Hon. Nkeiruka Chidubem Onyejeocha is a fourth-term member, representing Isuikwuato/Umunneochi Federal Constituency of Abia State in the House of Representatives. She is seeking to be Speaker of the House in the 9th Assembly. She is a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and, no doubt, possesses the requisite legislative knowledge and experience. She has served as chairman, Women in Parliament Committee of the 8th Assembly; and chairman, House Committee on Aviation for two consecutive terms throughout the life of the 7th and 8th House of Representatives. In this interview with The Nigerian Xpress, Hon. Onyejeocha tells Rose Moses that if given the opportunity to serve, she will pursue a clear and collaborative legislative strategy that will see to improved executive-legislative relations, improved communications with the citizens and the people as well as adoption of a legislative agenda with clear framework for compliance and monitoring, and generally, show transformational leadership.
You are one of the major contestants for the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 9th Assembly. Why do you want to be Speaker?
Number One, I believe that I am qualified because if you are running for an office, you must be qualified. So, I’m qualified to run and, of course, in parliament you talk about ranking. I’m a fourth-term member. Basically, I believe I have the experience that will bring some innovation on the table, moving forward. That’s why I am running for the office.
When you talk of innovation, what specifically are you talking about, what are the changes you are bringing to the table?
There is this perception by some people that in the parliament, we don’t do anything. Some say, ‘oh, they are taking too much money.’ Others say, ‘why would they go for more than four years, eight years?’ Many people also believe that parliament is an extension of the executive. So, the 9th Assembly will focus on redirecting the belief of Nigerians because once they get it right, their views on ‘recycling members’…. because if you see the amount of money that the parliament put into training members to become competent to pass laws, it is very enormous. It’s not just about the retreats, we do training also.
We have the Institute of Legislative Studies that trains members. It costs a lot. So, you put a lot to train a lawmaker, which runs into millions. By the time the person will be bringing value, some constituents are saying it’s now the turn of this zone or somebody else’s turn and all of that. And so, you lose a lot of values and then you bring in new people. Why that is happening is because our constituents have not realised that parliament is about nurturing, it’s about experience, it’s like old wine that gets better with time. And so in the 9th Parliament, if I am made Speaker, I will focus on training and retraining of even our populace because if they don’t get it right, we will never get it right because they are the ones that will keep voting. If they don’t vote, you are not coming back.
Number Two, I am worried about budget process. I believe that one way out of the usual disagreement between the executive and legislature is that from Day One, if the executive knows that they can’t pass budget without inputs from the National Assembly…why do they have to wait until they do all their calculations, do all their meetings, come up with all the projects they need to do and they are not taking parliament into consideration, you are not asking for our inputs?
Of course, you know we represent people. They have just thirty something ministers and those ministers are the people that domicile the issue of budget, according to their ministries and then those are the people that will preside over it. Then you neglect 360 members, who are representing 360 constituencies and, of course, 109 senators, who also are representing three constituencies per state and you are bringing a budget and you just want them to concur and pass it?
No person, even if not a lawmaker, would look at those volumes of books and then just say ‘carry go. It is not going to happen. You know that every time we go for oversight, we over-sight projects and check whether we’re getting our money’s worth. And then we raise questions. And every time we raise questions, we see some ministers who will never answer, either because they believe they are too powerful or because they don’t want people to know.
So, moving forward, the 9th Assembly, if I am made Speaker, will come with a template that it can’t be business as usual; that beginning of the year, you are going to bring all your budget proposals, interface with the committees that oversight your ministries so that you agree, you sieve what you cannot take, what the budget can take in that particular year and then you go back and work on it. And then try to remove the envelop system, to say that if, for instance (because I’m Chair, Aviation) that Enugu runway will cost N3 billion and that if we give Enugu runway N3 billion this year, we will not be able to take care of agriculture in Umudike; I am talking about South-east region now, or maybe we will not have enough money to do Port Harcourt-Enugu road. We have what we call Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) to say, ok, we know that Enugu runway is going to take N3 billion but in this particular year, we are going to give N1 billion. And then another year we will do N1 billion and also same thing the next year.
So, from Day One, parliament has agreed, the executive has agreed and so that’s what you are bringing. That way, parliament will not go and start scrutinising and asking you questions because they were part of it, ab initio. It will reduce time, it will reduce rancour because everybody is on the same page.
So, that is a critical item that 9th Assembly must look at. That’s part of the innovation that I am talking about because every time they bring this budget, you see something that, I mean, sometimes they bring roads that don’t have designs and they are going to put billions on them because somebody who’s connected wants those particular roads without due diligence.
So, somebody in Works Committee will ask questions like ‘why are you bringing this? What happened to the road that we budgeted for the previous year?’ You see the problem? And, sometimes, they won’t want to explain. They will just go back. And we find out that every time we fix…You know sometimes we close the parliament for like two weeks to work on the budget… You can be sure that in those two weeks…one week you will not see any of these people (executive). It’s either they are out of Nigeria, they travelled. They want to buy time. They do it deliberately because they don’t want to answer the questions that we are going to raise.
And so if we need to get it right, everybody should know that Nigeria is a project for everybody – the judiciary, the legislature and then the executive.
The impression in certain quarters out there is that the National Assembly is Nigeria’s major problem. How do you react to this?
That’s why I told you that the Number One thing is that we must educate Nigerians on our roles. It is very important. Even if it means bringing civil society groups to go to every constituency, let the people know what our roles are, what our duties are.
The parliament must see to this. Like you; in your legislative agenda you say, for instance, that for this particular house, part of our priority is that we must let Nigerians know what our duties are. Then you can organise the people, who are involved, either the National Orientation Agency (NOA), civil society organisations because if they don’t know, when the budget is delayed, for instance, they will call the National Assembly.
Every week, you see people at the gate of the National Assembly protesting. They will not know or they don’t believe that it is not in our powers. For instance, even if we pass the budget today and the executive refuses to release money to implement it, people will still call us even when we too may not know why.
For instance, Enugu airport runway – why are they not doing it? They will tell you, oh, minister is not around, permanent secretary is not around. So, they have excuses. Nigerians don’t see that. No matter the reason anyone would want to adduce for this attitude, I believe it is because some people do not know what the work of a parliamentarian is or what the work of an executive is.
Like in 2007 when I got to the parliament, initially, they were deliberating on 2008 budget; I was a member of Appropriation Committee. When they shared the budget document, I went through it, I was seeing local government areas listed but I didn’t see mine, I didn’t see my state. So, I said I didn’t know what I was coming to deliberate upon.
And, of course, we listed our names and when it got to my turn, I got up to the amazement of members. I said I did not know when the budget was passed and when it was implemented because my constituents didn’t know as I didn’t know. And that whether we passed it or not, it didn’t concern us because I’d gone through the whole document and I didn’t see anywhere Isikwuato-Umunneochi was reflected. So, when would my constituents know that the budget had been passed?
That’s why when they told us about constituency project, I said ah, every village must find their names on the national budget because we are Nigerians. And then after you fill those forms, next thing is implementation. Who is going to implement it? I said what it simply means is that there is serious disconnect between the executive and the parliament, including the judiciary. Yeah, the three arms of government are independent of each other but must be because if I pass a budget and you don’t implement it, then we’ve not done anything. And if there are some infractions, if the judiciary does not come out with clear judgment against or for such, then, nothing has been done. And so, for me, there must be innovations. There must be a way that gap must be bridged.
Coming back to your ambition to be Speaker, how do you plan to defeat an opponent said to have been endorsed by your party leaders?
My own godfather is God. But primarily, let me tell you something, every parliamentarian that is worth his or her onion should come into the Green Chamber and look at all the people contesting; they should be able to pick who should be their Speaker. For me, that’s the primary thing.Number Two, I believe that the Constitution is quite clear. It says that we shall elect, not endorse, amongst us who will be Speaker and Deputy Speaker. And so, if party endorses you and you go to the floor of the house and you don’t get the vote, you won’t be Speaker. It happened in the 7th and the 8th Assembly.
I believe that the party has ears; they are feeling the pulse of the people. To be a Speaker is not a popularity contest. It can’t be a popularity contest. The party should go back to the drawing board because Chapter Two of the Constitution, Section 14, Sub-section 3 is very clear on the principle of federal character.
It says every government and agency shall share things and that there shouldn’t be any predominance of any state or ethnic group to ensure national unity and national loyalty. The Constitution says ‘national unity and national loyalty.’ So, it’s very fundamental and I believe that the party, everybody that is a Nigerian, must obey the Constitution. It is justice according to law. It’s not justice according to convenience.
In other words, you are saying it is the turn of the South-east to produce Speaker of the House of Representatives. Is that correct?
Of course, South-east should produce the next Speaker because now we have the President from North-west; Vice President – South-west; they zoned the Senate President to North-east. They said they zoned the Deputy Senate President to the South-South. Then what is left? Speaker and deputy speaker! It’s not about making a case for South-east but you know that anybody that says South-east does not matter in the equation of Nigeria is a joker, because if you look at advertorials they used Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe when he was alive, he was a true Nigerian. That spirit should not die.
At a time, the president (Buhari) was having people from the South-east as his running mate. He had Dr. Chuba Okadigbo; he had Ume Ezeoke. That’s why I’m even saying that people cannot just say that oh, Buhari said it should go to the Southwest, it should be Femi (Gbajabiamila), it should be South-west! Somebody who has recognised South-east to the extent of picking his vice presidential candidates from there can’t now say, don’t give anything to the South-east.
But they are alluding to party agreement…
That’s what I’m saying. A party is made up of human beings. They are all human beings in the party. Party is not inanimate object, it’s not computer. They are human beings there and every Nigerian must obey the Constitution. So, if you look at it, once the president comes from the North and the Senate President comes from the North and the Vice President is from the South-west and then the Deputy Senate President from the South-south, the Speaker, naturally should be from South-east.
So, ab initio, the party should have done the needful to zone the Speakership to the South-east. And remember, in 2015, they said they wanted to zone Speaker or Senate President to South-east but because APC had no ranking member from Southeast, they couldn’t. So, what is the reason now?
More so, the critical vote from the South-east that saw to President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election is also fundamental. It is not just about the overwhelming majority that voted for him in the North. Without the votes of the minority that stood with him in Abia and South-east in general, he would not have been re-elected.
Female representation in the NASS has not been impressive and dropped even further in the last election. Do you think the low representation of female legislators will in any way affect your chances of becoming Speaker?
Well, in the parliament, they will tell you ‘there is no woman here.’ You are talking about constituencies and their representatives, so it won’t affect the votes because you are not looking at gender per se. But the point is that at this critical stage that we are in, any government that is upward looking should desire to have a woman as Speaker, honestly. So, it’s not a woman thing because if it is about that, I couldn’t have been able to pass one bill. I can’t even sponsor a motion and it will pass.
More so, the president said that in his second term, he’s going to run an all-inclusive government and that women issues would be handled; that he is going to accommodate women. He said so.
But how do we get more women into elective positions?
The best way, for me, is by legislation because from 30 to twenty something and now to about 11, isn’t impressive. When I talk of legislation, that is to say that certain number of seats must be allocated to women. That’s it. If you don’t do that, there’s nothing….because every day, even the competent women by law, who have all it takes are gotten out. Check from Okoya Thomas, check from Abike Dabiri-Erewa. If it is in other climes, Abike Dabiri-Erewa will not leave parliament. In other climes, Okoya Thomas will not leave parliament. In other climes, Gbemi Saraki will not leave parliament. Senator Kure would not leave. And Nkoyo, she was even denied second term.
These are fine ladies, who have the experience and all it takes. You see, I was chairman of Women in Parliament. Let me tell you one scenario, it was when I was chairperson of Women in Parliament that Her Excellency, Mrs. Jonathan was canvassing for women and brought women for change and collaborated with the parliament and we went round, visiting governors and leaders on increased female participation in politics.
There is no shortcut to increasing the number of women in governance apart from legislation. And if we have a woman Speaker, you will be my priority, you will lobby. Anything that the Speaker wants, he will lobby us and we will do for him. And so, if I am on the floor there …. How many times have I lobbied and failed on women issues? It is then they will quote this aspect of the Constitution that says: ‘There shall be no discrimination based on gender,’ this and that. And once they say that, the presiding officer will rule constitutional point of order. And once they say constitutional point of order, your hands are tied.
That’s why I am raising constitutional point of order for the party (APC) because once you raise constitutional point of order, there’s no more discussion.
So, now, if there’s legislation and we are talking of how to share the slot allotted to women, maybe 35 or 40 per cent shall be allocated to women in political party formations. That means if you have 18 national working committee members, you must have at least 40 per cent of members as women. Then you drive it down to the wards. So, when you drive it down to the wards, you are having more women that will be participating.
If out of 10 working committee members, four are women, the four women can lobby, they will get things done. But when you have just one, Woman leader, if she is sitting here, she can only reach the person on her right and the person on her left. After that, these other people are talking to themselves, then the chairman that is directly opposite will now raise issues and put it to vote. You will get, may be, six against three. They have the number.
What about the issue of finance, which the women often point to as major obstacle to their participation?
For Finance, once there is legislation, it could be handled the way you bring in people to parliament, those people who don’t even have money but are men. I know some people that they will go and buy forms for, they will sponsor their elections. I’m talking about men sponsoring men because they have given them slots. You tell a leader to bring somebody that will go to House of Assembly or House of Reps, the money will come out.
Same way once there is legislation, they will lift the other one because people know that for this number of seats, they are going to bring women. So, in primaries, for instance in Abia, we have eight seats for House of Representatives and insist three of them must be for women. So even if PDP did not give you ticket, you can go to APGA, you can go to APC. Of course, no party will want to risk it because what it simply means is that if you bring a man, he is not qualified because from Abia you must have at least three women. So they will have that consideration before they give people tickets.
Then, they will go for the best because they have a lot of qualified women who are competent, educated, and also financially capable, women who have money to run.
But what these men do is to bring these women, the women will join them in political parties, they will use the woman’s money for campaigns and all that. During nomination, they will deny the ticket and say the woman is so powerful. The will say somebody who has this kind of money, if you give her this ticket….That’s why if you check the influx of women during campaigns – they will bring their money, they will brand buses, donate and do all sorts of things and then during nomination, you find out that they don’t give them tickets.
Many female politicians during the last elections alleged that they were intimidated by party leaders and forced to step down for the men, even when they had won the party tickets, how do you react to that?
That’s another thing. Any woman who wants to run should be strong enough to push because if you threaten me, why won’t I threaten you back? If you threaten me, I will tell you that women are not going to vote for you. It’s not about threat and you go back to start crying. If they threaten you, you come out and raise alarm that if anything happens to you, na dem o!
You see, if you deny me ticket and I am with my people, I go to another party. You have ninety something political parties. And sometimes, most of these leaders that deny people tickets cannot even win their wards. And they blackmail us and when they blackmail us, they will still come and beg us to work for the party to deliver. And when we deliver they will come to Abuja and answer leaders. So women should also read between those thin lines: “Am I acceptable in my own constituency?”
Let me tell you, election is not popularity contest. Some people may be so popular but they are not in grassroots. You may be a popular person but you are not a voteable candidate. There are some things that the voters are looking for. They are looking for somebody they will reach. They are looking for somebody that will be receptive. They are looking for somebody that will be their eyes; that will represent them.
That’s why they say every politics is local. And so, sometimes, the women will say, oh, I see a Senator Nkechi Nworgu, and, therefore, I want to go and run for Senate. You should check your chances. Some people would have won if they had gone for House of Assembly. But they will go and get ticket for House of Representatives. So you must know your limit and know the potentials that you have. The most important thing is for you to be elected because you have to start from somewhere. Don’t say, oh because they say all of us should get forms you go and get the form for Senate, or you go and get the form for governorship when you know that you are controlling just two local governments. How can two local governments get you a governorship seat?
As a ranking member of the House of Representatives, how many bills have you sponsored?
I’m passionate about bills that will change the fortunes of people, especially from grassroots. I’m passionate about bills that will touch lives. I sponsored a lot of bills but it is only three that were assented to by the president. There is the fourth one but I don’t know if that will be assented to before this Assembly winds up, that is, the Witness Protection Bill.
And what is it talking about? It’s for security agencies because every time people commit crime, the security agencies may or may not conduct investigation. They will go, maybe arrest some people and take them to court and there won’t be witnesses. You cannot proceed to prosecute without a witness. And so, the question I was asking myself when I put the bill together is, does it mean that these crimes were committed by spirits? How won’t anyone know that at a particular time, I saw so and so person, or I heard people discuss so and so issue?
Actually, people know but they are not going to come and tell anybody because once they do that, the government won’t protect them. Many people have lost their lives because they have gone to testify or give information. The same people they give the information to will say it’s that man that gave the information.
Sometimes, they kill people and so the bill is saying that government must protect people who are potential witnesses to crimes. You can transfer them from Nigeria. You can change their faces. You can relocate them. You can do a lot of things, especially in high profile cases so that government will be able to prosecute crimes. Otherwise, we will never get to the root of who killed Alfred Rewane, for instance, who killed Bola Ige, who killed Dele Giwa etc. So, that’s what the bill is talking about. That one, maybe by God’s grace, will be assented by the president this time.
Then there is the Compulsory Treatment of Gunshot Wound. I sponsored it and it is law. Before now, once somebody is with gunshot wound and you take the person to the hospital, he/she will be denied treatment; the hospital will not touch him/her. They will say they need police report. Most times, the people you are asking for police report from, and who is losing blood may not be a criminal. Even if he is a criminal, you ought to treat him or her first.
So, what the bill was talking about is that it is compulsory for every hospital to treat anybody with gunshot wound. But as you are treating the person, you will go to the nearest police office and inform them that there is someone with gunshot wound in your hospital. You incident it. Then you continue your treatment. The police from there can start investigation and the person could be on sick bed and would be under arrest.
What are the other bills?
Anti-torture, it’s along the same line with Witness Protection. I don’t know whether it is because of laziness or they don’t have equipment but sometimes, something will happen and the security agents will arrest people, just anyone in sight. When they get them into the cell, they torture people who didn’t do anything. And life is so precious that you can agree to anything to save your life.
What the bill, which is law now is saying is that if police torture you, you can sue them. It is just to stop the act of torture. The police or any security agency is not supposed to torture you to get information. Even Amnesty International was calling me about that bill.
The other bill I also sponsored is the Senior Citizen Bill. What informed me about that particular bill is that I travel all over the world and see how senior citizens are being treated. When you come back here, people who do not steal are not respected. And they can be people who are professionals, who had given so much to the society, to their country and at retirement some of them don’t have houses. Nobody takes care of them. All over the world, you see how other countries take care of their senior citizens, people who have retired. They pay their rent; take care of their medical bills. But here, nobody does that.
So, when you serve your country and you didn’t steal money, some of them will retire and won’t have a house. Some of them won’t have money to take care of their medical bills. And the society treats them like they are nobody.
Immediately I came to parliament, I said this is one bill that we must sponsor and pass. And so, what I am saying and which is now law is that we must take care of our senior citizens, people who have given so much to the society; people who have retired; to take care of their medical bills, to take care of their welfare. And so there shall be a centre in 774 local governments that the government would take care of them so that these senior citizens would have a recreation centre where they go to for relaxation and that’s where they will be taking their pensions too.
Assuming somebody is retired from Abuja and doesn’t want to go back to Abia, he will be assessing the centre in Abuja and then domicile his pension there. What that bill, now law, is really saying is that their pension or gratuity should come and as when due. You are not supposed to hold it back because it is something they have earned. It is their money you were deducting at source while they were working, So, pay them.
That is what Senior Citizen Bill, now law, is talking about. And when I was researching on that, I asked at what stage do people take to crime, to fraud in public service?
From my studies, I found out it was from the level of director because they are already retiring, at the level of 25 years in service, because if you don’t steal and you don’t have a house, you don’t train your children, and when you come home, they will say this idiot, go and sit down. Is it not the same Nwa Okeke or Nwa Okafor or the son of the Adebayo, or Malam Shehu that was also a director that built so many houses?
So, that’s when public servants mostly start to do these things but if you know that you are upright, no query from the time that you were employed as clerical officer to director, and know that at the end of the day, the country is going to take care of your bills, you will not steal. So you don’t need to steal because even as you are retiring, there must be a house for retirees.
You find out that some people even when they retire, they will come and eject them from their official residence, especially members of the Police Force. So this is what the bill is talking about, that the country should take care of their senior citizens. The president assented to it.
Nigerians have to track it and if there are some things that we need to include, then it comes for amendment and we include such things because it must happen. Otherwise you are not going to….like that Federal Character, which harps on: ‘To ensure national unity and national loyalty.’ What’s the need being loyal when you know that nobody is going to take care of you after putting in so much for your country?
So, that bill is all encompassing to make sure that you restore the dignity of people who have served, who have retired. You should celebrate people who have reached of age. Somebody had gone to school, graduated, got job, all his life, he didn’t do business, only serving you, carrying files, writing memos and papers, only to retire and there is nowhere to go? The children cannot even go to school.
People are dying because they are going to queue up for pension. They don’t need to queue up anywhere. These are people you’ve collected their money, this is their money! Go and look at their pay stub and you will see deductions for this tax, that tax, pension, health insurance. You collect all that money while they are working and when they retire, you owe them? Haba! So unjust. Very unjust!
Before getting into the National Assembly, what were you doing?
After university, I did my youth service, I got married, was appointed commissioner…a baby commissioner (laughs). Later on I became a local government chairman and later went back to private business and in 2007 I contested for House of Representatives, and I am still here.
You’ve been winning elections since 2007 that you were first elected into the House of Representatives, what has been your secret…to winning elections?
God. The secret is who can say no when God says yes? That’s just it because at every point you will just write me off. You will say this one cannot win. They say: ah ah, dem de use prayer win election? They’ve said that to me and I will tell them, ‘Who will speak when God has not spoken? But I also work hard.
Any other thing you will like to get out there to our readers?
It is about women. What I want to tell our women is: You are not a lesser person than anybody. Of course, if you are not there, the men cannot function. That’s how I see a woman. Can you walk into any family that there is no wife? Everything is upside down! Everything is jagajaga! So when a woman knows that without her this people cannot operate, you will be who God has created you to be. Of course, God didn’t make mistake when he looked at Adam and said I’m going to give you a helper and took one of his ribs to create Eve. That is what it takes.
So without a ‘WO’, there will be no MAN. That’s it! Which means you must walk and work together and you must know that you are an important part of creation. And so, nobody should treat you less. That does not mean you are going to be arrogant, but you also know when you hold your ground. They will call you names, it doesn’t matter for as long as you know what you are looking for.
With humility and perseverance, you will get it. Threats will come, but it’s God that protects. Of course, you have to also care for yourself but you just don’t give up because somebody is saying things. You are a strong person. That’s why you can go through child bearing and still stand. No man can stand the pain of child bearing. No! They can’t. So that means God has created you to be a strong person. And so the woman should push forward.
And then finally, women should stop celebrating their challenges. Let them celebrate their strength. If you keep celebrating your weakness it becomes a reproach. But if you celebrate your strength, it will strengthen you the more. So, nobody should tell you anything less.
In schools with boys sometimes the girls come out with first class and yet, when it comes to governance somebody is treating you like a lesser being. So you can’t take it but with humility and respect and with the fear of God , you keep pushing until they realize that it’s about God and it’s about what God has created you to do here – to add value.