NGF: That The Centre Might Hold Again

Former governors at the NGF valedictory session

Former governors at the NGF valedictory session

THEY emerged as a unifying block after the nation returned to democratic rule in 1999. They are the most powerful and influential entity in Nigeria’s political space and the idea of their coming together stemmed from the need to have a non-partisan association whose objective is to promote good governance, unity, healthy rivalry among states, co-operation and better understanding on the way to run affairs of their individual states. 

This is the world of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), a coalition of elected governors of the country’s 36 states.

The Forum had paraded five chairmen since its inception, all of who were PDP governors. First, it was Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu, the former governor of Nasarawa State who steered the affairs of the Forum from 1999 to 2004.

Then there was Obong Victor Attah, former governor of Akwa Ibom State, who was in charge for two years, between 2004 and 2006. He had to stand down, however, as chairman, as a result of his presidential ambition.
Lucky Igbinedion, former governor of Edo State, who took over from Attah, led the Forum briefly, between 2006 and 2007, when his tenure as Edo state governor expired. And then there was Kwara State governor, Bukola Saraki, who chaired the NGF for four years. He handed over to Rotimi Amaechi, the former governor of Rivers state in 2011.

Trouble, however, started brewing between former President Goodluck Jonathan, Governor Rotimi Amaechi and Patience Jonathan. Feelers had it then that Aso Rock wanted anyone but Amaechi as chairman of the NGF. 

A controversial election was held at the Rivers State Governor’s Lodge in Abuja in May 2013 where Amaechi scored a high figure than his Plateau state counterpart, Jonah Jang, by 19 votes to 16. But Jang refused to concede defeat and formed a parallel NGF with his colleagues who voted for him.

With the emergence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as a formidable opposition to the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and with the defection of Rotimi Amaechi, its last chairman, to the APC, the NGF commenced serious struggle to hold its centre together.  

But in what seemed like someone had played a magic flute, a sound which all the governors of the federation found melodious enough to dance to, 20 of them and some deputies, who represented their principals, converged at the Lagos/Osun Hall of the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, on May 18, 2015, and decided to bury all their differences and come together again as one body. 

At the meeting, a new chairman in the person of Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State emerged by consensus, putting an end to almost two years of bickering between the two factions.

Yari, who was former deputy chairman of the Forum, would serve for a period of one year. A new deputy chairman was, however, not elected at the meeting to replace him.

Observers who had followed the trend in the NGF are aware that the power play between Jonathan and Amaechi had been responsible for the cracks in the Forum, and the timing of the two factions mending fences is not also lost to them. The question, therefore, arises if mending of fences between the two factions has anything to do with the exit of the main gladiators from the political space.

Even before the coming together of the two factions, the Amaechi-led secretariat had more life and could be said to be a real office setup, compared to that of the Jonah Jang-led faction.

The Guardian was at the Amaechi-led NGF secretariat to find out what informed the sheathing of machetes. The Director General of the Forum, Ashishana Okauru, said the move for the coming together of the 36 governors commenced long before Jonathan left office.

“The governors are together again because they have always recognised the need to work together. Strength is in their unity, not in their division. There was a fracture due to misunderstanding and some of them questioned the leadership, and they felt there was need for a change, and they could not reach a consensus, and that created the fracture, which lasted for sometimes because there were other political issues involved. And now, I think after an extended period, it became clear to all the parties that they need to come together.

They have had meetings with the former president and discussions had been based on their desire to come together,” he said.

On what he felt was responsible for the division among the governors in the first place, Okauru said that there is no way the gathering of politicians would not bring about politicking. He said though the secretariat is meant to provide services to governors and help them set agenda and define priorities due to their busy schedules, the importance of not meddling in the political games among the two fractions while it lasted was not lost on the secretariat. 

He said the responsibility of the secretariat is to help the governors to focus on issues of priority they should address in order to make them more functional, and organise and prepare them for meetings.

And the secretariat serves as a custodian of all records, including governors’ inaugural speeches and other important documents.
“Even though this is not a political body but the fact still remains that when dealing with politicians, there is no way they would not play politics. The secretariat is just a policy hub. But anytime you put politicians together, there is the tendency for them to want to do politicking. So, that is the situation. As at then, there were a large number of governors that had met their mandatory maximum terms as governors, and I think that played in, as some of them still wanted to continue as politicians. They still wanted to make themselves available for service. And there was a lot of positioning and repositioning in anticipation of that. We started observing the kind of thing that happened. And as a powerful and very influential group, people became suspicious, even from outside, of how the body can potentially influence their take in the coming dispensation. So, all that played in.

“During the period the fracas lasted, we still reached out to the 36 state governors because we are not expected to take side. It’s just that those on the other side refused to recognise the mandate that was given to Amaechi as winner of the election, because we had never had elections. Previous chairmen emerged through consensus. It has always been like that. Now that we have a chairman in the governor of Zamfara state, who emerged through a consensus, everybody is now on board. After a disagreement of that magnitude, we still have to do some fence mending, all which is still going on. They just have to come together because there are lots of major issues. We just went through a transition. There are funding challenges. There are debt issues. So, it is a good time for them to come together and do what they have always done together.”

In words of advice to the governors, a political analyst, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, said state chief executives should leverage on the opportunity they have to come together as a forum, to improve the lot of those who elected them, while at the same time helping the government at the centre build a united nation. 
“The governors are a group of important people that can be reckoned with in the scheme of things; they are, however, needed more in the states than in the centre. As much as possible, they need to have clear idea of their mandates, which of course, include assisting in democratic governance in a federal setup. They drifted from the idea of having that type of forum in the first place, and other issues became their preoccupation. It is inimical to good governance, which is not good for a federation like ours. There is nothing wrong in their coming together to share ideas and mutually reinforce others. But the way they have been going, I think they are overstretching the right of association beyond what is reasonable and far beyond what is expected by those who elected them. They should focus more on the governance of their states rather than shift their energy and attention to politicking at the federal level. It is diversionary and not healthy for the Nigerian federal setup.”

Former governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola, had at a dialogue session organised by the Kukah Centre for Faith and Leadership Research in Abuja in September last year said it was embarrassing that the Forum, which they inherited from their predecessors was going into extinction and stressed the need for governors of the 36 states to put their differences aside and revive the Forum before leaving office in 2015.

He said: “My fear is that the next set of governors may not have a Governors’ Forum. The essential quality for institutions to do well is people. When institutions do well, it is because good people are doing the right thing. And when they do badly, it is because bad people are being allowed to take charge. So, there is nothing esoteric about institutions because what drives institutions is good men and women. But you will not find them until there is a convergence of ideas and values. And this is the right thing to do.

“We should be driven by a nationalistic value system that if our country crumbles, no party would be saved. Until there are shared values, you can’t have united actions. If the value systems are different, then you can sit down; you can sit down in a governors’ forum and have an election and some people will say a smaller number is greater than another number.
At a service to mark his 50th birthday in Port Harcourt, Amaechi charged all incoming governors not to allow anybody divide the Forum again. According to him, the country began to have problems with the Federation account when the Forum became divided.

Indeed, the coming back together of all the governors of the 36 states of the federation portends a good omen for the country. Waste brought about by the running of two secretariats would, of course, be eliminated. And more importantly, the much-desired progress across board, in all the three tiers of government, would be a walk over.

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