The only woman vying to be Speaker of the House of Representatives in the ninth Assembly, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, representing Umunneochi/Isiukwuato Federal Constituency, Abia State, insists she has all it takes to oversee the Green Chamber. In this interview with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu, while pointing out that electing a woman as Speaker will put to practice the section of the constitution that outlaws discrimination, she added that her hailing from the South-east makes it a double barrel of inclusion
What attracted you to go into politics?
There was no attraction at all, I was just sitting down one day and someone called me that we have to host the governor of Abia State, so after a long deliberation, we did and he said he would like to appoint me as commissioner.
Has being a woman impacted negatively on you as a politician?
How can? The things people call challenge or negativity of woman being in politics are my strengths, so there is nothing negative about it, how? Has anybody said being a woman has impacted negatively on her? If you are running an election the men also run, if you are campaigning, they also campaign, if they are doing anything we do, I mean, politics does not have any correlation to being a woman or not, that is why when I talk about my background, I went to the same primary school with the boys, went to the same secondary school with the boys apart from when I had to change school because the school I was in had their result seized due to malpractices and at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, boys and girls took the same course and at Imo State University for my Masters we took same course; at every point and every school you go, boys and girls take same course, there is no time they will keep you somewhere for a tougher course because you are a boy. I have children, girls who are studying Engineering, so there is nothing that gender would bring to any human being that would be negative. You have pluses.
Do you think that the House of Representatives is ripe to have a female Speaker?
That’s the point, now is the time because I do not know whether the people who came before me apart from her Excellency, Hon. Patricia Ette, whether there were other people who had gotten up to this ranking up to fourth term. When we came they said we were not ranking and that we were not going to be chairman and the second term they said we were not ranking enough. Now because I am a ranking member, I think that qualifies me and then you know the men, every time we are on the floor of the House, when we bring issue of gender and other related issues, they will quote the constitution where there should not be any discrimination based on gender issue or discrimination against persons based on sex, ethnicity, religion and so on. Now is the time to prove that there is no discrimination against anybody based on the constitution.
What experiences are you bringing to the table assuming you are elected Speaker?
Of course, I have learnt from three previous Speakers, even the current one. Those experiences will come to play. Apart from that, I would like the ninth Assembly to have more robust collaboration with the executive on issue of budget. I will push that the executive should partner the process in budgetary processes, not just they go and do their thing and dump it on us and want us to just pass it that way, it is one agenda as Speaker that I will like to push. The executive should understand that we are all Nigerians, I am coming from one constituency and we have 360 constituencies and 109 senators and all of us are representatives of the people. In knowing what they have in their budget, we should be able to work on the same page to know for instance that this year; we are focusing on agriculture and should be able to say in Umudike University, this is what we need to do. In Bayero University of Agriculture, XYZ, this is what we have to do. You have that engagement from day one and then we must be able to implement our MTEL, Medium Term Expenditure Framework which says if you have a three year programme, that if you have N100 million, this year you give N40 million, you are left with N60 million, in the second year you bring N30 million in the third year you bring N30 million and so if the executive partners the parliament there would not be the issue of you padded or removed something from the budget and because we can’t be rubber stamped. Why you see, issue of the term padding is because like I chair Aviation, I know some projects that have been completed and then a new minister will just bring that project maybe because people who worked on it either they did not go to oversight, you know we oversight and we always go to those sites and we see what is ground and someone going to bring all those projects again then we will not allow it.
Sometimes you even see projects we promised Nigerians that we have seen the level of completion, that once we come maybe since 25 per cent was left, we will support the executive to complete it in the coming budget; then the executive will bring the budget and they will not put such in the budget. Do you want us to just sit down and just watch them even when we know that most of them will not even have gone to their states or even have been abreast of such projects that we are talking about, knowing fully well that we represent the 360 constituencies including the senators that we are collaborating with because in every senatorial district you must have member of the House of Representatives and the projects you are talking about in the budget are the ones domiciled in Nigeria.
The other is that oversight of projects must be seriously enforced to get them you must have deliverables, timelines that must be attached to anything we are doing, even beams, everything we must we must tag it with time frame. Once we have these two things, Nigeria will see a better parliament. Of course, I will engage in robust discussions about the parliament like informing Nigerians on the working of the parliament which I am sorry to say that many Nigerians do not understand. They rate us like executives, that is why in your constituency if you don’t attract projects they will say you are not doing anything and that is why as we speak, from over 20 women, we are only 11 that are coming back in the ninth Assembly, apparently people of their constituencies wanted them to build roads and other projects but they couldn’t and some of them may not come back due to zoning. How can you zone parliament? All over the world, you don’t zone parliament, you continue to come back as long as your people want you to be reelected. When people keep pushing that it is our turn, it pushes down the level of competency of the parliament and the people that complain because even if you are reelected what I do today I couldn’t have been able to do them at the sixth or seventh Assembly. Federal government spend a lot of money in training parliamentarians in bill making, drafts, motions and even how to track funds on oversight. All those knowledge would just get wasted on issue of zoning. Nigerians if they know would know who to send to parliament and those to send to the executive. Thank God, now the federal government is saying that local government funds will go directly to the local government and there would be a lot of funds there and people will go there instead of coming to the parliament, so most people will go back and want to be their local government chairmen because that is where they would be able to do those things their constituents want them to do, build roads, schools, infrastructure and a lot of social intervention.
But if you want to make the parliament less attractive, you have to reduce the jumbo pay of members…?
(cuts in) I have not seen anything that is jumbo in our pay, I can tell you that.
The road to the office of Speaker is said to be lined with banana peels, how are going to navigate through that?
Experience counts. I am Chairman of Committee on Aviation, so what do you even call banana peels? I do not know and have not seen any banana anywhere, so I don’t think there will be any peel. If there is no banana, there won’t be any peel.
Have you tried to rally women to your side as there is this insinuation that women rarely support their ilk?
I am a woman and I have been supporting women all my life from widows to less-privileged, underage girls and those with different challenges and I am a woman and have not seen myself go against any woman so how do I believe that women are not supporting themselves and any woman will go against me? I don’t believe that.
How are you handling the Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila factor and the decision of the party?
He was Minority Leader before and as I speak, he is the Leader of the House. The way to handle him is just to advise him that as a leader of the eight Assembly that he should advise the party properly based on the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which he swore to uphold.
Declaring interest on the Speakership seems to go against the general perception that the party has some preferred candidates?
The party has right to a preferred candidate and that is why I am still talking with the party, to everyone and even you to say we need to go back to the drawing board and look at this issue critically because there is no way anybody would think that South-east would not reckon because we are part of Nigeria and the president said he would include all the zones and that he is going to run an all-inclusive government. I am not saying anything new from what the president has said and peradventure the party did not hear him, I am reminding the party that this is what the president said and so you have to help the president to move the country to the next level with APC (All Progressives Congress) which is what my own party is preaching and becoming the Speaker is part of moving the country to the next level. That is about including all geopolitical zones and including women. Our party also said that when they were campaigning.
How will you strike a balance between opposition parties in the House and your party?
In the National Assembly, once you are elected you are representing 360 constituencies and these people are Nigerians and there is no balance to strike, people are treated on who they are, that is why once you form the ninth Assembly, you set up a committee on Rules and Business where you also have selection committee where every member that is elected will go and submit their preferences because you will see people who are coming from different professions. Somebody may want to be in Information Committee, another person may want to be in the Judiciary Committee and another person, Agriculture. That Selection Committee must be represented by at least one person from each state. There are rules and if you check chapter 2, section 14(3) of the 1999 Constituency you will see where it said that even in sharing offices, including National Assembly, that you will not share it in such a way that one ethnic group would be predominant against the others. That is the constitution, justice according to law.
What is your understanding of the independence of the legislature from the standpoint of you being a Speaker?
What I understand is that you have three arms of government that should be independent of each other to ensure checks and balances but they should have Nigeria as their focal point so that everything they do should be in the interest of Nigeria. That means there must be collaboration. Parliament cannot work in isolation.
As Speaker, what would be your contribution in stabilising the polity?
We have 360 members and constituencies, everyone will bring his expertise to the table to ensure that there is no fear or favour in issues of policy of government.
What is your message to fellow House members?
I am putting myself forward, they should vote me and voting me means we believe in one Nigeria inclusive of all sections.