Running a state from a plane
Four different statements made last week by Zamfara State Governor Abdul’aziz Yari Abubakar and his spokesman contradicted one another in many material particulars and made a controversial claim about governance style. On Tuesday last week, when he spoke to reporters in Abuja at the end of a National Economic Council meeting, Yari was asked about reports that members of the Zamfara State House of Assembly had tried to serve him with an impeachment notice. He flatly denied that there was an impeachment plot against him.
Three days later, Governor Yari told reporters at Sokoto’s Sir Abubakar III Airport that the plot to impeach him “was politically motivated and was meant to blackmail him into doing the bidding of some selfish politicians in the state.” Which is which? Was there no impeachment plot or was there a politically motivated and selfish impeachment plot? Almost everybody in Zamfara State had known for more than a week that the legislators were planning to impeach Yari. Though I live far away from Zamfara State, I heard about the plot when all the assembly’s members went into hiding to perfect it.
The governor could be right that there was a selfish element to the impeachment plot because the MPs were enraged that he withheld certain allowances due to them. Still, his attitude did not help matters. Asked about the MPs’ charge that he refused to grant them audience to discuss their grievances, Yari said the legislators were not able to see him because “they did not follow the right channel.” He added, “This failure of the legislators to follow the right channel led to the people of the state to suspect that the lawmakers were planning evil.” While I support the need for people to follow the right channel in everything they do, any governor who constructs a difficult-to-follow channel before his state’s legislators can see him is playing with fire.
The charges that the legislators made against Yari deserve a comprehensive answer. Chairman of the Assembly’s Information Committee Mannir Aliyu Gidan Jaja accused the governor of “corrupt usage of local government funds for state purposes; inadequate explanation of N1 billion commercial agriculture loan from CBN; nonremittance of pension funds to pension administrators; non-remittance of 5 percent emirate council funds; gross misappropriation of Federal Government bailout funds to the state to settle workers’ salaries, including N10bn for 2014 and N1.46bn in 2016.”
Rather than an answer to these charges, what the people of Zamfara heard next was the arrest by the Department of State Service [DSS] of the Zamfara Assembly’s Speaker Alhaji Sanusi Garba Rikiji, Deputy Speaker Muhammad Abubakar Gumi, Majority Leader Isah Abdulmumini and Chief Whip Abdullahi Dansadau. They were detained overnight, then released. All the other MPs turned up at the DSS’s Gusau office in solidarity with their detained leaders. The puzzle here is, what is DSS’s business in arresting Assembly leaders in order to foil an impeachment plot? The Constitution grants legislators the power to impeach a governor or, for that matter, the president. An impeachment plot is therefore not a crime or a threat to state security. DSS should have no business in this matter.
The MPs’ move to unseat Yari is probably extreme at this point but one reason why it did not come as a surprise was because last month, Senator Sa’idu Mohammed Dansadau called on President Muhammadu Buhari to declare a state of emergency in Zamfara State and remove the governor from office. Dansadau is a well regarded politician. During his eight years in the Senate in 19992007, he was a conscience of the Senate who became well known for his courage, probity and articulation. Now, it is clear to all Nigerians by now that the President has no power to remove a governor from office. Even though President Obasanjo did it in 2004 when he suspended Plateau State Governor Joshua Dariye for six months, then Speaker of the House of Representatives Aminu Waziri Tambuwal stood firmly and prevented President Goodluck Jonathan from sacking the Borno State governor and state assembly when he declared a state of emergency in the North East in 2013. Jonathan’s proclamation notice that sought to seize state funds and use them to finance military operations was also quashed by the National Assembly on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
I suspect Dansadau knows this very well but decided to ignore it in order to dramatise his point. However, the charges that he made against Yari were very serious and they wetted the ground for the Zamfara MPs’ later charges. Dansadau said Yari’s incessant travelling was responsible for the grave insecurity in the state. He said, “Since the incumbency of the Governor of Zamfara State, Alhaji Abdul’aziz Yari Abubakar which began five years ago, public perception is that the Governor has spent only about 20 per cent of that whole period in Zamfara State. He had utilised the other 80 percent junketing from one part of the country to the other and shuttling around the globe. All matters of State that require action are kept waiting until he returns to the State. Consequently, intelligence and security reports are kept in abeyance. For instance, at a period, out of 60 straight days, the governor spent only two days in Zamfara State.”
I expected the Zamfara State Government to vigorously deny this serious charge. Instead, a statement credited to Yari in Daily Trust on Saturday tended to confirm the allegation and then try to explain it away. The governor was quoted as saying at Sokoto Airport that “his alleged frequent trips were not crippling government activities as he can run the state from anywhere, even in the air.” Yari’s spokesman Ibrahim Dosara added that “the governor had challenged the Honourable Members to provide any evidence or proof of his use of state funds on his numerous trips outside the state or the country.” It was not the first time that Yari made a ridiculous defence of incessant travelling. Three years ago he told reporters in Gusau that he travels frequently because he was an international businessman before he became a governor and must therefore attend to his businesses so that they don’t suffer.
It is not for nothing that Nigerians complain when their rulers engage in incessant travel. Since the adoption of the presidential system of government in Nigeria 37 years ago and also due to long years of military rule, power has become over-centralised in the hands of chief executives. This is so much so that in many states, civil servants do not bother to go to the office when the governor is not in town. Other people soon got the same idea; years ago when as a newspaper editor I asked my reporter in a certain state why he did not file any stories for a week, he said nothing was happening in the state because the governor and his entire cabinet had travelled for the lesser hajj.
It is not only governors. Nigerians also complain when their presidents travel too frequently, as President Buhari learnt in the past year. A ruler’s frequent travel was discredited in Nigeria because it neither secured debt forgiveness nor attracted foreign investors, the alleged reasons for frequent presidential travel. Sure some travelling by governors is necessary but one must find the right balance. It could be true that some governance is possible from an aircraft cabin or from a Parisian hotel but a ruler does not get the right feel of his subjects from that altitude. During the colonial era, the British taught every ADO and DO here to remain at his station as much as possible and only undertake infrequent tours. Today’s rulers need to enrol for a DO’s course.