Right Honourable (Dr) Justin Okonoboh is the Speaker, Edo State House of Assembly. He speaks with KEHINDE OYETIMI on the peculiarities of state legislature, the September 10 election, how Edo has evolved in the past 25 years, among other issues. Excerpts:
Since you assumed position as speaker, what has constituted your major challenges in bringing the house together?
First, it was to stabilise the house. You know usually after any impeachment, the house is divided. We are 24 members of the house and I have been working to unite the house.
What are some of the far-reaching implications of the September 10 election for the All Progressives Congress (APC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and for Nigeria?
Edo State used to be called a civil service state. All the time the PDP was in power, there was really no development, as it were, which everyone is aware of – this is not campaigning – until Governor Adams Oshiomhole came on board. Since he came into power, there has been a lot of development. For instance, there is no bank that doesn’t have a branch in Edo State, which is a pointer to the fact that commerce is thriving. There have also been many interventions in terms of investment, and even providing a home for those who had to move out of the Niger Delta. There have also been a lot of efforts in terms of infrastructural development. The far-reaching implication is that we either continue with this progress or go back to Egypt, that is, back to where we are coming from, which no person in Edo will want to go back to again.
Since the President Muhammadu Buhari administration came on board, there have been complaints, with many people stating that the current state of things was not what was expected. As Edo prepares for the election, don’t you think it will affect the APC’s campaign?
It’s actually affecting and that’s the fulcrum of our campaign, that whatever is happening now is not the fault of the President Buhari administration, rather it was the state he met the country. In trying to move things forward, things seem a bit difficult because of the activities of militants blowing up pipelines, as well as the oil price that continues to plummet. We have been trying to let people understand that, for change to take place, there must be some sort of rearrangement. It’s like when one wants to renovate a house. Things may get moved from one place to the other and there may even be some scattering. But when the renovation is completed, things will become better. This administration has just spent one year. It’s too early to assess the Federal Government in one year. That one year is to plan and strategise. I would just tell people to be patient. Take the Treasury Single Account for instance, there has been much savings. However, the money could not be spent so soon because it wasn’t yet appropriated. The budget was just passed three months ago. In time, we will see the expected change. Although the opposition has used the current state of the economy to campaign against the APC in the state, we are still coping and God knows the truth.
Before you were sworn in as Speaker, the house was in disarray and there are insinuations that the governor must have had a hand in resolving the crisis and the process that saw you emerge as Speaker. How would you react to this?
The governor had no hand in it. The house wasn’t in disarray. In the house, the Speaker is just first among equals. People can decide that they don’t want you as Speaker anymore. What the law stipulates is that there must be a majority consensus. At that time, it was 16 out of 24 people. The governor had no hand in the process. We can only say that, probably, the governor did not move against it. When you see five out of twenty-something people impeaching a speaker, then you know there was probably some influence. There was no crisis in the house at all. In fact, when what we did caused a dislocation of political positions in the state, we corrected it and that was what resulted in my emergence as Speaker, and you can see that it was a very peaceful process; that’s the first of its kind in this country.
State houses of assembly have been accused of being mere rubber stamps of their government. Is this not true?
It’s not true. There are different arms of government. If there is harmony between two arms, it means they are both doing their jobs well. If there is conflict between both, it means one isn’t doing the right thing and the other is simply pointing that out. Just last week, we passed two bills. If we sent it to the governor and he appended his signature, that’s not rubber stamp. If it also happens otherwise and we decided to use two-third majority to sign it, the important thing is that it benefits the people.
There have been accusations that the APC was involved in imposition of candidates for the forthcoming state election. How true or otherwise are these accusations?
I’ll say it’s not true. There were about 18 candidates in the beginning. Don’t forget that each person would have interests. Towards the end, if it is found out that the candidate presented may not win, such person may step down or look for the next possible candidate to support. Don’t forget too that because of the influence a governor has, when the governor has a candidate who can perform, he can push the person through. Towards the end, we find some other candidates, underground, offering to work with that candidate, The primaries, as you saw, was very transparent, free and fair. But that before the primaries, the governor had much influence, you can’t take that away from him.
Edo State is the gateway into the Niger Delta. How do we resolve the problem of the Niger Delta Avengers, especially as it is giving your party at the federal level a major challenge?
It is the Yar’Adua formula that works, that is, dialogue with them. Our soldiers, airforce personnel can’t easily operate in the creeks without affecting the people of that area, especially as they operate in the creeks. You can’t bomb everybody. See the Odi incident. We had succeeded with dialogue but I think there was a misunderstanding or misconception that it was Boko Haram that made Jonathan’s administration unsuccessful, and so when a Northerner came on board, they wanted to retaliate. For Boko Haram, we could use air strikes, but even at that, we heard that some people’s lives were lost who were not terrorists. We can’t do that in the creeks. We should dialogue with them.
How can we reduce the cost of governance in Nigeria?
If we make it less attractive, we could reduce cost.
What is budget padding?
I don’t think there is anything like budget padding. People have this misconception that the houses of assembly don’t have the right to increase or decrease the budget. First, know that the legislators are the voice of the people; they represent the whole country. When the executive brings a budget, the house may look into aspects of the budget, depending on the economy or what obtains in other climes, and the house can increase or decrease, according to the constitution. There is nothing like padding. The house has the right to increase or decrease before the president accepts.
What is your message to Edo people come September 10?
They should look at where we are coming from, what is on ground now, and should vote their consciences. We should know that it is better to continue in this path of progress than go back to Egypt.
In June 2016, while you were deputy Speaker, you raised concerns that many eligible voters were yet to get their voter cards, as at the time more than 400,000 cards remained uncollected. With the election a few days away, would you say you’re satisfied with INEC’s preparation?
I’m not. When you look at the spate of inconclusive elections in Nigeria, something needs to be done. Elections should be conclusive. Also, Permanent Voter Cards (PVSs) shouldn’t be distributed at this time. They should have arrived months earlier. These are desperate times, and it is unnecessary for people to be shedding blood to collect PVCs.
As a medical doctor and a politician, how do you reconcile both?
In my time, there wasn’t career counselling per se. All our parents knew then was medicine, law and engineering. I don’t have the character to study medicine. In my final year, I realised that medicine would be boring for me, but I had to finish. I had to specialise in public health so that I could work with the World Health Organisation because I’m the kind of person who loves to be on the move and that’s not the life of a doctor. When my local government was created, I was invited and became the first chairman of the local government area. By the time I settled in politics, I knew this was it. I also want to advise on how to know what you’re called for. Anything you do that, even when you’re not paid, you enjoy it or sometimes, you even have to pay to do it, and you still enjoy it, that’s your calling. I have a calling somewhere around politics.
Edo is 25 this year. How would you say the state has evolved?
Wonderfully. At first, under the military, nothing really happened; that’s why we were called a civil service state. Then, the PDP took over and they drew us back somehow. But since Governor Oshiomhole came in, you can see the spate of development. There has been peace, even with the turmoil in the Niger Delta. People go from Benin to work in Warri. And now we’re preparing for another election, and with Godwin Obaseki, who is an investor and is also committed to development. He is also looking at developing agriculture. That is the path Edo State should tread so that it will be progress all through.