Imo Assembly and the 'squander mania mentality'

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Chinua Achebe in one of his interviews once urged Nigerians as a point of duty, to demand transparency and accountability from their leaders. But the  Imo State House  of Assembly(IMHA) apparently thinks different. Activities at the IMHA over time have left no one in doubt of whose interest the present crop of legislators serve - theirs. The words accountability and transparency have seemingly become alien to the 27 wise men who at different times had bagged the titles of 'idle legislators' and 'bunch of merry men' and they are still good for more.  

One may not be able to decipher whose brainwave it was to hold a valedictory session for our Late President, Alhaji Umar Yar'Adua. It was not a bad idea considering the fact that the Assembly in question is same house that would vacate their chambers for days and relocate to   Abuja   just for a solidarity visit.   

Most recently, the Assembly inadvertently laid bare their idea and concept of transparency and accountability when they set up a six-man committee for the planning and execution of the celebrated valedictory session.  

Not more than 48hours after the session for the late president was held, the committee members retired to a proxy battle of interests as the accruable 'dividend of democracy' from the committee work became a source of discord. But for the wrangling among the committee members, this episode would have gone unnoticed like hundreds of other such committees to which public fund is deployed and expended by house members in a massive cloak of secrecy.  

Consequently, the chairman of the said committee, Nze Ray Emeana, the  House Committee Chairman  on publicity, Due Process and Inter-Parliamentary matters was accused of expending committee fund unilaterally.  

Emeana was said to have printed the brochures for the event, paid television and radio stations and other sundry things by himself without much delegation of duties. In his defence, he was quoted as saying that three of the committee members were abroad at the time and whatever he did was in the interest of success of the event. He allegedly claimed to have paid N7m to AIT, N6m to NTA about N475, 000 to This Day and N1m to Orient FM Owerri (The station has since denied receiving any payment), from a committee fund that is estimated to be anywhere between N20m to N35m. The Monday after the event, the Speaker of the Assembly was said to have issued another cheque of N350,000 to him for corporate post-packaging of the event.     

The worry here is not the intrigues that trailed the committee work but their cloak and dagger approach to the work while they played around with public fund.  

It aptly reflects a code of silence where one winks, the other nods and everybody is happy. In spite of the fact that their wrangling over public fund drew the attention of newsmen, the perception of most of the committee members was such that 'it's an internal matter, it's nobody's business'. Yet they are  public officers !  

As at the time of this report, not one of the members was willing to openly declare how much was approved and released to the committee for the work.  

When contacted, Mbadiwe Emelumba, a member of the committee said he was not accountable to any journalist or even by extension, the reading public but to the Speaker alone. He simply clammed up.  

Oyibo Nwaneri, another member of the committee queried what interest their activities in the committee would be to the reading public.  

And we are talking about public fund in the hands of  public officers  and they insist it is nobody's business.  

Another member of the committee    Ukachi Amaechi sounded incredulous at the questions concerning the activities of the committee. Said she: 'We have had may committees, what is special about this one that you want to know what we did and how much we spent.

Maybe, because elections are near, you are looking for loopholes. Well, I cannot answer you; you can go and talk to the committee chairman.' Efforts to get the committee chairman on phone at the time of writing this piece were unsuccessful.  

It therefore becomes apparent that the state assembly needs urgent re-orientation on their roles and obligation as public officers. They should be made to understand that the state is not at their mercy and the public has a right to know at every point in time how and what their fund is being used for.  

With the seeming criticism, that followed the Emeana's committee work, a transparent legislature should have with immediate effect questioned the activities and expenditures of the committee to the last kobo. That obviously would be a tall dream in the Assembly especially when some names are already on the card as having allegedly received mouth - watering 'pieces of the action'.  

Ray Emeana, the committee chairman is viewed as the Speaker's man-Friday, or better still, seen as the extension of the Speaker. So he is an untouchable, in fact he was actually rewarded with the chairmanship of another ad-hoc committee.   An Assembly that once engaged in an unsolicited probe of Governor Ikedi Ohakim, now, cannot probe the financial activities of its ad-hoc committees.  

Perhaps, there is nothing to probe.If there is nothing to probe, that means, there is nothing to hide. And if there is nothing to hide why has it been impossible for the committee to declare the fund earmarked and released for the valedictory session?  

It has been said in many fora that Governors and their executives may after all not be responsible for the bulk of the problems facing the states. The problems of the state fundamentally lie on the institution that makes the good or bad actions of the executives legitimate, which is the House of Assembly. The same secrecy marked the tacit support and legalization of outrageous deductions from  Local Government Council  fund as statutory.    

Take for instance, allocations to councils in Imo state for June 2008, barely a year after this administration came on stream. The  Imo State House  of Assembly endorsed the deduction of a whopping N35m   for refuse disposal bags which represented what was reflected as the 8 th   instalment of monthly deduction of N1,296,296.30 from each    of the 27 council areas in   Imo state.  

For eight months, this would amount to N280m of council fund frittered away on the said refuse disposal bags. This is in the same state where  local government councils  with particular reference to the  Owerri Municipal council  are charging business offices an average of N7, 000 for sanitation and refuse disposal.  

The same state assembly approved the deduction of N200,000 from each of the 27 LGAs allocation totalling N5.4m each month for Barr. Kezie Ogaziechi's (commissioner of Local Government) convening of the monthly Joint Account Allocation Committee (JAAC) meetings which is tagged JAAC administration fund. For three years, JAAC meetings would have gulped N194.4m.  

In the same month of June, 2008, the  state legislature  also gave the nod for the deduction of N6, 750,000 from council allocation for what is called 'Imo encyclopedia'. If challenged, it is most unlikely that the Imo State House of Assembly can readily make public such encyclopaedia that would justify the approval of such astounding deductions.  

With apparently no protest    or opposition from the unsuspecting Imo public, in may, 2008, the Imo House of Assembly again pounced on council fund, with reckless impunity, collected N67.5m for what they tagged 'agricultural tour' oversees.  

The overseas junket ended as one of the most ridiculous excuses for misappropriating council allocation.  

In spite of the fact that these actions all seem to enjoy the legislative protection of the Imo House of Assembly, it is instructive to recall a ruling of Justice Niki Tobi of the  Supreme Court  in July 2006 where he stressed that 'Legislators cannot by collusion or connivance breach the constitution, which is not their exclusive property but the property of all Nigerians.'  

Local government 's joint account with the state does not imply state expending the allocation of council areas or the state Assembly embarking on foreign junkets with these funds.  

Section 3(1) and (6), 162 (3) and Section 313 all highlights the autonomy of the Council Area from the state. With this level of 'statutory' deductions, the  Imo State House  of Assembly has apparently consented to the budgeting and spending of LG fund by the state instead of the councils themselves.  

Taft C.I of the Supreme Court of the   United States   said in a judgment that even if legislation is designed for the common good of the people, the courts can still pronounce it unconstitutional because it has caused serious breach of the constitution.  

His words: 'We cannot avoid the duty, even though it requires us to refuse to give effect to legislation designed to promote the highest good. The good sought in unconstitutional legislation is an insidious feature without thought of the serious breach it will make in the ark of our covenant or harm which will come from the breaking down of recognized standards'.  

No legislature, by conspiracy or ignorance, has the right to hold the people hostage with such legislations that only serve self and clique interests. The Imo House of Assembly should as a matter of urgent importance renew its sense of duty and obligation to Imo people.