Battle for Souls of Local Governments

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Chibuike Amaechi
Chibuike Amaechi

State governors are resolutely opposed to any constitutional provision that will grant local government autonomy, while stakeholders are also up in arms to enthrone their independence in the Constitution

|  By Augustine Adah  |  Jan. 28, 2013 @ 01:00

THE financial autonomy for the third tier of government in Nigeria may have to wait for now. The 36 state governors of the federation are so far vehemently opposed to it. The governors, who are  using the local councils funds to serve their own interests, are not willing to let them go. For instance, the Joint Account Allocation Committee, JAAC, empowers the governors to make arbitrary deductions from the local government allocations under the guise of funding joint projects.

Abba Moro
Abba Moro

In order to have an efficient local government system that would serve its purpose, the National Assembly has proposed autonomy in the constitutional amendment to be completed this year. To get the opinions of Nigerians on the matter, the chambers of the National Assembly conducted public hearings in all the 360 federal constituencies and 109 senatorial zones last year. It also opened a dedicated line through which Nigerians were asked to vote either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on the autonomy for local governments. Shortly after, the exercise was halted by the National Assembly, saying that the integrity of the process was in jeopardy and needed to be protected. Sources close to the lawmakers said that they feared that the exercise could be abused by state governors and some interest groups. It is not yet clear how the National Assembly intends to resolve the matter.

What is clear is that that the 36 state governors would stop at nothing to scuttle the reform. Chibuike Amaechi, governor of Rivers State, and chairman, Nigerian Governors’ Forum, NGF, said that local government autonomy should not be a constitutional matter. Amaechi argued that there was no country in the world where there were three federating units. “We cannot have local governments which are independent of state governments; it is, therefore, absurd for anybody to think of autonomy for them,” Amaechi said.

Lamido Sanusi, governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, wants the local councils to be scrapped altogether for a different reason. Sanusi said it was sad that the local government system, which was meant to serve the people at the grassroots, had not been able to perform its statutory roles. Speaking at a Capital Market committee retreat in Warri, Delta State, Lamido described the Nigerian local government system as a waste of resources because it was being run as a tier of government and therefore could not achieve the original purpose. “Our experience so far shows that the constitutional provision for the establishment of local government has been observed more in breach because most of the 774councils are run by appointees of the various state governors,” Sanusi said.

Indeed, many state governors have refused to conduct elections into the local councils for a long time. Instead, they prefer to appoint caretaker committees who would be there to serve their interest. This is contrary to the provision of section 8 of Nigeria 1999 Constitution, which states that elections must be conducted into the local government areas on a regular basis.

The state governors’ control has made administration at the local councils ineffective. Many of them cannot pay their staff salaries as and when due. Some of them that make efforts to pay salaries regularly do so at the expense of social services that they are supposed to render to the people. For more than seven months last year, local government staff in the 17 local government areas of Plateau State went on strike because of non-payment of N18,000 minimum wage approved by the federal and state governments.

Besides, the 1999 Constitution virtually makes local government administration in Nigeria an appendage of state governments. For instance, Section 8 of the constitution says: “Each state shall maintain a special account to be called state joint local government account into which shall be paid all allocations to the local government councils of the state from the federation account.”

Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman
Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman

This, in essence, is why a great number of Nigerians have advocated autonomy for local government administration in the constitution. Abba Moro, minister of interior, believes that the local government system deserves autonomy because of its closeness to the people at the grassroots. He commended the National Assembly for the bold step in reforming the local government administration, saying it was long overdue. Moro was also a one-time president, Association of Local Government Chairmen of Nigeria, ALGON, Benue State chapter.

Moro’s opinion is supported by Adetunji Oyebolu, former chairman, Surulere local government area, Lagos State, who stated that granting financial autonomy would accelerate the pace of development in the rural areas. “The local government reform is long overdue,” Oyebolu said.

Similarly,  Smart Ofonyiri, executive director, Institute of Leadership and Democratic Studies, Lagos, has expressed surprise at the way governors have been mounting opposition to the autonomy. Ofonyiri lamented that for quite a long time, local government administrations could not perform their constitutional roles because they were appendages of the state governors whose interests they must serve rather than their own people. He said that was why governors always ensured that only people they appointed as caretakers or elected served at the councils. He noted that on many occasions, chairmen were only able to pay monthly salaries and nothing else because of illegal deductions made by state governments from the local governments’ monthly allocations.

Ofonyiri urged Nigerians to resist the plans of the state governors to impose their will on the country. He said it was only through autonomy that development could reach the grassroots faster and enable the people to enjoy the dividends of democracy.

Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman, chairman, Senate Committee on Niger-Delta Affairs, also condemned the position of the NGF. He described the hostile attitude of the governors as unhealthy for the development of rural communities. The senator, representing Kogi Central senatorial zone, urged Nigerians to be resilient in their demand for reform of the local government system.

Abatemi-Usman had introduced a bill at the National Assembly, seeking for financial autonomy for local governments immediately he became a senator in 2011. The bill which scaled through second reading was referred to the Senate Committee on Constitution Review in March last year. For a long time now, local government chairmen have been complaining of their inability to pay staff salaries and execute tangible projects because of the lean financial position of their councils. This was as a result of the policy that allows the state governors to control the allocations coming to the council from the federation account.

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