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Financial Autonomy For State Assemblies, What Next?



State legislatures finally have their financial freedom thanks to the signing of a new law. GABRIEL EMAMEH, writes on the implications for states, going forward.

The entire concept of the separation of powers is to ensure that no one arm of government exercises power to the detriment of the society. Like the historian and moralist, Lord Acton said in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This scenario best describes the power of the Executive, cutting across the 36 states of the federation. State Houses of Assembly are under the beck and call of state governors. Clearly, the independence of state Houses of Assembly in Nigeria has remained quite doubtful even as some state House of Assemblies continue to play the ostrich over their not being tied to the apron string of their state governors as it is widely believed. 

Contrary to this practice, at the federal level, the National Assembly has for some time now, been able to exercise some level of check and balance on the executive. With this strong sense of autonomy, the National Assembly has continued to perform its oversight functions and assert its right to control the finances of the Federation as constitutionally required.

This has been the basis for the intense debate that has, not until recently, remained on the front burner of several national discourses in the last few years to have similar power at the National Assembly replicated at state level.

However, that debate has finally been put to rest as President Muhammadu Buhari recently assented to the Constitutional Fourth Alteration Bill, granting financial autonomy and independence to respective state Houses of Assembly and their counterparts in the judiciary.

The President had in press statement through his senior special adviser on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang, said he had assented ‘‘the Constitution Fourth Alteration Bill which grants financial autonomy and independence to the Houses of Assembly of the respective states and to the Judiciary of the respective states.

“And then the amounts standing to the credit of the Houses of Assembly of the respective states are now to be paid directly to the Houses of Assembly of that state for the benefit of the legislators and the management of the States Houses of Assembly”, the statement had read in part.

The move has received wide commendation from different sections of the society and has been described as a step further to boost the country’s democratic development. This is not only going to enable state Legislatures have freedom to access their budgetary allocations directly without the current trend of depending on the good graces of the Executive in states but also to create more channels for effective democratic practice, institutional and state building, an opinion leader had averred.

Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who reacted to the development through his twitter account commended NASS for the bill, which according to him would help develop states in the nation.

“The NASS deserves commendation for the just assented to bill granting financial autonomy to state assemblies and judiciary. It is laws like this, and more, that will grant the constituent states the envisaged independence and flexibility to develop at their own pace”, Atiku had twitted. 

Speaker, Benue State House of Assembly, Mr Terkimbi Ikyange, who also reacted to the news, said the granting of financial autonomy to the State Houses of Assembly would go a long way to deepen democracy and enhance good governance across the country.

He said such move would not only lead to the growth and development of the Legislature but will also bring about effective oversight which will translate to good governance, adding that it was timely.

On his part, Deputy Speaker of Katsina state House of Assembly, Engr Shehu Dalhatu Tafoki commended President Muhammadu Buhari for signing into law the bill for an act which provides financial autonomy to the Judiciary and state Assemblies, saying the President “has proven once again, that he is a true democrat who is committed to the ideals of true separation of powers as the financial autonomy will allow the affected arms to function effectively”. Tafoki added that it would “continue to provide the needed impetus for advancing governance in the country”.

As good and plausible as the intention is, there are however reservations and perceptions in some quarters that granting financial autonomy to state assembly does not guarantee them total autonomy from the overbearing influence of their governors who often influence most of the activities of parties’ representatives in state assemblies.

The contention in some quarters still remains that state governors and party leaders traditionally often handpick candidates to represent the party at all level; hence these legislators exclusively become their stooge working in line with the dictates of their political godfathers even at the expense of those they represent, political watchers have observed.

The implication is that the governors from their alpha positions deprive the legislatures the capacity to control the purse, carry out effective oversight or generally hold the governor to account. It is the main reason state Houses of Assembly are mere rubber stamps to state governors, which does not augur well for the nation’s democracy. What difference does it really make when governors can still wield the stick? 

Several examples have been cited by political watchers and one of such is the inability of state assemblies to question governors on the alleged misuse of the Paris Club Bailout Fund released to them by the federal government on three occasions with about ten states not able to pay workers’ salaries.

‘‘The current method of choosing our representatives is still too mired or skewed in favour of local potentates, call them god fathers or whatever best suit- Governors and party stalwarts imposing their candidates on the electorate through the party system which lacks internal party democracy, said Ismaila Olokun (Esq).

‘‘Unless that system is reformed significantly as to throw up credible and independent minded candidates who will emerge as Representatives, this provision will only amount to a gloss over the decadence which presently exists in the administration at that level.”

Moving forward, Olokun draws a parallel line, though ties both arms of government together, saying a lot needs to be done and the chunk of the responsibility lies with the electorate to elect Representatives with content, character and legislative quality and doggedness such that was practiced in the second republic, citing Old Bendel State House as an example.

‘‘Keep in mind too that the necessary bureaucracy and other structures are still largely undeveloped to support such a monumental task. This is largely due to the fact that whenever there is a coup, the legislature all but disappears.

“It is the quality of person we elect to the Houses that will determine the level of independence exercisable. In the old Bender State House of Assembly- 1979-1983, it was evident, even without this provision that the executive couldn’t trifle with the House, he said.

He continued: ‘‘You had personages like the late Speaker, Benson Alegbe, a Lawyer of no mean repute. Dr. Akpokaro, then Minority leader who was a towering leader of the Warri Bar. Isaac Jemide, Mike Oloyo, a dogged lecturer, Mike Okonjo, Charles Adogah the youngest of them all, Dr. Gregory Amantu, Chief Aiwerioghene the then majority leader.

‘‘It was a galaxy of stars who not only kept the state government on its toes but also was prepared to give support to that administration’s fight against the tyranny of the Federal Government of President Shehu Shagari.”

On his part, Ehis Irabor, a Makurdi based legal practitioner said, ‘‘for the sake of our nation’s democratic development, let’s hope that the letter of the amendment gifting autonomy to state Houses of Assemblies as well as the judiciary activates the spirit of the amendment which is to ensure that we have true, genuine, undiluted and uncensored separation of powers.

‘‘I remember that during the 3rd alteration, state assemblies themselves voted against legislative autonomy. That alone tells you the naivety of that arm of government to sever the umbilical cord that has ensured that it is but the apron string of the executive.

‘‘Now that they are now autonomous, we hope that the various arms of government pursuant to sections 4, 5 and 6 of the 1999 Constitution would maximise their full powers to the utmost benefit of the Nigerian people.