Davidson Iriekpen examines the reasons state governors continue to appoint caretaker committees to run local governments‎ in defiance of the constitution and judicial pronouncements

For the umpteenth time, an Akwa Ibom State High Court sitting in Abak last week sacked the transition/caretaker committee members appointed by Governor Udom Emmanuel to run the affairs of the 31 local governments in the state.

The trial judge, Justice Ezekiel Enang, in a judgement, declared as illegal and unconstitutional, the administration of local government councils in the state by the caretaker committee members.

Justice Enang said the setting up of the caretaker committees was unlawful because there were no provisions for such within the 1999 Constitution. He reasoned that any law or resolution purportedly made by the state’s house of assembly empowering the governor to appoint persons through undemocratic means to occupy local government offices was null and void for being inconsistent with the constitution. The judge accordingly ordered the governor to dissolve the caretaker committees immediately.

In the suit instituted by an Abak-based lawyer, Nsikak Akai, against the state government, he said that he checked through the Nigerian constitution but could not find any provision that empowered the governor to set up caretaker committees to run the local governments in the state.

But the state’s Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Uwemedimo Nwoko, who stood in for the state government during the trial, said the inability of the state government to conduct the local council election was because the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) failed to make available to the Akwa Ibom State Independent Electoral Commission (AKISIEC) the voters’ registers in the state.

He equally argued that it would have been improper and thousands of people in the state would have been disenfranchised “if we had gone back to use the 2012 voters’ registers which INEC itself has discarded.” He added that the caretaker committees were established after a law to that effect was duly passed by the house of assembly.

After the verdict, Akai while fielding questions from journalists, said he was happy with the judgment, describing it as a victory for democracy and the people of the state.

However, the state government through Nwoko expressed shock over the verdict. He explained that there were certain circumstances that made the setting up of transition committees applicable in the matter. He posited that the appointment of caretaker committees for the administration of councils in the state was supported by law duly passed by members of the state assembly. He announced the readiness of the government to appeal the verdict.

The tenure of the local government officials in the state had expired in 2015 but rather than quickly organised elections, the governor said the state lacked funds, adding that the prevailing economic situation was not conducive for the state to conduct local government elections. Instead, he set up caretaker committees to run the affairs of the 31 local governments until about two months ago when he announced plans to conduct election into the councils in November this year.

The judgment by Justice Enang is not the first in recent times on dissolution of democratically-elected local ocal councils or appointing of sole administrators or caretaker/transition committee members to run their affairs.

In the past, the courts across the country, up to the Supreme Court, have had cause to declare as illegal and unconstitutional either the removal of democratically-elected officials in the local governments or the appointment of sole administrators, caretaker/transition committee members to run the affairs of the councils by governors yet, the impunity is not abating.

For example, last year the Supreme Court voided laws enacted by the states’ houses of assembly, which give governors the powers to sack democratically-elected local governments’ chairmen and councillors and replace them with caretaker committees or sole administrators. While delivering judgment in the appeal in relation to the dissolution and sacking of the 16 local government executives in Ekiti State during Kayode Fayemi’s administration, a five-man panel of justices led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, in a unanimous judgment, described the practice as “executive recklessness,” which must not be allowed to persist.

Just like Akwa Ibom and other states, where this arbitrariness frequently occurs, Fayemi had relied on Section 23(b) of the Ekiti State Local Government Administration (Amendment) Law, 2001, which empowered him to dissolve local government executives.

But the Supreme Court in its judgment, faulted his reliance on the law, saying it was a violation of section 7(1) of the constitution from which the state’s house of assembly derived the power to enact the local government law.

Justice Centus Nweze who read the lead judgment, said Fayemi’s reliance on the state law was in conflict with section 7(1) of the constitution, hence it was bound to suffer the fate of all laws which are in conflict with the constitution, section 1(3) thereof. He said section 7(1) of the constitution seeks to guarantee “the system of local government by democratically-elected local government councils and conferred “sacrosanctity on the elections of such officials whose electoral mandates derived from the will of the people freely exercised through the democratic process.’

In 2012, the same apex court had equally held that state governors did not have the powers to sack their elected officials. While delivering judgment in the case challenging the removal of 148 elected local government officials by the Abia State Government in 2006, the court unanimously held that the action was illegal and amounted to “official recklessness” by the governor.

The five-member panel of justices led by Justice Walter Onnoghen held that no state governor in the country had the right to remove democratically-elected local government officials. The court then ordered the state government to pay the sacked officials their salaries and entitlement for the remaining 23 months of their tenure before they were kicked out.

Besides the two landmark judgments, other lower courts across the country had at different times, condemned the frequent habit of governors to use caretaker committees to run the affairs of local government councils. Unfortunately, despite the judgments, nothing has changed.

As soon as a new governor particularly from a different political party is sworn in, his first engagement will be to dissolve the local government system in the state under a very flimsy excuse. There are also instances where instead of conducting elections into local governments when the tenures of the incumbent officials expire as it is being done for the governors, the governors would prefer to appoint caretaker/ transition committees to run the affairs of the councils.

There is no doubt that the local government is the third tier of government in Nigeria. It is the closest to the people and intended to take development directly to them. The wisdom of the framers of the country’s constitution to accord the local government system its due recognition and properly equip it to discharge its responsibilities was based on the belief that it would bring governance and popular democracy to the people at the grassroots level and act as a catalyst for rapid socio-economic development of the country.

But since the enthronement of democracy in the country in 1999, local government administration has been hijacked by state governors, who have perfected plans to strangulate the system. Part of the plans is to regularly hand-pick their cronies as sole administrators or caretaker/transition committee members as the case may be rather than allow for the election of chairmen and councillors.

Currently, virtually all the states of the federation are running their local governments with individuals handpicked by the governors. The practice cuts across political parties with a predominant number of state governments regarding the third tier of government as mere administrative appendages placed under commissioners for local government and chieftaincy matters.

Though section 7 (1) of the constitution is very clear on how the local government should be run, subsisting practices from across the states confirm the absolute reluctance of the state governors to accept the existence of the system as a separate arm of government.

To them, the thought of having independent council chairmen with huge funds is a threat. One way they have successfully done this over the years is through the houses of assembly. They have enacted their own laws empowering them to selfishly take over the running of the local government and their revenue.

To a lot of Nigerians, it is an open secret that governors have been dipping their hands into local governments’ funds. Any elected chairman seen to be offering any form of resistance to such a practice can be removed on the basis of some spurious allegations.

Though, the administration of local governments is within the purview of the state governments, many analysts have argued that the manner in which this control is being exercised in Nigeria is antithetical, not only to the principles of federalism but also to the basic tenets of democracy.

Not only has the council system lost its financial independence but its operational autonomy, thereby rendering them redundant and incapable of rendering even the simplest of social services to the grassroots. The situation is said to be a major factor to contributing to poverty and under-development at the local government levels.

Governors prefer caretaker committees to run the local government areas because they take undue advantage of the joint accounts with the local governments to determine how much should go to the councils, contrary to the actual amount allocated to them by the federal government.

It is because of the blunt refusal of state governors to obey these judgments over the years that has fuelled the current agitation for a complete autonomy for the local government at the ongoing constitution review process. Though it is not certain how the proposal for the autonomy which was recently considered by the National Assembly would go, many analysts believe that the solution is to totally delete the local government from the constitution as the third tier of government and hand them over to the states.

But since the enthronement of democracy in the country in 1999, local government administration has been hijacked by state governors, who have perfected plans to strangulate the system.