Thursday, January 10, 2013

Governors can’t influence lawmakers on constitution amendment, says Amaechi

Guardian Nigeria Interview by Kodilinye Obiagwu

Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi at an interactive session with journalists spoke on the autonomy of councils and the position of the Nigerian Governor’s Forum (NGF) on the amendment of the constitution. KODILINYE OBIAGWU was there. Excerpts:
WHAT do you make of insinuations that governors are frustrating the constitutional amendment?
I can’t respond to all statements people make concerning the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF). However, truth is that the Forum cannot frustrate or influence the amendment of the Constitution. How are the Governors doing that? What are the roles the governors are playing in the process of amending the constitution? Are we the legislative arm of government? Some of the comments on the issue don’t require answers some of them are suggesting that there are no state Houses of Assembly and that the governors have constituted themselves into state Assemblies and possibly National Assembly too.
The Forum is a pressure group and if we succeed in putting the pressure on the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly and get away with some positions, does it mean that we are controlling them? Governors are very patriotic people and everything they do is for the benefit of the people and the larger interests of the country.
What I can see is that the Forum has of recent attracted various forms of statements, some complimentary, some unnecessary. Someone recently described the Forum as an oppressive body. I won’t make any response to that; people should just leave the Governor’s Forum alone.
But there is no doubt that the governors can influence their Senators and House of Representatives members...
We have absolutely no influence. How can you influence your senator on such a weighty issue? For example, I don’t see how I can influence Senator Magnus Abe, who is from Rivers. Let me give another example on how it is not possible to influence the lawmakers. During the presentation of the 2012 budget, the Speaker didn’t spare harsh words on me and many people were shocked and wanted me to pick quarrels with him. But I rejected the idea and told them that he was playing his role as a Speaker.
The Speaker criticised and mocked me. He said to me: “People say that you are doing well and that you are doing so many projects. They have also said that you are not completing them; you have to complete them and consolidate on them. You have to stop this expansion of projects. We in the House of Assembly will not approve any further expansion but we will allow you to consolidate.” When he finished, I said, ‘thank you sir.’ No matter how he felt about what he said and despite what anyone else took from that, my point is that, if I controlled the House of Assembly, would he have said anything as strong as that?
What is your position on the debate over autonomy of local councils?
There is no country in the world where there are three federating units. It is usually two all over the world. Why should we say that there must be a third federating unit in Nigeria. I am opposed to the autonomy of councils. My position is that the governors should be allowed to create councils, as many as they want. It should not be there as a constitutional issue. The management and administration of the councils have become an excuse to accuse us of mismanaging resources. I can’t understand why this accusation and claims have stuck. In Rivers, the council chairmen collect their allocation at source. I don’t collect and share the federal allocation. Incidentally, according to the figures I have, after collecting their money directly, they collect my N2 billion monthly. I pay the salaries of all the teachers at the council.
With feelers from the Governor’s Forum and the debate on State Police, would it be appropriate to assume that the governors have lost the battle for the creation of state police?
My immediate response would be to say that I don’t want to discuss this issue. But then, how can anyone make any assumptions on this at this time. Until the constitution is amended you cannot know what is lost and what is won.
There is no doubt that the building of 24 model secondary schools in each of the 24 councils, will pose challenges. For example, how do you intend to recruit quality teachers to match the concept of the boarding schools?
This is not so much a challenge because we anticipated it. In this January, we will be employing 13,000 teachers. The challenge incidentally is from elsewhere. And this is why I disagree with people who say that we are in control of the State House of Assembly. We would have completed the process of engaging the teachers since October 2012, but the state House of Assembly stopped it through a resolution and we dutifully obeyed the resolution. Up till now we have not resolved the issue.
At the last town hall meeting at Asatoro, there was an altercation between the Speaker, who is from the area, and I. I was trying to bring the issue to the attention of the people that it was the Speaker who was delaying the process. I told Asatoro people that we would have finished employing the teachers and some the students would have been in school but their son, the Speaker stopped us. I told them to beg the Speaker. The Speaker sensed the import of the statement and took the microphone from me. He told the people that “the governor didn’t go through the proper process and so we stopped him.” I said yes we did not, but their son didn’t remember from the beginning until when we were about issuing letters of employment. That was when he said stop. We are making an appeal to the House so that they can hurry through the process because we want to release the employment letters to the teachers before the end of January. Apparently, my approach through the people worked because the people started shouting and said, “he will allow you to give the letters.” I said to myself, we have won. But the truth is that he stopped us from doing so as far back as October 2012. If we were in control of the House would he stop us? This is the kind of challenge I am talking about.
You have oftentimes said that the schools and hospitals you are building in the state will be free for all residents. Is there going to be a plan to ensure the sustainability of these projects when you leave office in 2015?
The only thing that is of concern to me is that the projects will be sustainable within my period in office. I will continue to manage the resources in such a way that people will benefit from the free education and health care services because the idea of not paying for the services is to allow the poor children or the children of the poor access to education and health.
In planning for good education and health, the strategy is that people should know that affordability goes together with accessibility. If it is not affordable you will lose more lives; if you don’t educate people, you will run into more crises. So if you want to educate people and have the society that is properly developed, then you must make education both affordable and accessible. So if you build schools everywhere and nobody can afford them, then nobody will attend. As a temporary measure, government must be able to bear the responsibility of funding. The benefits of that can’t be quantified. It has occurred to those in government that about 80 per cent of all those criminals claiming to be Niger Delta fighters did not attend primary schools because they could not afford it. I now said that the government has a responsibility to take care of these children up to secondary school. At the University level there will be payment of fees because that is a choice the individual has to make but we have to give free education up to secondary school to prepare the young ones prepare to liberate their minds and mental capacity.
Did you ever think of getting the House of Assembly pass a law making it compulsory for fees to be free when you leave office?
No. The next governor can introduce fees is he or she feels so. Let the next governor make a choice about that. I feel that the next governor won’t be facing primary schools because I would have taken care of that. He might face the primary schools to the extent that more children might be coming up. What I met on ground in the primary schools was about 300,000 pupils and now we have exceeded 150,000 so I have to provide for the extra 150,000.
Do you think about 2015 in terms of who might take over from you and how the person might react to what will be your legacy?
I have no fears. We should all leave that to God; there is nothing like that in my agenda. The next governor can do whatever he wants to do. Did I know that I would be governor? Why should I worry about what will happen when I leave office?
What sums up your vision for Rivers?
It is education, health, power and transportation. I really don’t emphasize roads. But right now I am doing a ten-kilometer road that will cost N47 billion; it has three flyovers and some bridges. We will also build a new road to the airport to decongest Aba Road. It will cost N200 billion and 50 per cent of that will be spent on bridges with about four overland inter-changes. These roads are being done according to the master plan. We also have the 25-kilometer monorail.
Unlike most states, funding is not a problem for the state, or is it?
Funding is critical in the sense that we are pushing hard on internally generated revenue (IGR). It used to be N2.5 billion but it is now N6.5 billion and our target is N8 billion. We are planning to pay our recurrent expenditure on IGR and use the federal allocation on the projects.
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