Chukwuemeka Ezeife, governor of Anambra State during Nigeria’s aborted Third Republic, couldn’t have put it any better. Dissecting the role of deputy governors in the nation’s nascent democracy years back, Ezeife described them as “spare tyres” to their bosses. He was speaking at a 2001 seminar dedicated to the exploration of the role of deputy governors in a presidential system of government. Ezeife at the time was political adviser to then President Olusegun Obasanjo. The event was organised by the Shehu Shagari World Institute in Abuja.
While the country’s constitution recognises the governor as the chief executive of the state, the document, according to Ezeife, “did not define the deputy governor as the deputy chief executive”. To that extent, the governor is not bound by statutes to hand over the administration of the state to his deputy, in his absence.
Former deputy governor of Bayelsa State who would later become governor of the state, Vice President and providentially, President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, countered Ezeife’s categorisation of the office of the deputy governor. In a statement on 15th October 2001, Jonathan railed at Ezeife arguing that if he were President, he would have compelled him to withdraw his statement and resign his appointment simultaneously. As Vice President to former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Jonathan tasted a bit of the wholesale constriction of the office of the “No. 2” public officer, as carried over from the Obasanjo/Atiku Abubakar regime. For daring to dream about succeeding his principal and quietly setting up structures towards the actualisation of this desire, Atiku was practically hounded out of office, his minimal briefs reassigned by a vengeful principal. Such has been the manner of dust, which rows between deputy governors and governors has thrown up.
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution as amended, assigns no responsibilities to deputies. Their operability is at the discretion or pleasure of their principal, the governor. It is the prerogative of the governor to decide if his deputy should watch satellite television or read the dailies all day long, everyday. He also dictates if his deputy could savour the music of sirens and similar trappings of pseudo-importance, en route attending functions assigned to him by his leader. The plight of the deputy governor, sadly, re-echoes that of the traffic policeman in Nigeria. He is out there in the sun and rain directing vehicular flux. Unfortunately, he is not empowered to apprehend or reprimand traffic offenders. Traffic wardens have been sighted engaged in fisticuffs with lawless road users, often at the receiving end of the stick. The situation of the traffic police is worsened by the derogatory alias of yellow feveruÿ plastered on him, a nickname derived from the colour of his uniform.
Nigeria’s evolving democracy has witnessed altercations and disagreements between governors and their deputies, which pole-vaulted beyond the concrete cordons of Government Houses to the streets.
Incumbent President Bola Tinubu was notorious for swapping deputies like loincloth. His two terms in office as governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007 witnessed his estrangements with – and sacking of – Kofoworola Akerele-Bucknor, and Femi Pedro, who were variously his deputies. Enyinnaya Abaribe was deputy to Orji Uzor Kalu of Abia State between 1999 and 2003. Both gentlemen, who are now ranking Senators, had their battles. Pioneer Fourth Republic governor of Akwa Ibom State, Victor Attah and his No. 2, Chris Ekpenyong had their collisions; same way Donald Duke of Cross River State and his erstwhile deputy, the departed John Okpa did. Bauchi’s Isa Yuguda and his assistant Garba Gadi, also had their political fisticuffs.
In a manner reminiscent of Tinubu’s precedent in Lagos, during his two terms as governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha had rows and confrontations with his deputies Jude Agbaso and Eze Madumere. Incumbent national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, (APC) and immediate past governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Ganduje had his own skirmishes with his erstwhile deputy, Hafiz Abubakar. This is not forgetting the contestations between Olusegun Mimiko, former governor of Ondo State, and Ali Olanusi, his backup; and the dissonance between Yahaya Bello of Kogi State and his former deputy, Simon Achuba. Former deputy to Godswill Akpabio (now President of the Senate) when he was governor of Akwa Ibom State, Moses Ekpo, his deputy, similarly had their brushes.
At the heart of these flare-ups between chief executives and their deputies are the questions of schedule of duties, and succession. The archetypal Nigerian public officer is both obsessed with power and is also a potential control freak. He is intent on the zombification of his succession programme, desiring the installation of a puppet (a la the Tiv kwaghir species). He is mostly averse to the bright and independent-minded around him, conscientiously shopping for the unambitious, naive, pliable, ever-beholden personality as his potential sidekick. It is sometimes a project in self-preservation, shopping for that rearguard who wouldn’t open the books.
The neighbouring states of Edo and Ondo have been in the news in recent weeks on account of combustions between governors and their deputies. The former state is in the South South geopolitical zone, while the latter is in the South West. Things have fallen apart between Godwin Obaseki of Edo State and Philip Shaibu his deputy, as well as between Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State and his No. 2, Lucky AAiyedatiwa. The centre is devoid of adhesives, to paraphrase the evergreen words of the legendary Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe.
As a way of ensuring equity, fairness and justice, a number of states since the return of democracy, have opted for the rotation of key elective offices between various sections of the states. The gubernatorial office is an emotive one in most states and templates have been devised in certain instances to ensure accommodation and inclusiveness. Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Delta, Enugu, Lagos and Osun are some of the states which are deepening this template. Obaseki desires Edo State to be in the league of states which is demonstrating such sensitivity and inclusivity. Between 1999 and the present, governors from Edo South, Edo North and Edo South again in that order, have served out two full terms as governors of the state. Edo Central through Osariemen Osunbor, a professor, had a brief stint at the helm of affairs in the state, after Lucky Igbinedion from Edo South, in 2007. Adams Oshiomhole from Edo North, however, upended Osunbor in the courts to replace Osunbor, which took the office to Edo North.
Obaseki, Oshiomhole’s successor who is also from Edo South, believes Edo Central has been shortchanged in the subsisting republic. Ambrose Folorunsho Alli, a Professor of pathology who was governor of the state between 1979 and 1983, remains the last chief executive of the state from that zone. Obaseki believes it is time to assuage the marginalisation of the area. Behind his back unfortunately, his deputy was already drawing conjectures towards succeeding him, setting up structures to this effect. Should Shaibu succeed with his plot, the governorship will return to Edo North for another four to eight years, unfairly postponing the ascension of Edo Central to the office. Obaseki has wasted no time in declaring a political fatwa against his deputy, reassigning his staff, freezing him out of state functions and more recently banishing him to the Siberia of a nondescript official habitation outside Government House, Dennis Osadebay Road, GRA, Benin City. Shaibu cut a pitiable picture on global television the other day, standing outside the padlocked gate to the “Deputy Governor’s Office” in Benin City, where he held sway days before, making frantic phone calls to no avail. His alienation by Obaseki is that bad.
When it became imperative for Akeredolu to proceed abroad to seek specialist medical attention for a life-threatening ailment last June, he communicated to the House of Assembly transferring authority to his deputy, Aiyedatiwa, hitherto his trusted ally. The rumour mill in Akeredolu’s absence was abuzz about the possibility that he might not make it back. Flash back to 2010. Former President Yar’Adua embarked on a similarly long medical trip during which period Jonathan had to be proclaimed “acting President.” He returned home and transited shortly after. Aiyedatiwa it is reported, had begun to fancy his chances, salivating at the prospects of becoming the Numero Uno subject in Ondo State. His media team reportedly, was flying kites in the public arena, positioning their boss as the ideal leader post-Akeredolu.
Aiyedatiwa also allegedly became as comfortable as to wield the gubernatorial “red ink” and approve for himself the procurement of a bullet-proof sports utility vehicle for N300 million. He was said to have directed that the sum be sourced from the state’s appropriation of the “palliative” recently received from the federal government. Akeredolu feels profoundly betrayed by the covetousness and insensitivity of his deputy. He elected to convalesce in his Ibadan residence upon his return to the country and has swiftly chopped the media crew of his deputy, like Obaseki did to Shaibu in Edo State. The Ondo State House of Assembly is also readying to move against Aiyedatiwa over abuse of office. Twenty-three members of the state parliament are said to have endorsed the proposal.
Faced with the plausibility of being hoisted down from their high horses sooner than later, the jolted Shaibu and Aiyedatiwa are restlessly seeking to make up with their bosses. They have both gone to press to reaffirm their loyalties to their leaders and to plead for forgiveness wherever they have erred. Shaibu withdrew a case he filed against Obaseki and has also enlisted elders and statesmen from the state to mediate between him and the latter. Aiyedatiwa’s press statement is to the effect that he holds Akeredolu in the highest esteem and prays to continue to serve as his deputy until the expiration of their joint ticket come early 2025. Experience from the operationalisation of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria thus far, compels and impels exhaustive reviews beyond whatever has previously been done by way of peripheral tinkering. Nigeria needs up-to-date, relevant and operable statutes which will work for the generality of our people at every level, laws which strengthen and deepen democracy and its institutions, beyond where we are after a quarter of a century.
Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, scholar and author is a nember of the Nigerian Guild of Editors