Ebonyi: A Political Storm Brews Over Speaker’s Damning Assessment of Executive

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Some remarks by the Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly on the floor of the Assembly regarding the competence of the governor’s appointees have generated rifts between the legislature and the executive. Benjamin Nworie, in Abakaliki, reports

Acontroversial comment by Speaker of Ebonyi State House of Assembly, Hon. Francis Nwifuru, on the competence of the commissioners appointed by the state governor, Mr. David Umahi, has raised a political storm. Controversy over the alleged remark by Nwifuru that some of the commissioners are lazy and incompetent appeared to die down soon after it was publicised. But it gained fresh intensity after it was reawakened in some quarters more than three weeks later.

Probe
The resurgence of the issue may not be unconnected with the recent committee set up by the Speaker to probe the contractors hired by the administration of the former governor, who is now senator for Ebonyi North senatorial district, Dr. Sam Egwu, to construct the World Trade Centre and the Kpiri Kpiri/Nwofe road. The projects are currently abandoned.
Probing the contractors and, by implication, the secondary client, Egwu, is seen as an attempt to ridicule the former governor.
At a plenary last month, Nwifuru set up a nine-member committee led by the deputy speaker, Rt. Hon. Odefa Obasi Odefa, to investigate some projects executed by the past administrations. The speaker noted that the aim of the exercise was to find out from the contractors why the projects were abandoned since the inception of the present administration.

Projects Under Investigation
The committee was mandated to investigate, among others, two projects abandoned by Egwu, namely, the 10-storey World Trade Centre and Kpiri Kpiri/Nwofe road.
Over N2 billion is said to have been spent on the projects, yet THISDAY gathered that they were still far from completion.
The immediate past governor, Mr. Martins Elechi’s projects, being investigated include the Centenary City and the internal roads in the city, the International Market and the internal roads, Sharon/Iboko road, Offerekpe, Ukawu and Ezillo Water Schemes, and Offerekpe/Offenakpa road.
Nwifuru directed the committee to summon all the contractors that handled the projects. The committee was expected to submit its report within two weeks.

Controversy
In an uncontrolled outburst, the speaker had alleged that all the commissioners in the executive council appointed by Umahi were indolent and inept. The statement, which raised a storm of angry reactions, resurfaced in the public domain recently, even though Nwifuru had denied it. The reappearance of the issue is seen as an indication that the Assembly is gradually drifting to another round of controversy.
Some concerned stakeholders have cautioned the speaker to desist from making statements that could heat up the polity. The stakeholders described the speaker’s denial as a betrayal of public trust, as evidences abound that he actually said the things he was accused of saying.

One of the concerned persons, who spoke in confidence because of the controversial nature of the issue, lambasted the speaker, alleging that he is not only unqualified to hold any political office, but also lacks the moral grounds to accuse anyone of incompetence because he is standing trial for corruption and was arrested recently by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

He likened Nwifuru’s comments to “pot calling kettle back”.
Others contended that the speaker was a mere political “errand boy” and an accidental politician, who smuggled himself into the corridors of power just because of some “loopholes”.
The controversy generated by Nwifuru’s comments appeared to calm after the denial by the speaker, who claimed he was misquoted. But it seems certain that he has stirred up a real hornet’s nest. There are fears that it is an issue that may culminate in Nwifuru’s ouster because many people are aggrieved, especially in his populous Izzi clan.

Outburst
The outburst is seen as a fallacy and hasty generalisation meant to tarnish the image of the state executive council.
During the plenary on March 8, after the presentation of the interim report of the oversight functions of some house committee chairmen, the speaker was furious and said the lawmakers should live up to expectation by “checkmating” the activities of the commissioners.
Nwifuru told his colleagues, “In the ministry you are the chairman. The commissioner is just like your secretary. We need to checkmate, oversee whatever they are doing and to make sure they are doing it in a proper way. I am only seeing Ministry of Power and Works doing well. Other ministries are like the commissioners are not performing.

“But the House of Assembly members are not also performing because they are not doing anything. Nobody is serious. Nobody is issuing query. They need to be properly investigated. All of them need to be properly investigated. We should investigate their activities and make sure they are brought to book; that all of them are performing their duties and if they are not performing, we recommend for their sack.

“We shouldn’t say that we are honourable members and the commissioners are trying to tarnish the image of the state. There is no local government election as far as I am concerned and you are the ones that will pay the price. Especially in the agric, see how much the agric commissioner is getting and nothing is happening. The Commissioner for Agric will give you story from now till tomorrow.”

The speaker said the commissioners were incompetent and unable to drive the transformation agenda of the Umahi administration, despite the huge financial resources being pumped into the ministries. Since the outpouring of what some have called personal vendetta against some executive council members, Nwifuru has faced angry reactions from various quarters.
The outburst has heated the polity.

Rift
The reason behind the speaker’s damning assessment is unclear, but it has caused a faceoff between the legislature and the executive, and everyone is watching the emerging drama with keen interest.
Though the speaker exempted the Commissioner for Works, Fidelis Nweze, and his power counterpart, Emma Uguru, from the list of “incompetent” commissioners, the question on the minds of many people is why Nwifuru decided to pick on the commissioners with such ferocity. Some have wondered whether the speaker took time to examine or visit the ministries before arriving at his conclusion.

Objection
Some members of the Assembly have also condemned Nwifuru’s vituperations on the commissioners, calling it an aberration and a calculated attempt to cause political logjam by pitting the legislature against the executive. They also see the speaker’s comments as an attempt to portray the legislators as opposed to the governor and the ruling party in the state.
The speaker’s controversial assessment came barely three months after some of the commissioners were honoured during the Annual Ebonyi State Merit Awards instituted by the governor to reward and recognise exemplary and dedicated leadership and achievement in the state. This has fuelled suspicion that Nwifuru may not be favourably disposed to Umahi’s achievements and may have used the negative assessment of the commissioners as a metaphor for reservations about the governor’s competence.
Though the Assembly members seemed to defend the speaker when the battle raged, the controversial statement also indicted them as people who do not know their job.

Since Umahi appointed and inaugurated his cabinet, he has expressed confidence in the calibre of men and women in his team. He has always described them as people of proven integrity, many of whom are renowned scholars in various disciplines.
It the constitutional responsibility of the legislative arm to check the executive through oversight functions, but jumping into hasty conclusions is what many have condemned in the attitude of the speaker. The speaker, many believe, should have been patient and allowed the legislators to carry out their oversight functions and lay their reports on the floor of the Assembly before commenting on the performance or otherwise of ministries, departments and agencies.
But judging by the disposition of the speaker, it appears he was ready for war, or there were some commissioners that he might be out to discredit.

Skirmish
This conflict between the legislature and the executive started a few months after the inauguration of the commissioners, when the speaker first summoned three commissioners to appear before the Assembly to clear some issues in their ministries. The invitation did not go down well with the governor, who retorted that the Assembly had no right to summon his appointees without his knowledge or passing through him.
Though, the invitation was not honoured, it signalled the beginning of a supremacy battle between the legislature and the executive in the state.
Having not succeeded in that effort, Nwifuru seemed to bent on fanning the embers of discord when he declared the commissioners incompetent and lazy, threatening to recommend their sack, if they continued to be a “parasite” to the government without justifying the huge sums of money being spent on their various ministries.
There are fears that Nwifuru’s comments may kick off another round of crisis in the Ebonyi State House of Assembly.