Sunday, August 14, 2011

The war in Imo •Sacked LG bosses tackle Rochas

Tension, anxiety and confusion have enveloped Imo State, particularly the 27 local government areas where the old elected chairmen and Transition Committee (TC) chairmen are up in arms over who controls the council headquarters.
The council war is raging, following Governor Rochas Okorocha’s June 6 broadcast on radio and television, in which he dissolved the councils, sacking the 27 council chairmen and their councilors.

The chairmen were sworn in on August 9, 2010 by the former governor, Chief Ikedi Ohakim, after the controversial Imo local government election of August 7, 2010.
The council election was conducted by the Imo State Independent Electoral Commission (ISIEC) headed by Chief Emma Nwoye, said to be an in-law to Governor Ohakim and a staunch member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

As soon as Okorocha, whose rescue mission wind swept away many policies of the previous government, dissolved the councils, some legal minds in the state raised the alarm, saying it was an abuse of the constitutional rights of the chairmen.
Indeed, former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Imo State, Chief Livy Uzokwu (SAN) told a national daily that he was shocked by the dissolution.
Uzokwu wondered why a new government, elected by the people, would wish to start governance with litany of litigations capable of heating up the polity and capable of causing serious distraction in a state that voted for speedy change and development.

Also, the equally shocked sacked council chairmen, who are all of the PDP stock, say they could not comprehend why Okorocha wielded the big stick on them.
Immediately Okorocha emerged victorious in the Imo supplementary election of May, the elected council chairmen began to make overtures to join in the rescue mission train of the governor. Consquently, on May 29 when Okorocha was sworn in at the Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri, the council chairmen shed their PDP toga to adorn APGA uniform with Okorocha’s inscriptions on them.

But this did not cut any ice with the new governor. That didn’t make him change his mind that that PDP councils were the “centre of corruption” in the state. Thus Okorocha over-ran the councils with his rescue mission train and the chairmen and their councilors, who are now nursing their bruises, cried blue murder and ran to an Owerri High Court to seek redress.

In the originating summons filed at the state High Court, the council chairmen are seeking relief through the combined provisions of Section 7(1) of 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and Section 23(1) of the Imo State Local Government Administration Law No. 15 of 2000 (as amended), to determine whether the governor, by himself or through any person acting on his behalf, has the competence or power to dissolve democratically elected local government councils in the state.

They also sought the relief of the court to determine whether the dissolution of the councils by the governor wherein the claimants are the democratically elected chairmen on alleged ground of corruption and indiscipline without giving the claimants a fair hearing is not in breach of the 1999 Constitution as amended. They also prayed the court to restrain the governor from appointing Transition Committee chairmen in their stead, declare that the state House of Assembly has no power to endorse their dissolution by the governor, as well as rule that they have a two-year tenure.

When the case resumed, the State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Imo, Chief Soronnadi Njoku, in his defence, argued that the election that produced the embattled chairmen was illegal in the first place since there was a subsisting High Court order barring the exercise, pointing out, therefore, that their stay in office was an act of illegality. The Attorney General said that the newspaper cutting (photocopy) presented to the court as an exhibit as the source of information of their dissolution by the ex-council chairmen, was not admissible in law, since it did not contain the important name of the editor or an address as required by the Newspapers Act.

Indeed, dismissing the suit, the state Chief Judge, Justice Benjamin Njemanze, said that there was nothing before the court to show that they have been dissolved as the newspaper cutting brought as an exhibit did not contain the relevant information as required by law. He upheld that the newspaper did not contain the name of the editor, address of the newspaper and the imprint as required by the Newspapers Act.

The judge, however, agreed that the second defendant (Governor Okorocha) has no constitutional powers to dissolve democratically elected council chairmen, but he went ahead to strike out the case on technical grounds and lack of evidence. Buoyed by this ruling, the sacked chairmen, on Monday August 8, stormed the various council headquarters with the councilors to still take charge. But they met a brick wall as armed policemen and staff of the various councils refused them entry.

In fact, when this paper visited some of the council areas, both the Transition Committee chairmen and the former LG bosses were not allowed to enter into the councils as they were asked to go and resolve their differences first. In some other councils, it was a tug-of-war between the elected chairmen and their Transition Committee counterparts. Here is the council-by-council observation when this paper visited the different areas.

Owerri Municipal LGA 
At the Owerri Municipal Council on Monday, August 8, the former council chairman, Chief Emma Odor, his councilors and members of the PDP from the area, stormed the council headquarters along Douglas Road, with a mock coffin. As they made to enter into the council headquarters, they were resisted by armed policemen and staff of the council that manned the gate.

The emergency security men did not also allow the new Transition Committee chairman, Mrs. Gladys Amuneke to assume office. They barred all visitors from coming into the premises, except nursing mothers who came for antenatal checkups. A member of staff of the council, who identified himself as a security man, vowed that none of the warring parties would come into the council premises until they resolved their differences. The PDP supporters later dropped the blue mock coffin at the main entrance of the council and dispersed.

Njaba LGA
The former councilors were said to have, on Friday, August 5, forcefully broke into the legislative chamber of the council to hold their normal sitting. But on Monday, August 8, the story was different as the newly inaugurated Transition Committee Chairman, Hon. Uche Rajis, arrived to assume office.

Hon Rajis told this paper that they were on top of the situation. His words: “We are on top of the situation. We moved into office without any molestation and work is in progress.”
Also at the main gate of the council, a white Hilux police pick-up van, loaded with armed policemen, was stationed to keep the peace there.

Orlu LGA
The dismissed councilors had stormed the council headquarters on Monday, August 8, and one of them mustered the courage to break the key used in locking up the legislative chamber. A lady gate tender of the legislative chamber was said to have collapsed when fracas was about to break out. She was rushed to hospital for medical attention.

The new Transition Committee chairman, Chief Ifeanyi Olumbas, was in a closed-door meeting with the leadership of NULGE when this paper visited the council headquarters on Tuesday, August 9.
Some of the staff that spoke on condition of anonymity said, “We are only civil servants and we don’t support anybody. We should not be made scapegoats and whoever has the legitimacy receives our support.” They insisted that the “politicians should count us out of the game, we are career civil servants and we are not involved in politics.”

Owerri North LGA
The supporters of the two major political parties on Monday, August 8, at the front gate of the council headquarters, were seen battle-ready, as each party spoiled to take charge. The supporters of the two political parties had arrived at the council headquarters at about 9 a.m. amid tight security by armed policemen.

The embattled former councilors and other PDP supporters were beaten to the game as the new Transition Committee chairmen had already taken possession of the council as early as 7a.m. Thus, on arrival, the ex-councilors and PDP supporters were prevented from entering the council premises.

Isiala Mbano 
In Isiala Mbano, the council of the immediate past governor, Chief Ohakim and the sacked state Chairman of Association of Local Government Chairmen (ALGON), Chief (Mrs) Rubby Emele, the situation was serious as both parties jostled to outwit the other.

The TC chairman, Hon Dominic Chinedu Obi was said to have immediately stormed the headquarters on Friday after the swearing in on Thursday night to assume office.
By Monday morning, Emele was said to have mobilised to bar Obi from entering the council premises, but security agents and All Progressives Grand Alliance (AGPA) members mobilised to get the TC chairman back to office.

Seated in his office, Hon Obi on Tuesday told this paper: “My takeover of the council was quite challenging, but to God be the glory, we overcame the situation and I assumed office. I was sworn in and the following day I came to the office; I met an unpleasant situation, but then after all said and done, with the power conferred on me by His Excellency, Chief Rochas Okorocha, I resumed office because it is my office after the moment I was sworn in.

“When I resumed office, the people were very happy because they are beginning to see the impact of the rescue mission. Their spirits are beginning to be liberated, immediately they felt relieved. I can feel from the people that they are relieved. They have been crying so long for good governance, even if they do not benefit anything directly from this government, the fact that their voices were heard and God came to their rescue, is enough reason to jubilate.

“So, it was quiet confrontational, but then we approached the situation and with God it was made possible, the DPO tried his best to calm down the situation and we approached the situation maturely”. On what he would do for his people, Obi said, “I am not one of those politicians or people who make heaven-on-earth promises. The only promise I made to my people is that I am going to fear God in all my decisions and in whatever I do and that is the highest promise you can make to a man, because if a man can fear God, he can do all things. So, I will do my best for my people and I will need their massive support and co-operation”.

Ikeduru LGA
Ikeduru Local Government Area, as one of the strongholds of the PDP, was a flashpoint as the party was said to have insisted that the TC chairman would not assume duty.
The sacked chairman, Chief Sam Akah, was said to have mobilised to go to the office on Monday, but because of the anticipated clash, the security agents took over the council and refused everybody entry into the council.

Earlier, the PDP members were said to have dropped a mock coffin at the Eke Iho Market Road leading to the council headquarters and later moved it to the secretariat gate in the night. It was, however, removed by security agents on Tuesday morning. Aka, who hails from the same village where the council headquarters is located in Iho, had on Monday mounted a canopy outside the gate of the council where he sat with his councilors and other supporters till about 4 p.m.

However, on Thursday, APGA members mobilised and with the help of security agents, they stormed the council and took over even as the youths of the area allegedly threatened to bomb the council. The threat made workers in the council to take to their heels for dear life.
However, at about 12:25 p.m, the TC chairman, Louis Oparaocha, arrived at the council with armed security operatives and youths of the party after holding meetings with the council’s traditional rulers.

Addressing the people, Oparaocha said he was unable to take over on Monday because “Ikeduru is a special place”. He stated that “we have a problem; even a blind man could see that Ikeduru has a problem. But our governor is on a rescue mission and has chosen 27 persons to represent him in the local governments. When you visit other places and come to Ikeduru, you will cry. We cannot be found anywhere; not on roads, not education, not in anything.

“But for the first time, Ikeduru people will see what looks like government near them and that is why I am here. What has been happening is that monies meant for the council were shared by some individuals. But let’s start from now to create a new path and let us join hands to lift Ikeduru out of darkness. This administration has a lot for the youths, but the youths should avoid restiveness”.
Some of the staff of the local government who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were in support of Governor Okorocha, stressing that the ousted chairman did not deal kindly with them.
One of the workers said: “We are happy that this people were sacked, we prayed for this change and God made it possible.

“We massively voted for Okorocha and we know he will do well. The first thing this Akah did when he came was to destroy all our crops in the farm given to us by the agric people. Look at our local government, is it not like a primary school? Okorocha should not allow them back here”.

Mbaitoli LGA
But for the intervention of the sacked chairman, Chief Onyema Nwachukwu, the situation in Mbaitoli council headquarters, Nworieubi, would have been disastrous on Monday.
According to Nwachukwu, “On Wednesday, last week, the Chief Judge of the state, Justice Njemanze, delivered a judgment that was neither here nor there. As much as we felt disappointed the way he rendered that judgment because there was no order attached to it, something was made very clear in that judgment that the governor does not have the constitutional right to dissolve an elected council. He also said in clear language that he had no evidence before him to show that we were truly dissolved.

“And in a judgment like that, the two issues that have been made clear empower us to go back to office. One, the governor has no right to do what we are contesting. Secondly, that he hasn’t seen any evidence to show that we were truly dissolved. So, given people’s advice, we thought on our own that it would be nice to go back to office, since it was a mere newspaper publication, though the governor, in his maiden broadcast to the people of the state, had said that he had dissolved the councils.

“So, we went back to office on Thursday. For instance, in my own local government, I got to office and people were jubilating and the local government staff were very happy that I have come back to office. We spent a greater part of the day in the council trying to put things back in shape. I had already started signing documents, started taking care of things; you know, pile up of work.
“Then the next day we heard that the governor had appointed Transition Committees to take over from us. So from that day till now, it’s been like cat-and-dog fight.

Like this morning, before I could get to the office at 8a.m, the so-called Transition chairman had come to the council at 7 a.m. in company of thugs and the police. The police helped him to stop us at the gate; that we should not enter the council premises. I got there at 7:55a.m, the police didn’t let me in. So, the councilors, who I met there on ground, the ones that joined me, all other party supporters, they stayed at the council gate protesting, though it was quite peaceful, but they have been able to register their dissatisfaction. It is an issue that has not gone down well with the Imo people that know and speak the truth.”

Owerri-West LGA 
In Owerri-West Local Government Area, the situation was handled maturely by the DPO who was said to have invited the sacked chairman, Hon Ikenna Elezieanya, to his office and pleaded with him not to go to the office on Monday to avoid the tension that was mounting in the council.
Hon Elezieanya, who had, after the judgment, gone back to his office on Thursday and Friday, had respected the advice of the DPO, after he had extracted assurances from him that the TC chairman would not be allowed into the council too.

However, while he respected the gentleman’s agreement, the DPO did not as he later escorted the TC chairman to the council headquarters to take over the office, a situation he told Elezieanya was because of order from the government. In a chat with this paper, Elezieanya said: “Our fight is not a question of money, after all there was a motion, to tell you how funny this thing is, that was killed in the House of Assembly were they said we absconded from our duties, that we weren’t dissolved. This is a state, our governor made a state broadcast on June 6, 2011 that we were dissolved, but somebody brought a motion in the house that we abandoned our job.”

Elezieanya, who is also the publicity secretary of the state ALGON, disclosed that “we are going back to court for the court to interpret this judgment. You said that this man has no power to dissolve the local government; did not produce enough evidence to show that we were dissolved. What kind of judgment is that? That is why there is this kind of anarchy in the state. Let the court interpret the judgment. You said he has no right, but you did not say return to your offices, which is the problem with this judgment, because if he (judge) had stated clearly that this man does not possess the power to dissolve, when you have said this, what does it mean, that we are dissolved, that we should go back to our office? The judge gave him a political judgment; the judge didn’t want to disgrace anybody.”

He dismissed the issue of the elected chairmen pocketing council funds, saying that it was a total fallacy.
“We came in August and it was towards the primaries and it was a series of primaries and from there the governorship election. We have not had even two months of our own to work and you can go and check the allocation of Imo State. Since we came in, there is no local government that has gotten any allocation more than N50 million and it’s now that Rochas stopped salaries of casual staff which we never employed.

In my local government, Owerri-West, if you go there, investigate if there is one person I employed even as casual or on full time. If you see one, I should be prosecuted. I never employed anybody; I never added to the wage bill of that council, what I saw there is what I inherited. We never had enough fund, some local governments couldn’t pay salaries, and some borrowed money to pay.
“You see, there is what is called Joint State and Local Government Allocation, which is the problem. If this is not abolished, and local governments have their direct allocation, nothing will work.

Imo State government position 
For the Imo State government, the issue of the sacked council chairmen and councilors is a forgotten matter as the government has insisted that if they are not satisfied, they have the option of appealing the judgment of the High Court.

The Senior Special Assistant (Media) to the Governor, Mr. Chinedu Offor, said because the government is on a rescue mission, it has no time to waste in its bid to rescue the state.
“I am not a lawyer, but let’s take your rescue mission analogy. If you are a rescuer; if you waste time or play around, people will die. That is the first point. Secondly, the local governments are centres of corruption; you don’t need rocket time to show you how bad it is. So many local governments in Imo State have dissolved via the system, that is, the system we had before. I also observed the dissolution of those local governments at that point in time was one of the most popular acts ever taken by this administration.

“The people themselves who are in the rural areas, the people themselves who are in the local governments testified that they are aware that there was no development, there was nothing, people just shared the money. When allocations come from Abuja, they are shared among the god-fathers, a little is used to pay salaries and then the rest is gone. So, there is little or nothing for development. The schools are decaying, they are falling apart, the roads are in terrible shape, hospitals are non-existent and still millions and billions of naira went into the local governments.

“As to the legality of it, I am not a lawyer, maybe I may not comment on it, but I can tell you what I know. His Excellency took a decision in the best interest of the state with the best legal advice and the court did not say he didn’t have the powers to do that. What happened was that ex-local government people went to court and sought 10 reliefs, one of which is return to status quo ante; that means, the court to tell His Excellency that we should go back to our work and the court did not grant any of their prayers. What that means is that the dissolution stands, and that is what the law says.

“If they are sure of their case and they have a solid foundation for their case, the alternative is to go to Court of Appeal. So, why hit up the system? If you are sure that legally you are standing on a sound footing, there is recourse to what to do. The government will have to take decision based on the best interest of the people.

“You are alluding to, why do you not kind of, remove the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Can you imagine the controversy that will bring? Some people will now say you are playing favouritism; you took some people, you remove some people. A drastic sickness needs a drastic solution. If you want to carry out a surgery in the deceased part of the body, you cut it off to save the entire body.

So, His Excellency is not personal, he’s not gaining anything from it. What he did was, let’s develop Imo, let’s start from where the government should start, but there are impediments and corruption. The people are just being taken for a ride, people are just eating money, sharing money in local governments while children are dying of malaria, hospitals are not equipped, but there are allocations and budgets for these hospitals.”

Confusion as TC chairmen take over
“I tell you, there is no confusion, it just depends on where you are sitting. The local governments want their jobs back and you remember this is not the first time they have done that, they have protested, they went to the streets and they instigated people to protest, then they went to court and the court has ruled in favour of the government saying, “we are not going to grant any of your prayers” because if you go to a court, you want a prayer and the court will say sorry, your removal is null and void, go back to work. But the court did not say so to them; they are using that as an excuse, but they forgot that the state House of Assembly has investigated and cleared TC chairmen and they were duly inaugurated by His Excellency. That is lawful.

“I am just telling you, from the perspective of government, the court did not tell His Excellency that what he did was wrong or that he should give them their jobs back. They’ve been dissolved, they remain dissolved and there are people who have been appointed to take the huge responsibility of developing those areas.”

Development at the councils
“You have been to those local governments, what did you see? Is there any kind of development? If you are told how many billions they have received, you will be amazed. And so, what His Excellency did was to first to give N100 million, the first time in history of this state that local governments are getting N100 million without anybody taking out anything. And it is not just that, if you finish spending it, they will give you another N100 million. So, His Excellency’s plan is, by the time he spent half a billion naira in each local government, there must be progress – the roads must be taken care of, the schools, health, security, that is the centre point of this government, the rural areas and they must be developed.

“So it is a fight between developing the rural areas, making sure that the people there are also treated as humans as against the status quo, where people just put money in their pockets. Some people take N50, N100 million and put in their pocket and walk away, nothing has happened to them. That has stopped. So it is not a surprise there’s agitation; the whole system has to change when people have woken up to say enough is enough. You find people fighting back. That’s what is going on.

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