…Says; ‘I dedicate my salary every month to funding the Widows Cash Intervention Programme,’ rules out return to State Assembly
Hon. Okey Igwe is currently the member representing Umunneochi State Constituency in the Abia State House of Assembly.
In this interview with the Oracle Newspaper Team, the legal practitioner and chieftain of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abia, speaks on his pet project, the Okey Igwe Cash Empowerment Programme for Umunneochi Indigent Widows, his political future ahead of the 2023 General Elections, and chances of his party retaining control of the state.
Also, the lawmaker gives his assessment of the Nigerian judiciary so far, this year, as well as, his position on the controversial Section 188 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, and that which addresses defections by politicians in the country. Excerpts:
As recently as April 22 this year, the Okey Igwe Cash Empowerment Programme for Umunneochi Indigent Widows doled out sums money to 48 beneficiaries, with the Coordinator of the programme in the district, Dr. A.I. Uwaezuoke, even promising the beneficiaries that two months of the stipend await them. As the founder of this laudable avenue for bringing succour to this category of people, how long do you think you can sustain it?
Thank you so much. Just by way of introduction, previously before now, I was the Executive Chairman of the same Umunneochi Local Government Area in Abia State. I say that to lay some background so that people will understand the origin and how long this programme has lasted.
It is an idea I crafted as soon as I became the Local Government Chairman because as a local government chairman, you stay in the village. But when you go to the hinterland, you begin to appreciate the level of poverty in the land. That was what prompted the initial idea and it is something I have been doing since then. So, it is not a new idea or concept.
This is how it works: Let me just explain that: We select from across the 12 Wards, widows, not just any widow, indigent widows, those that are between the rock and the hard place. I have a deep appreciation for that category of the population because I am someone that lost my dad when I was young, I was still in primary school and my mum became an indigent widow.
We engage in all kinds of petty trading and that is selling fish, ogiri, akpaka and those kinds of things and that is how we sustained ourselves through the years. So the point of the matter is that those category of people, the indigent widows, appreciate little amounts and they know how to turn it around and sustain their families.
What we do is that we select anywhere from 40 to 50 widows from across the entire 12 wards, then we do three tranches of cash intervention. Each of them gets N10, 000 a month. We do it every month; and then they do three tranches and we phase that set out. We do another selection. The whole point is to make it go round, but unfortunately, you just have too many of them around.
The source of the cash is from my salary. I dedicate my salary every month to doing that out.
So, speaking about how long it was going to last, the duration, I have made a pledge to myself, a commitment to myself, that as long as I’m in public service, I will continue to do that which is to dedicate my salary to those category of the population.
What has been the impact of the programme on the beneficiaries?
Oh! The impact is tremendous. These are petty traders and so a thousand naira means a lot in their lives. Some of them are into all kinds of petty trading. Some of them sell fish, some of them sell abacha, some of them sell fruits. They deal in all kinds of petty trading and the reason we do this is to, one way or the other, stimulate their businesses and I appreciate them because I know that if you give our young men and women this kind of money, it doesn’t even see the end of the day and it is gone. But this category of the population knows how to make use of that money, sustain it and then turn it around. That is what I appreciate the most about it. There are widowers who have been complaining that I have dedicated too much time and resource to widows but I just have an appreciation based on my experience that I have explained to you. Women and our mothers just know how to manage resources, no matter how little.
On a broader scale, how would you rate your level of service delivery to your people so far in the last near four years working as member representing Umunneochi State Constituency in the Abia State House of Assembly? And by extension, how would you score the performance of the State Assembly of which you are a member, in Abia, in terms of legislation? Would you also posit it has been a crisis-free session in the Abia House?
Well, as an initial matter, it is not for to rate myself. I would rather have others do that. Obviously, if you ask me to rate myself, it is a self-serving assessment. But I can as well explain some of the things I have done. You have already mentioned the Widows Cash Intervention, which pretty much speaks for itself.
I’m obviously in lawmaking now. When I was a local government chairman, I am someone that believes in having very few programmes and actually having a fewer programmes and making sure I make the best of them. For instance, when I was local government chairman, I basically had one major infrastructural intervention which was to restore electricity in the local government and I was able to achieve that. The Executive Governor of the state, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, was very helpful and impactful, once we laid the blueprint for restoring electricity to the local government.
He intervened in a lot of ways and with resources that we were able to achieve that. But all that starts with having a workable and functional idea. Since I have been in the House of Assembly, obviously my major function is to make laws, represent my people as well as do oversight.
I am someone that believes that Nigeria was and still is and will remain a key player; if we want to get Africa right, then we have to get Nigeria right. Unfortunately, the major failing of us as a nation, the tragedy of our democracy is that we have refused or have been unable to industrialise. For me at the bedrock of that is, it is shameful, in my estimation, that in 2022, we are still talking about electricity because I think it is the key infrastructure that we need to get right; and you will see this economy take off like a rocket.
Just by way of legislation or law making, I have introduced a bill that will, more or less, formulate an energy policy, within the limits permissible by the Nigerian constitution. It allows us to have an energy policy for Abia State. Basically what that bill seeks to do, when it becomes law before we round off, is to do what we did in the telecoms industry which is to unbundle or truly privatise power in Abia State and if we do that, I am confident that we will get a lot of investors come in.
A state like Abia State should have five to 10 key electricity companies. Once we do that, obviously there will be private businesses; you will see that the problem of electricity evaporate like a melting ice. That is my signature bill.
I am also continuing to talk about restoring electricity in Umunneochi. I have something called the Okey Igwe Energise Umunneochi. I am continually trying to energise communities; make donations, connect them to the so-called national grid. However I can, I intervene in those areas. I also have a road rehabilitation project. I do it annually. We select some of the bad roads and rehabilitate them.
Obviously, as a lawmaker, I don’t have all the resources to do it and asphalt it. What I do is that we grade them. I just try to do a little above grading, we compact them, and where can, we get some stones and lay on them, just to reduce the dust. I have done that since I have been in the House of Assembly. Probably, I can say we have done 15 to 20 roads.
And then of course, you have to liaise and cooperate with your constituents and that’s the way our democracy works; they look up to me. If anyone is in hospital, they are calling me, if someone can’t afford food, they are calling me. These are some of the things we have to deal with. I avoid using the word ‘empowerment’ because it is a word that has become bastardised in our democracy. But some of those things, we continue to do, however we can. And more importantly, is to attract whatever goodies that are there. In the American parlance, they call it ‘Beckon Home.’
The governor built a couple of roads in Umunneochi and I am not blowing my trumpet, I take credit for those roads because we work with him. That is called representation.
So, those are things I have done and will continue to do within the time that we have left. Then, God willing, we will continue to do our best for our people.
In terms of lawmaking, we have been a very busy House. I think the 7th House under the leadership of Mr. Speaker, Engr. Chinedum Enyinnaya Orji, has been a cohesive group. We have not had too many problems. We have been laser focused. People have to understand that in terms of law making, our major job is to make laws that will enable the Executive to function. So we are busy every day. We have to pass the budget, we have to entertain if there are policy programmes the Governor needs to make the Executive work with, they transmit it to us and we pass it as legislation and we do that on a daily basis. But then, we have a very smart group and the kind of bills I just described to you that I have introduced. It is not the only one, I have introduced other bills. Other members have been busy introducing private bills. I have already talked to you about Executive Bills.
So, we have been a very robust and busy House of Assembly. Motions are brought. I have brought motions, so have my colleagues; just to cure the ills in the society. So that is the way legislature works in a functional democracy.
On whether the House has been crisis-free; absolutely! I mean every day you hear tales of other states, you hear about infighting amongst the members and members balkanizing Maces, you know, fighting each other, impeachment and all what not. We haven’t really had that. Like I said, kudos to the leadership under the Speaker. We have remained laser focused on our primary roles which is to make laws, do oversight, receive mandate from the Executive department, which is our job, to represent our people. So, we have stayed focused on those items.
Section 188 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended which addresses defections by politicians, has remained contentious. The Supreme Court, as well as, some Federal High Court in Abuja judges, including; Justice Inyang Ekwo who removed Ebonyi Governor, David Umahi and the 17 lawmakers of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly, and Justice Taiwo Taiwo who also sacked 20 members of the Cross River State Assembly have shared a similar position, however, Justice Henry Njoku of the Appeal Court in Enugu State has differed. Similarly, legal practitioners Mike Ozhekome and Femi Falana, both Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) have advanced opposing interpretations to that portion of the constitution. As a legal practitioner, what is your position on the highly contentious issue of defection of serving politicians in Nigeria from one party to another?
Well, first of all, let’s get our facts and law correct. As a constitutional matter, Section 188 (1) that you quoted does not address defection of political office holders from one party to another. That section deals on the methods of removing a sitting governor or deputy governor or by extrapolation, you can extend it to other political office holders. So, it deals with removal which is here is how a governor gets removed from office: either by impeachment which is 1/3 of members accusing a sitting governor of having engaged in gross misconduct. Then you follow all the steps; you have to send the allegation to members and by motion, they have to agree that misconduct has occurred, and then, through a non-debate votes, by motion; and then you send it over to a State Chief Judge.
There other methods of removal which is death or resignation. So, that’s what that section squarely deals on.
As a matter of fact, I don’t think, I stand to be corrected, that you would find any section of the 1999 Constitution that deals on defection of political office holders from one party to another because I just don’t think it is a necessary section to be added to the constitution.
Now, you have mentioned the brouhaha that has of late enveloped our judicial space where, I think, a sitting High Court Judge, first of all, dismissed Dave Umahi and sitting members of the House of Assembly because they defected from PDP to the APC, and you have other contrary judgement.
Now, here is my view about it: When you look at the structure of a constitution, you have to know that you have what under the American system, they call Bills of rights. We do have them in our own constitution. Bills of rights are fundamental rights. They are rights that, inherent in them, are not to be tampered with.
For instance, the right to practice whatever religion, the right to privacy which means that if you are in your house, you don’t need to have a police officer burrowing into your house uninvited, especially if you haven’t committed a crime. Even when someone commits a crime that’s why a police officer needs a search warrant to be able to invade a citizen’s privacy. The right to freedom of expression and right to freedom of association, these are fundamental rights, like we said, they are Bills of rights.
In the 1999 constitution, we all are entitled to freedom of self expression, freedom of association. And part of freedom of association is to choose whichever political party one belongs to. It is a fundamental right.
Now, the same Constitution; remember I told you that no section actually deals specifically on defection; there is nothing like that. But I think section 222 or thereabout also gives enormous powers to INEC to regulate political parties, to conduct elections, and all the procedures and processes. And that is where you get that we don’t have independent candidacy, you must belong to a political party. And that is where, for instance, Amaechi vs Omehia was decided which says that when you, as an individual, take on the cloak of a political party, you run in an election; that is a locus classicus now, that the votes that you harvest from that election actually belongs to the political party, not the individual. You also have other cases like when Audu Abubakar of Kogi State, their election was almost concluded and then, I think they had one or two local governments that were to be decided, then the man died. The question was that since he had a running mate, James Faleke, should we transfer the votes to his running mate. Ultimately, the decision was, well, that election was inconclusive, therefore the party had to nominate someone else. That is how Yahaya Bello ended up emerging. And so you see a pattern which indicates that political parties now, are the owners of votes cast in an election.
Now, the question that needs to be determined, with respect to defection, is that on the one hand, you have a fundamental right which entitles an individual to freedom of association, the choice to belong to any political party.
And then on the other hand, and remember I told you when you look at the structure of a constitution or the jurisprudence of constitutional law, fundamental rights are weighted much more heavily on the one hand. And then you have other laws. You have the power of INEC to regulate political parties and part of that section says that we don’t have independent candidacy, you must belong to a political party.
So, for me, it is an easy decision, which is, you have a fundamental right on the one hand, and then you have this section that says you must belong to a political party and the Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that the votes you harvest from an election, belongs to the political party.
And so the question becomes when you defect, I think this is the issue, are you able to carry that votes along with you to the other political party? So, my view on it is that for me, the right to freedom of association trumps this section of the constitution which says that you, as an individual, when you take on a political party, obviously, you can’t run an election without the vehicle of a political party and that vehicle owns the votes. But when you weigh these two things together, for me, as a constitutional scholar, and I think this is a universal concept, that a fundamental right trumps other rights.
So, in that sense, I think when you exercise your right to freedom of association, then it should trump, it should not yield to the other law which says the vote you garnered in an election belongs to the political party. And so, if I am sitting as a judge, that is the way I will look at it.
Now, that is not to say that I agree with prostitution of politicians, where we dump parties. Because the way politics work is that we should have political ideologies. For instance if I belong to the PDP, which I do, and part of the reason I believe I am a member of the PDP is because I think it is one party that actually appreciates, is sensitive to the plurality and diversity of the Nigerian nation and that’s one thing you need to have in order to sustain our political cohesion in this country.
That ideology is important to me, so it is difficult for me to defect to any other party. That is the way it should be looked at. Because when you now say, for instance, someone exercises his freedom of association, are we now going to trample on that fundamental right because we want to sustain the ruling that has said that votes belong to a political party? Now the other way I look at it is that a political party and a candidate in an election are like two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. Agreed that the political party is the vehicle but if the driver doesn’t get in the vehicle, the vehicle is not going to move. So, for me, on the flip side the individual that is running in an election that uses the instrumentality of the vehicle of a political party, also has a bundle of fundamental rights which is the right to freedom of association. And I think other laws should always yield to your fundamental rights.
As a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), how confident are you of the political group retaining control of Abia State, against the backdrop of the inroads being made by a former governor of the state who is now with the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC)? Also, how does your political future look like considering you are yet to make a formal statement or declaration on your plans ahead the 2023 General Elections?
Supremely confident. And let me tell you why; Abia is fundamentally a PDP state. The Chief whip of the Senate, Orji Uzor Kalu, he was also there in 2019 and in 20215 and PDP won spectacular victories.
With regard to the crisis in PDP, every political party goes through this phase when election cycles come around. The APC has its fair share of troubles to deal with. We have gone through our issues with zoning and what not; let me say that we should grow to a point where this zoning and micro-zoning are not the issues. We should focus on who should be the best candidate to govern the state and take it to the next level.
But, to answer your question, I am abundantly confident that at the end of the day, the 2023 elections will be conducted and my party, the PDP will win an overwhelming victory. I am too confident about that just because we are fundamentally a PDP state.
About my political future in 2023, let me, first of all, say that I deeply consider some of these positions; I consider politics. I hardly use the word ‘politics’ and ‘politician,’ I look at it as public service, you are called to serve. It does not define me. I just see it as public service: How can I help my people at every point in time and the positions that I have held, I have tried to make the most use of it and I am always going to remain eternally grateful to my people for having given me some o these opportunities.
And now, we all live in a politically-charged environment. I, for one, I do not believe that I must stay in politics forever. But I am still a young man and I am still ready to serve.
I made a tacit agreement with my people when I was going into the House of Assembly. We had the zoning these days and micro-zoning. I come from Zone 2 in Umunneochi. There is Zone 4. While I was running, there was tension about which zone, since Zone 2 and Zone 4 were the only ones that have never been to the House of Assembly. So, what I did was that I promised them tacitly, not explicitly, that I will do one term and then move on. It is a tough thing for a politician to do but I always stay true to my words. So, because of that, I’m not going back to the House of Assembly.
I have tried to encourage the party to give it to Zone 4 so that the other young men and women from there can come in and take the mantle from me. That is where we are.
I purchased a form to run and maybe upgrade to the House of Representatives but obviously, we have the incumbent who has been in that position for 16 years now and she is running again which means that if she wins, she would have occupied that position for 20 years. Nothing wrong with that. In the Legislature, there is no term limit, one can stay there forever.
But we are all sensitive to ourselves because of the stage our democracy is and that is why you have zoning which encourages you to rotate public offices. So, because of that, I am not actively pursuing my House of Representatives aspiration because Isuikwuato, our sister local government which is the other side of the federal constituency, they are obviously agitating to be given a chance. So, I am still consulting.
We are on the eve of party primaries but before the primaries, I would have made a decision. Everyone knows that if I run, I stand a good chance. You have made allusion to the fact that my people actively support me. But I will continue to consult, both with the party at the state level and in the local government to see what the best approach, going forward, should be. That’s where I am. I’m ready to serve, but if it doesn’t happen, I will look around and try and figure out other ways that I can continue to engage and help lift the society.
Would you say this has been a trying period for the Nigerian judiciary, in view of the flurry of litigation which have dominated public discourse this past three to four years? Would you say the judiciary has distinguished itself in addressing these challenges or are there still rooms for improvement
Well, I don’t know about trying period. As a lawyer, I belong to the school of thought that says that laws are always evolving, the judiciary is always evolving. I believe in a dynamic constitution, it shouldn’t be stagnant; because the flip side is that in law, we have those that are called the originalists, they believe in the pure letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. Well, the problem with originalism is that it does not take into account the position of society.
For instance, today we are talking; you are recording our conversation with your phone. Well, the problem with originalism or textualism is that when constitution or the law was originally drafted, some of the technological advancements had not been made. And so the school of thought that believes in dynamic evolution of the law is always evolving, as the society is evolving. And that what the judiciary is there to do, carry on the society.
Obviously, Marbury vs Madison; Marbury is a local classicus in the United States; it says it is the function of the judiciary to say what the law is; which means that some of us in the legislature today, we can make laws, but it is the obligation of the judiciary to interpret that law and say what it means for application in the society. I believe we are always going to have litigation as long as we have human interaction. It is called Case and Conflict; controversies. That is what leads people to court. For instance, I am interacting with you because you are interviewing me. If you go out here and distort everything I have said, I am going to sue you. As long as you have human interaction, cases are going to come up and the judiciary is always going to be saddled with that responsibilities. I think, if you are a judge, if you are a magistrate, or a justice at the Supreme Court, we should always live up to that solemn obligation and render justice and speak truth to power. If you look at Lady Justice, she always has her eyes covered. That is because the end of the judiciary is to find truth and apply law to it; to the end that justice may be done.
So, it is an enormous task. But I think the reason we call ourselves ‘Learned Gentlemen’ is that we are trained to meet that obligation. I happen to think that the judiciary is the most important arm of government because we make interpretations of the laws, we apply laws to facts and then we find truth and that truth governs both those in the Executive, those in the Judiciary and those that are in the larger society. So, it is a very important function and I don’t think it should be unduly influenced which is the case we find in most instances. Judges, Justices, Magistrates, we should allow them a zone of neutrality to carry out their functions because it is one that is important if we are to move the society forward.