Senator Onyekachi Peter Nwebonyi is a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), representing Ebonyi North Senatorial District and Deputy Chief Whip of the 10th Senate. In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID, he speaks on a wide range of critical national issues, including state of the roads and insecurity in the South East; continuous marginalisation of Ndigbo from the national politics and governance since after the Nigeria Civil War
What triggered your ambition to the Senate; are there things you want to do better than your predecessors?
Well, let me start by highlighting the rationale behind the creation of senatorial districts and federal constituencies in our states. I believe that one of the reasons is to bring development closer to the rural people. It’s to give the people the opportunity to be represented more effectively in national decision-making. That is the rationale behind having the Senate and the House of Representatives, coupled with the major assignment of lawmaking for the nation, and oversight functions on the Executive to ensure a corrupt free society. In view of the aforementioned, I come from the Ebonyi North Senatorial District. Yes, Ebonyi North Senatorial District had Senators and members of the House of Representatives from the Federal Constituencies therein, but I must tell you that we are yet to feel the impact of such representation in terms of attracting dividends of democracy to the people in the hinterlands, and knowing that the state government may not see all the problems of the people in the rural areas.
So, my coming on board is to address all those lacunae, to open some of the rural roads through my constituency projects; to cater for the needy through my zonal intervention projects and most importantly, to give the youth of my zone a voice. We keep saying that the youths are leaders of tomorrow. I believe that tomorrow is here. And even when you come to the voting pattern, the majority of the votes come from the youth and women. Unfortunately, in most cases, they are not remembered. They are not carried along; they are not given the necessary incentives to grow. So, my coming to the Senate is to look at all those issues and address them. And I must tell you, within my six months in office, I have taken bold steps to address most of these problems. For example, during the last Christmas, I commissioned five units of three-bedroom bungalows I built for the poorest among the poor within the zone, which was selected with the help of the clergies and the churches.
You will agree with me that in this century, some people are still living in thatched houses; that is mud roofed with thatch, with eight to 10 family members living in such cubicles. I felt that it’s abnormal in this century and I should come in. Of course, that is not in the budget. We have not made any input in the budget, but because of that burning zeal and desire to make the poor smile even for once, I took up that responsibility with my salary and what I got from my farm because I am a very big farmer. Outside that, I have also distributed over 100 motor- cycles to the jobless youths roaming in the villages. Some of them have taken to drugs and cultism. But as I was giving the motorcycles, I entered into agreement with them that they will shun cultism, drug abuse and use these motorcycles to help themselves at least within the rural areas. I have also distributed over 10 vehicles – five commercial vehicles and five private vehicles to those that need it.
What am I trying to do? To put smiles on the faces of my people, in particular the forgotten members of the society, where the State government may not see; where the Federal Government may not see but I am there as their representative to see and address those problems. These five buildings I have commissioned will make it a total of 58 buildings I have done within a space of seven years in office, because I have been a Commissioner in my State. I have been a state party chairman in the ruling party in my State. So, I started that project at that time. Maybe, that is what made the people say yes, Nwebonyi can remember the forgotten. And that is why I was able to dismantle so many obstacles, political bigwigs from the zone to be here.
You are from the South-East, where road infrastructure is a nightmare. With your vintage position as the Deputy Whip of the Senate, what are you doing about it?
Road infrastructure is one of the basic foundations upon which every society thrives economically. And if you watch my programmes in the plenary, that was the second motion that I moved, after the one where I attacked the security agencies on the rate of extortions on our roads. You will agree with me that you have to pay to access Nigerian roads. The Police are there at checkpoints, with a pretense of stop and search. But they are there to make sure you pay before you use the road, and it is a very big national embarrassment. And I must tell you, not minding that motion, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) is yet to respond proportionately to that public outcry. Now, outside that I have also come up with the need to connect Southern Nigeria with Northern Nigeria with the shortest road, and that is the road linking Ebonyi and Benue State. It is 75.6 kilometers.
I raised it because when this road is done, those coming to Abuja and the other parts of Northern Nigeria to Southern Nigeria will use four to five hours to do that. So, I had to make sure that that road was included in the budget. As I am talking to you, a whopping sum of N1 billion has been earmarked to start that project. And I believe that Mr. President will still inject more funds into that project through tax credit and other ways and means of financing projects. So, that alone is a giant step I have taken to make sure that road infrastructure is provided, knowing its economic importance. Outside that, in my own budgetary provision as a Senator, I have also put some of the entire roads connecting my local government and other local government areas within the zone and among communities. I am doing all these under my constituency projects.
I was able to do that within my budgetary capacity, which I believe that you can come and see by yourself what we intend to do in the course of funding the project, because in Ebonyi State, we do what we call concrete pavement road in view of the topography of our area, which is loamy soil that is not friendly with asphalt. So, concrete is the best. And that is a very beautiful innovation brought o n board by the former Governor of Ebonyi State and current Minister of Works, His Excellency, Senator David Nweze Umahi. This is what I am doing in that respect.
Is the present Governor of Ebonyi, Francis Ogbonnaya Nwifuru, going to continue with concrete pavement road construction because people are saying that it’s very expensive?
Sure, as I am talking to you, he has awarded so many roads. In fact, many are ongoing on concrete pavement. It is not true that it is more expensive; even if it is more expensive, it lasts more. What will it benefit you if you do an asphalt road that will fail within two to three years, and then you start afresh? So, it’s better you do it once and for all. People get scared that it costs higher but that’s not the truth because the materials needed are locally sourced. We have the chippings, we have the cement, we have everything; you don’t have to import anything to do the concrete pavement. We have the mesh. So, it is even relatively cheaper.
Looking at the level of decay of the roads and the need of funds to maintain the roads, would you advocate that toll gates be restored on Nigerian roads?
It is one of my recommendations. And that is the only way we can effectively maintain those roads. It’s better we pay; the money we pay to the Police, let’s pay it to the toll gate and get our roads constantly fixed. Nigerians will have no problems with that. The toll gates have to be given to the private people to manage. People are afraid that they will shortchange the government but they will not because they are going to operate according to the provisions of the law. The prices will be fixed per vehicle and you won’t exceed it. There will be terms of contract which will be checkmated. That’s our duty as lawmakers through oversight, to make sure that the amount they are collecting is the amount due for such a vehicle.
The South-East used to be the most peaceful region of the country, but today, the reverse is the case. What is the way out of the problem of insecurity in the area?
Well, I must admit that insecurity is a very big problem to the people of the South-East, ranging from the activities of IPOB to the menace of bandits. We must approach it from two points of view. One, as a government, we have a role to play; as stakeholders, we also have a role to play. What is the role of government? The government should treat the South-East as part of Nigeria, because I must tell you, the other parts of the country are still having reservations against the South-East as a result of the Nigerian Civil War. And that is the truth. The North is yet to trust us again and the West is yet to trust the South East. But I must tell them that the war was a mistake of one man. That war was uncalled for. It was an exhibition of arrogance. But it has come and gone, and we are still suffering the impact. What the Federal Government is supposed to do is to forget the past and treat us as an integral part of Nigeria. You can see how power is rotating from North to the West; what is the offence of the South-East? But I must commend President Bola Tinubu, for at least giving us the Ministry of Works and also one of the security chiefs, the Chief of Naval Staff.
I think the healing has started, and I believe he will do more. But what I am saying is that it is time to count the South-East as part of Nigeria. When that is done, those things you are seeing will be a thing of the past. On our part as stakeholders, it is time to talk to our people. Two wrongs cannot make a right. You cannot kill your brothers in the name of agitating for maltreatment. It is never done. Freedom fighters don’t kill. The Zik of Africa did not kill to get independence. …America is the Police of the world because of their population. When you go to America, you will see diverse ethnic groups there. So, the idea of agitating for Biafra, to me, is uncalled for. We are better together as Nigeria than saying “To your tent O Israel.” This means Biafra go, Oduduwa go, Arewa go. No; we will turn to mush- room countries. As giant of Africa, we should bond together. Treat all the geo-political zones equally. The South-East should be given an additional state. Other zones have six states, some have more; why should the South- East be treated like that?
What is our offence? We should be given an additional one state, we should be given a chance to rule this country. But we must take some blame as a people. We must calculate very well; we must make proper political alignment. Look at what the West is doing, it is aligning with the North. The power is rotating between them. Even our brothers from the South-South have also sneaked and found their way to Aso Rock. But the South-Easterner is yet to become President since independence of Nigeria. So, these are the issues and I believe that some have political solutions as I said. They should treat us equally, then as leaders, we will talk to our people to stop killing ourselves. Two wrongs cannot make a right. Let’s call a spade a spade; let’s continue to agitate and align properly politically, so that we can be counted. Some stakeholders from the South- East wrote me a letter that we should agitate for more ministerial slots, and I asked them, did we vote for APC? If you are an honest man, you must be honest to yourself. You don’t expect to reap where you did not sow.
Yes, Peter Obi contested, he contested in protest. But we know that without the full support of the North, we can’t be President. There is no sentiment about it. You don’t get power by sentiment. You negotiate power. You align to get power. It’s just like your clubs, you pay your dues, during Christmas you get something. If you don’t pay your dues, during the end of the year party, you will not be invited. You can cry from here to Jerusalem but nobody will listen to you because you did not pay your dues. So, we South-Easterners, we should pay our dues by aligning properly with the party in power, being the APC. And I know, one day, the South- East will produce the President of Nigeria, which all other zones will support
Systems analysts are of the view that the present structure of Nigeria is defective and can never allow the country to make progress. What is your view on this?
Well, restructuring may be part of the solution but for me, what is more important is the system itself, irrespective of the level of restructuring. If we are honest, we have an honest leader, who is out to tell the truth, I don’t think the structure is the problem but the system. Can we be honest to ourselves? Can we be patriotic to our nation? Can we for once, be okay, not minding how we were created? As a Permanent Secretary, if N1billion is earmarked a three- kilometer road, I must see that that three-kilometer road is done. I must reject the kick back. I must reject the Christmas cow and ensure that the job is done. If you do that as a Permanent Secretary, if I do that as a Senator, if you do that as a Minister, then what are we talking about? This is because we are rich as a nation; we have all it takes to put all the infrastructure on ground but the problem is corruption and that is the system. So, let us jointly fight corruption. If we do that, then the structure will take care of itself. There is nothing wrong with the structure, if we are patriotic, we want to serve the nation, we want to treat everybody equal. Well, as a Christian God said I am God of all mortals.
He didn’t say I am God of the Igbo, he didn’t say I am the God of Yorubas, he did not say, I am God of the Muslims. He said I am God of all mortals, meaning that he is God of all mortals. You just entered my office and I received you, and I am listening to you. That is the spirit we are talking about. I don’t need to know you more but as a Nigerian you are coming for some- thing that will help the country to grow. I must give attention, I should support you whether you come from my tribe or not, it does not matter. So, that is how I am looking at it. The structure to me, yes it may have one value to add but the problem is the system. Can we call a spade a spade? Can a teacher sit down and do his work? Can a Permanent Secretary sit down and do his work, can the Police do his work without taking bribes. That is what we are talking about, that is the structure, what is wrong with the structure?
It does appear the present government cannot fight corruption. What do you have to say?
Yes, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can. I have described him as a man that is ready to work. What he did in Lagos as Governor of Lagos, he in fact, set Lagos on autopilot economically. So, I believe he will do it again at the federal level. He is a very corrupt free person. He made his money as a businessman before coming into politics and I think as a President, he is not looking for money. He wants to contribute his quota to reshape this country and knowing his pedigree, Tinubu will fight corruption to a standstill. He is icharge, he is not like a ceremonial President like we had most recently. He is in-charge. You can see what is happening in the ministries; you can tell me better. Meaning that he is awake, he is not sleeping. So, I believe that with him Nigeria will bounce back.
Sabotage is one of the biggest problems of our leaders even when they have the willingness to do good. How can this be tackled in the system, so that good policies of the government can be judiciously implemented?
That’s why we come in as a Parliament through oversight. We are following the budget like I said some time ago. Our eyes are on the ball. We are following the budget line by line, page by page. So, any kobo provided for a particular project must count for Nigerians. That is our duty because the President cannot do it alone. That is why we have division of labour and separation of power. He will do what he is supposed to do as President and Commander-in-Chief, we as Parliament we will do our own. You are a journalist, you do your own, as a teacher you play your own, as a police officer or Army officer you play your role. All geared towards having a better and perfect Nigeria. The president cannot do it alone and that calls for the support of the citizenry to fix the country. Joe Biden, President of America is just the head but an average American loves the country. They are patriotic citizens and that is why America is working, there is no magic about it. I need you; you need me, we need everybody. Everybody must do his work in line with the law and that is why we have the law.
The law is a social regulator that regulates our activities on earth. In fact, the law is an ambassador of God. For us Christians, when you look at the 10 commandments juxtapose it with the criminal Act, you will know that it is lifted from the 10 commandments. The same thing with the Quran and other Islamic laws. The Penal code etc. So, God has given us all we need to have a perfect world. But can we follow those laws? That is the problem.
The nation has persistently been faced with insecurity ranging from kidnapping, killings and other forms of insecurity. What do you think should be the best way to tackle these problems?
The insecurity is not far-fetched from unemployment. Most of the youths go into crime because they have nothing to do and there is not even a directorate that is taking care of their situation. That is why as a person I am creating a committee in my zone to be called the Guidance and Counselling Committee. They will go to schools, meet those in senior classes to even guide them on the choices of the courses they are to study in the University. This is because somebody will go to the University and say, Ah! My neighbour read Political Science, after reading Political Science which company in Nigeria needs you? Nobody needs a Political Scientist but they need Journalists, Medical doctors, Lawyers, Accountants etc. These are courses that when you read them even the outside world is waiting for you. So, that is the area we need to look at. The insecurity in Nigeria is a challenge but it has to be tackled from providing jobs for the teeming unemployed Nigerians. Nigeria also needs to empower the security agencies by giving them all the necessary equipment and recruiting more men into their outfits.
We often hear from the security chiefs that they don’t have sufficient manpower to do their work. What is the problem, is it that we don’t have the qualified and able youth or we don’t have money to pay them? So, I believe that it is high time the government declared a state of emergency in our security sector because that is the basic assignment of government. You can see what is even happening in Abuja, the Capital Territory of Nigeria, people are being kidnapped. It is a shame and we must own it up as leaders. We must do something but I commend the FCT Minister Nyesom Wike for the pragmatic steps he has taken so far and I believe very soon it will be a thing of the past.
Nigeria is fast drifting into a highly consumer nation, thereby making the country import dependent. This situation has further weakened our Naira. What is the way out of this situation?
Although I am not an Economist, you can’t grow as a nation if we can’t produce what we eat. You would agree with me that today we import Indomie and most of the food items we eat. We import virtually all that we eat. It shouldn’t be. These are the things we can produce when we set up some industries and that will happen in this administration. It will create jobs and make Naira to bounce back. I must commend Mr. President. Under the immediate past President, Dangote Refinery was set towards addressing this and I believe that more of such industries will spring up.
Nigeria is fast becoming a debtor nation and Nigerians are not comfortable with this development. How do we get out of this quagmire?
Well, it is not bad generally to borrow because even America borrows. What matters is what you use the money to do. In other words, the money you borrowed, what did you do with it? If you borrow to set up industries that will yield dividends from which you pay back the loan, there is nothing wrong about that. If you borrow to establish basic infrastructure that will encourage our economy to grow, there is nothing wrong about it. Every nation in this world borrows money from other countries of the world but it has to be people-oriented policies. You don’t borrow to consume. You borrow to invest because when you invest, you can pay back. So, when you borrow to buy Garri, definitely you look for where to pay back because you borrow to pay back.
When you borrow to do rice farming, you have the prospect to pay back after harvesting the rice in November/ December. Like me, I borrow to do my farm work and at the end of harvesting I will sell and recover my money and repay the loan. So, there is nothing wrong with borrowing, what matters is the policy on utilization of the loan borrowed. That is the issue.