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Caretakers at L Gs: The politics, the issues

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  • As moves to grant autonomy to councils intensify.

By Richard Ihediwa, Sam Egwu, Lokoja, Francis Iwuchukwu, Lagos, Osaigbovo Iguobaro, Benin, Uche Nnorom, Makurdi.

Earlier in the month, the House of Representatives passed a resolution describing as illegal and unconstitutional the constitution of caretaker committees by state governors to govern local government areas in the country. That resolution followed the adoption of a motion to that effect by Rep. Friday Itulah, who drew the attention of the House to the practice arguing that such is capable of throwing the nation into a state of lawlessness if not checked.
Despite its unconstitutionality, currently, 25 state governors have extended their iron rules to local councils with caretaker committees in clear breach of section 7 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which states 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.”
Section 8 principally deals with issues of creation of local councils and boundaries matters among states and local governments. Though the constitution places the power to provide the legal framework for the administration of local councils on states, it never conferred on the state such powers as substituting “democratically elected” leaders at that tier of government with “appointed” ones.
While almost all the states have at one time or the other used caretaker committee, states currently operating in this breach include Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Gombe, Imo, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Nasarawa, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Yobe and Zamfara.
States such as Benue and Abia have not had elections into local governments since the last five years and the same applies to many others in the list of autocratic 25 as many of them have refused to conduct local government elections since incumbent governors took over.
Reports have it that currently, only 126 local government areas, out of the 774 councils in Nigeria are run by democratically elected officials.
In effect, the state governors have decided to jettison the same  democratic system that brought them to office and turned the local councils, which is actually a third tier of government into fiefdoms over which they exercise a sort of despotism by arrogating themselves extra-constitutional powers of appointing their stooges and errand boys, most of who are grossly unqualified as task masters and conduit pipe managers to harness the resources meant for that tier.
Currently elections into local councils in most of the states of the federation are no longer drawn from constitutional ordering or timing but at the discretion of the governors who exercise them in the breach of the law.
On the whole state governors have since declared a state of emergency on local governments despite their much orchestrated stand on democracy.
The governors have even called the bluff on court ruling declaring caretaker committees illegal. Such court ruling include that of the Ekpoma High Court presided over by Justice T. Akomolafe- Wilson which on May 16, 2012  declared Local Government Councils Caretaker Committees in the state illegal, describing the practice as ‘executive rascality’.
The Court, in a suit filed by Tony Okonigene against Edo State Government and Attorney General of the state over the dissolution of local councils pronounced the action as illegal and ordered the state governor to conduct council elections immediately.
A further look at the errant states shows that all the political parties are guilty of the democratic malfeasance perpetrated by the governors as it cuts across states controlled by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), Labour Party, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) among others.
Pro- democracy groups worry that the leadership for of these political parties have refused to persuade the governors to restore and uphold democratic order in the councils even as the Presidency has not taken any serious threat to ensure strict compliance to the provisions of the constitution in the face of clear breach which when seen in the light of section 1 of the constitution which bars control of any part of the country through undemocratic means.
Section 1 reads:  (1).”This Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.(2) The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall not be governed, nor shall any persons or group of persons take control of the Government of Nigeria or any part thereof, except in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution. (3) If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”
Pro-democracy groups argue that use of caretaker committee violates not only section 7 but section 1, thereby by implication could be seen to be near an offence that could be considered as treasonable.The resolution of the House collaborates the position of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation , Mohammed Bello Adoke  who had condemned the system of appointing caretaker committees for local government councils as being against the tenets and letters of the constitution.
The minister, who made his position known during his screening as a ministerial nominee by the Senate last year vilified governors of violating section 7 of the constitution by dissolving elected officials and appointing caretaker committees to run the affairs of local government council areas.
Adoke had said, “Let me also state clearly that the appointment of caretaker committees is illegal and unknown to law, but regrettably, nobody has challenged this constitutional lapses. We will look at it and try to redress the situation.”
Stakeholders are however not happy that since the declaration by the Attorney General that the use of caretaker committee was illegal no drastic step has been taken by his office to ensure respect and compliance to the dictates of the law.
Several reasons have been adduced for the refusal of state governors to conduct elections for democratically elected local councils. These range from lust for perfect control of power machinery in states to the quest for overall control of resources including those constitutionally belonging to the local government areas.
State governments find the funds allocated to local governments too attractive to overlook. They device means to ensure that they not only have access to them but to control them. Local governments earn their tenure to their obeisance to the state governments. Some elected council executives have been sacked or impeached at the instance of governors especially when they refuse to yield to the totalitarian yoke of the state chief executive especially when it comes to issues of finance.
Consequently, local governments are stifled of funds for development as state governors exert total control on the Joint State and Local Government Account. The quest to have complete control of the resources in this account lead to the appointment of stooges as caretakers who are removed based on the whims and caprices of the governor.
It has however been discovered that state governors have now perfected alliances with their houses of assembly to destroy democratic structures in the local government areas as many state legislative houses have since approved some form of legislations to pave way for the appointment of caretaker committees despite the provisions of section 1 of the constitution which provides that any law that is not consistent with the provisions of the constitution remain null and void to the extent it is inconsistent to it.
Already some states such as Edo, Benue among others have been operating this law despite its unconstitutionality.
Drawing from the list presented in the House of Representatives, one of the states that have failed to conduct local government election in the last five years is Benue.
In the five years of his administration, Governor Gabriel Suswam has failed to conduct local government elections. Instead the governor has continually appointed caretaker committees and re-appoints them after every six months.
Only recently, caretaker committees that have spent over a year in office were dissolved amidst controversies which resulted in bickering and squabble in the local government councils.
Most of the ousted caretaker committee chairmen, who performed woefully, struggled hard to be retained but failed in their bid to do so.
The bickering was worsened by the alleged role played by the Deputy Governor, Steven Lawani and the state PDP chairman, Emmanuel Agbo who were accused of influencing the re-appointment of the sacked caretaker committee chairman of Okpokwu Local Government, Mr. Robert Idoko, who has been in that office for over a year, to the chagrin of certain elements in the state.
The squabble is coming on the backdrop of the argument by the aggrieved elements that the re-appointment of Idoko was in violation of an Act passed by the state state House of Assembly that no chairman should be retained after six (6) months in office.
However, Governor Suswam has pledged to conduct local government elections in November this year, but this has been received with serious skepticism by some stakeholders and interest groups in the state as they argue that there is no structure on the ground to show that the government is serious to  match words with action.
Reacting to the pledge by the governor, a top politician in the state, Mr. Andrew Tyavkase said the governor must be queried for not conducting the elections in the last five years.
“Why has he failed all these years to conduct LG election? Is he saying that his government is incapable of holding elections? He queried.
He further accused the governor of not having a clear cut agenda for the third tier of governance in the State and so has adamantly refused to conduct local government elections.
Also reacting to the issues, a member of the House of Assembly, Hon. Patrick Iorember of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) maintained that the state government has failed to hold election because the governor wants to continue having control over the local councils.
“I can tell you why they have refused to conduct local government elections in the state. It is because the PDP government wants to continue to exert control over the councils”, he said.
Iorember’s position is particularly coming against the backdrop of thinking by some elements in the state that the PDP will not be able to win elections in some local government areas with the current influence of opposition parties especially the ACN.
Others, who commented on the issue, insist that it was not the best for the state. While an analyst, Cornelius Ode noted that the governor wants the ruling PDP to continue to hold swell in the local government areas, another political commentator, Mr. Everest Apine expressed disappointment on the issue noting that it is not healthy for the development of the third tier of government.
He said only an elected local government will impact positively on the lives of the rural people as they would be made to be accountable to them as against hand-picked chairmen whose mandate is strictly to pay salaries, without embarking on meaningful developmental projects.
The story is the same in Abia, state where the Governor Theodore Orji led state administration has continued to shift the date for local council election since he assumed office and presently there are no signs that election would be conducted in the near future.  
The same is the case in Plateau state, though the state government had since promised to ensure that elections take place this year.
In Edo state Governor Adams Oshiomhole had dissolved the elected 18 local councils and in their stead appointed Transition Committee Chairmen otherwise called Caretaker Committees to preside over the affairs of councils pending the conduct of Local government election.
Things went awry when at the expiration of approved tenure of the unconstitutional committees, the governor wrote to the House of Assembly for extension of time. Eventually, the governor was offered ‘a blank cheque’ as legislators simply mandated him to conduct local government election when funds are available.
Tempers flared, especially in the camp of helpless opposition parties who described the decision as a deliberate attempt to subvert the wish of the governed and muzzle the independence of grassroots local governments.
This is basically because it is only the governor that determines when the state has “enough money” to conduct the polls and he can decide that the fund is not there perpetually and could argue that he has the backing of the house.
Those in support of the decision of the legislature argue ironically that such will give all the party and the state government time to fully prepare for the local government elections whenever the governor fixes it.
Those kicking against such insist that the resolution of the Edo house has no force of law and that the governor must immediately conduct the elections in line with the ruling of the court.
As the controversies rage with the state government yet to comply to the court order even when it has not yet appealed the ruling, developmental projects in the local government areas have come to a halt as the caretaker committees do not have the required mandates to execute certain projects.
Currently, there is a growing animosity in the grassroots on the part of those initially nursing ambition to be elected chairmen and councilors who are now to wait indefinitely as if forgotten.
Opposition parties are of the view that government at the grassroots level is been surcharged in terms of the revenue accruing to them against the backdrop of the fact that the life-span of Transition Committee is one year.
However describing the position of the state as “executive rascality” the court in declaring the use of caretaker committee after the dissolution of councils as illegal, ordered that the state should immediately conduct the elections despite the resolution of the House.
However,  while  reacting to the development, the state Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Louis Odion, who confirmed the court’s judgment, said that the state government would appeal against it.
Former Esan North East Local Government Chairman John Yakubu in his opinion, described continuous use of Care-taker Committees by state governors, including Edo, an a celebrate move by governors to steal public funds meant to develop local councils thereby making them appendages of state governments.
The story is the same in Anambra where there have not been local government election since the exit of former Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju in 2002 at the expiration of the council officials elected in 1998. The election planned by Mbadinuju could not hold following some disagreements among political stakeholders. Since then the state is yet to conduct any election into the local governments.
In Kogi state, the story is the same though some key politicians are now mounting pressure on the new state government under Governor Idris Wada not to thread the path of other governors but to conduct election into councils.
A key political activist in the state, Barrister Mohammed Shaibu described the use of caretaker committee as a source of huge concern to the nation.
He said the failure of the local governments to deliver on their mandates could be traced to the fact that they felt not responsible to the welfare and development of the grassroots as their loyalty does not lie with the electorate but the governor who appointed them.
In his own contribution, a stalwart of opposition ACN, Alhaji Halidu Jibrin, said the use of caretaker committee has effectively shut out the electorates from the dividend of democracy at the grassroots as they have been denied of a government structure that they could call theirs.
As the arguments continue, the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) has started closing ranks to battle the governors on the issue.
ALGON is particularly not happy that the state governors were exerting absolute control on councils as well as hijacking their funds and powers.
National President of ALGON, Nwabueze Okafor, said that the system can only function well when the three tiers of government as entrenched in the constitution are allowed to exist, saying that running local governments with sole administrators was one of the impediments to growth of democracy in Nigeria. He said the failure of some states to conduct local government elections had continued to hinder local governments from performing their constitutional roles.
Okafor said: “We are very concerned, we are doing something and we have initiated a process where we can constructively engage the governors who are very keen to develop the local government system in Nigeria on this. We have initiated that process to appeal to governors who have not had elections to conduct election in the councils so as to have a functional local government system in the various states.”
Nwabueze said ALGON had also concluded plans to send memoranda for the autonomy of local governments to the National Assembly Constitution Committee to ensure their independence. He said the association would consult the state legislatures to seek their support for the total freedom of the local governments.
Interestingly, even the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has also registered its rejection of the practice though it has failed in taking steps to end it.
However, it was gathered that the leadership of the party has started working on convening a meeting with  governors elected on its platform over the refusal of some of them to conduct local government elections.
The party’s spokesman, Chief Olisa Metuh,  in an interview said the party was worried at the refusal of the governors to put in place elected executives at the third tier of government.
Meanwhile legal luminaries in the country have joined in condemning the use of caretaker committee while demanding urgent steps by government to end the practice.
Already the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has condemned the practice saying it has resulted in the failure to guarantee the existence of democratic structure at that tier.
Commenting NBA President, Joseph Daudu said, “We condemn the attitude of some state governments, which had deliberately refused to allow the conduct of elections into local government councils and in breach of the clear wordings of the Constitution set up an illegal entity known as caretaker committees which has consequently resulted in the failure to guarantee the existence of democratically elected officials at that tier of governance’’.
On his part, Lagos radical lawyer and rights crusader, Bamidele Aturu, posited that running local government administration with caretaker committee is against the norm.
He said: “It is nothing but an illegality. Those governors practising it know that they are practising illegality, but they persist because it is an avenue to pacify and compensate their acolytes.
“There is no other name to be given to it but to declare it illegal. It is a practice that runs contrary to the principles and tenets of Section 7 of the 1999 constitution.”
Also commenting on the issue, former Commissioner of Justice and Attorney General of Abia State, Mr. Awa Kalu said there was no argument to support the use of caretaker committee in a democracy since such has not been provided for in any of the nation’s law books.
He said, “Can we have an interim governor, can we have an interim President under the letter and spirit of the constitution? If we cannot have an interim President or governor or interim Vice President or interim Deputy Governor, then it is the same argument in respect of local government councils. There is no provision for interim local government officers in the constitution.
“Section 7(6) of the constitution provided for the funding of the local government councils from the federal and state governments purses, but states have continued to breach the relevant section of the constitution without batting an eyelid to the detriment of the local councils and the retrogression of the rural dwellers, to whom the local government administration was meant to bring development to.”
Reacting to the issue, former chairman of the NBA Ikeja branch, Mr. Adekunle Ojo said the use of caretaker committee to run the affairs of the local government councils is an aberration of the highest order.
“The use of caretaker committee is an aberration. It is nothing but a short cut to the reality. If by virtue of Section 7 of the 1999 constitution, the local government is to be run by democratically elected officials, then whatever or whoever is in office at the local government level, in whatever capacity they may be called, except by an election, is occupying office illegally”.
He explained further that the use of caretaker committees came into existence through the local government laws of each state, adding that such laws are inconsistent with the constitution and that if the affairs of the states are run by a law, then it is totally wrong to circumvent the running of the affairs of the local councils by another set of laws which, according to him, contravenes the constitution.
On the whole, Nigerians appear  to have reached a consensus against the governors on the use of caretaker committees, which is a complete subversion to the dictates of the constitution.
Pundits opine that the way out is for the National Assembly to take the bull by the horn and initiate and further the process that will guarantee fiscal and operational independence to the local government as expected by the spirit and letters of the law which is in line with the wishes and aspirations of Nigerians.

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