Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Who’s in Charge in Taraba State?

Who is really in charge of the affairs of Taraba State? This question is pertinent  following the unfortunate air-crash  of Thursday, October 25 involving the State Governor, Danbaba Danfulani Suntai which has left him in a bad state of health necessitating  his being flown to a German hospital for medical attention. The development has left a vacuum in the administration of the north-east state created in 1991. There have been calls for the Deputy Governor, Alhaji Garba Umar to be sworn in as the Acting Governor while the governor is recuperating from his injuries. Feelers from Taraba State do not show that the State House of Assembly is in any hurry to pass such resolution. What does the law says on this brewing political impasse? Can this issue be understood solely from a legal viewpoint? Has there been precedent to be followed in matters of this nature?

Let us attempt a little contextual background to this issue. On October 4, Taraba State was in the news when the former Deputy Governor Sani Abubakar was impeached by 20 of the 24 members of the Taraba State House of Assembly. Mr. Abubakar had challenged the constitution of the panel and the impeachment process in court. Despite this however; the state house of assembly went ahead with the process. Alhaji Garba Umar was appointed and sworn in on October 5. Now, barely 20 days in office, providence seems to be at work.

The 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as amended in section 191(1) gave five grounds under which a deputy can become a governor. These are on the ground of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or removal of Governor from office for any other reason in accordance with section 188 or 189 of the constitution. Umar may have to wait long for that to happen. What is being canvassed is for him to be made an acting governor pending the return of Governor Suntai. 
Section 190 (1)(2) of the constitution, as amended, stipulates that the deputy governor should take over if the governor is on leave or is unable to discharge the function of his office. Sub-section 1 reads: “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.”
Subsection 2 reads: “In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in sub-section (1) of this section within 21 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.”
In the same vein, Section 145 sub-section two of the constitution as amended stipulates that the Vice-President becomes acting president if the President is not available for 21 days. The rationale behind these subsections is well known to discerning public. It was borne out of the political logjam engendered by the ill-health of former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2009 which necessitated the invocation of the Doctrine of Necessity by the National Assembly that empowers the incumbent president to become acting president then.
Will the Taraba State House of Assembly empower the new State’s Deputy Governor to become acting governor after the expiration of 21 days given that the Governor could not and is not in a position to transmit a letter to the Speaker? Time will tell but right now no such move is being made.
Another way the Deputy Governor could become a governor is if the State executive council decided to give effect to section 189 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.  That section says the governor or deputy governor of a state shall cease to hold office if by a resolution passed by two-thirds majority of all members of the executive council of the state (i.e. the body of commissioners of the Government of the State) it is declared that the governor or deputy governors is incapable of discharging the functions of his office. This declaration has to, however, be verified by a medical panel of five (one of who must be the personal physician of the holder of the office concerned) to be appointed by the Speaker of the State House of Assembly. Will the Taraba EXCO and the Speaker toe this line? This is doubtful given the overbearing influence that governors wield on their cabinet and their state houses of assembly. It would be recalled that in 2010, state house of assembly overwhelmingly rejected financial autonomy for themselves during the constitution review exercise on the prompting of their governors.
Moreover, the main character in this whole episode, Deputy Governor Umar has said it would be wrong for him to be sworn in as acting governor when his boss was only sick and not dead. He was quoted as saying “I was sworn in as deputy governor of the state.  The governor is only sick and not dead. He is in a stable condition as confirmed by Mr. President and the Chief Medical Director of the National Hospital, Abuja. I remain the deputy governor of the state” Another news medium quoted him thus:  “I am not in acting capacity. I am still the deputy governor despite the air mishap involving my boss. And I can’t be sworn in as acting governor of Taraba State because my boss is still alive. I don’t even wish that to happen. It has been my prayers that he recovers speedily.”
Similarly, PDP National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh said the situation does not call for that yet. “The governor is injured and not incapacitated. Before he was flown out of the country, he was in a stable condition. It is to be assumed that the governor is on leave” he said.
Legalese aside, the situation is more political than legal. A national newspaper had reported on October 27 that the new deputy governor was chased out of the government house in Taraba State by thugs on the evening when his principal was involved in air-crash and had to be ferried out to the office of the state security service for safety. Though Umar has denied the story, the newspaper said it stands by its report.    That incident, if it indeed happened, may have sent jitters down the spine of the new Deputy Governor. It is an open secret that Deputy Governors are never trusted by their Governors. No matter how long they are on vacation or outside the country, they never bothered to transmit any letter to the Speaker of the State House of Assembly as demanded by Section 190 of the constitution.
In the entire history of the Fourth Republic, it was only the former Zamfara State governor, now Senator, Ahmad Sani Yerima who courageously endorsed his former deputy Mahmuda Aliyu Shinkafi to succeed him in 2007. What was the outcome? Irreconcilable differences with his former boss led Shinkafi to decamp to People’s Democratic Party from the All Nigeria Peoples Party. This angered Yerima so much that he pulled all the strings to ensure that Shinkafi did not succeed in his second term ambition. Former Governor of Anambra State Chukwuemeka Ezeife was credited as referring to Deputy Governor as spare tyres. Others have said the position of the Secretary to the State Government is weightier and more recognizable than that of the Deputy Governor.
This is truly true as section 193 of the constitution equated the office with those of the commissioners. It says in subsection 1 that  “The Governor of a State may, in his discretion, assign to the Deputy Governor or any Commissioner of the Government of the State responsibility for any business of the Government of that State, including the administration of any department of Government” Thus, it is not surprising that any ambitious or independent minded Deputy Governor is sidelined or have an impeachment orchestrated against him or her as was the case in many states with the latest being the forceful resignation of the Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State Mr. Nsima Ekere on October 31.
The Taraba situation is still unfolding and we wait to see how the entire drama will end. Meanwhile, it may not be out of place to give specific constitutional role to the position of Vice President and Deputy Governor.