Why Governor Wike of Rivers State lacks constitutional powers to sack or suspend local government chairmen and councillors

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    LOCAL GOVERNMENT is the third tier of government in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is the closest tier of government to the people and was created to stimulate development in rural communities. Local government provides opportunities for people to express themselves with regards to everything that concern their well-being. It enables people to choose their representatives that will, on their behalf, take care of their local affairs.

    As elected representatives of their people, local government  chairmen and councilors are expected to be accountable to the people whose votes brought them into office, and not state governors. If governors elected into office cannot be removed by the President except by state legislators through legislative procedures in the state assembly, why then should other than the legislative arm of the local government decide when an elected LG chairman should leave office? States where governors that have in the past sacked elected LG councils include Abia in 2006, Imo in 2011, Rivers in 2012, Ondo in 2008, Edo in 2012, Bayelsa in 2013 and Plateau in 2015, Rivers again, 2020.

    The Supreme Court of Nigeria in a five man panel headed by Justice Olubolade Joe in a unanimous judgement delivered on December 11, 2019 strips state governors of the power to sack elected local government (LG) chairmen and councillors. The appointment of caretaker chairmen by state governors has also been banned by the same court ruling. The Supreme Court ruled that henceforth ‘the act giving legislative powers to state Assembly members to undertake the process of sacking elected local government chairmen is null and void’. The panel of judges unanimously declared that only the legislative arm of a LG Council is empowered with the residual constitutional backing to sack council chairmen that maybe found blameworthy of any gross misconduct or violations of rules guiding public servants.

    This judgement is sequel to an appeal filed by 16 Ekiti state LG chairmen who were elected during Ayodele Fayose’s tenure as Ekiti state Governor and were sacked by the incumbent Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state. This Supreme Court judgement has finally put an end to the abuse of power by state assemblies and governors who sack elected LG chairmen at will. Justice Olubolade Joe-led panel also directed that a copy of the judgement should be served to all 36 State Houses of Assembly and the Minister of FCT on or before the December 30, 2019.

    The Supreme Court, in faulting the law purportedly relied on by Fayemi, held that Section 23(b) of the Ekiti State Local Government Administration (Amendment) Law, 2001, which empowered the governor to dissolve local government councils, whose tenure was yet to expire, violated section 7(1) of the Constitution from which the state House of Assembly derived the power to enact the local government law. Justice Centus Nweze, in the lead judgment, said: “There can be no doubt, as argued by the appellants’ counsel, that the Ekiti State House of Assembly is empowered to make laws of Ekiti State.

    “However, the snag here is that, in enacting section 23(b) of the Ekiti State Local Government Administration (Amendment) Law, 2001, which empowered the first appellant to bridge the tenure of office of the respondents, it overreached itself. “In other words, section 23(b) (supra) is violative of, and in conflict with section 7(1) of the Constitution (supra). “Hence, it is bound to suffer the fate of ll laws which are in conflict with the Constitution, section 1(3) thereof.”

    The judge Said Section 7(1) of the Constitution seeks to guarantee “the system of local government by democratically-elected local government councils and conferred “sacrosanctity on the elections of such officials whose electoral mandates derived from the will of the people freely exercised through the democratic process”.

    “The implication, therefore, is that section 23(b) of thethe Ekiti State Local Government Administration (Amendment) Law, 2001, which was not intended to ‘ensure the existence of’ such democratically-elected councils, but to snap their continued existence by their substitution with caretaker councils, was enacted in clear breach of the supreme provisions of section 7(1) of the Constitution.

    “To that extent, it (section 23(b) supra) cannot co-habit with section 7(1) of the Constitution (supra) and must, in consequence, be invalidated. “The reason is simple. By his oath of office, the governor swore to protect and not to supplant the Constitution.

    “Hence, any action of his which has the capacity of undermining the same Constitution (as in the instant case where the first appellant, ‘Governor of Ekiti State and others’ dissolved the tenure of the respondents and replaced them with caretaker committees) is tantamount to executive recklessness which would not be condoned,” the judge said. Justice Nweze said the the tenure of the local government councils could not be abridged without violating the supreme constitutional provisions.

    “Simply put, therefore, the election of such officials into their offices and their tenure are clothed with constitutional force. They cannot, therefore, be abridged without breaching the Constitution from which they derive their force. “The only permissible exception, where a state governor could truncate the lifespan of a local government council which evolved through the democratic process of elections, is ‘for overriding public interest’ in a period of emergency.”

    He upheld the earlier decision of the Court of Appeal on the issue and adopted the orders made by the Court of Appeal on the case in its judgment delivered on January 23, 2013. The Appeal Court had among others, ordered the Ekiti State Government to compute and pay all the allowances and salaries accruable to members of the dissolved councils between October 29, 2010 and December 19, 2011, both dates inclusive. Justice Nweze directed the Attorney- General of Ekiti State to ensure that the orders of the lower court (Appeal Court) affirmed in his judgment, are complied with.

    This is a landmark judgement that will guarantee the survival of democracy in the country. The judgement has not only defined where exclusive powers should begin and possible end but will forestall flagrant abuse of executive powers by state governors. Over the years, local governments in Nigeria have become the weeping child of many state governors. Their mandate and even constitutional roles have been reduced to being mere ‘errand aides’ whose survival in office is at the mercy of state governors. At the slightest opportunity, governors dissolve local government councils who came into office through an electoral process; most times at the detriment of the affected electorate.

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