By Gbenga Oke
Senator Ndoma Egba(SAN), Deputy Senate Leader, is one person that does not hide his feelings when it comes to national issues and those that concern the National Assembly.
In this interview with Vanguard, he delved into a lot of issues ranging from the 76 oil wells lost by Cross River to Akwa Ibom State just as he claimed that Cross River has been cheated.
He also spoke about constitutional amendment explaining that the Senate is committed to amending the constitution. He insisted that the upper legislative chamber will deliver on the constitutional review, especially the aspect that relates to electoral reform.
On the amnesty granted to militants, he is of the opinion that the offer might not go far in solving the problems of the region. Excerpts:
What brought about the hunger strike embarked on by the Cross River State caucus in the National Assembly recently?
In the last two years, we have been traumatized as a people; I am talking of the Cross River people. If I take you through history, you know we had this very bold initiative to completely pull up the fate of the state and that initiative was represented in TINAPA. A lot of money was borrowed for TINAPA; quite a lot of it with government guarantee.
Then after that massive investment, getting the regulation to enable TINAPA work became a problem; the Federal Government encouraged it through its guarantee; they were in the picture and they asked us to go ahead with the project and our future was stuck more or less on that project and then after that, it became a problem getting the same government to facilitate the functioning of TINAPA.
Of course, you are familiar with the issue of Bakkassi; the handing over of Bakkassi was done above our heads. In spite of our protests, Bakkassi was handed over and after the hand over to Cameroun, the refugee crises was handed over to Cross River; not just the refugees alone, both the trauma of losing a land that has historically from time immemorial been part of the state and you wake up one morning and it is gone.
You have no say in it and because we are obedient, we say let us keep calm. Now, you handed us the dislocation of refugees which we are still contending with and the international community that urged Nigeria to handover Bakkassi, for once, is totally silent on the human consequences of that action.
Third, at a time Bakkassi was handed over, the Federal Government came out categorically to assure Nigerians that no oil well was been lost in the process, which means that the oil well will still remain in Nigeria. Without any explanation, we now hear that Bakkassi moved in one direction, the oil wells have moved in another direction.
There is another aspect that I feel a bit disturbed about that perhaps I should also mention. It concerns the two persons we had in executive positions at the federal level; the Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) that was persuaded to leave his lucrative job in the United States to come and serve the country and the Managing Director of Rural Electrification Agency (REA).
Their case were not helpful. So for us as a people in Cross River, it is like we have been targeted; it is like a saying that if you have children, the best behaved is likely to be the worst treated; that is what we found out. We have done everything we should do under the law, but we still believe that there is God and we still also believe that Nigerians have conscience; we pass our supplications to God through prayers.
We can only appeal to the conscience of the Nigerian people; they are inflicting too much on a people who have opted to be on the side of the law and to be of good behaviour. So, the hunger strike is our own method of appealing to the conscience of Nigerians. There has been a lot of speculation that, oh you people will be hiding and eating; afterall, we are not being forced to do it. So we needed to commit ourselves to it; if we didnâ€™t have to, it was our choice.
In other words, you are saying Cross River has been marginalised.
(Cuts in) Not just marginalisation, we feel that we are being tormented and we are under torture because this a state that decided from 1999 to pull itself up. We have been lucky with the governors that we had. First, Donald Duke and now Liyel Imoke; people who are committed to elevating the state; so it looks like somewhere, there is a conspiracy that we must not be allowed to pull up ourselves.
Concerning the Bakkassi issue you mentioned, some people are still of the opinion that something can still be done. Is there any hope in sight?
As far as we are concerned, it has been handed over. It is an international matter for which only the Federal Government had a say and we are told by experts that the issue could be re-opened; but that is for the Federal Government. For us as the people and as Cross River citizens across the area, our only appeal is that they should just let us be.
Some Nigerians are of the opinion that the National Assembly is not serious as far as amending the constitution is concerned especially when there is face-off between the Senate and House of Representatives over the matter. As an insider in the Senate, what is the present situation of things?
You know we approved for a joint constitutional review between the Senate and the House of Representatives; that was an option and it still remains an option. But under the constitution, we can do it jointly or do it alone initially. But at some point after both houses have concluded their work, we must come together to harmonise our positions. But unfortunately you know when we were in Minna, there was this issue regarding the designation of the vice-chairman who was presented as co-chairman against the very clear positions of the constitution.
We tried to resolve it but it does not appear we have made much progress in resolving it; but the Senate is proceeding on its own assignment. And I read from the papers that the House of Representatives has started proceedings which means that the exercise is on. We have started work on the constitutional review; we have received some bills from the executive arm which we are working on now.
I believe somewhere along the line, other issues beyond what the executive has submitted will also be introduced and considered along what is on-going. So, I do not share the fear that we will not be able to deliver on the reforms. Certainly, we will deliver on the constitutional review especially aspect of the constitution that relates to electoral reform, even if it is all that we are able to do in the current session. I think we would have done well because we are committed to delivering on electoral reforms and because we have that commitment, we are also committed to review the aspects of the constitution that border on our electoral processes.
How far has the Senate gone in handling the electoral reform bills because a lot of Nigerians are of the view that the reforms may not be ready before the next elections take place?
We just got the bill early June from the president and few of them have gone through second reading. I think we got 6 or 7 bills from the executive; one is the Land Use Act and it is not related to electoral reforms; it is one or two of them that are related to the electoral reforms and I think the second reading has been done and that means they could go for public hearing. It is after the public hearing that we can now descend on the one that borders on the constitution. So, the process is on.
As a federal legislator, what would you say are the initiatives President Yarâ€™Adua has brought into governance since the inception of this administration?
When you assess or appraise, there are usually two parameters. One is the tangible and the other is the intangible. Sometimes, the intangibles are even more important because those are the value based measurements that we are to use. One of the biggest problems we have had in this country are the people. Some people have told me it is the constitution and I said no.
If you look at our turnover of constitutions in this country, in 95years, we have had seven or eight constitutions and the average life of our constitution is 13years, and this is not long enough to prove the workability of a constitution because it is not every provision of the constitution that is categorical from our subject to the interpretation by the court.
I think that the biggest problem we have had is not the constitution; not our laws, it is our attitude. So the demand on those who are seeking public office in Nigeria are totally strange unlike those seeking public office in the United States, Ghana or South Africa. The kind of demand and expectations politicians face from the electorate are totally unknown in those jurisdictions.
I have heard the view that INEC is the problem of our electoral system; are those who snatch ballot boxes INEC officials? What about the people who come out with cutlasses and other weapons? Are they INEC officials? Do you hear of weapons and guns being used during elections in Ghana, South Africa and the United States? It is a peculiar Nigerian thing. So, until we formulate a proper agenda, then we will not get there. In the area of tangibles, I think a lot more needs to be done for Nigerians.
In some areas, people are of the view that the National Assembly is yet to make qualitative bills that will really impact on the citizens . What is your response to this view?
I donâ€™t know the basis of that argument. First of all, when you talk of number of bills, I donâ€™t know what number will be an acceptable number of bills to be passed in a year. It is not the number of bills that is important, it is the impact of the bill that is critical and I am sure we have passed quite a number of critical bills. I donâ€™t have the records here but I would have given them out to you.
But I believe we would continue to do so. Now, one thing we should not forget is that in 2006 alone of the 47 private members bills that were presented to the National Assembly; none of them was passed into law. So the issue is not the number of bills; the issue is for the bill to become law and for a bill to become law, you need the assent of the president.
In late 2006 and early 2007, we passed the Freedom of Information Bill. It is not a law today not because it was not passed. So, on the issue of lawmaking, you cannot just shift the blame on the legislature because the executive also has the respon
sibility to assent to the bills that are passed by the National Assembly.
One of the major issues giving the Yarâ€™Adua administration headache is the issue of the Niger- Delta. As a lawmaker from the region, what is your assessment of the Amnesty programme? Do you see it as way of ending the crisis once and for all?
It may be a palliative, but it is not definitely the solution. The Niger Delta problem is complicated. So we must go to the root of the problem which is the injustice that has persisted over the years; the pollution of the environment; the exclusion of the people from the benefit of their natural endowment and the lack of commitment to issues that concern the Niger- Delta. First of all, we must address as a matter of urgency, the fundamental issue of the lack of development in the region.
Second, we must remedy the environment that was destroyed as a result of activities in the oil region. Third, the people must be seen to be participating in exploiting the oil that is found in their area. So I think that the current intervention whether it is military or amnesty is a short term initiative. But we must go back and look at the fundamental grievances so that they can addressed.
In other words, the amnesty package alone cannot bring sanity to the struggle in…
(Cuts in). Certainly, amnesty is just a palliative measure; but the real issue needs to be addressed.
Of recent, there has been cross- carpeting from one party to the another in the Senate and the development does not go down well especially with Senators from the opposition parties. What is your assessment of this development and do you think it is healthy for our democracy?
My view is that, it is ordinarily immoral for you to abandon the platform that delivered you for a particular post. But the truth of the matter is that in spite of the fact the Supreme Court has decided that when there is an election, it is a party that the people are voting and not the candidate; which means that the party is the vehicle that delivered you; the reality on ground is that sometimes you board what you think is a car, the party you think is a car only for you to discover that it is a bicycle at the end of the day.
Second, our constitution now says except there is a faction, you are not allowed to decamp, but you can do so if there is a faction. Whether or not we have factions in our political parties; it is a notorious verdict and we cannot say we donâ€™t know when somebody decides to move. We pretend as if we donâ€™t know that there are factions. We read about factions everyday in the papers; virtually every one of the other 50 political parties is factionalised and it is only PDP that doe
s not have any faction, so the constitution allows it and if the constitution allows it, my own personal view becomes totally irrelevant and immaterial.
On the issue of continuity in the National Assembly, recently, the Senate president stated that PDP senators should be given automatic ticket to return to the Senate. Is this constitutionally right?
I think the challenge before us is the challenge of aggregate growth of the National Assembly. I give you an example, take the United States, which we say fashion our constitution after , but we still donâ€™t want to do what the US is doing.
When it is convenient, we choose the United States, when it is not convenient, we drop it. When there is crisis in the polity, the Senate is designed to stabilise the polity and I think if our democracy has survived 10years which is the longest episode of our democratic experiences, then the substantial part of the credit must go to the Senate because that is what the Senate is designed to do, to stabilise the polity and I think we have successfully done that.
So, are you saying the only way to stabilise the country is by giving the senators automatic ticket?
(Cuts in) There is need for aggregate growth of the institution. I can tell you that, there is no way you will know your way around the National Assembly in four years, it is not possible. Yes, 4years, you are trying to get to know the corridors, you are trying to know where the various offices are located and at the same time to get familiar with how the rules operate, it is not possible in 4years if we must say the truth.
One of the fundamental issues in the recommendations of Uwais committee is the that of independent candidate. In your view, do you foresee independent candidacy working in this country?
Given what we have experienced with our political parties regarding internal democracy, maybe we should give independent candidacy a chance.
A lot of the problems we have had with our electoral process is that the political parties seem to be overbearing, they donâ€™t allow people to emerge through due process. I am hoping that we would have moved away from that, but given that experience, I think it is necessary for independent candidate to be given an opportunity to also take the electoral mandate from their people. It may work, it may help the other political parties to see the urgent need to democratise internally. It may help.