Sullivan Chime and the Crisis of Democracy Accountability in Nigeria, By Udo Jude Ilo

Udo Jude Ilo

Democracy is predicated on the people. Through elections, the people confer their collective authority and power to elected officials to exercise in trust for them. Nigeria’s constitution recognizes that sovereignty rests with the people and by extension government must be accountable to the people. The fact that public service is an exercise of trust places greater moral obligation on elected leaders to exercise the people’s mandate with the highest sense of responsibility. Recent events in Nigeria have called to question the manner of democracy that we practice. Are elected officials in any way accountable to the people they govern? If yes, what are the means available to the people to ensure an effective nexus of accountability? Are the people even remotely aware of the standards they should expect from their leaders? I have nothing against the person of Sullivan Chime but as the governor of my state, the way he has handled his absence from his state, has shown impudence in its highest form of vulgarity and that is just not acceptable.

Here are the facts as we know it. The Governor transmitted a letter to the State House of Assembly that he will be going on a consolidated leave for 42 days. The Deputy Governor was duly sworn in accordance with the constitution. However the governor ended up staying outside his duty post for 140 days without providing any explanation to the people of Enugu State. Neither his deputy nor his commissioners could offer an explanation- suggesting that none was provided by the governor. It has been reported that he is back in the country and his return has elicited surprising enthusiasm without any due regard to the monumental damage done to governance in Enugu State and Nigeria in general by his actions.

Since these events started unfolding, four schools of thought have emerged. The first school has the die- hard defenders of the governor who believe that the governor can do no wrong. Their argument is that as long as the governor handed over to his deputy, it doesn’t matter how long he stays out without explanation. The constitutional requirement is simply for him to notify State Assembly of his travel and have his deputy act in his stead. The problem with this argument is that the letter transmitted to the House of Assembly states absence for six weeks and it is expected that the State Assembly should be informed if there is any extension. Such information of course is a public document that must be shared with the public. In the absence of such document, it becomes a question of dereliction of duty for which the House of Assembly should question the governor and determine appropriate sanctions.

The Second school of thought agree that the governor is way out of line but that he should not be criticized because anybody can be sick and it is not his fault. Moreover he is adjudged to have done well as a governor and deserves sympathy. As African and a people who watch out for our brothers, this sentiment is understandable. However ours is a nation guided by laws and norms. In all circumstances, those norms should be respected. Second point is that at no time has the governor formally informed the state that he was sick. His sickness was only read in the pages of newspaper. Now the existence of such condition is even denied by his officials which makes the point about compassion moot.

The Third school of thought argues that there is compelling evidence of misconduct but argues that we should not criticize the governor because nobody has heard from him. The simple response to this argument is that it is the fact that we have not heard from him that has elicited criticisms in the first place. His crime is not that he was sick but rather that he did not inform the millions of people who voted him into power of the true position of things-a fundamental breach of trust.

The fourth school of thought are the group who believe that the governor owes it as a sacred trust to be truthful and forthright with the people he governs and must at all times conduct himself with the highest sense of responsibility. He should treat his citizens with respect and must account to them as a matter of obligation. Sadly, in-between these four schools are the political opportunists who will embrace any argument or ride on any sentiment as long as it provides some level of political leverage. In a democracy this is expected but I digress.

It is saddening what we have reduced governance to in Nigeria. It is not just about the abysmal quality of leadership but the cowardly docility of the led. Government is so personalized that constructive criticism of failings of government is erroneously defined as unpatriotic. It is the mentality of the leader as ‘king’ that has undermined accountability and sustained impunity in our clime. Every issue around governance is seen from the myopic lens of self interest and crass mediocrity-he is better than the others. Increasingly, we reduce the bar of accountability promote a culture of apathy to best practices. Here we are confronted with a situation that exemplifies impunity and disrespect to the citizenry. An avoidable scenario no doubt if the Enugu state government told its citizens the truth about their ‘beloved’ governor. There is a simple test to apply here- can a chief executive of the most badly run company in this world ask for a six weeks leave and disappear for 140 days without any official communication on his condition. The answer is a big-NO. This applies to an unelected executive. The duty of an elected executive is way higher.

One other point that needs to be made is the ineffectiveness of the House of Assembly in Enugu. They should bury their heads in shame for not being able to manage this crisis or provide any meaningful oversight. The principle of separation of powers recognizes the possibility of tyranny by an organ of governments. Our constitution goes to extensive length to provide instruments and mechanisms for such check. The State Houses of Assembly across Nigeria have sold their independence and have become a negligible appendage of the executive.

The events unfolding in Enugu is salvageable. All it requires is a mea culpa from the governor and proper explanation of what has transpired in the last 140 days. Enugu state wishes their governor well and this is an opportunity for him to cash on that goodwill to heal our democracy which his actions have so badly damaged.

Udo writes in from Abuja

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