Governor Peter Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State has a solid claim to the title of politician par excellence of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. In many ways, the man symbolizes the idiosyncrasies, texture and other pathological characteristics of the high-priced, frustrating experiment that goes by the name of democracy in Nigeria.
His storied political career has involved a controversy over his academic credentials. It is ironic that questions were—perhaps are—raised about the educational training of a man who presides over Ekiti State—a state with one of the highest PhD degrees per capita in Nigeria. During his short-lived first stint as governor—from 2003 to 2006—Mr. Fayose was accused of several crimes, including massive theft of public resources and ordering a murder. He left office in disgrace, impeached by a state legislature that was under pressure from then President Olusegun Obasanjo. The US government once had cause to revoke visas issued to him and members of his immediate family.
He is as brash as they come, a bolekaja brand of politician who takes no prisoners. At a public function in Osun State in 2014, Mr. Fayose traded insults with his nemesis, Mr. Obasanjo. He had ignored the former president while greeting other “dignitaries.” Not one to recoil from making a spectacle of himself, Mr. Obasanjo demanded to be greeted. “I won’t greet you. You are bad person! I don’t greet bad people!” exclaimed Mr. Fayose.
“You are a bastard,” an irate Obasanjo railed.
“You are a father of bastards!” Mr. Fayose countered. And he wasn’t done yet. He threw a few more verbal punches at Mr. Obasanjo, accusing him of wrecking the PDP in the southwest.
In 2014, Mr. Fayose signaled a desire to return to the office from which he was ignominiously sacked in 2006. As he sought the PDP’s governorship ticket, some political pundits thought it was a long shot. After he secured the ticket, the consensus among political talking heads was that he would not be competitive against then Governor Kayode Fayemi, an articulate PhD owner. Shunning the incumbent governor’s air of sophistication and emphasis on matters of policy, Candidate Fayose refined a pragmatic political message calculated to resonate with the voters’ gullets. He dismissed his opponent’s accent on developing infrastructure in the state. What the people needed above all, he insisted, was “stomach infrastructure.” He had introduced an ingenious new term into Nigeria’s political lexicon.
I confess to being among those who gave Mr. Fayose little chance of winning the governorship. His rustic, charming gift for words would carry him only so far, but certainly far short of the gubernatorial goal. I reckoned, as some others did, that the man’s past would doom his quest.
Instead, backed by federal funds and military muscle apparently authorized by the Presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, Mr. Fayose pulled off a stunning victory. He won even in Mr. Fayemi’s immediate electoral turf.
And then an audiotape emerged showing the extent to which soldiers and other security apparatchiks illicitly collaborated with Team Fayose. In the tape, recorded by a dismayed young officer, Mr. Fayose and several PDP officials, two of them ministers, could be heard giving instructions to a military general on the use of troops to intimidate voters sympathetic to Mr. Fayemi and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
There’s a chance that Mr. Fayose would have won, without all that meddlesomeness—but that’s now a moot point. The reality is that the PDP, which was at the time the ruling party, had deployed the resources of federal might in an illegal and violent plot to thwart voters leaning in favor of Mr. Fayemi.
The bombshell revelation hardly slowed Mr. Fayose. Despite the defeat of the PDP at the center, the governor has remained a gadfly, a constant torn in the flesh of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. Where many of the PDP’s henchmen have become diffident, Governor Fayose has transformed himself, it seems, into a one-man opposition front. He frequently utters loud, damning critiques of the Buhari administration, and sometimes with devastating power and accuracy. He has often made a point that eminently bears restating: that Mr. Buhari’s vaunted change remains, in many crucial respects, missing.
To the extent that his utterances, inelegant as they are often couched, represent some of the most ambient counter-narratives to the APC’s tarnished mantra of change, Mr. Fayose is a vital part of Nigeria’s political debate. Quite recently, however, he has given us an indirect, altogether unintended gift.
Officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recently froze more than N1 billion in Mr. Fayose’s private bank account, claiming the money came from a security budget of more than $2 billion that Sambo Dasuki, President Jonathan’s National Security Adviser, splashed on PDP politicians.
Mr. Fayose has denied that the funds came from the former NSA. He’s claimed that Zenith Bank bankrolled his election, an assertion that certainly raises potential criminal jeopardies both for the bank and the governor. But Mr. Fayose has reopened the old debate of whether, as a serving governor, he could become a target of a criminal investigation.
Section 308 of Nigeria’s constitution pertains to the whole question of immunity for certain designated public officials. I have long argued that the immunity clause, arguably the most expansive in the world, constitutes a crime against the Nigerian people. The section states in part: “no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to whom this section applies during his period of office;” adding, “a person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested or imprisoned during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise.” This is a scandal that no serious people would countenance.
It is a nonsensical provision, its effect nothing short of fertilizing the unfettered commission of crimes by those it covers, the President, Vice-President, Governor and Deputy Governor. In vibrant democracies, the immunity clause protects public officials only for those actions that are within the legitimate purview of their office. Former Governor John Rowland of the state of Connecticut was investigated, charged and convicted for illegally accepting gifts from contractors doing work in his state. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois is serving a 14-year jail sentence for seeking to sell President Obama’s Senate seat. US prosecutors did not wait for them to serve out their gubernatorial terms before docking them.
Nigeria ought to amend its constitution to adopt a much narrower immunity clause. There’s little sense in permitting a criminal, one whose record of crime is significant and provable, to continue in office, further polluting and impoverishing the public trust.
The absence of action on altering the immunity clause is evidence of political failure on Mr. Buhari’s part. In 2011, as a presidential candidate, he had vowed that, if elected, he would push to “remove immunity from prosecution for elected officers in criminal cases.” Such an amendment would do more—systemically and structurally—to fight corruption than the haphazard way the EFCC is currently going about prosecutions.
The question is—why has the president not acted on an important promise he made?
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