Hon. Ugonna Ozuruigbo is member representing Nkwerre/Nwangele/Isu Njaba Federal Constituency of Imo State in the House of Representatives on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
In this interview, the Chairman, Committee on Justice and former Deputy Speaker of Imo State House of Assembly described the recent peaceful protest by the Nigerian youths as a national rebirth which helped young people to reclaimed the nation, adding that the protest was a clear signal that the entire system of governance must be overhauled for Nigeria to remain united. He spoke about other national issues.
Part of the demands by the EndSARS protesters was reduction of salaries and emolument of members of the National Assembly members, which they claimed is outrageous and the nation’s resources can no longer sustain, what is your opinion on this?
First, I want to use this medium to sympathy with the families of those who lost their loved ones during the EndSARS protest embarked upon by the youths. I pray that their soul rest in peace. Now back to your question, I have heard people compare salaries and emolument of members of Nigeria National Assembly to that of those in advance democracies, it is wrong to compare the salaries of Nigeria legislators to that of their counterparts globally.
Are you saying that there is no need for the legislators to cut down their salaries and other entitlements considering the high level of poverty in the country?
Yes, there is high rate of poverty in the country and I also agree that the presidential system of government we are running is expensive. Left for me, I prefer lawmaking to be part time whereby a legislator comes into the chamber do his or her job and leave the complex. For Christ sake, I consider the amount spent in running the National Assembly as well as other organs of government too much to be sustained by the nation’s meager resources and this is among the reasons the youths are agitating. Expectations from elected members by their constituents are high and if not for that, I will say the amount each lawmaker collect is high, but with the kind pressure we face from the people because of increasing poverty rate, the amount is too small. You can’t believe that I source funds to meet the needs of my constituents. This is my third term as a lawmaker, I was in Imo State House of Assembly for two terms and here I am in the House of Representatives. However, with the way things are going, if poverty rate continues to increase as well as inflation rate, I’m afraid agitation will continue unabated. And if I can’t help improve the living standard of my people, I will have no reason or cause to return to the next Assembly because I’m always on the side of the people.
Many have attributed the high rate of poverty in the country to bad governance and the legislature is an arm of government, which invariably means that the National Assembly is part of the bad governance; what is your view?
I disagree with those who hold such view. Nigeria is not the only country with high poverty rate, it is a global menace especially with the advent of COVID-19 pandemic. There are certain things I’m worried about which most people in this present government are not bothered about, why is it that up till this time Nigeria has no constant electricity supply? Why is it that up till this moment our refineries are not working? No basic infrastructure and the youths are graduating without getting jobs. I use to hear that until late 80s before you graduate from the university job offer letters were waiting for you before even you leave school. My worry is not poverty, but what we are doing to reduce poverty in Nigeria is my greatest concern. In places where poverty rate is high, their leaders cushioned the effect through provision of basic amenities. Can you imagine that Nigeria, the so-called giant of Africa, we can’t boast of uninterrupted electricity supply, we can’t boast of employment opportunities for our teeming youths and every year these unemployed youths see and hear huge amount budgeted for youth empowerment and employment spent, yet their lives are not touched and you expect them not to protest.
Having understood this, one expect you and your colleagues to make laws that can guarantee jobs for the youths, why is the National Assembly foot dragging in making laws that can reduce poverty and create jobs for the youths?
What laws have we not made to empower Nigerian youths? Are you talking about laws made by the 8th or 9th Assemblies? The sincerity in getting these laws implemented is the major challenge. President Muhammadu Buhari has shown great sense of integrity and sincerity in his actions to meet the needs of Nigerians, but what about the people working under the President? How much effort are they making to ensure that the good intensions of the president are actualized? I’m one of those that are against the privatization of electricity in Nigeria because the sector is monopolized and we now went from frying pan to fire. I moved a motion in the floor of the House that all the electricity distribution companies be allowed to compete. In my house I have four meters and if one is not giving me adequate power supply, I will buy the card of another distribution company and that will solve electricity problem in the country. Most of these companies have not invested a kobo and that was the reason I was against the increase of electricity tariff. But I supported the removal of subsidy on petrol because it has not helped the energy sector to grow. But I objected to government removal of electricity tariff and also increase of pump price of petrol at the same time thereby increasing hardship in the country. The increment shouldn’t have come at once. To me, the amount realized from fuel subsidy should have been used to increase electricity supply first before increase of electricity tariff. It’s like breaking eggs before they are counted instead of counting before breaking them. This is another aspect that provoked the masses that led to the protest by the youths who are angry with the government because their parents are finding it difficult to cope with the situation. I’m not happy with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) because they have failed Nigerian workers by not opposing the increase of electricity tariff hence the youths had no option, but to agitate.
But on your part as representatives of the people, the National Assembly did not also oppose the increment of electricity tariff?
Some of us did, unfortunately, we had a say, but the majority had their way. As a lawmaker, I make sure what my people desire is captured as constituency project in the budget and it will be included as the provision you have. For instance, after the last year budget was passed into law, I went home and convened a constituency meeting with my people and presented to them what I have succeeded in getting for them as captured in the budget and as I speak with you one year is almost gone and they have not seen the project executed. How do you think they will look at me? Therefore, at the end of the day, the executive will release just 50 per cent of what you included in the budget to you and if it is road construction that you are given 50 per cent to do and they won’t bring any other money, I assure you that before three months any job you did on that road will be washed away by rain. So, I’m an advocate of change of the nation’s budgetary system. Most times I use to borrow money from the bank just like some of my colleagues to carry out a project in my constituency so that my people won’t see me as one who took them for granted or neglected them. So, Nigeria budgetary system is part of the problem that is limiting legislators from delivering on their campaign promises to the people.
You are sounding as if it is a burden to represent the people in the National Assembly, if it’s so why are most Nigerian politicians willing to kill just to represent their people virtually in all levels of governance?
Am I not a politician? How many people have you heard I killed to come to the National assembly?
But you can’t denial the fact that some of your colleagues do?
I doubt if there is any politician in the National Assembly that killed to get here. It is a wrong assertion because I believe that anyone who wants to genuinely serve the people will not kill to represent or serve the people rather, most of us are victims of Nigerian political system of not having a reformed electoral Act. Most of us won our primaries in our parties, but some persons contested our victories at the Election Petition Tribunal up to Appeal and Supreme Courts. We spent millions of naira to hire lawyers to defend us. That is called pre-election matter. And if eventually you win at the court you will realized that after paying legal fees you had spent millions of naira. To some people they will want to recoup the amount they spent to come to the National Assembly or whatever position they attained through this kind of legal battle. So, is not possible to recoup such amount within four or eight years going by the amount paid to the lawmakers.
What lessons can government at all levels learn from the EndSARS protest?
I’m happy with what Nigerian youths did through the EndSARS protest and one of their demands is restructuring of the present system of governance. My worry is, can the youth repeat this during election with their votes? I don’t mean that they should protest during election, but can they protest with their votes by voting for credible people that can do exactly what they want? Their voice has been heard both locally and internationally hence I urge them to retreat and watch if the government will meet their demands or not within the life span of this administration. There is no need to continue the protest because you could see that criminals hijacked the protest which led to loss of innocent lives including destruction of both public and private assets in some states even in the FCT. On the lesson government can learn from the protest, it is now clear to us that the Nigerian youths are not lazy rather, they have been silenced and patiently waiting for governments at all levels to deliver to them the dividends of democracy since 1999 and since respite did not come they had no option, but to stage a peaceful protest which enabled them to reclaim the nation from the older generation. To me, it served as a wakeup call for leaders to address the problems of unemployment and poverty. If this administration fails to meet the demands of the youths, the next thing I hope they will do is to use their voters’ card to vote out this government in 2023, including myself if I fail to perform. This is so because government is about serving the people and when the people you are serving cannot feel the positive impact of your service, they will vote you out and try other persons.
Don’t you think that if President Buhari had addressed the nation earlier, the protest won’t have lasted long or hijacked by hoodlums?
Mr. President did speak early. When the Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu disbanded Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), Mr. President affirmed it. But the problem I have was that the Police formation shouldn’t have formed the Special Weapon and Tactical Team (SWAT) unit immediately while the youths are still on the street protesting police brutality. Government would have allowed tension to douse before setting up another unit after all we have over 30 tactical teams in the Nigerian police hence immediately SWAT was formed the people felt that the government was not sincere.
Restructuring of Nigeria is another demand by the youths, as a lawmaker can’t the National Assembly through constitutional amendment restructure the country?
When people say the country should be restructured, are they saying that we should abandon the Presidential system of government we copied from America and go for British Parliamentary system? I believe everything about restructuring is devolution of power or true federalism so that the regions or states can be strong to control and manage their resources and pay some percentage to the Federal Government as it is done in other clime. There is a report making the rounds that Zamfara State is mining gold and selling them to the Central Bank of Nigeria while other resources in the states belong to the Federal Government. Meanwhile, I don’t know whether this is true or false. So, government should try to reconcile this. For instance, a situation whereby the police take order from the IGP, yet governors are referred to as the Chief Security Officers of their states is not proper. These are some of reasons people are calling for state police. Come to think of it, the Federal Government is overwhelmed by so many responsibilities that are supposed to be handled by states or regions and unless this is done, agitation and youth restiveness will continue. So, I think it’s time we overhaul the entire system of governance in Nigeria instead of pretending as if all is well.