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Imo state versus local councils: Ever locked in war of attrition

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Governor Rochas Okorocha

Local government councils in the country have been at the receiving end of every dispensation that has come on board since the commencement of democracy in 1999.

Chief executives of the various states have employed means at their disposal to ensure control of the soul of the third tier. While some governors had resorted to handpicking persons they describe as transition chairmen to run the third tier, others employed other means to make the system irrelevant and uninspiring.

This is the case in Imo State, where muscles are being flexed over who controls the soul of the 27 councils.  Last week Monday, the Imo State House of Assembly had upheld a motion suspending all the chairmen and the 645 councilors serving under them.

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The decision by the outgoing lawmakers followed an alleged neglect and refusal of the council chairmen to appear before them to answer certain questions regarding their activities in office.

The Guardian gathered that the lawmakers had relied on petitions from some concerned members of the public over the manner in which funds accruing to the councils were expended.

Sources revealed that it was not the first time the council chairmen were being invited to the House to explain their involvement in the alleged graft.

They were said to have ignored their invite at various occasions on the ground that the Governor was the only one empowered by law to investigate them if need be and recommend to the House for disciplinary action. They reportedly said their investigation by the lawmakers amounted to the neglect of the rule of law.

One of the affected chairmen in charge of Nkwerre Local Council, Augustine Mbagwu, was quoted as saying that section 73 (b) of the 1999 Nigeria’s Constitution as amended, supported their claims.

Sources, however, revealed that rejecting their summons was derived from the backing they allegedly received from the immediate past governor, Rochas Okorocha, who single-handedly installed them in office.

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Okorocha had for the first time in eight years last year, brushed aside every threat from his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and other political parties in the state to conduct a contentious council election that saw the emergence of the 27 chairmen and their councilors.

Although his party in the state was divided with many members protesting the manner in which the election was handled, it did not dwarf his intentions, which was said to be part of the plot to install his son in law, Uche Nwosu as his successor in office.
 
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which was then in opposition in the state did not participate in the election. They had alleged several infractions that undermined the sanctity of the process to no avail.

It followed that when the chairmen were earlier suspended, they refused to handover affairs of their council to their subordinates.

They had actually stood up to the lawmakers when they declared their position and action against them as illegal. Okorocha was still in charge then and the order was not adhered to.

It was later revealed that even among the members of the House of Assembly where the order was made, there were some black legs that moved secretly against it and ensured that it was not implemented.

The source stated that having noticed the gaps and futility in continuing to push for the order, the lawmakers retreated and waited for the exit of Okorocha. This was not long to be realised as they had struck few days after the new administration of Emeka Ihedioha took over.

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In dealing with the council chairmen and the councilors however, the source stated that the lawmakers had first looked inwards to suspend their Speaker, Acho Ihim.

Ihim, who was suspended by 21 out of the 27 members of the Action Alliance (AA) dominated House of Assembly, who was said to have circumvented House rules and undermined other members in taking decisions that required their legislative input.

As his impeachment was upheld Chinedu Offor, a former reporter at The Guardian, and later, Voice of America (VOA), representing Onuimo constituency, was pronounced the Protem Speaker. The action took place after Ihim, allegedly unilaterally, read a letter, recalling the suspended Local Council chairmen.

Ihim had later countered reports of his suspension. He had told those who cared to listen that the House was properly adjourned after the executive and plenary sections, stressing that whatever happened after the adjournment was not the business of the lawmakers. He claimed he remained the Speaker of the Assembly and would continue to lead the members in charting the growth and development of the state.

However, the lie in his claims was exposed last Thursday when the 21 members of the House sat with Offor presiding, where the council chairmen were suspended indefinitely. The lawmakers had empowered the Clerk to write the State Police Commissioner to ensure that they did not return to office and did not remove any property belonging to the state government on their way out.

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Backlash
CAN this suspension be lifted and when? Would this mean a final exit from office for the council chairmen? What options are there for those affected by the order of the House, especially now that Okorocha is out of the way? These questions have become germane following the circumstances that brought these chairmen to power.

A source stated that the affected council chairmen knew their games was up when Okorocha lost in the bid to impose his son in law on Imo people. “He wanted to use them for the election but failed,” it was gathered. The source stated that they were ‘merely handpicked to do the bidding of the former governor and cannot come now to claim legitimacy, knowing the circumstances that brought them to office.”

One of the affected chairmen told The Guardian on phone on Wednesday anonymously that, “we were suspended in a most controversial manner. Our suspension has nothing to do with our election. They said it bothered on funds. So we are waiting for them to come with their evidence to enable us clear ourselves. So it is still suspension, which of course should be lifted at the right time. It is not a sack.”

Another source stated however that what was happening now was not new to the state, adding that the people knew it was only a matter of time for the chairmen to give way for proper election at that level.

“Even if they were not suspended, there is no way Emeka Ihedioha can work with them, knowing that his party the PDP was brazenly denied participation in the election that brought them into office. Many people in Imo state have this belief that they did not elect those council chairmen and that was why they started rejecting them from the first day they came on board. Recall also that, it was a faction of the APC loyal to Okorocha that conducted that election. So as far as we know, they don’t have our support.

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“We didn’t elect them, they were imposed on us because Okorocha was fighting a political battle,” source stated.

It could be recalled that a similar development occurred in the state in 2011. 27 Council chairmen had won elections to represent their various councils in August 2010. Ikedi Ohakim was the governor then. He had promptly sworn them into office and ten months after (June 2011), Okorocha, who took over government, removed them from office.

Since then, a cat and mouse battle between the Council chairmen mainly of PDP extraction and the Okorocha government, which had migrated from the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, in 2011 to the All Progressive Congress, APC, in 2014 broke off.

The sacked Council chairmen, however, gave Okorocha a fight and were reportedly restored by the Courts, which nullified Okorocha’s action. However, their attempts to retake the Council’s based on the Court order met a brick wall as the Okorocha Government stood its ground and refused to indulge them

From then on, other attempts made including the intervention of the Attorney General of the federation failed to materialize as appeals upon appeals made it difficult for the Council chairmen who were replaced by APGA dominated Caretaker chairmen to resume their office.

However, when they resumed with the protection of the police, it was only a matter of days for them to be removed again as the state government returned to court to challenge the order, which restored them to office.

The source stated that it may amount to an exercise in futility to resort to court to challenge their indefinite suspension, drawing from the experience of those who were sacked before them. It was further gathered that doing so might eventually worsen their matter in the face of the nod by the House of Assembly approving their probe and that of the immediate past administration.

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A Fresh Twist
WHILE, there are alleged subtle moves to find a middle course in the matter, feelers have emerged that the council chairmen and councilors sacked by Okorocha in 2011 are pushing for their reinstatement in the Ihedioha administration.

The development is said to be a new twist in the matter and may likely compound any effort to restore or recall the chairmen elected by Okorocha.

It was gathered that at a meeting held at Mbutu Abor-Mbaise, the affected chairmen and their councilors, who are mainly of the flock of the PDP had laid their ordeal before the Governor and asked him to intervene so as to ensure that they served out their official tenure.

It is not clear how the governor who has vowed to restore local government system in Imo State by granting it autonomy intends to handle the matter.

Sources indicated that the inability of the councils to operate had seriously impaired development in the state.

Ihedioha certainly would not like to toy with anything that could warrant losing support of the grassroots, especially with the composition of the House of Assembly where his party is not sitting comfortably.

Restoring those sacked by Okorocha would mean restoring justice to those that deserve it; but there are arguments that time may have seriously overtaken the tenure being sort for.


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