OPINION: Aregbesola’s Predicament – By Mohammed Haruna

Judge-Folahanmi-Oyedele-Vs.-Gov.-Rauf-AregbesolaJustice Oloyede Folahanmi, a judge of the Osun State High Court, would have made history for the second time as the first judge to testify before a legislative committee on why she believed the governor of her state and his deputy should be impeached by the legislature (i.e. charged with an offence committed while in office) and subsequently sacked.

The first time she made history was last month when she petitioned the House of Assembly and urged its members to investigate its governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, and his deputy, Otunba Titi Laoye-Tomori, in line with sections 128 and 129 of the constitution in order to establish the grounds for removing both from office in line with sections 188 and 189 of the constitution.

By her petition to the House of Assembly, she has stood the procedure for impeaching an elected government official on its head in the sense that until she came along, it has never been heard of for a judicial officer to initiate impeachment proceedings. Rather the procedure invariably ended with the appointment by the legislature of a panel presided by a judge to investigate allegations against an elected government official so as to establish the grounds, if any, for removing the official.

As things turned out, Justice Folahanmi failed to honour her scheduled appearance yesterday before a committee of the Osun State legislature to defend her charges, which were essentially against the governor, with his deputy apparently added only as a footnote. However, in failing to appear before the Ad-Hoc Committee appointed under the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Akintunde Adegboye, to investigate her petition, the judge was represented by a lawyer, Mr Lanre Ogunlesi (SAN), who asked for a new date for his client. None was fixed and all indications are that none will, because the judge may have lost the will to defend her charges.

Her Lordship’s petition contains charges against Aregbesola that are truly grave. The governor, she had said with all the solemnity a judge can muster, is a hypocrite, a spendthrift and a thief. Some examples of the governor’s spendthrift and venal ways, she said, were “the cruel and harsh debasement of pensioners and civil servants in deliberately and maliciously withholding their salaries for months on end…”

Another example, she said, was that “there is nothing on the ground in Osun to indicate or justify (the) huge gargantuan quantum of loan” the governor took to build infrastructure in the state. As for his hypocrisy, she said, while few people spoke against corruption especially at the centre like the governor, his own stank to high heavens. The governor, she said, was “guilty of unjustified assassination of the character of a sitting president and of moral murder.” This is an obvious reference to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, whose presidency is turning out to be the most venal by far in possibly Africa’s history.

Her petition, she said, was nothing personal. “I declare that in presenting this petition,” she said, “I am not in any way motivated by malice, spite, pecuniary interest or promise thereof, nor am I propelled by a desire for higher office…”

As someone who has had more than a nodding acquaintance with the politics of Osun State and who has written at least twice about Aregbesola’s record as governor, I was shocked that anyone, not to talk of a judge of a high court for who restraint is a necessary virtue, can accuse the governor of the high crimes Her Lordship mentioned in her petition.

No doubt, Aregbesola is one of the country’s most controversial governors, not least because he was among the first governors to adopt a state flag and state anthem and, even more controversially, he was the first to declare the first day in the Muslim calendar a public holiday in his state in 2012, probably because it has the largest proportion of Muslims among the Southwest states.

That declaration alone has since made him a marked man among non-Muslims in a state famous for producing at least two of the country’s leading Pentecostal pastors. And not even his attempt to assuage Christians hurt by building what PUNCH called a “misguided church project”, in its editorial of January 21, last year, changed the minds of some powerful opposition elements in their determination to deny him a second term in August last year.

PUNCH was right to criticise him for planning to build a church for, in a multi-religious country like Nigeria, government has no business building churches or mosques or any place of worship, for that matter. Nor has it any business sponsoring people on pilgrimages.

The newspaper was, however, wrong to have criticised him, as it did in 2012 for declaring the first day of the Muslim calendar a public holiday. After all, it is the constitutional prerogative of a governor to declare any symbolic day a public holiday.

However, right or wrong, criticisms of the man over his politics of religious identity have cast him unfairly in the image of an Islamic fundamentalist. Sadly, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party in the state tried to reduce his re-election bid last year into a religious issue. Happily it failed; he won his re-election with about 392,600 votes to Senator Iyore Omisore’s 292,700 or so. And as if to rile the opposition party even more, he won the re-election in spite of its alleged attempt to use the army, police and other security services to rig the election as had happened in the neighbouring Ekiti State earlier.

Following the elections the PDP candidate petitioned against his loss all the way to the Supreme Court – and lost all the way. However, Aregbesola’s predicament suggests that PDP and those opposed to his victory are still determined to achieve through the rear window what they have been unable to get through the front door.

Their main weapon of choice seems to be his failure to pay the state’s civil servants and pensioners for over 10 months. Her Lordship says the governor has defaulted because he has frittered away the state’s resources. She seems to have forgotten that until the oil revenue crunch from last year, the governor paid the state’s civil servants their salaries not only as at when due. He also paid them a bonus of a 13th month each year.

And when she said there was “nothing on the ground” to justify all the loans the man took to build infrastructure in the state, she was clearly speaking out of character of a judge since judges are not supposed to indulge in hyperbole. The fact is that no one who has been in Osun would deny that Aregbesola has turned Osogbo, the capital, and much of the state, into a giant construction site. One telling evidence of this is that Osogbo has never known any flood, much less the devastating one it was used to, since he became governor. Again, no fair-minded person can deny that he has also invested meaningfully into the future of the education of the state’s population.

Aregbesola, of course, has had his fair share of mistakes. One of them is the purchase of helicopter, which is essentially for his personal use. Another, as far I am concerned, was his payment of 13th month salaries to civil servants when the going was good. There are possibly others more. But the fact that he has been singled out for widespread bashing over his inability to pay civil servants in his state is proof positive that his predicament is more partisan politics than anything else. After all he is only one of about 27 governors who have failed to pay their civil servants, in some cases for much longer than he has. Besides, unlike most of them, he has been honest enough to own up to his failure.

Aregbesola should, however, accept that it’s mere cold comfort that he is not the only governor who has failed in his responsibility to his civil servants, marginal as they are as a percentage of the state’s population. As a compassionate politician, he owes at least himself to be counted among the best not the worst. He must therefore find a way out of his predicament.

The first step is to sell the state helicopter even if it fetches little revenue. It is a symbol of self-aggrandisement he can do without. Second, he should travel out of his state far less frequently than he has. Third, he should reduce the size of his aides and cut their allowances.

All these may not add up to much in solving his fiscal problem. But they do mean a lot as evidence that he shares the pains of ordinary folks in the sacrifice they’ve been making because hard times are here.