Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel is the national president of the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE). In this interview with Michael Oche, he gave an insight into the ongoing struggle for local government autonomy and the pressure being mounted on state Houses of Assemblies by their governors.
What is the state of the local government autonomy bill at the ongoing constitution amendment process?
So far so good, out of 36 years states Houses of Assembly that are expected to legislate on the Bill submitted to them by the National Assembly, only 12 have actually concluded the legislation of the entire bill submitted to them. Out of the 12, 9 voted in favour of the LG autonomy bill while 3 rejected entirely. They rejected without proper public hearing as agreed and adopted by both the forum of the governors in Nigeria and the forum of the speakers of the state houses of assemblies. Maybe it is because of the huge interference of the governors of those states on the process. These states are Rivers, Imo and Edo states. No citizen of the states was consulted by the state Assemblies. They just locked themselves up and came up with the submission.
Are you optimistic that this process will be concluded before the next election?
I want to believe that any responsible state assembly cannot abandon this bill just like that, considering the fact that a lot of Nigerians put in a lot of energy and effort to get to where it is today. A lot of resources were committed by the national assembly and other stakeholders too. We believe that for Nigeria to work properly, local government must be in place. Not only to be in place, but it must be practically and visibly in place so that it can function properly and bridge the gap it was established to bridge or the purpose of its creation. I believe no responsible state assembly will just abandon the project.
Are you sure it will be passed?
We have confidence. If we don’t have confidence we would have backed out. But we believe that nothing good comes easy. And more importantly that if you look at the attitude of our governors in particular it is not going to be an easy journey to change from the way they used to be to something that will benefit everybody. The current position benefits only the governors. It benefits them because they have access to more free funds from the local government fund from the local government funds. And they use this tier of government as lose as it is today to manipulate Nigerians politically and otherwise. So the benefit is to them and it is not going to be easy, sincerely speaking.
The Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) has raised concerns that granting autonomy to LG will affect payment of teachers salaries. How will you react to this
If this bill is pass into law, primary school education would even be more autonomous than the Local Government. Because the provision is very clear, that whatever percentage is expected to be contributed by both state and local government in a given state, it would be determined through an edit of the State Assembly and such would also be transmitted to the Federal Allocation Account Committee (FAAC) where such deductions from each states would be affected and set aside or transfer to a particular account or institution assigned by the law and that will guarantee for the payment of primary school teachers, not only salaries but also other teaching materials and equipment. So they don’t have anything to worry about. I am saying this authoritatively because I and the national leadership of NUT were part of the process. If I am part of the leadership of NUT, I will be on the forefront canvassing for autonomy for LG by ensuring that this bill see the light of the day. As at today, the primary school salaries is hanging, nobody is responsible by law to pay this salaries because the law did not provide where the teachers belong. Either they are staff of Local Government, State Government or Federal Government. They need to for instance, know where they belong to. But the situation now is confusing, to the extent that deductions are made from Local Government funds hundred percent to pay teachers salaries, while the board that administer primary education reside in the state. So there is confusion, there is no synergy but by this new provision, it is very clear that anybody can administer in as much as funding for primary education is coming from these two tiers of government, so is more clear and it would be more better for them.
Some governors have argued that local government employees do not have the capacity to run the system if granted autonomy?
I don’t think the excuse of capacity is adequate enough to be use against granting Local Government autonomy. Even if there is issue of capacity, once it is granted autonomy, it will have the leverage to look outside the box and see what they can do to address the issue of capacity that is if their assertion is correct. But as a leader of Local Government, let me make it clear that the capacity of Local Government workers cannot be a question. There is no qualification that you cannot find in the Local Government administration in Nigeria. We have engineers, Medical doctors, lawyers, PhD holders. Even in NULGE today, I preside over a council with over 10 PhD holders as state chairmen of NULGE so which capacity are you talking about. So the issue is that state governments are using flimsy excuses to deprive Nigerians the much needed functional local government they desire. It is selfish on the part of the Governors for not allowing local government to function,we look at examples of many other countries in the world, look at all Federal arrangement in the world, they have local government and they are functioning and by granting autonomy, it doesn’t mean local government will not have anything to do with states, we are talking about independence, free enablement for the local government to operate because it has a specify function.
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