•Says State Assembly authorised Okorocha to borrow from idle LG funds
The Speaker of Imo State House of Assembly, Benjamin Uwajimogu, recently had a parley with journalists in Owerri, during which he addressed a number of issues, most especially the relationship between the State Assembly and the Executive as well as achievements of the current administration thus far, GEORGE ONYEJIUWA, who was there brought the excerpts:
How would you assess the present government in the state?
There is no doubt that this government has met with the expectations of the people. If you were somebody who knew Imo State, you would agree that Imo State had changed. Beyond what the eyes can see in Imo State is the fact that this government has been able to change the psyche of the average Imo native. Before now, people never believed in government.
Governors and those in government were seen as criminals, people whose only job is to steal and pocket money meant for the peop1e. For the first time in long time, people have seen a government and they can see projects, things that are happening within the state. They see a government that promised free education, and today, free education is real. It is not for fun, you know. It is free and qualitative education backed up by the concept that can give you proper education. We are no longer talking about the very old primary school blocks, when primary school blocks were mainly built with mud. Today, we are talking about complete new school blocks.
I am sure you have seen the prototype model on Wethedral Road. Today, we can beat our chest and say those things we see in America and various parts of the world are now in Imo State. Today, we are talking about adopting a child from the primary school, secondary school to university. From primary school, you are getting uniform, school shoes, school bags almost everything they need. The headmasters have been returned to the place of honour. They are responsible to the secretaries in the school. They no longer need to report to so-called Education Secretaries.
Those so-called Education Secretaries contributed to the problems of managing the schools in the past. We have grown primary education enrollment from 230,000 pupils we met to well over one million in less than one year. The same goes for secondary schools in the over 287 secondary schools in Imo State; and tertiary institutions too. Again, allowances owed to lecturers have been paid for the first time in long time.
For the past one year, there has been no strike in Imo State University. Now, we are offering students free education, free tuition. We are giving to Imo N252 million every month while they were receiving N57 million in the previous administration. We said we are going to do roads in Owerri municipal, you can see the roads. The dream of the late Sam Onunaka was to extend the road from where Wethedral stopped, up to Naze.
We are extending it, if not for the Federal Government, we would have dualised the road down to the airport. If you come into Owerri town, the Sam Mbakwe Road, which cuts across the former Imo Hotel, passing through Otamiri and all the way to Emmanuel College, is now a dual carriage, to the Akanchawa Road, which cuts across the Nworie River. All these roads are there. Again, we are constructing a dual carriage way across the former secretariat with a bridge across the Nworie River and Musa Yar’Adua. In the last one year, more than 137 roads have been completed in Owerri. In Orlu, massive road constructions have been going on. I am sure you have been to Orlu recently.
So, in every part; in Owerri, Okigwe and Orlu, we are building some monumental projects. Those who believe that development will never come in their generation, are today seeing beautiful roads in the state. We are building new general hospitals. We will soon pass a bill that makes medical services free to Imo citizens because we want to make Imo a destination for people. In a nutshell, we have done what Imo people need within the time. In the past, all these were not done, so that is what we are doing.
There is an accusation that the state Assembly is rubber stamp to the executive. What is your take?
We have a presidential system of government, which means that we have separation of powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Of course, our experience in Nigeria is that even if the legislature is the second arm of government, it is also arm of government that has suffered the most because of the incessant coups over time. Whenever there is coup, the legislature suffers first, because once they suspend the constitution, the legislature is out of place.
So, you have the executive and the judiciary, which has developed over the years. But the legislature is the whipping boy of the three arms of government. There is a legislature today because of democracy and it is only about 13 years old when compared to the rest. The legislature emasculated all over the country and just recently, all of us have witnessed these days, that there is so much instability in the state Houses of Assembly mainly because of financial autonomy. Even in the National Assembly we all witnessed how Obasanjo changed Senate Presidents at will. What we have in Nigeria today is anomalous. It is not the right thing. Having said that, I want to commend the members of the various Houses of Assembly for their tenacity in spite of the odds.
But we are not a rubber stamp. But as Speaker of the House of Assembly, we have been able to draw a line. The solution is to grant the Houses of Assembly financial autonomy. That will be the solution to enable the Houses of Assembly to perform its legislative duties efficiently. But I also want to say it is wrong for the people to expect the Imo House of Assembly to be at loggerheads with the executive. But if the government wants to do something that would benefit the people of the state, the lawmakers would support the executive and that is what we have been doing. But there are things the governor wants but we say we cannot do that. But again, as a Speaker, and like anywhere in the world, if you come from the same party, it is his duty to market the policy of the governor. If I have a disagreement with my governor, it is not going to be on the pages of the newspaper and don’t forget that we belong to the same party.
What is your assessment of the immediate past administration and what are your views on the recent activities of the EFCC in the state?
Currently, we have a committee in the House of Assembly, headed by the Deputy Speaker, Dr. Victor Mere, probing the local government administration. Besides the committees, there are various court actions against them.
Based on the level of trust we have seen on the preliminary reports, we are talking about N70 billion that is missing from the Imo State Government coffers and if you seriously look through the achievements of the previous administration before now, you cannot tie it to three or more projects, for an administration that spent more than N480 billion.
But the current administration had paid about N26.7 billion of loans that were borrowed. So, the question we ask ourselves is, if you do not probe, how can you correct this? How do you inform people on what their money has been used? That is exactly why this probe is going on. The House of Assembly has already commenced on this. The official copy of this, we are presenting it to the Judicial Commission. I think that it is important that we look at what happened in the past.
How about the issue of arrests of government officials on alleged cases of misappropriation?
I issued a statement where I said every transaction of Imo State Government has the consent of the Imo State House of Assembly. I don’t know why it has become the job of the EFCC to classify borrowing, either legal or illegal. The Imo State Government, because of the debt being owed by the former administration of Ikedi Ohakim, borrowed money from the local government’s idle fund, instead of borrowing from the commercial banks and the House of Assembly supported it. And the state government has started repaying the money. Today, there is a bill, called Imo State Local Government and State Joint Projects Law, which states that projects, belonging to local governments be funded by a joint project of the state and local governments and a committee to administer it. The House of Assembly has appropriated funds for work of that committee. Hospital projects are ongoing. Road projects too. I can assure you that before the middle of February, a lot of them will have been asphalted.
How much did the state government borrow from the local government now?
The state government borrowed N15 billion from local government idle fund and, as at last week, they have repaid over N13 billion. So, the balance will be paid up within one month. Let me add that the Imo State House of Assembly is of the view that the state government has been working for the people of the state. If any administration should suffer, it should not be the current administration that has been working for the people of the state. We believe that this is political. So, the activity of the EFCC in the state is politically motivated, just like in the days of former president Obasanjo.
Any truth in the rumour of the planned impeachment of Governor Rochas Okorocha, as alleged by the state chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA)?
I want to tell you that all the rumours you have heard about impeachment, counter impeachment, pro-impeachment for or against, are all imaginations of those people who have been peddling the rumour. Impeachment is not an easy project to embark on. So, there isn’t much news generated in Imo State. So, when they don’t find information to write about, they look for what they will generate. May be my face and that of the governor helps in selling their newspapers. So, I ask people to ignore that. There is no plan to impeach the governor, who has achieved a lot in a short while.
What are the achievements of the House?
We believe that this is one of the best Assemblies. Most of the bills we have passed now are people- oriented bill; bills on free education, community development and Appropriation Bill. Today, in the House of Assembly, our budget is only about 40 per cent of what previous administrations had. But we have achieved so much in terms of infrastructure in the House of Assembly. We are digitising all the laws of Imo State; we are putting them on the Internet so that people can see what we have done.
Again, we have started what we call participatory budgetary, which means that in everything we do, before we make appropriations, we consult communities and find out their needs because if a community wants a borehole and you go and build culverts, you have not solved their problem; we believe in participatory legislation. We have also written to the National Assembly to participate in the areas that concerns Imo State. We have written to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) not to site projects indiscriminately, rather they should consult the state government to avoid duplication of projects. What is currently happening is that the NDDC does not consult the government on the projects that they are going to do. When the NDDC is budgeting for projects to be sited in Imo State, they should let the state government know that these projects are coming to your place because the state government is in a better position to tell them which community needs it most.