Benin — Ambassador Jerry Ugokwe, a two-time member of the House of Representatives and later Nigeria's ambassador to Austria, in this interview gives a background to how the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act started, revealing that he initiated it as private member's bill in 1999.
The Freedom of Information bill initiated during your time as Rep has been has been passed into law. Can you recall how it started?
I was in the House of Representatives between 1999 and 2003. The FOI bill was my bill in the National Assembly. It was the very first private member bill that was sponsored on the floor of the House. I sponsored that bill exactly on the 6th of June 1999 and it passed the House of Representatives, but the Senate could not agree to it before that set of National Assembly was over. By the Grace of God I returned in 2003, I re-presented it on the 9th of June and the bill passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate only for us to be told that it was not in the list of bills sent to President Obasanjo for his assent. Because that government was rounding up, nobody had the time to find out what the true position was.
In 2007, I didn't return to the National Assembly, I was appointed Nigeria's Ambassador to Austria and Nigeria's permanent Representative in Vienna. The rule of both the House of Representatives and the Senate then was if a bill was passed by both arms of the National Assembly but was not assented to by the President before the expiration of the Assembly, the bill dies automatically.
I re-presented the bill in 2003, it went through public hearing and was passed by both houses in 2006 but was not assented to before the Assembly completed its tenure. So in 2007, Rep Abike Dabiri who was one of those who supported me in sponsoring that bill dusted it, re-presented it and was able to get the House pass the bill and thank God, we have a president like Goodluck Jonathan who signed it immediately. I lived in America for 15 years before I returned in 1999, I was part of the process of Freedom of Information bill in America and one of the things I promised myself was if I have the opportunity of serving in Nigeria at any level I must champion the freedom of Information bill, so before I came to the National Assembly I had the freedom of information bill already on mind.
Some state governors are yet to start implementing it because they say its a federal law....
Yes it has to be domesticated in the states. For issues that are on concurrent legislative list, it is important that states domesticate it, so they will not hide the fact that it is about states or local government , as there are state high courts and federal high courts.
We learnt you are planning to contest the Anambra governorship election next year, how true is that?
May be why people are jumping the gun is that I had consistently made the point that Anambra can be better than what it is today. I know that pound for pound Anambra has one of the best environments to be the best state. It has the potential to be the best state in Nigeria, there is nothing we don't have in terms of money, Anambra people are among the richest people in Nigeria, and has the most intellectuals in Nigeria. It also has the most hardworking people in Nigeria but unfortunately most of us are in Diaspora, whether local Diaspora, within Nigeria or Diaspora outside Nigeria and because of that so many people have lost touch with what Anambra is capable of.
The potentials need to be converted to reality. Unfortunately we have not had that opportunity at every point there is rancor and division and I have always said so since the time I started nursing the governorship ambition in 2003. The reason why I want to be governor of Anambra is because I believe I am in the best position to unite the people of the state. Without unity there is no way Anambra can move forward. With the kind of leadership Anambra has produced since 1999 , the state cannot fulfill its potentials.
In view of the tension trailing guber elections in Anambra, what are your fears for the 2014 election?
Anambra election of 2014 will dictate the pace where Nigeria and the PDP will go. PDP has lost Anambra in two consecutive elections, as you know Anambra is the heart of Igboland and it is very important that we in the PDP put our acts together and recapture Anambra in order to show the rest of the nation where the next election will be going.
There are agitations that the Presidency be zoned to the South East in 2015, what is your view?
To start with am not an apostle of zoning, am an apostle of the right candidate taking over position to take us to where we ought to be. We've talked about potentials, since I was born, every day wake up I hear Nigeria has the greatest potential in the world. Potential energy if not transformed into Kinetic energy is no energy. It's like having oil under the ground if you don't bring it out it is useless, so am looking at somebody who looks at Nigeria as a country that needs to fulfill its potentials, I don't care where that person comes from. However talking about Igbo, it is clear that in Igboland there is a missing link.
I believe every part should be given the opportunity serve our fatherland, but as I said am not an apostle of zoning, if there was zoning Jonathan would not have been President of Nigeria today, the same thing is happening in Anambra, some people are saying it's their turn. We want the best hand as far as am concerned zoning is frivolity.
To reduce the cost of Administration in the country, some people are suggesting operating a unicameral legislation. What's your take on that?
That you have a unicameral parliament does not automatically translate into cutting down cost, knowing Nigeria even if you have one person in the National Assembly, then you bring one person per local government by the time they finish, you will have the whole Nigeria in the National Assembly. What we should be talking about is a system or a strong institution. I was once talking to an American friend of mine on American politics and he said to me it doesn't matter who you elect in America whether a democrat or a republican or an independent candidate, he follows a system known as American dream.
He said there is a system in America whoever is elected President must operate within the system. That's what we haven't done in Nigeria. Here in Nigeria individuals are the system so that's why we have what we have, it's not about bi or unicameral or anything. In fact it might interest you to know that in America every deputy governor is elected , so it's not when governors are angry with a deputy he will call members of the state assembly to impeach him.
Once the deputy governor or lieutenant Governor is elected he is automatically the President of the state Senate, he is also the chairman of the committee on finance, so the governor cannot mess up with him and they don't have to be from the same political party.