Thousands of Nigerians recently marched through the streets of Abuja and held rallies seeking an end to police brutality and bad governance in the country. In this interview, a lawyer and ranking member of the House of Representatives, Hon Uzoma Nkem Abonta, tells ONWUKA NZESHI that most of the issues raised by the protesters were issues for which the parliament had deliberated upon and passed resolutions, pointing the direction to solutions
What is your opinion on the recent #ENDSARS protests across Nigeria?
The young men and women were protesting because the government has failed to deliver the dividends of democracy. They were protesting because they have been chocked up to the neck due to lack of care and concern for the people. They see the government as irresponsible.
The youths were protesting because the government has frustrated their efforts in the quest for employment and there are no basic infrastructures or social amenities for the people.
This attitude of the government which they summed as bad governance has created a lot of challenges in the country.
Therefore it is the constitutional rights of the protesters to express their frustrations in the form of peaceful demonstration and that is what they have done. It is very highly condemnable that the protest was hijacked by hoodlums and later degenerated into violence, burning and looting.
The most painful aspect was the alleged shooting and killing of unharmed protesters who were merely demanding end bad governance. They were not combatants and those who perpetrated those killings should be made to account for their actions. Protest is a guaranteed right all over the world for people to express their disenchantment, particularly against their government.
If you are given a mandate, certain things are expected of you. The demonstration was as a result of a failed government not been able to guarantee the protection of lives and property of its citizens. It has also been unable to provide the basic necessities of life for the people as enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria.
How do you think we could have avoided the prolonged protests and violence?
Mr. President ought to have risen to the occasion early enough and addressed the nation on the agitations of the protesters. I must tell you that even before the protest, we in the House of Representatives had been talking about all the things the youths were demanding through their five point-agenda and the house had passed several resolutions on these issues.
We passed a joint resolution that service chiefs should be sacked. We have made all the noise that the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) should be fasttracked and signed into law.
For more than 10 years we have been bringing up the PIB issue. Why? Police needs to be restructured and repositioned properly to ensure that whatever it does is for the benefits of everybody. The youths are entitled to ask for jobs; they are entitled to ask for welfare and they are entitled to ask for their well-being and future.
The government must not respond with threats and intimidation. It is like killing a fly with a sledge hammer. The government must not respond with fire and shooting. There are several ways to disperse a crowd of protesters. It is not by deploying soldiers using live ammunitions. No soul should be wasted just because some young people were protesting on the streets.
Therefore, the Federal Government must as a matter of urgency address the issues being raised by these youths. We must as a matter of urgency address these issues that these youths are clamouring for because they are things that will make everybody happier, they are things that will put everybody in a better situation. We don’t have roads; the economy is so bad; education is zero and no jobs for young school leavers. So for how long shall we continue in this manner?
We should do things that will ameliorate the sufferings of the youths. We just have to do that now, otherwise we are sitting on a keg of gun power. It will soon get to a very volatile situation unless we take the right actions now.
Our economy is already fragile we should not push it further down. Look at the man hours lost; look at what has been destroyed in the aftermath of the protest. We already have a shrinking economy and any other blow will send it to the mortuary.
What specific ways do you think the Federal Government can address these issues?
One of the things we have to learn from this demonstration is that it is a clear pointer that we have a failed government at the moment. It is also a clear pointer that the governance system cannot provide for our economic welfare and security.
Therefore, at this juncture, the Federal Government has no option but to begin the restructuring process. The youths are also asking for restructuring of the federation to make the system better. From the look of things, the North wants restructuring; the West want restructuring, the South wants restructuring and the East wants restructuring.
So who is preventing the government from implementing restructuring? If all the segments of the country are saying we should restructure, I think the Federal Government should key into restructuring now and make it possible.
We already have constitution review committees in both chambers of the National Assembly, so what the government needs to do right now is to seize the opportunity and send in executive bills that will enable us restructure the country.
I urge the Speaker of the House, Rt. Hon Femi Gbajabiamila to allow the constitution review committee to, among other terms of reference, fashion out ways and means of restructuring the federation because we can only restructure Nigeria through the constitutional means.
The power to restructure the country lies in the parliament. Every region has representatives in parliament, so I presume that we have the mandate and should also have the political will to restructure the country. If we fail to restructure now, I don’t know where Nigeria will be in the near future.
Where is the issue of referendum in all these agitations for restructuring?
A referendum is not a crime. It is part of the political or electoral processes to either achieve self-determination or consensus on an issue that is common to a people. For example, a referendum can tell us or help us in this restructuring thing.
We can take it back to the people and ask them directly what they want and his they want to be governed going forward. I am of the clear view that our constitution should be subjected to referendum, clause by clause and any clause that does not meet the aspiration of the people fails and will not be part of the new constitution.
This is a better approach than the piece meal method we have adopted over the years. For the fact that we have done five or going to five alterations means the constitution is not holistic, there is a lacuna. We actually need a new constitution.
You spoke so well about constitution review and what parliament has to do and what the parliament can do. Are you parliamentarians ready to go the whole hug on restructuring? Would you be ready to make the sacrifice of trimming down the parliament?
I, as an individual will support the whole hog of restructuring. I don’t have a twitter account but if you’ve followed my legislative activities all these while, I have been hammering on the need to restructure this country. If you are saying trim down legislature and go to unicameral and so on, we need to sit down and agree.
If we are going to trim down the parliament, we must look at what indices will be used. Parliament particularly, the House of Representatives is based on representation which is what makes the chamber unique. We have about 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria; they must have a say in parliament and that is the world standard.
Even if there are three thousand people who are very short you must bring their own to talk for those short persons. So you look at are those people who are over represented in the parliament and cut down on their numbers.
So you have to look at the totality of the demography of the members. Land mass should not be the reason for representation in parliament If there are 10 persons living in 1,000km are you saying they should create ten seats for them?
They should be merged with others closer to them in terms of ethnicity and language. Two, when you talk of bicameral or otherwise, you must know our peculiarity. In the UK, they still have the House of Commons and House of Lords, but the commons are more practical, the lords are a bit silent. It is not one but it is done in a way that they cohabit and share functions. In the US, they still run the Senate and the Congress.
The protesters were also demanding certain things about governors and huge retirement benefits as well as the salaries of our national legislators. What is your take on this?
No matter the demands and how we think it might affect us as individuals, we should not ignore them. We need to sit down and dialogue and negotiate with them. So we can’t chase them away or intimidate them or shoot them, the shooting is condemnable, the shooting is evil, the shooting is criminal, it shouldn’t be.
They are Nigerians and we cannot use our tax payers’ money to waste them for just protesting peacefully. It is their right to protest to say we are tired of hunger; we are tired of graduating and after they had paid school fees there is no job. School wasn’t free and government should improve our social benefits. We should not make school fees very high and then when they go through the pains and graduate they have no job, it is wrong.
We should make our hospitals functional; we should try to restore sound education, sound medical care within the shortest possible time. Some of these demands can be achieved within three months. If we can prepare voters card, ballot boxes and everything for elections within three months, we can also furnish our hospitals and schools within three months.
On the issue of salaries, let me make bold to say that it is not the salary of parliament that is milking Nigeria. Both judiciary and parliament take less than three per cent of the total national budget.
That of the National Assembly which is one arm of the government is less than one percent. So what happens to the 98 per cent of the budget? Where does it go to?
What is the budget of the Presidential Villa? What is the budget of service wide votes? You’re probably looking at the parliamentarian because of the life style of some of us. The flamboyance people talk about is limited to some individuals.
What your message to Nigerians youths at this time?
My advice to them is that they should keep the peace and give government a timeframe within which to respond to their demands.
If at the end of that period of grace they don’t see any meaningful changes in the polity, they can come out again to remind the government of its responsibilities.
On the other hand, the government must use the current peaceful atmosphere to deliver on its promises otherwise it will not have the sympathy of anyone if the protesters return to the streets.
We must overhaul Nigeria holistically. We have had enough of these sufferings.