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Govt must airlift trapped Nigerians from Liberia before crisis worsens

LogoDaily Independent Online.         * Tuesday, April 8, 2003.

Local governments and the forgotten elections

By Habib Aruna

Daily Independent, Lagos

At last, the much awaited month of April has arrived and with it, the general elections, that most optimists hope would demystify the long held belief about the country’s failure to transit from one civilian government to another. Hence, politicians across the political divide are busy with their campaigns trying to sell their programmes to the hapless Nigerian electorate.

There is no bystander in this season of elections. Even the worst of cynics are been subjected to various campaign jingles and all kinds of promises by the contestants which might be impossible to implement. Even then, voters have been told by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that they have to wait four days to the election date to collect their voters card.

As the above scenario plays itself out, and given the attitude of INEC, not everyone is convinced that there would be elections next week. Needless to say that the level of violence that has pervaded the political terrain in the past few months so much overheats the system that only few people would willing to bet on the April dates.

Yet, as the nation watched with concern and helplessness, not many are willing to discuss the fate of the council polls. One year since the postponement of the local government elections, politicians are so preoccupied with their re-election bid that they have forgotten the unconstitutionality of the overstayed interim/caretaker committee set up to oversee the affairs of the councils before council elections are held.

The incessant bottleneck that has followed the tail of the council elections can only be likened to the current election timetable that was supposed to have started last year with the council elections before the tenure of the councils lapsed. The controversial Electoral Act 2001, was the clearest evidence that the nation was, “ perhaps, being programmed for a less-than-honest, possibly doomed political transition.”

All the sides to the debates draw support for their argument from the 1999 constitution and the existing laws. It pitched the state governments against the federal legislature.

The provisions in the Act extended the tenure of the council chairmen by one year and the states insisted that the councils must be dissolved after the expiration of their three years tenure on May 29, 2002. The states further argued that the National Assembly extension of the council’s tenure was illegal and declared that it was the constitutional responsibilities of the State Independent Electoral commissions (SIECs) to conduct elections into the local government councils.

It was in the midst of this that a meeting of the national forum of SIECs was called and the result was that the council elections was fixed for May 18, 2002, so that, according to the communique, newly elected council officials could assume office on May 29, 2002. This plan was however cut short as INEC suddenly remembered how vital a revised voters’ register was to such an election.

Indeed, INEC insisted that the SIECs should not hold the election, that the elections could only be held until a fresh register was ready. Till date, analysts have often wondered why INEC has failed to explain why it went ahead to conduct fresh elections with the old register.

Meanwhile as all these went on, the federal government sat on the request for funds by INEC to enable it revise the voters’ list. When the funds were eventually released, it was too late, because the May 18 deadline was no longer be feasible.

After another round of bitter brawl by contending forces on the issue, a new consensus was reached and the local government polls were rescheduled for August10, 2002, with the new handover date fixed for August 29. INEC on its own part promised that a revised register would be ready in July 2002.

The zigzag manner the council polls were shifted raised a lot of concern among stakeholders and informed commentators. It also raises the question of what special or ulterior interest the federal government and INEC may have in delaying the council polls indefinitely.

As it is, two things stood in the way of the elections all along: The new parties say they will not have enough time to prepare for the exercise; another reason that was canvassed was the need to review the voters’ register.

Even as the matter rages on, the council chairmen organised themselves under the aegis of Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON), and kicked against the decision of state government to set up transition committees for the councils.

In their endless court cases, ALGON said the governors’ move contravened Section 7(1) of the constitution, which states that: “ the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed”.

ALGON had described the failure of the National Council of States to recommend the extension of local government tenure as a “ clear manifestation of contempt for the provisions of the constitution and a display of flagrant insensitivity to the need for peace and stability in the country.”

The body then warned that it would “ take steps to resist any attempt to impose any decision that is unconstitutional on us,”

The chairmen, however, have not made good their threat, because after another series of negotiation between the governors and the presidency, the governors were given the concession to replace the chairmen with transition committees.

The chairmen felt shortchanged and were displaced with concerned Nigerians looking forward to when the council polls would eventually holds.

So when will it hold? Jamil Mohammed, a political commentator believes it is a political problem that, politicians have tossed around to suit their interests.

“ Given the importance of the council elections”, Mohammed said, “ most politicians wanted to use it to expand their power base for subsequent elections.” The disagreement among the stakeholders, according to him led to the needless postponement of the polls to the detriment of the election timetable.

Others have however, blamed INEC for the delay the council polls has suffered. “ INEC cannot organise any credible elections”, says, Deacon Sesan Ekundayo, Lagos State chairman of the National Democratic Party (NDP), adding“ Our stand is that unless the present INEC leadership is changed, we cannot have a credible election”.

Ekundayo doubts the capacity of INEC to supervise the council, since he noted, the electoral body has taken wrong steps in the march to the April elections. The party leader questioned the continued stay in office of the various interim committees set up by the governors, saying that they have overstayed their time in the office.

Even so, some of the politicians have indicated their readiness to come out into the field when the whistle is finally blown. “ Whenever the local government elections comes up we shall come out again and contest,” says Alhaji Rafiu Jafojo, national publicity secretary of the Alliance for democracy (AD).

“ We are politicians, we don’t have any other business. Politics is our business.” Jafojo said it was only INEC that could decide when the elections would hold. “ So, we are waiting for INEC”, he said.

Beyond this, the fog that has characterised the council polls since last year clearly shows that the country’s politicians are ready to bury constitutionalism on the altar of primordial selfish interests. As Mohammed quipped. “The mere fact that none is concerned about installing a democratically elected government at the lowest, but important ladder of government is sad reminder of the past. There is an urgent need for redress.” 



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