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Enugu: Stoking vibes of discontent with council polls

By Lawrence Njoku, Southeast Bureau Chief
01 December 2019   |   4:10 am
Since the current democratic experiment commenced, some state governments have always seen it as a herculean task to conduct elections into the local governments of their states.

Enugu state governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi

Since the current democratic experiment commenced, some state governments have always seen it as a herculean task to conduct elections into the local governments of their states.

While a few state executives kept faith with conducting council polls in, even if in an abysmal manner, others ruled all through their tenure without elected council executives, though they sometimes handpicked certain persons as Transition Committee members to run council affairs. In some cases, even where executives were elected, the joint account system had always been used to check their activities.

There have also been situations, where elected council executives were dissolved for appointment of handpicked caretaker committee members, whose activities in office were determined by the state chief executives.

For instance, former Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha had, on assumption, dissolved elected council executives and then selected new ones to act in their capacity.

He had ensured that no other local government election held in the state, until the twilight of his administration. Those who emerged from the process that was interrupted are still asking for justice.

A similar scenario played out in Anambra State during the administration of Peter Obi, who only conducted council election few months into the exit of his administration. Since the tenure of those that emerged from the process elapsed, no other council election has held in the state.

The negative effect of this development had been poor underdevelopment of the councils, as some council executives, who emerged as stooges, were used to endorse the state chief executives’ actions on issues in their various council areas.

It was apparently in the bid to tackle the development and strengthen the LGAs as a critical tier of government, that the Federal Government recently gave the approval, granting financial autonomy to local governments.

The autonomy provides that monthly statutory allocations due to councils must be credited to their accounts directly, and expended appropriately to the last kobo by the LGA authorities themselves.

While the decision, which commenced in June was seen as part of the process to restructure governance at that level, it appears not to be sitting well with Enugu State government, which seems unwilling to continue running the 17 local governments councils with democratically elected council executives, at least for now.

Investigations by The Guardian revealed that the state government had concluded plans to handpick and appoint Transition Committee members to run its councils’ affairs from next week, when the tenure of elected council executives will elapse.

The last council election was conducted in 2017. Those that emerged were sworn into office on December 4, 2017 for a two-year tenure, which will elapse December 4, 2019.

By the state’s amended local government Law, 2004, section 11 (1), it is the duty of the State Independent Electoral Commission ENSIEC) and the governor to appoint a date for the conduct of election in the councils.

Section11 (2) of the amended law also holds that the state’s local government council elections should be held on a date “not earlier than 90 days and not later than 60 days before expiration of the terms of office of the last holders of those offices.”

If the said laws are anything to go by, it means the state should have conducted election into the local councils between September 5 and October 5, 2019. The ENSIEC, on the other hand, did not publish any guidelines that could have regulated candidates and their parties in the campaigns and elections proper.

It was not clear why government took the decision. But signs that those aspiring to contest in the election may need to wait a little longer began to emerge in July this year, when ENSIEC refused to issue the guidelines.

Apprehensions started growing in the state two months ago over the ENSIEC’s readiness to conduct the process, when ENSIEC Chairman, Chief Mike Ajogwu was asked about it, and he declared that they would soon roll out a timetable for the exercise.

He reiterated that local government election would “definitely hold” in Enugu, when the elected council officials’ tenure ends in December.

He said: “Yes, there is no doubt about it. There will be local government council elections soon. However, we have not got the date or timing for it yet. I am going to meet with all my (ENSIEC) commissioners soon and after that, we will call an all-inclusive political stakeholders meeting.

“After the meeting, we will release a definite date for the election, as well as activities leading to the election proper. All political stakeholders in the state would be carried along and duly communicated.”

As at date, Ajogwu is yet to make public his commission’s thinking on the exercise.

The state Commissioner for Local Government Affairs, Peter Okonkwo recently announced the governor’s intention to refocus the primary assignment of local government administration in the state, to make it more formidable and impactful on rural dwellers’ lives.

He said the administration’s intention was to ensure that every council actualised tangible development projects that would stand the test of time, especially in terms of capital projects that could outlive the administration. Could this, among others, be reasons behind the use of transition council chairmen from next week?

The immediate past administration of Sullivan Chime ensured prompt conduct of council elections every two years. Sources said the massive development witnessed in the local governments during the period was based on regular conduct of elections, as each council administration worked to entrench legacies that they leveraged to ask for votes from the people.

The last set of elected council executives were inherited in 2015 by the incumbent administration.

The Backlash
What is happening now is not new in Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s style in Enugu State. It was not also the first time since he became governor that democracy was being aborted at the third tier.

Indeed, when he became governor in May 2015, Ugwuanyi refused to conduct council election that was due that year on the guise that there were no funds to prosecute the exercise.

He also stated that his government was conducting an audit of the local government system to ascertain actual number of workforce, as well as
expenditure profiles of the various councils.

In place of elected council executives, he handpicked 17 council chairmen and 260 councilors from his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as Transition Committee members to superintend councils’ affairs in the state. He approached the State House of Assembly to extend the three months window allowed for operation of caretaker committees to three years.

However, during this three year-window, he was able to muster needed resources to conduct the 2017 election. Now in his second tenure, how much window will he be asking from the State House of Assembly, and what reasons will he adduce to his inability to conduct the exercise?

There are already speculations that resources and time are grossly insufficient to embark on the venture. Those who hold this brief insist that the period of the last general election and the length of time it took to constitute the state’s cabinet may have affected the process.

Okonkwo, however, said they were waiting for directives from the government on the next line of action.

He said: “The governor is a lover of peace and democracy, and is always willing to do whatever pleases the masses. He cannot act without their input. So, I believe we shall know the direction to go very soon and whatever direction we are going will make the people happy.”

The Tussle
Apparently not buying into the gimmicks, one of the registered political parties in the state, which expressed its desire to feature in the
election, the African People’s Alliance (APA) has dragged ENSIEC, the state Attorney General and Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi to court.

The party stated that ENSIEC’s failure or refusal to conduct council election for new set of chairmen and councilors to emerge was a violation of its members’ fundamental rights, as well as that of citizens to freely participate in the process according to law.

The suit filed on behalf of the party by its counsel, Chukwunonso Ogbe is asking for order to compel the Commission to conduct local government election within 30 days or any other date the court deemed fit.

It also asked for an order to restrain the governor or his agents “from appointing a Transition Committee or any sister undemocratic body that goes by any name whatsoever, for any of the state’s 17 local government councils, upon cessation of the term of office of the current local government chairmen and councilors on December 4, this year.”

The party also demanded N200m jointly and severally against the respondents for violating the fundamental rights of the applicant to participate freely in the local government tier of government in the state and any other order the court might deem fit.

The case had its first hearing two weeks ago. It is billed to resume on November 11.

A chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, Joseph Ohakwe told The Guardian: “Any firm believer of democracy will at all times protect the letters of the Constitution, no matter how badly he may be affected by it, because it is the same Constitution that he swore to uphold.

“Today, the PDP is in power in the state. So, it behooves on the party to do what is right in the interest of justice. A situation where the party members do whatever they like with council election is not in our best interest. It is not in the interest of democracy and good governance.

“The APC administration under President Buhari has continued to empower the councils, with the recent approval that their funding should be given to them directly. This is also in realisation that there is need for government to get deep down to the people. Yet, in our state, they are trying to alter this effort and arrangement by not giving the people opportunity to elect those who will superintend their activities. It is sad.”