Issues, anxiety as Senate decides on Southeast development

Senate President Bukola Saraki

The Senate is set to pass its final verdict on the need or otherwise of establishing the South East Development Commission to take care of infrastructural deficit in the region.

The legislative piece had failed to pass necessary test in the House of Representatives earlier in the year but hopes were rekindled for the proponents and supporters of the planned South East Development Commission, when the Senate approved it for legislative consideration few months ago and referred it to its Committee on Establishment to be processed in four weeks.

The bill is co-sponsored by two Southeast senators, Stella Oduah from Amabra State on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Samuel Anyanwu from Imo State also on the PDP platform. The two senators seek for the establishment of the development commission to “act as catalysts to develop the commercial potential of the Southeast,” according to Mr. Anyanwu in his lead debate.
He said, “The commission will also help enhance infrastructural development of the region.”He noted how the region had contributed immensely to Nigeria, “Yet, the Federal Government is not doing enough for the region.”

To him, the passage of the bill would engender “greater sense of belonging to the Nigerian project, in the Southeast.”The President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, in a comment, after referring the bill to the committee noted that development and unity of Nigeria “goes beyond just a bill.”

According to him, “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.”

When news filtered in last week that the committee’s report is ready for final consideration by the Senate, the issues, facts and sentiments that led to the emergence of the Bill took centre stage again.

A lawmaker explained that the sensitive nature of the issues in the Bill would not allow for a hurried job and so the Emmanuel Paulker-led Committee had to take its time.

“You know that the Senate is respected for its ability to thoroughly consider issues that border on injustice, particularly since it was constituted based on the equality of states. So since this particular bill had failed in the House, all hopes are now in the Senate for solution.”

The principles behind the Bill received a boost just last month when in his appearance before the Senate Committee on Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) recently, Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, confirmed 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 quickly went to town creating impressions that 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, Southeast had been in the news since the assumption of office by President Muhammadu Buhari in May 29, 2015, over neglect and marginalisation by his administration.

When passed and signed into law, the Commission is expected to provide roadmap for development of roads, education, health facilities, industrialisation, agriculture, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity and commerce in the five states of Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Ebonyi and Abia.

The Commission is also expected to 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.

It is also expected to provide master plans for reduction of unemployment, while also providing master plans and schemes to promote the physical development of the region.Other functions of the Commission include: tackling ecological and environmental problems that arise from soil erosion problems and other related environmental challenges in the area 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; and representatives of Federal Ministries of Finance and 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.If established, the commission could be operational for only 10 years, after which the President could propose its dissolution following the approval of the National Assembly.

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, Senator 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 endeavor 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 its 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 this 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 majorly 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 mainly funded through 15 per cent deductions from Federal Allocation to the five member states.

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 most Southeast states to pay workers salaries as at 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 per cent 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 have also thrown their weight behind the bill. For James Manager, a PDP senator from Delta South, the commission should focus on construction of deplorable state of roads in the Southeast.

Contributing to a motion seeking to commend President Buhari for signing the North East Development Commission Bill into law, he said: “there is the North East Development Commission Bill that came to this Senate and it received over 85 per cent 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.”

Also, in his contribution, another PDP senator, Mr. Ben Bruce from 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), Saraki expressed the hope that establishing the bill will assuage the people in the region by giving them a sense of belonging.

According to him, “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.”

In this article:
Bukola Saraki
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