Intrigues, Muddles In The Suspension of Nsit Atai Chairman

Map of Nsit Atai LGA
Map of Nsit Atai LGA

By: Israel Umoh

The political cloud of Nsit Atai local government area in Akwa Ibom State gathered following the suspension of the local government chairman. In what some political pundits saw as lack of fairness and injustice, the political gladiators linked to the suspension saga are busy trying to disperse the cloud of accusations, counter-accusations, hearsays, media war and gossiping from snowballing into the rain of violence. Across the political divide, the dogfight is tense, precipitating a crisis of confidence between the suspended chairman, councillors and some major political actors in the area.

Inaugurated as Chairman under the platform of PDP in 2017, Emem Ibanga’s tenure would end this year.  Though the Vice Chairman of the council from Ibiaikot is acting after the suspension of Ibanga, the abduction of the Councillor representing Ward 4 in the area, Raphael Tom by unknown gunmen seems to be the last straw that can break the camel’s back. The councillor, one of the six staunch supporters of the embattled chairman, was allegedly kidnapped on Sunday, June 14 and his whereabouts is shady.  But the purported gang-up and subterfuge are seen as an aftermath to weaken and daze her political base so that she could not seek re-election.

2001 Zoning  Arrangement                                                                                      

For equity and rancour-free political arrangement, the political juggernauts gathered and came out with a zoning formula in 2001. The late General Edet Akpan (retired), Col. Dr. Akpan Ukpak, Dr. Asuquo Okono, Prince Ime Udonte, Hon. Inyang Ekpe, Sunday Elijah, and Professor Trenchard Ibia, among others. Though the six zones had tasted the local government chairmanship slots after the zoning formula, only Ibiaikot Essien Itiaba and Afaha Atai are yet to fill the slot.  But the position of the paramount ruler is being rotated among Afaha, Ibiaikot and Ibedu.

The Broken Calabash

The 2001 zoning formula imposed on the area by the proponents was compromised. The late Major-General Edet Akpan who was its arrowhead is said to have imposed one of his aides from Afaha Atai as a Vice Chairmanship candidate against the zone-favoured candidate from Itak Afaha. With this precedent, some aspirants in the area failed to keep to the zoning formula and broke what could be seen as the political calabash. Hon. Udo Asuquo Darby had served as a local government caretaker committee chairman, elected local government chairman and House of Assembly member. After four years in the house of Assembly, Darby from Ibedu was said to have gunned for a second term in the house contrary to the zoning. However, he lost re-election. Moreover, Hon. Sarah Elijah Akpan who won into the house was said to have sought re-election but lost too. She comes from Afaha bloc. In 2019, the House of Assembly slot was zoned to Ibedu, but Miss Blessing Ossom from Afaha and Mark Esset from Ibiaikot contested too. Esset who was gunning for re-election won.

How the suspension Began

Nsit Atai has 10 electoral units. Though basically Ibibio speaking, the area is divided into three major geopolitical groupings- Afaha, Ibiaikot and Ibedu. However, the area is additionally fragmented into six geo-political zones for the purpose of equity and fairness. These are Afaha Atai, Itak Afaha, Afaha Ndisiak, Ibiaikot Atai, Ibiaikot Essien-Itiaba, and Ibedu.

Four councillors in the area had petitioned the State House of Assembly based on allegations of non-payment of furniture allowance to councilors, chairman’s withdrawal of N15 million for the burial of the paramount ruler of the area, withdrawal of N35 million for the unknown coronation of the paramount ruler, not giving an official car to the Vice-Chairman and misappropriation of funds by the Chairman. What had started as the suspension of Emem Ibanga, the local government chairman is generating heat and hard tackles among the people. The build-up to the crisis erupted in the area last year. Four aggrieved councillors allegedly sponsored by Mark Esset were said to have petitioned the council’s Chairman to Judiciary, Human Rights and Public Petitions, and Committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, calling for a probe. Six councilors were to have supported the council’s chairman. The House of Assembly got and acted on the petition. Were the legal works fully followed and explored?

Suspension Hassle

Akwa Ibom House of Assembly suspended Emem Ibanga, the Nsit Atai Local Government boss on Friday, May 29 together with the Uyo chairman, Imoh Okon.

Earlier, Victor Ekwere, the Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Public Petitions, and Mark Esset, Chairman, House Committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs had presented reports to the House.

During the plenary, Aniekan Bassey, the Speaker of the House of Assembly said the suspension followed reports presented by the two committee chairmen.

Ibanga was accused of “inefficient disbursement of funds appropriated by the house, non-release of an official vehicle to the Council’s Vice Chairman and involvement in the defamatory publication.”

The assembly directed the vice-chairman of the area to immediately take over the running of their respective councils.

As a corollary, Aniefiok Dennis, the Deputy House Leader and Chairman of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly Committee on Information at a press briefing cleared the air on the powers of the House of Assembly to suspend erring Local Government Chairmen in the State.

The Etinan Lawmaker of the 7th Assembly cited section 128 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) and the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly’s Standing Orders (6th Edition).

The section provides:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, a House of Assembly shall have power by resolution published in its journal or in the Office Gazette of the Government of the State to direct or cause to be directed an inquiry or investigation into –

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(a) any matter or thing with respect to which it has the power to make laws; and
(b) the conduct of affairs of any person, authority, ministry or government department charged, or intended to be charged, with the duty of or responsibility for –
(i) executing or administering laws enacted by that House of Assembly, and
(ii) disbursing or administering monies appropriated or to be appropriated by such House.”

He pointed out that the law guiding the administration or otherwise of the Local Government i.e Akwa Ibom Local Government Administration Law 2017 (as amended) was enacted by Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly which gives the assembly the legislative competence to the aforementioned matter.

The House Information chief also cited Order 9 Rule 20 (1) (2) & (3) of the Standing Orders of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly (Sixth Edition) which gives the House of Assembly powers through its Committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs to oversee the activities of Local Governments in the State.

Order 9 Rule 20 states:
(1) There shall be a committee to be known as the committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs.
(2) The functions of the committee shall include:
(a) Overseeing the activities of local governments in the state.”

Section 3 of this rule further gives the committee jurisdiction over local government matters which clearly shows the nexus between the Local Government Councils and the State House of Assembly.

He thereafter said that the position of the state assembly is to give a fair hearing in the matter making reference to the late Justice Chukwudifo Oputa.

Hear him; “Justice is not one-way traffic but three-way traffic which is justice for the petitioner, justice for the accused and justice for all (the society).

“It is interesting to note that Section 44 of the Akwa Ibom Local Government Administration Law 2017 (as amended) clearly stipulates the role of the legislative council in (subsection 1 – 4) and the House of Assembly in (subsections 5–14) in the removal of Chairman or Vice-Chairman but we are talking about investigating of misconduct here and not removal. It, therefore, goes without saying that the House of Assembly has unfettered legislative competence to assume jurisdiction over this matter,” Dennis affirmed.

2017 Local Government Administration Act In Akwa Ibom State on the removal of Chairman or Vice-Chairman

Did the House of Assembly comply fully with the provisions regarding the suspension (removal) of the Chairman? This is the question on the lips of many. The Act in section 44 sub-sections 1-14 spell out the conditions for the removal of any.

(1) The Chairman or Vice-Chairman may be removed from office in accordance with the provisions of this section.

(2) A notice of an allegation of gross misconduct against a holder of the office of Chairman or Vice-Chairman shall be presented to the legislative council and the House of Assembly in writing signed by not less than two-thirds of the members of the Legislative Council…

Press War

Following the suspension of the local government chairman, the traditional and social media were turned to war-front and awash with weapons of mass defence by some politicians and groups. In its paid one-page advertorial in The Ibom Informer of Tuesday, June 2-4, Nsit Atai Progressive Union filed an open letter to elders, party stakeholders, traditional rulers, religious leaders, youths and women leaders. The advertorial entitled: Mark Esset plot and why Emem Ibanga should be supported was signed by Pastor Ndifreke Udofia and Comrade Aniefiok Thompson Akpan.

“…Consequently, we are not surprised at the unfolding drama of conspiracy and collusion between Elder Mark Esset and Hon. Otuekong Raphael Bassey against Lady Emem Ibanga using gross misconduct as an excuse.

“The suspension is a political instrument designed to stop her from seeking the chairmanship ticket of the People’s Democratic Party for re-election.

“Mark Esset is supported by Otuekong Raphael Bassey, the Vice-Chairman Idorenyin Inyang, two councilors from Ibiaikot representing Wards 5 and 8, and a few elementary forces from Ibedu backed by Prince Aniefiok Attah…” the advertorial stated.

In another advertorial, Engr. Akaninyene Etuk-Ibomatai tagging his own Open letter to Hon. (Otuekong) Raphael Bassey and Rt. Hon. Mark Esset headlined it “Your leadership is permeable and deceptive.”

According to him, “Finally, I am confident that fair, transparent and just process that respects the rules, procedures and governance systems of the State House of Assembly and the rule of law will ultimately prove Emem Ibanga has not violated any code of good governance by Mark Esset and his imagination.”

Debunking Allegations 

Speaking with Straightnews in his office, Raphael Bassey, the state Commissioner for Housing who is also from the area, took time off and debunked the accusations levelled against him. He described the allegations as baseless and the handiwork of perpetual grumblers. He harped on the need for the people during the forthcoming elections to maintain the zoning by allowing the rotation of chairmanship slot to Ibiakot Essien Itiaba and Afaha Atai geo-political zones in the area.

Mark Esset, another arrowhead linked with the Nsit Atai chairman’s suspension debacle, speaking with Straightnews dismissed the allegations against him as the architect of the Chairman’s suspension.

According to him, “Some councillors in the area wrote a petition against her and sent to the State House of Assembly. Two committees in the House separately looked into the allegations and submitted their reports to the House. At the plenary, the chairmen presented their reports and the house subsequently suspended her and Uyo local government chairman.

“Is it because I am the Chairman of the committee on Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs and from Nsit Atai? Why will people blame me for her travails? It means I am a very powerful person in the house,” he queried.

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On his term bid, Esset outrightly rejected the suggestion. “I am not interested in the rumoured third-term bid. Anybody in the area who wants can aspire to become one. After this term, I will end here.”

Trial of Emem Ibanga

Consequently, the House of Assembly inaugurated a seven-member Ad-hoc Committee to investigate the allegations of the suspended Chairmen of Nsit Atai and Uyo Local Government Councils, headed by Rt. Hon. Udo Kerian Akpan. Other members include Barr. Aniefiok Dennis, Barr. Otobong Bob, and Rt. Hon. Aniekan Uko. At the resumed sitting for the trial of Nsit Atai suspended Chairman, Akpan-led Committee formally handed over the petition to Emem Ibanga on Monday, June 15. Appearing with nine councilors except for the abducted one before the ad-hoc committee, she was given two days to reply, and she submitted the reply on Wednesday, June 17. The embattled Chairman will appear again with councilors on Friday, June 19 to answer queries. On Monday, June 22, she together with the council’s supervisors will appear before the committee.

Position of the Law on removal of Chairman, Vice-Chairman 

Peeping through the needle of the law, Hon. Owodimo George, a former Legislative leader in Nsit Atai, averred “The purported suspension by the state House of Assembly is a political ‘pandemic,’ legislative rascality and a miscarriage of justice on the side of the legislators. The lawmakers are turning themselves into lawbreakers because they have failed to follow the rule of the law. In the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and in the 2017 Local Government Administration in Akwa Ibom State Act, there is no room for the House to suspend a democratically elected Chairman or Vice-Chairman.

“Section 44 of the Local Government Administration makes provision for the removal of the Chairman or Vice-Chairman with clear and distinct rules to be followed, one of which is the signing of a written petition by not less than two-thirds of members of the Legislative Council i.e Nsit Atai. Within the period of investigation, there is no room for an acting Chairman to be appointed for the council.

“From Sections 4-7 of the Local Government Administration Act, neither the councilors nor the state legislators followed the law to the letter. The petition was formally given to the Chairman on Monday, June 15, days after the Chairman had been suspended. The Chairman who was given two days to reply to the allegations submitted it to the committee on Wednesday, June 17.”

Again, in the judgment delivered on December 9, 2016, the Supreme Court had voided laws enacted by states’ Houses of Assembly that empowered governors to sack elected local government chairmen and councillors and replace them with handpicked administrators.

In the unanimous judgment of five justices, the Supreme Court described the sacking of elected local government administrators as “executive recklessness” that should stop immediately.

The judgment by the five-man panel, led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, was given in an appeal over the dissolution of the 16 local government executives in Ekiti State by Dr. Kayode Fayemi during his first term as governor.

The Supreme Court, in faulting the law purportedly relied on by Fayemi to dissolve the local government administration, held that Section 23(b) of the Ekiti State Local Government Administration (Amendment) Law, 2001, which empowered the governor to dissolve local government councils, whose tenure was yet to expire, violated section 7(1) of the Constitution from which the state House of Assembly derived the power to enact the local government law.

Justice Centus Nweze, who delivered the lead judgment, held that the tenure of the local government councils could not be abridged without violating the supreme constitutional provisions.

The Supreme Court of Nigeria in a five-man panel headed by Justice Olubolade Joe in a unanimous judgment delivered on December 11, 2019 strips state governors of the power to sack elected local government (LG) chairmen and councillors.

However, a fresh controversy over the illegal sacking of elected local government administration broke out recently with the removal of the elected local government administrators in Oyo State by the Governor, Mr. Seyi Makinde.

The furore generated by Makinde’s action prompted the intervention of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), who directed the governor to reinstate the sacked administrators in compliance with the extant Supreme Court judgment.

Malami, in a letter dated January 14, 2020, told the governor that in view of the decision of the Supreme Court on the matter that is binding on all the 36 states of the federation, “the common practice by some state governors in dissolving elected local government councils is unconstitutional, null and void.”

The Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu, directed the Oyo State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Shina Olukolu, to ensure the reinstatement of the sacked chairmen and councillors.

Adamu, in a letter dated January 23, 2020 and addressed to the Oyo State Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Akin Oke, asked him to liaise with Olukolu to facilitate the implementation of the AGF’s legal opinion.