Months after the tenure of the immediate past council chairman ended, the Speaker, Cross River State House of Assembly, Rt Hon John Gaul Lebo, in this interview, gives reasons why Gov Ben Ayade is yet to conduct local government elections in the State. He also spoke on other issues of national importance including the refugee crisis, issues surrounding the proposed super highway amongst others. Excerpts:
How do you perceive the notion that the state House of Assembly is the rubber stamp of the executive?
That is an impression that people have and it is a wrong impression and one of the best ways to change impression is posterity. Don’t be in a hurry to erase the impression people have. Perspectives of people in the society change with time and it is only posterity that can erase that impression. I am never in a hurry to change people’s impression. The use of the words ‘rubber stamp’ is by somebody who is in mental regression and is happy with himself by using that word. I don’t want to bother myself about that. If the constitution provides that the House of Assembly should give approval to the executive in terms of any item or subject matter that comes before us and we are satisfied that these processes have been complied with, we don’t have to play to the public gallery, we don’t need to be human rights activists before we give them that legislative approval. This is because it is a public responsibility and as a public servant, the whole of public trust is on my head and I don’t need to play to the gallery. I am not a child. I don’t need to prove to anybody that I am opposed to the governor or fighting the governor.
All we have done is to ensure that we comply with the constitutional provision and requirement. If the executive presents a request to borrow funds to back up the budget and in our budget we have a borrowing clause and they come and we look at the request and we are satisfied, we will approve it. People feel that we should be at loggerheads with the executive. I do not think it should be so.
How is the House of Assembly helping the government stem the influx of refugees from Cameroon into Nigeria?
We have provided more funds for State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) to deal with the situation. You know the issue of refugees is federal and it is on the exclusive list. State governments don’t have funds to handle the crisis alone. There is no state government that has a budget for refugees. What we have is a budget to manage emergency. And that emergency is to provide succor for them and provide security protection. So, we have taken over security of those who have entered Nigeria. All the money appropriated for refugees is from federal budget, on the exclusive list. Talking about security protection, we provide food, water, drugs through the Ministry of Health, through the Emergency Management Agency. We are moving further to see whether we can provide emergency shelter and all that.
That is why we are asking for devolution of powers. Take the refugee issue to the states where it is occurring. It does not happen at the Federal level. Refugees cannot leave Cameroon and go to Abuja. They are going to be resident here in the state and the state does not have that responsibility to cater for them because there is no constitutional approval for the states to handle such issue. But we are going to deal with that through constitutional amendment. Our colleagues have raised several motions on the floor. We have asked the government to approve extra provisions to enable local government heads of administration and members of the House of Assembly to deal with the situation. We want the federal government to intervene and support Cross River state government.
The governor promised to construct the super highway but up till now we have not seen the super highway; to construct deep seaport but up till now we are yet to see the seaport. The Ayade Rice project is becoming controversial now. There are lots of doubts about all these….
Let me clear some of these issues. It will take a lot of ignorance for anybody to expect these priority projects to happen in two or three years. Even the process of getting the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the super highway has taken more than two years. We have done deforesting for the super highway. What we were moving into was for the earthwork to begin. The protest by international NGOs over the EIA on the super highway came up and we have to pause. A formal letter from the federal government asked us to stop that project pending when that issue is resolved.
By the last quarter of last year we would have completed all earth work and we were going to get into asphalting. Secondly, the deep seaport, after all the processes, we just succeeded in getting a transaction adviser towards the end of the year. All of these projects require a very long process of approval from the federal government. We, in the legislature, understand it. That is why we are always providing huge chunks of money in the budget to accommodate just in case we get this approval and we move into action.
So, the concern most is for people to understand the processes that are required for these projects to take off. Akwa Ibom started a deep seaport some years ago. What is the situation now? This is ten years since they started that deep seaport. I don’t know why people should take the Cross River situation out of context. We didn’t fall from the sky. We are still in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If the super highway was like building a rural road, I wouldn’t say we would have completed it but we would have done at least 120 kilometres of that road because that road is compartmentalized to go into a period of project phases. But now, even from point one, we have been returned to point zero. I don’t think it is the governor’s blame.
We need to continue to put pressure on the federal government for that to happen. The same thing with the deep seaport. Like I said, we just got our transaction adviser on that project. We have to wait for the federal government. We have investors, we have funding, we have certain primary steps that have to be taken, the concept design and all of that. What is left is just to move to site. The Ayade Rice you are talking about is the governor’s private investment. The governor secured funding through the CBN using his private company to get into that and encourage a lot of people as possible. It was never flagged off as a state project. Ayade Rice is not in the Cross River State budget. There is no time we have provided that the Cross River State Government should invest in Ayade Rice. As speaker I should be able to tell you there is nothing like that. It is a private investment. It is just because he is governor they are trying to mix up his image, his personal capacity with the state capacity. There is no controversy in it. It is a private firm.
The first set of the rice was launched and people bought it. It coincided with when customs was seizing rice in Calabar and opposition chose to mix it up. Like I said, I am never in a hurry to clear certain impressions because the best way to clear them is for posterity to clear them. So what belongs to the state government, the power plant is in our budget, the garment factory is in our budget. We started the garment factory from 2015, how much we have spent is there. If you want the details the House Committee on Investment Promotion will give you. The Rice City, which is the rice multiplication plant is ongoing, it is there in our budget and how much we have spent. It is also the property of Cross River State Government. The Mfum road is there, the Ogoja-Obudu road project is there. The Boki bridge is there, the banana plantation we are doing in Odukpani is there. The Songhai Farm in Abi, all of these projects are government projects captured in the budget. There is no controversy about them.
I understand the governor is not comfortable with autonomy for House of Assembly just as he is not comfortable with conducting local government election…
The governor has never said so, whether in public or in private. The governor is a senator. The House of Assembly has not even engaged the governor once to talk about these issues. We owe it our responsibility to engage him because he needs to understand the implication of this aspect when the law is passed. It is not depending on Cross River State House of Assembly passing it or not. Once it gets 23 states, the amendment will get through either way. But we are going to be among the 23 states. As at now, we already less than 15 states that have passed it. Most Houses of Assembly have not taken a look at the Local Government autonomy because there are certain explanations, there are certain provisions, there are still gaps for the powers of the House of Assembly and local government chairmen that are not provided.
What has happened is that there is autonomy provided for the local government, the powers of the governor transferred to the House of Assembly. What people are asking for and what NGOs are saying is, who will control the Houses of Assembly if they misappropriate the funds? This is one critical issue the National Assembly is dealing with in the issue of devolution of powers. It has been agreed at the Speakers’ Summit that state Houses of Assembly should hold on with the issue of autonomy till we get this provision from the National Assembly. If you remove the Joint Account Committee and transfer the powers to the House of Assembly to make provisions for local government chairmen to spend, are you not scared that House of Assembly members can turn worse than what the Ministry of Local Government was doing in terms of that?
How come the state House of Assembly has not compelled the governor to hold the local government election?
The Assembly has not been able to compel the governor to conduct local government election because of certain critical issues. The first is that in 2016 when the tenure of local government expired we didn’t have enough budgetary provision to cater for local government election. Last year we had enough funds for the election but the timing, a period of three months and all of that for parties to conduct their primaries was bungled badly. We had engagement with the State Independent Electoral Commission and then we had need to raise several observations and the governor has already commenced the process of consultation with the various stakeholders for the election to take place. We have had two public hearings on that election and our emphasis is that enough time should be given to parties to prepare. The constitution says three months. The Electoral Act and the Cross River State law say three months for the process leading to the conduct of the election. We had issues of certain costs that were not contemplated but we are done with that now and so they will have enough time to conduct the election. We expect that by the end of this quarter they should be able to communicate adequate time to all the political parties to commence their activities. We stand for local government election and we will ensure that the executive is able to comply. I don’t think they are opposed to local government election but we don’t want them to conduct election that will lead all of us to court.
The information we had is that the governor is not in a hurry to conduct that election because he is enjoying the local government funds…
No. That is not true. Local government funds will not change, whether the local government chairman is there or not in terms of expenditure. The bulk of that funding goes for salaries. The balance is used to pay pension. The funding of local government, whatever difference that has arisen in terms of not having elected local government system, is plough back to dealing with other administrative costs, such as local government pension, local government staff, fixing of rural roads and other infrastructure, rural electrification, provision of transformers, payment of primary school teachers, among others.