Some of us may be amused by the political drama of the absurd playing out in Edo State starring Godwin Obaseki, the state governor and the deputy governor, Philip Shuaibu. But we will only laugh to cry. It is tragic for our form of government and unhealthy for sustainable democracy.
Two days ago, as of this writing, a humiliated Shuaibu called the press to cry out to Obaseki to forgive him for whatever he might have done wrong. It was pathetic. It pointed to the overbearing attitude of some of the state governors who traduce the elementary rules of governance but still hang on to their airy belief that they are poster children in good governance.
We must condemn this and similar drama taking place openly or silently in some other states of the federation. If we fail to do so, it might give rise to an epidemic of unnecessary conflicts. It is a sad reflection of the democratic temperament deficit among our politicians. It takes us back to the early years of our return to civil rule when, out of ignorance or greed or both, the executive and the legislative branches of government fought for supremacy and raised serious concerns about the survival of our democracy.
It is 23 years since our return to civil rule. The learning period ought to be over now in the executive and the legislative branches of government. It is not naïve to hope that the president and the state governors must be comfortable now with the rules of the game and the nuances that enrich democracy – and commit to them.
The position of the deputy governor is a constitutional creation. Section 186 of the constitution created the office of deputy governor. It provides that: “There shall be for each state of the federation a Deputy Governor.” Under Section 187 (1) he is to be elected along with the state governor. The office is not something created at the whim of a state governor. The deputy governor is not a personal appointee of the state governor and ought not to be treated as such.
The frictions between many state governors and their deputies in those early years, especially between 1999 and 2007, arose from this clear misunderstanding with some of the state governors acting as military governors in mufti. Those who wrote the 1999 constitution did not envisage this. Under our form of government, deputy governors, just like the vice-president, are in constitutional line of succession.
Let me cite an instance of what happened before and might happen again if we fail to be vigilant in protecting our form of government birthed by the country’s supreme law, the constitution. In February 2015, Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, the then governor of Niger State, appointed the speaker of the state house of assembly acting governor for the period he was away to the holy land on lesser hajj. He sidelined the deputy governor, Alhaji Ahmed Musa Ibeto, in clear violation of the constitution.
Ibeto sinned against Aliyu because he allegedly nursed the ambition to succeed him in 2015. It was both a healthy and a legitimate political ambition, but one not condoned by state governors who believed and still believe it was and it is their right to anoint successors. It was for the same reason that we witnessed the unprecedented humiliation of Vice-President Atiku Abubakar by President Olusegun Obasanjo. It is for the same reason that Shuaibu is being subjected to the humiliation of being locked out of his office and prevented from entering the premises.
One thing at issue here is that presidents and state governors expect their vice-presidents and the deputy governors to be loyal to them. Obasanjo repeatedly made it clear that it was not enough for anyone to give him 99 per cent loyalty. He expected and must receive 100 per cent. The ruling of the court of appeal when Atiku took his case to their lordships was and remains instructive. Atiku’s loyalty, they ruled, was to the constitution and the nation, not to Obasanjo. This, of course, has not changed the attitude of presidents and state governors. I know of no state governor who truly respects his deputy and resists the temptation to treat him ever so shamefully and shabbily, desecrating his high office. Some, if not most, of the deputy governors are idle occupying idle offices but still savour the diminished importance of their place in government by being addressed as their excellencies. They bear the indignities because, well, you never know.
The constitution created the office but deliberately did not assign functions or responsibilities to the deputy governor. It is up to the governor to assign such responsibilities as he deems fit, as in assigning him to attend naming ceremonies or funerals of lesser mortals the governor himself will not condescend to attend. If the constitution had assigned responsibilities to that office, we would have two captains in one ship, a travesty in the shipping industry. And the friction between a governor and his deputy would be a war, not a friction.
I once raised this question elsewhere: What do we do with the deputy governor and his exalted office? I still do not have an answer to it. We cannot scrap it just because state governors feel threatened by the presence of their deputies who might be a hair breath away from the governorship. Deputy governors are not vultures waiting to reap from a possible misfortune that might befall their principals.
The structure of our form of government admits the office as both important and necessary in a succession plan. It is worth ensuring its survival. The success of this structure in practice is not a matter of laws; it is a matter of attitude. I am afraid, that is the problem. If we trust in the attitudinal change among our politicians to respect the constitution and the rule of law to water our democracy as a young plant, we might as well wait for Godot.
While we wait, let us recognise that the various dramas of the absurd playing out in many theatres of our national politics are costly entertainments we could do without. The right of a Nigerian to seek a high or a middling elective political office should not be denied him by reason of incipient authoritarianism.