NIGERIA MUST OBSERVE 35% AFFIRMATIVE ACTION â€“ ONYEJEOCHA
Honourable Nkiru Onyejeocha is a member of the House of Representatives from Abia State. She believes in the need to legislate on the 35 percent Affirmative action as agreed during the Beijing Women's Conference 15 years ago and also wants President Goodluck Jonathan to make the issue of roads and security his priority.
In this interview, she speaks on a wide range of issues advising the former Bayelsa State governor not to be distracted by the controversy over zoning in the 2011 presidential election.
How has it been at the House of Representatives? How many bills have you sponsored and how many have scaled through?
I have sponsored five bills and three of them have passed through third reading. One is the witness protection bill which seeks to protect witnesses during investigations of crime. What inspired me to sponsor that bill is that in this country today, you will agree with me that there are a lot of crimes that are never unraveled; we never get to the roots of crime in this country. It is clear that those committing these crimes are not ghosts but people living amongst us.
My investigation reveals that nobody will volunteer any information even when they know those involved because they are not protected. Once you dare to reveal who the person is or give a clue, before you get to your house, you will be killed, scared for live or even your family will not be safe.
Relying on the Police doesn't really help matters so I thought the best way to get to the roots of crime is to protect witnesses. Abroad, especially in celebrated cases, witnesses are protected so that they will have the confidence and feel safe to come out and provide evidences or testify so that the people can be prosecuted. This is a very important bill as attested to by those who are lawyers amongst us.
But some say this has been taken care of in the penal code but what is there is the protection of witnesses in the witness box and not even their lives; it is like protecting them from being insulted verbally like for instance you cannot ask a woman, are you sure you were wearing the right dresses, are you sure you are not a prostitute and yet you are talking about rape.
Is just restriction of the prosecutor from asking questions that will insult the witness; nobody cares what happens to you after you left the witness box. But the bill I'm sponsoring is about protecting you, which can involve disguise, ferrying you and your family to a place of safety etc. I am really worried that high profile murders like that of Dele Giwa, Bola Ige, Pa Rewane among others have remained unresolved because nobody is willing to volunteer any information not because they don't know those responsible.
Another bill I have sponsored is anti-torture. This came as a result of an experience I had. Many a times police have tortured innocent people to confessing to a crime they never committed while the real culprit is out there still a threat to the society. For instance, there was a robbery incident around mile 2 in Lagos at one time and one of my workers was passing after the incident and the police arrested him and took him to the station. He was beaten and tortured to a point that he admitted by the next day that he was one of those that carried out the robbery because he didn't want to loose his life.
We were looking for him all over the place but what saved the situation was that we knew the time he left Apapa and we knew the time he got to the bank in FESTAC and then cross checked the time the robbery took place and we investigated and found out that he admitted because of the torture he was given. Assuming we did not get up and vouch for the character of the boy, he has worked with us for years and he has never been found wanting in the execution of his duties.
He is the only one in my office that will return my balance if he has to buy something for me in this country where it is normal to keep the change without being told to do so. We were able to get him out of that problem and so when I had the opportunity to come into the National Assembly, I promised myself this is one of the bill I'll sponsor and see it become a law. It can happen to anybody. In a crime case, you can be on it for two years or more and still get the real culprits and hence resolve the problem.
I feel using torture, you have not succeeded in doing anything; you have not resolved the crime and neither have you gotten the real culprit because that person will only admit I committed the crime but will not give you any useful information. But if you get the real offender, you will get to the roots of the crime, the gang involved, their motives, their mood of operations etc. Police just have to be proactive and do their investigation very well. This bill has passed the third reading.
My third bill that I have sponsored is the senior citizen bill. The way the elderly or what we know as senior citizens are treated abroad informed this bill and I feel it can be replicated here. Abroad, the senior citizens are not pushed around; in public, there is a place reserved for them whether in a parking lot, public transport like rail, bus or tramp, special homes unlike in Nigeria where our elders are treated with disdain. In Nigeria our senior citizens are forgotten once they are out of the system, they are disgraced in public functions and that is why corruption will continue to be our bane because people will want to steal so as to secure their lives once in retirement.
I feel our senior citizens must be given their place in the society. This bill takes care of those who do not have people to take care of them in their old age. Some of our members were opposed to this bill because they feel as Africans, there is the extended family system so the elderly are not supposed to be abandoned, but we all know in reality, very few families still take care of the elderly. Besides, there are those who never had kids of their own maybe due to medical conditions or family tragedy, those whose kids might even neglect; so are we saying there are no such people and shouldn't they be catered for?
My concept of the bill is not to quarantine the elderly or parents like is done abroad. But we should have recreational activities where someone who is retired, who is no longer active goes to interact with people in the same situation as he/she is. There should be welfare packages; stop them from paying taxes and some monthly stipend given them because these are people who have at one point or the other rendered service to this nation.
The fourth bill I sponsored is the culture and tourism bill, because I feel if we bring more innovation to it, we will get more attraction to the country so much so that it will contribute in a very high percentage to our GDP.
The fifth bill is law against answering call while driving. If we do not have a law in place to bar people from answering calls while driving, we will continue to record high death rate because people will still break the rule.
Aside the five bills I sponsored personally, I have contributed in no small measures to motions so I can confidently say I have visibly represented my constituency well.
You are the chairman House Committee on women empowerment. Looking at the composition presently, what can be done to ensure the 35 per cent affirmative action is achieved next dispensation?
As far as I am concerned, if we like we can start talking from now till eternity, we are not going to achieve anything unless we put it into legislature. The only way out is to legislate on these positions because one, our custom and tradition does not have place for women being visible outside. Your primary purpose or position should be in the home that is our mindset. Even when you are competent and you want to contest, the men unconsciously without knowing it just exclaim, she is woman oh!
What is responsible for this and do you agree women are their own enemies?
You are absolutely right. Is time we start telling ourselves the truth, women do not cooperate with one another. A woman instead of nominating a fellow woman, will nominate a man either behind you or openly. Some will tell you to your face they don't have any business with women.
There is this Women for Change Initiative being championed by the First Lady, how far do you think it can go in realizing this dream?
Women for Chance Initiative will go a long way to the extent that it is creating awareness that women should come out to vote, participate in politics, be actively involved in business because the Initiative is not restricted to politicians. It involves those in business, market women and professionals. The concept of Women for Chance Initiative is that every woman should come out and whatever you are able to do, do it excellently well and be a trail blazer but let it be that women are coming up.
So the only way that will help is to create awareness for women that your place is not just where the men have kept you. We must not all be politicians, professionals, market women, whatever your calling get into it and do it excellently well that will attract commendation and lay good examples. I particularly like the fact that this initiative is being taken to grassroots using governors' wives as coordinators to encourage women realize that is not about rearing children and cooking for your husbands but about learning handiwork that will enable them to be gainfully employed.
Women for Chance Initiative is a very good start because it teaches you not to just depend on what your husband gives you but you should go out and fend for your children. So to that extent, it is going to help. But when it comes to voting, we will not achieve much in terms of elective position or appointments if not legislated.
For instance, some of the places we have gone to campaign for Women for Chance Initiative, we have heard comments from the men asking if we are planning to sack them. The men see this wave as a threat to their positions. So during elections, the resistance will still come but if you legislate on it and say for instance if a governor is submitting list of ministers, his list must have 35 per cent representation of women or else it will not be accepted; for political parties, they must have 35 per cent women representation when presenting candidates for nomination or else you won't be allowed to fill candidates.
For instance, go and take statistics of political parties and the only position reserved for women is woman leader out of over 40 positions. This was also reflected during the constitution review because I am a member of that committee. When the issue of women participation in politics came up, we suggested giving women 20 per cent representation in the formation of political parties not in an elective position, not in any tangible position; we are saying in the PDP for instance, give 20 per cent representation to women in executive positions, you won't believe it, members shut it down.
It didn't pass through despite our efforts myself and Hon Betty Apiafi; we cried ourselves hoarse; we lobbied and we couldn't get 10 out of over 40 members that made up the constitutional review 10 to support our course.
On the floor of the House, an issue came up, we were campaigning that it should be resolved that if a man heads the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) his deputy should be a woman and vice versa and you cannot believe it that despite the fact that we walked from seat to seat to convince members, they refused.
What is your position on zoning?
I am not one to join the crowd in supporting or condemning zoning because I was not there when it was agreed on. All I know is that the constitution is clear on who is qualified to rule this country; so that takes care of the argument should President Jonathan run or not. He is free to contest the constitution supports that. But from now till when he declares, I will want him to prioritize and make sure he deliver good roads to Nigerians as well as take the issue of security seriously.