Suntai: Not always about the law By Sanya Oni

Nearly 10 days after, I have sought in vain to locate the lacuna in the 1999 Constitution as amended on which those behind the contrived crisis in Jalingo can sufficiently stake their case. Not only does the issue seem so cut and dried that required no invocation of the doctrine of necessity; that we are at this point is partly explained by our boundless tolerance of political delinquency and the ingrained culture of impunity that has metastasised beyond measure.

Now, I have heard some people describe the arrival of Governor Danbaba Suntai first in Abuja and later in Jalingo last week as a public relations disaster. I consider that an understatement. Clearly, those who though very little of dragging the man through the motions of that ‘feigned consciousness’ have helped in no small measure to confirm our fears of how serious the incapacitation of Taraba’s chief of state is. Vegetative state may appear too strong to describe the man as we saw him on TV being brought down from the aircraft; nothing of his appearance – including his laboured address on TV (which could have been staged anyway) – presented him as anything near the fit-as-the fiddle individual that his hordes of supporters claim he is.

So, the man is back? No one argues that the individual brought down from the aircraft on August 25 is Danbaba Suntai. However, it must be disappointing for the throng gathered to welcome their governor, both at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, and at Jalingo Airport, that the man who alighted from the aircraft looked pathetic, worn and lost after 10 months of medical sojourn in German and United States hospitals. Contrary to the high drama of his return, he certainly didn’t cut the picture of someone eager to return to his desks in months!

It is therefore understandable that those who scripted his return would seek a dramatic way to prove that their man is alive and well. Never mind that their principal could only take a fraction of three minutes of broadcast time to thank the people of the state for their prayers, support and understanding; he apparently had just enough reservoir of energy left subsequent to transmit a letter to the state legislature intimating them of his return to his duty post after 10 months of absence! And all of these barely 24 hours after his return!

But that is not anything near the Thursday’s overdrive – the order purportedly issued under the name of the governor dissolving the state executive council, an exercise that also swept away the Secretary to the State Government and the Chief of Staff both of whom were summarily replaced with new hands.

Was the apparently shell-shocked lawmakers right to have insisted on having the governor address them at plenary as pre-condition for returning to his desk? Or even the more dramatic step of countermanding all the steps taken by the governor, and reaffirming Alhaji Garba Umar as the acting Governor only on the strength of their doubts which from all appearance looks well founded?

The answer to the first question is that the constitution is unambiguous about its provision on a returnee governor: a letter transmitted to the legislature is what is provided for. Much as the House would seek public understanding for what it considers a well-intentioned move, their doubts about the fitness of the governor to continue in office would certainly not be resolved by any steps taken outside of the law. The exception is if the House can prove that the letter was a forgery – an impossible task.

The other step of reversing the steps taken by the governor is not only ridiculous but an invitation to anarchy. While the governor remains in town, how does the House back up its resolve to keep the acting governor in charge? And what happens in case of contradictory orders from the executive branch?

What the Taraba farce does, just like the Umaru Yar’Adua tragedy, is present the nation with a Hobson choice, neither of which is desirable. No matter how one looks at it, the idea of a cabal –acting in proxy and purporting to be at the behest of the legitimate authority whose decision-making power appears impaired – is obviously beyond the contemplation of the constitution. But then, there is also the danger of indecent haste by constitutional do-gooders to assume the powers they clearly lack under an assumed exigency particularly when such steps end up subverting the same institutions they are supposed to make work.

I did not think that we had a grave constitutional problem in 2010 anymore than the actors in the Taraba drama can today claim difficulties in interpreting the relevant provisions. What we had was human problem – what I often describe as the delinquent antics of the operators of our laws. In 2010, it took the invocation of a superfluous doctrine of necessity to transfer executive powers from the terminally-ill President Yar’Adua to President Goodluck Jonathan when the Federal Executive Council could have acted promptly to stave off the looming constitutional crisis. The same failures are playing out in Taraba today.

The summary of course is that the option available to the Taraba House is rather limited in the circumstance. To be sure, that option does not include power to reject the letter from the governor informing the house of his return to office. The power to determine the governor’s state of health resides with the executive council of the state. That power is exercised under Section 190 of the Constitution as amended. Surely, the House could have done better by working with the executive council, or, if it so chooses, proceed with impeachment.

That leads me to the final point – the decline in the standards of public conduct and morality. I think that we have invested too much energy in the laws without commensurate attention to values in public conduct. It seems to me that the only enduring lesson from the Yar’Adua and Suntai saga is how those serving in executive positions are unrepentantly beholden to their principals as against their sworn public duty. A good way to start with their re-orientation is to remind them of the oaths they swore at inception of office. At the moment, it does not seem that many appreciate the weight of those sworn declarations. Time to bring them to their attention.

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In the beginning...Let there be Light

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