NIGERIA NEEDS A RADICAL LEADER TO FIGHT CORRUPTION -ABONTA, REP.
By Iheanacho Nwosu
Uzoma Abonta , a former don, is a member of the House of Representatives from Abia State. He is the Deputy Chairman , House Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation . The lawmaker stands out as the sponsor of the highest bills on the floor of the House. In this interview he shared his thoughts on a number of issues including governance , corruption and his mission in the House.
On his Bills:
Most of my bills have been passed by the House and sent to the Senate for concurrence. You know how slow lawmaking is - first, second reading, committee stage and then to the whole house before passage. It takes an average of two years to have a bill turned into an Act but we will not relent in our efforts to make laws for good governance of the country.
My interest has been on alternative source of revenue outside oil. So my bills revolve around agriculture and the capital market. Quite a number of my bills have been concluded in the House and sent to the Senate for concurrence but I am aware that none has been sent to the President for assent.
The problems confronting the constitution review is the usual legislative problems. The constitution is made in such a way that it is very rigid and difficult to amend. With the way we are going, I will give the National Assembly credit for what has been done so far. But I also have my fears being a Nigerian, a constitutional lawyer, being a student of political history and given the way Nigeria is structured.
If you follow the history of Nigeria and all our efforts at constitution making,you will see that it is going to be a herculian task. We have 36 states and we have diverse interests. You know the composition of the National Assembly as well as I do and how some people view issues from sectional perspectives rather than national interests. Therefore do not expect that the ongoing amendment will be easy. In the last dispensation, National Assembly in its wisdom, granted financial autonomy to the State Houses of Assembly but the same legislators in the states voted against it.
Now we are talking about granting a similar autonomy to the local government councils. In the course of the public sessions, most of the local governments voted for this autonomy but today the argument seems not to be in favour of that decision. The issue is that the powers that be seem to be working against that proposal.The postponement of the public presentation of the report of our nationwide public sessions is not a problem because the position of the 360 constituencies were taken publicly and therefore already public documents.
The major challenge will come when an issue such as the Land Use Act will come up. You know some people might not want it removed from the constitution. If it comes to a matter of voting, you know the composition of the House. Numerically, Kano, Kebbi and Jigawa are bigger than the five states of the South East geopolitical zone. So if some people do not want certain amendments and it is one man one vote, there is no way it can go.
However, I do not want to be a prophet of doom. I have hope that we will get there. If we do not succeed in amending all the sections we want to now, there will at least be substantial amendment. We should not lose hope.In amending the constitution, we must create awareness about the issues at stake. We must also have the political will to go all out because it is going to hurt the powers that be in the system. It is not easy to retrieve from the mighty. It must be something that must be contested vehemently.The task of constitutional amendment is not just for the legislators; the media and the civil society groups must play their own roles of sensitising and mobilising the people.
Local Government Autonomy
I will give you the answer from two perspectives - as a Nigerian and a one who has been a councillor. In 1991, I was a councillor and leader of the Legislative Council in Ukwa-East Local Government Area of Abia State.If you don't grant autonomy to local government councils, they will still remain an appendage of the state governors. Today, a local government chairman does not have a say in what goes on at the council. Although he is the head of the third tier of government he cannot say no to the governor of the state.
In 1991-1993 when we were there, the situation was better than it is today. I cannot hold the chairman of my local government accountable now because he is only there at the mercy of the state governor.Until the two tiers are separated and each is given specific roles the problem will remain.
Most importantly, there should be financial autonomy for the local government councils and that means the State/Local Government Joint Account should be abolished. Let this account be separated so that councils can get their funds directly and be free to pursue development according to the needs of their people and no according to the dictates of the state governors.
The councillors should be able to vet the budget of the councils just like the National Assembly does to the federal budget. Today, a lot of things happening at the local government level come from the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, an appointee of the state governor.This is why the governors wouldn't want to let go until Nigerians put up a fight.
As a lawyer, I also know that if you give the councils full autonomy without checks, we will also whittle down the essence of federalism. True federalism recognises two components - the centre and the component states. It does not recognise the local government as a tier. Therefore in giving autonomy to the local government, we must be very careful and define the extent of the autonomy. It is desirable and proper to grant them autonomy because it will foster development and stabilise our democracy.
The issue of the capital market has remained very topical. During the controversy, the leadership of the House in their wisdom asked the Capital Market Committee to step aside for an interim committee to investigate the collapse of the capital market. This was to allow fair hearing on the issues.
The Adhoc Committee concluded the investigation and also laid the report before the House.The capital market and its institutions are still functioning, but because of the prolonged problem between the House, Arunma Oteh and the Presidency, we declared the DG persona non grata.We still do our oversight over the capital market institutions but the House said we will have nothing to do with SEC as long as Oteh remains there.
The House has forwarded its resolution to President for implementation. Though he is yet to take action, I assure you that the House will not toy with the capital market because it is also one of the indices to monitor our economy. It is one way to attract investors and grow our economy.It is not in our interest as a country to allow the capital market crash. Right now we are talking with the Abuja Commodity Exchange Market which is one of the institutions in the sector. They have some challenges and we are trying to see how we can fix the problems.
I make bold to say that corruption is the problem of Nigeria. Peter Tosh once said that everybody is talking about the criminal; who then is the criminal? Nigeria is a very corrupt society and we are not fighting corruption. We are romancing with corruption; we are sleeping with corruption; we are doing our valentine with corruption and do everything with corruption.
Corruption is fast becoming a norm in Nigeria.President Goodluck Jonathan must sit up and fight corruption; the war must start from the Villa. We need a very radical leader who will fight corruption.The Asian countries of China, Singapore, Malaysia and indonesia were more corrupt than Nigeria until one day when their leaders rose to the challenge and introduced capital punishment as penalty for corruption. As soon as the law came into force anyone caught stealing public funds or engaging in any form of corruption was either hanged of shot dead. Today we talk about the Asian Tigers because their leaders decided to have zero tolerance for corruption.
But here, our laws are loose and some of us would not mind going to jail and come back to inherit N10billion. We know that you can even steal billions and just pay a paltry fine and go home to enjoy your loot.I make bold to say that civil servants are the worst problem of Nigeria. I call them 'evil servants' because they are not civil in any way.
Once you are appointed a minister, they send you one big memo; they tell you how you can buy a house where you will live. Once you sign that memo you are finished.Look at our annual budgets; the amount of money spent in the month of December is greater that all the money spent in the remaining part of the year. Why is it that under personal and overhead costs all the funds must be finished at the end of the year?
They told us they discovered 45,000 ghost workers in the civil service. How many are the civil servants if 45,000 are ghosts? In all these, no one has been punished and we have directors and permanent secretaries in those ministries.I think that something drastic has to be done.
Corruption has become endemic here and it is not found only among civil servants. Even other members of the society like market women are involved. Go to the market to buy garri and they will sell to you with falsified measurements. It is corruption at that level. It is not only among people in government that you find corruption.
We have had several investigations but nobody has been jailed. It is so bad that people now think that the best way to be rich and popular is to engage in corruption. When you are arrested and taken to court, you enjoy free publicity and after that nothing happens and you go home and enjoy your loot.
The few that even even went to jail came back and are now eminent persons deciding the fate of Nigerians instead of burying their heads in shame.In other countries they would have been hang for their crimes. I am not saying that we must apply capital punishment but we must try to do something that will show that we have zero tolerance to corruption.
We need ethical revolution. Starting from the market women, school children, civil servants and even to the politicians.The greatest number of empty house in Abuja is in Asokoro and Maitama districts. Nobody is occupying them because they are not affordable and their owners are not bothered about it. Who owns them? Civil servants. If they pay you your salary twenty years up front you cannot afford those houses. So how were these civil servants able to acquire them? This is why mass housing or low cost housing schemes have not worked. When government designs low cost housing projects, the high cost people will acquire them all and then rent them to the low cost people.