BY FESTUS AHON
…Says Boko Haram war cannot be won with guns
SENATOR Pius Akpor Ewherido represents Delta Central Senatorial District in the Senate on the platform of Democratic Peoples Party, DPP; from 1999 to 2007, he represented Ughelli South constituency in the Delta State House of Assembly, where he served as Speaker and Deputy Speaker. In this interview with selected newspapers, he spoke on some topical national issues. Excerpts:
HIS experience in the Senate
The Senate has been a very challenging place and a very interesting one this past year. This is one of the most turbulent years in Nigeria’s history in terms of internal strife especially by the Boko Haram sect. The Senate spent most of the time on security issues rather than on issues that deal with our perennial problems of unemployment and poverty including trying to correct some of the ills perpetrated by privatization and the subsidy regime.
But it has been very interesting and intriguing too. Let me say that this status of a_one_man senator from a party has not affected me in my legislative work as such. I am not sure there are very sharp divisions in the Senate that will really discriminate against you in an apparent manner on issues affecting the nation. What I have observed in the Senate is that across political parties we have always been on one page.
How he has affected his constituents
In terms of empowerment we have started a lot of things. Within the limit of means as a legislator and in working with other agencies, we have just finished training of 80 women, 10 from each local government area in various trades. The next batch will be 100 boys that we want to train in various trades.
We have done a lot in terms of empowering those who are knowledgeable in some crafts and others to set up productive ventures that will earn them a living apart from those we have helped to get employment. We also have a scholarship scheme that has been there but enlarged now with over 150 students as beneficiaries. We pay them N100,000 per session. Those in law schools get N200,000 per session.
During the election, I did promise that we will revive the Urhobo language because the language is going into extinction, by my estimation; we have set up a programme; the Urhobo language competition. The examination will be written this month.
The essence is to encourage our youths and young ones to speak the language such that it will not go into extinction and we have a brand new car as the star prize and other consolatory prizes, we want to give to ginger people to encourage their children to speak the Urhobo language.
The issues that we brought to fore at the Senate like the Delta Steel Company all that were electoral promises. You recall that DSC as a company used to bubble in the 80s and 90s but today it is in a state of disrepair with a faulty privatization process and there were problems of retrenchment, casualisation and question of DSC pensioners.
I am sure you must have read the Senate recommendations. By the time they are implemented, DSC pensioners will smile. Apart from that, in the last budget, we tried to ensure that there were projects in the local government areas in Delta Central, but you know the problems with the implementation of the last budget. So the materialization of those projects is something that will take some time but we ensure that projects are put into the various local government areas of Delta Central.
On marginalization of Urhobo under President Goodluck Jonathan
I have interacted with Mr. President on the Urhobo problem and he gave me some assurances but one of my biggest worries is the place of the Urhobo people in Nigeria politics today not just at the federal level but also at the state level as a majority ethnic group in the (Delta) state.
But at the federal level, it beats my imagination that the fifth largest ethnic nationality has no place in the Federal Executive Council and not represented on the list of Federal Advisers and Administrative Secretaries of any reasonable parastatal of the over 400 parastatals in the country. It calls for concern, we are working on it and we hope that we will get some responses very soon.
On introduction of N5000 note
It is an unnecessary affront on the economic situation of this country to introduce N5000 note. If you ask me, I believe that the Sanusi man is a bundle of contradiction. Here is a man who said he wants a cashless Nigeria, now introducing N5000 note. I am not too sure that both of them at this time will do well together. If he wants to devalue the naira, he should just say so, because it is like devaluing the naira through the back door. Sometimes I ask myself, what is the necessity of this introduction?
The move doesn’t make sense to me considering the amount of money to be used in printing the notes. Besides, I am very miffed with the brazen manner they are going about it. Government is collective; for Sanusi to speak as if they can do anything in spite of the legislature is an affront on democracy. The Senate Committee on Banking and Finance has said no; put this thing on hold. But the report we are getting is that they are going ahead with it in spite of what anybody is saying.
First of all this is a very unpopular move with the Nigeria populace. Even within government, it is unpopular because if people in the legislature are already disagreeing on it, unless you want to say the legislature is not part of the government but the best way for government to work is for a harmonious relationship between executive and the legislature. I don’t know why the CBN Governor wants to unnecessarily heat up the polity.
Voices of Nigerians
In my thinking it is not responsible move. I believe that they should look at Nigeria, listen to the voices of Nigerians and stop this move on N5000 note. It is very unnecessary, besides it will even encourage corruption. You want to encourage banking and you want to introduce a currency that will make people know that in a box they can keep a billion naira. How can the two go together? I don’t agree with it. I don’t see the wisdom in it.
On state police
I am one of the first persons that generated this debate on state police and my position at the beginning still remains. I believe that every crime is a localized one because it happens in a local environment and the better way to it is the participation of the immediate people in crime fighting.
I try to look at the peculiarity of the security problems in the states. The security problems in Delta is not the same as the security problem in Borno State and the Borno people have a clearer understanding of what their security challenges are.
If we allow state police to function it will act in such a way that will be quicker in fighting crime in this country and I believe that unless we have an arrangement like that it will be difficult to bring down crime in Nigeria. Yes they argue it will be open to abuse and I tell you; everything is open to abuse. We can agree as we are approaching constitutional amendment; we can agree that first, we are not going to allow them to operate as if it is a lawless organization.
For every organization that is set up, you must spell out, you must draw boundaries and you must provide penalty for crossing those boundaries. So there must be checks. People look at it that governors will abuse it. The best attribute of a good law is that it is capable of standing the test of time.
I am for state police and I have not seen any reason to shift me from that position. I believe that Nigeria will be a safer place, a more secured environment if we have state police. Security is bedrock of development. The unstable security situation in this country is what has scared a lot of foreign investors. And for you to cure these problems of unemployment, poverty, etc, there must be investment. If industries thrive, people will get jobs, but industries cannot thrive in an unsecured environment.
On whether state police will address the issue of kidnapping, terrorism and other crimes
Yes, it will minimize it. If you leave the Boko Haram issue for Borno State government and they have state police you will get a better result. Their tactics will be different from what we are applying now. Now, we are using the same rule for different set of people in Nigeria. It is not exactly correct to act like that in terms of peculiarities of crime in different areas.
I am even talking beyond state police. You can have state police and have what is called community policing. All we need do is to refine some of them. We need to refine the vigilante groups because the way some of them operate is crude as if we are in a country without laws.
President Jonathan’s handling of the Boko Haram insurgency
What I think they should step up is intelligence; not necessarily violence and brute force. Something tells me that you cannot win this Boko Haram war with guns. When you see a particular set of people teaching in a particular fashion, you should try to probe into their psyche.
What makes these people reason the way they are reasoning? You must look into a whole lot of factors and you look at their operations and work more towards prevention. That is why I said what is to be stepped up is intelligence unless you want the President to commit genocide.
Descent on fellow Nigerians
So he should step up intelligence because Boko Haram people are also Nigerians. The only difference is the brutal manner they have descended on fellow Nigerians. I believe part of the reason for the slow arrest of the Boko Haram problem is that it is a new kind of problem in terms of modus oparandi and volume of operation. We have not had it this bad before and even our security operatives are not equipped enough to handle this kind of situation. I believe that with time, the Boko Haram thing will be arrested.
The Federal Government says they are talking already; they should take that negotiation seriously. Some people don’t believe that there should negotiation, but I support the negotiation, that they say is going on but let it be genuine negotiation because it will not be right for a set of Nigerians to believe that they can destroy people and get away with it.
So let it be genuine negotiation because we all want peace. Some of the people, who are saying that the country should break up; a lot of them are just pretending. A lot of them cannot afford a break up of this country and it is not in our interest to break up.
On extension of amnesty programme to Boko Haram sect
Before you go to amnesty you must discuss with the people to find out their problem and what the demands are; not the kind of demands we hear that Jonathan should become a Moslem. You cannot force somebody to convert to your religion. They should hit the nail on the head. I think beyond what they are saying; there is really something that they want that they have not said. Let them say it.
On the slow pace of reconstructing the East-West road.
The Senate Committee on Niger Delta, I recall, once questioned the Minister on it and he said it was due to paucity of funds, that the funds provided were inadequate. I think it is the desire of both the committee and every well_thinking Niger Deltan that more funds should be provided because the road is too crucial in terms of linking the Niger Delta states. We are all concerned about it and whatever we can do within our power, including appealing to Mr. President to provide more funds for the speedy completion of the project, we will do.
On Mr. President not doing enough in developing Niger Delta.
If you ask me, the question of development of the Niger Delta region is not just an issue for Mr. President alone. Yes I believe that Mr. President should do more, but I also believe that our various state governments from the 13 per cent derivation money should do a lot to complement the effort of the Federal Government.
I am not too sure, because when people from the North question our governors about it, some of them say oh we are not responsible to you. But those of us who come from the area that they are responsible to, I am not sure that we are convinced that all of them are doing enough for the region.
Quantum of money
We must tell the truth; from what we see in some of these states, we know the quantum of money that comes to the area, so let it reflect. I have not said all, but in some states it is appalling.
On the establishment of the Niger Delta Council as a step towards the development of the Niger Delta region and whether it is not duplication of effort considering the existence of the NDDC.
There are many duplication of efforts in Nigeria; I don’t believe that it is even necessary. We have enough bodies on ground including the state governments to properly develop the Niger Delta. What we need to do is to properly harness our energies towards that direction and be sure that what comes to us is used for what it is meant for.
All these new bodies go with more responsibilities. The more bodies you create, the more funds you need for the bodies. Sometimes we just want to duplicate things without knowing that the money that we spend to maintain some of these bodies can even handle some of the projects.
On the number of bills he has introduced
The process of law making is such a cumbersome one in Nigeria. I have presented two bills and I have submitted the third one for presentation. The first one is on devolution of powers and the amendment of the constitution to remove areas of fraud in some government agencies; then an amendment that will separate the office of the Auditor General of the Federation from the office of the Auditor General of the Federal Government.
Second one is the Welder’s Regulation Council bill that one has to do with the industries, the welding profession in industries especially in the oil sector. Hitherto, there has not been proper standardization and there is nobody that regulates the welding profession as such in Nigeria in terms of standard.
Then the third one that I have submitted is that of corporate manslaughter. We had to do that after the Dana air crash. You know there were early reports that the air craft was certified by experts, that is, technicians from Ghana not to be fit for flight, but administration overruled technical expert.
If that is true, it means that it was the fault of somebody that decided to put an unfit aircraft on air that caused the loss of over 150 lives. I decided to work on that bill, corporate manslaughter bill, to handle such situation so that both companies and individuals will not escape subsequently and that will deter such kind of actions.
The first, a simple one on devolution of powers, has become so popular in Nigeria. Everyone seems to agree that the Federal Government is taking too much; I mean holding on to too much and these are responsibilities they can share with the states and ease the burden and make performance more effective. Take prison for instance; why should prisons be on the exclusive list?
Today, you hear of congestion, if you visit any of our prisons you will be amazed at what you will see, but if you throw it open to both states and the federal governments I am sure we can have more and better equipped prisons. One of the issues in the bill on devolution of power has to do with an amendment of the constitution.
Now, the Auditor General of the Federation has no power to audit some federal agencies. And that was the problem we faced with the oil subsidy regime. You recall that Auditor General of the Federation has no power to audit the account of NNPC.
They can only approve an external auditor; that is an anomaly, so we are also asking for an amendment to make it possible for the Auditor General of the Federation to audit the NNPC and other government bodies which the current constitution says should not audit those accounts. I
f the Auditor General has been doing so, then officially we will have government records of how money that were got through the sale of oil were spent because the Auditor General’s report will state exactly what came in and what was spent and when whether in the process, due process was followed or they were properly utilized.
Whether the current constitution review includes making the third tier of government autonomous
The question of local government in Nigeria is a naughty one and let me tell you, do not believe that this constitutional amendment is exclusive in terms of only contributions from the National Assembly will be accepted. As an individual, if you have a position on any issue in the constitution you want amended you are free to present it in a memorandum to the committee.
But specifically on the local governments, because of the worry of many people including a lot of Senators it is an area I believe should be amended. And if Nigeria really wants proper grassroots development, we must amend the provisions on local governments.
The local governments in the constitution as it is today are just tied to the apron strings of the state governments, they have no independent recognition and all that is normal in a federal constitution, local governments are normally not granted the kind of autonomy that we are talking about, but we are in a peculiar situation. You recall in my argument about state police, I said there are peculiarities from state to state.
In our democracy in Nigeria, there is that peculiarity in operation of local governments and our experience tells us, if we continue to tie local government to the apron strings of state governments we will never know genuine grassroot development because we now know that governors pilfer the funds of local governments but it shouldn’t be so. Even the local government chairmen have complained.
ACGON as a body has complained that all governors do is to pilfer their funds. Some say they want to use it to do some other development. Money allocated to local government is expected to be used for the development of that local government so you cannot appropriate local government money for them.