The autonomy of local governments has been gaining momentum in the last few months especially as the House of Representatives and the Senate have begun processes to amend the constitution. In this report, Adesuwa Tsan highlights the challenges faced by local government councils and attempts made by the House to find solutions to the problems.
Last week, lawmakers in the green chamber of the House of Representatives had a long and winded debate on the illegality of local government caretaker committees with seemingly interminable tenures, operational at present in 25 of the 36 states of the federation.
In its plenary on Thursday, the representatives while debating a motion moved by Hon Friday Itulah expressed fear that if left unchecked, it will become a trend where governors will altogether put aside elections into local government councils, choosing instead to put stooges who will respond to their every beck and call.
They opined that as a matter of urgency, the governors should conduct elections in the various councils where caretaker committees are in place.
Some of the states listed include Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Benue, Bornu, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Gombe, Imo, Kano and Kaduna. Others are Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Nasarawa, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Yobe and Zamfara States.
“State governments have been breaching Section 7 (1) of the constitution,” they argued. “If this exercise by state governments is not checked, it may bring the country to a lawless state”.
Speaking on the development, Hon Chinenye Ike noted that “the people in the grassroots deserve the dividends of democracy. The federal and state governments are not accessible to them, all they have is the council chairmen. How will they have their say when most of the caretaker administrators rule with impunity and do not even participate in local activities because they we’re not elected. The governors disburse the allocation of the local government as they please and the council men cannot say anything about it because they derive their powers from them”.
Another lawmaker, Ahmed Datti raised a pertinent point, no “matter how many motions the House passes, it will not make a difference until the relevant sections of the constitution are amended”.
Datti cited the dissolution of the State Independent Electoral Commission as one of the areas that need to be amended if the governor’s grip is to be released from the local councils.
He argued that this is because they have become a tool with which the state executives impose candidates of their choice when they even pretend to conduct elections.
Though the motion had sought to order for the suspension of monthly allocations to the affected local governments, the bid failed as the deputy speaker, Hon Emeka Ihedioha, who presided over the plenary session, called the attention of the House to a notice from the chairman of the Committee on Business and Rules, Hon Albert Sam-Tsokwa, of an existing Supreme Court ruling on the matter.
Besides, based on numerous court cases instituted in relation to the contentious caretaker committees, lawmakers agreed that any attempt to suspend the local governments’ allocations would not be backed by law.
It will be recalled that on December 20, 2004, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, delivered a judgment in favour of the Lagos State government that the president does not have the power to withhold or suspend allocations from the Federation Account to any tier of government.
As the ad-hoc committee on constitution amendment sets out for its retreat this week, it is expected that these local government administrators and other informed Nigerians will seize the opportunity to wrest local government administration from the hands of state governors by submitting a memoranda for the amendment of the existing Act.
Already exasperated by the diversion of funds meant for development of local councils by most governors, some local government chairmen, especially the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), have began championing the need for financial autonomy for local councils in the country.
Similarly, the House of Representatives has also moved to address the existing anomaly by abolishing Joint State/Local Government Accounts through an amendment of the constitution.
It is common knowledge that Joint State/Local Government Accounts have become a link with which state governments some local governments withhold allocation of local councils to the point that payment of salaries of employees is not possible due to the meagre available funds.
It is hoped that the bill to grant financial autonomy to the 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the country will scale through when it gets to state Houses of Assembly for concurrence.
Sponsored by Hon Abdullahi Mohammed, the bill seeks to alter the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 and to ensure efficient operations of the Local Government Councils in Nigeria for social, economic and political development and for other matters connected (HB. 176)”.
The amendment seeks to tinker with Sections 7 (1,2); 85(2); 162(5,6,7,8); 197(1b) and 313 as well as second and fourth schedules of the 1999 Constitution as amended. The fourth schedule aims at including but not restricting local governments in the economic planning of the states and Federal Government while Sub-section 4 spells out the financial autonomy of the local councils as well as audit of public accounts.
According to the sponsor, “these amendments will empower the Auditor General of the Federation to audit the accounts of the local government councils and to make his report to the National Assembly on a quarterly basis so that we can ensure that the monies allocated to them follow the due process and are accounted for to show transparency and prudence in their expenditure.
“Section 162(3), which deals with ‘distributable pool account,’ has already defined the distribution of funds from the federation account to the three tiers of government.
Section 162(5) needs to be altered so that the credit to local government councils goes into the local government accounts directly”, he said.
He, however, stressed further that “the alteration of the existing Act will consolidate the states and local governments’ contribution for special projects within the local governments and the states. There is dire need for the ecological and excess crude funds to go directly into the coffer of local governments, in line with the principle of separation of powers”.
The sixth Assembly had in the last constitutional amendment process passed a bill to grant financial autonomy to state legislatures to confer front line charge on their funding in a bid to ensure greater independence and efficiency but the bill failed to get two-thirds of the state Houses of Assembly approval.
Although the spokesman of the Green Chamber has explained that the composition of governance has changed and that there is greater hope for it to scale through this time around, there is still doubt that the same Assemblies will grant the wishes of the rural populace to have their leaders take up the duties that have been assigned by them.