Uzoma Nkem-Abonta is a member of the House of Representatives, representing Ukwa East/West Federal constituency of Abia state. The third-term lawmaker who is elected on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in this interview with newsmen, spoke extensively on the war against corruption by the President Muhammadu Buhari›s government, and some other issues.
The 8th House started on a crisis note and went on a four weeks break as a result of the crisis. People expected that you should have settled down to work by now but the House is about embarking on another recess. Is this recess justified?
During the crisis, we were forced on a vacation that is out of schedule. The vacation then was extended because of the crisis in the House. Therefore I will call it vacation-off- the -schedule. The vacation that we are about to take now is a scheduled vacation. Normally, you will agree with me that the House should have been on vacation at this time. This vacation is to enable members attend to issues and refresh.
The 7th House had a legislative agenda with one of its cardinal item to expose corruption, but there were some corruption issues involving members. As at today, the 8th House has adopted another legislative agenda with fight against corruption as part of its priority. Can this House fit into the President Buhari’s anti-corruption stance?
I was part of the 7th Assembly and to a large extent I think the 7th Assembly tried to expose corruption by plugging all the loopholes. We were able to reduce corruption, although we could not reduce it to the barest minimum. But I make bold to say that corruption is embedded in Nigeria; so it will not be easy to deal with corruption in a day but it must be a process that must be sustained and given steam and energy. In that regard, I salute the courage of President Buhari in the pursuit of anti-corruption. Right now, we also have in the 8th Assembly’s legislative agenda one of the cardinal points to expose corruption. Since Buhari’s main policy is security and fighting corruption, the House will be a good partner to drive these two policies. If you recall, the 7th House pointed out a lot of issues that bordered on corruption but the implementation did not augur well. In my discourse of the current legislative agenda, I said if only we can put in place our legislative enforcement unit, then we will be home and dry. But if the enforcement unit is not thorough, it will be difficult for us to achieve our aim. We must have the position of the House for us to also monitor and enforce anti-corruption. I also think that our own internal monitoring committee, that is ethics and privileges should be up and doing. It should be able to also put members in the proper perspective to manage and monitor others. It must regulate the conduct of members. I also think that Speaker Yakubu Dogara will be able to put the committees in place so that they can start work in earnest. I also want Nigerians to be patient with the change policy and let us see how we are going to drive it. All hands must be on deck because Buhari alone cannot bring the desired change; he needs the House and the cooperation of everybody. And the change must be pursued in a manner that it will have a human face; it will be practicable and doable. No pain no gain. I think the National Assembly having come out of this crisis will be repositioned to fight corruption. That is why we craved for the independence of the legislature.
You talked about a legislative enforcement unit but the House has standing committee on legislative compliance, what has this committee being doing?
I think in the area of compliance, the 7th Assembly didn’t do well. I raised a motion that the House should obey our own resolution before we seek others to obey our resolutions. The enforcement of our rules was poor. For reason I do not know, the 7th Assembly was not able to enforce its rules. But I think Speaker Tambuwal then, considering the manner he emerged wanted to avoid friction with the executives hence our resolution even when complied, we could not get the executives to implement. That is why I have always argued that the House should be careful with the way it throws up resolutions but it should come up with resolution that cannot be faulted; resolutions that do not run contrary to other extant laws and policies. But it should be resolution that will be in a position to satisfy the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians; resolutions that can promote good governance. Sometimes, we should even go to court for the judiciary to interpret and this will deepen our democracy. But people may think when you bring an issue to court, you are trouble shooting but this should not be the case. When a matter is taken to court, it is to set the records straight. I think that the legislative compliance committee must be up and doing for us to succeed and must parley with the executive. There must be need for regular legislative-executive interface. If you remember, one of the things Speaker Dogara has promised is sectoral debate where ministers, interest groups will be made to talk on issues so we will be well guided.
The PDP recently condemned President Buhari’s war against corruption and you as a member of the party is shoring up support for the president. Is that not contradictory?
Anybody who wants to fault the anti-corruption policy of President Buhari does not mean well for Nigeria. I do not think the PDP faulted the president’s general principle of fighting corruption but they touched on the methodology; saying that he appears to be selective; that they want to encourage him but he should not victimize some persons. Corruption has been our biggest problem and I do not think anyone should blame Buhari because when he was campaigning he made it clear that he was coming to tackle corruption, insecurity and the economy. These were the things I heard him said, so I don’t think anyone should blame him now. That anti-corruption crusade is proper. So, if anyone is saying that the anti-corruption agenda is not proper he is wrong; may be such a person has something he is hiding. But I think what the PDP said was that he seems to be chasing perceived enemies. But time will tell whether he is following perceived enemies or not. I know that Nigerians are following up and watching. But in general, in principle, I’m in total agreement with the war against corruption. Let him bring corruption to its barest minimum.
So would you say the PDP’s position was hasty?
No, I wouldn’t say the PDP’s position was hasty; the party was only trying to caution that the president may be out to victimize some group of persons. If you read the totality of the press statement, I think by Olisa Metuh, he said while you do the war against corruption, make sure it is transparent but don’t victimise some persons. So, I don’t think it was hasty.
Some soldiers were court marshalled and sentenced but with the revelation from the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Badeh, the House recently passed a resolution calling a for a review. Don’t you think this is interfering in military disciplinary affairs?
I can tell you that under the circumstances the soldiers fought, anybody could have behaved the same way. So, if you take the totality of what happened, there should be a review of that court martial. One, a soldier going to fight have a 50-50 chance of survival or death. But he must be well equipped so that he can do his best and come back. But where he senses betrayal; when he senses that the leadership sold him out; won’t he cry out and just die like that? We are yet to get the full story of what transpired in the military tribunal but now that we are more particular about that, it should be reviewed. For example, we were told they were told to advance when actually they should withdraw and those who know said no; others went and were killed. If you had taken due care those who died wouldn’t have lost their lives. So, I would support a review of the court martial. When reviewed, it will also serve as an impetus to the soldiers on the field. The soldiers also complained that their daily feeding allowances were not paid. For example, when footballers are not paid their allowances they do not play. We are aware that this is a security matter and we will not encourage insubordination and indiscipline in the military but we want things to done properly.
Some Nigerians have contended that President Buhari’s style of leadership is slow and not productive. What is your take?
I would say he is slow. But he says he is slow and steady. I also think that for the present government to move faster, it should have asked for time to take stock. But it came out promising to hit the ground running but suddenly became slow. However, I still want to give the president benefit of doubt because he said his team will be made up of technocrats and people who are clean. Perhaps he is taking time to look for people he can trust; men that will fit his style of leadership; because if he must fight corruption, he must not surround himself with corrupt people. I pray that God will give him the wisdom to see the men he is going to use as ministers and other officials. When he appointed service chiefs, he told us the appointments were based on merit perhaps the ministers also will be appointed based on merit and not based on party patronage. The administration is less than six months so I won’t assess it now and that was why I came up with the motion that Jonathan’s handover notes be made public. I also want to believe that he is studying what was handed over to him. We saw what happened at the NNPC; having understood the system, he has made changes. Let’s hope the changes will yield result. At least the House will have the moral courage to probe the NNPC now.
During President Buhari’s campaign he promised to pay some stipend as social security to the unemployed but we have not seeing that. What is your take on this?
We don’t need soothsayers to tell us that our economy is in a bad shape. Our economic woes have even been compounded by the drop in oil price. We have an oil dependent economy and I’m happy that Buhari is talking about diversifying to agriculture that can sustain the nation. I told someone somewhere that the rich cannot sleep because the poor are hungry and are not sleeping.
As to paying stipends to unemployed youths, it is doable and practical. But we should not encourage begging in the name of social security. During the regime of Gen. Obasanjo we had what was called Operation Feed the Nation (OFN). Why can’t we revive it? If you look at SURE-P, it is paying some people N10, 000 or more- that is the stipends Buhari was talking about. But you can’t be dashing people free money. If he does that in four years, he would create millions of idle people relying on government for handouts because we will end up having a long list of ghost unemployed persons. Therefore, while paying that stipend, we must engage the youths in productive ventures. So, paying the youth is a very noble thing to do but we must engage them to be productive. But paying them free money without making them productive will be counterproductive. If you are airborne you see a vast arable land in Nigeria- from South South to North West to South west, so let’s revive OFN. Let the president encourage what I call tractorisation- mechanized farming. You will be amazed that the number of tractors in the entire country are less than the number of tractors in one state in India. What we actually need is change of attitude from oil to agriculture.
Your motion calling for the hand over notes to be made public is being interpreted to mean that you want former President Jonathan’s administration probed. What exactly is the intent?
The intent is not for former President Goodluck Jonathan to be probed. I can’t call for the probe of Jonathan’s administration; I am a PDP man and can’t do that. But I want things to be put in proper perspective. As it stands out today, we don’t know what Jonathan handed over to Buhari. So, in the spirit of knowing where to start assessing the change process, we need to know where Jonathan stopped. We must have a foundation on which to build.