Controversy Over Local Government Autonomy
There have been agitations for the recognition of local council as the third tier of government in accordance with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution. Many have argued that governors have mismanaged local government funds through the joint state/local government account. In this report, TONY AKOWE examines the quest for local government autonomy as the National Assembly prepares to amend the constitution.
On assumption of office on May 29, 1999, former President Olusegun Obasanjo acknowledged the problem inherent in the 1999 Constitution. He asked the then three political parties represented in the National Assembly (the Peoples Democratic Party, Alliance for Democracy and All Peoples Party) to nominate six representatives each to constitute an All – Party Committee on the review of the constitution. That committee, which was later expanded to eight members each from the three parties, became the Presidential Committee on the Review of the 1999 constitution.
The committee, which was inaugurated on October 19, 1999 by the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Kanu Agabi, was initially headed by Ambassador Yusuf Mamman who was National Chairman of the Alliance for Democracy. He was later replaced by Chief Clement Ebri when Mamman resigned and was replaced on the committee by Chief Ayo Adebanjo. The committee pushed for a system of local government in the country, which would recognise the internal diversity of the country within a federal structure. In its wisdom, the committee argued that the safeguards which have been built into the system will guarantee that development of the states and local government areas will remain a joint responsibility of the tiers, with adequate autonomy reasonably satisfactory to each level.
The panel recommended that part of the constitution listing the names of local government should be deleted on the premise that “within the principle of a truly federal system, local governments are not federating units and should not be specifically mentioned in the constitution”.
The argument of the committee has a strong backing of the True Federalism Committee of the All Progressives Congress (APC). The El-Rufai Committee on True Federalism believes that local government should not be listed in the constitution. In its recommendation, which the party forwarded to the National Assembly during the 8th Assembly, the committee acknowledged that the demand for local government autonomy was as a result of the alleged interference in the management of the money allocated to LGAs from the Federation Account. They said “Local Governments cannot be federating units under the principles of federalism, thereby making the whole notion of direct allocation to LGAs from the Federation Account an aberration. In conformity with federalism, LGAs should be no more than administrative units of states as otherwise would make them become third tier federating units. In view of these, and in line with empirical findings during consultations, the committee recommended that LGA should be removed from the constitution and states be allowed to develop a local administrative system that is relevant and peculiar to each respective state”. This then brings to mind the question of whether the local government system is really necessary in the country, if they cannot be guaranteed freedom to operate like any other tier of government.
Part of the recommendation of the Constitution Review Committee set up by Obasanjo was that while Local Governments should be relatively autonomous as provided for in the Constitution and subject to direct funding and minimal supervision by the State Governments in specific matters. There are however arguments that the demand for a Local Government system with a constitutional power to deal directly with the Federal Government amounts to a violation of the constitutional sovereignty of states and to a large extent, renders the states completely irrelevant as federating units.
Although the local government system is a creation of the constitution, there are agitations that states should be empowered to legislate on the existence of local government. But, others have argued that doing this will only make the local government councils an appendage of the governor’s office. Across the country, there are allegations that local government allocation is siphoned monthly by state governors. Many local government councils across the country can hardly pay workers’ salaries, while other have not been able to execute a single project for years.
Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ahmed Idris Wase said the system should be given all that it required to function as a full tier of government as was envisaged by the constitution. He said a functional local government system will address the security challenges in the country. He said: “as for me, first as a member of parliament representing my constituency and my people, I think I am on the same page with my constituents to have an autonomous local government system, anchored on the generosity of what the President has done.
If you remember sometime past, he signed an Executive Order to have financial autonomy for local government. It is not just about financial autonomy; we should also have a complete independence of their administration, apart from their finances. That is the only way it can work, to make Nigeria and Nigerians great. My dream for this country is to have a very sound, viral working local government system.
“When that one is achieved in Nigeria, I want to say all the security challenges we are having in this country will be solved. I come from one of the remotest part of this country. I know how local government administration was then in the past, not the one we are having today and I believe collectively all of us we can make it work again. We can change the narration, we can make it better. We need to appreciate and understand what we swear to uphold. But, are we really upholding what we swear to do? Part of the misgivings of this country is that 70 percent of the people don’t know the contents of the Constitution”.
Minority Leader of the House, Ndudi Elumelu also threw his weight behind local government autonomy, saying however, that it requires a lot of lobbying to achieve the autonomy. He said: “What we need is lobbying. However, let me say that one of the States that voted for local Government autonomy was Delta State. My Governor supported it the last time when it came in 2015 to 2019 amendment/alteration of the constitution. About 10 State Houses of Assembly supported it then and Delta state was one of them. So the issue about my state voting for it again is not in doubt. It’s now left for other States to know that there is need for them to emulate what Delta has done by supporting it. So, if Delta State can support it, I don’t see any other state that shouldn’t support local government autonomy”.