Before his foray into politics, Chairman House of Representatives Committee on Narcotics Drugs, Rep. Francis Ottah-Agbo built a sterling career in journalism and media management working as media adviser to top government functionaries including the legendry Prof. Dora Akunyili and former Bayelsa State governor, Hon. Seriake Dickson. In this interview with KEMI YESUFU, Agbo who represents Ado/Obadigbo/Opkokwu Federal Constituency of Benue State speaks on his legislative agenda and how government can tackle the growing problem of drug abuse in the country.
Journalists due to their wide experience often feel that they can do much better in government. You must have had ideas on better representing your people in parliament, would say reality is the same with your views on providing good representation to your people now that you have spent some time as a member of the National Assembly?
Yes, I am a journalist. But my case is unique because I practiced what I read in the university. I read Mass Communication up to PhD level, I was fortunate to practice journalism while still in the university because we had a radio house and a newspaper. We were fortunate to have interacted with some of the doyens of journalism in Nigeria like Ray Ekpu and Dan Agbese before leaving school. I noticed early that journalism is a profession beyond compare. If you hand an ID card to a rookie (reporter) that same day he/she gets the card, he/she is inherently privileged to dine and wine with even the most powerful man on earth. This is why we say, journalism is a profession without compare. For Nigeria, when you talk about the most powerful people, you’re talking about politically exposed people. So, what this means is that as a journalist, I was exposed to politicians: governors, Heads of State, ministers, head of parastatals. The icing on the cake for me was that I was consistently on the political desk. I started with the Insider magazine where I did cover stories, week-in, week-out. While I was serving (NYSC), I went to Lagos to write the test to join The News which had so much depth and was a tough place to work. I was selected to work as an NYSC member in Sokoto State and it was while on the beat that I got to know Gov. Attahiru Bafarawa, Gov. Aliyu Wamako, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal and Muhammad Maigari Dingyadi who is currently a minister. So, yes I may not have experience in the legislative arm of government, but I had high level political exposure. Then, when I veered off into politics, I was fortunate to coordinate the presidential campaign of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan in Benue South Senatorial zone during which I worked closely with my leaders and we were able to deliver the nine LGAs in my senatorial district for Gooluck Jonathan. Basically legislative radicalism is similar to what we do in the newsroom by holding government to account on behalf of the people. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution empowers journalists to hold government accountable to the people. What we do here in the legislature is to hold the executive accountable and to represent our people. This same role is played by journalists. A lawmaker especially those in the House of Representatives which is seen as the House of the people is elected to protect the interest of his constituents and the masses , by so doing you will step on toes. The executive is like the Leviathan in terms of it being the most powerful arm of government. So, what I am doing here is a derivative of what I learnt in the newsroom.
Competing For Resources On Behalf Of Constituency
Every constituency sends its best hands to the National Assembly to compete for a share of the national cake to bring back home. So, if you don’t have a good background like I have in journalism, it will be difficult for you to navigate the National Assembly to take development back to your constituency. As members of the National Assembly, we can talk about the welfare of the generality of Nigerians, when issues of national importance come up. But as far as projects are concerned, I am arguing to take projects to my constituency, another member is arguing to take projects to his/her constituency. The challenges in different constituencies are basically the same; there might be variations in degrees of priority or urgency. For example, all constituencies need schools, they need water, they need to maintain roads and in the case of constituencies like mine who don’t even have roads, new roads need to be constructed. I am from the backwaters of Benue State, I am from Ado LGA and my part of Ado is the backwater of the LGA. So, I have to struggle, leverage on my contacts to ensure that I can do what is needed for my people. This is why since I came I have been able to mix up and make contact with those that matter in the House.
Legislative Priorities and Challenges Achieving Targets
If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have been celebrating a good number of my projects. Topmost of my legislative priority is the building of a bridge linking Ojumande and Ulayi Districts, in other words, I want to have a bridge across River Okpokwu. For my community, we are the most backward in Benue State. We don’t have roads, we don’t have a hospital, we don’t have electricity. So I have identified those who do not have electricity and I have lunched the ‘Light Up Ado/Obadigbo/Opkokwu Federal Constituency’ programme. I started by building on the initiative of the former Senate President Sen. David Mark, who appropriated money for the electrification of some communities in my constituency. Before he left the National Assembly polls had been mounted, so now I had to appropriate money for the completion of those projects. Then, I went to Echama a district in another LGA that doesn’t have electricity and I appropriated money to provide electricity and polls are being mounted now, ultimately what we have is ‘Operation Light Up Enone’. For the 2021 budget my Zonal Intervention Projects (ZIP) is going into ‘Operation Light Up Enone, my capital project is also for lighting up my constituency.
Another agenda I have is the use of my four-year salary to assist widows, orphans and the vulnerable. So far, we have distributed about N10 million. We hand the money to the people directly. This programme is very popular, now my people call me the husband of widows and father of orphans. Indeed, the bible makes it clear that he that donates to orphans and widows makes God indebted to him/her. I set up a strong committee which picked beneficiaries from across our communities. I am the first member of the House from my constituency to come with this type of intervention. I am inspired by the selflessness of leaders like Bola Ige and Chief Obafemi Awolowo who didn’t draw salaries. I decided to pay the people ahead because I couldn’t have earned N10 million as salary by now as a member of the House.
My third agenda is ‘Operation Mount a Block Classrooms In Every District of Enone’ and we starting this intervention with the 2021 budget. Another critical agenda is hunting for talent through the Enayi Ottah Foundation named after my late mother. We want to sponsor football competitions for members of my constituency. Like I mentioned earlier on the payment to orphans and widows drawing from my donated salary, we have also been secretly paying scholarship to brilliant students.
Still on my priorities, I will be making sure that the people of Ado/Obadigbo/Opkokwu Federal Constituency get their fair share of opportunities at the national level through robust oversight. Every lawmaker has the tripartite responsibility of lawmaking, oversight and effective representation of your people, if there is crisis you intervene. If they are lacking, you intervene like we did during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The sum total, the philosophy of my legislative agenda is to turn Ado/Obadigbo/Opkokwu Federal Constituency into the centre of gravity of Idoma politics and development and this is because every good thing in Idoma land started from Ado/Obadigbo/Opkokwu Federal Constituency.
Work As Chairman House Committee On Narcotics….Tackling Drug Abuse Among Northern Women
Drug abuse is a serious problem in the country. Some women and young men go as far as sniffing pit toilets to get high. Government at all levels in Nigeria treat the challenge of narcotic drug addiction with kid gloves. The agency saddled with responsibility of combating, reducing and minimizing drug trafficking is the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) which was established in 1989 by the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida Administration. The agency has investigative and prosecutorial powers. It is a policing institution. But I can tell you that in the last twenty years, what we’ve had is an agency that is under-staffed, poorly equipped and grossly underfunded. This is why narcotic drug addiction is progressing at a geometric progression, even among women. This is while the efforts and means of combating the menace of drug abuse progresses at arithmetic progression because of poor funding of the NDLEA. As I speak to you, the availability and deployment ratio of vehicles of NDLEA is 6LGA/1 operational vehicle. The staff availability and deployment ratio is one staff to an LGA. In the entire country, we only have 8 sniffer dogs and these dogs where donated to the Nigerian government by the Germans. Before I came on board as committee chairman of the House Narcotics Committee, the budget of the NDLEA wasn’t up what some people use to feed their dogs. But when I came on board I was able to get them N1 billion to buy a holding headquarters where personnel transferred to Abuja have a place to stay before securing accommodation. The worst part of the agency’s problems is that drug traffickers, drug peddlers move their products with sophisticated weapons, but over seventy percent of the weapons used by NDLEA were used during the Nigerian civil war. How can you use such antiquated weapons to chase and arrest criminals armed with sophisticated weapons? This is why I said earlier that government at all levels treat the abuse of narcotic drugs with kid gloves, leading to the current situation where drug addiction is progressing at a geometric progression, even among women, while the efforts and means of combating the menace progresses at arithmetic progression. The very slow pace of tackling drug trafficking and the resultant abuse of narcotics is why we are recording an upsurge in banditry, terrorism, rape and killings. If the youths are the leaders of tomorrow, then all stakeholders must work very hard to stop things that destroy their future.