A Bill for the S’East or a Law for all Zones

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The rejection last week of a bill that seeks to address the development of the South-east region by the House of Representatives brings to the fore the rising quest by zones for bills tailored to meet specific needs in their zones. James Emejo reports

A new phase of legislative antagonism may be brewing in the House of Representatives, following the decision by some members, particularly the northern caucus to frustrate the South East Development Commission Bill, which was presented by 43 Igbo lawmakers for second reading. The bill, which sought an Act to establish the commission, was defeated after what seemingly appeared an exhaustive debate.

The proposed commission was to be saddled with the responsibility, among other things, to receive and manage funds from allocation of the federation account for the development, reconstruction and rehabilitation of roads, houses and other infrastructure in the South-east zone.

It further sought to address the menace of poverty, ecological problems and any other related environmental or developmental challenges in the zone.

Leading the debate, the mover of the bill, Hon. Chukwuma Onyema, who is the Deputy Minority Leader, 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 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, abandoned seaport and second Niger Bridge. He further expressed the worry of the zone that the three “Rs” representing reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the zone as proclaimed by Gen. Yakubu Gowon (rtd) was yet to be honoured.

Among other things, he clarified that the proposed bill does not intend to usurp the authority of any existing arm of government or agency but rather 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 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.

Therefore, he said the proposed commission shall formulate policies and guidelines for the development of states in the zone, 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 per cent of total monthly statutory allocations due to member States of the commission from the federation account as well as three per cent 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 revenue due to member states of the commission from the ecological fund among others. 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 have funds for sustainable development, adding that “We must be united in sovereign welfare of Nigerians. Poor conditions have led to insurgency in the country.”

Hon. Henry Nwawuba (PDP, Imo) said the bill represented a legislative solution to recurring problem of agitation in the country.

On his part, Hon. Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Enugu) described the commission as a special purpose vehicle needed to bridge lack of direct government funding and development.

But another legislator, Hon. Sunday Karimi (PDP, Kogi) though not against bill, expressed worry that a similar bill on the North Central Development Commission was recently halted by the Speaker, who asked that it should be left out for now.

But for the northerners, the greatest undoing of the bill was the reference to the need for the zone to have a similar initiative of the North East zone which was to address the agitation in the area, especially Boko Haram and which the House expeditiously passed.

They expressed concern that the quest to establish development commissions in the geopolitical zones was becoming a matter of competition given that there’s also the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Others felt threatened by the reference to the Nigerian Civil war and felt it was ill-timed to make such allusions, especially at a period of the Biafrian agitation.

To some extent, the bill looked set to sail through given that there was significantly favourable debate towards it. Onyema at a point, submitted that though the bill may not be perfect, there’s still opportunity to fine-tune it at the committee and public hearing stages.

But when question was put by the Speaker on those who supported that the bill be read for the second time, the “Yes” initially appeared to carry the day. Not sure, the speaker again put the question to the House and this time, there was an overwhelming “Nay”.

Immediately, all the South-east lawmakers staged a walkout from the plenary, complaining bitterly over the outcome. Some of them blamed the speaker for their travail. But other northern legislators, who spoke to journalists amid the tension, absolved Dogara of blame and instead asked the eastern lawmakers to “put their house in order and be united”.

It was further suggested that the Igbo lawmakers may have contributed to their own defeat because they had the chance to challenge the vote by demanding for the division of the House to enable the vote be counted per legislator. But they chose to stage a walkout. The lawmakers from the South-east were particularly disturbed that a proposed commission which will be funded from the respective state’s resources and not from the federation account will not be allowed to see the light of the day.

They made reference to similar initiatives for the northeast and Niger Delta, which exist by drawing from public funds and wondered why it was passed expeditiously without opposition.

The South-east lawmakers warned that the defeat of the bill may have ushered a new era of legislative disharmony in the House. This simply means they could also frustrate any bill which is of interest to other zones and this could be of huge cost to Nigerians and the economy at large.