(Vanguard of Sunday, December 11, 2005)
Public officers do not assume office until they have sworn to abide by the provisions of the Constitution and to defend it. Never in our history have we failed this much to do that which we swore to do.
And it is most unfortunate, especially when it is all happening under the nose of Mr. President whose clout is so evident countrywide that he more than any other person should be the example to site that the Constitution is being defended and that the laws of the land are being obeyed. More painful is the fact that Mr. President himself is being pointed at as the most guilty in undermining the provisions of the Constitution.
Right or wrong, orders from above are seen to be orders from the Villa because there the buck must stop. The Constitution will be seen to be defended when everything we are doing accords with its provisions. The Constitution will be seen to be our guide when we can point to the section we are calling in aid of our every action.
The goings-on in the polity for some time now point to abuses of due process, not the defence of due process. And these are wrong signals to those who in future will look back to today and announce that they have precedent to guide them.
Oputa panel is a case in point. Were those who defended the refusal or unwillingness of Buhari and Babangida to show up at Oputa panel not referring to Obasanjo’s refusal or unwillingness to show up at the panel that investigated the claim that N2.8 billion had been siphoned from the treasury? The argument by their spokesmen was that Obasanjo claimed protection for all his actions in office and that he could not be held accountable for what he did then, nor questioned in respect of his tenure. What was good for the Obasanjo goose should also be good for the Buhari and Babangida gander!
Now, we are again creating precedents that those who come after Obasanjo will cite as cover for whatever they do. The handling of the Bayelsa State problem is showing up as a blatant abuse of due process.
I may be wrong, but I do not accept that elected members of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly should be herded into the office of the EFCC and made to sign a document that would form the basis for impeaching the governor. What the governor did, allegedly draining his state treasury ought to be documented and placed before the House which will pass a resolution that the allegations be investigated.
The procedure is settled under section 188 of the Constitution and cannot be varied with offence to due process. And until the governor is removed in accordance with due process, he remains governor and must not only perform as governor but must be seen to perform as governor.
Through subterfuges, we are introducing complications into our operation of the Constitution. The intimidating presence of security forces in a state where there is no visible danger to law and order is not my idea of preventing trouble but direct proof of engineering it.
The shutting down of a radio station to sanction only one point of view is not my idea of preventing trouble but proof of creating it. The only constitutional role of the deputy governor is to act for the governor, and the ceremonies that the Bayelsa State House of Assembly introduced into this obvious chore is a precedent that will be abused sooner than later.
Under the Constitution, if the President writes a letter to the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House that he is proceeding on vacation, his functions are to be performed by the Vice President as Acting President until the President writes to announce his return. I do not know if, whenever Mr. President has been on leave, the National Assembly voted that the Vice President should act as President.
What the President is required to do under section 145 of the Constitution is what the Governor is to do under section 190 of the Constitution. In line with that provision, the Bayelsa State Governor wrote to the Speaker of the House that he would be away, I hear, for 120 days to attend to a medical problem.
The House, for the period he was away, did not deem it necessary to pass a resolution that the deputy governor acts as governor. It was only after the governor had been arrested and incarcerated in England that the House of Assembly purported to be passing a resolution that the deputy governor should assume office of governor in acting capacity.
The truth is that once the governor returns and writes to the Speaker that he is back, the deputy resumes his status as deputy governor. The dangerous issue being pushed now is that the acting governor remains in that capacity until the House passes a resolution that is no longer acting governor!
That seemed to be the point raised in Port Harcourt last week when the deputy governor of Bayelsa State was attending a meeting of governors and he was introduced as acting governor when the governor was right there in Yenagoa! The Constitution is clear how a governor can cease being a governor, and any attempt to twist and turn the provisions is setting a precedent someone will quote in due time!
The most serious breach of our Road Map which is the Constitution is the current alleged freezing of the account of the Bayelsa State Government so that the operations of the government will be grounded. This, in the absence of a milder word, is treasonable. The role of the President is simple and uncluttered.
The Federation Account is a creation of section 162 of the Constitution and no one can do anything about its existence. All revenues collected by the Government of the Federation must be paid into that account. The only areas exempted are listed. How the revenue will be allocated and withdrawals made are settled.
Federal and State governments will be entitled to their own share from the Federation Account. The officer charged constitutionally with making payments when they fall due is the Accountant-General, but such payments cannot be made without being certified by the Auditor-General for the Federation (section 168.1).
Where is this officer the Constitution has imposed a duty on? Where is he? Where any allocation to a state is frozen, the first port of call for treason, unless due process is established, is the Auditor-General for the Federation. I repeat, where is he, and who gave the order that the operations of the Bayelsa State Government should be grounded through freezing the accounts of the government?
The final argument being inflicted on us is that the Bayelsa State Governor is illegally in office, that he ought to be in Britain answering to charges of money laundering. That he jumped bail is a moral question.
But the fact is that the question of jumping bail in Nigeria is not on because he cannot be arrested to be placed in a position where he can ask for bail which he can jump. And the fault is ours. We protected him under section 308 of our Constitution, saying that while he is in office, he cannot be arrested or prosecuted.
So, while we retain such protective armours for undisciplined public officers who refuse to know shame, we must be held to the obedience of the provisions. You see, you cannot eat your cake and have it. While we have the time on our side, let us throw away these expensive governance frills and cut our political-cum economic coat to match that spiritual level we are mature for.
And this level is determinable by how much we have imbibed the national ethics settled under section 23 of the Constitution as “discipline, integrity, dignity of labour, social justice, religious tolerance, self-reliance and patriotism.” The President referred all of us to this section last week! Baba, thanks a million.
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 66 -69; Lagos, 2008).