By Uche Nwosu
The very essence of a free government consists in considering offices as public trust, bestowed on for the good of the state, and not for the benefit of an individual or a party, so declared John Caldwell Calhoun, the 17th century American statesman. In this wise, democracy becomes the vehicle that makes the people part and parcel of government and actually helps them to participate in governance.
It is a concept that revolves round the people: phrased as government of the people and by the people and for the people.
Indeed, parliament becomes the oil through which democracy rolls on, because it protects the people from the tyranny of their government (the Executive Arm) and opens up the government to them (the people). In order words, people through their elected representative can participate in governance by proxy.
This is by way of accessing their representative at the Parliament/House of Assembly; informing him/her and/or watching him/her present their matters and that of the state in the hollowed chambers. What this means is that the Parliament/ Assembly or Congress as (the United States) calls it accommodates all segments of the people and allows them watch its proceedings in its gallery openly.
They are there to watch and access the performance of their representatives and also get familiar with the workings of the Parliament; this is the position in all Democracies. In fact, the press/media which is the Fourth Estate of the Realm covers the proceedings of the Parliament from its secluded gallery; by so doing, the society is carried along and indeed knows what the legislature does daily.
However, it is not so in Abia where the leader of the Abia State House of Assembly operates as a Feudal Lord and has indeed turned the institution to a cult thing. All the legislative activities are carried out in secret as the press/media and the public are not allowed to cover or watch its proceedings from the gallery. Right now, there is an indefinite ban on the coverage of the house activities. The Speaker of the 24-man assembly imposed the ban. His alibi is COVID-19.
When this reporter visited the area situated at the Ogurube Layout, Umuahia on Tuesday, the premises of the assembly was like a ghost town as staff in their offices spoke in hushed tones. The entrance to the gallery was locked and the security personnel were positioned in strategic places to turn away ‘intruders’. Ironically, they tried to stop this reporter, members of the House were busy inside the Chambers of the assembly deliberating on vital issues that affect the people and residents of Abia State that ought to be reported. Sadly, the people are being kept in the dark on their welfare/welbeing because of none coverage of the House activities.
From all indications, the Abia State House of Assembly appears to have been turned into a private business by the Speaker, Hon Chinedum Orji and few of his henchmen. At the gate of the massive assembly, visitors who, in the opinions of security personnel, have no business going to the House of Assembly are turned back.
Two of the security personnel on duty said they were directed to stop some visitors from going in because of the Coronavirus.
Asked why such a directive should be given since the assembly has what it takes to observe other non-pharmaceutical protocols of COVID-19 like social distancing, wearing of face masks, applying sanitizers etc, the personnel said they were not there to be drilled with gratuitous quiz.
However, a staff who spoke ignorantly, unaware of whom he was talking to, said the Speaker, Chinedum Orji has severally been called upon to ‘open up the House’ and make it accessible to all visitors but he refused. “Have you seen how the whole place looks like a deserted town? Well, everybody has his or her own style of leadership”, he concluded.
It is observed that the assembly reaches the people it makes laws for through a stereotyped method of communication. The Speaker’s Chief Press Secretary, Mr Jude Ndukwe and staff at the Public Relations Department of House issue press releases which sometimes leave many issues muddle up.
A journalist with a national newspaper in Umauhia observed that since 1999 when the Fourth Republic began, no Speaker of the House has barred the press from covering its activities. Actually, the assembly has had Speakers such as late Nkem Ike, Christopher Enweremadu, Stanley Ohajuruka, Agwu U Agwu, Ude Oko Chukwu, Asiforo Okere, Martins Azubuike, Chikwendu Kalu before Chinudum Orji emerged in June 2019.
None of these Speakers ever barred journalists from covering the activities of the House on any excuse. “They rather allowed the press to get first hand information from the assembly and write their reports according to their house styles. “Is he trying to prove that he’s more powerful than the institution he presides over?”
Meanwhile, the activities of many institutions in the state have returned to normalcy after the COVID-19 turmoil, but the Abia assembly uses the COVID-19 outbreak as an alibi to operate clandestinely. Hon Chinedum Orji, who is the son of the immediate governor of Abia State and now a two-time Senator, Theodore Orji, is presiding over the 7th Abia State House of Assembly. Nonetheless, he reportedly is eyeing higher political position in 2023. How that one will work out remains a guess. However, efforts made to get his reason for closing the gallery through his CPS was not successful as he (the CPS) was said to be away from the assembly for some days now.
Uche Nwosu is a two time Shell Petroleum PLC award winner in the year 2000;
He won the Shell Award on Investigative Journalism and Environmental Cleanliness.