Being one of the longest-serving lawmakers at the Senate, the senator representing Enugu-West, Ike Ekweremadu, is a familiar face in Nigerian politics.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Ekweremadu, who is the deputy senate president, shares his vision for his constituency and the strategies he follows in attracting projects to the area.
PT: You are a very long-standing member of the National Assembly. What is the philosophy behind this constituency projects that the National Assembly came up with?
Ekweremadu: It actually started with President Olusegun Obasanjo when our colleagues came in in 1999. They came up with this idea that there is a need for them to be able to put maybe boreholes and a few things that can touch the lives of their people. So when in 2007, I came into the leadership of the National Assembly when David Mark was the Senate President, we now felt it was necessary to have a conversation with the executive to institutionalise the issue of constituency projects. After a lengthy conversation with the then president, late President YarAdua, he yielded a N100 billion being put to the National Assembly, which has continued.
With the N100 billion, we now decided on equality, that each geopolitical zones would get N10 billion. This N10 billion would now be shared among the states in each geopolitical zone. The remaining N40 billion would be shared between the Senate and the House. With this, the Senate and the House leadership would try to input into the budget on critical areas like roads and electricity. That means the National Assembly would have a N100 billion input into the budget of any particular year.
You know sometimes people come into the National Assembly with this idea that as a member of the National Assembly you can put anything you want in the budget. But it does not work that way. If you put something in the budget you are supposed to be asking yourself where would the money come from. But the fact that we are determining where the amount is coming from and where it is going to has helped us for a long period of time to ensure that we are able to make input in tangible terms in to the budget because no matter what you do in terms of lawmaking, if you do not have anything on the ground in your constituency they would never believe you have done anything. They would not understand the situation between the Executive and Legislature in terms of functions; so for them, everybody in government must provide road, water and electricity.
And I have heard this several times, even in states when they say a governor is doing well, what you hear is that he is doing roads. Because he (a lawmaker) is not constructing roads, no matter the amount of motion he has sponsored or the number of years, nobody would recognise that when election comes. We have members of our parliaments who have sponsored several bills with fantastic motions who never came back to the National Assembly on the notion that he did not perform.
PT: Instead of going this route, don’t you think it is better if citizens are sensitised that the job of the lawmaker is to make laws and ensure that what is appropriated is judiciously used.
Ekweremadu: Well, I think we need to first of all understand realities in our democratic setting. Even if you look at the political parties, you cannot say this is the difference between APC and PDP in terms of ideology. So, you need to understand that and accept that as reality. So when you are in government, people expect you to do certain things. They don’t know whether you are in the judiciary or executive or legislature, they believe government officials are supposed to do certain things for the people and once you are not doing it one would run into problem.
When Yaradua was the president, I led a delegation to him in respect of Enugu International Airport. At that time, there was no international airport in the whole of South-east. So when we made the request, he agreed to our request. But they couldn’t do anything because there was no fund to start it. At the point, we (all Enugu lawmakers) agreed that whole of the N2 billion for Enugu we decided to put it into Enugu Airport so that the issue of internationalising it will be realised.
I agree with you that in the long run, we need to let people understand who plays what role. But America, as old as it, still has issue of constituency budget and so the members also get part of the budget for the purpose of their constituency. It’s not as if it peculiar to Nigeria.
PT: There are lots of issues about management of the constituency project; issues around transparency, contract processes leading to a lot of abandoned projects. What do you think needs to be done to address these issues in term of transparency and accountability in the management of the constituency project?
Ekweremadu: Well, first the media is there but see in case of the media, sometimes they make overgeneralisation on the issue of the constituency projects. First, we have to ask ourselves, is there any need for the constituency project? Can it add value? And for this, the answers are yes. Is it being abused? Also, the answer is yes in certain circumstances but not in every case. So we need to find out whether it is working in some places. If it’s working, then, why is it not working in other places?
I agree we need to find a way of making sure it works in every place but also important to ensure money is also released because sometimes people have an impression that this money has been released and you know sometimes the funds are not released. So the media need to help in interrogation to ensure first of all whether those projects are actually what people need, whether money has been released, whether it has been implemented and then if they are not implemented, what happened to the money. If money was released or not released, why was it not released? That is where the media comes in.
I think too, internally as a member of the parliament we need to be innovative in the best way to deal with it. What has happened in other jurisdiction is that they will now set up an internal mechanism within the parliament in order to ensure that there is self-censorship making sure that these things are completed, making sure that nobody takes away the money. Also, we need a personal assessment of pair review to ensure that some of these things are not only put in the budget but also executed.
PT: What are the parameters that you check, what are the things you consider before you nominate a project for your own constituency?
I grew up in this area so I understand that there are challenges. If you are conversant with my senatorial district, we have five local government. We have Aniri, we have Agwu, we have Oji-River, Udi and Ezegu. Now if you look at the topography and the geological formation of the place; you’ll find out that places like Anniri don’t have underground water because of the coal deposit in the area, so if you try to do borehole it’s not going to work. We’ll just simply waste our time and waste government money and so we don’t bother ourselves there. Now, places like Udi and Ezegu and some part of Uji river, we’ve discovered they have underground water. So if am going to site water project, am going to focus on those areas because I know we are going to find water that will be useful to the people. Now these other places, they also have challenges because these areas are mostly swampy. So during the rainy season, cars would not access those places and so my priority there should be roads.
I weigh all those options and look at the best place which is most appreciated where it will add more value and then you place such constituency project in those areas. We have to look at where it’s most needed and location of each area in deciding where we’ll site the project.
PT: What are the things you are doing differently to make sure that you have these projects on the ground?
Ekweremadu: I’m sure you’ve heard it several times that members of the National Assembly just collect constituency projects money and put into their pocket. Let me correct that impression once more, nobody gives you constituency project money. What happens is that if an amount is provided for your constituency in the budget, you are going to nominate the agencies where this will be situated. Agencies on their own, without consulting you, will get the contractors. They go through the procurement process and award it to those who have won. Now some people may be, and I believe, go behind to either bring these contractors or influence to certain contractors. When you do that the implication is that if the contractors fail to do that job, you can’t have the moral ground to pursue it.
In my own case, I’m not in between the two categories. So if you don’t do the job, I’m going to have a problem with you. So at one point when I was having issues with my governor in Enugu years back, the former governor, he thought we are one of those who go and bring contractors and collect money. So he went to the River Basin Authority where most of our constituency projects were situated and collected the names of the contractors maybe thinking they were related to me in any way. He taught he has finally nailed Ekweremadu. He went to the Corporate Affairs Commission and discovered that those people have nothing to do with me. So, because they (contractors) know I don’t have any interest except in the completion of the project, they take it seriously and they know what will happen if they don’t take it serious.
I have had cause sometimes to report to the police to arrest the contractors and get them back to come and complete the work. So the contractors have already known that I’m not going to ask for any money, I’m not going to ask for any cut, I’m not going to demand anything less than the completion of the project so they to work and do it.
PT: How do you handle the issue of proper handing over and proper utilisation of project in your constituency?
Ekweremadu: You know, because we run a federal system of government, I’ll prefer to see a federal system that is well coordinated. But ours sometimes are not coordinated well. You see a constituency where a federal lawmaker is interested in providing health facility for his people so he will rush and put in the budget a project such as comprehensive health centre. The project will be completed, but he will not think how he will get this thing functional. Because this thing right now in your village, there is no federal medical personnel there, so how would the state government access it? How will the local government access it? It’s a federal project they don’t know about it so they have no plans for it. What will now happen after 5 to 6 years? The whole place will be overtaken by weeds, it becomes an abandoned project.
So when we realise that, it’s either you don’t bother yourselves with such projects that can never be used or what you do is get an agency to take it over. Let’s say the issue of the health centre, what I’m trying to do is to get a couple of doctors to take over the place. I’ll look for money equip it and then they will be able to run it on a commercial basis. What the people want to see is to see a health facility. They don’t care who brings it, they don’t care whether it’s free or not. What they want to see is a doctor on ground. So instead of these doctors finishing NYSC and not doing anything, we can say okay we have this health centre there that is empty, I can give you so and so money, buy the basic things and start a practice. So it’s not only providing job, it’s also providing health facility.
Now on the issue of the youth development centre, there was a time I think around 2008 or thereabout, the federal government decided to experiment on this issue of youth development centres so they decided to do one youth development centre per geopolitical zone. They did one for the south I believe in Awka and they did for other places. I now figured out that this will be very useful so I decided as part of my constituency projects to replicate this in all my local governments. So over the years, I keep putting these in the budget as part of my constituency budget hoping it will be an avenue to train young people who are unemployed so that they can start something when they acquire the skill. Now, when we completed four, we now realised that we did not think of how to run those places, we did this in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth. We had discussion with them with the hope that they will appoint maybe a principal who will come and run the place, so we kept going to them and it was not working and then the whole building started collapsing and we said we’ll not let the whole thing continue. We now say okay we can look for federal agencies that can put this in proper use. For the first one, I had to approach the Open University and converted it into campus. Luckily we didn’t have any tertiary institution around there so it provided a university education for our people. Then the one at Orji River, I now spoke to my friend who is the DG of Civil Defence and said; look, there is a land with all the facilities, building and everything which you can use as a training ground and nobody will ask you to pay any money because it belongs to the federal government. It’s my constituency project and I can give it to you. So he jumped at the idea went there and saw things for himself and we gave it to him and today it is a training school for Civil Defence in Orji River. There’s another one in my local government after they’ve been vandalised several times, eventually one day the governor of Enugu state told me that military want to set up a command secondary school and they are looking for two places in Enugu, I pleaded and they gave us one and I told them we have a place. You don’t have to waste your time and money, come and just take this place and fix it. Now the one at Udi, we are now working again with the minister of youth to get there for a training program, they have this Man-o-war stuff. So that particular agency is about to take it up. We could not conclude the one at Ezegu because we had issues with the governor of the state who didn’t actually like the idea and was opposed to it and called some people to destroy the building we had there and the fence. But that’s history now. Unfortunately, we didn’t conclude it because of that. I hope someday we would be able to provide for them as well.
PT: Another project similar to this is the dam project, what’s happening to it?
Ekweremadu: Yes as I was telling you, some part of my constituency had underground water like Udi. If you’ve been to Udi, especially 9th Mile area, you’ll discover that most of the breweries as they were then, it’s not because they like us, it’s because we have one of the best water in the country. That’s what is attracting them there. Because of that what we have done in Udi and Nnzagu is to buy a rig machine to drill water for my people there. Remember I said earlier that there is coal deposit underground that part so the implication is that you can’t get underground water no matter how you try. So, the alternative is to do dam for them. So we brought about three dams going on in that area. One is at Ivonko that will service Anniri, most of all Anniri anyway. Today I’m sure if you go, you can see the overhead dam coming up and the dam is almost completed. Then we have one at Ungbo that will serve the people of Agwu, Ungbo and environs. So that has been fixed and completed. But unfortunately, we’ve not been able to recreate it due to budgetary constraint.
PT: What are some of the things you have done in the area of human capital development?
Ekweremadu: Basically there is a limit to what you can do with constituency projects, especially in terms of human capital development. But on a personal level, I decided to set up a foundation. Part of my earning goes into that foundation. What we do is that for students in university, especially for students in fourth year and penultimate year, we help them with school fees as much as we can, each year. We also conduct quiz competitions among secondary school, so the best ones we give them scholarship. Sometimes, we just do interview to see the most brilliant of them, we give them scholarship, pay them and pay their way through school. And then once in a while, we find work opportunities in the federal service where people want to employ, I will plead with them to put our people in those places. We also train people who are through with university, put them through computer programming and stuffs like that and give them some practical training in some areas especially those in engineering, take them to some practical places they can get real-time training and get some experiences and some other have started something on their own. So, quite a number of programmes that will help empower these people.
Another thing we do is the adult literacy. We discovered that over the years our people have been left behind especially women; because you know in the past there is a priority to send the male children to school, they don’t send the female; what they do is just give them out in marriage. What we did was to set up adult literacy schools, remember the federal government has a commission for adults but it’s not working, if it’s working it’s certainly not working in my own place. We needed to fill the gap, what we did was to partner with primary school teachers in various communities and say gentlemen after school we’ll pay you so and so money, can you help us put these women together and these men too and to teach them how to read and write. This we started doing over ten years. After about six years, they’ve graduated in the primary school and the interesting thing is that the quality of our graduate is better than the quality of the primary school graduate in the normal school, that is the truth.
PT: Overall what is your vision for all these things you are doing?
Ekweremadu: What we are trying to do is to use my senatorial district to do an experiment that people can appreciate a government that is dealing with their welfare. That we don’t really care where you come from; whether for presidency or governorship, so long you are there for all of them. What we want to show is that somebody who is a leader can do all he can to ensure that everybody has the benefit of that leadership. What we want to show is that you can think for everybody not necessarily for yourself.
Now the idea is that if you are in public service and you have something to offer you do not need to start with yourself if you believe that these people you are representing them you can as well ensure that they get the benefit of your representation because not everybody would be at the National Assembly to fight for themselves.
My local government is the smallest but it has not affected the number of times I have been sent to the National Assembly. It’s because those other people who are much bigger, more educated and exposed believe that as long as Ekweremadu is there, I am covered. So they are not bothered where I come from and they do not care how long I stay. And they ask themselves if you remove Ekweremadu, what would the person come and do differently.
Another thing is you should not be proud and wait for them to come and see you. You have to go out. For instance, if I want a water project I do not need to wait for the Minister of Water to come to my office, I go to his office and I follow up with him. And when you take that time to go see a minister, for instance, they would feel humbled and feel respected. He or she might even do something out of his way just to please you for the fact you have shown respect. It does not change anything, I am still the Deputy Senate President.
Some people would think that I am a senator or house member. The minister would come and when he leaves, he would just say this man wasted my time the whole day. What does he want me to do? So that is how it works; you need to humble yourself and ensure you are there for everybody.
PT: What do you think about your political career going forward
Ekeremadu: I am a child of destiny. I do not worry myself about the future, my future is in the hands of God. I just have the privilege and opportunity to serve my people, I am doing the best of my ability and I am happy they are appreciating it. The day God says it’s ended, it would end and I would praise Him and move on.