BY CHIDI NKWOPARA
The ascent of Owelle Rochas Okorocha as governor of Imo State and the onset of his controversial fourth tier of administration has inspired anarchy at the local government level in the state.
It didn’t take long after the inception of the fourth republic for crisis to circumvent the democratic system in the local government areas of Imo State.
Indeed, after the first elections to kick start the fourth republic in December 1998, it took almost ten years before the next round of elections were held in the later years of the Ikedi Ohakim era.
In between the end of the tenure of the first elected local government administrators and Ohakim’s controversial local government elections, transition committees were appointed against the rule of law.
However, those who alleged impunity against Ohakim in the operation of the local government system would scream murder at what many now claim is the bastardisation of the local government system by the incumbent administration of Owelle Rochas Okorocaha.
A week or so after assuming office, Governor Okorocha in his first broadcast to the people of Imo State summarily announced the sacking of the local government administration in the state. To justify his action, Okorocha told Imo people that the local government administration had become riddled with indiscipline and corruption, stressing that “our people had lost confidence” in the council operators.
In its place, the Governor announced the establishment of Community Government Councils in all the autonomous communities in the state. After tinkering with the new idea for a while, the Governor sent a Bill to the House of Assembly with a view to making his new idea a creation of law. The House obliged and today, CGC is now an Act of Parliament.
In a bid to quickly implement the scheme, the Governor ordered the posting of some civil servants to their respective communities. They obeyed the directive but the leadership of labour in the state engaged the government in dispute over the action.
The CGC has since thrown up new challenges. Lofty as the CGC is to the protagonists, evidence has since shown that virtually all the autonomous communities have one form of crisis or the other since the take off of the system. In some cases, the traditional rulers are at war with sections of their subjects.
This initial faulty start by Chief Okorocha has continued to be the major clog in the wheel of administrative process in the local government areas of the state as the third tier literarily collapsed. Chief Okorocha also sacked the operators of the Local Government Development Areas, LGDAs. It must be mentioned that the LGDAs were creations of an Act of Imo State House of Assembly. The operatives of these LGDAs were largely appointees of the incumbent Governor.
Remarkably, the Governor did not approach the lawmakers to amend the law establishing the LGDAs. While the operators of the LGDAs retired to their individual homes to lick their wounds, the local government chairmen and councilors approached the court to seek redress. While the matter was in court, Okorocha appointed transition committees for the 27 local council areas.
The State Chief Judge, Hon. Justice Benjamin Ahanonu Njemanze, in his judgment, ruled against the plaintiffs (chairmen and councilors). Dissatisfied with the outcome of the matter, the aggrieved chairmen appealed the judgment. On July 5, 2012, the Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, in its judgment affirmed that the governor had no power whatsoever to dissolve the democratically elected councils or to constitute transition committees.
Following the judgment, a new wave of crisis hit the local council areas. While the chairmen and councilors struggled to retain their seats, Okorocha’s appointees, who were already superintending over the affairs of the councils, refused to vacate their seats. The police, at a point, had to be used to enforce the court judgment. This drew the ire of government functionaries, including the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Chief Soronnadi Njoku.
To ensure that nothing worked in the councils, government announced training programmes for the top management officers of the councils. The training was mandatory and all the officers, including the treasurers and directors of administration and general services. Other workers of the councils were sent on vacation.
Apart from this, the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Mr. Jerry Okolie dragged the Attorney General of the Federation and others to court.
Not long after, government unearthed a law called Imo State Local Government Administration Amendment Law of 2009, with which it claimed that the chairmen and councilors were elected for a two-year tenure. By virtue of this document, their tenure ought to have expired by August 2012, a matter of weeks after the Court of Appeal judgment.
Faced with the glaring
possibility of government using the document to oust the elected council operators, the chairmen again proceeded to file a fresh suit, HOW/499/2012. This suit was however struck out by Hon. Justice Ngozi Opara on September 4, 2012, without hearing the merits of the matter.
Not satisfied with the unfolding drama, the elected chairmen filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, as well as a motion for interlocutory injunction restraining the Governor from interfering with their duties pending the conclusion of the case or the conduct of an election to replace them.
With the case ongoing, the governor appointed sole administrators to run the affairs of the local councils. In like manner, the legislature has since screened and approved the Governor’s appointees.
While the leadership of Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, ALGON, urged their members to remain and physically attend their official duties, the state government has since used the power of incumbency to assert the supremacy of its appointees.
The crisis in the state local government system is almost two years old and it is still unclear who has been handling the finances of the local governments. A recent visit to the local councils showed that they are completely comatose. It was learnt that workers are hardly seen in their offices but salaries are paid at the turn of every month.
Nobody can say if the parties will sheath their swords at the conclusion of the ongoing court battle but until sanity returns to the third tier of government in Imo State, development of the hinterland will remain a mirage.
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