Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.
~ John Knox
The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
~ Frederick Douglass
In the last week, the Benue governor, Father Hyacinth Alia, approached the Benue House of Assembly with allegations of corruption against the 23 democratically-elected local government chairmen of the state seeking the House to investigate them and to advise him, and the House in turn set up a 3-man ad-hoc committee to do the investigation and revert to the House within 2 weeks. Not quite a few hours later the ad-hoc committee completed the entire investigation for all 23 local government areas covering up to 3 months and reported to the House!
Following this, the House recommended the suspension of the entire 23 local government councils (not only the chairmen, but the entire councils) ‘in order to pave way for proper investigations’, and the legislative councils, as well, for ‘connivance’ with the chairmen. They further asked the governor to appoint transition committees in their place.
The governor then ordered the chairmen to hand over to the Directors, General Services Administration (DGSAs) in their respective local government areas, who are civil servants, and charged the police to oversee the process.
The chairmen on the other hand refused to give up their mandates, vacate their offices and hand over to unelected successors. Part of their grounds are that there’s a subsisting court order of a competent court barring the House and governor from carrying out such action. Second, that neither the governor nor the House has the right to sack them and the legislative houses. The governor in turn said it’s not a ‘sack’ but ‘suspension’. That after the investigations those found not guilty would return. He also said he was unaware of any court order.
This scenario in Benue is exactly what transpired in Plateau. The Honourable Mr Justice I I Kunda of the High Court of Plateau State had granted an application brought by 33 local government chairmen and leaders of legislative houses of the 17 local government areas of the state preventing the governor by himself, servants, agents, appointees, representatives, delegates by whatsoever name and howsoever described, from suspending them until the main (substantive) suit they filed about the matter was heard and determined. Caleb Mutfwang, a lawyer and ‘born again Christian’, governor of Plateau still went ahead with his announcement of their suspension and appointment of transition committees for the 17 local government areas ostensibly on the recommendation of the Plateau State House of Assembly.
The chairmen, executive councils, and legislative council leaders and councillors of the 17 local government areas refused the regard their suspension and the appointment of transition committees and resumed their normal duties. For some inexplicable reasons, altercations ensured at the local government secretariats and the inspector-general of police ordered all local government secretariats in Plateau shut down and are presently under lock and key. It remains to be seen how this would be resolved. The same thing may likely be happening in Benue.
The Benue Local Government Law 2007 in section 62 states, ‘Where allegations of corrupt practices are made against the Chairman of any Council, the Governor with the approval of the House of Assembly may, in the interest of the public and good governance, suspend the Chairman or Council to enable proper investigation against the Chairman or Council to be carried out.’ I hasten to state that this must be one of the most obnoxious provisions of any law I have seen.
This provision says local government chairmen or the entire executive councils comprising the chairmen, deputy chairmen, secretaries, and supervisors can all be suspended on ‘allegations’ of corruption (it matters not whether they’re true or not) without fair hearing. Never mind that fair hearing is not only a fundamental human right but 1 of 3 fundamental human rights that can never be lawfully restricted, suspended, or violated under any circumstance, by any law or authority, not even during a war situation. Other human rights can, under certain circumstances, as human rights are no absolute, but not fair hearing, yet this provision of the law so holds contrary to the express provisions of the Constitution.
Assuming that the section 62 didn’t violate the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (‘the Constitution’), it says the House is to ‘approve’ the suspension. In other words, it’s the House that does the suspending.
However, in this present case, the House only ‘recommended’ the suspension, the governor did the suspension on recommendations of the House. Wrong procedure! Thus making the exercise a futility.
Wherever and whenever a law states a procedure for an action, only that procedure is allowed and no other. For this reason, the Benue local government councils and legislative bodies can’t validly said to have been suspended, in my opinion.
Second, neither section 62 which speaks of suspension nor any section in the Benue Local Government Law 2007 mentions suspension of the local government legislative councils. For the fact that suspension in the Local Government Law is limited to chairmen and councils but not legislative councils means the legislative councils are off limits, as ‘the express mention of a thing is the exclusion of the other.’
The Benue Local Government Law 2007 in sections 3 and 21 provide for transition committees in the circumstances where the state can’t conduct local government elections after the expiration of the term of elected officials. The condition for appointing the transition committees is clearly and specifically stated. That limits its application to what is stated in the law. The term of the serving local government officials isn’t over till next June, so the issue of transition committees doesn’t arise at this time.
The Constitution in section 7 is very clear that, ‘The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed; and accordingly, the Government of every state shall, subject to section 8 of this Constitution, ensure their existence under a Law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance, and functions of such councils.’
In simple English, the only local government councils the Constitution recognises are democratically-elected ones. And whereas State Assemblies are to make laws for the local government system, they cannot make laws outside what’s prescribed by the Constitution. Any law or provision of the law they make that contradicts the Constitution is void. It means that the whole idea of a caretaker or transition committee is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court in interpreting this section 7 of the Constitution has repeatedly stated that caretaker committees are unlawful, illegal, unconstitutional, and highly undemocratic. It therefore follows that removing democratically-elected officials by any means other than that prescribed by the law is a coup d’etat.
Finally, where there’s a valid order of court, the first thing to do is to obey it whether one agrees with it or not. If one disagrees with it, the only way to go against it is to get the court to set it aside. Anything outside this is prescription for anarchy. Even the military during the military era obeyed court orders including those they found adversarial.
The fact is, the only reason governors ‘suspend’ elected local government officials all at once is to replace them with cronies under the guise of transition committees, plain and simple!
The case of Benue and Plateau are particularly pathetic. The last thing that crosses the mind of any average reasonable person when a priest (no less, of the Roman Catholic church) is mentioned is the image of the person who deals unfairly, who robs Peter (democratically-elected officials) to pay Paul (unelected cronies installed as illegal, unlawful unconstitutional transition committee members). Even if it’s recommended one would expect such a person to decline such evil advice. One wouldn’t imagine a priest being a violator of the Constitution he swore on oath to defend and to protect, and one who creates a constitutional crisis; who disregards valid orders of court with contempt and impunity.
Plateau on the other hand is currently facing terrorist herdsmen attacks. One would’ve thought a former local government chairman, now governor, in the case of Mr Mutfwang, would appreciate the importance of local government councils in helping ensure security for the people, and would rather work towards uniting the people in defeating the common enemy and achieving lofty goals, not creating tension and divisions where none exist.
Same for Benue with its internal security crisis that needs to be focused on in the immediate term. Both states have a mountain of bad debt to clear. Benue in particular has a whole backlog of workers’ and pensioners’ pay to clear. There’s much to be done, and not to be adding to the uncertainty.
Shutting down the local government system in Plateau is great disservice to the people. It’d be same if it ever gets to that in Benue.
Personally, I’m absolutely committed to the ideals of constitutional democracy, the rule of law (as against the rule of man), local government autonomy, decentralisation, devolution, the role and functions of institutions, and so forth. Anybody, therefore, standing for any of these is an ally, and has my full partnership and support irrespective of their motivation or their past.
For the very first time, local government chairmen and leaders of legislative councils are standing up to the tyranny (arbitrary and unreasonable use of power and abuse of authority) using the available (lawful) tools. This is progress and commendable. It shows we’re learning and progressing in this journey. It means the era of governors being emperors with excessive, unchecked powers to do just anything and get away with it, carrying themselves as gods with the backing of pliable state legislatures, may gradually be coming to an end.
Whoever has the ears of Fr Alia or Caleb Mutfwang should speak to them. The confusion they’re creating will serve nobody’s best interests and won’t likely end well either. The time to change course and allow the local government system and their respective elected officials to breathe is now.