By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“The right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously”– Hubert Humphrey
DO State governors deserve the approbium directed at them from all informed sections of the polity? What does it feel like to be a governor and exercise the type of powers that make you at once a major source of power and patronage, and an albatross around the neck of our democracy?
How did we end up creating such monstrosities, and what can the nation do about these 36 Nigerians who Chief E.K. Clark said recently represent a virtual opposition to the president, the PDP and the Nigerian people? Are the awesome powers of governors constitutional accidents, or products of a democratic process that does everything else except promote democratic values and practices?
There is a real danger that our governors could develop thicker skins from unceasing criticisms, and become even less responsive to criticisms.
Their perceptions of being surrounded by opponents, enemies, a media that takes and fails to sing praises, and outright blackmailers will be compounded by the near-universal consensus that they represent everything negative about our democratic process.
They are fighting a President who would love to whittle down their powers; party members who resent their frightening choke on party matters; federal legislators who come to power through their largess and patronage and then get so intoxicated by the rarified air of Abuja that they wear the toga of opposition, and public opinion which portrays them as little more than guzzlers of public assets.
People who are hounded by hostile perceptions and bombarded with every criticism are the wrong people to trust with this much power. They could, as many do, retreat with all the powers they have, and run states virtually as personal estates.
Shielded from prosecution by immunity clauses, with state legislators secure in their pockets, local governments as extensions of their assets, media that can be ignored, voters and a public that are relevant only around elections, with vast resources to buy clergy, community and opinion leaders and even political opposition, governors have all the potential to develop into frightful monsters. Very few of them are not at that stage already. In power they are untouchable. Out of it they defy the laws of the land with stupendous riches.
It is important to seek an understanding over whether the situation regarding the central position of our governors is inevitable, avoidable, or necessary.
Those who will make the case that it is inevitable that governors will have so much power will point to the flaw in our political system which places so much premium on public offices as sources of accumulation of personal wealth and dispensing of patronage.
They will point to the weaknesses in our constitution which hands over the third tier of government, lock, stock and barrel to the second tier, the states. They will point to an untidy allocation of responsibilities and resources between federating units that gives too much underserved responsibility and resources to the centre, and too much power to states without providing for effective institutional mechanisms to check them.
They will point to the pervasive dominance of the PDP since 1999, and its tendency to acquire power at all cost, and run administrations which are successively worse than those that preceded them. They will point to the pivotal role of state governments in funding all parties, employing the same predatory tactics. Finally, they will point to the virtual control of governors over the amendment processes, including possible amendments that will reduce impunity and corruption.
Those who will see the status quo as avoidable will point at the military mindset which informed the constitutional provisions for an extremely powerful president and governors at state levels.
They will make reference to the emergence of President Obasanjo as an extraordinarily powerful figure, and his influence on the manner state governors read their roles.
They will draw attention to the missed opportunities during considerations for constitutional amendments to free local government councils and state assemblies and judiciary from the control of state governors, and improve the electoral process, particularly intra-party democracy.
Unfair allocation of powers
Those who will argue that the awesome powers of governors are necessary will draw attention to the unfair allocation of powers and resources in the federal system which gives the federal government much more than it deserves or needs, and will then justify the existence of power in the office of state governors to make the best use of the resources the state has.
They will argue that governors need powers which will otherwise be wasted or abused by a state legislature and local governments, so that important decisions and control of institutions responsible for policy formulation and implementation are not subverted.
They will say it is easier to hold one office accountable; it is safer to trust resources in governors than to have chairmen of local councils controlling billions; and that you need power to handle security, provide rallying points for plural communities, and engineer social cohesion.
There could be, altogether, a different argument that can be made. Some people will say there is very little wrong with our constitution. What is wrong is the quality of people who operate it. They will have a lot of sympathy.
The instances where state governors operate with scant respect for popular opinion or the laws of the land are many. Three or four governors have been away for months from their states, and have not taken the constitutional steps to regularise their absence.
There is a state where the governor’s policy on all issues is labelled with his name; and all development projects and schools must have his name painted on rooftops. Another is being accused of spending three billion at the wedding of his daughters. Another is accused of importing a snake as a pet at the cost of millions.
One has plunged his party into a serious crisis over the control of state party executives. Another is embroiled in a quarrel with a powerful Minister over President Jonathan’s record. Another is being accused of foisting a state religion. Northern governors are being collectively blasted by Nuhu Ribadu for frittering N8.3 trillion allocated to the region since 1999. Governors in the South-south are being accused of even worse abuse of the peoples’ resources.
Four or five northern governors will now abandon state affairs (but not the money) effectively to pursue presidential ambitions. People in the north hold their governors collectively responsible for the state of the north today. You can go on and on.
Not much is likely to come out of the current attempt at constitutional amendments. Governors oppose some of the key issues at stake such as L.G or state legislature autonomy, and are divided over others, such as state creation or state police, or sharing of resources. This means, effectively, that much of the status quo will remain.
This includes all matters related to the powers and responsibilities of governors. In fact, the basic structure of the federal system is unlikely to be affected at all.
This leaves Nigerians with the only option of electing better quality of leaders into offices.
Improving the quality of the electoral process will be a vital step in this direction, but even this is contingent on the disposition of governors. So it appears that you cannot do anything of value to the polity or economy with our governors; and you cannot do anything legally without them.
How did the fate of our federal system come to depend on just 36 citizens?