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Will the Rivers State drama be the litmus test?

Politics is pure theatre. Politicians play to their audiences as serious or humorous actors and actresses. But their acting usually throws up something to think…

Politics is pure theatre. Politicians play to their audiences as serious or humorous actors and actresses. But their acting usually throws up something to think about as we grapple with the challenges of managing our democracy, our government, and our governance as serious work in progress.

Given the nature of our national politics, it is not always wise to invest hope in positive dramatic changes in the way we do things and how we do them because of an inadvertent political miscalculation. Still, the absurd drama of power playing out in Rivers State should raise our hope that it may force the politicians and the courts to at least address a vexing constitutional issue in the basket of things inimical to building up our political parties as strong institutions of democracy. Let us consider the facts and why what appears to be a miscalculation may have the unintended consequences of strengthening the broken hands of our participatory democracy.

 You should have no problems recalling that a few days ago, 27 members of the state house of assembly decamped from PDP to APC. Their departure left only four PDP members in the house. Two of the decampees later renounced their action and returned to PDP. The decampees have been labelled Nyesom Wike’s men. Wike, the immediate past governor of the state, and Siminalayi Fubara, the current governor, are war. The decampees know the hand that fed them and decided to side with their benefactor. Loyalty is not always a bad idea but often pushed to the limit of the absurd among our politicians who act on self-interest rather than principles.

The action of the decampees has since turned into a political tsunami in the state with the resignation of six pro-Wike commissioners in the Fubara cabinet. The fight has become vicious. Fubara is arguably put in a weak position. But it has also exposed Wike’s thorough grip on the state. Everyone is feeding from his trough. The decampees and the former commissioners are not fighting on the basis of principle; they are merely supporting their political godfather. If Wike loses to Fubara, it jeopardizes their political future too. Better to bail out of what they believe is a sinking ship now and gain the shore before the ship is buried in a watery grave. 

It is also depressing because it shows once more that the godfathers in our national politics are alive and well. They never sleep. Their actions have stagnated our political development over the years because they have assumed the power and the right to impose men with two left hands on the people in the executive and the legislative branches of government and succeeded in elevating mediocrity as our political ethos. 

I am concerned with the house decampees here because their action is a constitutional matter that should be of more than passing interest to the rest of us. It is part of Wike’s strategy to demolish Fubara in particular and PDP in general. Their calculation is that with the PDP members in the house so thoroughly in the minority, the new APC members now in the majority will easily hand over victory to Wike by impeaching Fubara. Can their decamping stand? 

In other climes, that question would not arise if, as in our case, the constitution discourages the right of a legislator to freely roam by being disloyal to the political party of which he is a member, and which made him what he is – a big man. But this, to underline the fact, is Nigeria. It speaks volumes about who we are and what we do to our country.

Section 68 and section 109 of the constitution and in identical words, deal respectively with the national and state assemblies in anticipation of the temptation for legislators to ditch their political parties. Section 68 provides that “A member of the senate or of the house of representatives shall vacate his seat in the house of which he is a member if – (a) he becomes a member of another legislative house.” The same provision applies to a member of a state house of assembly in section 109. The only condition prescribed by the constitution in both cases is that the party from which the legislator decamped must be in crisis or factionalized.

Both sections have been criminally traduced by our legislators since the early years of our return to civil rule in 1999. Decampees have always survived because they have had the presence of mind to decamp to the ruling party with the power to shield them and protect them against any and all attempts by their former party to make them vacate their seats. 

Wike, a lawyer, is not unaware of these constitutional provisions intended to discourage national and state legislators from decamping. But he believes no harm will be done to his men because the ruling party will shield them from harm and instead turn the table against Fubara with a diminished cabinet and legislators. He relies on the experiences of other legislators who survived their own treachery.

In 2007, Mahmud Shinkafi became the first and so far, the only deputy governor to succeed his principal. He, his principal, Ahmad Sani Yarima, and the state made history, but Shinkafi rubbished what should qualify as an example worth imitating by other state governors when he decamped with all the members of the state house of assembly from ANPP to PDP. When the ANPP sought the intervention of the court, the court ruled that what he did was immoral but not unconstitutional. 

The constitution has no provision preventing a state governor from decamping to another political party. I do not remember the court saying anything about the legislators whose action offended the constitution. But the people of Zamfara State made Shinkafi a one-term governor. They would not reward treachery in their number one citizen.

 We face two options with the Rivers State drama. One constitutes a danger to our democracy and constitutional government; the other frees our democracy and constitutional government from the impunity and the criminal tactics of our politicians and ensures, to quote Abraham Lincoln, that the government of the people, for the people by the people shall not perish in our country.

If Wike wins, our democracy loses, and the chain is tightened around the neck of the rule of law and constitutional democracy. If Fubara wins, the chain is loosened, and the rule of law and constitutional government will breathe fresh and salubrious air. It is an easy choice between should be and what should not be. 

The place of political parties as integral institutions of democracy is predicated on a) that they are associations of like-minded people with shared vision for national unity and economic and social development undergirded by b) loyalty, commitment, and personal honour. A man wishing to join a political party is assumed to believe in what the party stands for and is willing to make personal sacrifices, if need be, for the party to attain its objectives. This ensures political that parties have the vision and the capacity to drive development.

Our political parties have been reduced to mere platforms for seeking elective offices. To make progress in our wobbly journey, we need to rescue them from crass opportunism and selfishness. The Rivers State dangerous drama could be the litmus test of where we stand in our constitutional government. 

[This was published on December 17, 2023]


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