Rt. Honourable Francis Abumere Okiye is the Speaker, Edo State House of Assembly (EDHA). On this exclusive interview with the duo of The NIGERIAN OBSERVER Editor, Special Projects, TUNDE EIGBIREMOLEN and Assistant Editor, OBOH SYLVESTER, the Speaker explains what prepared him for the Speakership position, talks about the State of affairs in the Edo State House of Assembly and maintains that having been inaugurated, the House of Assembly as presently constituted, needs no distraction to deliver on its set mandate. You will find this interview penetratingly insightful.
Hon Speaker, we want to once again congratulate you as the Speaker, Edo State House of Assembly. By way of legislative experience we want you to tell our readers what prepared you for this office?
Well, talking about the equipment for the office of the Speaker today, I will first of all like you to know that there is a lot I know about myself. There is a lot I am crediting to God’s divine preparation which are again manifesting today. I will like to look back at my University days in the University of Benin. I actually went into writing my JAMB wanting to read Law; but eventually l was given an admission to read political science.
Initially, I was reluctant, but I didn’t have a choice at some point. When I got into the department, I didn’t know how some of my older colleagues that I met in school identified me as one that have the capacity to mobilise other classmates. So eventually, I became a student union leader even in my year one. When I was in year two, I became the chairman of the campus’ political science students, well ahead of my seniors. In all of these, I found myself developing stronger interests in playing politics, because, our social discussions in school then was all about politics. We talked about politics of the campus and the wider society. So I began to develop interest. Even at that, I did not think I was coming to play politics in the outside world.
So before we graduated, I became politically strong in terms of student union politics. I became a member, not just of the parliament, but I was now a leader in the parliament, a rallying point in the parliament. So, soon after I graduated, I actually wanted to serve, even though I was over aged. But I was trying to interpret to the school authority that the exemption is optional. You can be exempted if you are above the age, that is , if you wish to be exempted. But in this case, I wanted to serve my country. While this argument was still going on, I got my letter of exemption. And before then, while we were preparing for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), people started altering their ages and I said no, I was not going to alter my age, that I will serve when the time comes.
But why I have to give you this background information is that I did not alter my age and I did not go for service. While my colleagues went for service, I went back to my business and visiting my people in the village, when in one afternoon, a friend of mine called me and said he was coming to see me and started mounting pressure on me that I have a lot of goodwill and that I can be useful to them at that time in politics. That was in 2002. So gradually, I found myself in the wider politics.
My constituency was a peculiar one. From the same community with late Chief Tony Anenih and of course that speaks volume. To represent Chief Tony Anenih, you must be above board. You must be ready to develop very strong political stamina to make sacrifice in terms of subordination. So that is how we went. While I was still loaded with that students Union activism, I was not really too keen about money, but I was talking about service delivery and what we expected politics to be while in school. Those were my drive. Because of this drive, I suffered a lot of deprivation and marginalisation, but I felt they were part of the struggle. I enjoyed all of them and eventually my coming back a second term was only easier, because I did not have anybody to contest against me in the nomination.
So I came back to the State House of Assembly, and there was signals that I might be the Majority Leader then. I became afraid if it was actually convenient for me to serve as Majority Leader, because being a leader of the House, you were expected to drive the process of establishment, you will no longer be antagonistic to the establishment and the leaders of the party. But again, God saw me through, I did my best I was up and doing and even though it is not usual for you to praise yourself, but in the words of Agama Lizard, I did, because, I felt I did my best under the circumstance and then I was ready to quit the stage. Since then I have been here. Providence made me to serve as the Deputy Chief of Staff to the then Governor Oshiomhole. Then this present Governor Godwin Obaseki made me a Liaison Officer to the House of Assembly.
In all of these, I was never thinking of coming back to the House. As far as I was concerned, I was done with the House and I had moved forward and moved on with life.
As God would have it, when the signal came that I should go and pick up the form and I said to where? Because, I did not think I had the resources. I was quite ready to contest for the House of Representatives or the Senate given the political configuration in my constituency. Eventually it turned out to be the House of Assembly, and I said well, I was just going to do my best.
So the long and short of it is, that God’s presence was mightily felt in the entire process and I won and became a member of the House first of all. Before the election, members and colleagues that were co-candidates then had started seeing me as their possible Speaker, because, they looked around, the way I emerged and won election in that part of the constituency was a feat never to be contemplated.
As God again would have it, I was elected, so whether I was going to be the Speaker from that point was no longer an issue to debate; even though the dynamics of politics played out some murky waters. But today I am here by the special grace of God and the members of the House, I am the Speaker, I am here to serve and do my best. I am here to serve the people that are ultimately our masters. To reform positively to the best of my ability the house and to make members have the benefits and the return on the investment they have had on me to lead them.
Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. You know the inauguration that brought you up as the Speaker of Edo State House of Assembly is well in the public domain and we are aware it is in court and now a matter for the court to adjudicate on. But we also know that perhaps there could be a political solution to the whole drama. Would you want to speak about that?
Well, I do not know what exactly you want to hear from me, but it cannot be different from what is, as far as I am concerned is the truth. We have had the inauguration and that is behind us now. But there is something that I keep telling the world about the whole hullaballoo. That is: what is Proclamation? I think there is still something that is meddling in our psyche that is far from what the drafters of the constitution have in mind. And that is, the House is Proclaimed, it is not as if there is a seal that needs to be broken after which people can now clap their hands and the House commences. Proclamation is like a declaration. And the Governor writes that the House is hereby Inaugurated or declared or proclaimed on so so day, meaning from that day, the days start counting, so if there are two or three members-elect that are around, the House takes off; few other persons can come, that is the meaning. So, when people think you make a proclamation you are going to call the whole world, call family sit down and then begin to do election and all that, those are ancilliaries. If you look at the Constitution it said that members may wish to participate in the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. It is not compulsory that all members participate. So now we have taken off, l still appeal to our members that are reading the constitution up side down to set aside who is the leader and who is not a leader, because, we are all eminently qualified to lead the House. They should think of the people that elected them for representation, set egocentrism aside and come and let us work together. If after giving me a try they are not satisfied with my conduct, the law is clear on how to change the leadership of the House. We were all elected as honourable members. Nobody was elected as a Speaker. So it is not a birthright and to say that if I was not the Speaker, the House should not commence
I believe their conscience will be touched by the gods that control them some day, and they will realised that the only ultimate benefit or gain right here is to come together and get inaugurated and we move forward. So Political solution is not completely out of it. lt’s a possibility.
Thank you Mr. Speaker. This is a follow up to the last question. In every office, there are two things that normally count at the end of the day. That is peace and achievements. How do you think you can navigate through this crisis so that your tenure as Speaker of Edo State House of Assembly will be peaceful, eventful and full of achievements and Governor Obaseki gets a deserved ticket for a second term?
Well, I may not want to comment on the governor’s position right now, but I will like to say that there is a huge level of external interference which is already misleading our people. I want a peaceful Assembly, I never contemplated managing only a section of the Assembly and the much I can say is that I still believe that members will come to reason and come back to join in the struggle to make Edo State a stronger state. Once we are able to put away these external influences, more than half of the job is done. Because I still say that I never have problems with my colleagues. They are my friends and we have been friends for some time now. I do not think they are the ones that do not want me as the Speaker of the Edo State House of Assembly.
Since June Mr. Speaker, when this House was inaugurated, Edo people are aware of the number of functions so far performed by this House. That further goes to legitimise your administration. Could you please refresh our minds on those humble achievements since you emerged Speaker?
There are several other functions that the members of the House perform. Having been elected and inaugurated, there are some that are known to the public and there are some not known to the public. Sometimes people assess the House by how many motion and bill you have passed. And do not forget for instance, the office of Mr. Speaker does not sponsor motion and cannot sponsor a Bill as a constituency. That will not mean that Mr. Speaker has not performed.
There are other political approaches. There are strong efforts at navigating to generate the needed peace. Then the oversight function; there are times in most cases informally, when you meet with other stakeholders in government and advice and suggestions are advanced that in most cases help to advance the course of the state. So these are some areas where performance can be measured.
In the case of where we are today, there are a lot of Bills that are needed to be passed into law that raise some matters of urgent public importance like clearing of the commissioners and so on. These are the ones the people feel they know. But a lot that we have done that are targeted at maintaining peace for the state are also there, joining the executive in giving our humble advice as to how some of these bills and policies can be applied in the best interest of the citizens of the state. We have done all of these and to keep the system going; we have also been playing our role.
We have ensured that even though we are few numbers at the moment, that the job that needed to be done is going on. Like all the members, no one member is in less than two committees. And it is not easy, in spite of the very lean resources, in spite of the fact that infrastructures to do the job are not readily available, we have to do this job to move the state forward.
So in the context of achievements, I want to summarise by saying that we have not allowed the state to suffer . We have provided leadership when it was mostly needed. We have provided the third arm of government without necessarily allowing external promptness to derail the course of the state. These are numerous achievements, and for me, I think we have done very well.
Mr. Speaker, Just recently, the media was awash with the recent visit of the State Governor, Godwin Obaseki to the APC National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole. What is the implication of this visit towards resolving the EDHA crisis? Secondly, how is the Edo State House of Assembly carrying the Local governments along as critical stakeholders? What is your position on the independence and autonomy of the Local Government?
First of all, in my place, there is the adage that nobody questions you why there is peace in your family; people are only worried when there is discrepancies and quarrel. That the two gladiators met has signalled a lot of good things to come. I was also impressed and was very happy to receive the news even though I was not there. That if there is some level of misunderstanding, that they have been able to table and some discussions are going on is a half way achieved. So I believe and I hope that what is needed is confidence building and sincerity can bring that to bear.
Then secondly, you see the local government is a tier of government, even though I won’t be making a mistake to say they are subordinate to the House of Assembly. So the local government found themselves operational by documents released by the House of Assembly. So we will continue to moderate them and give them fairly large space to demonstrate their democratic tendencies and principles. We have set up a committee on Local Government and community matters with competent members moderating that committee. And Often time, we meet to interface. So, we are guiding them.
You see, there are usually two approaches to law. There is spirit of the law and there is the letters of the law. Being the drafters of the law that manage them we are more at home with what we tend to achieve by the law we are giving them to operate. But that you can bring these two people together both in formal and informal setting makes a healthier interpretation of the law possible. That we have also provided. We talk on a daily basis and where there tends to be ambiguity in the law, we explain to them what we really mean. You know there is no English Language that can really explain it all.
We continue to tell them this is what we want, this is what it ought to be. Again in terms of autonomy, autonomy again does not exist in vacuum. It is only under a set of guided principles. It has only removed that tendency of master and servant relationship to derivation of powers and authority from a common document that we all have subscribed to. In the real sense of the autonomy of the Local Government, it is a test of the capacity of the operators and management of local government to demonstrate whether they actually have the capacity to rule as a government. So the ball is thrown back to them. Now they have all the finances, all the structures, they have the law. The check and balances are existing both from the House of Asssembly and other security agencies. So we are happy that they are being liberated but we are monitoring what they are able to work within the confines of the autonomy without being carried away by freedom. Autonomy can mean freedom. You know in freedom, you need to be moderated. That is how much I can say on that.
Finally, your strong message to Edo people, what they should expect from this Assembly?
First of all, we need prayers. We need them to pray for us to be able to disconnect from the distractions. We need to settle down so that we can marshall out our plans and deliver on the agenda that we have set for ourselves. We want to operate as an arm of government and make our sincere contribution to the development of Edo State. And to this extent, we pray that we do not get distracted. This Assembly under my leadership has a defined focus of righting the wrong. We simply have to stand as an Assembly as a third arm of government so that our contribution of making law and carrying out our oversight functions will be so clear and definite.
The separation of powers as propounded by the French philosopher Montesquieu, did not envisage issue of one policing the other. It is not confrontation. We want to bring to bear how the House of Assembly can complement the work of the Executive and expect the Judiciary to be a watchdog. So there is a lot in our kitty; because the dignity of the House needs to be restored once more.
We need to reposition the House of Assembly essentially to be confined to issues of law making and monitoring the laws we have made that are done in the spirit for which they were made. For instance in the Budget; when you make law on the budget and carry out oversight functions on it, it is to ensure that the law you have made is carried to the letters and the principle of that law. So we want to be able to pull ourselves out of these aggrandizements and be focused to deliver on our mandate.
Thank you so much for your time.