Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Ike Ekweremadu represents Enugu West in the upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly. He’s the immediate-past Deputy President of the Senate, a position held for 12 years. In this interview, the lawmaker spoke on the exclusion of the Southeast from President Muhammadu Buhari’s $22.7 billion borrowing plan, marginalisation of Southeast, among others.
What is the update on the loan request issue?
You recall that in the last National Assembly, there was a borrowing plan presented by the Federal Government. But for some obvious reasons, especially exclusion, it was not taken. This has been returned in the present National Assembly. Regrettably, the Senate passed the borrowing plan, which excluded the whole of the Southeast. I would like to use this opportunity to thank some of our colleagues who were in the chamber that day, especially Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, who made spirited efforts to get the issue of equitable distribution addressed. Most of us were not in the chamber that day. Like myself, I was attending the INEC retreat on electoral reforms in Lagos as a member of the Senate Committee on INEC. We met as a Caucus last night after consulting with our people and getting their feelings on this issue. We decided that the best approach will be a constructive engagement with the National Assembly leadership. So, we had a very good conversation with both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. They showed not just concern, but also commitment to addressing these issues. And we are satisfied with those assurances. And we are believing that the matter will either be revisited or since it has not been passed in the House, that the appropriate thing will be done so that our people’s fears could be assuaged. We want to thank the Senate President and the Speaker for their assurances and their commitments to national unity and justice for all parts of Nigeria. We believe that equity should be the way for our country to make progress. It is our thinking that since what the Federal Government presented is a borrowing plan, there is still an opportunity for us to look at the distribution so that every part of the country will have a sense of belonging in the way the loan facilities will be managed. We believe ultimately that every part of Nigeria will be part of the repayment. And if we are going to be part and parcel of the loan repayment, it makes every sense that we all also benefit from the utilisation of those funds. We are concerned about certain facilities, including the Eastern Railway Corridor from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, access to the sea through dredging and developing of seaports in our area, power projects etc. The other issue we raised with them is the issue of the distribution of the National Assembly Bureaucracy. If you look at the distribution, the Southeast is excluded from the Clerk to the National Assembly to the Deputy Clerk, the Clerk of the Senate, Clerk of the House, Director-General of the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS), Chairman and the Secretary of the National Assembly Service Commission, and the same thing with the Public Complaint Commission. Again, they showed concern and promised to address this once any vacancy occurs.
You said they gave you assurances. Can we know the assurances? Will they now include some projects in the Southeast as components of that loan? Or are they going for another loan for the Southeast?
Recall I said that it has not been passed by the House of Representatives. Secondly, I said that this is a borrowing plan. It is not as if any money has been borrowed and under the Fiscal Responsibility Act, you are required to get the approval of the National Assembly for you to borrow money. So, that is tabled before the people’s parliament where every part of Nigeria is represented to have a conversation on it and ensure that it is evenly spread. That is actually one of the major philosophies behind sending it to the National Assembly. That is why we are using every legislative avenue to ensure that the proper thing is done.
On the issue of lack of resistance by the Southeast senators at plenary on the day the loan was passed by Senate, is it that the document was not seen by senators?
I said many of our colleagues were not there. Personally I was not there. I was attending INEC retreat on Electoral Reforms in Lagos, which is also very critical. Meanwhile, we believe in the constructive engagement of our colleagues. Remember too that I was the Deputy President of the Senate in the last Senate and the matter came before the Senate. It was not discussed. Our people have at each material time dealt with this the best way possible we are in a position to deal with it. So, this effort is part of the commitment to address the matter concerning us. I believe that every person from the Southeast is committed to ensuring that the right thing is done. That is why we were elected.
How many Senators, including those from the Southeast, were at plenary on that day?
I think that was completely unfair in the first place. I have been a presiding officer for many years. I cannot remember any day 109 Senators were present during a sitting. Not even on the day of inauguration. It has never happened. We all have our own assignments and sometimes they take us out of the plenary or the National Assembly entirely. But if a matter comes up and you are not there and a decision is taken, we have under our Rules, what you could do, which is what we are raising now. What you could do is to come under our Rules for the matter to be rescinded and be taken again. We understand that. We have been here for a long time. Meanwhile, you can’t be in two places at the same time. Those senators from the Southeast, who were not there were on one national assignment or the other. So, it is unfair to say we were not all there. It came up in the last Senate and we ensured it was not taken. If it has now been taken in the current Senate, that is democracy in action. Meanwhile, recall that the Southeast has only 15 Senators. It is part of the issue of marginalization we have been talking about and that is why we have been pushing for restructuring. Even if you put all the 15 members of the Senate from the Southeast together at a sitting and you vote, definitely, you know what will be the outcome. So, it is not a matter of playing to the gallery. So, we are here to engage our colleagues in a way that they would understand our concerns and we will get results. That is what matters. Minority will have their say, but majority will have their way.
Now, you are saying that you will see how the House of Representatives will find a way to include the Southeast. Is it coming back to the Senate?
There is what we call harmonisation. The idea, as you said, is that if we are able to get our colleagues and leadership of the Senate and the House to agree on accommodating the Southeast and the House does that, then they will bring it back to the Senate for harmonisation, which again will still passed in the House and the Senate. So, we are still on course.