Is local government autonomy feasible?

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Local government autonomy has been a recurring subject in public discourse over the years. The 8th National Assembly has passed the bill and President Muhammadu Buhari is willing to assent to it, if it gets the endorsement of at least two-thirds of the state assemblies. Assistant Editor LEKE SALAUDEEN examines what the country stands to gain if the local governments are granted administrative and fiscal autonomy.

Local government autonomy has been on the front-burner for a long time. The debate focuses on the ineffectiveness of local governments, which usually operate joint accounts with state governments. The protagonists of local government autonomy believe that without administrative and financial autonomy, it will be very difficult for the local councils to carry out their constitutional mandate to the people.

Observers perceive local government as a viable instrument for rural transformation and for the delivery of social services to the people. In spite of its strategic importance to national development, they lamented that the contribution of local governments have been minimal.

Analysts are of the view that the ineffectiveness of local government stems from the excessive control by state governments. However, Nigerians are divided on the issue. While some say autonomy for local government will fast-track development in the country, others believe it will worsen the corruption in the public sector.

Reiterating his support for local government autonomy, President Muhammadu Buhari said the passage of the Local Government Autonomy Bill by the 8th National Assembly is an indication that his administration had gradually begun the country’s restructuring. He described local governments as a tier of government critical to his administration’s anti-corruption crusade.

Buhari said: “Apparently, it is corruption that led to the relegation of local governments to the grips of the state government over the years, thereby distorting and demeaning the real status of our federalism, with regards to devolving governance. A once vibrant tier of government that had occasioned development at the grassroots has gone into oblivion due to obvious reasons.

“The good news is that the disposition of the National Assembly in granting autonomy to this very important tier of government is an indication that we have started already to address the question of restructuring which many Nigerians appear to be clamouring for.

“I and my team are waiting patiently to receive the reports from the State Houses of Assembly, so as to do the needful in the event that the current proposal for the review of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) come to us for consideration and assent.”

But the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) is stoutly opposed to any move to grant autonomy to local governments. The forum has consistently maintained that local councils are integral parts of state governments.  It premised its argument on the fact that in all known federation, the federating units are usually the states and the centre. The NGF argued further that, in a federal system, there is no provision for local government as a federating partner and to talk of one is to engage in absurdity. “Rather, the autonomy will only make sense in the relationship between the states and the centre where we look at a spectrum that runs on the two extremes of unitary and confederation,” it added.

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The NGF said the understanding over the years has been that in a federal setup, the issue relating to the creation, delineation and funding of local authorities is within the constitutional purview of states, which have political and judicial status that local governments do not have. It maintains that states are federating units, while local governments are administrative units.

The forum admitted that local governments enjoy political and legal recognition, because the constitution recognises them and even lists them (by name). It added: “These local governments listed are the beneficiaries of federal allocations, just as states and the Federal Government. It is this existing arrangement that has made some to erroneously assume and even argue that local governments are on the same level of autonomy as states and the Federal Government.

“What we have today is a disruptive and abominable legacy of military rule. It was the practice of the military to create local governments and even states. Since the military went on a frenzy of proliferation of local governments, it took on itself the burden of its funding, just as it was funding the states from the Federation Account. The military then passed on this legacy at its disengagement in 1999. However, the issue of local government autonomy should only come into play within the context of their relationship with their states.”

The general assumption is that there are three-tiers of government, federal, state and local governments. But, local governments are an appendage of state governments. That is the reality on ground, given the provisions of the constitution.

The financial control exercised by state governments reduces the autonomy of local governments. Section 162(5) of the 1999 Constitution states that the amount standing to the credit of local government councils in the Federation Account shall be allocated to the state for the benefit of their local government councils on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by National Assembly.

Section 162(6) states that each state shall maintain a special account called the “State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid allocation to local government councils of the state from Federation Account and from the government of the state.

Besides, local government budgets must be presented to state governors for approval. These provisions make local governments subservient to state governments.

Besides, under the State Joint Local Government Account, various deductions were made from local government funds, including one per cent training fund for Local Government Service Commission, four per cent for traditional rulers (traditional council), 7.5 per cent for employer contributions (contributory pension/NCPS), five per cent redemption bond, 15 per cent primary school teachers’ pension, maintenance of Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, contribution to SUBEB, 0.5 per cent life insurance premium, one per cent audit fees, and 15 per cent local government staff funds.

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The consequence of this is a diminished capacity by local governments to fulfil minimally, their constitutional duties, as well as their mandate to deliver services to the communities at base government. Other issues running in the direction of diminution of the role of local governments include arbitrariness of state governors manifested in the dissolution of local governments, the appointment of caretaker councils in violation of democratic principles.

But, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) has stripped governors the control over the local government funds. In a new guideline, the NFIU has directed banks not to honour transactions in the Joint Accounts of State and Local Governments. It said such accounts should only be used to distribute allocations to accounts of local governments directly.

The NGF has challenged the NFIU guideline in court and lost. The governors argued that the guideline contravenes the constitutional provision that placed local government finance under state government.

The National Co-ordinator of Grassroots Empowerment and Justice (GEJ) Initiative, Mr Ebriku Friday, described the NFIU guideline as the best way to free local government councils from the shackles of state governors and under development. He said: “GEJ initiative will support the NFIU to ensure that the guidelines are adhered to strictly for the grass root people to have a sense of belonging in the democratic process.

“This is why we commend and hail President Muhammadu Buhari over the signing of NFIU bill into law, enabling it to ensure that the local government councils are strengthened and start to play their strategic developmental roles in the democratic process in order for the grass root people to directly enjoy democratic dividends.

“It is the best way to free local government from the shackles of state governors and under development. We see it as a right step in the right direction that would facilitate the expected development at the rural areas. With this measures put in place by the Buhari-led government, there would be high level of financial sanity and rapid development at the grass root.”

The group added that: “The guideline would curb corrupt practices at the local government councils with the new measures placing a daily cash transaction limit of N500,000 for each of the local government areas that would be registered and monitored by the NFIU through e-payment module and for proper accountability and transparency.”

The Chairman of Agege Local Government, Lagos State, Alhaji Ganiyu Egunjobi, pleaded with state legislative arms across the country to do the needful and grant the local governments the full autonomy they deserve. He said the local government is the closest to the grass root and we cannot wish away this fact; the current situation in which the finances of the councils are under the states are a disservice to developments in our communities.

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The council boss said: “No doubt, the 1999 Constitution bequeathed to us this problem of partial autonomy. It recognises local governments as the third-tier of government, but restricts its independence. Constitution, as we all know, is a work in progress; the 8th National Assembly has done its bit by passing the local government autonomy bill and President Muhammadu Buhari’s favourable disposition towards it is well documented. All it requires to change the narrative is for two-thirds of the state assemblies to endorse it. If it comes into force, the grassroots will witness tremendous developments in the area of infrastructures and human capital developments and the whole country would be the better for it.”

A political scientist, Dr Kunle Adaranijo, is of the view that the creation of local governments should be left to the states, which should determine the number appropriate for their needs. He said the states should also generate resources for their sustenance and thus render the provision of Section 7(6) of the 1999 Constitution obsolete, in line with the decision of the Supreme Court that the 1999 Constitution intends that everything relating to local government be in the province of state governments, rather than being in that of the central government.

He advocated a radical devolution of power from the states to local governments, being the tier of government closest to the people. He said for the fact that every constitutional arrangement, including 1999 Constitution recognises the place local government occupies in the affairs of the people, they should have institutional and financial powers to initiate, determine and implement projects to complement activities of the states and the Federal Government in their areas.

Adaranijo agreed with President Buhari that the solution to the local government lies in the constitutional amendment. He decried the situation whereby local governments with democratically-elected executives are answerable to the state government. He said: “Once they are accountable to the governors, they can’t perform their functions; local governments should be accountable to the people, just as the states and the Federal Government are.”

The political scientist stressed that “putting local councils in the pockets of state governments do not encourage competent and qualified people to serve as chairmen or councillors”. He added: “The governors remove chairmen and councillors at will, either because they don’t belong to the ruling party in the state or they are not willing to do the bidding of the governor. The state governments intervene in their activities. The state governors determine what to do with joint account; the funds on many occasions are diverted. This is not good for the country and our democracy.

He added: “No rigid rules can be laid down as to what functions should be devolved to local governments. A new arrangement must put in place resilience and indefeasible safety valve, strong enough to contain the domineering role of the states from encroaching on the little space conceded to the local government.”

(The Nation)