An executive, legislative crisis currently looms in Ebonyi State, writes Benjamin Nworie of Thisday.
On November 3, 2015, the plenary of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly has further revealed that the state is on the path of political crisis between the state governor, David Umahi and the lawmakers, which if not constructively managed, might put the state in shambles. The bad experiences of the crises in the fourth assembly can readily remind the people of the dangers of the looming crisis between the two arms of government.
Just like the previous administration, less than seven months in the life of the present administration in the state, there seems to be pockets of differences threatening the harmonious existence of both the executive and the legislative arms of government. The looming crisis has also degenerated to supremacy battle between the governor and the state lawmakers.
The crisis which may be borne out of accumulated anger over the inability of the state governor to provide official cars and funds for constituency projects took an ugly dimension on November 3, when the lawmakers openly dared and defied the governor’s order in summoning some commissioners over enforcement of reviewed tax and other levies.
The crisis started when the lawmakers allegedly threatened that they would not honour any memo from the governor unless certain needs of the members are meant. It was first hinted that the lawmakers were agitating for the payment of constituency allowance and project funds since the year is about to end because if nothing was done this year it therefore means that the arrears of the demand for the year will equally die.
But in a swift reaction, the Speaker, Hon. Francis Nwifuru noted that it was most unfortunate for any lawmaker to say that he or she is being owed constituency allowance because such allowance has been built into their salaries. For the constituency project, the speaker also admonished that it was not the right of any lawmaker to embark on constituency project.
However, the last straw that broke the Carmel’s back was the enforcement of the reviewed tax, perceived to be “obnoxious” without the approval of the assembly. Miffed by the development, the lawmakers had on October 29, 2015 summoned three commissioners to answer questions bordering on the enforcement of the reviewed tax in the state without proper reference or approval from the assembly.
The new tax which was perceived to be conceived, discussed and approved by the state executive council because of the decline in the federal allocation is generating ripples in the state. The people are complaining that the new tax is unbearable and unreasonably high at this critical financial period even at a time the state government was unable to pay the 50 per cent salary structure to the state civil servants. But the governor maintained that new tax is irreversible and irrevocable because of his commitment to transform the state, which is virtually evident in all the sectors.
After the summons, the governor, in an enlarged press briefing frowned at the Commissioners’ invitation, which he claimed was done without proper letter to him, adding that the action of the lawmakers was improper. The affected commissioners are Mrs. Elizabeth Ogbaga (Commerce and Industry); Chief Moses Nomeh (Environment) and Mr. Denis Ekuma Nkama (Finance).
The governor said the assembly has no right to summon any members of the state executive council or interfering with the functions of the executive without following the right channel, adding, “If the lawmakers want, they should resign and join the executive. They don’t have the right to summon any of my commissioners without first of all writing a letter to me. This is not the method of doing things. You don’t act on hearsay. The house can advise government by way of saying this tax you have asked the people to pay is higher than what Enugu or Anambra is paying. That is the way things are done.”
“This is because there is no parameter for a lawmaker to know whether somebody who is a motor mechanic is to pay N1000 or less. When there are issues and any of the members of the House of Assembly wants my commissioners, they will write a letter to me and I will now ask the commissioner to go. I want to take it that there was nothing like that because the governor does not hear from the house through the third party.”
But in a sitting on October 3, the lawmakers frowned at the state executive for taking them for granted in the discharge of their constitutional duties. The plenary which lasted for about twenty minutes ended up in near commotion, which made the Speaker to end the session abruptly without any formal motion.
The action of the Speaker, observers argued was to save his job from the aggrieved lawmakers, who may stop at nothing to register their discontent on the way and manner, the state government is perceived to be treating them. The same scenario also played out in 2011 in the fourth assembly when the lawmakers perceived that the former Speaker, Ikechukwu Nwankwo was sabotaging them with his closeness to the executive arm on the same issues now – official vehicles and constituency projects.
The fear of the repetition must have forced the Speaker to end the session, which to onlookers may not be an end to the squabbles, as the lawmakers may not be toying with any record that may aid them to hatch any plan if the need arises. But whatever happens, Umahi has nothing to lose because of the monopoly of his political party’s existence in the state. And in spite of the “outrageous” tax, the governor is believed to still have the people on his side because of his transformation works in the state capital within the periods in office.
When the plenary started, the member representing Ezza South Constituency, Hon Chris Usulor, reminded the house that the commissioners were not present in the house as ordered, which prompted the Speaker to order the Sergeant-at-arms to check if the commissioners were outside but he answered that nobody was outside.
Consequently, the Speaker insisted that if the commissioners did not honour their invitation in the next sitting, he would have no other option than to issue warrant of arrest on them.
Harping on the matter, the aggrieved Deputy Speaker, Odefa Obasi Odefa stressed that the assembly should not be taken for granted because the teeth which the dog uses to play with the master can also be used to bite if necessary.
However, the crisis started when the Majority Leader, Joseph Nwaobasi read the letter from the governor urging the house to approve the remunerations of some of his appointees in the state executive council. The member representing Ezza North West, Victor Chukwu suggested that in lieu of the harsh economic situation in the state, the governor was right for the approval and added that the proposed amount should be reviewed downward by 40 per cent.
Another lawmaker, Frank Onwe (Ohaukwu North) noted that the house had been granting the governor’s request in the past but “we should be doing so properly now”.
To avert the crisis from degenerating during the plenary, the speaker abruptly ended the session after the submissions of the deputy speaker that if they have the right to fix the remunerations of governor, deputy, the house has the right to review the remuneration of the commissioners.
“We have the powers to fix the salary of the governor not to talk of the members of the executives as we are being looked upon to perform our duties at all times. The commissioners no longer respect us. The government’s belt-tightening measures should start with the commissioners so that enough money will be saved to construct the roads. Why they are disrespecting us is because they may be earning higher than us. He that has ear let him hear. I rest my case,” he said.
However, the raging crisis, if not nipped in the bud, observers noted may rekindle the lost peace in the past administration, when impeachment and suspension of members took the center stage. The outrage of the deputy speaker was a shocker to many, as he was perceived as the “governor’s boy”, though it was seen in some quarter as political scheming to show the lawmakers that he is fit to protect their interest at any giving time, if perhaps, given the opportunity.
A source reviewed that the lawmakers are annoyed with the Speaker for being parochial and insensitive to their plight. Some of the new lawmakers are also complaining that most at times, they board Keke Napep to take their children to school and other official engagements.
While others complained that their vehicles broke down and the Speaker is hobnobbing with the governor because the state government has provided his official car, some said they avoid community meeting and social gathering because of nothing to show for their mandate.
However, the battle line appears drawn and the stage is set for the unfortunate drama and show of supremacy. Whether the governor will bow to the threat of the lawmakers or incur the wrath of the aggrieved ones amongst them is yet to be seen. But importantly, the leadership of the house is advised to keep an eye on the lawmakers to avoid unfortunate leadership tussle that might further heat up the polity.