Wike’s suspension of council chairmen sparks row in Rivers

By Editor |   04 August 2020   |   2:53 am  

The suspension of three elected local government chairmen by Rivers State governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, has sparked a row between All Progressives Congress (APC) and Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON) in Rivers State.

Amid the war of words between APC and ALGON, Governor Wike has been facing intense criticism also by civil society organisations, who deemed incessant suspension of council chairmen neither politically correct nor democratically appropriate.

It would be recalled that Governor Wike had, in April, suspended the chairmen of Abual/Odual and Degema Local Government Councils for failure to attend a meeting called for the inauguration of COVID-19 palliative committee. But the latest suspension of Port Harcourt City Local Government Area chairman for alleged illegal tax collection has generated a lot of heat.

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Last week, Governor Wike approved the suspension of the Chairman of Port Harcourt LGA, Victor Ihunwo for illegal tax collection from traders at the Ogbum-nu-Abali Fruit Garden Market. He also reaffirmed that the chairmen of Abua and Degema councils remain suspended from office, affirming that their suspension order has not been lifted. Wike further suspended all heads of personnel management, heads of local government administration and treasurers of Abua and Degema councils for making official transactions with the suspended council chairmen.

A faction of APC in the state described the action of the governor as executive recklessness. Spokesman of Isaac Ogbobula’s faction of APC, Mr. Ogbonna Nwuke, said having studied the circumstances surrounding the recent suspension of the chairmen of Port Harcourt, Degema and Abua/Odual Local Government Councils, the party came to the conclusion that the act was illegal.

Nwuke noted that for the purposes of ensuring effective checks and balances in the system, the 1999 Constitution (as Amended) assigns oversight functions pertaining to activities of local government councils to state’s House of Assembly. Accordingly, he stressed that only the state legislature has the authority, which by way of resolutions, recommendations, and law-making, the capacity to take far-reaching steps regarding the management or administration of local government councils.

The APC argued that there was no section of the Nigerian Constitution, which allows the executive arm of government in any state, or a state governor as head of the executive, to punish elected officials without referring perceived acts of misdemeanour against elected officials at the third tier level to the Assembly, which has the power of oversight.

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“Where elected representatives err, our constitution allows a process of recall which makes it mandatory for two-thirds of the electorate to order the return of their representatives,” Nwuke said. “The same constitution prescribes an impeachment of chairmen by councillors, who constitute the legislative arm at that the local government level. In this instance, there is no proof that councillors in the affected LGAs have either complained or played their statutory roles before the governor’s action.”
 
He stated that for the avoidance of doubt, what the governor did was to hijack the responsibility reserved for the state’s legislature under the constitution. To buttress this, he claimed the House of Assembly, which has the power of oversight, has not sat to deliberate on this matter. He said, notwithstanding the reason why Governor Wike suspended the said local government chairmen, the governor has brazenly breached the constitution by treating the House of Assembly with great levity. To this end, he urged the House of Assembly to call the governor to order.

“We similarly believe that the suspension of senior staff employed by the Local Government Service Commission, on grounds that they collaborated with their bosses, is another step taken too far. What was the governor inferring by his action? Was he saying that workers at the grassroots should be disobedient to constituted authority?

“Against this backdrop, we ask the state government to take steps within seven days to restore the elected chairmen of Port Harcourt, Degema and Abua Local Government Councils to their seats while urging the government to do what is right,” he said.

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He pointed out that the Supreme Court had ruled that it was illegal for any government in this country to set aside the mandate of elected councils. And based on this, he said it was obvious that the Rivers State Government acted in breach of this landmark decision.

According to Nwuke, “Rivers people can no longer tolerate the governor’s bid to promote a culture of fear and intimidation. Rivers people have had enough of his penchant for running a one-man show. As a political party, the APC enjoins Rivers State’s governor to tone down a little. Nothing can be gained from what many right-thinking Rivers people are beginning to view as acts of executive recklessness on his part.”

But ALGON has justified the suspension of the chairmen as necessary disciplinary action taken by the governor. ALGON spokesperson and Chairman of Ahoada West, Hope Ikiriko, while lambasting APC, said although the power to remove an erring chairman is the responsibility of the Rivers State House of Assembly, the Local Government Law of Rivers No5 of 2018: Section 64 (3) clearly vested the governor with the power to suspend an erring chairman.

Ikiriko accused APC of trying to incite people of Rivers State against the governor. According to him, it was disingenuous to accuse the governor of anti-democratic tendencies.

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“It is clear that the governor, who also knows the law and who is also is law-abiding citizen, will not take any action that is not lawful. People have argued concerning the constitution, concerning the law. I made it very clear that the Local Government law of Rivers No5 of 2018 clearly states in section 64 (3) regarding the suspension. When the offence seems to be serious in nature, definitely the governor will initiate that process.

“Yes, the constitution vests such powers on the state’s House of Assembly, but we must realise that the state Assembly, by so doing, has been empowered to make laws for the local government. It is this law that they are so empowered to make that the governor is relying on based on their statutory and constitutional mandate to so do.”

He stressed that while the 1999 Constitution clearly gives power to local government councils to collect taxes and levies from markets, there are also Acts of National Assembly that empowers states to take taxes in markets built by them. According to him, on the day of the inauguration of Ogbum-nu-Abali Fruit Garden Market built by the state government, Governor Wike had clearly warned Port Harcourt council not to collect taxes from the traders.

He declared that the governor was right in his suspension of the Port Harcourt chairman because it was illegal for the council to go and collect taxes and levies from a market built by the state government.

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ALGON’s secretary and chairman of Ahoada East, Ben Eke, acknowledged that while the Supreme Court had, in a case involving the Governor of Ekiti State vs Sani and 13 others, maintained that a governor has no right to dissolve a council and set up caretaker committee members, the situation in Rivers State was essentially different.

Eke also argued that the Supreme Court in the aforementioned case said a governor could dissolve a council where there is an emergency. Based on judicial precedence, Eke maintained that Governor Wike was justified by suspending the chairmen of Abua/Odual and Degema councils for not attending the COVID-19 meeting, which is a global emergency for palliative purposes.

Meanwhile, the Head, Legal Team, Rivers Civil Society Organisations, Asim Adams, has expressed disagreement with ALGON and condemned what he described as the brazen act by Governor Wike. Adams stated that Section 7(1) of the 1999 Constitution empowers the existence and autonomy of the local government council, as the third tier of government in Nigeria, and having its independence from the governors of the state or president of Nigeria.

According to him, “It is also clear that the local government areas, being the third tier of government have their elections and running, suspension/removal of the elected chairman of a local government vested in the legislative arm of the local government council and not the governor or the House of Assembly of the state. The above has been given verve and zest by a plethora of decided cases in Nigeria amongst which are Hon. Osaro Obasee vs Gov. Edo State & two others, which landmark judgment was given by Justice E.E. Ikpombwen of the High Court sitting in Benin City on April 4, 2016, and more recently by the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment delivered on December 11, 2019, in Re: Governor, Ekiti State vs Prince Sanmi Olubunmo & others, wherein the court held inter alia, per OLUBOLADE JOE, JSC, The act giving legislative powers to the state Assembly and governors to undertake the process of sacking elected local government chairmen is null and void…”

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Drawing from the above constitutional provision and case laws, Adams said the act of Governor Wike purporting to sack or suspend the affected chairmen was a gross usurpation of powers, an exercise in futility, a gross violation of laws, null and void and which should be rescinded to preserve democracy respect for the rule of law.

“It’s our argument that any state law empowering the governor or House of Assembly to do otherwise is running contrary to the 1999 Constitution and to that extent unconstitutional. Even though the constitution empowers the state Assembly to make certain laws in the administration of the local government, such a law must not conflict with the express provisions of the constitution. The office of the governor is a creation of law, as such he must operate within the ambit of the lawless we create a dictator.”
 
Similarly, the Chancellor of International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights, (ISSJHR), Dr. Jackson Omenazu, has accused governors of capitalising on the inadequacies of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution to engage in executive recklessness. Omenazu said irrespective of offences committed, it was wrong for a governor to unilaterally suspend democratically elected chairmen, who were elected by thousands of Rivers’ people in their affected local government areas.

“It is unconstitutional and undemocratic,” Omenazu declared. “The local government has a legislative function, and they have a legislative arm. One could equally think that even if any of them erred, the governor has a right to send a private bill to the local government’s legislative arm to say this is what this local government chairman has done, you people should look at it”.

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