Prominent lawyer and prosecutor for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Sebastian Hon (SAN), here explains what can be done in the present circumstance in Taraba State where the governor has been away from the state receiving treatment in a German Hospital. Excerpts: What is your reaction to the deregistration of political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)?
I am an advocate of two-party system. A situation where you have many parties and only one is functioning and the rest, which are supposed to challenge the ruling party are not coming together won’t work. When we have over 50 political parties and every party wants INEC to give them attention is not working because it will stretch the commission beyond its resources, which will mean poor attention. A two-party system would ensure good governance, fraud free elections and would bring out real leaders. The point should be for the National Assembly to go back to the two-party system.
There have been agitations for the creation of more states and autonomy for local government councils. What is your view?
The autonomy of councils is something not supposed to be toyed with. Unfortunately, while Section 7 and sub-sections 7 and 8 of the 1999 Constitution guarantees democracy at the council level, the same Constitution provides that the state Houses of Assembly can regulate the tenure of office of council officials.
The lack of autonomy has promoted corruption in that system. The joint account by the states and the councils is where much of the fraud goes on. When funds come from the federation account in favour of a particular council, the state governors would under the so-called joint account ensure that they keep a lion’s share of the money to the detriment of the councils. What are the developments in the councils? We need absolute autonomy for the councils. If the Federal Government and the states governments are autonomous and self-accounting, why can’t the councils be autonomous and self-accounting? The states hide under what they call the caretaker committees, which is unconstitutional, to ruin the councils. The council is the closest level of government to the grassroots and the system should not toy with their survival.
We have 36 states whereas Ame-rica, which is twice the population of Nigeria and is bigger in size, has only 50 states. State creations should be the last exercise in the review of the constitution and we should not create more than two states.
Do you think the governors will allow the proposal on council autonomy see the light of day?
The governors are powerful because the various Houses of Assembly do not appreciate the powers they have. The constitutional amendment does not concern the governors; it concerns only the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly. These are issues that they are outsiders. They are outsiders to constitution amendment. Section 9 of the constitution that provides for amendment does not contemplate the role of the governor. So why would the state Houses of Assembly surrender their powers to the governors and say that the governors are powerful? The state House of Assembly is supposed to be the strongest arm after the Judiciary. The Executive is not supposed to be the strongest. All executive and legislative actions are subject to interpretation by the courts. So the governors are not that powerful, Nigerians have made them powerful.
How would you rate President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration on the observance of the rule of law?
The rule of law in Nigeria, has taken a nosedive, not just under Jonathan. The situation has not improved since 1999. People have died in detentions and we still have extra judicial killings. As far as I am concerned, nothing has changed over the years, since we took over from the military.
What are the implications of a political scenario where the governor is absent for a long period like we have in Taraba State?
The situation in Taraba is peculiar because the governor was involved in a plane crash, he narrowly survived it and he is in hospital abroad. I think it will be good if he is allowed time to fully recover. I think the state House of Assembly was wearing a human face when they said there is no time limit within which the deputy governor will be in the position as the acting governor. The constitution has not given a time limit, but in constitutional jurisprudence we talk of reasonable time. And reasonable time again is relative because it has been defined by the Supreme Court as the time a reasonable man would compute as being fair and just in a circumstance. So the taste is that of a reasonable man.
The governor is not supposed to be back even if his injuries are light because the trauma is much. We don’t know the extent of the injuries and for him to come back and function as the governor. He has to be fit and healthy medically and physically to return to office. There is no need to rush him back and then to have him going back to the hospital or discharging the functions of his office incompetently. I think the House of Assembly acted within the confines of the law when they said there is no time limit, because if they constrict themselves to a particular time and the governor is not back, they would need another resolution. I think the balance they have kept is okay. If they prolong it too much, they would be forced to review the situation.
The situation is definitely politically charged because, given a political configuration in Nigeria, ethnic, religious and the rest, the deputy governor would have his own supporters who, although would have sympathy for the ailing governor, would want their own man to be there.