Senator Odion Ugbesia is the senator representing Edo Central senatorial district of Edo State and a member of the Constitutional Review Committee in the National Assembly.
Recently, he came under fire from women within and outside the state following allegations that he voted in favour of underage marriage in the recent constitutional amendment exercise conducted by the National Assembly. But the soft-spoken senator continues to insist he made no such move, adding that the issue of child marriage was never brought before his committee.
Ugbesia, who also is a member of the Constitutional Review Committee, disclosed that pressure from governors influenced the Senate’s decision not to approve autonomy for Local Governments, just as he declared that the powerful nature of governors is threatening the nation’s democracy.
You have been accused of voting in favour of underage marriage. How do you react to this?
I want us to face the facts squarely, nothing like child marriage was brought to the Senate. What was brought to us was Section 29, 4A and B. Section 29 specifically deals with the citizenship of this country. Let me read it: “Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for renouncing citizenship.
It went further to say “ for the purpose of sub section 1 of this section, full age means the age of 18 years and above.” B, “Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”. This is the report of the Constitutional Review Commission of which I am a member.
Now, the drafters of our constitution, in their wisdom, chose the word ‘woman’, and woman by dictionary definition means “an adult female”. They could have chosen the word “girl”, they could have chosen the word “teenager”, but they chose the word “woman”.
Be that as it may, there was nowhere in that section where child marriage was mentioned. I am a trained political scientist, so I have seen and studied many constitutions. Constitutions don’t deal with marriages; those are mundane issues left for legislators to deal with. Even in Nigeria today, you don’t have a uniform marriage age. I, Elder Odion Ugbesia, am against child marriage. Yesterday I was against it, today I am against it, tomorrow I will still be against it. They should not vilify me based on falsehood.
Two, this issue has been in the Nigerian Constitution. What was brought before us is should we delete it or not? To me, 4A or 4B is not injurious to anybody. It has been there and if you remove it, it does not add value to our morality. If you don’t remove it, it does not subtract value from our morality.
Those interested in marrying a 13-year-old will still marry a 13-year-old whether it is there or not because it has been there since 1976. 4A means “the age of 18 years and above”. B, “any woman” not any child or any teenager. “Any woman” because there is a deliberate effort here to show that the person who must stand to renounce the citizenship of this country must be an adult. So where is this thing over child marriage coming from?
What you are implying is that since Yerima spoke on the issue, I probably should not have voted this way or that way. But you did not send me to the Senate to promote religious intolerance, you did not send me to the Senate to promote ethnic or cultural intolerance. If anything, I was sent to the Senate to promote good governance, to promote harmony among the ethnic groups or religious groups in this country. You did not ask me to go and vote for minor marriages because it is not even there.
Why didn’t the Senate approve state police /LG autonomy?
This is what Nigerians should crucify us for. I will go down on my knees to apologise to them. Today we have what is called the Governors’ Forum. This body is not known to the Nigerian constitution, but still determines the shape and direction of Nigerian politics because the governors have assumed so much powers not envisaged in the constitution. Why have they become so powerful?
Because they control the political processes, political parties are under their whims and caprices, they have so much money. Last time, this same exercise was sent to the states because no matter what we do now, we must still send it to the state Houses of Assembly and we need 24 state Houses of Assembly to ratify it before it can be approved.
But there are chances now because the House passed that version of Local Government autonomy. There will be a conference session where local government autonomy might still be passed, but I want to challenge you that even if it is passed and it comes to Edo State, it will not see the light of day because the governors are not well disposed to it.
Are you blaming the governors for the Senate’s failure to pass the bill?
Are you not in this country? Have you not noticed that the Governors’ Forum has held this country hostage? We recommended Local Government autonomy for all states at the committee level, we had to bring it to the floor of the Senate where you have 109 people for debate. It did not pass. It is not that we did not see the need for it, but people voted against it. I do know that there were sources behind it coming outside the Senate.
Were the governors the forces?
Who else is against Local Government autonomy? Let me tell you one of our problems today. There are cases in court where the money directed to local governments doesn’t get to them because it is stopped at the state level. We are talking about true fiscal federalism. If the money meant for the third tier of government does not get there, then we have a problem because the governors don’t allow the money to get there.
The same goes for state police. The Nigerian Constitution provides for a Nigerian Police Force, but there is this agitation that there should be state police in order to stem the tide of crime. We fear that this provision can be abused by the governors. Take Edo State as an example. If you set up a state police, do you know who Oshiomhole will put there as policemen? It is because of fears over the abuse of the institution that the Senate did not pass that bill. Governors have assumed some powers because of the money they control.
Do the governors always induce senators financially in order to get their way?
I am not aware of that. As a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I think I should not be afraid to say anything. I think the governors, whether it is the Governor’s Forum collectively or the governors individually, have assumed too much powers that the constitution drafters did not envisage. The only reason they are doing that is because they have so much control over the resources of the states. We also have a situation where all political parties depend on the state governors for their existence. And he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Nobody can be a senator in this state today without Oshiomhole’s endorsement.
What’s your take on the Rivers crisis?
The crisis in Rivers State is derived from the Governor’s Forum, but there are many fundamental issues we must deal with. Last week, the Senate voted to take over the functions of the state House of Assembly in Rivers State as prescribed in section 114. Now, in dealing with that issue, we looked at so many fundamental issues. We looked at the President’s relationship with the governor, the anxiety over 2015 and the extraneous forces like the Governors Forum and the rest of it. All of these coming into play in a particular issue makes a solution to the crisis almost impossible. You cannot legislate peace, you cannot decree peace, you must negotiate peace. And I said, we must strengthen the hands of the Senate President to begin to find an amicable solution and a sustainable one at that to the crisis in Rivers State. The Rivers crisis has affected the fortunes, the robustness of the PDP in the South-South. But I know we will find a solution to it and things will move ahead.
Aren’t you worried that sometimes Ministers use their connection with the Presidency to fight their governors or senators?
We all have our peculiar contributions to the crisis. It is not that the Presidency is responsible or Amaechi is responsible. Look at the individuals involved; all of these must be brought to bear on the effort to find a solution to the crisis in Rivers State.
A more radical approach would be to proscribe the Governors Forum, but if you do that, you would be violating their freedom of association according to the Constitution. For now, the National Assembly cannot proscribe the Governors’ Forum. What can solve the situation now is Presidential intervention. The president has enormous powers,including the power of persuasion. I think that is what the President needs to employ more in dealing with the crises in the country.
The people of Esan land are not satisfied with your representation. What are you doing about that?
That is not true. I am about the only senator in this state or anywhere else who can boast of building a three-class room block in several communities, and I have equipped them with computers. I am the only senator that will tell you I have built over 30 boreholes in my senatorial district. I can take you to where they are located. I have built roads in communities. Where is that senator who will say he can match my records? None.