Imo: Good start for “shared prosperity”

E.T Okere

It has since become a settled matter that the bane of our current democratic dispensation is the legal, if you like, the constitutional framework upon which it is built. As it is, more than three quarters of Nigeria’s socio-political and economic problems are traceable to the 1999 Constitution which even the least discerning fellow knows is so flawed that it cannot lead the nation into any meaningful progress, either in the realm of politics or economy.

One of the big issues that have been complained about, and which already constitute a major obstacle to the growth of the nation’s democracy, is the enormous powers vested on the executive arm of government. It is said, for example, that the president of Nigeria is perhaps the most powerful president in the world. Apart from that the 1999 constitution gives the president enormous powers, the flawed federal structure makes him the direct boss of the chief executive of states – the governors – whereas states, being the federating units, are supposed to be co-ordinates with the central (federal) government; that is, none is superior to the other. But not so in practice. Because of the flawed federal arrangement that effectively makes Nigeria a unitary state, wherein the president could dictate even what happens at the local governments, governors fall on each other to be in his (the president’s) good books. They – governors – back bite each other before the president and top functionaries in the presidency to curry favour.

The story is told of the fate of a former governor in one of the southeast states after a meeting of the forum of governors in the zone, convened to discuss the position of the zone on whether or not to support the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to be confirmed acting president owing to the severe health challenges of his boss, President Umaru Yar’Adua. All but one of the five were agreeable to the proposal that Jonathan should be confirmed by the National Assembly even though Yar’Adua did not transmit a letter to the latter handing over the affairs of the nation to his vice as required by the constitution.

Unknown to the dissenting governor, one of his colleagues recorded the proceedings and once the meeting was over, flew to Abuja, sought audience with Jonathan and played the tape to him. Of course, the dissenting governor, who at the meeting had only reportedly expressed the view that more time should be allowed to see if the ailing president would recover, promptly entered into the black books of Jonathan.

Eventually, Jonathan was not only confirmed as acting president by the National Assembly based on the Doctrine of Necessity, but also became the substantive president as soon as Yar’Adua passed away. To cut the long story short, that was the beginning of trouble for that governor and which became most manifest when he sought re-election for a second term in 2011. President Jonathan, as was later told, did everything in his powers to ensure that that governor did not return.

Going down the ladder, it is not only the Nigerian president that has powers to do and undo. State governors also wield enormous powers. They can dissolve elected local government councils at will and thereafter choose not to conduct any elections throughout their tenure. They even decide how much of the revenue allocation from the federation account should go to the local governments. They also wield enormous influence on the state legislatures and in most cases, turn them – the legislatures – into appendages of the executive.

Above all, governors – like the president – enjoy immunity from any form of prosecution while in office. Although it is said that this constitutional provision was ostensibly to shield them from frivolous litigations by political opponents, the actual effect is that most of the governors abuse this privilege; ranging from intimidation and harassment of citizens, to financial profligacy of monumental dimension. One of the consequences of the enormity of powers wielded by governors is that they could cause the legislative arm to pass laws that serve their – the governors – personal interest rather than that of the people. Curiously, once such laws are passed, those – governors – who come subsequently, either by default or design, fail to repeal them.

But in Imo State, something different happened of recent – in fact just less than a week ago. The governor, Senator Hope Uzodimma, signed into law a legislation repealing a law passed in 2007 which established pensions and gratuities for ex-governors, their deputies and speakers of the state House of Assembly. The development followed the passage of an executive bill which the Uzodimma-led executive had presented to abrogate the Imo State Governors and Speakers Pension and Privileges Law No 5 of 2007. But the law, now repealed, ran contrary to the 1999 constitution, as amended, and the Pensions Act both of which stipulate that to qualify for pension, a person must have served for at least 10 years. As is well known, state governors serve for a maximum of eight years while most speakers serve between two to four years. As at today, the state has about 15 people who have served as governors, deputy governors and speakers of the state House of Assembly on whom about N1.12 billion is squeezed out, annually, from the state’s lean resources as pensions and gratuities;  whereas the state government struggles to pay pensions to retirees on the regular civil and public service. The repealed law was said to have been initiated by ex-Governor Achike Udenwa ostensibly to offer a life line to one of his predecessors who had severe health challenges. But it was ‘improved’ upon by the Rochas Okorocha administration which added free house and cars to the ex-governors.

For many observers, the beauty of the abrogation is that it took everybody by surprise, coming from a fellow who, ordinarily, many would expect to let the status quo remain at least in order to sustain the friendship and support of the ex-governor and their own supporters. This bold and radical step taken by a member of the consecutive bourgeois class signposts the shape of things to come in the state. For one, it gives verve to Uzodimma’s “SHARED PROSPERITY” mantra on which he intends to anchor his vision of an economic transmogrification of the state rooted on social harmony and political stability. Since nobody can decree prosperity, the essence of the SHARED PROSPERITY paradigm is that the Uzodimma administration plans to create an atmosphere that will be conducive for the growth of personal enterprise.

A few days before assenting to the bill abrogating law No. 5 of 2007, Uzodimma had signed Executive Order No. 002, 2020 reducing Right of Way (ROW) of telecommunication companies in the state from N4,500.00 to N145.00 per metre, in accordance with the recent policy of the federal government. The move is an eloquent demonstration that the governor is set to galvanise the private sector in the state into action. It is also expected to spur telecommunication companies in the state to further invest in broadband infrastructure with a ripple effect on online services. It is further expected that the reduction will stimulate many other sectors of the economy including e-health, e-commerce, e-learning etc. and put the state at par with other civilised parts of the world. By that move, Imo State under Uzodimma, becomes the first government in the Southeast to reduce ROW charges which is the levy paid to state governments for the laying of optic fibre by telecommunication operators, and which has been a thorny issue between the ICT sector in the country and the federal government.

This article began with pointing at the fact that state governors in Nigeria as extremely powerful and that in most cases, such powers have been used for the preservation of self-serving interests. Even though some of them start off on a populist note, they end up completely alienated from the people and indeed in the cesspit of corruption, hauling state resources into their private pockets and those of their cronies. Governor Uzodimmma has started quite well with his pro-people posturing. By his actions so far, he is easily one governor many observers will be watching with keen interest.

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