Nigeria recently took a bold step forward in the battle against corruption and the quest for local government autonomy as it rolled out a list of initiatives to address the unfortunate emasculation of local governments and the misappropriation of their funds by some state governments and local government chiefs. The Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), on Monday, barred state governments, banks and other financial institutions, public officers and, indeed, all stakeholders from tampering with funds allocated to Local Governments from the Federation Account.
Before now, much of the funds allocated to local governments were hijacked by state governors through the State Joint Local Government Area (SJLGA) Accounts, with only paltry sums made available to the local governments, which were not even enough for them to carry out their basic functions.
Under the new regime which will hopefully become effective on June 1, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of banks who allow local government funds to be accessed and used by anyone other than the local government authorities will be visited with a number of sanctions, including a blacklist of their institutions and even a possible shutdown. A watch-list of banks which violate the directive will also be sent to 160 countries where they will no longer be able to transact business or pay bills.
The other good news is that the NFIU also announced a daily N500,000 daily cash withdrawal limit for all the 774 local governments. All local government expenses above this limit will have to be through financial instruments such as cheques or electronic transfers, for ease of monitoring of expenditures at that troubled tier of government.
These initiatives of the NFIU are a welcome intervention in the effort to stop the looting of local government funds. Before now, local government funds were mostly hijacked by state governors and the funds were hardly ever used for the purpose of carrying out activities designated for the third tier of government.
Even when such funds were left to the use of the local governments, they ended up in the pockets of local government chairmen and their collaborators, and the tasks of proper maintenance of local council roads, markets and health centres were left unattended to. In some states, local government chiefs hardly live at the local government areas, preferring to operate from either Abuja or their state capitals, from where they swoop on their councils to share local government funds among themselves and to certain local power brokers whenever allocations are received from the Federation Account, before they return to their bases. Contrary to the good thinking that informed the adoption of this third tier of government in the first place, the local government in Nigeria is hardly any more about service to the people. It is more about the sharing of public funds by cronies of the local and state governments, while the councils wallow in abject neglect.
Although the access of some state government to council funds have been of benefit to the people, as funds which would have otherwise been looted by local government chiefs were used for public projects by some state governors, it is still good for the local government authorities to have access to these funds to fulfill their basic responsibilities, such as the running of dispensaries, to the people. A situation in which corruption has become a major hindrance to service delivery at the local government level is no longer tolerable. This is one level of government where funds are looted at will with little regard for accountability. The state and federal governments are also not left out of this menace and are equally deserving of initiatives of this type.
These latest directives from NFIU announced by its acting Chief Media Analyst, Ahmed Dikko, were said to have followed the discovery that indiscriminate withdrawal of cash from the State Joint Local Government Accounts posed the biggest corruption, money laundering and security threats at the grassroots level and the entire financial system and the country as a whole. The steps also followed the threats of isolation of the Nigerian financial system, internationally, because of the shortcomings of our money laundering and counter-terrorism financing implementation measures. These directives of the NFIU are worthy of commendation and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the CEOs of all banks and financial institutions will do well to ensure that they are implemented to the letter.
If Nigeria is to have a chance at stamping out corruption and the wanton looting of public funds, it must be through systemic initiatives such as these. Nigeria needs to develop systems that will make it impossible, or at least, very difficult, for government officials to loot the public till. The ease with which public funds are looted using the banks which refuse to follow stipulated guidelines must be addressed, and visited with stiff sanctions.
It is mindboggling, for instance, as we had it during the 2015 polls, that public funds were so easily shared out, in billions of naira, to politicians and even officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). A system that allows such brazen stealing can never augur well for the delivery of good public service. This situation is at its worst at the local governments that have more or less become a ceremonial tier of government from which very little service, or no service at all, is delivered.
With the NFIU directives, it should no longer be easy to fritter government funds away as the cheques and electronic transfer requirement for expenditures above N500,000 will leave a trail which should also show what payments were made for.
Initiatives of this nature should also be developed for the other levels of government with appropriate limits. It is only through the development of initiatives such as these that Nigeria can hope to deal with the corruption bogey disturbing its development.
Since our courts have proved incapable of bringing corrupt officials to book, with their needless injunctions, delays, highly compromised lawyers and judges, as attested to by a notable legal luminary last week, the nation will better off instituting financial reforms to make it near impossible for public funds to be looted in the first place. Let us institute initiatives that will make it impossible for public officers to steal at will and try harder to catch them in the process of stealing, as the recovery of looted funds through the courts after the commission of the crime has become a near-impossibility. The high number of public treasury looters at the commanding heights of our country attest to this. It is better to stop the thieves in their tracks before they loot the nation dry and compromise our judiciary and legal system to get the leeway to continue walking freely in our streets.