2 September 2014

Nigeria: Abuse of the Impeachment Clause in Enugu


The recent impeachment of the deputy governor of Enugu State illustrates the abuse to which the constitutional provision is being subjected, and, once more, calls attention to the need to tighten it.

Following allegations of misconduct, including operating a chicken farm in his official residence, the state's House of Assembly voted to accept the report of a 7-man panel, appointed by Chief Judge Innocent Umezulike, that recommended Deputy Governor Sunday Onyebuchi be dismissed from office.

Majority of the 24-menber legislature insisted that the measure complied with the provision of Section 188 of the Constitution, which prescribes the procedure for removing a governor or deputy governor from office. In the case of Onyebuchi, the allegations of gross misconduct against him are, at best, trivial. Or, as the state's All Progressives Congress party put it, "On closer study of the items listed are frivolous allegations like disobedience of the directive prohibiting the maintenance of commercial livestock in residential quarters and disobedience of lawful directive to represent His Excellency, Governor Sullivan Chime in the South East Governors' Forum and the flag-off of 2nd Niger Bridge". Indeed, it is instructive that no allegations of financial misconduct and abuse of office, primary grounds for impeachment in Nigeria, were made against Mr Onyebuchi.

The erstwhile deputy governor was right to have gone to court to challenge his removal from office under these questionable circumstances. According to him, his impeachment had all the trappings of a pre-determined outcome. He said that many of the legislators signed the impeachment notice before they were made aware of the allegations against him.

These claims, if true, attract grave credibility crisis to the Enugu State Government, given the collaboration between the various arms, namely the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary in executing what amounts to the dispensation of injustice which the impeachment exercise now looks like.

The impeachment of any erring public officer is not entirely wrong; the imperative of such exercise following due process as is lawful cannot be overlooked. In this context, it is contestable if the location of a poultry farm within the precincts of a Government House qualifies as "gross misconduct" in the ordinary meaning and intent of the Constitution. After all, hardly would there be a Government House in Nigeria that does not maintain a pen or two with assorted array of pets and livestock in residence, at public expense. These could include turkeys, goats, chicken, monkeys, antelopes and dogs, lions, hippopotami, to name a few. To make such an issue ground for the serious and grave matter of impeachment is a bizarre abuse of the law, capable in itself of constituting impeachable offence.

Besides, the allegation that Onyebuchi refused to represent the governor at a forum lacked merit, because the directive came, not from Chime himself who was out of the country, but from his Chief of Staff, who he designated 'acting governor', another abuse of procedure.

Even with the dubious notion that deputy governors are 'mere spare tyres' to governors, the case of Enugu State is taking the anomaly too far.

The Constitution prescribes in clear terms the status of deputy governors as statutory complements to governors, and not their 'errand boys'. Their denigration of the office of the deputy governor as was exemplified in Enugu State should not be allowed to grow into a regular feature, if responsive leadership is to be nurtured in the country.

More critical is that the process of impeachment should not be driven by parochial considerations. It should never be a carte blanche in the hands of an overbearing governor, indeed any governor (or president) to be used as a blunt weapon at will. The constitutional intent of the process, namely the ultimate recourse to deal with errant executive officers who abuse their powers of incumbency, is being misdirected to achieve ulterior and entirely different ends, most of them political witch-hunt. This is not sustainable, and must be checked. The Enugu case is a dark blot on the practice of democracy in Nigeria.


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