By Zainab Suleiman Okino
Penultimate week, I touched briefly on how legislators at the state level are pocketed by their governors such that the former are not just at their beck and call in an arrangement that should make each independent, but that state legislators are like babies bottle-fed by governors.
The analogy being referenced was that of Rivers state governor, Nyesom Wike and the manner of his derecognition of Celestine Omehia with the legislative support of the state’s House of Assembly. They helped do Omehia in, in Wike’s ego war against his erstwhile ally. That article which was titled Weaning legislatures from executive feeding bottle which became more relevant few weeks after is excerpted below.
“One sore point in our experimental democracy is the role of legislatures. In theory it is said to be independent, but in practical terms one is an appendage of the other at least in Nigeria. It is worse with state Houses of Assembly.
Our all-powerful governors, with a dictatorial streak in a supposed democracy have turned state legislatures into tools for manipulation despite their supposed independence. Each time any governor is unhappy with any elected member of his cabinet, whether his deputy or House of Assembly officials, the governor simply bribes the state’s lawmakers to do his biddings, however he wants it—recall or removal. The legislators only make laws that please their master-governors. It is a shame that such a political vendetta which took place at the Rivers State House of Assembly was orchestrated by these pawns called legislators.
Since 2007 when Celestine Omehia was sacked by the Supreme Court to make way for Rotimi Amaechi to be the governor of the state, the man (Omehia) was quietly nursing his wounds until 2015, when Governor Wike emerged as governor. He supposedly honoured Omehia and restored him as ex-governor and paid his entitlements using the same Rivers State House of Assembly to pass a law to that effect.
Although everyone knew that the governor’s motive was to spite his former friend turned foe (Amaechi), nobody in his wildest imagination ever thought that Wike would turn around to derecognise Omehia. That he did when he used the state House of Assembly to remove him as ex-governor just because he (Wike) fell out with him (Omehia), over support or otherwise for Atiku Abubakar and in a swift manner the governor assented to that obnoxious action of the so-called lawmakers.
For the governor, it is all about loyalty to him without regards for the moral or legal implications of his actions. So embarrassing. When Omehia was in his good book, it was all rosy, but when he listened to his heart and loyalty to the party, and decided to throw his weight behind Atiku, he became an outlaw.
Not even a general can fight on all fronts and hope to win all. Wike is advised to selectively choose the right battle to fight before he loses all. Seriously, Nigeria needs to restructure and make changes to our constitution for the true independence of each arm of government. This hopefully will stop the executive excesses, recklessness and gangsterism of governors”.
Those who read that shot piece wondered why I didn’t make it the main article. Shortly after that came the bombshell from the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege that 25 out of 36 states have refused to vote on the constitution amendment bills, thereby revalidating governors’ excesses once again.
The National Assembly had passed 44 amendments and would need state Houses of Assembly to vote on those amendments. Six months after, only 11 states—Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Delta, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Ogun and Osun states have voted on it, while others are yet to do so. Constitution amendment bills require the approval of two thirds (24) of the 36 state Houses of Assembly before they can be presented for the president’s assent.
The remaining 25 states that refused to act on the bills hinged their concerns on some other issues that are important to them. The four bills stopping the 44 that are hanging are contained in a letter from the Conference of Speakers to the National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitutional Review. They are: Establishment of State Police, state Judicial Council, streamlining of the procedure for removing presiding officers of the state Houses of Assembly and institutionalizing legislative bureaucracy in the constitution.
The Conference of Speakers may have a genuine case, (especially on the state police matter) even as we all know that governors pull the string from behind and perhaps are unperturbed that laws are not made to satisfy individuals’ selfish purpose. On the other hand, why did the Omo-Agege committee leave out the issue of state police and judicial council for states? If the senators are concerned about such being abused, so is the concern of people about the federal government’s abuse of the existing instruments.
No one needs a lesson on why the state assemblies are reluctant to pass those bills. It was the voice of Esau and the hand of Jacob, going by past precedents, as governors had stopped the autonomy of their state Houses of Assembly in the past; something that would have strengthened democracy, the advancement of the people and interest of the lawmakers. So, when DSP Omo-Agege pointed accusing fingers at them, he was not far from the truth.
Omo-Agege said: “We are aware of the undue interference with legislative processes and the political capture of some state Houses of Assembly by some state governors. No doubt, some state governors have worked tirelessly to turn the Conference of Speakers and some state assemblies into puppets, thereby undermining and delegitimising the legislative institution at the state. This interference has been ramped up, especially in opposition to the bills granting financial and administrative autonomy to local governments”.
But the National Assembly is not entirely blameless even as we acknowledge their inclusion of financial autonomy for local governments. The Omo-Agege committee failed to also pass progressive bills like the five gender bills, citizenship for foreign spouses of Nigerian citizens and the indigene status bill for husbands of women married to men outside their own states.
It didn’t even sponsor important bills that could engender true nationhood, where citizenship will supplant ethnicism and indigene status and enables citizenship for any Nigerian residing in any part of the country after a certain period of time, towards the unity of the country. Does it make sense that children born in Kaduna state claim Kogi state that they know nothing about? This arrangement is not just divisive, it is the root cause of our mutual suspicion and ethnic rivalry.
Bad as this is, it is retrogressive for elected governors to hold down equally elected legislators of the state Houses of Assembly. How can we right all the wrongs in the constitution if we shy away from doing the right thing by correcting all the grey areas gradually? State Houses of Assembly will remain appendages for as long as governors are in charge with the current constitution and so shall we remain stagnant.
It is just as well that Omo-Agege is now crying foul. Most of the previous efforts at constitution amendment ended in fiasco since Obasanjo’s third term proposal was thrown into the dustbin in 2005 or thereabout; the same way Saraki’s Senate’s amended proposals were ignored because the current Senate leadership in cahoots with the presidency didn’t want ex-President Bukola Saraki to emerge as SP the way he did in 2015.
Laws are made for posterity and not for the egos of certain personalities. But for our lawmakers and governors, their present station and egos must be satiated first, the same way series of constitution amendments have remained a cyclical merry-go round. For this last exercise that seems now in jeopardy, a billion Naira was said to have been spent. So, what next after the Deputy Senate President’s disclosure? Money gone down the drain! Just like that? Again? It is not just governors who are sabotaging constitutional amendments over time; lawmakers at both federal and state levels and the executive are complicit in the conspiracy against useful, dynamic and incremental legislations for good governance in Nigeria.
Zainab Suleiman Okino is a syndicated columnist. She serves as Editorial Board chair of Blueprint Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org