Editor's note: Journalist and public commentator, Owede Agbajileke writes in the bold moves by Senator Stella Oduah to ensure that the South East Development Commission Bill scales through the National Assembly.
In his appearance before the Senate committee on Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) recently, Babatunde Fashola, minister of power, works and housing, confirmed what had been the subject of heated debates in many quarters when he admitted that the worst roads in the country were located in the southeast geopolitical zone.
Disclosing this before the Magnus Abe-led committee, the former Lagos state governor noted that some of the major federal roads in the southeast states were constructed before the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War. Political pundits say Fashola’s statement represents the beginning of the federal government’s careful consideration of the dilapidated state of roads in the region.
Of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria, the southeast had been in the news before the inauguration of the President Muhammadu Buhari on May 29, 2015. This has also fueled the allegation of neglect and marginalisation by the administration of Muhammadu Buhari.
Clamour by some prominent Igbo citizens for the establishment of a development commission that will act as a catalyst to develop the commercial potentials of the southeast, received a major boost, with the introduction of the South East Development Commission Bill at the Senate.
Just like the proverbial cat with nine lives, the proposal surfaced in the upper legislative chamber, six days after it was rejected in the House of Representatives.
The bill, which is co-sponsored by the chairman, Senate Committee Cooperation and Integration, Stella Oduah (PDP, Anambra North) and her counterpart in Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee, Samuel Anyanwu (PDP, Imo East), passed through first reading in June 2017 and scaled through second reading the following month.
When passed and signed into law, the bill is expected to provide road-map for development of roads, education, health facilities, industrialisation, agriculture, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity and commerce in the five member states of Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Ebonyi and Abia.
By the same token, the Commission Bill will provide policies and guidelines for the development of the southeast, conception of plans for development in accordance with set rule as well as produce regulations, programmes and projects for sustainable development of the region.
Also, it is expected to provide master plan for reduction of unemployment while also providing the master plan and schemes to promote the physical development of the southeast.
Other functions of the bill include: tackling ecological and environmental problems that arise from soil erosion problems and other related environmental challenges in the southeast and advise the federal government and member states on the prevention and control of the erosion and environmental challenges as well as identifying factors inhibiting the development of the southeast and assist member states on the formulation and implementation of policies to ensure sound and efficient management of the resources of the region.
The bill also indicates that the management board of the commission shall consist of the chairman and one representative each from Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo states as well as representatives of federal ministry of finance and the ministry of justice.
According to the proposal, a member of the board of the commission shall hold office for four years and can have his appointment renewed for another four years.
Section 1(4) of the bill provides the leeway for the commission to only exist for 10 years after which the president can wind it up by seeking the approval of the National Assembly.
The section reads: “The president may subject to the approval of the National Assembly wind-up the commission after 10 years.”
In her lead debate, Oduah submitted that the bill seeks to address the infrastructural deficit of the southeast and act as a catalyst to develop the commercial potentials of the region.
In her words: “The southeast as a region has contributed immensely to the overall development know-how and other areas of endeavour yet the federal government is not doing enough for the region. What the region requires now from the rest of the country is support and understanding and this will help to engender a sense of belonging to the Nigerian project.
“The Senate is in the right position to show maturity in the face of the plethora of problems and challenges facing the geopolitical zone. Nigeria has abundant capacity to beam a sympathetic focus to begin to address these issues in a more holistic and systematic manner.
“The public works projects to be executed by this commission will engage the youths in a more serious fashion and help to develop needed human capital in both the public and private sectors. This will also curb the cases of kidnapping and other criminal activities that create a security situation not conducive for growth and development.
“The peaceful co-existence of the Nigerian state will be enhanced with the establishment of the commission.The enactment of this bill will help to rebuild the southeast and provide the opportunity for the people to display their talent and contribute immensely to the development of the country.”
The most contentious aspect of the bill is in the area of funding. Unlike the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the North East Development Commission (NEDC) which are mainly funded through intervention fund by the federal government and international donor agencies, Section 14 (1) (a) of the SEDC bill provides that the commission will be funded through 15 percent deductions from federal allocation to the five member states.
However, stakeholders from the region are expected to make a strong case for federal funding of the SEDC just like the NDDC and NEDC, at the public hearing this week.
Their argument is that with the inability of the most southeast states to pay workers’ salaries as and when due, as a result of dwindling federal allocation, funding of the commission may run into troubled waters.
Other sources of funding as enshrined in the bill include: “50 percent of monies due to member states of the Commission from the Ecological Fund;
“Such monies as may from time to time be granted or lent to or deposited with the Commission by the Federal or a state government any other body or institution whether local or foreign;
“All moneys raised for the purposes of the commission by way of gifts, loan, grants-in-aid, testamentary disposition or otherwise; and “Proceeds from all other assets that may from time to time accrue to the Commission.”
Lawmakers from other regions of the country have also thrown their weight behind the bill. For James Manager (PDP, Delta South), the commission should focus on construction of deplorable state of roads in the region.
Contributing to a motion seeking to commend President Buhari for signing the North East Development Commission Bill into law, he lamented that all federal roads in the southeast region have collapsed.
“There is the North East Development Commission Bill that came to this Senate and it received over 85 percent support. I have travelled almost all the southeast and all the federal roads are in bad state. Entering the states has been very tedious. Mr. President, my respected colleagues, that region needs urgent attention. All the federal roads have collapsed. The South East Development Commission Bill must be worked upon,” he said.
Also, in his contribution, Ben Bruce (PDP, Bayelsa East), warned against the use of funds accruable to development commissions for running overhead expenditures rather than in providing infrastructure.
He cautioned: “We should be careful with these multiple commissions. If 50 percent is spent on overhead, the purpose of establishment is defeated.”
With calls for secession by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Senate President Bukola Saraki expressed the hope that establishing the bill will assuage the people in the region by giving them a sense of belonging.
“We have the responsibility to bring down tension, bring unity. In doing this, we are showing we listen to everybody but the issues go beyond this bill. More work needs to be done, there are people we are leading and we have to play our role. We have only one country,” Saraki said.
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