Enyinnaya Onuegbu, secretary, Association of Local Governments of Nigeria, Imo State Chapter makes pertinent clarifications on the association’s legal battle with Governor Rochas Okorocha, on the tenure of its members, among other issues. Excerpts:
The appointment of sole administrators has generated a lot of controversy in Imo State, what is the position of ALGON on the issue?
Onuegbu: Well, as far as we are concerned in law, the governor lacks the legal power to appoint anybody because as you see in the judgment the Court of Appeal stated clearly in paragraph 2 that you cannot appoint a transition committee or any person to take over our function during the subsistence of our tenure.
The state government is saying that the tenure of the chairmen has expired, is that true?
Onuegbu: It is true that governor Rochas Okorocha is not interested in obeying the judgment of the court that reinstated us. The judgment reinstated us saying that we are entitled to our tenure under the local government law and that is a three-year tenure but the governor chose to misinterpret it saying that the court didn’t state specifically that it’s a three-year tenure and that there is a state law that stipulates a two-year tenure for local government and that law affects us. So we have to go back to the court. The case came up before an Owerri High Court for the determination of our tenure. The Owerri High Court judge, instead of hearing the case, said on technicalities that it was an abuse of another case filed in Abuja by our party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. So, he struck out the case, and we filed an appeal against that judgement and also filed a motion for an injunction to restrain the appointment of anybody to take over our duties and also to restrain the governor from interfering with our function. Incidentally, that case is pending and will be heard on April 22. However, without waiting for the court to hear the matter, the governor purportedly announced a list of sole administrators and this list was sent to the House of Assembly. I will give you our letter of objection to the House of Assembly in which we urged the House not to clear the people because it is a total violation of the due process of the court. Surprisingly, the same day that we delivered the letter, the House of Assembly cleared the people, the next day the people were purportedly inaugurated into office in order to frustrate our matter that is pending in the court. Well, that was what they did when the original case was at the High Court level. At the end of the day, the Court of Appeal judgement sacked those people. So, we are sure that these people who have been appointed illegally will also go with ignominy like the ones before them.
What is the next line of action of ALGON since the administrators have taken over?
Onuegbu: We are waiting for the court judgement. Why we also decided to lie low is that we complained to the State Security Service, SSS, and the police commissioner in Imo State, and they advised that they would call both parties to hear from us. Meanwhile, both the purported administrators and we should steer clear from going to offices. But without waiting for the police to look into the matter, the people used force to chase away our staff and some went into our offices by 12 midnight to take physical occupation as if that is the matter.
What is then the matter?
Onuegbu: The matter is the illegal appropriation of the statutory allocation of Imo local governments since May 2011 to date by the governor of Imo State. He has been taking this money. Our calculation is that this money is now in the neighbourhood of N150 billion as at date and yet there is no development in the local governments. There are only two projects he has talked about, one general hospital per local government and 15-kilometre road per local government. If you go round Imo State you wouldn’t find one that the block work has been completed almost two years after. The 15-kilometre road, except in Owerri Municipal council which is the state capital, you wouldn’t find any local government that can boast of three kilometre roads completed except probably his own place in Ideato South. You now ask yourself, what he has been using these allocations for. But we see him with a new private jet; we see him flying to Kosovo, we see him going all over the world, we see him appointing his kiths and kins into offices; we see him paying contractors 100 percent upfront without any performance and certificate form and we say this is the money for the local government. That is the issue, the issue is not who is physically at the chairman’s office.
The issue is that the dividends of democracy are not getting to the Imo people because this governor has tempered with the statutory allocations of the local governments. This government is not interested in having development reach the grassroots; he is rather doing the more you look the less you see. If he is not inaugurating one committee today, he is appointing CLOs tomorrow, the next day he is appointing GLOs and creating confusion all over the place. You don’t need to appoint CLO and GLO while you have elected local government administrators because the councillors are the elected representatives of their wards at the local governments. There is order of service in government; the state government has no business going to the village town union when there is a local government administration. So, those are the aberrations going on in Imo State and when you talk about it, they make it look as if it is a party matter.
What are you people fighting for now? Is it the tenure or the local government allocation being appropriated by the governor?
Onuegbu: You know, when there is a crisis, some people benefit from it and this government is acknowledged world wide as a government that benefits from crisis. If a crisis does not exist, it will create one and then nobody will look at the proper thing. As we are struggling to establish our tenure the man is busy packing out allocations, it is only when you succeed with what you are struggling with, that you will remember to look for allocation. But in this case, the Court of Appeal said we are entitled to due performance of our function and the government is enjoined by a restraining order not to interfere with the performance of our function. The governor chooses not to obey it because it is a government that sees itself as above the law. So, that is our predicament. We are fighting for our being in office and performance of our duties which Imo people elected us eight months before they elected him as governor (if at all they did because the matter is still in court). It is surprising that the agencies of the federal government of Nigeria that are in-charge of the disbursement of these funds seem not to be interested. They are sending money and seem not to be interested whether the money actually gets to the people whether the people have anything to show for it. Just like they did audit in the pension fund, they can do audit in the allocation of the Imo local governments and know what is happening with our money.
This is just a case of clear fraudulent conversion of the resources of the local governments, but it doesn’t seem to concern people in Abuja. We have written to all the security agencies, authorities and even sued them in court on this allocation matter. They don’t seem to be interested maybe because Imo is a provincial state. Maybe if we were to be in the position of Kogi next door to Abuja it would concern them. Just like this Boko Haram thing immediately the story came that they are entering Lagos, the government started talking about amnesty because they know the cataclysm that would occur in Lagos if it happens there. Maybe, because Imo is a provincial state, they don’t care but Imo is the gateway to Bayelsa State where the president comes from. Imo is the gateway to Rivers State, the South-South region and his wife was born in Abia. So, he cannot wish away, Imo which gave him the second highest votes in the country (1.4million votes). During the party congress we gave him 97 percent. So he cannot afford to wish away or believe that we are crying wolves. What we are crying is a basic of reality and I think the federal government ought to be interested in what is happening here unless it wants to tell us that there is no need to talk about anti-corruption.
People are saying that you people are fighting Okorocha because he is from All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA?
Onuegbu: No. If you go through his background, he was a founding member of PDP. He is a man who only needs a party to achieve a political office. Otherwise how come that the APGA on whose platform he became governor is now described as a cultural organisation? Today he said he is in the All Progressives Congress, APC, so he is not a man a party means anything to. In any case, there are also former PDP members who are commissioners in his government. There are PDP members in the House of Assembly but he is working with them, so it cannot be because we are PDP. It is only because he wants our allocations and funding. If Imo House of Assembly had been getting direct funding from the federation account, I want to bet you that he would have sacked them to harness the funds. It’s only the local government that gets direct funding that is why he purportedly sacked us and when the court reinstated us, he said he will never live to see it work. What he is doing is get one senior advocate to be filing frivolous applications here and there.
They don’t want the merits of the case to be heard, if you come to court their lawyers wouldn’t be in court. That is the situation. In any case, when he was campaigning, he made a specific promise that he would not temper with the local government. After all, he approached us to support him. He approached us as serving chairmen to support him and we told him we couldn’t because we are public officers. If you win, we will work with you and when he won, we congratulated him. We paid him homage (and you know what homage means in Igbo land) to help him organise his inauguration. He received all those gifts and still did what he did a few days after. So, it was a premeditated plan, he knew he was going to do it even before he became governor because that was the easiest means of grabbing money.
If anybody tells you that the consideration is not to harness our allocation, the person is not telling you the truth. You can see it from what is happening; the state government even organises town hall meetings for the local governments in Imo State. The state government now pays for seminar on behalf the local governments in Imo State. The state government now chooses the projects that local governments would embark on in order to be unharmed in the disbursement of our allocations and we say it is an abuse of the constitutional position. I don’t see why the federal agencies should not be interested in what is happening, the rape of democracy and the rape of constitution going on in Imo State. In any case, I’m not in the same party with the president. Is the president from APGA? Why has the president not intervened on my behalf as a PDP president, because he is the president of the whole of Nigeria. He is not treating himself as a party president. So also Okorocha ought to be governor of all people in Imo State. It is not party issue but because the man wanted our money at all cost.