It would sound like cliché to be told that local governments are the foundation of democracy, but for Imo State; the truth appears to remain eroded through frequent electoral procrastination. Since the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has upheld local government election principles when it states that ‘The Republic shall be a democracy in which … … effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured. The importance of local government is clearly enshrined in the Constitution; in political practice the present Imo State government of Ikedi Ohakim did little to strengthen democracy at the grassroots level.
Political expediency has often got the better of constitutional obligation in this regard. As a result whatever democracy exists is elitist in conception and elitist in day-to-day business. Even after the sole administrators were appointed by Ohakim-led government; members and chairpersons took office, their empowerment is still lagging, and even their jurisdiction has been left undefined after the state Assembly are given ‘advisory’ role in local affairs through a controversial law. The sycophants who were hitherto illusionary think-tanks to that government have been made principal executive officers. There would be nothing wrong with upgrading the position of State think-tanks if it did not cost the independence of the local government administrators. Bureaucratization of local government was a symptom of autocratic rule. If elected governments perpetuate this practice, it is unfortunate.
If the prime objective of dislodging democratic elections at Imo state local government areas is, as spelled out by state leadership, to reach a consensus through which a peaceful transition to democratic order can be ensured, we wonder how such consensus would come about without the participation of the peoples’ vote and right to franchise, which together command the support of the vast majority of the people. It is true that neither the ruling party; PDP nor their oppositions is truly democratic in their attitude and conduct inside Imo State and that neither of them ensured democratic governance in terms of duly representing the political and economic interests of the people at large during their tenures in government inside eastern Heartland.
However, it is equally true that, in a modern political system, any initiative to further democratize governance and polity must involve parties that politically represent the majority of the populace. For us, it is proving that only people who have never trodden even the corridors of the kindergarten of applied politics or do not have adequate understanding of the role of politics in democratization could come up with a suggestion to the contrary. The state of Imo can no longer see the judicious use of her little resource owing to handpicked council administrators.
Whether or not the special adviser, his colleagues on the incumbent government and their mentors backstage, as individuals, lack adequate understanding of politics is of little or no concern to the people. What is of serious concern, however, is the fact that such an apparently apolitical group of individuals now runs the affairs of the state on private premise. Such politics-averse mindset of the ruling coterie augurs ill for the long-term interest of the people of Imo State and the nation at large, for it can only lead to depoliticisation of society and governance by vested interest groups, whose primary concern would be to protect and promote the interest of their local and foreign masters. If so happens, the people would be disenfranchised and democratic accountability of government would collapse, which can only be detrimental to the Imo state interest – economic and political.
To give the government its due, its move to initiate a dialogue with civic groups alongside the talks with the political parties is indeed praiseworthy. What the Imo State government needs to keep in mind though is that the role of the civic bodies as pressure groups is secondary to the political parties in the political process, because while the former are expected to uphold the interest of particular groups of people the latter are expected to uphold the interest of the entire populace. If the incumbents truly want a peaceful transition to democratic order and view the dialogue as a means to such a transition, it is imperative that they give precedence to the logical demands and suggestions of the political parties over those of any other forces.
It is not to suggest, however, that we support the call of the political parties inside Imo State for unconditional release of their top leaders to protest over the infringement of their rights at Imo State. We believe they should face up to the charges brought against them and come out clean, to challenge that administration for the sake of the integrity of the political process, through a credible and transparent trial process. But we would assert that that the cases they are implicated in are billable under the ordinary law of the land, while the incumbents have pre-empted their bail by bringing the case under the Ohakim cross-carpet action. That government never makes changes to the rules, enabling the political leaders in Imo State to partake in the dialogue on bail. Trial against them can, meanwhile, continue.
However it may be, the incumbents need to realize that a peaceful local government polls will not be possible without the involvement of the leading political parties, particularly in the present phase of our political history. So, ignoring this reality, any effort to impose an apolitical solution to a visible political problem would only complicate the situation further, which may benefit the vested quarters, but spell disaster for our people.
Earlier last year; the INEC had sent a proposal to the government in February to amend the local government laws so that it could hold elections between May and July without re-demarcating the ward constituencies under Council and municipalities, which could further delay the elections. The Councils election cannot be held in time as the Ohakim-led ruling party requested its shifting to winter. The strategy seems to be that as at present voters are suffering bitterly due to shortage of electricity, quality education and other basic services despite Imo being one of the oil-producing states, in winter they will be in a more favourable frame of mind. Every party can have its own vote winning tactics but at the same time every party must make a commitment to strengthen all tiers of local government so that democracy does not remain confined as an urban culture.
Indecision over the holding of elections to the local government in Imo State is common and election in due time has been rare. The elections to the council seat, the lowest tier of local government, are long overdue. Political parties were opposed to holding these elections before the National Assembly elections. The National Assembly has already spent one-fourth of its tenure and now comes the report that council and municipal elections in Imo State are uncertain. The elections were due in 2008 and 180 days is the maximum time-lag permissible under the law. Now; the local government tends to become a casualty of electoral strategies and political opportunism.