Governor Rochas Okorocha
Barely eight months to the end of his eight-year tenure in office, Governor Rochas Okorocha, on Saturday, August 24, 2018, graciously permitted the conduct of election into the 27 local government councils in Imo State. The word, graciously, is used decidedly because as it will be explained later, the governor hitherto had not been disposed to the thought of ever allowing election at the third tier of government in the state. Recall that in his maiden state broadcast on Monday, June 6, 2011, he had dissolved all the 27 council chairmen and 645 councillors elected some months earlier under the administration of Ikedi Ohakim.
He premised the dissolution on the fact that, according to him, the “system is characterised with corruption and indiscipline”, but promised that “an audit committee would be constituted to review the activities all the local governments.”
It speaks volumes that seven years after the promise of setting up the audit committee was made, nothing was heard again from Okorocha. It is needless pointing out that nobody was consequently investigated or punished for the “corruption and indiscipline” he said was responsible for the dissolution of the local government councils. And nothing of such was made public. Instead, he embarked upon periodic appointment and constitution of what he called Transitional Committees to preside over the affairs of the councils, made of up of his loyalists and political cronies at will, who are only answerable to him.
Aside from that, while he kept election into the councils on hold for those years, Okorocha chanced upon a most bizarre and extra-constitutional political experimentation called Fourth Tier System of Government which he christened Community Council Government. In an interview granted a national newspaper on July 15, 2012, the governor, through his then deputy, Jude Agbaso, said: “The concept of the community government is a way of taking development and government to the rural areas or communities. The local governments were created in the constitution to take development to the rural areas but that is not working. The administration of Imo State under Rochas Okorocha came up with an idea for a fourth tier of government which will help to reach the people in the rural communities.”
The joke was not lost on political watchers of the state when, on the twilight of his regime, Okorocha decided it was time to hold the LG election. And it came with more drama, characteristic of the man behind the mask, when the chairman of the State Independent Electoral Commission, Ethelbert Ibebuchi, offered lame apologies for failing to conduct any election in seven years of Okorocha’s reign. As he put it during a meeting on April 12, 2018, with “critical stakeholders” at the commission’s headquarters, Ibebuchi reportedly said: “ISIEC regrets that elections into the local government councils ought to have come before now.” If you want to know the reason for the seven-year delay, here’s all he had to offer: “This couldn’t be on account of mounting challenges for which strenuous efforts have been deployed in order to put things right.” Whatever that means, only those versed in esoteric things can tell. But, the election eventually held last Saturday, not the earlier date of July 14 envisaged. And the outcome was, understandably, not unexpected. It was greeted by mass voter apathy and notably boycotted by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressive Grand Alliance and other political parties while 13 others, including the ruling APC fielded candidates, to give it a semblance of an electoral contest.
According to a report by Sunday PUNCH, August 25, an order by the state government restricting movement was flouted by traders and motorists across the state. In many communities in the hintherland, there was just no report of any election. In particular, the report said, “There was free movement of vehicles while the roadside markets in Owerri, (the state capital) were freely patronised by residents in defiance to the order.” Mrs. Rose Ezeanya, a teacher, it was further reported, told the News Agency of Nigeria in Amakohia, Owerri that the election was the “least of the people’s problems,” and, apparently seeing through the façade, wondered “why the state government did not use the funds for the election to pay the arrears of salaries owed workers in the state.”
The PDP, the main opposition party, claimed that it did not take part in the election because it was an illegal activity. According to the state Publicity Secretary of the party, Damian Opara, “We are not involved in the election because of the subsisting Supreme Court injunction stopping the conduct of the election till when the case is decided.”
Similarly, a chieftain of APGA in the state, Chief Josiah Onuegbu, told newsmen that his party and others had no business participating in the poll because the outcome was predetermined. He asked, “Why should APGA and other parties be involved in the election when the result had already been written? They are only carrying out the exercise to fulfil all righteousness.”
When the official results were eventually announced on Sunday evening, by the state electoral body, the APC inevitably won all the 27 chairmanship seats, and 636 out of the 645 wards, leaving the Accord Party, KOWA, Peoples Redemption Party and the Rebuild Party of Nigeria, with a ward each. But, ISIEC urged those with “genuine grievances to take up their cases at the election petitions tribunal that is already in place.”
The charade in Imo, for that is what took place in the name of election that day, where the democratic right of the citizens at the grassroots to elect their leaders periodically as stipulated in the constitution is subject to the whim of the state governor, a disturbing reality now witnessed across many states of the federation, leaves one with a flurry of questions. What made Okorocha change his mind and decide to conduct a local government election just on the eve of his departure from office? Put in another way, what exactly made an idea he shunned for seven years so appealing to him now? And if he is sincere about institutionalising a functional and accountable government at the grassroots, as he claims, how come he did not follow through his promise to audit the councils he dissolved in 2011 on assumption of office? And if he did, what was the outcome seven years after?
Political analysts are quick to point out that he needed the new council bosses and the councillors as foot soldiers to actualise his ambition of foisting his son in-law as his successor come 2019.
Be that as it may, if we are serious about expanding and sustaining the democratic space in Nigeria, we need to take a sturdy look at how the democratic process at the local government level is nurtured. This is the thrust of the argument of Ozohu-Suleiman Abdulhamid and Paul Chima of the University of Abuja in their seminal work published in the Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, December 2015 entitled, Local government administration in Nigeria: The search for relevance. Their immutable position is that the local government is “fundamental to the democratisation process, as it remains the most potent instrument to mobilise people for local participation and to spread democratic values.” Consequently, there is a need to ensure that foolproof legal and constitutional frameworks are put in place so that governors are n
ot left with the option of toying with elections into local government councils as is the case presently.
To this end, the proposal by a former Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, that state governors who fail to conduct local government elections as and when due should be sanctioned needs to be operationalised. In a country that operates a constitutionally guaranteed three-tier government, we cannot have a situation where the democratic process is left in a hiatus at the grassroots level, as a result of the undemocratic proclivity of state governors, while the other tiers are trudging along. The democratic institutions and structures at all levels should be allowed to flourish at will.
So, instead of thumping his chest for eventually ending the violation of the constitution for seven years by failing to conduct LG elections in the state and instead appointed transitional committees, Okorocha should be made to know he wittingly superintended the denial of the democratic rights of the Imo electorate for that long. Statues are not moulded for such a charade.