Hon Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje is a ranking member of the House of Representatives, representing Bende Federal Constituency of Abia State. She chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In this interview with Ruth Tene, she speaks on the National Assembly’s political will to override the presidential veto on the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018.
Few days ago the President refused assent to the Electoral Bill. Does the National Assembly have the capacity to override him and what do you see as the consequence of his refusal?
In the court case between Wike vs Dakuku Peterside, it was very clear, that even though the card reader was a policy of government, it was not a law and because it was not a law, a policy could not override a law and to that end we found that it was inadmissible in court. For us the amendment of the Electoral Act would throw up all the concerns that we had in the electoral laws. Let us not forget that the job of the National Assembly is to collate and aggregate opinion of a critical mass of the Nigerian people. What are the yearnings of the Nigerian people? That we have freer, fairer and more transparent elections. Now if we can sit in conversations with Nigerians in our various constituencies, look at how they transmit real-time in other countries and we are always admiring those elections, now the only way to have done it is to give clarity but for it to be more technological so that it can transmit in real-time to cut back on the ballot snatching or manipulation and mutilation of results and that was what the National Assembly was trying to do. To come back to the question, would the NASS be able to override the veto, it is a question of number, politics is a question of number. Is there a political will to try to override the veto? Absolutely. Can it be done? We just have to wait and see.
Would you say vote-buying is something Nigeria can tackle very soon?
It would have been addressed in the Electoral Act, but I think that it is something that can be tackled right now? I always say to people that this is a referendum of the Nigerian people, but the politicians are the beneficiaries of the act and the people, the drivers of the process. And so the inducements would come but as I said, the referendum is of the Nigerian people and if the Nigerian people give up their franchise at any stage and become accomplices in vote buying, then you cannot hold the politicians responsible. I believe that it is absolutely important that the Nigerian people decide if their lives are better off now than it was four years back. If it is not, then it is the referendum and the referendum lies within your hand to make that difference.
What should be done to politicians caught in electoral malpractices?
There should be a tribunal. That is what we were trying to capture and I believe if that doesn’t happen, then under what laws do we try them? And this is what we were trying to do and I think that it is very important that we must continue the hues and cries, the solemn dance act about the electoral amendment.
You said you are not interested in building roads, yet it is in the open that lawmakers are given funds for constituency projects. Where are you deploying the money to?
We are not given any money. We are given the opportunity to attract into the budget certain projects and we have come to realise that our constituencies are very rural. Now a lot of our people see government in terms of roads, schools, infrastructure, hospitals and that was the reason why in the wisdom of the National Assembly, they decided that we are going to have quick wins to engage the people at the grassroots level. Now when the budget comes in, it does not understand that in Bendel for instance where I come from, that Amokwelu needs a health centre, they don’t realise that Okokoitem has not had water in 50 years and so government is more interested in the larger base, but because we need to connect with our people, part of our job is representation, part of our job is to attract projects to our constituencies, what we do is quick wins. Things that affect the lives of our people in the immediate, refurbish schools that affects the lives of the people, bore hole for water that affects the lives of the people, health care centres that affect the lives of the people etcetera. For instance in Abia where I come from there is a package that you are allowed to attract, for instance, I’m allowed to attract projects worth N150 million to my entire constituencies every year, it is not given to me in cash. I’m asked to nominate projects into the budget and the entire budgetary process is taken up by the MDAs that are domiciled. Not a penny is given to members of the National Assembly. Now when you hear that the federal government gives roads at N150million per kilometer, it is impossible for me with my N150million ceiling and my 13 wards to put a one kilometer road in one village. First of all, no road is 1 kilometer, second of all, it sucks up everything, when I could have put a medical center here, refurbished 20 schools, water here and so it reaches more people and so that is what it is. Tokenism but in a way that boils down government to the grassroots and that was the wisdom behind constituency projects. Unfortunately, the NASS is the most vilified arm of government and nothing more. People want to hear what we say and when they hear it, bogus salaries and all that, but the truth of the matter is exactly as it is, I keep asking my friends who are contractors, who are part of this narrative of being given money and say you did constituency projects in this constituency, did the honourable member pay you? You went and raised the voucher in the Ministry and you got paid, so why do you constantly say we are given the money for constituency projects?
As a young politician, how were you able to secure victory at the polls?
I won at three primaries and three general elections. I will say at the time it was transition elections, the two rounds of the governorship elections were ending and so people wanted different and I think that is the same thing that the PDP fell into, transition elections. So it was very hard work, lots of hardworking, there was a lot of violence, but I think the people were ready for a change and wanted something different. I think the people knew what they had and I’m not sure they like what they had and so they wanted to change, so the people came out enmasse and voted and I think that is the way that victory in elections go.
With the low participation of women in politics, what hope do you see for women in 2019?
Very tragic. I actually don’t see any hope because the environment is fraught with violence and we didn’t do anything about the violence, from Delta, Benue, to most of the constituencies where they had primary elections. Unfortunately, in an area of violence, women don’t thrive. When you see the number of women that came out in the process, you find out that this is the lowest in the history of Nigeria’s political space. Now the question becomes that after 18 years and four rounds of election, the assumption that our political space will be strengthened, deepened and the institutions and systems that guide politics and the conduct of elections will be stronger, but unfortunately what we find is that those structures, institutions are getting weaker. And again that takes us back to the Alectoral Act and for me it is very important, because the job of the National Assembly is that through its oversight we will look at laws appropriation and policies and the things that happen are the things that would normally drive and determine the amendments brought to any law. Now for us, after the 2015 elections, there were so many lacunas, there were certain things that had mitigated against the smooth running of those elections and as politicians we decided that our only instrument was the amendment of the electoral act. By that amendment, certain, things were brought up, violence. We found out that a lot of people actually proposed commissions against violence in elections, some proposed all kinds of amendments. We found out that because we have a largely illiterate population, the people know what they want, but they are probably not literate and so they can’t understand the difference between when you lump a candidate, with the consequences that the most important office in the country was not stand alone in such a way that gave Nigerians the opportunity to actually chose the President of their choice. Now, if there is a saying, that you will get the leadership you deserve, it means that at least the people should be given the opportunity to choose that leadership without being hoodwinked into doing that.
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