James Emejo in Abuja
There was drama thursday in the House of Representatives after a bill for an Act to establish the South-East Development Commission was rejected by the House.
The bill, sponsored by Hon. Chukwuka Onyema and 42 others, had been presented for second reading, having scaled the first reading.
The proposed commission was to be charged with the responsibility, among other things, of receiving and managing funds from allocations of the Federation Account for the development, reconstruction and rehabilitation of roads, houses and other infrastructure in the South-east.
It further seeks to tackle the menace of poverty, ecological problems and any other related environmental or developmental challenges in the South-east states and other related matters.
The bill started on a controversial note. however.
When it was first called up by the Speaker of the House, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, the mover was not around to introduce the bill for subsequent debate.
As a result, the Speaker had to step down the bill, but the was met with fierce protests by other sponsors who argued that it was unfair because it had been step down on Tuesday when Onyema had left the chamber.
Dogaraâ€™s action caused confusion and threw the House into a rowdy session for about 15 minutes before the Speaker, after brief consultation with some principal officers of the House, including Deputy Speaker, Hon. Yussuff Lasun resolved that the bill be reinstated for debate.
But before that, a motion for the billâ€™s rescission was subsequently moved and seconded to allow the billâ€™s attention.
However, the defeat of the bill came as a huge surprise because it looked set to sail through from the beginning of the debate.
Leading the debate, Onyema, who is the Deputy Minority Leader in the House, had stated that the South-east states, comprising Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, were under the eastern region which fought the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970, a development, which according to him, had led to the massive destruction of critical infrastructure in the region including roads, houses, and environmental degradation.
He said the deplorable situation partly explained why the zone is currently ravaged by gully and coastal erosion, bad roads, non-functional railways, an abandoned seaport and Second Niger Bridge.
Onyema further expressed the concern that the three â€œRsâ€, representing reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the zone, as proclaimed by former military Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (rtd), after the war, had not been honoured.
Among other things, he clarified that the bill did not intend to usurp the authority of any existing arm of government or agency but was drafted to help articulate specific interventions aimed at reintegrating the zone into the national discourse on development and growth in line with the constitution.
He further contended that people from the South-east had been largely affected by the insurgency in the North-east, including their investments but nobody bothered about their welfare.
The lawmaker said the proposed commission arising from the legislation shall formulate policies and guidelines for the development of states in the zone, and conceive and implement economic development plans in accordance with the set rules and regulations, among other things.
The funding of the commission was expected to come from 15 percent of total monthly statutory allocations due to member states of the commission from the federation account, as well as three percent of total budget of any oil producing company operating onshore and offshore in the South-east states, including gas processing companies.
It will also claim 50 per cent of the revenue due to member states of the commission from the Ecological Fund among others.
During the debate, Hon. Nkem-Abonta Uzoma (PDP, Abia) expressed total support for the bill, arguing that it would cushion the effect of long time neglect of the zone.
He said the initiative offered an opportunity to get funding for sustainable development, adding that â€œwe must be united in the sovereign welfare of Nigerians. Poor conditions have led to insurgency in the countryâ€.
Hon. Henry Nwawuba (PDP, Imo) said the bill represented a legislative solution to recurring problem of agitation in the country.
Hon. Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Enugu) described the commission as a special purpose vehicle needed to bridge lack of direct government funding and development.
However, Hon. Sunday Karimi (PDP, Kogi), though not against the bill, expressed concern that a similar bill on the North-central Development Commission was recently halted by the speaker who asked that it be left out for now.
However, members of northern extraction, who voiced opposition to the bill, frowned at the reference to the North East Development Commission by the eastern lawmakers, arguing that their positions tended to suggest competition among the geopolitical zones.
Others who also felt uncomfortable with the reference to the Nigerian civil war felt it was not the proper time to make such allusions.
Eventually, when question was put to vote by the speaker on those who supported that the bill be read for the second time, the â€œYeasâ€ initially appeared to carry the day.
But not sure, the Speaker, again put the question to the House and this time, there was an overwhelming â€œNayâ€ vote.
Immediately, this happened all the South-east lawmakers staged a walk out from the plenary, complaining bitterly over the outcome, with some of them blaming the Speaker for the defeat of the bill.
But other northern legislators who spoke to journalists amid the tension, absolved Dogara of blame and instead asked the eastern lawmakers to â€œput their house in order and be united.â€
The lawmakers from the South-east were particularly disturbed that the proposed commission, which will be funded from the respective statesâ€™ resources and not from the Federation Account was not allowed to see the light of the day.
They also referenced a similar initiative for the North-east which proposes funding from the national treasury, and wondered why it was passed expeditiously without opposition.
Meanwhile, the President Emeritus of Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, has said the rejection of the bill to redevelop the South-east was a petty action that borders on myopia.
â€œThis rejection of the bill to redevelop the South-east is purely a petty action that borders on myopia. This South-east and South-south areas that was devastated by the civil war have never been rehabilitated. I know that General Yakubu Gowon on paper created the 3Rs (Rehabilitation Construction and Reconciliation) but that was mere word and no action.â€