President Buhari with state governors
Buhari meeting with state governors

By Uche Chris

One of the political and constitutional anomalies of the fourth republic and the 1999 constitution that created it is the dominant role of the governors in the political space. It may not necessarily be a constitution problem because the constitution did directly create it. However, the constitution created the office of the governor as the chief executive or executive governor, contrary to the designation in the United States constitution, which provided the model.

In the U.S, governors and, even the president, are chief or head of the executive branch of government, and not chief executive. There is a fundamental difference between the two and the framers of our constitution failed to make that distinction, which now plagues the system because of the obvious abuses by the governors. As chief executive, which is a business designation, the governors have appropriated the states’ apparatus to themselves.

In the states there is only one branch of government – the executive – with the governor in charge. All the other arms and tier, such as judiciary, legislature and local government only exist in name but has no independence of operations. Nobody gets anything except through the governors. Ministers are only appointed at their behest; senators and House of Reps members are not elected except the governors sanctioned it, and the party structure lies in their hands since they pay the piper. Governors owned their states.

If this is the only problem involving the overbearing control of the states by the governors, it would not have been such a big issue. But you know what they say about power: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Having firmly subdued their states, the governors moved up a notch and held the president in the jugular. The PDP once controlled 26 states, which gave its governors a preponderant influence in both the party and country.

The governors decided the presidential ticket, which they almost denied Obasanjo in 2003 but for the political naivety of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, then vice president, who would have been the beneficiary. It was in a bid to formalize the structure of the PDP governors that the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, NGF, was formed. NGF was indeed a PDP governors’ platform with a sprinkle of governors of other parties.

At its maiden meeting with Editors in Lagos, this writer was opportune to attend at Lagoon Restaurant Victoria Island. Headed by Dr. Bukola Saraki, former senate president, then governor of Kwara state, the formation NGF seemed innocuous and harmless enough that it attracted little attention. It was a body to ensure peer review mechanism and check the excesses of the president who then was very powerful, it was said, and we cheered.

But on hindsight, few people could have anticipated the monstrosity the Forum was to assume under President Jonathan, who was the weakest of all Nigerian presidents so far. What was set up to check excess became a tool of excess under Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, and completely overwhelming the presidency.

Under Amaechi the NGF became an opposition party, neutralizing every initiative of the federal government. The governors controlled the states and the National Assembly leaving the president at their mercy. The NGF opposed the setting up of the Excess Crude Account, ECA, for the rainy day, as we have now, and insisted under Amaech that everything should be shared with the threat of a legal battle.

They even opposed the political conference of 2014. All the previous constitution amendment exercises were scuttled by the governors using the NASS, which they controlled, and the state Assemblies to veto any provision that offended them.

However, the table seems to have turned against them, as they are now the likely instrument of the much desired change in the polity. The governors, except perhaps, Lagos, Rivers and Akwa Ibom, are on the back footed and at the end of their wit and teetering on the brink of collapse. Insolvency, insecurity and mass upheaval now stare them in the face and there is no way out except urgent constitution amendment.

Governors used to oppose subsidy removal as was the case in January 2012; now they champion it. They used to oppose devolution of powers, such as state police and fiscal federalism or resource control, especially those from the north; today they want it. Before they kicked against any attempt to challenge and whittle down their powers; now they are ready to grant judiciary and legislative arms financial autonomy. What goes around comes around!

Many Nigerians are not aware that the current constitution altering is not an APC federal government agenda, but the NGF, which is in a desperate fight for survival. Previous exercises were prompted by the federal government. There is now a seeming consensus among the governors over contentious issues that once divided them along regional lines and against the federal government.

Such issues include devolution – resource control, state police, fiscal federalism – local government autonomy and separation of powers in the states. Among these issues, state police had always been the most disagreeable to the north and was usually opposed. But insecurity seems to have changed that as even northern governors, such as Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna state and Prof. Zulum of Borno are enthusiastic about it.

Truth is that no constitution amendment has any chance of passing without the active support of the governors; perish the thought. It did not happen in the past, so it cannot start now. The NASS must take advantage of the present support of the governors for the process to do a far reaching job, because this opportunity may never come readily again.

Even if the president vetoes it, with the governors baying for blood, the NASS can easily override him. It is as simple as that. This is our chance. So go for it NASS, go for it; this is your political time in the sun.