By Emmanuel Onwubiko
Few years back, just before the advent of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic, I was in the United Kingdom for about three weeks on an annual vacation, paid from my savings.
I decided against my practice not to stay in London but I did travel far away from London the capital of the United Kingdom. The reason was that I needed to have true life feelings of the different parts and component units of the British environment and to see if those far distant communities do have the same levels of infrastructure and development like London. In Nigeria, only in Abuja will you find good roads network but outside of that, the State and rural roads are in dilapidated forms. So I needed to see if the British society is truly a first World advanced society as we read in newspapers from Europe.
I spent that holiday in Southend-on-Sea very far away from London and my stay was worthwhile. The icing on the cake happened when I ran into a Nigerian who then took me round the beautiful community and we then had a whistle stop at his flat so he could give me some chilled bottles of Nigerian made Stout beer which is considerably more expensive and well sought after in Britain than the version brewed in Dublin Northern Ireland. The community is as developed as London.
As we drank and conversed on different issues, we heard a knock on his door and he dashed out to check who was at the door and out of a curious mind of someone on an adventure, I followed him out. Then and behold was the representative of his constituency in the British Parliament in Westminster who came to drop a leaflet and to find out about his wellbeing and welfare.
That for me was an eye openner because that was the first of this experience which is surreal and impact full. When the visitor departed after about 5 minutes of conversation with this my Nigerian friend in Great Britain, I then asked him if this is how law makers visit their constituents. He responded positively and also told me that the legislator also runs his constituency clinic not far away from his flat whereby different people resident in that area do visit him to discuss their issues regarding government as it relates to infrastructure and welfare of the people.
That for me was an eye openner. As an adult who has participated in virtually all elective activities in this fourth Republic and even right from June 12th 1993 Presidential election, I can attest that I have never run into an elected member of either state or National Assembly in any of the remotest communities that I have visited and spent quality times conversing with the natives.
I can say that aside when political office seekers roam about during campaigns to seek for the votes of the electorate wielding bribes of small customised bags of salt and rice, not a lot of Nigerians residing in the rural wards that make up the constituencies or even the urban areas have for once seen their elected legislators visiting them to interact and interface on their peculiar issues.
I have been around for over two decades in Abuja and I have never set my eyes on the Senator or house of Representatives members of the Federal Capital Territory visiting constituents to hear them out. I can say that the current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has even visited more wards in the FCT more than the Senator of Abuja.
Such is how far removed the legislators at both the national and subnational regions are from the people who are the actual owners of the sovereignty of Nigeria and whose legitimacy was obtained by these office seekers before exercising authority over public affairs.
But last Month, the Senator representing Abia North Senatorial zone Senator Orji Uzor Kalu visited 57 wards of his constituency and interacted with hundreds of thousands of rural dwellers who turned out massively to witness the legislative tour. This writer learnt authoritatively that for the month long constituency tours of those communities, the office of Senator Orji Uzor Kalu spent over #200 million Naira.
I will return to discuss the issue of the recently held month long constituency tours by Senator Orji Uzor Kalu but first let us visit Great Britain and Australia to see what and how their parliamentarians carry on with their activities and then we will see that direct interfacing with constituents is a sine qua non for determining the effectiveness and efficiency of representations by the legislators.
This will then lead us to demanding answers from other national assembly members why they have decided not to visit their constituents and even majority do not sit in their constituency offices to receive their constituents.
We will have citations from Australian and British Parliaments.
First on representative roles and responsibilities, the literarure informed us that at first glance political representation in a liberal democracy such as Australia is a straightforward concept: about every three years at a national level there is an election where citizens in defined geographic areas (be it a local electorate or a state/territory) choose from a range of candidates—themselves citizens living in (or near) that same area—and elect a few to sit in the national parliament as representatives of the people living in defined geographic areas. Yet both theoretically and in practice it is far more complicated. While representative democracy is often poetically described as government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, it is not only ‘the people’ who are represented: political parties, ideologies, states, business, unions, the environmental movement—to name but a few—are also represented. Furthermore, even the very notion of ‘the people’ is amorphous as a representative cannot possibly represent the full diversity of ‘the people’ and all their divergent and conflicting interests.
These complexities actually relate to the actors rather than the institutions. That is, the practice of being a representative and the act of representing is less straightforward than the institutions of political representation, as the institutional norms are clearly defined. In this regard, Blom defines representation ‘as a set of procedures or rules that select people to formulate and legislate the public interest in an accountable way … representation is the accountable aggregation of interests’. The Constitution and standing orders of the Houses of Parliament circumscribe the functions and powers of the legislature and the actions of those within it, which a learned judiciary adjudicates, guided by widely accepted precedents and conventions. Yet the roles and responsibilities of the legislators outside the institutions are not so clearly defined, as they are contested and ultimately judged by a more unpredictable populace. It is this activity of representing, or the conception of representation as ‘acting for’ others, that this monograph is most interested in, which Pitkin defines in terms of what the representative does and how s/he does it.
On Local, national or party interests Of the parliament of Australia, these are the views: “These ideas of national representation and the national interest conflict with Australia’s electoral design, whereby citizens vote together as a local community or as a state/territory to elect representatives, rather than as a nation. Representatives are referred to as the ‘Member for Griffith’ or the ‘Senator for Queensland’. Yet the national parliament is preoccupied with national politics; as previously mentioned, parliamentarians divide along national party lines rather than regional or local lines. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, despite being local members, speak as national representatives on national issues.
“The dilemma for political theorists in this context has been that if a person represents a particular local electorate in the parliament, should they pursue that electorate’s interests, or the national interest? Given the choice between electorate and nation interests, most members would probably claim that their local electorate is their prime concern as ultimately their political survival is based on their electorate’s opinion. For senators, the situation is more complicated as the party’s electoral performance and the senator’s position of the party ticket are important factors. Parties are variously portrayed as links between local and national interests, antithetical to the national interest, or binding the member to a party program, which a constituency endorses. A parliamentarian can also be seen as more representative of a party than a constituency or the national interest. Most parliamentarians have to be very sensitive to party concerns and cultivate relationships with party colleagues, especially party leaders and other powerful figures. In Australia, party discipline in the major parties is remarkably strong, and in the case of the Australian Labor Party is formalised with a signed pledge binding parliamentarians to vote on party lines. Stilborn argues that: ‘criticisms of the delegate theory on the grounds that the required independence of individual Members of Parliament is incompatible with the demands of responsible government are equally applicable to the “trustee” conception of representation. Trusteeship also requires independence from party discipline’, the Australian angle concludes.
The literature on the parliament of Great Britain states that the UK public elects Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their interests and concerns in the House of Commons. MPs consider and can propose new laws as well as raising issues that matter to you in the House. This includes asking government ministers questions about current issues including those which affect local constituents.
MPs split their time between working in Parliament itself, working in the constituency that elected them and working for their political party.
Some MPs from the governing party (or parties) become government ministers with specific responsibilities in certain areas, such as Health or Defence. These MPs do not stop working for their constituency and, whatever their role in Government or Parliament, will still hold regular surgeries to help their constituents.
What do MPs do in Parliament? When Parliament is sitting (meeting), MPs generally spend their time working in the House of Commons. This can include raising issues affecting their constituents, attending debates and voting on new laws. This can either be by asking a question of a government minister on your behalf or supporting and highlighting particular campaigns which local people feel strongly about.
Most MPs are also members of committees, which look at issues in detail, from government policy and new laws, to wider topics like human rights.
What do MPs do in their constituency? In their constituency, MPs often hold a ‘surgery’ in their office, where local people can come along to discuss any matters that concern them.
MPs also attend functions, visit schools and businesses and generally try to meet as many people as possible. This gives MPs further insight and context into issues they may discuss when they return to Westminster.
This British angle aforementioned was demonstrated and reenacted by Senator Orji Uzor Kalu and as I said, since democracy started fully in 1999, this is the first actual ward to ward tour to be done by a sitting Senator of the Federal Republic. I stand to be contradicted.
Little wonder then that the constituents of Abia North Senatorial zone were ecstatic and overwhelmed to see their Senator who is also the most high ranking national legislator of the national ruling All Progressives Congress from the South East of Nigeria. Most of them confessed that that was their first time of holding town hall meetings with their elected Senator.
Before commencing, the Chief Whip of the Senate, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, said he embarked on a ward-to-ward tour to engage his Abia North constituents in the five local government areas of his senatorial zone.
In a statement he said the objective of the tour was to relay an account of his legislative representation at the National Assembly since his election in 2019.
He said the exercise would avail him the opportunity of a direct feedback from his constituents on the impact of various infrastructures, skill empowerment, federal grants, educational and medical resources that he facilitated for his constituents.
He exercise would also provide him and his team the opportunity to know other challenges being experienced by his constituents.
“My team shall be embarking on a Mid-Term Constituency Report to give account of my stewardship for the third legislative year as the Senator representing Abia North senatorial zone (2019-date). My team and I will meet all the constituents in their respective wards to discuss issues of representation and what we have done for each ward in Abia North.”
The former governor of Abia State and first term senator has facilitated the construction of over 62 road projects, rebuilt and equipped 15 community schools, constructed borehole (water) projects, and distribution of agricultural and vocational machines to his constituents, among others.
This has earned him, twice in a row, award of the “Overall Best I Constituency Projects and Human Relations Award” by the National Assembly Senate Press Corps.
The tour coming at a time of heightened state of insecurity no doubt came with mixed feelings and all kinds of reports including the speculation that the Senator has been forced out of the tour by gunmen.
Howevet, the Orji Uzor Kalu Campaign Organisation said that the Chief Whip of the Senate, Orji Uzor-Kalu, never had any encounter with gunmen during his ward-to-ward tour in Ohafia Local Government Area.
The spokesperson of the campaign organisation, Mr Sunny Idika, in a statement on Friday, warned those peddling such rumour to desist from doing so.
According to the statement, Kalu, who is the Senator representing Abia North senatorial district is doing everything possible within his constitutional rights to bring the unfortunate security crisis in Ohafia under control.
The statement read in part, “Distinguished Senator Orji Uzor Kalu and his team never had any armed confrontation with any group during his ward-to-ward tour in Ohafia Local Government Area as peddled by some people.
“Senator Kalu met and interacted with his constituents from Okamu, Ohafor, and Ania wards where he admonished them to be peaceful and law-abiding.
“Let it be on record that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu and his team never encountered any armed group at the communities he visited.
“Therefore, those peddling such rumour against the Chief Whip of the Senate, should desist from the mischievous act.
“Senator Orji Uzor Kalu is doing everything possible within his constitutional rights to bring the unfortunate security crisis in Ohafia Local Government Area under control.”
As the tour proceeded, there were a lot of reactions about it. The head teacher of Arochukwu community primary school in Arochukwu
Local Government Area of Abia state, Mrs. Ejim Obioma, expressed gratitude over the renovation of their school’s facility by the chief whip of the Senate, Orji Uzor Kalu saying that they’ll no longer be affected by the Sun and rain.
The staff expressed their feelings on Monday at Arochukwu when Kalu, led a delegation to commission the newly reconstructed school building in the community.
Narrating their ordeals prior to Kalu’s intervention, Obioma said that whenever it rained, it disrupted all their activities in the school due to the deplorable conditions of the school building.
She further added that many pupils were discouraged from coming to school because of poor condition of the classrooms.
Ejim pointed out that the pupils and staff also had to endure the heat of the scorching sun, whenever it wasn’t raining.
She said, “The joy you have brought to us is immeasurable. That is why we are all gathered here to celebrate.
“Through the reconstruction of this school building and the provision of learning materials, you have boosted the morale of our students.
“You have made them willing to learn and happy to come to school and as for the teachers, you have made us proud and increased our zeal to teach these children because you have made everything easy for us.
“Before your intervention this building was so terrible that most of the students stopped coming to schools because the building used to be dilapidated with no roof.
“Both the pupils and staff get ‘beaten’ by the sun and the rain, but you have reconstructed this school as if you’re an indigene of Arochukwu.
“You didn’t only reconstruct the building, you also provided furniture, study textbooks, bags and other writing materials, we have never had it this good. The road which leads to this school has been so bad for the last 30 years but you have also built it for us.”
Earlier in his remarks Kalu, said the gesture signified his commitment to improve the lives of his constituents, in addition to other developmental projects which he has facilitated in the community.
Senator Orji Uzor Kalu commissioned multimillion Naira worth of rural projects such as 68 rural roads, 18 water boreholes and renovation of 42 schools including distribution of hundreds of thousands of educational resources and materials.
This writer wants every Nigerian who can write and speak to the media to demand accountability and transparency from their legislators.
Nigerians should ask their representatives why they haven’t embarked on ward to ward tour similar to what Orji Uzor Kalu did or is Orji Uzor Kalu Nigeria’s only Senator?
I ask again, dear Nigerian, have you seen your SENATOR?
- Mr. Onwubiko is is head of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria and was National Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission Nigeria