Ebonyi Assembly: The Journey So Far
AS the general elections gradually come to a climax, there is palpable tension in Ebonyi State, due to the crisis rocking the state House of Assembly and the sour relationship between Governor Martin Elechi and his Deputy, David Umahi.
In the past two week, the House has witnessed some uproar over members’ actions, which have generated heated argument among the political class in the state, especially supporters of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and those of Labour Party (LP).
This is the House that has been described as the most peaceful Assembly in the country, following the good working relationship and harmony that existed among them and with the executive arms of the government.
But following the crises between the House and the Executive and the former’s declaration of six seats vacant, it is obvious now that rancour is beginning to hold.
Some political analysts believe the 24-member Assembly is fast turning into a volatile place, where over 80 per cent of members are below 40 years old.
Apart from these recent crises, the House since inception in 2011 has witnessed four impeachments and suspensions, first was then Speaker, Mr. Michael Ikechukwu Nwankwo (representing Ebonyi North West), who was impeached by 20 out of the 24 members.
Keen observers fear that if urgent steps are not taken immediately to resolve the current crisis, it could snowball into a major political explosion in the state.
The House had on February 11declared vacant the seats of four members who decamped from the PDP to LP. Those affected are Eni Uduma Chima (Afikpo South West); Helen Nwobashi (Abakaliki South); Marbel Aleke (Ohaukwu South); and Samuel Nwali (Ikwo North).
This action polarised the state further in support and against the decision.
As that was about to calm down, the House in its next sitting set up a 14-member committee to look into the financial allegations against Elechi, his son, Nnanna Elechi, who is the LP senatorial candidate for Ebonyi Central, and Edward Nkwegu, following a petition to the House by one Clement Odaah, in which the House said it would begin impeachment process against the governor, if he was found culpable.
And on Monday, fire gutted some sections of the Assembly complex, the same day it declared the seats of the Deputy Speaker, Blaise Orji (Afikpo South East) and Oliver Nwachukwu (Abakaliki North) vacant, blaming Elechi and his cabinet for the inferno.
The action, according to Speaker Chukwuma Nwazunku, was based on Section 109, sub section 1G and 2 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which states that: “A member of the House of Assembly shell vacate his seat in the House if, being a person whose election to the House of Assembly was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected; provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.”
Reacting, Chima told journalist in Abakaliki that the action “would lead to the cessation of the House in the present dispensation,” arguing that Section 91 provides that “every state House of Assembly must have 24 members for it to be a valid and lawful law-making body.”
He is supported by the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Dr. Ben Igwenyi, who stated: “There is presently no House of Assembly in the state, as Section 91 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates that a state House of Assembly must be constituted by not less than 24 members and not more than 40 to operate constitutionally.”
But a former Speaker of the House, Augustine Nwankwegu, said the action of the House met the constitutional requirements.
Nwankwegu, a lawyer, cited Section 102, insisting that the House could conduct its affairs, not withstanding any vacancy in the membership and on issue of quorum in the declaration of the four seats vacant.
He referred to Section 96, sub-Section 1, which provides that quorum could be formed by one-third of the 24-member House of Assembly, noting: “In the case of the Ebonyi Assembly, eight (8) members, being present, constitutes a quorum in a particular sitting.”
The former Speaker explained that even as the formation of quorum depends on the activity in the House, one-third of the members of the House was appropriate for the declaration of seats vacant.
“If for any reason, four members left the House, remaining 20 members, that does not affect operations, powers or existence of the House, with regards to carrying out its legislative duties,” he stated.
He advised those aggrieved to go to court.
However, former Leader of the House and LP candidate for Ezza North/Ishielu Federal Constituency, Emmanuel Nwobo, said although Section 109 prescribed grounds upon which a member shall vacant his seat, those whose seats were declared vacant did not fall into any of the categories listed in Paragraph (A) to (H), adding that the House did not take notice of the provision in Paragraph (6) of Section (109), which gives such leverage for defection, once there is evidence of crisis of leadership in the leadership of the party in which they were elected.
He insisted that the affected members cross-carpeted to LP when there was leadership tussle in the party, noting the declaration of their seats vacant was “unconstitutional.”
So, the issue remains controversial, depending on political divide, and this could impact on the current democratic dispensation.
Odaah, in the petition, among others, accused Elechi of gross economic and financial irregularities through “unscrupulous private individuals and corrupt elements within the government,” in the case of Ebonyi Cement Company Limited, where the directors were the state Ministry of Finance, Chief Linus Nwamba and Edward Nkwegu, representing EDON Nigeria Limited.
He alleged that the directors also doubled as sole shareholders, with each having 50 million, 25 million and 175 million units of shares, respectively.
The other petition involved the abandonment of the contract for the construction of the Ebonyi Trade Centre located at Presco Junction in Abakaliki and diversion of the contract sum to private ventures by the contractor, Nkwegu.
The lawmakers threatened that all the key actors in the allegation would be summoned by a special committee to be set up to ascertain the veracity of the allegations.
But the state LP has absolved Nkwegu of any financial irregularity, saying both he and Elechi are men of proven integrity.
A statement signed by the Director of Media and Publicity of LP’s Heritage Campaign Council, Dr. Chike Onwe, and made available to newsmen in Abakaliki, the party said it would have chosen to ignore the petition as cheap political noise, but because of the
innocent minds that seek the truth.
According to Onwe, it is legally problematic and morally inappropriate for the Assembly to rely on “a malicious petition from a faceless hireling of certain political personalities in and outside the state to resolve to institute a committee to investigate the allegations of inflated contracts and what they termed non completion of some designated projects in the state by the firm in which our principal had interest, namely Edon Nigerian Limited.
“We want to state unequivocally that Nkwegu has built a reputation for himself as a foremost industrialist and employer of labour in Ebonyi and beyond.”
The party described the petition as malicious blackmail and challenged the authors to prove the sanctity of their allegations or risk public opprobrium.
The fire at the Assembly complex, which did not spread to other sections, started in the Accounts Department and spread to the Media section, destroying properties worth millions of naira, including sensitive documents relating to the House.
Following the incident, policemen in Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) were seen stationed as the gate of the Assembly, subjecting journalists, causal workers of the Assembly to search before being allowed into the complex.
It was gathered that the anti-bomb squad of the state Police command were still within the Assembly complex.
For now, there is palpable calm in the Assembly, as the elections draw near.
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