor has adopted, that’s the philosophy I support and the philosophy that a lot my colleagues support. Most Cross Riverians will want to see an envelope budget that says you have 5000 so your budget should be 5000 or 5 billion should be 5 billion but unfortunately the economic model that we’re practicing now, we have this philosophy that we cannot budget according to the size of our pocket or our budget cannot be tied to the possibility of how much we get from the federation allocation and ambition cannot be determined by how much revenue mobilisation we look forward to. We can’t run an artificial economy where people in revenue mobilisation will tell us that your budget must be 60 billion in a year, No. we want to look at the future of our prosperity and we’re looking beyond so that’s why we’re looking at possibilities.
Now, the southern senetorial district, the central and the north of CRS have had their shots at the governorship position.. There is a thinking somewhere that since we’ve done one, two, three, we have to start from the north and come back. There is another group of persons who maintain that since it has gone that way, let it start from central and come and then return. There’s another group of persons who believe that it has reached the north, let it start back from the south, central to north. Where do you stand?
I stand by what is fair, equitable and just and I stand with being consistent with human philosophy and I support governor Ben Ayade whole heartedly and we must be sincere. Leaders must not be those who try to change because of personal prosperity, negating history for their own sake.
I state firmly, the next governor of Cross River State, must come from the southern senatorial district. I don’t expect anybody from the central to try to prevent the south because this progression that we have made, must continue, to guarantee some political peace. Up till now, in some states, people are still in court determining where governorship should be zoned to. People contest election and they end up in Court. Cross River State is very institutional we virtually don’t have election that is argued because it is very certain. We allow the people from the south who will produce the successor of Ayade to begin to look at leadership institutions available and produce the best that they can. A senatorial district of seven local governments is able to produce a quality leader where we can pick one person as governor. So, I support the governor that the south should get it and I also like the fact that the position of deputy governor now becomes available to the next senatorial district that has produced a governor in the longer period of times.
So I expect that the deputy governor will come from central, the the position of speaker will come to the North. That is why today, speaker has remained in central. Yakurr and Abi have held on to that position. Bassey Ewa has been speaker and I have been speaker and this position will most likely remain in the central, in Yakurr, I think because in the state politically, Yakurr particularly has nothing. The Central Senatorial seat has been in other local governments for 20 years, except in Abi, Obubra and Yakurr. Speaker naturally would have gone there. Yakurr is too vast and important for us. By the grace of God and in support of the will of the members, we expect that it will remain in Abi/Yakurr federal constituency.
Clearly, like you said, in all of this, all the four years that you have been speaker, what strong lessons are you taking away?
Well, one of the strong lessons I’m taking away is the certainty of faith; first that you can set your benchmark and meet it. I’ll say that I’ve achieved more than 80% of my benchmark. I had a mental draft of a number of things that I had wanted to do and I’ve achieved them. I wanted to leave the House with most of my colleagues returning back to the House of Assembly and I got that. I wanted to ensure a House where the Legislature, the Executive and Judiciary will enjoy a good relationship for the benefit of members and by the grace of God that has happened. I wanted to make some visible contribution in terms of taking the leadership or being the the Speaker of the Cross River State House of assembly, and explore options at the National level so, I became the chairman of PDP Speakers Forum all of my tenure and I’m very grateful for that, then I was the Secretary of the Speakers Forum on constitutional amendment, I achieved autonomy of the Houses of Assembly across the country and then the judiciary and I’m very grateful about that and also, I was able to look at certain other things that I can leave behind as a legacy, that I achieved with legislative governance in the House of Assembly to improve and also ensure that within the House, we were able to actually become legislative architects for governance.
So we set the agenda and we’ve done that successfully, created 64 institutions for government all of them put together and then the model of expansion of governance came to us. The expansion of government may be easy for us from my legislative direction of the 8th Assembly to deal with the citizenship agenda and creating of sustainable institutions for government. That has happened but I feel that from what we’ve done we have permanently altered the political landscape of Cross River and we expect that the people that are coming behind will sustain it. I expect that if we have passed some bills that are not too useful and all of that, they can be reviewed in the next assembly and then gradually give us a shape of what we deserve but I went there with the mindset of carrying out a lot of political experiments, being the ‘son’ of a political scientist, Sen. Liyel Imoke and I turned that place to a political laboratory and I did my best. I had fun trying a lot of things, some were good, some of them bad and I’ve taken those ones into my mental archive and I’ll process it in my black box and the ones I did successfully, I’m expecting that in less than a year from now I’ll do a memoir on my experience on legislative governance because one of the biggest challenge of the legislature is that legislators don’t know how to govern, that’s the biggest problem. We don’t have constituency governance strategy, we don’t create a permanent relationship with the people. If I come as a House of Assembly member, I have to learn all over, I don’t get a handover note, there’s nothing to look up to, there’s nothing for our descendants to come and look at, nobody ever hands any file to anybody at all. You come, you choose your own style. I want to ensure that I do a memoir that can look like the template of legislative governance, a template for all the work of a Speaker, what’s the responsibility of a Speaker to the public, something that people will find a base line to judge from.
Finally, what was your saddest moment as a speaker of the House of Assembly?
Oh! My saddest moment as speaker was when I lost two of my colleagues Rt. Hon. Simon Nkoro, my brother from the Central Senatorial district and Stephen Ukpukpen. Going to the hospital to see him everytime and gradually coming back to see him in the mortuary is something I wish never happened at all to me, it can’t even remain in my black box, I can’t even find it there. As it is, the reality of that has not dawned on me yet. Number two was loosing my best friend. When I came to the House of Assembly, I knew only one person because you know I lived all my life in Abuja, I came in from Abuja and I didn’t have anyone in Calabar, I didn’t know anybody. The only person I knew in the House of Assembly was the late Rt. Hon. Stephen Ukpukpen because we were neighbours in Abuja, we lived in Maitama together, we were both sons of Sen. Liyel Imoke politically. Two of us had the privilege of going to Calabar to run elections in the House of Assembly so that we can proof our capacity for public service and we came together, now I’m going back to Abuja and Stephen isn’t coming back to Abuja with me, never will he come back. (Pensively) Stephen is not here. It’s a terrible experience honestly. If you check my pictures as Speaker, two people are very prominent. Stephen Ukpukpen and Eteng Williams, those two. Most times Stephen was always there because he saw me as a brother. For me the day Stephen died, my House of Assembly ended. I just tried to make up. So those moments were terrible moments but thank God that his Excellency and the party decided to return their spouses to the House of Assembly. So when I saw their spouses in the House, it gave me small hope that at least, as I leave with all the benefits of being a member of the House of Assembly, to take care of my children, Steve’s wife will be able to take care of Steve’s children, Nkoro’s wife will also be able to take care of Nkoro’s children and not go around and beg. There are not really widows in that sense who survive on widow’s mite but the Governor was able to support us and put them into the House of Assembly, I feel very happy. So those were my dark moments.
In other moments I thank God. My healthiest moments ever in life has been as Speaker, No hospital saw my back. And then driving in those speedy convoys, there’s been no accident, flying all over the place, nothing happened.
Finally, I had a delayed admission in Harvard when I became Speaker in my first term. I did everything just to get that admission but it didn’t proceed but I’m happy that even with the tight schedule as Speaker, I was able to get my Harvard fellowship, my certificate in Education in Decision Science, I was able to do my course in Innovation Governance, on MIT, hopefully, I’ll be going back in November to do my course in Climate Change. I tried some experiment in Johannesburg Business School on Strategy Management and it worked out well and the highlight of my work as Speaker was being recognized at World Social Media Week, given the opportunity to be a resource person. So I was able to present at the Social Media Week in London, Nairobi and then now, I’ll be going for the Social Media Week in New York. Beyond talking about Innovation Governance and Content Management, now this year we are focusing on Managing Political Decisions Through Content. My happiness now is that they are even asking that I should share my experience as Speaker of the House of Assembly in helping Innovation Governance and Content Management out of public service.
So for me, my work as Speaker has redefined my capacity for hardwork and I have a wonderful library in Abuja. But you can see that there was no book here when I was elected into office. In four years, every one of these books was acquired in my days as Speaker. I came into Calabar without a book but now, I’ve been able to build this. Our young people, as I leave, these books will always be available for your research. I’m trying to create an online library, so that people can come in and do research.
Leave us with a strong word.
One of the things that we should take home and don’t ever forget is that, no leader can run away from the existence of social governance. In the past, social media and people who do commentary have been seen as occupying illegal public space but now they occupy a legitimate public space.
People like you Iwara Iwara, are helping to redefine governance with your level of very visible social media actions, I must commend you.
If as Speaker, you’re not on social media, the people will create Speakers on social media and they will bring you down; so it’s better you join them and correctly create a course of action for them to follow. Then, no matter what, Political Decision must be shaped by content, you can’t run away from it.
Anyway, if you like go and sit as Speaker and just pass any kind of bill, they’ll bring it on social media and will trash you. Before you know, the reputation you acquired on social media will gradually begin to creep into your life because it will affect your confidence.People will look at you as a puppet and all of that. What people just need is that, the House of Assembly should continue to remain open. That’s the reason for the platforms we’ve created, we have a journal that has taken together all the things we have achieved, all the arguments made by members for four years so that constituents can see that some of their members said nothing in four years. They will see performance reports that this person did not sponsor one single bill in four years and was collecting public money. So people can know see that we must set that marking scheme for leadership and people must be held responsible, people can’t run away. Now, the world is flat and then no matter what you do, people have created the automative content for what leadership must be.
Things have made it a little bit easy, you can create the office of Speaker, through artificial intelligence and then it can guide you on the most appropriate action to take at a particular time, you can create a robot and it can give you a solution.
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