President Muhammadu Buhari on October 25 assented to the Bill establishing the North East Development Commission which was conceived, drafted and sponsored by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara. In this interview, the Speaker commended the President and warned the elite of the insurgency-ravaged region against squandering the opportunities offered for the rehabilitation of the region by the commission. Excerpts:
Question: As sponsor of the North East Development Commission Bill, which has been signed into law by the President, is this a dream come true for you?
Answer: First of all, I will start by extending our sympathies, that is, of members of the House of Representatives as well as those of members of our own caucus, over this very deadly crisis that has bedevilled our own section of this dear country. Let me also thank the press for their effort in highlighting the crisis and the security agencies for the very extraordinary sacrifices put in place in order to restore some sanity in our region.
For us who are sons of the North-east, we know our history very well, so we appreciate this gesture and we will not take it lightly. I commend His Excellency, Mr. President for signing the Bill into law. As I said before, this shows the level of the President’s sensitivity to the plight of the highly-traumatised people of the North East.
Question: What informed your decision to push for the creation of the NEDC?
Answer: From day one when we started meeting, our thinking was how do we ensure that whatever policies that are developed by government that are aimed at tackling the myriads of challenges facing us as a zone are policies that will survive whoever is formulating them. So it became clear to us that if we leave everything at the level of policies, granted that today we have a president that supports, loves and likes our people, chances are that he will not continue to be there forever. Not even chances; that is the reality.
Question: Will you say that this is the end of the insurgency and the beginning of a new era?
Answer: As a matter of fact, the heat was becoming very close to our section of the North-east, if not for the timely intervention that was brought, owing to the change of government in this country, and then they were able to put these insurgents on their backtrack.
With this progress made, some have said Boko Haram has been degraded, decapitated; some have said that they have even been defeated. But whatever the situation is, the most important thing is for our people to go back to where they belong. And then, for them to get hope in the environment where God has given us, so that they can continue to contend with destiny of life. That is what is important.
The debate shouldn’t be about the degrading and decapitating of Boko Haram, but about the survivors, the IDPs and then rebuilding these communities, hopes that were shattered on account of terrorism.
Question: Some have argued that the insurgency was caused by prolonged years of neglect and marginalization of the North-east, which Senator Bukar Abba Ibrahim once said began since 1960s. Do you agree with this assertion?
Answer: As sons and daughters of the North-east in the House, recently, we had been meeting and putting our heads together as true representatives of the zone to see what it is that we can do. As a matter of fact, these signs were there, it’s just that we didn’t notice them on time. It is true that for years in this country, the North-east has always come last in terms of budgetary allocation. This is in spite of the fact that we face more challenges than others. And when it comes to development indices, we are the last in the country, but we didn’t pay attention. When the population curve was going up sharply and opportunity costs were nose-diving, we didn’t pay attention.
Question: So will you say poverty and deprivation caused the insurgency?
Answer: I don’t know the correlation between violence and poverty, but I’ve seen that in societies where hope is lacking, there always seems to be tendencies of violence. Or where you find extreme poverty, the likelihood of violence is always there. I guess that was where we missed it. So as true believers and representatives of the zone, our focus has always been what is it that we can do so that we build on the successes that this government is gaining in its fight against terrorism. And ultimately, to ensure that we do not have a relapse in that zone, back into this kind of situation in which we find ourselves. Even those zero statistics of human development indices have been destroyed – businesses, factories. I think as we speak, perhaps the only productive enterprise in the North-east may be Ashaka Cement. I don’t know if we have any other factory employing people in the North-east. Infrastructure is zero.
Question: Going through the new law, we saw that the major source of funding of the commission will cease after 10 years. Is 10 years enough to rebuild the region?
Answer: The truth is that the level of devastation as a result of this insurgency is one that is going to take us decades to recover from. If you were to quantify the infrastructure, wealth and everything that we have lost, you would be talking about trillions. Then you can imagine in the national budget, where are we going to get allocation of trillions to the North-east? Is it within the next 10 or 20 years? So even to recover the things that we have lost, as we are saying, will take us decades, not even a few years. So that was why as skilful legislators, we decided that we will go for the North East Development Commission.
Question: Some people believe that the commission was not necessary and that it may end up being like the Niger Delta Development Commission which many believe has failed to do deliver on its mandate…
Answer: Yes, a lot of people thought it was not necessary. Some even thought, well, we want to create a system that will be like a pool of prosperity in the desert so that a few privileged sons and daughters of the region will just mismanage the resources. And I know that even the president was watching us before signing this bill into law. But I guess that he saw the plight of the people and that he’s been told of the level of devastation in that region. And since this current efforts are not enough, and may never be enough to address the challenges, if these interventions are left at the level of policies, any subsequent government that comes and doesn’t love our people that much, will just with a stroke of a pen strike the policy out, and that is the end. So the thinking was that if we could elevate this to the level of a law, then any future government that seeks to reverse it will have to face the members of the National Assembly in order to repeal that law. And because we have a voice, we will continue to have a voice in the National Assembly; it is going to be exceptionally difficult for that to be achieved. So we were making provisions for the long run, not for the short term.
And as a matter of fact, in some places where I have had to advocate for this commission, I have said the freedom for us to plan for ourselves, to manage the resources accruing to the zone is something, and we should be given that freedom. I should never be understood to be canvassing that we will mismanage resources given to us. But I said even if we do it, and we fail, a free man when he falls blames no one. We will accept the blame that we have been given the liberty and resources, but we mismanaged it, and then we will carry the shame for the rest of our lives. It is better than to leave this on the level that one day it may just be thrown to the dogs.
Question: There were delays in signing the bill into law and rumours were rife that the President may veto it. Can you briefly tell us what happened?
Answer: We lobbied members from other zones and fought to get through this process of law making. And at the end of the day, the law was prepared and sent to the executive. Obviously, they had issues with it. And realising that time was going and if the president doesn’t sign within 30 days, it means that he has vetoed the legislation. The only other option is to bring it back to the National Assembly and override the veto. But the question was whether we could muster the two-thirds votes that we need in order to override the veto, should that be the case. And we thought it wasn’t wise. So at a point I had to ask that a letter be written to the executive to withdraw the bill so that we could address those concerns that they had. So they brought it. Some lawyers were brought from the executive side, I gathered a team of lawyers as well, and I chaired the meeting. We were on this matter for three weeks with a notable son of Borno too who is no more in the House with us, but I knew him with accounting during our work as lawyers in this city of Abuja. I had to draft him in too to give a helping hand.
At the end of the day, we cleaned up all the misunderstandings, addressed all the issues the executive had, and we sent it back to them. And if that Bill had not been signed on October 25, 2017, I think officially the 30 days would have been elapsing by now. So we should thank God for His intervention, even as we thank the president. And I want us also not to forget the role of the First Lady; her members were here with us. When we had a public hearing on the bill, she personally led wives of governors to come and witness that public hearing. And happily, so many high ranking stakeholders of the North-east were there from all across the states, former governors, former ministers, I’ve never seen this kind of solidarity before.
Question: Unlike your brothers from the North-west, it is believed that the various peoples and tribes of the North-east can never unite for a common cause. Is this a new beginning of togetherness in the region?
Answer: In fact, it was on account of that I now know that this issue of unity in the North-east, it’s just that we had been playing with it, but it is something that is achievable. Because I saw it. I even noticed that a delegation was sent under the leadership of the Governor of Borno to the National Assembly to thank both the Senate President, the leadership of the National Assembly, not me because I’m the promoter, I should be the one thanking them. And through all that, I saw a lot of emirs from the zone, two governors from Yobe and Bauchi, he wasn’t there but he was ably represented, he sent a representative to stand in for him. And at that courtesy call as well, I saw leaders from the zone, former governors like I said, former ministers, across the board, they were all there. So you know that if we can continue to pursue things with the zeal of this unity that I saw, there’s nothing that we cannot achieve. Sincerely, there’s nothing that we cannot achieve, if this unity is possible. Then the only reason why we are not seen to be united is because nobody is working on that. With the right leadership, we can be able to unite, and with that unity we can push through so many regional objectives, and they will come to fruition. So that is one thing that is left for us to do. Like I said before, we shouldn’t just celebrate the coming into being of this commission. Obviously we should, because it’s going to increase the level of opportunities available to our people, whether in terms of employment, in terms of mobilisation of resources, in terms of redeveloping the infrastructure that were destroyed, we’re going to be better off for it.
Question: Will you say that the coming into force of the NEDC will end the woes of the region?
Answer: Those challenges are still with us. The challenges for providing job opportunities for our teeming young people, the challenges of redeveloping the region to ensure that for everyone who grows up in that region, there’s perhaps something that he can find to do. And when we expand this window of opportunity to so many of our sons and daughters, we’ll be able to end this issue if violence. Because I heard some of the recruits of Boko Haram were offered so much that the security agencies discovered in their bank accounts. So it was like money was even the life blood that was funding this terrorism. If we offer a situation where the society offers what outweighs what they get from terrorism, nobody would be a terrorist, as nobody wants to die. But it’s only when you face a kind of life, or a kind of situation where to even die is better than to be alive, then you’d have no choice, then you’ll be available to do anything at that stage. But anyone who is firmly rooted in the land of prosperity would hardly think of visiting violence on anyone.
Question: You have also been advocating an International Donor Conference under the auspices of the United Nations to rebuild the region. Now that the NEDC is here, don’t you think it is no longer necessary?
Answer: As far as I am concerned, if it was the responsibility of the House of Representatives, we can do it tomorrow. But unfortunately, we need all the arms of government to make it happen. This, I believe, will provide a platform to further that discussion. But the important thing is that it has been done for Syria. So, I do not see why the international community will not respond to this crisis that we are faced with in Nigeria. The world is a global village. The problems in Nigeria, if they are not well taken care of, will have an international dimension sooner than later.
Those countries in Europe who felt that they were detached from the crisis in Syria were overrun by the massive influx of emigrants. For us to deal with this, there must be an international response, so that we will be able to nip it in the bud in Nigeria.