In this interview, the first female Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Helen Nwaobashi, talks about her plans to stabilize the Assembly. Excerpts:
BY Peter Okutu
How do you feel about your election as Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly?
I give all glory to God and thank my colleagues for giving me this assignment. When I was elected into the State Assembly, I never dreamed of becoming Speaker because we were only four women in the House. Even in the previous House where I was a member, there were only two of us with the other person, Hon. Dorothy Obasi, serving as Deputy Speaker.
So my election as Speaker came to me as a surprise but it provides hope to women in politics that the future is bright. Also my election as Speaker in an Assembly dominated by men shows that the campaign by the wife of the President, Dame Patience Jonathan, and the governor’s wife, Chief Josephine Elechi, for women participation in politics is bearing fruits. I think men are beginning to see that women are not coming to compete but to complement their efforts in nation-building.
What do you have to say about the process that threw you up?
The beauty of democracy is that it gives room for change. We were all elected in the first place to represent the constituencies in the state. That means all members are equal. The election of one person among us to serve as Speaker or leader is just an administrative necessity for moderation and direction of debates and discussions in the plenary.
The point I want to make is that the position of Speaker is by the grace and judgment of all members. Therefore if for any reason the members feel that the Speaker or their leader is not behaving according to their expectations or begins to act as lord, they exercise the right to change him or her. This is what happened. People should not forget this fact that it is the responsibility of members of the House of Assembly to choose who represents them as Speaker. You must have read the resolution of the House for the impeachment of the former Speaker.
May be I should take your mind back to some of the reasons that prompted the removal of Hon Chukwuma Nwazunku as Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly. Majority of the members resolved that the former Speaker was conducting himself in a manner likely to cause a breach of the Constitution by not ensuring that sittings were as frequent as to satisfy the demands of the Constitution.
You can see with me that this is a grievous issue. The members saw this error and felt that the speaker was leading us into temptation such that, at the end of the day, we may be invited to sign for sittings we never had. The impeachment of Nwazunku therefore was the best way for the members to avoid a situation where we may be compelled by him to fill the sitting attendance register to escape the censure of the Constitution and the wrath of those who elected us. So you can see that if after seven months of the year we were able to sit for just seventeen times, there was no way we could fulfill the 181 days stipulated in Section 104 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Some people are afraid you may not cope as Speaker because the Assembly is dominated by men…
I don’t think I understand what you mean by that. But let me say this, we have gone past the stage of gender. You heard when I said that Nigerian men have come to appreciate women in politics as partners in progress. The agenda is development and providing good governance. So we are focused on the agenda and not the divisive sentiment of gender. Doing what is right does not depend on whether you are a man or a woman.
If these men you say dominate the House of Assembly have come together to say that a small woman like Mrs. Helen Nwaobashi should be their Speaker at this point in time, why do you want to fault their judgment? That fear does not have foundation; I have been called to serve as first among equals.
I must always remember that I owe my allegiance to the members and my constituents. If I do things the way the Constitution and rules of the House prescribe, there can be no problems. At least you should also know that I have been called to play the role of a mother. The welfare of children is the major interest of mothers. You don’t have to be a bully to make a good mother.
It is said that you always consult other members before taking decisions….
What is wrong about that? Have I not said that I was chosen to serve as first among equals? You want me to become a dictator? We represent the various constituencies in the state; so the decision of how to move Ebonyi State House of Assembly forward should not depend on the opinion of just one man or woman. I don’t have personal agenda; we have a common agenda; as such every member counts. If you count that as weakness, you are free to hold your opinion.
You are a ranking member of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, but not much was heard about you before now…
The business of law making does not include noise making. I represent the interest of Abakaliki South constituency. I do what they sent me to do and nobody is complaining that I have not been shouting all over the place as if the mandate I hold is by my power. What matters is result and you need focus to achieve that.
What would define your tenure as Speaker?
I will insist on collective approach to tackling the business of the Assembly; focusing more on the yearnings and aspirations of Ebonyi people. I will like to see more constituency consultations by members so that we can take the feedback to the executive branch of government. I want to see real representation of the people.
Is there any guarantee that those who chose you as Speaker would not come after you?
Yes. If I don’t do what would make them review their feelings about me or begin to act selfishly, they cannot move against me. Moreover I have seen the charges against the former Speaker, if I avoid doing the same things; my colleagues would not come after me. If I am transparent in dealing with them and not going to represent myself before the executive, I will retain their confidence.