One of the items that was voted for by the National Assembly in the ongoing constitutional review is the amendment seeking to grant local government financial autonomy. KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes on the prospects of the amendment.
One recurring issue in the polity of Nigeria, particularly since its return to civil rule, is the call for local government autonomy which is more or less related to current agitation for restructuring. Known as the third tier of government, local government system in Nigeria, for decades, has had factors that inhibited it from reaching its potentials of driving grass root development due to interference from states and financial dependence on same.
To this effect, an amendment seeking the deletion of sub-sections 5 and 6 which states that “the amount standing to the credit of the local government councils in the Federation Account, shall also be allocated to states for the benefit of their local government councils on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly” and “each state shall maintain a State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid all allocations to the LGA councils from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State” respectively.
If this comes to fruition, the constitution will provide that “each local government council shall maintain a special account to be called Local Government Council Allocation Account, into which shall be paid directly such allocations to the local government council from the Federation Account, and from the government of the state, provided that there shall be no disbursement of any fund of the local government except by a bye-law passed by the local government legislative council.
Advocates of this amendments argue that until this is achieved, Nigeria cannot be considered to be practising federalism. They opine that the third tier of government is familiar with developmental needs in their domain and are better positioned to know where to channel their funds hence the need for financial independence.
According to the president of the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, the importance of local governments cannot be overemphasised, bearing in mind the structure and diversity of the country.
He said the one way to accommodate this diversity is to design a local government system that is of the people instead of that owned and controlled by state governors.
Similarly, political analyst, Estelle Aruez opines that local government autonomy is the panacea to the problem of local government administration in the country adding that the failure to make direct financial allocation to local government councils also inhibits local government performance. “The Joint State-Local government account system denies local councils the opportunity to determine projects that are relevant to their people. The situation where state governments award uniform projects to all local government areas is a negation of the principle of grassroots development that undergirds the creation of local councils as third tier of government”.
In view of this, efforts have been made to reform the system to drive its objectives which is grassroots development as well as participation. On its part, the National Assembly has consistently taken steps to halt the dependence of LGs on states by amending sections 7, 162 of the constitution and granting the local government financial autonomy.
While previous assemblies failed at achieving this, a spark of optimism was ignited when the 8th National Assembly recently voted in favour of the amendment seeking to cut the umbilical cord that joins local governments and states which many say hinders local governments from taking their rightful position in the scheme of things. The next step in the process is transmission of the amendments to the state houses of assembly which must muster two-third for it to become law. Predictably, this remains a source of concern for champions of the alteration and rightly justifiable going by how things panned out in previous amendment process.
It would be recalled that in the 7th assembly, the issue of LG autonomy formed one of major contentious issues in the amendment of the 1999 constitution. While the federal lawmakers pushed for financial autonomy to the councils to make them more effective in bringing development to the people, governors opposed it arguing that the proposed amendment to the 1999 Constitution should reflect only the federal and state as tiers of government and local governments made an extension of the ministries in the states.
The amendment scaled through in the National Assembly, but was truncated in the State Houses of assembly after they failed to garner the two-third approval required for it to be passed into law, a development that was attributed to the influence of state governors.
Since then, not much has changed on the part of governors as the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) remains opposed to the LG grant autonomy on the basis that local councils are integral parts of state governments, arguing that in all known federation, the federating units are usually the states and the center with no provision for local government as a federating unit.
It averred that in a true federalism, issues relating to the creation, delineation and funding of local authorities is within the constitutional purview of states, which have political and judicial status that the local government do not have.
“These local governments so named are the beneficiaries of federal allocations, just like the states and the federal government. It is this existing arrangement that has made some to erroneously assume and even argue that the local governments are on the same level of autonomy as states and federal government,” it submitted.
However, governors like Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta and Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun states have thrown their weight behind the amendment, noting that any leader who desires the good of his people and the development of the grassroots as well as the nation at large must support local government autonomy.
Supporters continue to clamour for the financial independence of the third tier of government.
The president, Nigerian Labour Congress, Ayuba Wabba, reacting to the National Assembly’s passage of LG autonomy, stressed that it “will free LGAs from untoward high-handedness of majority of state governors; reduce rural-urban migration”.
He said, “We have no doubt that if passed into law, these amendments will free-up the local governments from the strangle-hold of state governments and widen the democratic space as well as restore the lost glory of local governments.
“The overall implication of the amendments by the National Assembly, is the unconditional restoration of the autonomy of local governments without which the progressive retardation and decay in the polity will continue unabated. It is evident that autonomy will ensure that the local government system develops as a third tier of government with the capacity to discharge its constitutional responsibilities to its constituents; strengthen democratic decentralisation of power and put power back in the hands of the citizenry at the grassroots level of governance.”
The NLC president called on members of the 36 State Houses of Assembly to be on the side of the people and history by displaying the courage of their colleagues at the National Assembly by giving their unqualified support.
“We also call on all the governors of the 36 states to sheathe partisan or insular considerations and support these amendments in national interest,” Wabba said.
In the same vein, president of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, urged members of the state assemblies to vote in favour of local government autonomy and not to bow to pressure reportedly mounted on them.
“They should understand that this issue is not a political issue but a thing that has to do with development of the grassroots and the country. Besides, they are also the representative of these Nigerians who are at the grassroots and walloping in deprivation.”
“Even some of the governors are no longer opposed to autonomy. From our advocacy, we recorded a lot of commitment from some of the governors to give their support to ensure that local government autonomy scales through.”
However, Prof Itse Sagay, shares a contrary view, having urged the state lawmakers not to support debate on local government autonomy, saying that the recognition of local government as the third tier of government in Nigeria was not even ideal.
In an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Sagay posited that local governments in federal political systems are creations of the state hence, ought not to enjoy powers in same measures that the constitution grants to the federating units.
He opined that Nigeria’s federal system was contrary to the principle of federalism which recognised only two levels of government-federal and state governments warning that autonomy for local governments would cause problems of governance for governors.
He added that state assemblies that will support amending the constitution to give independence to local government do so at the detriment of their development.
For now, until the amendment is achieved, views remain divided and the local government system will remain nothing but a collection of hamlets controlled by state governors while rural areas stay under-developed.
For proponents, more work needs to be done to ensure that it is endorsed at the state assemblies and subsequently made into a law.