THEWILL Editorial: Governor Liyel Imoke's Obedience To The Constitution

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SAN FRANCISCO, December 30, (THEWILL) - Thirteen years after Nigeria embarked on this round of western-style democracy, its experience, so far, has been chequered: It’s been a period characterised by fortunes and misfortunes.

On the positive side, for instance, the military has stayed away from politics and governance. But on the other hand, many Nigerians -- especially the elected officials -- seem not to understand what democracy entails.

And for that matter, many do not seem to understand the role of the Constitution in politics and governance. Many act as if the Constitution is inanimate and therefore irrelevant to the political process. They are wrong. The sooner they realise the omnipresent and omnipotent nature of the Constitution, the better it would be for all and for the country.

Flawed or not, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is the supreme law of the land. It is this body of law that all citizens and non-citizens who reside in Nigeria must, allegorically speaking, bow and kneel before. It is from this living body of law that all elected and non-elected officials must take their cue and guidance on how to govern. Essentially, therefore, no one must act in variance to the dictates and spirit of the Nigerian Constitution. Private individuals who breach the Constitution must be subjected to judicial sanctions; elected officials who violate the Constitution must be punished and or be removed from office.

Democracies – especially burgeoning democracies such as ours – cannot afford the indifference and the disrespect many elected officials have exhibited towards the Constitution.

Elected officials, especially State Governors and Presidents, have the tendency to act as if they are the source of law; or act as if they are above the law. And in many other cases, they act as if there are no laws to be obeyed. This is patently wrong! It was this type of reasoning and type of behaviour that almost brought calamity and pandemonium to the country between November 2009 and May 2010.

Even as it became apparent that President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was dying, a myopic and paranoid group of elite refused to accede power to the then Vice President (Goodluck Jonathan). And even as it became clear that the power vacuum they were creating was inimical and injurious to the wellbeing of the country, they stubbornly refused to follow the dictates of the Constitution.

The “Yar’Adua Cabal” was eventually defanged due largely to the vigour of the Nigerian public and the foresight of the civil society. The turbulent atmosphere was eventually brought to order when the Nigeria National Assembly (NNA) applied the ‘Doctrine of Necessity,’ on February 9, 2010 – thereby effectively averting a crisis of succession.

In the intervening period, several state governors have pulled a ‘Yar’Adua’ without the Nigerian public batting an eye. By this, we mean that there have been several governors who left the country for an extended period of time (usually for medical care) without properly informing their respective State Assemblies and without officially transferring power to their deputies.

What these governors have done is to rule in absentia: rule from a foreign domain.

The Nigerian Constitution does not provide for governor in absentia or governance from a foreign domain. No, it does not! We have seen such constitutional violations in places such as Bayelsa, Enugu and Taraba States. For example, Mr. Sullivan Chime of Enugu State has been in office since May 29, 2007, yet, has not attended two-third or more of state functions due largely to his failing health, according to reports in the local media.

Governor Chime’s continued absence from the state since September 19, 2012 has, in the words of many, slowed government activities in the state. As of this week, the governor has been away from Enugu and out of the country for more than 90 days receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment – and only informed the Enugu State House of Assembly of his long absence from office for several weeks after the public and media started asking questions. Chime did not even bother to transfer power to his deputy, Mr. Sunday Onyebuchi, until recently.

In contrast to Governor Chime, his Cross River State counterpart, Governor Liyel Imoke, followed the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. Section 190 of the 1999 Constitution was amended to (now) read: "190. -(1) Whenever the Governor is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, he shall transmit a written declaration to the Speaker of the House of Assembly to that effect, and until he transmits to the Speaker of the House of Assembly a written declaration to the contrary, the Deputy Governor shall perform the functions of the Governor as Acting Governor."

And 190 (2) states that “In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (l) of this section within 14 days, the House of Assembly shall by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of the House mandate the Deputy Governor to perform the functions of the office of the Governor as Acting Governor, until the Governor transmits a letter to the Speaker, that he is now available to resume his functions as Governor."

On December 6, 2012, the Cross River State Governor, Senator Liyel Imoke, proceeded on a two--month accumulated leave in order to attend to health issues and transferred Executive power to his deputy, Mr. Efiok Cobham. He duly communicated his intent to the State House of Assembly through a letter to the Speaker, Rt Hon. Larry Odey.

According to the letter, which was released by the governor’s Chief Press Secretary and Special Assistant on Media, Mr. Christian Ita, “Some three weeks ago, His Excellency took a short break after a long hectic, and eventful year, all preparatory to the start of the busy Calabar festival season. He used the opportunity to undergo medicals and in the course of so doing, was advised by his doctors to undergo further evaluation.”

The letter further stated: “Accordingly, His Excellency will be proceeding on a two--month accumulated leave with effect from today. In line with the provisions of the Constitution, His Excellency, Efiok Cobham, the Deputy Governor, will act in his place during the period of his leave.”

What Governor Liyel Imoke has done may appear simple to those who live in matured democracies in places like Canada, France, Germany, Australia, and the US; but in Nigeria, this is a novel idea. Too many Governors leave their states and proceed overseas for weeks on end without following the constitutional provisions.

What Imoke has done is to (a) ensure continuity of governance; (b) respect the constitution; (c) show respect for the people of Cross River State by indicating that he is not above their wishes and collective interest; (d) establish precedence for future governors and other federating governors in the country; and (e) that he is a man with abiding interest in the rule of law. What’s more, it says a lot about the character of the governor: he has faith in the ability of his deputy to discharge his duties as stipulated by the Constitution.

Too many times, Nigerian politicians – especially state governors -- personalise the rule of law. Many actually seem to believe that they own the state and its many resources. In order words, they act as if the state is their personal chiefdom. This type of belief and attitude is actually detrimental to the wellbeing and collective aspiration of the state and its people. The people of Nigeria deserve responsive, responsible and accountable leaders. They deserve leaders who understand what western-style democracy is all about. They deserve leaders they can depend on.

These are some of the qualities Imoke has demonstrated. And so we applaud him.

We give Governor Liyel Imoke a rousing applause. And we hope that the Cross River State House of Assembly, along with the good people of Cross River State will also commend him. However, we encourage the governor not to rest on this singular achievement: We want him to do more in terms of continued obedience to the Constitution, and also in terms of human and infrastructural development of the state and the people.