Judex Okoro, Calabar
Cross River State since the inception of Fourth Republic in 1999 has been the bastion of grassroots democracy. This is because successive administrations have always conducted local government elections at the expiration of their three years tenure.
Former governors, including former Donald Duke (1999-2007) and Sen Liyel Imoke (2007-2015), saw the local government as not only the breeding ground for future leaders, but as an administrative setting that supplies goods and services to the locals.
This corroborates the purpose of local administration which is to represent and involve citizens in determining specific local public needs and how these local needs can be met. Thus, the duo attached much importance to councils’ election at least to galvanize the grassroots politicians and give them a sense of belonging.
Enters Ayade’s era
However, the coming on board of the incumbent Governor, Ben Ayade has altered the entire local government structure and grassroots politicking, which used to be the melting pot for budding politicians. Investigations have shown that the last council election was conducted by former Governor Liyel Imoke in 2013 and since the tenure of the elected council officers ended in 2016, Governor Ayade appointed civil servants as Heads of Local Government Administration, HOLGA, on November 15, 2016.
Three years down the line, the Ayade-led administration seems not interested in democratizing the councils by conducting an election at the grassroots. Like the classical tragicomedy play, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, local government election in Cross River has become a situation where politicians are waiting for something to happen, but it probably never will.
An attempt was made in 2017 to conduct local government elections. In one of the meetings with political parties and stake holders held in March 2017 and presided over by the Chairman of Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission (CROSIEC), Dr. Mike Ushie, the commission fixed Saturday, June 17, 2017 for local government elections across the state.
Ushie disclosed that they had published the timetable ahead of the elections in pursuant to section 20 (1) and (2) of the state Electoral Law. Besides, the commission imposed a non-refundable deposit of N200, 000.00 per Chairmanship candidate and N100,000 for each councillorship contestant.
Daily Sun gathered that the then scheduled election was cancelled due to lack of funds and monies paid by candidates not refunded. Sources close to the commission secretariat located in State Housing Estate, Calabar, revealed that once funds are made available, they will immediately go into action. The source maintained that the commission cannot even run their offices let alone conduct council election.
The then Special Adviser, Inter Party Affairs to Governor Ben Ayade, Mr. Austin Ibok, had stated earlier in an interview with Daily Sun that the state government needs a whopping sum of N6bn to be able to conduct local government election in 2017.
Expressing concerns on the failure of PDP government to conduct councils’ election, the state Chairman of APC, Mr John Ochala, said it is unimaginable that Governror Ben Ayade could not conduct council election and rather rationalizing that the councils are not buoyant enough to sustain itself.
Ochala said APC is committed to enthroning a democratic culture at the local level and giving the people the freedom to choose who leads them.
He said: “The withholding of local govt funds is a welcome development. It is what our party has been canvassing for all along. It is the only way the state governors will be compelled to conduct local government elections.
“It’s unfortunate that the country has degenerated to the level where governors will display so much contempt for the very system that brought them to power. Our position is that local government elections should be conducted as soon as practicable. INEC should take charge of the local government elections, that is the only time we will have some semblance of credible elections,” he stated.
According to him, it is not only undemocratic not to conduct local government elections but also criminal in this sense that any fund disbursed outside a democratic authority is illegal and fraudulent.
He added that the party had written officially to the state government and taken them to court on the matter, insisting that local government funds should be withheld pending the conduct of a democratic election.
Also condemning the non-conduct of councils’ election, the Coalition of Civil Societies Organisations, CSOs, in Cross River had in July 18, 2019 given Governor Ben Ayade 60 days to conduct local government election in the state.
The coalition is made up of Grass-roots Advocacy for Good Governance and Accountability, Citizens Solution Network, Say Something Action Group, Justice Ambassadors Initiatives, Nigeria’s Future Leaders Movement and Save Cross River State Movement.
Addressing newsmen in Calabar after its maiden meeting, the Coordinator of the CSOs, Comrade Anthony Bisong, decried the alleged ineptitude, impunity and undemocratic posture of PDP government in the state.
Bisong, who doubles as the founder of Grass-roots Advocacy for Good Governance and Accountability, said: “We are protesting against administering councils with civil servants as the head against elected politicians. We are of the position that the absence of elected local government chairmen and councilors across the state has made it impossible to tackle these insecurity challenges effectively” , he stated.
Another coalition of Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, had decried the undemocratic behaviour of the ruling PDP which is averse to putting a democratic structure at the grassroots, wondering why PDP that prides itself as being democratic finds it very difficult to conduct local government elections since he came on board in 2015.
Speaking on behalf of the NGOs including Cross River State for Good Governance, CRSFGG, Cross River Accountability Forum, CRAF, Cross River Society Netwrok, CRSN, Cross River Coalition For Justice, CRCFJ, and Arise for Local Government Autonomy, AFLGA, Comrade Emmauel Agbor, said the PDP administration led by Gov Ben Ayade has disappointed the people as he has refused to conduct local government elections since the last set of elected council chairmen and councilors conducted by former Gov Liyel Imoke.
Agbor said he appointed civil servants as head of local government administration, HOLGA, and have been running the councils with these sets of people to the detriment of Cross Riverians.
Agbor, who is the coordinator of Arise for Local Government Autonomy, AFLGA, said: “We have endured the PDP for too long. We cannot continue in this undemocratic manner when we claim to be a democratic party. This is the auspicious time for us to rise up and be counted in this struggle to rescue the local government.
“If in the next few months the PDP government refuses to democratise the grassroots administration, we shall employ all legal means to get the right things done.
Also decrying the absence of democratically elected officers at the councils, African Action Congress, AAC, in Cross River state, Comrade Agba Jalingo, told newsmen in Calabar earlier in August that as a political party with member, and many others will be disenfranchised, deprived of their rights to fundamental obligations to contest elections to form a democratically elected Council if council elections are not conducted.
Agba said to enforce such fundamental human rights, his party had dragged governor Ayade and the Heads of Local Government Administration HOLGAs, in the 18 LGAs of the state to the Federal High Court over the attempt by Governor Ayade to tamper with LGA allocation and refusal to conduct LG election.
The Suit dated July 19, 2019 with number, SHC/TH/C5/153/19, filed at the vacation court in Port Harcourt is between African Action Congress (AAC) and Governor Benedict Ayade, Attorney General of the state, Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission (CROSIEC), Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), Revenue Mobilisation Allocation And Fiscal Commission and the Heads Of Local Government Administration (HOLGA) in the 18 local government areas.
The motion exparte sought among others sought an order of Court compelling Governor Benedict Ayade, Attorney General of the state and Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission (CROSIEC) to arrange and conduct elections to usher democratically elected councils in the eighteen (18) Local Government Councils pursuant to section 7(1) of the 1999 constitution as amended and section 2(1) CRS Local Govt. Law 2007 pending the motion on notice.
It also sought an order restraining Revenue Mobilisation Allocation And Fiscal Commission from further crediting any of the 18 Local Government Council account from the Federation account pending when a democratically elected Local Govt. Council is conducted by the 3rd Defendant with the money to conduct same provided by the governor.
But a legal practitioner and an activist, Utum Eteng, Esq, disagreed that Governor Ben Ayade should be solely blamed for lack of democratic structure at local government level in the state.
Eteng, who is also a member of APC elders’ forum, said the local government matter has been a trending issue in Cross River and, “ I am not blaming Ayade at all because those who should have forced him to conduct local government election are not forthcoming.”
According to him, the opposition parties that should ordinarily be bothered about such breach of constitution are not even as monies are being paid into local government accounts that are not properly constituted.
“Therefore I enjoin all parties to come out and fight for their right because they have the locus standi to challenge that action of PDP government. Perhaps, we may be forced to go to court to ask for order of mandamus to compel the government and the electoral umpire to conduct election,” he stated.
Reacting, a PDP chieftain, Chief Nyong Edet, said it is not deliberate that the government has not conducted council election till this moment, but as a result of financial predicament facing the present administration.
Edet, a former member of the state Executive Committee of PDP, said: “This administration came at the time the country was passing through economic downturn unlike in the past when things were very rosy. We are very certain that once things normalise the governor would order for council poll.”
But a dependable source at the party secretariat revealed that the party leaders are very uncomfortable with the action of the governor regarding council election, adding that it has never been in PDP character not to conduct local government election.
Reacting a PDP chieftain, Chief Nyong Edet, said it is not deliberate that the government has not conducted council election till this moment, but as a result of the financial predicament facing the present administration.
Checks by Daily Sun revealed that in spite of repeated calls by critical stakeholders and some senior citizens to democratise the 18 councils in the state, the PDP-led administration has remained adamant, thereby creating history as about the only state throughout the federation that has not conducted local government election in the past three years.