By BEN LAWRENCE
An incident in my seven years as editor of the Evening Times is very relevant to addressing today’s illegalities in Nigeria. It was during the Murtala/Obasanjo military regime which introduced the phrase “with immediate effect” to Nigeria’s political lexicon. Specifically, it was about the creation of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, and the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA.
The circumstances for merging existing regional and federal radio stations to form the FRCN network and their television stations to NTA were volatile and controversial as they led to the sack of a minister and a military governor. Ayo Ogunlade, the broadcaster who became federal commissioner for information, and Group Captain Usman Jibrin, then military governor of the powerful Kaduna State, lost their jobs in the crisis.
But what is relevant here is the cavalier manner General Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime went about establishing the two bodies. The government announced their formation without any empowering law and so the status quo as existed before the proclamation remained. This means the new ones did not exist.
One of my colleagues, Patrick Obazele, a senior journalist and one of the executives of FRCN, brought the germane issue to my notice. Six months after the so-called establishment of the two bodies, they were still using chequebooks of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, for all financial transactions at the Union Bank and other banks which refused to accept the ones they printed in the names of the new corporations because they did not exist in law. I detailed one of my bright reporters (and they were many in those days who could dig a story out of a hole) to handle the matter. The banks were not the flighty, lawless ones that allow all illegalities to pass as they now do.
My reporter, Raymond Okiti, found that these new corporations were almost financially beleaguered because of the regime’s actions which lacked the force of law. The new director general of the FRCN then, George Bako, declined comments on the issue when we contacted him. We went to press but the story was killed on the stone by Daily Times deputy chief executive after contacting Alex Nwokedi, then press secretary to General Obasanjo. My general manager (Times Publications Division), Peter Osugo, took umbrage but pacified the boys. It hurt my team and me more because we had worked on the story and were to replace it late with the second best for that evening. The decrees setting up the two corporations were gazetted extraordinarily two days later, some six months after that creation that claimed two highly placed public officers. These illegalities have been the features of the present democracy spanning 13 years, a period during which the law should govern every aspect of the people’s lives for transparency and good governance. The executive has behaved as if it is the law and this still reigns unchecked. The executive cannot disburse funds not budgeted for by the legislature, and any of its actions without an enabling law is null and void and of no effect.
President Obasanjo started the illegalities with the payment of N12 billion debts to Julius Berger without authorisation. Arthur Nzeribe, then a senator, asked for his impeachment. Obasanjo, in his usual dovish but cunning manner, begged the nation for forgiveness. Nzeribe piped down. Again, Obasanjo set up NECO (National Examination Council) and provided money. NECO did not exist in law and there was no fund for it in the prevailing budget passed by the National Assembly. He called for the fire brigade again to put out the blaze and so he scraped through. It then occurred to him to change the Nigeria Police Force to the Nigeria Police and to omit, through executive fiat, many other illegalities, the major ones being the sale of establishments that came to being through acts of parliament or decrees. Apart from still retaining their status as established by law, all those involved in the buying only bought a pig in the poke because the nation would recover its properties later and soon for that matter.
I think the police wisely acted and told him that they were written into the constitution and would need a major constitutional amendment to change their status. It is so with NEPA and others. There is nothing like Power Holding Company of Nigeria because no proclamation of the National Assembly has transformed the National Electric Power Authority to any other nebulous outfit.
One starts to doubt whether there is still a federal attorney general’s office and a ministry of justice which should guide these reckless executives. One illegal body has been announcing increases in the tariffs of electricity consumption, the consumption of a product or service which, in any case, is never supplied. When was this outfit created by the legislature and from which law does it draw its powers to make such announcement? In normal times, the attorney general’s office would have detected this illegality. National Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, does not exist in law. No minister has the power to make laws for Nigeria in the name of structural changes. No bank should transact business with National Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC. A letter from the minister of finance does not grant such powers to NERC because the minister is no lawmaker. I always fall back on that monumental statement made by Archibald Cox, the prosecutor during the Watergate hearings, on the doctrine of the “Rule of Law, not the rule of man.”
When America was to create the Homeland Authority after the 9/11 massacre, President George W. Bush went to Congress to seek the necessary enactment. He did not hide under the exigency of the turmoil to abuse the constitution. And in Nigeria, we claim to imitate the West where capitalism has been thoroughly discredited. The West respects the rule of law. The only way the National Assembly can regain the confidence of the people is to nullify post-haste all Obasanjo’s and Jonathan’s breaches of the constitution.