Excesses of party leaders must be checked to strengthen our democracy –Onuigbo

Hon Samuel Onuigbo represents Ikwuano/ Umuahia North/ Umuahia South Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives. In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID, he speaks about the Electoral Act and the delay in the implementation of Climate Change Act, among other issues

As one who participated actively in the making of the Electoral Act, 2022, which the Ninth National Assembly passed and was assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari, how did you come up with the document because it appears to have made some improvement on the electoral system, judging from what happened in the Osun State governorship election?

The Electoral Act, 2022, is a law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It became a law because after its passage by the two chambers, it was eventually assented to by President Muhammadu Bihari. It has become the law of the land as far as elections are concerned. So, in terms of role and contribution made in the final making of the Act, I will only recall that I am a member of the House Committee on Electoral Matters. And as a member of that House, I was also fortunate to be at the retreat where the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, opened up on issues of elections.

At that retreat held on March 4, 2020, at Radisson Blu Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos, the INEC chairman was very clear in his speech, when he said and I quote: ‘This is the first time that the commission and members of the National Assembly are coming together to discuss issues relating to the electoral legal framework in this manner.’

Why this is particular is that he pointed out that we had different bills that we wanted to amend. We had a bill for an Act to amend Electoral Act No. 6, 2010, and for related matters. You know we have been amending the bill up to this point but at that retreat, we resolved that we should just repeal all those existing Acts and just enact entirely a new one, so that there would be no confusion about the sections and their applications. That was what came out of the retreat.

I also acknowledge the contributions of the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Omo-Agege, who was there to help push the bill. One other thing that the Chairman of INEC said during the retreat was that he would like the National Assembly to deal strongly with the issue of internal democracy in the parties.

He said that we should curb a situation where parties engage in anti-democratic actions, especially during elections. To quote him, he said: ‘With 809 pre-election petitions filed before the 2019 general elections, the electoral legal framework should provide clear procedures for party primaries and consequences for violation.’ So, you can now see why in working on the Act, we tried to take care of issues capable of allowing the challenges that come from lack of internal democracy and you can see that the retreat really helped in the making of the Act. And by the grace of God, Nigerians and the international community really appreciate what the National Assembly has been able to do in improving on the electoral system through the new Electoral Act. The chairman of INEC was also concerned about the issue of forum shopping by the lawyers because they were flooding the whole places with litigations.

This again, informed our action in enacting the law by making sure that if you want to get judgement, you do that through the Federal High Court, so as to reduce incidences of having court orders flying in from everywhere. But after the retreat, different chambers moved back and did different levels of work.

The two chambers appointed people to go and work together in what was called a Joint Technical Committee. And that Joint Technical Committee on INEC and Electoral Matters met between the 7th and 10th of January, 2021. And by His grace, I was appointed to represent the South-East from the House of Representatives, while Senator Ike Ekweremadu was appointed to represent the zone from the Senate. Senator Ibrahim Shekarau was also there from the North-West; Hon Magaji, who is from Kaduna; Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, representing the South-West; Solomon Bob, from the South-South and some others.

The co-chairmen were Senator Kabiru Gaya, who chairs the Committee on INEC in the Senate and Hon. Aisha Dukku, who chairs the Committee in the House of Representatives. We met at the Transcorp Hilton Abuja,between Thursday 7th and Sunday 10th of January, 2021. During this meeting, we had exhaustive discussions. Sometimes, we had prolonged debates on this issue. And we were supported by a formidable team from INEC, led by the National Commissioner, Festus Okoye, and another very strong team from the Ministry of Justice, led by the Director of Legal Drafting. We also had people from the United Kingdom, who came and provided goodwill messages.

Clement Nwankwo, from PLAC, was also there. I must tell you that it was very exhaustive and intellectually engaging. At the end of the day, we discussed all these things, and we had the support of all these people I have mentioned, that is Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu, the chairman of INEC and Abubakar Malami, the Minister of Justice. We had such a strong team.

Looking at the recent governorship election in Osun State, can you say that the Act is working effectively?

Yes, the Act is working, and I am sure that as we go forward, it is clear to everybody, this is the number of persons registered in Osun, the number of Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) collected and the number of persons who voted, which is well over fifty per cent.

So, it was an active performance. As we go forward, I have no doubt whatsoever that with the confidence Nigerians have gained from the performance of INEC in the deployment of technology, many more people will want to secure their PVCs and use it to elect people to represent them in government, and possess that authoritative power, to distribute resources, to take care of their security; to take care of their well-being. It is through the PVC that you are able to elect those who can effectively represent you in government. It is not leaving the matter to impostors who steal the ballot box and masquerade as leaders. So, that way, they don’t have the confidence of their followers. So, the Electoral Act 2022 is working.

How would you look at the party primaries vis-a-vis the application of the Electoral Act?

I think there is some improvement, except maybe, in some cases where people are yet to purge themselves of those anti-democratic behaviour within their parties and they engage in some kind of political gangsterism. Other than that, there is serious improvement. You can see the direction the country is going. And that is how we are supposed to be moving forward in a positive way; and not one step forward, three or four steps backward. In this case, we are moving forward steadily.

It was observed that immediately after the party primaries, some members of the National Assembly started finding fault with the Electoral Act and calling for its immediate amendment. What is your take on that?

You enact a law to achieve a purpose; to create a good society. That is why we have lawmaking. That is why the parliament is the number one arm of government because it is the law that is enacted that the executive goes ahead to implement. In this case, we have enacted a law; it is being implemented by the executive, which is represented by INEC. Now, after enacting a law, and if it is in the implementation you discover that there are some loopholes or lacuna; for instance, you see some people who are using some provisions to make mischief, it is up to the parliament or National Assembly or congress to go back, detect the loophole and look at it again and see where there are some loopholes and try and plug them.

I pointed out to you here that the national chairman of INEC wrote in black and white, that they had 809 preelection petition cases in 2019. Now, we should look for ways to checkmate the excesses of party administrators and stakeholders who engage in anti-democratic conducts or who do not allow internal party democracy to take place.

Yes, in the 2022 Electoral Act, the honourable members came back from the primaries and discovered that there were again, clear signs of abuses or lack of internal party democracy, especially by some of the governors and party leaders, who capitalised on the section that talks about only elected delegates. From what we have heard or seen, some of them did not elect delegates. Some of these powerful individuals went into their offices and compiled names and brought out.

So, when we work on it and make amendment, it will improve on the conduct of party primaries. It will improve our democratic journey. We will look out for those things and ensure that they are corrected. Two, because it appears to be an omission, statutory delegates were not captured, talking about elected party officials and those of us who were elected by our electorate or our constituencies.

We were not captured and in order not to fall foul of the interpretation that was why it was restricted to elected delegates. But from what happened, the National Assembly is at liberty to ensure that this is amended, and whatever loophole, is clearly corrected. Don’t forget, it was out of the fear of the abuses of some party administrators and stakeholders that some amendments were done. For instance, some governors can tell you, if you like pass twenty bills that impacted positively on the lives of the people, you will not go again. That is anti-democracy. That doesn’t reflect good internal democracy within the party. So, whatever gaps that have been noted will surely be corrected during an amendment.

The result of the recent Osun governorship election actually jolted your party, All Progressives Congress (APC). What do you think that APC didn’t get right that made the party to lose the election?

I do not know what you mean by jolted. Elections are there for the electorate to express their will. That’s why it is the most peaceful way of transferring power. Osun was formerly governed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and the PDP at a point lost to APC. It’s a simple thing. A few other states were also governed by one party or another. That’s the beauty of democracy.

I don’t think that you are right to say that APC was jolted; jolted for what? You have to run, if it is your turn, you win. So, what we are campaigning, what we are working for is to ensure that the transition is peaceful and accepted by all, so that those who lost can go back and see how they can improve in some areas. Then those who have won will have it upon themselves to ensure that they do not take it for granted, that votes are counting, and the electorate can make their choices. That is it. So, I don’t think that anybody was jolted. It is a natural thing for people not to be happy whenever they lost election because nobody wants to lose election at any level.

Vote-buying characterised Ekiti and Osun governorship elections. Does it mean that the 2022 Electoral Act did not take care of such violation?

Why do we call some acts mischief ? Why do we say some people want to circumvent the law; why do we talk about lack of internal party democracy? There are laws to cover these things but individuals, out of their love for lawlessness set out to beat the system. So, I think what we are going to do, is to make amendment to plug the gaps, and that is where the nation is going. Those who were alleged to have sold their votes are they going to be better of no matter the amount they received.

So, we have to do proper reorientation of the electorate, for them to know that when you put down your thumb to vote for somebody, that person is owing you till the end of his tenure. He is owing you good service, protection; he is owing you whatever section 14(2) of the Constitution is talking about protecting you, and the overall welfare of citizens. When there is proper reorientation on this, you will not be hearing about people selling their votes or people going about to buy the votes from the electorate.

We have noticed frequent visits by different youth organisations to your office. What actually attracts them to you?

It is born out of the fact that I started engaging in leadership issues from a very young age. I have been a community development person and I started that very early and as such, I know what it means to mentor people so that they can get ready for leadership at a higher level. So, that is why I welcome young people to my office and mentor them, and provide them with little things I know about leadership and give them the little knowledge that I have.

So, when they interact with their colleagues and they find out that oh! this gentleman is receptive which I am doing in line with the acronym with which I ran for the House which is “EAR’ I promised my people that I will be effective, I promised them that I would be accessible and I also promised that I would be responsive.

So, as young people whether at village, local government, state or even at this national level, when they found out that okay, this leader, with this status is approachable and he is ready to assist us they pass on the message. Do not forget that nothing is as strong as a word of mouth in terms of what you can believe and not an advertisement and that is why when they are doing anything, they need advice, they need guidance and they will come to me for advice. That is why they come to me with one invitation or another on issues of climate change.

They come to give me a report that they have presented in some places and if you check my staff, they are mostly very young people. This is because the youths are truly the force that we have in this country and we have to really nurture, guide, and mentor them to be able to begin to exercise leadership. So, that is probably why young people come around me.

I have been in involved in some community development projects at a very young age. If you recall from my community in Obohia in Ikwuano Local Government of Abia State, I have been involved in community development projects quite long before I came into politics. As far back as 2001, I was able to complete projects which I facilitated and brought the United States ambassador to my village, when Senator Orji Uzor Kalu was the Governor of Abia State and of course he came along with them. So, if you check then and now you will not be surprised that I have been engaging with the youths.

We discovered that several months after the passage of the Climate Change Act, the executive arm of government is yet to commence the implementation of that legislation. What is holding its implementation and what can you say about it?

I want to reiterate what I said earlier, about the Electoral Act Amendment, that while the legislature makes the law and the judiciary interpret the law, the executive implements the law as is spelt out in sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Constitution. The reason is that the legislature makes the laws and if there is a problem with the law, that arm of government looks for a way for it to be amended to achieve a good society. And that is what we have done.

In the case of Climate Act, I want to thank President Muhammadu Buhari for assenting to the bill on the 17th of November 2021. But before he assented to the Act, it took so many Assemblies (6th, 7th) and 8th Assemblies when I first sponsored the bill and he declined assent because there were some issues he wanted to be strengthened and God helped me to be re-elected into this House and I re-sponsord it and we worked on it with the support of both Chambers of the National Assembly.

But let me take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of the people in the executive arm of government like (the Minister Justice, Abubaka Malami because when I engaged with him and his counterpart in the Ministry of Environment), we had a meeting and he asked some very strong questions on how I wanted to go about it and was convinced about the way we were going to structure the bill, to give the council the power it needs to be able to strive and achieve the objectives it wants to achieve. He asked me to do a letter to him so that he could nominate people to work with me and I did the letter. The Speaker of the House of Representatives also did another letter. To be honest with you, the minister responded to the letter and nominated some people to work with my team.

The same thing with the Minister of Environment, who just cooperated and made nominations and we worked together and also visited the Vice President Yemi Osibanjo, when the bill was passed. With the passage of the bill on climate change and Mr. President’s assent to it, making it an Act, so many young people, groups and agencies have been visiting my office, seeking information on how to save our environment from gully and soil erosion.

From the Sahel down to the northern part of the country, you can see the destruction climate change has caused, forcing the loss of land, leading to land degradation; such that where people used to farm and live have been turned into rough dust that you can no longer plant and harvest. So, if you come to the coastal area, you can see how the mangrove is destroyed. This young man who just left my office, came here to talk about how the whole area has been destroyed.

It is so serious and we are losing so much through coastal erosion and of course those who are frustrated of the pollution from oil. So, we need to focus on these things for generations that are not yet born. So, the concern is oh! eight months after this bill was assented to, we have not implemented the Act, we have not inaugurated the council which is going to be engine room of the implementation of the climate change Act. So, it should be a source of concern, not just because I sponsored the Act but to other practitioners nationally and internationally. Do not forget that there are timelines.

For instance, in section 19(2) or so, it talks about timeline within which to set up the pilot scheme. I think one year. So, if out of one year, you have already lost about eight months, it means as a nation, you are already going to fall foul of the law that you enacted. So, that is probably why I had to write to the Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

I also wrote to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and of course, I had to write to the Minister of Justice. This is because these are individuals who have to cause this Act to be implemented. We do not want to be looked upon as an un-serious nation that they make law and they quickly violate it.




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