At 42 years, Rt. Hon. Uche Victor Okafor is one of the youngest House of Assembly Speakers in the country. In this encounter with IKECHUKWU AMAECHI in Awka, Okafor, a two-term lawmaker who represents Ayamelum Constituency, speaks about his vision for the seventh Assembly and how he is navigating the delicate balance that is Anambra politics and, indeed, Nigeria’s ever-fledgling democracy.
IT was a fortuitous encounter on a Saturday night. Rt. Hon. Uche Okafor, Speaker of the Anambra State House of Assembly, had had quite a busy day traversing the nooks and crannies of the state attending social functions, some he may not have bothered to attend if he was not the presiding officer of the seventh Assembly.
Still surrounded by a retinue of aides, political associates, and friends, he obviously needed some rest when they sauntered into a hotel lobby to take stock of the day’s activities and plan for the next day.
That was where we met. As the discussions went on, he was taciturn, quite unlike a typical Nigerian politician. But he was neither aloof nor withdrawn, just that he preferred listening rather than do the talking himself. That disposition caught my attention. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is ability to listen and I wanted to know more about him.
Okafor was first elected into the sixth Anambra State House of Assembly in 2015 to represent Ayamelum State Constituency. He was one of the lawmakers suspended for purportedly impeaching the former Speaker, Rita Maduagwu.
Okafor’s ascendancy to the speakership position was dramatic. Anambra is one of the seven states including Bayelsa, Edo, Ekiti, Kogi, Ondo and Osun, where governorship elections are held ‘off season’ as a result of court judgments. Because of the stand alone election, Governor Willie Obiano, who hails from Anambra North Senatorial Zone and his deputy, Nkem Okeke, from Anambra Central, will vacate office before the seventh Assembly lapses.
So, expectations were rife that in the spirit of equity, the Speaker would emerge from Anambra South Senatorial Zone, and, indeed, Hon. Paschal Agbodike, who represents Ihiala II State Constituency, was touted as the anointed. But such permutations did not reckon with Obiano’s political calculations which favoured Anambra North.
So, the speakership pendulum dramatically swung in the direction of Okafor, with Agbodike emerging as the Deputy Speaker unopposed in the 30-member Assembly.
Asked how it feels to be elected Speaker unanimously, Okafor smiles. Apparently that was not the first time such a question was being thrown at him.
“That is the question everybody asks,” he volunteers. “The experience is so overwhelming. It is a thing of joy and I feel glad that my colleagues considered me worthy of this position.”
But he is perspicacious enough to appreciate that the honour comes with huge responsibilities.
“I see it as a great responsibility that out of the 30 lawmakers in the Anambra State House of Assembly, I am the one that my colleagues chose to lead the seventh Assembly, to superintend over the affairs of the legislative arm of government,” he says.
“I really see that as a great responsibility. I seek the support of my colleagues and pray for wisdom to do what is right. It is quite challenging. To whom much is given, much is expected. So, I do my best to make sure that I carry everybody along and that is what is expected of me as the leader of the legislature.”
Of course, unlike the executive arm of government where the governor exercises executive powers, the Speaker is only the primus-inter-pares and therefore does not have the latitude to do as he wants. Not only that, Nigeria’s democracy presents peculiar challenges. The three arms of government ought to be co-equals without any being superior to the other. With the separation of powers and checks and balances, there are enough buffers in the constitution to safeguard independence of each arm.
But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. The executive has near exclusive access to state funds and therefore, not only plays the axiomatic piper but also dictates the tune.
Okafor is aware of this peculiar challenge. Navigating that delicate balance and still meeting with the expectations of his colleagues is what he sees as the most challenging aspect of his job as the Speaker.
“In this democratic dispensation,” he explains, speaking slowly, choosing his words carefully, “We have three arms of government but the way Nigeria’s democracy is structured, the executive arm plays what I may call the overarching leadership role because state resources right from the federal, state down to the local governments are controlled by the executives.”
He pauses as if deliberately wanting that statement to sink in for effect.
“So, the other two arms of government – legislature and judiciary – seem to kowtow to the executive for survival. In that case, being the leader of an arm of government which ought to be autonomous, a co-equal arm, but which in reality is not, unfortunately, you are faced with the issue of trying to pacify the executive and at the same time, pacifying your colleagues.”
But that is only one aspect of the predicament of an average Speaker of a state House of Assembly in Nigeria. It is, indeed, a Catch-22 as Okafor explains further. “Sometimes, you find yourself in a very big dilemma of trying to ensure that you don’t fall out with the executive and you don’t fall out with your colleagues in the legislature. And the third leg is the people, Ndi Anambra themselves, who are also looking up to you as the head of the second arm of government to protect them.
“So, it is quite a very big challenge, a delicate balance, if you like. My colleagues will like me to dance to their tune because they will always have their own standpoint. And the executive that finances the legislature, because in reality we don’t have financial autonomy, will always tell you this is what we want you to do and as the Speaker, they expect you to use every skill at your disposal to convince your colleagues.”
So, how does he navigate this delicate balance?
He takes a deep breath. “It is a very big challenge,” he confesses. “The first challenge is having to contend with the demands of the executive and those of my colleagues. Sometimes, a bill comes which the executive is interested in but which the lawmakers are reluctant in passing. In such a situation, it is quite difficult trying to pacify your colleagues and in the process fall out with the executive and vice versa. Finding yourself in that dilemma is a very big challenging situation.”
But he is learning the ropes rather quickly. “It is a difficult challenge but I have been trying my best to make sure that I walk the delicate balance by bringing the two arms of government together.”
But the framers of the constitution envisaged this problem and put the legislature on First Line Charge in order to insulate the lawmaking arm of government from executive meddlesomeness.
Okafor agrees but explains that running a government is a complex art that requires statesmanship and a little bit of flexibility.
“As a matter of fact, the legislature is supposed to be autonomous, a co-equal arm of government with the executive, or at least on First Line Charge,” he explains. “But sometimes, with the parlous economy – things are very difficult – there are a couple of things that we consider as lawmakers in our relationship with the executive and they all boil down to common good.”
Rather than picking a fight with the executive, Okafor would rather look at the welfare of the people. If the actions of the executive promotes public good, then he is prepared to bend backwards to accommodate them.
And he thinks Obiano’s policies are tailored towards delivering democracy dividends to Ndi Anambra and, therefore, needs the support and co-operation of the lawmakers.
So, while ensuring that the legislature is not thrown under the grinding wheels of executive highhandedness, he declares unalloyed support for the governor as long as the policies and programs of his government are geared towards solving the problems of the people.
“First is the welfare of Ndi Anambra . One of the priorities of Governor Willie Obiano is to ensure that every civil servant gets his or her salary every month. And as lawmakers, we make sure that that goal is attained.
“Second, Anambra has done so well in the area of security so much so that as lawmakers, we have resolved that whatever that will make the government slack on that score never happens. These are the two major areas where the government spends most of the resources and as partners in progress, we lend our support.
“After these two priorities, the legislature now comes in. The legislature gets its due through First Line Charge as long as it is budgeted. Whatever is outside the budget, we can always discuss and dialogue with the executive.”
As a Speaker, Okafor wears two caps. First, he represents the people of Ayamelum who elected him and have their expectations. But his elevation in the House means he must also serve the interest of the entire state. While his constituents are happy that their son is the third citizen of the state, they are also worried that they don’t have exclusive access to him anymore.
“It is the second challenge that I face as a lawmaker and Speaker,” he readily admits. “I am the legislator that represents Ayamelum Constituency, but as the Speaker, I no longer represent Ayamelum alone but the entire state and everybody comes to me.
“So, in a sense, I am no longer able to give my constituents those things they should ask and expect specifically from the man who represents them because now, I represent the whole of Anambra State and representing Ayamelum but not being able to give the people what they really want because the entire state is now my constituency, literally, is a challenge.
“In my office, we have five working days in a week and my visiting days are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and in those three days without exception, my office is filled with people who come from all the nooks and crannies of the state with one complaint or the other.
“But in the midst of all these, what I do is that I try to go to my constituency office every Friday to make sure that at least, I see my people who made it possible for me to be in the House in the first place.”
There are some Nigerians who believe that of the five Southeast states, Anambra has been the luckiest in terms of the quality of leadership in the last 20 years.
Asked if he subscribes to that school of thought, Okafor grins before saying emphatically, “Oh sure!” It was a smirk borne out of pride. He believes that Anambra is particularly lucky to have Obiano as the chief executive at this material time.
Without waiting for any further prompting, he gives his reasons.
“We are lucky in the sense that we have a governor that has very good listening ears, a governor that has the interest of the people at heart, a governor that rose from grass to grace, a governor that is a technocrat, that has travelled wide and did so well in his various endeavours in the past, a governor that came into office with the mantra that what he wants is nothing but things that will serve the collective interest of Ndi Anambra.
“We tend to be doing better than the other states in the Southeast because we have a governor that believes that Igbo race and by extension, Igbo civilisation, started in Anambra State and when he came in, one of the things that he did was to marshal out what you may call the security architecture which will enhance the other developmental strides.
“Without security, nothing can be achieved. Before he came in, there was nothing like security in Anambra but with security, other things – rural development, infrastructure, industrialisation, etc., have been added.
“We have what is called ‘Operation Light Up Anambra State’ which has made it possible for all the major streets in the state to be lit up and which in turn has helped in chasing criminals away from the state.
“Recently, we had the second phase of ‘Operation Kpochapu ‘ where the governor gave out 100 security vehicles to various security agencies.
“So, we are indeed very lucky and because we have security in Anambra, indigenes are coming back home to invest. And that generates employment for our people, which in turn takes crime out of the street, reduces significantly anti-social behaviour like drug abuse.
“Because of increased investment in the state, our internally generated revenue (IGR) is enhanced, which is then used for further development. This is what most states in the Southeast don’t have and on that score, our governor has done so well and the multiplier effect is huge.”
Okafor is a young politician who is conscious of the fact that the verdict of history matters. So, rather than being carried away by the paraphernalia of office, he is ever mindful of the legacies he will leave behind when his tour of duty as a lawmaker and Speaker comes to an end.
And he does not hesitate in sharing his thoughts on that.
“The first thing I promised my colleagues before they elected me Speaker was transparency.
“I would like to be remembered for leading the seventh Assembly that will be adjudged in the history of the state as the best, an Assembly that will sustain and improve on the three cardinal responsibilities of every legislature – effective representation, lawmaking and oversight.”
But that is what his predecessors did or claim to have done. So, what is new? Okafor says not quite.
“I tell you, the Assemblies before now were seen as rubber stamps of the executive,” he said before adding, “But the seventh Assembly which I lead will work in synergy with other arms of government, not being subservient to the executive but rather, working in synergy with them so that democracy will be sustained in the state.”
Isn’t that easier said than done? What new thing is he bringing to the table that would deliver on the legacies?
He chuckles in the manner of a leader who knows where he is headed. Closing his eyes as if reminiscing on his response, he said his administration would deploy the power of information technology in delivering services. It is a four-pronged approach that will have the people of Anambra as the epicentre of every legislative activity.
“We have already started on that trajectory. Few weeks ago, we launched the seventh Assembly’s legislative agenda and one of the things in that agenda is that there must be public hearing before any bill is passed into law so that every law will have the buy-in of the people when they make their input.
“During the sixth Assembly, that is about three years ago, the governor completed the Assembly’s office complex but the main legislative building is not up and running yet. We will work on our website and have internet facilities to enable the legislators do research and improve on their work.
“We have challenged all the members to ensure that they visit their constituency offices regularly so that they will be close to their people.
“We are also devising a strategy, an innovative legislative model if you like through which the desires, yearnings and demands of the people at the grassroots get to the House apart from the normal motions. We have decided to do quarterly town hall meetings where our constituents will present their demands which we will collectively articulate.”
Interestingly, these are not mere proposals. The House, as he disclosed, has already adopted these measures, particularly the town hall meetings.
“We just tried it out before the presentation of the 2020 Budget and most of the things Ndi Anambra are talking about are roads, rural electrification, pipe-borne water, etc., and we will ensure that these things are reflected in the 2020 Budget when passed into law.” Less than two weeks after, the budget was passed into law by the House of Assembly.
For the sake of emphasis, he reiterated: “So, it is not all about motions, and bills. As lawmakers, there are other things we can sit down with the executive at a roundtable and discuss. As members of the seventh Assembly, we want to see more developmental projects executed in Anambra.
“The ultimate goal is to make the seventh Assembly the best, the most renowned that Anambra State has ever had.”
But he is not naïve. Okafor appreciates that all these lofty goals will come to naught if the relationship with the executive is troubled. So, he sets out from the onset to cultivate that arm of government. He thinks the move has paid off as he emphatically states that the relationship has been very cordial unlike the cat and mouse game in some states.
“The relationship has been great,” he declares happily. “I must tell you that we have had very wonderful support from the executive since we came in. We have had a couple of meetings and inasmuch as we have our autonomy, we still rely on the executive for virtually everything we do. The good news is that the executive has never relented in doing the needful. All the desires of the legislature, we always get them. We are working very well. We sincerely appreciate their support.”
In the course of the interview, it became apparent that Okafor is a very optimistic person who would rather see the cup as half full rather than half empty.
He extrapolates that optimism to Nigeria’s democracy which he insists is on the right course.
“All we need to do is to exercise some patience. The problem that we have is that we compare ourselves with developed nations that have been democratic for centuries but it is a gradual process. Definitely, we will get there.”
Reminded that since Nigeria is not reinventing the wheels of democracy, it need not wait eons to attain some level of stability, he agrees but insisted that “we need patience and good understanding among the different arms of government, definitely, we will get there. It is a gradual process.”
His message to Ndi Anambra is the same: “Be patient. Be law-abiding. Do what you need to do as responsible citizen – pay your tax, keep your environment clean and leave the rest for government. Government is doing its best by providing the security that is needed and the infrastructure. As lawmakers, we will always ensure that the yearnings of Ndi Anambra are taken care of. We will carry out oversight functions by making sure that whatever the government promises the people, those promises are fulfilled.”
He relishes the high office he occupies, of course. Who wouldn’t? But he is not one to be carried away by such attainments. Instead, the position has made him temperate, clearheaded, restrained and more reflective. That much he acknowledges.
Asked how the office has changed him, he shakes his head vigorously before riposting.
“Though I am not too young but at 42 years, I seem to be one of the youngest Speakers in the country but it does not get into my head. I am still myself, my lifestyle has not changed.
“Aside the fact that I do not own myself anymore with all the security men around because I have become the property of the state, literally, nothing has changed. My routine remains the same. I wake up every day and attend Morning Mass, play lawn tennis after that, come back and have my shower, go to my study room, spend an hour or two and proceed to the office. That has been my daily routine. It has not changed and I don’t think anything can change it.
“The work is challenging and sometimes overwhelming but I give glory to God for the strength to trudge on, His abundant grace, and most importantly the gift of life.
“My colleagues and family have been most supportive. At every turn, my wife has been there. So, my strength is God, support from my colleagues and prayers from my family.”
How time flies. It was past midnight when we both intuitively looked at our wristwatches. It was time to go. I was headed to Lagos in a few hours’ time and the Speaker had official engagements lined up for him that Sunday. Besides, on Monday, he will still “speak” for the good people of Anambra State.
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