Hon. Uzoma Nkem-Abonta represents Ukwa East/Ukwa West Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID, he speaks on the contentious Water Resources Bill, Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) and constitution alteration, among other issues
What is your take on the controversial Water Resources Bill being processed in the National Assembly given the fears and suspicion it has thrown up in the country?
Bills are not merely based on fears. They should be considered based on their implications to the people. A bill, amendment and introduction of a bill should be done to cure defects. So, if I may ask, what are the defects the Water Bill seeks to cure? Well, to my mind that bill is even unconstitutional.
That bill is against existing laws, particularly the Land Use Act. So, I don’t think that that bill is in tandem with the Land Use Act. We ought to then repeal the Land Use Act or sections thereof. Two, that bill tends to add to the centre, I mean the Federal Government, when we are clamouring for restructuring towards off-loading the Federal Government of excessive load. We are Federal Government in nature but that bill will push us back to unitary system of government, whereby where water exists will be now federal government consignment as defined by the bill. I give you an example, if the bill becomes law, it will mean that the waters in Benue State, which belong to the state government will now be owned by the federal government.
Again, we know that water is life and land is a primary factor of production, why do you seek to centralise water and land now. I do not think the Water Resources Bill will do good, rather it will create more harm than it should remedy, if there is anything to remedy.
That bill will offend some guarantee drives by the constitution if implemented. Also, I do not think that legislators were conversant with what was passed because we were not given the opportunity to study the bill but I think that legislative inputs or mechanism will be adopted and employed to do the needful. What stage is the bill in the House of Representatives? I was told that they have done clause by clause consideration.
Did it go through public hearing?
When you talk of public hearing, not all bills go through public hearing, depending on the commencement. The House can regulate what they do, and we regulated what we did. A bill that came from preceding Assembly may not necessarily go to public hearing if that bill, upon introduction, satisfies some conditions that will still preserve the bill. For example, the Eight Assembly dealt with the bill inconclusively, meaning that it did not get to the final stage of assent.
To save legislative time, and that requires money, if that bill has gone through public hearing before and opinions of stakeholders were collated and harmonised, why will you get the same stakeholders again on the same bill, which will amount to wasting money and time. Our rules now permit us to introduce it to the floor again for legislative continuation, skipping the aspects that have been done already. But a proviso is attached: Provided that the bill will be regazetted and circulated; reason being that not every member who participated in the Eight Assembly came back and not all the persons in the Ninth Assembly are part of the Eight Assembly.
So, a clean copy should be regazetted, circulated before going on legislatively. That affords members opportunity of knowing the content of the bill before discussing it one way or another. I am not faulting House proceeding now because I was a member but we also use the same House mechanism to look at these issues and know exactly what to do. The bottom line will remain the overall wellbeing of the people by any bill or law. So, any law that will raise agitations, anxiety should be discouraged.
From the way you spoke, it appears you were not in the chamber when the bill was considered clause by clause. What is the next step on the bill?
I was not there when the clause by clause consideration was done. On the next step to take; that was why I said that the House legislative mechanism will be employed for the continuation of the bill. Going through it clause by clause does not mean that it has been assented or that it has become a law.
Another contentious law passed by the National Assembly is the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA). In view of the dust it has raised especially from the religious bodies, would you advocate that the Act be brought back for an amendment?
The law was made for who? For the people right! If the people say that they are not comfortable with it, why won’t you seek amendment?
Some people are asking why Christian lawmakers and their colleagues from other Faiths did not object to the clauses offensive to their faith until it was passed and signed into law. What is your view on that?
You are a Christian and you have been covering the National Assembly, why didn’t you raise it in your paper, why didn’t you observe that such bill needs attention and that it should be reviewed or doesn’t it concern you?. In any case, because of the mutual suspicion in Christendom, they are worried. Again, spiritual things differ. Churches differ from companies; some persons attend certain religious organisations based on the spiritual leader because it is a spiritual impartation. So, some associations and some kinds of decisions cannot and should not be represented by CAMA. It is quite a different thing. They are not similar. They may look as if they are the same but they are not. Running a church is different from running a company. They have different scenarios and implications in what they do. So, that is where we are. Laws, if done innocently, if done without bias, if done without sentiment, will definitely create a different thing. But for sure; from experience, from what is going on, the implementers of our laws do not do it without sentiment. There seem to be different interpretations to different things. In summary, are you in support of amending the CAMA? Yes, it should be amended. You shouldn’t make laws to hurt persons or to get at what you think otherwise you shouldn’t have gotten at.
The National Assembly told Nigerians recently, that electricity tariff would not be increased until the first quarter of 2021 but it has already been increased alongside the pump price of petrol, without official position by the leader-ship of the apex Assembly. What actually went wrong?
How can you say that individual members or the National Assembly did not make comment, when the press was awash of comments resulting from this? I also know that minority leaderships of the Senate and the House of Representatives have made official statements condemning the action of government. The increase in fuel price hike now and before: I will start from before. You people in the media celebrated Occupy Nigeria; you gave it publicity, why are you not Occupying Nigeria now? Where are the Bakares and the rest of them who said Occupy Nigeria because fuel price was increased during the time of Goodluck Jonathan? Let me tell you, I support deregulation; I support removal of subsidy but certain conditions must be fixed.
When President Obasanjo and Jonathan increased pump price of fuel, there were certain infrastructures that were put on ground, for example, the El-Rufai taxis and buses in Abuja. During CIVID-19, fuel came down. During COVID-19, the House of Representatives also intervened and told government, that it cannotchange the tariff for now because of COVID. The House insisted that the government must cushion the effect of COVID-19. I want to ask you: Is COVID-19 over? I think that the timing is wrong and it is a mark of insensitivity to the suffering of the masses.
It’s true that if we keep subsidizing fuel, we will keep running around the circle but you have to put certain things in place before you increase whatever you want to increase. And until we are there, don’t increase. Again, get a time table for your unbundling.
You can say that from this quarter we are going to go to this. That will give you ample opportunity to put those infrastructures on ground that will cushion the effects. Then, the money that you are going to save from subsidy, where are you going to put it to the benefit of the masses, so that the chain effects will not be felt by the masses? Now, if you take a bus from Wuse to Mararaba, the fare has doubled because of the manner and insensitive nature they used in increasing the fuel.
Otherwise, subsidy is to the benefit of the rich. If you see somebody with a fleet of seven vehicles, jeeps, he is benefiting more than somebody who uses Okada or one vehicle. When you subsidize aviation fuel, whom are you favouring? Of course, those who fly! Therefore, the money from subsidy should be channeled to the benefit of the masses; it should be injected where the resultant effect will show on the masses, otherwise, it’s of no effect. Therefore, the timing is wrong. It’s confusion and policy somersault.
The Northern Elders Forum (NEF) recently advised the National Assembly to jettison the proposed constitution review, arguing that the previous exercises did not yield any positive result. What’s your take on that position?
If you look at the postulations and arguments of the Northern Elders as you quoted, you will notice what seemingly looks like wisdom; the need to make our security and economy right but getting it right is based on the constitution. The constitution will redefine the security architecture. So, you can’t say don’t do this, let’s do this, when what you are asking is hinged on the constitution. Let me ask, have you seen the 1999 Nigerian Constitution before; have you read the opening paragraph, can you remember the statement of the opening paragraph? It reads: ‘We the people of Nigeria.’ Is that the constitution given by Nigerians? It should be rendered thus: ‘We the military juntas” because it was done by the then Supreme Military Council.
Therefore, the opening paragraph of that constitution is faulty. We, the people of Nigeria didn’t give ourselves that constitution. If between 1999 and now the constitution has suffered four, going to fifth alterations, it means that something must be fundamentally wrong with that constitution to suffer the alterations. Therefore, upon attaining democratic system of governance, we ought to give that constitution validity by subjecting it to referendum or plebiscite; so that we can now say we the people of Nigeria. Until we do that, it will give us problem. And rather than do piece meal alterations, why wouldn’t we take the whole constitution, call the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), call everybody and subject it to clause by clause voting.
At the end of the voting, those that passed through will become part of it, and those that did not pass through will be jettisoned. It’s only then that we can say, we the people of Nigeria; otherwise, we cannot say, we the people of Nigeria. It will be over-reaching statement as written there.
You will agree with me that no democratic institution or the masses sat down to say we are doing a constitution. So, we must as a matter of necessity amend the constitution including extensively the area of restructuring, so that we will be able to have a united, stronger, secured Nigeria.
Do you think that restructuring is feasible in Nigeria, considering the already existing imbalances in the system, and more so, that those who benefit from the present defects are opposed to restructuring, and they tend to be in majority?
Well, we need the will power to do that so that Nigeria will be stronger. Why is it not possible? It could be a matter of votes as you are saying but it’s also a matter of leadership and governance. Let me ask you: We have been having insecurity for some time, we have agitations, these things can be traced to poor governance, and poor governance can be traced to improper structuring. And going through the history lane, Nigeria seems to be the only country that did not change her name after colonialism. From Songhai to Dahomey, to Madagascar, name it.
All the names they got from the colonial masters, they have changed. Ghana was Gold Coast; Republic of Benin was Dahomey, Ivory Coast was Côte Devoir and many others. So, I don’t know whether our name is what is following us. We will soon be sixty, and we are still crawling.
That’s why I told you that that Water Bill is an attempt to overload the federal government. When you overload a car, it cannot run smoothly. Nigeria is overloaded, that’s why it cannot move at sixty. Therefore, we must decentralise things; we must pick from the Exclusive List and put in the Concurrent List, so that things may go through.
Some persons are calling for Nigeria to revert to regional government. Do you think that this is the way to go in the quest towards addressing the nation’s hydra-headed sociopolitical problems?
Regional government may not be the best but we cannot find out the best until we restructure. So, we should restructure. We must rewrite the architectural framework of Nigeria.
From what we have seen over the years, the National Assembly appears to be the only institution that has the legitimacy and backing of the law to restructure the country. Do you think that it has the will power to undertake this Herculean task, seeing the menacing inherent centrifugal forces in the polity?
We are watching. Who are those in control of the National Assembly? They are Nigerians and should therefore have the will power to do it.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, recently warned President Muhammadu Buhari over Nigeria’s degeneration to a failed state. What is the remedy to this predicted doom?
As a journalist, what is your own assessment, we are sharing ideas, so tell me your own view. What do you think? Is Nigeria a successful state? Let me ask you directly, how do you know a failed state? What are the indices of a successful state – togetherness, unity, economic advancement and infrastructural development, among others. Are those indices good in Nigeria? Do you need a soothsayer to answer that question? In Nigeria, elections are like war. You saw Kogi, you saw Bayelsa. It shouldn’t be so.
President Muhammadu Buhari promised in 2015, that he was going to reduce cost of governance by merging some agencies of government. But the National Assembly has created more agencies such as the North East Development Commission and other zones have already submitted their own requests. Is this not a contradiction to the plan to reduce cost of governance?
Yes, President Buhari said that he was going to reduce cost of governance. Did he not? You will not because you want to weed the weeds and weed away the seeds. Presidential system of government is expensive. I am in total support of merging some ministries but that does not mean you will not create essential ministries if they are not there. That is part of restructuring.
Before, this country had very clean and successful regional system. That was when we had cocoa, groundnut, cotten, palm oil. The tallest building in Ibadan today was built by cocoa money. The Western Nigeria was able to enjoy television, when some other African countries had none. Chief Obafemi Awolowo used cocoa money to work. Now, some of these people are saying that we need to go back and use what is called comparative advantage. In the comparative advantage, we will be able to do a lot of things.
That’s why they created the North East Development Commission, to cater for the region that has been battered based on some certain things like agitations, wars, poverty and so on, which made it not to develop. That commission will give them comparative advantage of states in that region putting resources together to do something.
When we saw it, some of us said that there was nothing that happened in the North-East that did not happen in the South East; so let’s come with our own commission so that the states can also put resources together and do something. For example, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu and Anambra can come together and say, we want this road to transverse us, let’s put resources together and build it, not waiting for the federal government.
Now, South West Commission is already working, and I give them kudos. South-West is the only region you can transverse from Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, and others, successfully. So, why not allow and give legal backing to such persons or group to start Commissions so that they can give their comparative advantage as it suits them to grow. We must have a healthy competition in Nigeria.