Abia Assembly: Weathering a Bipartisan Configuration

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Emmanuel Ugwu, in Umuahia, looks at the colour and controversies of the bipartisan composition of the 24-member Abia State House of Assembly, which now has nine opposition APGA members, from an all- PDP Assembly before the last general election

With a bipartisan composition, the sixth Abia House of Assembly commenced its legislative life on a tense atmosphere. The bitterness that characterised the 2015 general election in the state was yet to dissolve at the time the Assembly was inaugurated on June 11 last year. It was further fuelled by the strong presence of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, which gave the ruling Peoples Democratic Party a run for its money. It was the first time the opposition was making its presence in the legislature felt and in a big way.

The fifth session of Abia Assembly, which expired in May last year, was 100 per cent PDP. But at the end of the last governorship and House of Assembly polls, APGA posted a strong showing, notching up 11 new lawmakers, thereby ending PDP’s dominance of the 24-member legislature. The ruling party was left with 13 makers.

Reversal

However, the configuration changed following the tribunal judgements that made APGA lose Aba North and Isuikwuato state constituencies. The hand of PDP was further strengthened by its new gains while APGA’s numerical strength was eroded. With 15 lawmakers as against APGA’s nine, the ruling party was just one seat less to having two-third majority in the Assembly. APGA lost Aba North when it was discovered at the tribunal that its candidate that had won the election possessed fake credentials while its only female candidate, who was for the Isuikwuato state constituency, was sacked at the appeal court sitting in Owerri. For the APGA lawmakers that survived the electoral battle and took their seats in the Assembly, it was palpable trepidation, as the image of the PDP was looming large since it was in control of the Government House.

Gullibility

The naivety of the APGA lawmakers came to the fore in July last year when the Assembly approved the request by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu to secure a N30 billion bank loan. APGA lawmakers who at that time were 11 in number all voted in the “unanimous resolution” giving the governor the nod. But after the leadership of their party apparently scolded them for sheepishly following their PDP counterparts in approving the loan deal without asking the needed questions, the APGA lawmakers came back to shout blue murder. They quickly withdrew their support for the earlier resolution authorising the governor to proceed with the loan arrangement. The then Minority Leader, Hon. Abraham Oba, said the opposition lawmakers were hoodwinked to support the loan deal. He specifically alleged that the Speaker of the House, Rt Hon Martins Azubuike, deliberately hid the details of the loan from the lawmakers, hence they readily gave their approval.

“We have been deceived by the Speaker. He lied to us. And we are no longer part of the approval,” Oba said at a press conference. He added that the Speaker had told the lawmakers that the proposed loan would be used for the execution of infrastructural projects, including dredging of Aba River. According to Oba, barely 48 hours after the resolution authorising the loan was passed, they were shocked to learn that the loan was actually not “a fresh borrowing,” but a loan facility which the state government intended to use in clearing accumulated debts hanging on its neck. Oba said the new information on the proposed loan at the disposal of the lawmakers came about in media reports of a press briefing by the governor’s Special Adviser on Economic Affairs, Mr. Obinna Oriaku (now Commissioner for Finance), who apparently contradicted what the Speaker had told his fellow lawmakers

The opposition bravado cost Oba his post as minority leader. He was also suspended indefinitely. Unfortunately for the embattled lawmaker, his APGA colleagues were not there for him during his travails. Rather, the APGA lawmakers while backing the removal of Oba as minority leader and his indefinite suspension from the Assembly were also jostling for who would replace him as Minority Leader.

The mantle fell on Hon. Ikedi Ezekwesiri from Umunneochi state constituency. He was a former PDP lawmaker but defected to APGA when he was denied a third term ticket. Since the replacement of Oba, the seat of minority leader has become a Russian roulette. Ezekwesiri has since given way after the tribunal made him to go for rerun election. His place was readily snapped up by Hon. Chibuzo Solomon Okogbuo, representing Bende south state constituency.

Weathering the Storm

To observers of the happenings in the sixth Abia House of Assembly, the APGA imbroglio was regarded as a fine recipe for crisis. It was, indeed, expected that the Assembly would descend into turbulent legislative life where the ruling party and opposition lawmakers would constantly be at daggers drawn. But one year on, the Speaker said the legislature had calmly weathered the storm and disappointed the doomsday prophets. He said the sixth Abia Assembly had, indeed, disappointed those that predicted and expected a house of crisis where political differences would hamper legislative process and impede governance.

“We sat down and decided that it is Abia first,” he said, adding that the two political parties on which platform the lawmakers were elected only served as vehicles that conveyed them to the legislature and “we have left them behind.”

According to him, the sixth Abia Assembly has been able to manage its bipartisan composition peacefully as “political parties are not factored into our decisions because we consider how such decisions would affect the people of Abia and then our respective constituencies”. The Speaker said APGA lawmakers were not regarded as opposition, adding, “I call it two parties working for the progress of Abia.”

In presiding over the affairs of the bipartisan Assembly, Azubuike said he was always at ease because “the beauty of democracy is brought out by opposition,” as the lawmakers always deliberate on issues from every side of the prism. “I want to report that the house is a very healthy assembly,” he enthused.

Deputy Speaker, Hon Cosmos Ndukwe, corroborated this assertion, saying, “We are held together by a common interest which cardinal objective is to develop Abia and Abians in all spheres of human life.” He added, “We have it at the back of our minds that rancour, mutual distrust, fanning the embers of disunity and legislative rascality can only be counterproductive. We are working harmoniously as one happy family.”

The Minority Leader did not disagree. He told THISDAY, “We are working harmoniously in the house.” Okogbue said though his party was in the minority there was no intimidation by the majority.

Common Interest

Some of the legislations, like the Public Private Partnership and Investment Promotion Law, is considered very critical in the effort to revamp the Abia economy. In fact, the Speaker described it as “one law we want to use to improve the economy of the state.” He said this piece of legislation was already yielding the desired dividends, as the state government has leveraged on it to revive the moribund industries, such as the Golden Guinea Breweries Plc, Umuahia and International Glass Industry, Aba.

Azubuike said the PPP law, which provides opportunity for private sector investors to come in and revive government-owned enterprises in comatose, was expected to drive the revolution in the agricultural sector of the state. Private sector investors were already holding discussions with the government to take over such agro-allied enterprises and industries as palm plantations, cocoa plantations, cashew plantations, Ogwe Golden Chicken in Ukwa West, and the Oil Mills at Mbawsi in Isiala Ngwa North local government.

Other bills passed by the Assembly targeted at enhancing the economic growth of the state include Abia State Board of Internal Revenue Law (Amendment), Abia State Sand Excavation and Quarry Sites Inspection, Registration, Loading and Maintenance Law, and Abia State Marketing Agency Law.

The lawmakers also focused on security in their legislations, as investments and economic growth would not flourish where insecurity holds sway. The Abia State Security Fund Law (Amendment) was intended to enhance security in the state by involving the private sector in the funding of security.

“The importance of this bill meant that we didn’t record one dissenting voice as debate concerning it raged in the house,” the deputy speaker said. “Who does not know the essence of such laws at a time our country is experiencing the most agonising threat to security of lives and property?”

Elaborating further on this law, the speaker said it had been largely unimplemented hence “we had to amend the law so that Abia people can buy into it because security is everybody’s business. And because it is very expensive there was need for the private sector to contribute to the security fund.” The speaker disclosed that there were plans to procure equipment for tracking criminals and the project would be funded through the security fund.

Accessibility

As representatives of the people, the sixth Abia Assembly has in the last one year maintained a close touch with the public. “The house has been the people’s house,” Azubuike said, adding that it has lived up to expectations by making sure that every petition received from the public is treated with the urgency deserved. He said all petitions were looked into and proper directives given “to the satisfaction” of those concerned.

The speaker said the Assembly carried the people along by holding public hearings and town hall meetings to give the people the opportunity to make inputs into legislations.

He also said that the Assembly had strengthened its oversight functions to ensure that MDAs utilise their appropriations to serve the people well. And to ensure that it not only barks but also bites, the Assembly, according to the speaker, would set up a legislative compliance committee to ensure that resolutions adopted would be implemented by the relevant MDAs.

Innovation

The sixth Assembly is not ossified in moving with the time, as it has embraced modern communications platform in its legislative business. The speaker said plans had been concluded to introduce an innovation that would make it possible for members to contribute to debates in the Assembly in absentia. To make this possible, he said ICT equipment would be deployed soon to enable the lawmakers to record 100 per cent participation in the legislative business during plenary. With such ICT platform no member would have an excuse for not making contributions to deliberations of the Assembly, irrespective of the distance that separates the absentee lawmaker from the floor of the Assembly.

Its score card may look impressive but the sixth Abia Assembly still has a lot to do in the task of attaining a holistic development of the state. “We have moved from where we started and it is still work in progress,” the speaker said.