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Seeking inclusiveness through regional development commissions

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The quest for the establishment of development commissions for the remaining geo-political zones in the country apart from the South-south and Northeast gained momentum recently with the introduction of three bills to that effect in the Senate. ONYEDIKA AGBEDO looks at the genesis of the move, the gimmicks around it and its likely outcome in this report.

There is a cool ‘war’ in the Senate among the geo-political zones in the country following penultimate Wednesday’s reintroduction of a bill seeking to establish the South East Development Commission. The 8th Senate had passed the bill, sponsored by Senator Stella Oduah (PDP, Anambra North) on December 12, 2018, but it did not get President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent. Should the bill secure the nod of the lawmakers again and possibly receive presidential assent this time around, it would give birth to a commission charged with the responsibility of receiving and managing funds specially allocated by the Federal Government for the rehabilitation, reconstruction and reparation for lost houses and businesses of victims of the Nigerian civil war. The commission would also address any other environmental or developmental challenges confronting the zone.

Clause 15 (2a) of the bill, which identifies source of funding for the commission, stipulates that the equivalent of 10 per cent of the total monthly statutory allocation due to the member states of the commission shall be from the Federation Account.

It also seeks the establishment of a governing board for the commission, which shall include one person each from the other five geopolitical zones of the country.

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The bill scaled the first reading penultimate Wednesday, but there are indications that senators from other geo-political zones are up in arms over its reintroduction. And the reason could not be far-fetched.

The passage of the bill during its first coming was not an easy ride. A lot of lobbying went into it, as some lawmakers opposed it on the ground that passing the bill would amount to duplication and wanton creation of commissions. It is expected that the second coming of the bill would not receive less opposition and it’s already building up.

It could be recalled that before the initial introduction of the South East Development Commission bill by the Senate, the country already had two regional commissions — the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), established in 2000 to foster the physical and socio-economic development of the Niger Delta region, and the North East Development Commission (NEDC), whose establishment bill received presidential assent in October 2017 to receive and manage funds allocated by the Federal Government and international donor agencies for the resettlement, rehabilitation, integration and reconstruction infrastructure and facilities of victims of insurgency as well as tackling the menace of poverty and environmental challenges of the area.

A day after the bill was reintroduced, Senator Ibikunle Amosun (Ogun Central, APC) also presented a bill to the Senate seeking the establishment of the South West Development Commission. The bill, tagged ‘South West Development Commission (Establishment, etc) Bill 2019’ was read for the first time during plenary penultimate Thursday. Also on Tuesday, November 19, Senator Mohammed Musa (Niger East, APC) sponsored a bill seeking to establish the North-Central Development Commission. The bill has also passed first reading in the Senate. Meanwhile, there is also a bill before the Senate for the creation of a North West Development Commission. The bill sponsored by Jibrin Barau (APC, Kano State) was read for the first time on the floor of the Senate on December 13, 2018, just a day after the upper legislative chamber initially passed the South East Development Commission bill.

Amosun

It, therefore, seems that every geo-political zone in the country now wants a development commission and there is the likelihood that the Senate might discountenance the entire bills without really considering each one based on its merit. And should all the bills scale through in the Senate, the President might again withhold his assent.

Analysing the issue in an interview with The Guardian, National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, said the various zones are not just fighting for more funds from the centre with bills, but are also pushing for a form of political arrangement that would enable them to develop at their own pace.

He said: “Honestly, the National Assembly has not been fair to the Southeast with regard to that bill. Everybody knows that Senator Oduah had sponsored that bill and it was passed; but it didn’t become law because the President didn’t sign it. Now that the Senate has reintroduced it, we are expecting that it will be passed again and then represented to the president for his assent.

“But these other ones started coming up. I won’t deny the other zones if they feel strongly that they also need development commissions for their zones. But this is an indirect way of the various zones saying that they need to develop at their own pace. Since restructuring is not coming, they are now seeing this issue of development commissions as an indirect way of getting some fund allocation from the government to develop their own areas whereas there would have been no need for all of these had the government listened to the clamour for restructuring. Restructuring would allow each state or each zone to formulate its own policies on how to develop at its own pace.”

Okorie argued that the demand for a development commission for the Southeast was genuine, saying: “The case of the Southeast is so peculiar. That is why I started by saying that the National Assembly has not been fair to the Southeast and I also want the president to see the peculiarity of the Southeast this time. There was a declaration of no victor no vanquished at the end of the civil war. They went further to declare that there would be Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. None of those three Rs has been followed through in any meaningful manner, especially reconstruction, which would have, at least, brought federal presence to the Southeast. There is no federal presence in the whole of the Southeast. If the second Niger Bridge is completed, it will be the major federal presence in the Southeast and it is expected that it will be completed in 2022. But it is not as if it is something for just the development of the Southeast; it will impact on the national economy.

“So, establishing the Southeast Development Commission will be an avenue to redress the neglect and injustice that the region has suffered over time. One would have expected the government to embrace it and use it as an opportunity to try to right the wrongs. But now, it appears that it is going to be lumped together with others who are just feeling that this is an indirect way of getting more of federal government’s fund allocation for development. That is the way I look at it.”

Okorie posited that should the Senate pass the four bills on establishment of regional development commissions, funding the commissions would not be a difficult task per se, saying the Southeast commission could particularly be self-sustaining.

According to him, funding for the commissions could come from donor agencies and corporate bodies that would be made to contribute to them. He added that in the case of the Southeast, “I believe the commission will be able to attract foreign interests to come and develop the zone on any of the agreeable terms like private, public partnership. The commission can mobilise immense human and material resources from people of the area who are outside but who can now see a veritable platform like a commission through which they can come into the zone. So, I have no doubt in my mind that once it is established, the emphasis on even federal allocation will be less as far as Southeast is concerned. Once you set up a development commission in the Southeast, you will be surprised to what extent it will be self-sustaining.”

To Mr. Jide Ojo, a public affairs analyst, the quest for development commissions by the geo-political zones reflects the failure of the national development plan.

“The attempt by the geo-political zones to have an interventionist agency like the NDDC is borne out the failure of our national development plan. And I saw this coming. If our national development plan were to be working, we have sufficient Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to take care of the developmental needs of the entire country irrespective of the geopolitical zone. But because many of these MDAs have failed, each of the geo-political zones is looking at how to have an interventionist agency to be able to shore up the developmental needs of their zones. If the Ministry of Works were to be optimal in its performance and their were good roads across the country why would we need an NDDC, NEDC or any other development commission for that matter? If the Ministry of Health were working optimally, why would we need another interventionist that will set up primary health care centres or general hospitals here and there? That is one.

Okorie

“Secondly, what is the scorecard of even the existing interventionist agencies? I think the NEDC had its first budget in 2018. The NDDC has been in existence since year 2000. Nineteen years after, the scorecard is very abysmal. If you go to the nine states of the Niger Delta today, can you say there is sufficient presence of governance in the areas despite the amnesty programme, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, NDDC and the 13 per cent derivation fund?

“It is a very disingenuous way to approach development to believe that every zone must have its own development commission for it to develop. No, if you want to do regional government, let us dissolve the states into six geopolitical zones and thereby spark off competition among these regions. We cannot have MDAs, 36 states and then all these interventionist agencies, many of which are serving as conduit pipes for corruption. A serving senator from Delta State is alleged to be having 300 contracts with NDDC; 120 of those contracts were fully paid for but the man didn’t execute anything. So, for how long would we continue to have these drain pipes in the name of development commissions?

“For me, the quest is not desirable at all. I am not in support of the establishment of development commission across the geo-political zones. Rather, let us strengthen the existing MDAs financially, administratively and policy wise so that they can perform optimally,” Ojo noted.

On his part, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, Dr. Emmanuel Onah, told The Guardian that the struggle for the establishment of development commissions by the various zones is a mark of the insincerity of the country’s leaders about the quest for development.

His words: “It shows that we are not really sincere about the quest for development in the country because you will think that there is something that led to a particular bill, may be the bill for the South East Development Commission bill. If there were something genuine that led to that, then I would have thought that people would address it before suddenly seeking to set up development commissions in other zones. If there is a development concern in a particular region of the country, that development commission should be addressed. And it cannot be the same concern with other zones at the same time. What I am saying in essence is that if there is a genuine problem in the Southeast, it cannot be the same situation in the Southwest, Northcentral or wherever because all these zones have their peculiar situations. So, it is not right that suddenly everybody wants to do the same thing when everybody is not supposed to have the same problem. But that is at the technical end of this issue.”

He added: “At the political end, you will now see that what is also playing out is the kind of politics we are playing in the country, politics where nobody is really concerned with development but using the concern for development as an instrument of corruption. Everybody seems to be suddenly thinking that if there is a commission in the Southeast, the politicians and leaders in the zone are going to have an opportunity to have some money from contracts, appointments and all that, and that their own zones should not be left out. So, what they are fighting for is not really development for their zones; they are fighting for the opportunity for appointment, contracts and all that. So, development issue is not really the concern here; the concern is politics of corruption and aggrandizement.

“There is also another angle to it; the angle that the Southeast that started all these out of what they feel is a genuine situation has not also played its own politics well. If they had been able to articulate their development situation appropriately and present it the way it should be presented, there wouldn’t have been need for other zones to suddenly come up with their own because other zones would have seen that what they are talking about is peculiar.

“It’s just like the North East now, which has a development commission because of what happened there, the insurgency. The peculiarity of the situation in the Northeast is very clear. But the Southeast has not been able to articulate their problems well. So, because of the haphazard manner and very simplistic way they have approached the matter, it is easy for other zones to start talking about their own. I think that is what is happening.”

Onah submitted that there are many people to blame for political game in the Senate. “You can almost blame everybody. You can blame all the zones for playing politics with what should have been a very national concern. You can blame even the government and the National Assembly for encouraging this kind of frivolity. But you must also blame the Southeast for not being able to play politics that is necessary in Nigeria. They always want to cry as if they are orphans. If you make yourself an orphan, you must be ready to suffer because nobody caters for the orphan. So, you must be ready to behave like somebody who has parents so that everybody will know that if they touch you, your parents are going to defend you.

“But the Southeast is always playing this politics of orphans, which has removed every respect from them. It tends to make any issue that concerns it to be taken as if it is an issue that can be ignored. I think it high time the so called leaders in the Southeast wake up to know that they have some historical duties to play for their people and it should be much more than their political exigency,” he added.

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Onah predicted that none of the bills would be passed by the Senate or signed by the President.

“What will play out is that the whole thing will die a natural death sooner than later at one stage or the other. We cannot have development commissions for all the zones. You must remember that we already have ministries that are concerned with development matters. So, you need a development commission only when there is a genuine concern. The South-south people were able to prove the genuine concern in the Niger Delta region and were given the NDDC. The situation in the Northeast is so clear and they were given a development commission. Now, when it came to the Southeast they have made the whole thing look pedestrian and every other zone is now coming to demand for their own. At this level, the whole thing has lost its focus.

“I don’t see any president signing bills that will create development commissions for all the zones at the same time. I don’t even see the Southeast being able to explicate itself and make other zones to drop their bills so that their own can go through for now. So in end, the whole thing will collapse. And even if it doesn’t collapse, if the Senate passes the bills to fulfill all righteousness, the executive is not going to sign it because it will mean unnecessary duplication.”

If Onah’s prediction comes to pass, the end for further creation of development commissions in the country may have also come. All that will be bare in the months ahead.

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