Since the return of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, there has been clamor for the financial autonomy of local government councils being the constitutionally stated third tier of government. In practical terms, the said third tier is almost non-existent as most of the State Governors have overtime, succeeded in transforming them to cash cows.
As the journey progressed, three times the National Assembly (excluding the 9th) made attempts to amend the constitutional provision for the financial autonomy of the councils that were scuttled by the state governor’s rubber stamp Houses of Assembly.
The State Governors, in most cases hide under the constitutional cover of Joint State/Local Government Account that is only beneficial to the State Governors.
In democracy, it is common knowledge that power belongs to the people and not to just the people in power, who in most cases, are mere opportunists that can hardly describe what genuine democracy entails and what power to the people means.
The implication is that the people, through their elected representatives at various levels of government, can hardly reflect their choices on issues of concern to them. This, in fact, is the dividing line between democracy and autocracy which we are partly practicing in Nigeria today.
While democracy allows for the people’s will to prevail over personal interest by way of simple majority, autocracy solely allows whims of those in power to dominate governance space that beclouds the reasoning faculty of some politicians on the corridors of power to label their political party platforms as personal limited liability companies, that without their input, the democracy cannot grow. That is a dream of the absurd!
It doesn’t require any extra labor to know that the biggest threat to democracy is the subversion of the people’s will by those in power which is now more pronounced than ever before. The moment elected representatives’ views begin to overshadow the people’s voices it is safe to assume that the journey to autocracy or any of its equally ugly variation has begun. Sadly, one thorny issue that has remained a concern to millions of Nigerians is the controversial local government council’s financial autonomy as Nigeria seems to be walking down that rough road repeatedly.
The 1999 Constitution recognizes the existence of local government as the third tier of government after the Federal and State Governments. Since 1979, when the Decree established it as a system of government in the Constitution, the idea was to bring government closer to the people and ensure effective service delivery to the rural areas. To achieve this objective, several local government reforms were undertaken by different governments over the course of time.
Essentially, finance and leadership recruitment process are key areas of concern in any discourse on local government financial autonomy.
Incidentally, these are two areas that most State Governors are determined never to let go, even when the majority of their people are clamoring for freedom for the local governments. They prefer to make the maximum use of their management stooges imposed on the councils and the rubber stamp House of Assembly to scuttle the effort and their compromised representatives in the National Assembly that worship some of the governors for selfish interest.
As at today, there are 768 local government areas and six (6) area councils recognized by the 1999 Constitution (as amended), making it a total of 774 local government area councils nationwide.
By Law, these local governments and area councils are to be administered by democratically elected chairmen and councilors. Sadly, the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), directly under the watch and firm control of the State Governors, are the agencies saddled with the responsibilities of conducting elections for the councils’ executive and legislative arms.
Again, by law, the local government councils receive monthly allocation of funds from the Federation Allocation and it is on record that from 1999 to date, each of the 774 local governments have received not less than N40billion each from that source. Summing that up, the figure would be in the region of over N33trillion for the 774 local government councils.
However, given the near-zero development projects in our rural areas, a puzzled mind should certainly ask: ‘Where has all those funds gone into?’ Here lies the biggest problem – the 1999 constitutional provision that recognizes the so called State/Local Government Joint Account. All funds accruing to local governments from the federation account are lumped into the Joint Account and each state has a Joint Account Committee that was constituted by the state government to oversee the distribution of funds to local governments in accordance with ‘prevailing needs’ of the councils. As a result, a local government council that officially received a monthly allocation of N350million from the federation account for instance, may end up with a paltry N10million for administrative charges.
Reported cases abound where due to the personal misunderstanding that ensured between a council chairman and a state governor, the concerned council was denied its share of financial allocation until the perceived erring chairman was taught a lesson and ‘forced’ to apologize and to ‘behave’ better in future before the funds were released to the council.
Also as earlier pointed out, the leadership recruitment process for local government areas is entirely at the mercy of the state governors. In most cases, primary election of the ruling political party in the state is more tedious than the regular elections conducted by SIECs. In most cases, before results at collation centres are even accepted and approved, candidates of the ruling parties are already announced as the duly elected. Complainants of the conduct of the elections are usually mocked by the riggers and murderers of the democracy.
They are told to go to the tribunal for redress knowing that the tribunals are not better than SIEC in anyway. The State Election Petition Tribunals are mere extortion centres of litigants. Members of the tribunals are in most cases assembled sycophants tutored on how to fool the aggrieved for easy access to approved allowances and incentives from the concerned governments and their collaborators in government.
The irony of the whole drama is that in most cases, the governors are smart in selecting their robots for imposition on the councils. The intelligent and the radicals are usually thrown out of the way no matter how popular they may be. The reason is simple fear of disappointment from doing the bidding of those clowns in power!
In other cases, what you meet in most local governments are caretaker committees appointed by the state governors for business as usual and supported by other politicians of the ruling party that dictate the tune to their stooges imposed. If that is not a flagrant abuse of democracy and right of franchise, what else is it? Should the people remain at the receiving end or stand to defend their rights to good governance through democracy? Your guess is as good as mine!
Given that local government administration is mainly the only semblance of government close to the most wretched on planet earth, the consensus is that it must be allowed to thrive and blossom. Against this backdrop, moves by the past National Assemblies for a constitutional amendment process threw up the proposed local government financial autonomy, which in their wisdom and of course the majority that mean good for Nigeria, would revive and strengthen structure to deliver democracy dividends to the grassroots for an improved welfare.
The said proposed Amendments were:
i. Annulment of State/Local Government Joint Account to enable direct funding to local government accounts from the federation account
ii. Abolition of State Independent Electoral Commissions to enable INEC conduct all local government councils elections in the States; and
iii. Stoppage of allocation from Federation Account to any unelected local government administrator
These and other related proposals were sent to the 36 State Houses of Assembly for concurrence with a view to be in sync as well as align with the position of the then National Assembly for effective implementation of the desired constitutional amendment.
Though most people, civil society organizations, traditional rulers and responsible politicians were on the same page, interestingly only a few of the state governors lend their voices to those clamoring for the true financial autonomy of the local governments.
As unambiguously stated, most state governors are doing everything possible within their powers to frustrate efforts towards the freedom of the local governments. It is also common knowledge that State Houses of Assemblies and some National Assembly members of the ruling party in the state are closely tied to the apron strings of their state governors and the ugly situation places them in a precarious and difficult situation to act independently because of the fear of the obvious. Some of them are beneficiaries of the rigging mechanisms perfected by the governors while some are on errand or holding forte for the governors until the ideal time to take over.
However, it is important to state that if truly, the governors and the assembly members are justly representing the interest and voices of the people, there should be no problem given that the people are in support of autonomy for local government, in a truly representative democracy.
But as things are and if allowed to continue, Nigeria’s democracy will continue to be under threat, thus the need for all concerned to rise to the occasion and rescue the local governments from the governors’ tyrannical stranglehold.
On the whole, as the people’s representatives, State Assembly and National Assembly members must strive to reflect the wishes of their constituents in this direction with the people also going the extra mile to engage and interface closely with their elected representatives than deceitful game of distributing outdated automobiles, motor and tricycles, grinding and water-pumping machines etc as welfare package to selected few sycophants and to silence the voice of reasoning.
The time is ripe for the financial autonomy of local governments. We must all lend support for actualizing the autonomy to strengthen the democracy and improve the quality of lives at the most remotest areas, most especially in some areas that we belong where the presence of government is only heard but not seen since creation.
Ours is a pathetic situation that calls for immediate change through the ballot box in 2023 as the people are abandoned to fate without a vibrant voice.
Lest I forget, I must commend the efforts of one Yusuf Dayyabu Garga, representing Pankshin/Kanke/Kanam in the Federal House of Representatives from Plateau State for his strides in improving the socio-economic development of his constituency. Plateau State Governor, Simon Bako Lalong, had earlier described Gagdi as the best performing national legislator from Plateau state, if I can recall correctly. I doff my hat for the young politician for the wonders he has so far displayed in sincere representation without strings attached.
And it reminds me of the recorded achievements of Muhammed Garba Gololo of Gamawa Federal Constituency, Bauchi State. Within his tenure in the House of Representatives, 2015-2019, he established 180 visible projects across the constituency ranging from primary healthcare centres, tarred roads, different brands of boreholes, classroom blocks, school furniture, access roads, culverts, drainages, market stalls, district heads palaces apart from other poverty alleviation programmes and scholarship award to 48 students in tertiary institutions. He secured 97 appointments (34 from federal and 63 from various state governments and the private sector) to his constituents and built/equipped a standard Skills Acquisation centre within his constituency for the training/empowerment of interested youth. One is talking of donation of outdated automobiles and other valueless funny items for deceit. I salute his foresight and concern to the future of his people. His representation, I believe is still needed by majority of his people across party divide. I salute him!
Muhammad is a commentator on national issues