Dr Alex Egbona, member of the House of Representatives for the Abi/Yakurr Federal Constituency of Cross River State is not happy with the way governors are running the affairs of local governments in their state. He is even more uncomfortable that the governors are micro-managing the council areas. As a former councillor, Egbona is worried that elected chairmen and councillors are being remote-controlled by the executive, the reason why the rural areas are not developing.
In this interview with some journalists, the only person to have won an election in the state under the APC also speaks on the conduct of local government elections and sundry issues.
You are now a member of the House of Reps. How does it feel?
Interesting, I will say. I say so because it is a dream come true. My people dreamt of it. They worked towards realising it and now, we have got it. Yes, I am the face for that seat, but the people of Abi/Yakurr are the ultimate owners of the seat.
It is all about them and I can only play my role as their representative, to make sure that everything that they deserve gets to them. It is an interesting experience belonging to the lower chamber of the National Assembly.
We have only sat once, after the inauguration. You know, we are yet to be allocated offices and all that. So, we had to adjourn so that by the time we return, all things would have been in place for a smooth take –off. I can only say that there are better days ahead.
Recently, you spoke about your commitment to resolving the communal conflict between your state and the neighbouring Ebonyi State. What are your plans practically?
My duty as a legislator is basically about legislation and oversight duties. In this circumstance, I have already started making plans for a first action on this; and it will be on the floor of the green chambers. I am already talking to my colleagues to get them to appreciate the gravity of the crisis. That will help us to get the buy in of my colleagues. I will not want to say much about what I am working on. But it will soon become public knowledge, how the crisis which has lingered for a while, will be resolved. For the purpose of this interview, I can say that my team is already working hard on this. I will explore the two instruments of legislation and oversight to resolve this as fast as possible.
Let me use this opportunity to seek the hand of support of security agencies in getting this issue finally and permanently put to rest. Our people deserve to have peace and they must have peace. This issue is so dear to my heart.
What do you think about the issue of local government autonomy?
I am one person who supports full autonomy for local governments in the country. It is annoying that people have bastardised the local government system and they don't see anything wrong with that. Some governors see the local governments as an offshoot of their Government House. A governor will wake up in the morning and announce the sack of a local government chairman, and sometimes dissolve the local government system and send the elected officials packing. There are local governments in this country that have been ruled by sole administrators, caretaker officials and so on. It is even more worrisome that in some of the local governments where so called elections have been conducted, the governor will single-handedly bring up all the chairmen and councillors. And so, those officials owe allegiance, not to the people or the constitution of the country, but to the governors.
That is why I am a bit concerned about the workability of the new and commendable decision to credit the accounts of the local governments directly. As much as this is a great idea, I fear that some of the governors will arm-twist the chairmen and compel them to spend the diver the monies to accounts of their choice. Of course you and I know that the chairmen will have no choice than to obey the man who put them in the office.
That is why I am a serious advocate of the scrapping of state electoral commissions. While I am pushing for the conduct of local government elections across all the states of the federation, I am also of the strong view that INEC should be allowed to conduct local government elections for the various local governments. I believe that if our country follows this path, there will be some semblance of decency in the local governments.
I was once a councillor and I know what it was like, at that time and what the situation is right now. I can boldly tell you that the local government system has been systematically and practically messed up. At that time, councillors were able to check the executive and we made sure that the system worked. The local government chairman would submit his budget to the legislative assembly for consideration and we would ensure that the budget was followed religiously. Projects were executed by the chairmen and those who failed to perform were reprimanded by their councillors. The chairmen lived and operated from their domain. But today, what is happening? The chairmen only visit their offices, sometimes once a month. They prefer to live in the state capitals because the state governor and the house of assembly have taken over their responsibilities. That cannot be allowed to continue. I usually ask, how would the governors feel, if the National Assembly or even the president decide to take over the functions of the state governors? How will the governor feel if the president takes over their functions, withholds their federal allocation and gives them peanuts as pocket money every month, relying on some laws enacted for a selfish interest?
There is really a very urgent need to restructure this country along that line. The local governments must be allowed to take charge of their activities. At the National Assembly, some of us will push for this to happen. If operatives in the various states are arrested, tried and jailed for tampering with local government funds, they will stop. They are so daring that some of the governors even remote-control the LG chairmen to go and protest that they do not want to be free from bondage. Can you imagine a local government chairman saying they want to protest because the federal government is wielding the big stick, trying to stop the governors from tampering with LG funds? What do you call that?
The time has come for the local government chairmen to stand up and fight for their right. The governors should be satisfied with their own allocation. They should allow the chairmen to work and develop the grassroots. That is where the masses live. Enough of the brigandage.
You are talking so passionately about this issue......
(Cuts in). Everybody should be worried about what is happening to our local governments. Like I said, I have worked as an elected representative of the people at the local government system and when I see what is going on today, it is nauseating. Let me ask you, tell me the names of councillors in your local government that you know. Do you know them? Have you seen them sit to enact laws before? Ask the councillors themselves, do they even know what they are supposed to be doing as councillors? Take a visit to the local governments, especially those ones that are not close to the state capital. Go there everyday for three weeks and come back to tell me if you saw the chairman or the councillors. You are journalists. Investigate this. Is there any legislative assembly in the local governments? Mr President has my back on this move to revive the local government system and I am so passionate about this matter. I am ready to lead the campaign, with the support of my colleagues in the National Assembly, to restore sanity to our local governments. The local farmer from the remotest local government in this country does not have any business trying to get to his state capital if the local government is working properly. The local government chairman and councillor have no business loitering round the state capital if the local government system worked. They don't need to. They ought to remain in their base and serve the grassroots people.
We are complaining of insecurity everywhere. When last did traditional rulers get stipends from the local government system? Who cares about them? Yet, we are all crying that they are not maintaining the peace in their domain. This cannot be allowed to continue like this. It is time to take our local governments out of the woods into the next level. I am in support of this and I am committed to making this work.
You are among those who stood behind the current speaker before he emerged. What is the shape of things to come from the House of Reps, now that you people voted based on the party's directive?
We are first of all party men. Our party gave us the ticket with which we won our elections. So, we are duty bound to obey our party. That is what is called loyalty. But I will like to assure Nigerians that the speaker is a good party man who is conscious of and has already indicated his readiness to work with everybody, irrespective of party affiliation, because the primary objective is to move Nigeria to the next level.
Our activities and actions will be based on national interest. Of course you know that the APC has the interest of the country at heart and we will always be guided by those principles that will lead to a better life for our people. If you are close to Gbaja, our speaker, you will know that Nigeria is in for a good ride as far as legislative affairs is concerned. From my interactions with him, he is totally committed to the cause of a better Nigeria. He is committed to defending the constitution and people of this country.
Don't forget that he enjoyed the massive support of even members of the opposition, including the main opposition party, the PDP. Look at the array of opposition members that even spearheaded his campaign drive. So, there is an unwritten rule of engagement that all of us have endorsed in principle, and that is the drive to make a difference in this 9th Assembly.
How is your matter at the tribunal going?
We are confident that there will be answers of peace. Our people made their choice and I am confident that the people's wish as expressed at the polls will be respected. I am afraid we cannot discuss this at length because it could be contemptuous. But we have laid our matter bare at the tribunal and I can say so far so good.