NOT many Nigerians would forget in a hurry the agonising moments between November 2009 and May 2010, when the incapacitation of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua threw the country into a crisis of succession.
At the time, the health challenges of the President forced his handlers to evacuate him to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for treatment. It would be recalled that President Yar’Adua left Nigeria on November 23, 2009 and was reported to be receiving treatment for acute pericarditis at a clinic in Saudi Arabia.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, it became apparent, that there was a dangerous power vacuum in the Nigerian Presidency, which was gradually snowballing into a constitutional crisis of debilitating proportions. Not that the Constitution did not make provision for situations of that nature, but the politicians who took it upon themselves to (mis)interpret the Constitution read it upside down and acted their own rule, not that of the law.
The President’s absence was further compounded by the fact that he did not transmit the constitutionally required letter to the National Assembly, which would have given his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan the legal authority to act in his absence.
Seeing the space for mischief, a coterie of characters around the President, who were later identified by Nigerians as the ‘cabal,’ cashed in on the situation, and began manipulating the country. They held the country down for weeks.
Nigerians, galvanised by civil society groups like the Save Nigeria Group (SNG), took to the streets to demand that the Constitution be respected.
This pressure yielded fruit, on February 9, 2010, when the National Assembly applied the ‘Doctrine of Necessity,’ as its justification to pass a resolution handing over the reins of power to Jonathan in an acting capacity. But the shadows of the members of the Yar’Adua kitchen cabinet continued the haunt the fledging Jonathan administration.
On February 24, 2010, Yar’Adua returned to Abuja. His state of health was unclear, but there was speculation that he was still on a life support machine. Various political and religious figures in Nigeria claimed to have visited him during his illness, assuring the nation that the leader would make a recovery. But the President never recovered; he died on May 5 at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, and was buried according to Islamic rites on May 6 in his hometown, Katsina.
The Federal Government declared a seven-day mourning period. That experience prompted stakeholders to think of tampering with the Constitution, to make it expressly clear when a vacuum exists in a state house. The 1999 Constitution was also amended by the National Assembly, to ensure a smooth and less turbulent transfer of power whenever the need for such succession arises.
Similar to the Yar’Adua succession problem is situation where a number of states are currently grappling with the realities of the prolonged absence of their helmsman. In Enugu, Taraba and Cross River, the governors have been away for considerably long time to cause significant panic. Although the machinations that were the order of the day during the Yar’Adua succession imbroglio have not been very apparent in these states, yet, there are still worries that governance could suffer. A good reason for that is the tradition that sees the governor of a state as the all-in-all, without whom nothing works. In some states, the deputy governor, who should have substantial capacity to make things happen in the absence of his principal is actually not given such powers. In some places, the governor’s wife could pull better strings than a deputy.
In Enugu for instance, the people have expressed worries about the whereabouts of their governor, Mr. Sullivan Chime, who has been away for about three months. Chime is said to have aversion for foreign trips; as a matter of fact, the man is said not to have observed any of his previous vacations, until now. But the larger population is probably not aware of this and they are asking questions. The place of legitimate questions has now yielded ground to the rumour mill, churning out all sorts about the man. Some said he is receiving treatment abroad for undisclosed ailments. Last weekend, he was even rumoured to have died.
The Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) has expressed worry that Chime’s continued absence from office since September 19, 2012 has paralysed government activities in the state.
Section 190 of the 1999 Constitution states: Whenever the Governor transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to the Speaker of the House of the House of Assembly a written declaration to the contrary, such functions shall be discharged by the Deputy Governor as Acting Governor.
Going by this section alone, the issue of transfer of power would be left to the discretion of the occupant of the office. In the amendment of 2011 however, Section 190 of the 1999 Constitution was substituted; Section 190 (1) states: Whenever the governor is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, he shall transmit a written declaration to the Speaker of the House of Assembly to that effect, and until he transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration to the contrary, the Deputy Governor shall perform the functions of the governor as Acting Governor.
Section 190 (2) goes on to state: “In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the House of Assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of the House, mandate the Deputy Governor to perform the functions of the office of the Governor as Acting Governor, until the Governor transmits a letter to the Speaker that he is now available to resume his functions as Governor.
However, to the dismay of those who were at first optimistic that the amendment of Section 190 would ensure continuity in governance and a smooth transfer during the period the principal has to take some time out, things have not quite worked well. For political reasons, legislators in affected states have not shown any resolve in using the express provisions of Section 190 (2) to hand over the reins to the deputy governors in cases where there governors have been away for periods beyond the 21 days stipulated by the constitution. Most have merely found some ways around the express provisions of Section 190 (2), by coming up with shadowy arrangements wherein the deputy goes through the motions, but is not really governing in the real sense.
In Enugu for instance, for three months now, the governor is yet to resume duties while the state Assembly has not yet appointed the Deputy Governor as the Acting Governor, so that state functions and duties as enshrined in the Constitution can be activated.
One example of how the governor’s absence has taken a toll on governance in the state can be gleaned from the fact that the 2013 budget proposal is yet to be presented to the House of Assembly, whereas other states have been presenting their own budgets.
In the words of the CLO, which has expressed concern at the situation in the state, the prevailing situation “is not in the interest of the citizens of Enugu State. Last week, we learnt that the Speaker had announced to the House that the budget would be presented to it (House) but till the time of this release, the budget has not been presented.
“CLO strongly frowns at the lukewarm attitude and conspiracy of the state assembly, which ought to have appointed the Deputy Governor to act as the governor as required by law so he could begin to do the functions of the governor of the state as have rightly been done.”
While the situation in Enugu is raising eyebrows, Taraba and Cross River seem to have been able to manage their own circumstances with less controversy. When Gov. Liyel Imoke of Cross River State began what his media aide described as a two-month accumulated leave, he informed the State House of Assembly through a letter to the Speaker, Mr Larry Odey. Imoke’s deputy, Mr Efiok Cobham, has since been acting in his boss’s stead.
Nonetheless, fears are rife that even in the cases where the states have been able to manage themselves with regards to the absence of their governors, those acting for their absent bosses would not be able to do much. Stakeholders fret over this because there is a feeling that those acting will be mere lame ducks, just holding forth and waiting their principal’s return.
Taraba’s case was accidental, as Governor Danada Suntai did not plan to be away at all, but his plane accident caused him to be flown abroad for treatment. The Constitution, is however, prepared for such emergencies, if only politicians would be willing to obey its letters and spirit.
Stakeholders have diagnosed that this problem is a direct result of the over-personalisation of power by elected office holders. As such, the office holder goes all length to ensure that everything is done from his table.
Also, the negative impact that the absence of the governors have precipitated in terms of governance brings to focus the actual place of deputy governors in the scheme of things. As stated by Governor Muhktar Yero, who just took over in Kaduna State, following the death of Patrick Yakowa, deputies are largely treated with disdain and contempt. Many of them get isolated from the process of governance, such that they largely know next to nothing about what exactly is going on.
Ironically, these are not matters that the Constitution can expressly address. They are issues that have to do with attitudes politicians have adopted towards political power and how it is wielded.
ARMSFREE AJANAKU/GUARDIAN NIGERIA