(Vanguard of Sunday, October 30, 2005)
We granted our President and Vice president and Governors and Deputy Governors immunity from arrest and prosecution because of what they swore they would do while in office. By the way many of them have behaved since they took office in 1999, they have broken the promises they made under the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
But they have acted not because they are governors but because they are individuals who have assumed the offices that the constitutional guarantees protect. So they have acted without brief, outside brief, in contravention of brief. So massive have been the abuses that we, the people, to whom sovereignty belongs, must look at the protections we have given through the Constitution (because the Constitution is no more and no less a documentation of delegated powers, section 14.2.a), and decide what we are really ripe for at this stage of our development.
Are we ripe for the type of office which makes one untrained man and whose only qualification may well be that he has a promoter, to take charge of the state’s resources and do what he likes with them in utter disregard of the rules that he swore to abide by? Can we make sense of a situation where there is only one check on a governor, a check which the governor can and does pocket? How many times have these constitutional checks, our Houses of Assembly, ever exercised their oversight functions to call the governor to order?
We must revisit the immunity clause and the position of governor. The immunity clause protects the President, Vice President, Governor and Deputy Governor during their period of office. Prof C.S. Momoh, until recently Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Lagos, did an incisive analysis of the immunity clause and I believe the Presidency should send for that paper and see what can be done with it.
Subsection 3 of section 308 makes it plain that immunity covers only the four officers indicated and that the coverage is for that “period during which the person holding such office is required to perform the functions of the office.” The functions of the office are settled in the Constitution and are itemized in the Oath of Office and the Oath of Allegiance which are preconditions for taking office.
Not only is corrupt practices not a function of the office of a governor, it is prohibited in the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution which provides strict penalties for breaches of the code of conduct by public officers. I see another angle to this same problem. Is there no difference between period of office and period in office; between period of office and tenure? It was the difference between the latter that Prof Momoh so persuasively and brilliantly explained.
My worry is not just the immunity clause. I am worried about the power of the governor and the cost of sustaining that power. The governor in the Constitution has powers that the President can do nothing about. I wonder how the mind of President Obasanjo will be working when he looks at our governors and tries to do things he should know he really cannot do.
What he can do is there in the Constitution and he swore to uphold the provisions of the Constitution, to defend the Constitution. The only check on the governor is the House of Assembly. They are the only ones empowered by the Constitution to watch the governor and call him to order, even remove him if he breaches his oath of office.
The EFCC has released a dossier on our governors and only a few of them are found not to have breached the code by acquiring property, opening foreign accounts and operating them. One governor even boasted that he had three gold credit cards, each of them harbouring no less than a whopping one million dollars!
Someone asked a relation of mine in England, “What is your governor doing with one million pounds? How wealthy was he when he assumed office? Does he have industries that offer employment to your countrymen”? His answer was face-saving. He told the enquirer that banks in England, his country, opened their volts to the loot from Nigeria. But can we really defend what is wrong as right because another is wrong? If the State Houses of Assembly can do nothing about thieving governors, should we just watch while this shameful thing goes on?
We should tackle the problem head on. We are not ripe for what we have chosen as structures to moderate our walk on the Democracy Highway. The National Assembly is the de facto lawmaker for the whole federation. Although the President is the de facto law executioner for the whole federation, the concurrent powers in the Constitution permit the allocation of funds to the state governments which funds the state governor controls without supervision.
But the governor is the only elected officer in the Executive. That he can appoint a deputy governor when the one who ran with him has been thrown out shows the position of deputy governor whose only constitutional role is to act for the governor, a chore which he rarely performs. The other members of the governor’s executive are by and large those who lost nominations to elected offices.
Their allegiance is therefore not to the people. It is to those mentors who nominated them for office. So the situation we have in our current arrangement is that those who hold the purse are not the elected ones. The only elected one among them presides over the disbursement of the money which comes from a national cake he is not even part of baking.
Even where he comes from a location where the resources constituting the national cake are derived, the EFCC is telling us that the very communities that should gain the most from the allocations remain unattended to, because the one in charge of disbursement is interested more in himself and his immediate family than in those whose security and welfare he had sworn to ensure.
We must drastically review the office of governor as at present constituted. Under the military, he could be called to order because his posting was a military one. But in our arrangement, he is in a position where he may choose not be accountable to anyone, as he has chosen to do in our circumstance.
The governor should contest election in his constituency and be appointed as head of government of his state where his party has a majority in the House of Assembly. He would therefore go to the House every day to meet the constitutional commitment of the House sitting for a minimum of 181 days in the legislative year.
His commissioners will come from the House, too. Only he and members of his cabinet will be full time. Other elected members will be part-time. The gains from this adjustment are immense. For once, with this arrangement, the party manifesto will be in evidence when the governor, or by whatever name called, takes questions on the floor of the House from all over his state and across all interests, just like Tony Blair does in the British Parliament every sitting day.
He will therefore be truly under the supervision of the House of Assembly which can hold him to ransom in respect of any indiscretions. With him in the House from morning till evening, he cannot travel as he likes, nor will he be meeting the hordes of hangers-on he now devotes his precious time to, from dawn to dusk, to disburse patronages like sheiks in the Middle East. The cost of governance would have also been reduced by at least 75 per cent. When will this restructuring be done? When should experience guide our actions?
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 48 -51; Lagos, 2008).