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The lawmaker and His Search for Justice

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In answer, our own Minister of Finance turned to the pressmen and said we inherited this from the colonial government of this country, and added that we could do nothing about it.

That is where I disagree with him. It is true that the employees of old were enjoying what was left behind by their masters of the colonial era. Daniel-Okumagba

The country was colonial and those people came to reap the fruits of their fathers’ labour. Can we as patriots, who are responsible for the government of our own people, say that we are justified in thinking that because others earned so much, we should earn the same? To say that it is a problem that cannot be solved is where I disagree.

The Minister of Finance did not suggest any solution in his Budget speech . . . If I take the problem as it is, the salary bill can be cut down without harm to the present workers in the service. I am speaking of the upper segment.”

He argued for a downward review of the starting salary of top government workers, while those still being paid the current “high” salaries are taxed more to bring both sets of workers within the same band.

He also advocated more efficiency in the government and was particularly enraged by what he saw as a policy to provide jobs for government supporters and members of the ruling Action Group such as when the number of members on some government boards were increased in 1962.

On March 29, 1962 when the House debated the bill to amend the Housing Corporation Act to accommodate two more executive directors, among other matters, it was a sore point for the opposition, especially as the government was complaining about its poor finances and had announced general austerity measures and higher taxes.

His concern with justice was one that transcended the regional government and applied to what he saw as the double standards of the AG government then. My father’s party, the NCNC, had control of Warri Urban District Council. Interestingly, it was an area the AG had interest in and, so, it exercised its administrative powers to intervene in the running of the council and several others where it had no executive control at the local level.

The complaint over the interference was a regular feature of the debates; it was also a sharp contrast that whereas the regional government sought to control the councils under it, it was keen to stave off federal interest in its own affairs. At the debates on November 23, 1960, my father pointed out this double standard:

“Now when last the Prime Minister of the Federation toured the Western Region, we were hearing over the radio and reading in newspapers that the Premier of the Western Region was in fact begging him not to dissolve the government of this region …

If the premier of this region did not want any interference with his government, why will the government not leave an NCNC–controlled council (Warri Council) to exercise their rights under the law?

There is provision under the law that the regional government must ratify what district councils do in this regard . . . why is it that we hear of threats of dissolution of NCNC–controlled councils? Why can’t the Western Region government (AG-controlled) leave the Warri Urban District Council (NCNC-controlled) on its’ own?”

These concerns over the manipulation of local districts and government for the political benefit of the party controlling the regional government were further exacerbated when in 1962 the Premier, Chief S.L. Akintola, moved for the enactment of The Provinces and Divisions Establishment and Variation Bill designed to, “make provisions for the establishment of new provinces and administrative divisions in Western Nigeria, for variation in the areas and boundaries of provinces and administrative divisions and for matters connected therewith.”

At the Second Reading of the bill on March 29, 1962, opposition members were vehement that the measure was a calculated attempt to gerrymander the provinces and divisions for the administrative and political benefit of the Action Group, and they made their points clear at the debates. Prior to the bill’s introduction, the power to re-district any part of the region was vested in the Governor-in-Council.

This provision was left out of the independence constitution, thus the provinces and districts could not be tampered with. Akintola sought to reintroduce these powers. The announcement of the bill raised red flags for many citizens of the region, especially minority areas, which saw it as one more indication of the desperation of the government to halt the movement for the creation of the Midwest Region. Mr G.I. Oviasu, who represented Benin Central West, spoke of the implication of the proposed law:

“The objects and reasons for this bill are not what the Premier has given; they go further than that; and I would like to enlighten this house and trace the events that have brought this bill to this legislature. Mr Speaker, sir, already in the Western Region – in the Midwest area – this government has planned and executed the plan, in fact, to administer Warri Division from Ondo.

The Warri Division is already being administered from Ondo Province . . . let us take note of this logic: the Warri township is within Warri Division; Warri township is the capital of the Delta Province . . . all other divisions in the Delta Province used to be administered from Warri Division.

It stands to reason, Mr Speaker, and this will expand the logic of the Hon. Premier, that the whole of Delta Province shall be administered from Ondo Province; or in short that the whole of Delta Province becomes a part of Ondo Province. Wherein lies the administrative convenience of administering Warri Division from Ondo Province? The Akoko Edo, which they have now changed to Akoko Oke owing to political spite, is being administered from Ado Ekiti. Wherein lies the administrative convenience of administering Akoko Edo – I will not call it Akoko Oke – from Ado Ekiti? These are clever manoeuvres – clever manipulations – to thwart the purpose of the creation of the Midwest; nothing more, nothing less!”

Mr F.H. Utomi, representing Asaba South East, also condemned the move thus: “We know very well that whatever we have from the Western Nigeria Government is a Greek gift. This bill is a device designed to cause trouble in the Midwest. They want to set Midwest people against one another.”

With support like this, my father took a more measured tone, addressing the Premier’s promises to be fair:

“The Premier assured us that before the bill is applied to any area there would be mutual consultation. As far as Warri Division is concerned, whenever there is going to be any consultation, the matter should be made public. We represent the people of Warri Division. My party controls the majority in the division. Our only representative in the House of Representatives is a member of the NCNC.”

As a teacher, even while at the Western House of Assembly, it was only rational that my father would be a keen observer of, and contributor to, matters concerning the Education sector. A teacher from the late 1940s through his time in the Western House of Assembly and only retiring from active teaching in 1976, my father examined the region’s educational administration critically, rising to commend, or condemn, the policies, as was fit. He was particular about the work of the Inspectorate Division of the Education ministry, and about the provision of facilities in schools, giving one of his longest contributions on the subject on the floor of the House, on April 11, 1961. He said:

“Mr Chairman sir, this is an item I intend to criticize constructively. In my opinion, any matter connected with Education should not be brought into politics. (Opposition members: tell them). Now, sir, when we find that the government has achieved any measure of success as far as the running of free primary education is concerned we will be good enough to say it, but when we find that there are glaring faults, government should be good enough to accept those faults and do their best to consider the criticisms which we offer.

In the first place, we all agree that the government which has been able to earmark a sum of over seven million pounds for the running of education in the region deserves some measure of praise as far as the provision of the funds for the running of the system is concerned. I agree that this government has tried in a way to find funds for the running of free primary education and had succeeded to a certain extent in maintaining this expenditure for sometime now.

We will agree that this government deserves to be praised in a way, as far as the provision of the funds is concerned, but we should ask ourselves whether we are getting value for the expenditure. It is one thing to find the money to set up the system, but when all that has been done, we should also turn back and ask ourselves whether the money as expended is producing the desired result. I think the Honourable Minister of Education will agree with me that if we throw away politics, we will agree that we are not getting the desired result from the free primary education.

The faults are there, and I will this night put various suggestions to the Minister, which I hope he will consider in good faith. I take the glaring causes of the failure of the primary education. The common belief is that failure is due mainly to the automatic promotion.

That is what the common man can easily say. Some say the failure is due to lack of qualified teachers at the time the system was introduced. I don’t agree that they are the most serious causes of our failures. These are the causes. In the past it was the responsibility of the various missions to help in the education of our own children both at primary and secondary school level. …

The responsibility for efficiency has been shifted completely from the shoulders of the various missions and transferred to the government… it is the duty of the Inspectorate Department to find out whether the school is running well.

If you throw your mind back to consider the old system you will find that the missions took great care to ensure efficiency in the schools. If your primary school was not doing well, you are called to question by the government, and for this reason you are forced to do anything possible to improve the school.

But in the present system, the responsibility that was formerly on the shoulders of the missions has been transferred to the Inspectorate Branch of the Ministry of Education. You may not consider that a drawback in the educational system, but I can assure you that if you find out a way of giving the various missions some share in the responsibility for efficiency in the running of these schools, instead of leaving them to look forward to the government to supervise the teachers, there will be greater efficiency.”

He also raised issues with the government’s position that the success rate among school pupils was high, arguing that most of the students were helped on the way. He was particular that if the school system was to deliver on its promise, local councils must be supervised properly to handle primary education, invest in school infrastructure and not divert resources to less relevant or even dubious ends.

A thorough focus on primary education by the government can, if properly done, bring back the quality of education that made the Standard Six certificate such a valued education, as it was in colonial times. It was the reason he advised that if the councils cannot be supervised properly, the state government should take over primary education.

The government, he counselled, should invest in primary schools and encourage missions and private people to take up secondary school education. It was only “radical changes in our educational system”, as he put it, that can build the foundation for competitiveness in the long run, he argued.

My father’s term at the Western Region House of Assembly came to a close when the Midwest Region was carved out in 1963, with the capital in Benin City. At the creation of the Midwest Region, my father was set to contest for a seat in the Midwest Region House of Assembly, having just finished representing Warri East Constituency from 1960 to 1963 at the Western Region House of Assembly.

However, certain provisions were introduced to exclude the indigenous Urhobos of Warri from contesting to represent Warri at the regional legislature in Benin City. My father challenged this and suffered persecution in the process. A series of events followed where his opponents arranged for him to be charged to court.

The case went up to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, where my father eventually got justice. In the suit Number SC 28/1965, Okumagba v Egbe, reported in 1965 Volume 4 Nigerian Supreme Court Cases (NSCC) and decided by Justices Bairamian, Onyeama and Ajegbo of the Supreme Court on March 5, 1965, the justices held, in a landmark judgement, that the lower courts were wrong in ruling against my father.

The Supreme Court of Nigeria held, among other things that, “amendment is the function of the legislature, and the courts cannot fill a gap which comes to light by altering the words of a regulation to make it read in the way they think it should have been enacted. As Lord Bacon said in his essay on Judicature, the office of a judge is jus dicere, not jus dare – to state the law, not to give law – and the courts below should not have gone in for judicial legislation.” The Supreme Court ruled that the interpretation of the law by the lower courts, was wrong.

 

My father remained active on the political front. He co-founded and was one of the leaders of the Midwest Democratic Front until the military intervention of January 15, 1966. In 1976, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s Federal Military Government allowed limited resumption of political activities in line with the local government reform.

Elections were allowed into local government councils only, across the country. Under the parliamentary system of government approved after the local government reforms of 1976, only elected councillors could contest for the Chairmanship of a local government. My father ran for the office of Chairman of Warri Local Government Council (which has been broken into the present Warri South, Warri South-West and Warri North Local Government Councils), having won a councillor’s seat.

Though he won his council seat and was up for election as Chairman, the state military government gerrymandered the Chairmanship election process to his disadvantage. In 1976, there were 13 wards in the then Warri Local Government Area.

Seven of the councillors backed my father for the Chairmanship position as against six who backed Chief Begho, who also won a council seat. In a dramatic turn, part of Egbema won by one of my father’s supporters, Apostle Oseme, was excised into Ondo State as part of a boundary adjustment and that practically neutralized the one vote majority my father had. The Military Governor of Bendel State, then, declared the Egbema seat vacant, resulting in a balance of six votes apiece.

There was no shift in positions and as the stalemate continued, the state government then cancelled the nominations of Chief Begho and my father and ordered fresh nominations for the Chairmanship position. The group that backed my father subsequently nominated Chief Daniel Obiomah, one of his very close friends, and the other group nominated Mr Sunday Skinn. There was a tie again and the Military Governor picked Mr Skinn in a casting vote.

 

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