By Dayo Johnson, Akure
Rt. Hon. Jumoke Akindele is the first female Speaker of the Ondo State House of Assembly. Akindele survived two impeachment moves by the male-dominated assembly before the latest move to unseat her. In this interview, she speaks on her travails and how what she describes as the desperation of some of her colleagues to sack her on trumped-up charges is heating up the system, saying it is a bad pointer to a seamless transfer of power in the state on February 24 from Governor Olusegun Mimiko to the gov-elect, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu.
The House of Assembly under your leadership has been on fire in the last one week. What really is the problem?
I will tell the you one I know, because the people who are in the best position to talk about the genesis should be the one who feel aggrieved . Frankly speaking, I don’t know why they are aggrieved. I was in Lagos on Friday, January 27, when I got a call around 5:30pm that some activities were happening at the state House of Assembly and I said ‘so what?’ I spoke that way because we are all members of the House and anybody could come there. They now said the Pay Master was caught with some funds and that I allegedly instructed him to bring the money to me in the house. That was weird because I didn’t have any communication with the PM about the destination of any funds whatsoever. Now, what happened is this:
At some point last week, I knew I was going to travel and, usually, if I am travelling like that, I sign some schedule. I am not a signatory to any of the House accounts, all I sign is schedule, and I left for a function in Lagos. I also recall that I didn’t even speak with the Clerk of the House before leaving, because, ideally, the Clerk would have asked me what to do with the cheque. I am not the PM, and the PM is supposed to be the lawful custodian of all funds and how he went to get the funds is not something I gave instructions about except I sign the schedule and, in many events, these funds are made available for the use of the House. So, I really don’t understand what the problem is, even, as I speak, I don’t understand. It’s all politics.
But 13 members of the Assembly announced your removal and that of other principal officers. Is there any political undercurrent?
I wish to state that the reason for the problem is that certain elements within the PDP Caucus in the House seem more interested in proving their loyalty to the incoming administration in Ondo State instead of their own party and are actively working hand-in-hand with their APC counterparts to destabilize what would have been one of the most peaceful transition ever. They are desirous of becoming Speaker and Deputy Speaker at all costs and are, therefore, playing to the gallery to show the incoming Akeredolu government that they are ‘disenchanted’ with the outgoing governor, imagining that the erudite and insightful Senior Advocate of Nigeria would not see through them in the colors that they truly are.
What about the allegation of N15m fraud hanging on your neck?
I have decided to tell my side of the story of a purported theft of money as being unrighteously peddled by ill-wishers in public circles. I wish to emphatically place it on record that the funds in question are meant for some projects in the House as passed in the budget and okayed by the Approving Authority. Only the unfair ones who are hell bent on superintending the House funds have problems with where the funds are kept. I wish to place it on record that though I am the signatory to the schedule, I am not a signatory to the cheques of the House.
I did sign the schedule in line with the budget passed by the House so that I would not hold up the business of the House in the likely event that I did not return from my journey early enough.The Pay Master is the lawful custodian of all unspent funds of the House and he was only acting in his official capacity as such.
The other faction is insisting that 20 members signed the impeachment notice and not 13 as your group is claiming.
It is disheartening that some of my honorable colleagues allegedly forged the signatures of five members to make up their list. The members whose signatures were allegedly forged have stood by the leadership of the House since the beginning of the unfolding of this sad chapter in the annals of our state. T he removal of the principal officers is unconstitutional, illegal and therefore null and void. While I believe that change is inevitable and may even be desirable, it must be in accordance with the law. In our laws, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker can only be removed by the appropriate number of members prescribed. In the Ondo State House of Assembly, to purport to remove the leadership of the House by less than 18 members is a nullity and cannot stand.
You have alleged that the opposition APC is behind the crisis in the Assembly.
Well, from all developments so far, I’ve been proved right about that. We have only five members of the APC in the House of Assembly and there are 21 members of the PDP but the one problem existing right now is that people want to be Speaker and Deputy Speaker at all costs. The reality on ground in Ondo is that in a little while, things would change and I’ve signified my intention to resign anytime I’m asked to do so, but what I am doing there now is providing stability before the gladiators for the Speaker and Deputy Speaker sort themselves out.
At some point, I was made to understand that APC members are desirous of also producing the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. Some of us are induced into believing that the PDP lawmakers causing trouble had the support of the APC and they are going about misbehaving , that’s the bottom line. I am not actually saying its the numero uno of the APC in the state or the incoming governor but I know many of the people around him are behind this and, unfortunately, we have a set of party members who are ambitious and this ambition thing is like a virus worse than Ebola attack. It has eaten so much into them and they would do anything, anything at all, including imagining there is a problem between the PDP and the APC, between the incoming governor and the outgoing administration and they think the best thing they can do is to prove to him that they are worthy of being used as Speaker, knowing fully well that our standing orders preclude the APC from being nominated at all.
Do you foresee these PDP members that have joined the opposition APC members to wage this war defecting?
Probably, they would not, but they have to be sure that all of them would have to defect so that we can have 13, 13 equal members and that is another ball game entirely in which case they would lose their edge. They won’t defect until they become Speaker and Deputy Speaker.
One of your ‘sins’, according to the aggrieved lawmakers, is that, under your leadership, they were deprived their entitlements because you were not pushful.
Did I push their case? I will be the first to admit that, Yes. Did I always get results? I will also admit No. That’s why we’ve always agitated for fiscal autonomy for the Houses of Assembly across the nation. As long as we have to cajole the executive to take anything that we are entitled to, we will always be in this kind of quagmire we have found ourselves in and I dare say that every Speaker in this nation has the same challenge that I have. It’s one thing to go to Mr. Governor to say my members need some things, even some things that are not statutory; the governor each time would complain about paucity of funds and, in all honesty, we live in this society, we indeed know there’s paucity of funds. But do I now get police to arrest him or charge him to court or begin to combat him everywhere I go to? I don’t think that is part of my mandate and I would not want to do that with the governor, the leader of my party; so I’ve been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
With the Assembly now divided ahead of the inauguration of the incoming administration , what would be the relationship between the two arms of government from February 24?
Unless we have God’s intervention, it may be turbulent, but we are praying that it does not get that bad. Those of us who are still in the PDP, on our part, we will work with the incoming administration. The truth of the matter is this, I and the entire Assembly, not just this session but in the seventh Assembly, have always been apostles of good synergy between every arm of government, particularly between the legislature and the executive. The reality on ground is that we are two big elephants and, if we decide to fight, we know who will suffer.
We owe the people far too much to play with them and make their lives miserable, by making life miserable for Mr. Governor. I do not intend to be Speaker under Barrister Akeredolu and I’ve said this repeatedly and the reason is simple, Ondo has an age long tradition and things have shifted and, of necessity, the Speaker must come from the Central District, but I will be a member of the House of Assembly that intends to work for the people of Ondo and if that means I have to work with Barrister Akeredolu, so be it. Nobody is coming to play opposition to a government that was lawfully elected to lead all of us. I don’t know why the fear is so high and why the desperation is coming from APC, they don’t need it.
The House of Assembly in this part of the world is generally regarded as the rubber stamp of the executive. Is this Assembly an exception?
We have heard that before, that the House is a rubber stamp but what do we have to do? The House is supposed to bring out those things that are good in government and the things that are not good. At no time was any member of the House is shut up from saying anything he wants to say . The reality on ground is this, if the government has been working against the people, this House would have cried out. If there is nothing to fight the government about, why must I fight because I don’t want to be perceived as a rubber stamp? If there is no reason to fight government, why must I fight and the people will hail me that I am anti-government . I will not join the multitude to do evil in my life.
The 13 lawmakers opposed to you are insisting that the only way out of this logjam is that you throw in the towel?
The truth of the matter is that, even if they say what they have to say, it doesn’t matter how long a war takes, we will still have to dialogue and they cannot stay out there and be giving us conditions.
The people on this side too also have conditions, after all we are all elected members of the House under the same platform . At some point we have to have a meeting point, at some point we have to sit down and dialogue. I have said it again and again that I am not interested in being the Speaker of the Ondo State House of Assembly under Akeredolu, but I don’t want my name to be dragged in the mud because of some people’s inordinate ambition.
I will say it again for the avoidance of doubt that the Pay Master is the lawful custodian of the funds of the House, particularly the physical funds. I feel embarrassed that any right-thinking person would think that N15 million is a problem for me. I don’t have money but I am not hungry, Everybody around me would know that I am contented. I have things in my own heart, I don’t want my name to be dragged in the mud.
Is your insistence to remain as Speaker not a sign of desperation?
Permit me to state at this juncture that I am not desperate to continue to sit as Speaker of this Assembly. I wish to place it on record and I have said to all that care to listen that I was actually set to resign because the geo-political configuration of the state has changed since the emergence of the governor from the North and the Deputy Governor from the South. We are a people with an age long tradition that demands that the Speaker must of necessity emerge from the Central. On my part, I have prepared myself for resignation since the emergence of Hon. John Mafo as the deputy governorship candidate of the PDP who is from the South where I hail from. So, I am not desperate one bit. It is God that enthrones.