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Chief Innocent Nzeribe Egwim, a lawyer and member representing Ideato North State Constituency, is the Chief Whip of the Imo State House of Assembly. He speaks with MOSES ALAO on the 1999 constitution amendment bill recently transmitted to Houses of Assembly, the crisis that recently rocked the Imo House of Assembly and the controversies surrounding the government of Governor Rochas Okorocha. Excerpts:

The National Assembly has transmitted the amendment bill of the 1999 constitution as amended to the 36 states Houses of Assembly. When are you deliberating on that and is it true that there are already underground moves by governors to influence the Assemblies to kill local government autonomy?

Thank God you know me before this my present position; I am human rights lawyer and would never be party to anything that is anti-people. The constitution amendment bill that I have before me here, in which there are issues of autonomy for local governments, strengthening government institutions such as financial autonomy to state Houses of Assembly, presidential assent bill and so on, will be looked into. And I can assure you that the Imo State House of Assembly, where I am playing an important role, will make sure that all these things go through.

You mean there is no any underground move to kill some sections of the amendments, especially the aspect on local government autonomy?

There is nothing like that. We have been having meetings and I can tell you that I cannot be part of that, because most of our local governments are like glorified primary schools. I left my comfort zone to come and contest election and if I cannot give money to my constituents, I must leave a legacy that it was during this state Assembly that local government autonomy and financial autonomy to state Assemblies were granted. I can assure you that the Imo State House of Assembly under the leadership of the speaker, Rt. Honourable Acho Ihim, will vote on the side of people and I expect other Houses of Assembly across the country to do the same in the interest of the people.

Last week, there was a report of a crisis in the Imo State House of Assembly, which was allegedly instigated by the governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha. How true is that allegation?

It is true that there was an issue in the House of Assembly, but to say that it was instigated by the governor is mischievous and untrue. What happened was that penultimate weekend, we read on social media that Governor Rochas Okorocha would be coming to the House of Assembly to present the 2018 Budget estimate. But unfortunately, the House of Assembly members didn’t know and we believed there should be proper channels for letting us know if the governor is going to transmit such important document or perform such constitutional duty. He has to inform the House through a correspondence from the Secretary to the Government of Imo State to the Speaker of the House. But that little hiccup was not properly managed and the members felt it was improper that they got to know of such thing through social media and that they were not being carried along. So, when the Appropriation Bill was eventually brought and we discovered there were discrepancies such as typographical errors, because of that the members could not sit.

Did the governor come to present the budget or he transmitted it?

The governor was supposed to come; but there are pre-arrangements in presenting a budget; there are things the House Committee on Appropriation can do, it is a legislative oversight function. So, that lacuna was noticed and we said that the 5th December date for presentation was not sacrosanct, that it could be done the following day. So the sitting could not be held that day and we saw that the problem was caused by the Clerk of the Assembly. The following morning, the former Majority Leader of the House moved a motion for the suspension of the clerk on the basis that the clerk’s action was causing conflict between the House and the executive. That was the problem. But the Speaker, being the numero uno of the Assembly, constituted an adhoc committee to look into the problem. That was what happened.

But the picture you painted was different from what was in the media, as some people were removed from office as a result of the crisis…

I was an agitator too; it was the whole House that agreed we were not being carried along. It was a collective agreement. And when we were not informed about the budget presentation before time, we felt that the proper thing to do was to let the executive know that there is separation of power. It is a trinity arrangement that makes up a government; the three arms of government in one government and everyone should be carried along. That was the initial context. But some of the principal officers then began to take the issue to where we didn’t really know. Our initial agreement was breached, because what we set out to do was to correct a wrong but some people started other sinister moves. So, I felt that at my age and where I am coming from and the fact that I am from Ideato North like the governor; I should not be part of such sinister moves being engineered by some external forces. So, I decided to back out, because that was not our initial agreement. The Chief of Staff to the governor came and pleaded with the members of the House; the Secretary to the State Government came to plead with us. Other important stakeholders in Imo State pleaded with us that we should resolve the differences in order to make progress.

What were the sinister moves, were their plots to remove the governor?

No. But they began to plot that the Speaker would be removed and all that sort of things and when you begin to say that clerk should give you documents and all that. The clerk and the Permanent Secretary of the House of Assembly Commission are civil servants, so when you begin to tell them to give you documents because you want to remove the speaker, which was not the main point of our agitation.

Just the way you read on the social media that the governor was coming to present the 2018 budget; Nigerians continue to read different things about Imo State, such as the erection of statues for some African leaders. Did the governor carry the House of Assembly along on that issue and what was your response?

The governor has not done anything that contravened the constitution; he has the prerogative to do certain things. There is the security vote, there is money that is meant for his personal use; if he decided to erect statues, it doesn’t have anything to do with the House of Assembly. I have been going through the constitution; the governor has vested power as enshrined in the 1999 constitution as amended, to do certain things without recourse to the House of Assembly. The least of what he could do is to erect statues; that is his prerogative right. But then, there is a law giving backing to all those things; like some of those people that were given awards such as the late Chief Alex Ekwueme, the Speaker was there to make a declaration. The speaker was also there when President Jacob Zuma was being recognised and it was in tandem with the House of Assembly. But ordinarily, in an era of globalisation, people who are not even in Imo State can write anything about what is happening here and some people will take it for gospel truth. The governor has not really done anything wrong.

The governor has not done anything wrong by erecting statues when workers are allegedly being owed for months?

The governor has been doing his best in terms of salary payment. He has paid salaries up to October; workers in the state, including members of the House of Assembly are expecting November salary. The issue is that because of the economic situation, people are paid 70 per cent instead of the full salary but that is unlike some states where people are owed several months’ salaries. To the best of my knowledge, the House of Assembly, where I am a member, has been paid up to October and many civil servants have been paid up to that point too.

Let me tell you what is happening in Imo State, it is either because the governor’s activities are not being properly managed by his media aide or because he has not been doing much of what some people call stomach infrastructure. If you are building a lot of infrastructure in Imo state, especially in Owerri, as the governor is doing and people are hungry, of course, they are liable to say all sorts of things that may not be the true picture of things. As a member of the House, I have people I am representing and those that voted for me, if every day I keep telling them there is no money, because as result of the economic recession, the salary doesn’t cover our expectations, then people will begin to say the governor has failed. But in terms of amenities and infrastructure, in terms of free education right from elementary to tertiary institutions and other things he doing, the governor has been transforming the state. Unfortunately, the absence of stomach infrastructure, because people are used to carrying money with Ghana and it is no longer like that, that is having a negative effect on the good works the governor is doing.

Could that be the reason the state recently appointed a Commissioner for Happiness and Couple’s Fulfillment. Did your House of Assembly approve the governor’s sister for the office?

Our governor is a very jovial person, if you look at the tape of the coverage of the inauguration of the commissioners, he only joked that ‘I hereby confirm Ogechi Ololo as the commissioner for happiness and couples’ fulfillment,’ he said it jokingly. There were 29 commissioners, one from each local government and an additional one from one of the local governments, so there was no document where the House approved her as a commissioner.

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