From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
How far can the House of Representatives go in its quest to make local government councils in the country autonomous? As part of the ongoing constitution amendment,the lower chamber of the National Assembly is seeking to free the council areas from the stranglehold of the state government by granting local government areas autonomy.
So far,two bills to strengthen local government administration have passed second reading in the House and are currently before the Special Ad-hoc Committee on the Reviewof the 1999 constitution. One of the bills is to amend the fiscal responsibility act, to make it compulsory for state governors to have elected council officials in place before they access funds from the capital market, while the other bill seeks outrightly to abolish State-Local Government Joint Account by amending section 162 of the 1999 constitution and grant financial autonomy to the local government councils.
The bill to amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007 is sponsored by Hon Edward Gyang Pwajok (PDP, Plateau). It has as its long title: “A Bill for an Act to Amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007 to make it Mandatory for States to have Democratically elected Local Government Councils before such States can access Funds from the Capital Market, and for other related matters.” The bill, which is proposing an amendment to sections 41 and56 of the principal act seeks to make it mandatory for any state that wants to borrow money from the capital market to also get the consent of the elected local government councils in their state, as well as that of the state legislature.
The proposed amendment states that “ The Federal Government shall only guarantee or permit any borrowing by state or Local Government where such is sought, if all the Local Governments in such States are democratically constituted and there must be a supporting resolution of the House of Assembly together with the State Executive Council and all the elected Legislative Councils of the State.”
The bill on financial autonomy for local government councils is sponsored by Hon Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, PDP, (Abia) and has as its long title “A Bill for an Act to Alter Section 162 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to among Other Things ensure Financial Autonomy of Local Government Councils and for Other Related Matters”. Section 162 of the 1999 constitution provides for the State-Local Government Account, into which all revenues accruing to the local governments from the federal and stategovernments are paid. The proposed amendment, stipulates that each local government council in the country shall be expected to maintain a special account to be called “Local Government Council Allocation Account”, where all funds accruing to them from the Federation Account and from their respective state governments shall be paid into. The bill also states that no disbursement shall be made from the account except by a bye-law passed by the Local Government Legislative Council. Besides these two bills, the House of Representatives is set to come up with legislations that will guarantee the autonomy of the local government areas.
Already, financial and administrative autonomy for local council is one of the 14 key amendments in the 4th alteration bill, the House of Representatives Special Ad-hocCommittee on the Review of the 1999 constitution will be presenting to the House soon. Presently, local government administration allegedly subjected to all forms of abuse by the state governors.
In flagrant disregard of the provision Section 7(1)of the 1999 constitution that stipulates that local governments must be administered by elected officials, most of the governors, in connivance with the state houses of assembly, run the councils with caretaker committees.
Also, state houses of assembly across the country are known to make very ridiculous laws to cow council chairmen. Apart from appointing and firing council bosses at will, the governors have been accused repeatedly of fiddling with funds meant for the local councils in the states. The speaker of the House, Hon Yakubu Dogara,in a recent parley with journalists berated state governors for turning the councils into their fiefdoms.
He said the NationalAssembly will work assiduously to ensure that the councils are autonomous.Dogara decried a situation where governors see themselves “as middle men who continually hijack funds meant for the councils, in the name of joint account.”
He noted that the development is responsible for the impoverishment and under-development of rural areas.The speaker said the National Assembly will work towards granting financial autonomy to the 774 local government areas in the country and abolish State Independent ElectoralCommissions SIECs), so that the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC) can be saddled with the task of conducting elections into the councils. According to him,“As a matter of fact, joint account is one of the biggest evils because it gives authority to local government ministries in the state.
“In most states, especially in the North, where we don’t have oil, the ministry of local government in the state is regarded as the ministry of petroleum resources.
“We all know when funds are allocated to the councils, instead of getting to the councils, they are hijacked at that level and appropriated, according to the whims of thepowers that be.”As laudable as the plan by the House of Representatives and by extension the National Assembly to make local government councils autonomous seem, analysts say the House will have the governors to contend with.
The reason for this is not far-fetched. Whatever alterations, the National Assembly is proposing will require the support of 24 state Houses of Assembly, which is a 2/3 of the 36 states in the country, to become law.
Not a few argue that this will be a tall order, owing to the fact that most of the state houses of assembly are tied to the apron strings of the governors. The governors under the aegies of the Nigeria Governors Forum NGF) in the recent past have always opposed moves to make the local government areas independent of the states.
The governors have continuously argued that the local government areas are not federating units. It is doubtful if the thinking of the present crop of governors is any different.But whether or not, the present crop of governors see things differently, they will certainly not want to give up what ever advantage the control of the local governments confer on them, without putting up a strong fight.
Apparently giving an inkling into the thinking of the governors on the renewed quest by the National Assembly to make local government councils autonomous, Osun Stategovernor, Rauf Aregbesola declared recently that the councils are under the states. The governor while insisting that it is only the houses of assembly that are empowered to make laws for the council, reportedly described the quest for local government autonomyas strange. He said the local governments cannot be federating units, noting that there are only two federating units-the states and federal government. According to Aregbesola, who spoke recently in Osogbo, the Osun State capital: “Another abnormality that people, because of their frustration to some aspect of administration, are equally making mistake on and need correction is that a federation has two tiers of government.There cannot be three tiers in a federation.
The moment you have three tiers, you no longer have a federation.”
The Osun governor noted that whatever challenges confronting local government administration in the country can be addressed within the confines of the laws of the respective state in the country. He added that weakness of local government administration in the country cannot be addressed through an assault on the fundamental principles of federalism. However, Dogara is of the opinion that except local government administration is strengthened, and freed from the grips of the states, Nigeria will not make much progress,especially regarding developments at the grassroots. Speaking at a retreat of the Constitution Review Committee of the House, the speaker said “the issue of Local Government funding, functions, structure and electionsshould be reformed if we will make progress as a nation.”
Inspite, of the hurdles the governors are likely to pose in the quest to grant council full autonomy, the speaker is optimistic the idea will sail through.“Happily, at the last botched Constitution Review exercise, Twenty States voted to allow financial and structural autonomy for Local Governments.
If we got the buy-in of four more states, it could have been achieved. So we should not give up,”he said. But besides the opposition of the governors, the ambition of some members of the National Assembly, who have their eyes on the governorship seat in their state could also be an obstacle to the local government autonomy project.
Because, as it is typical of politicians who may want to scuttle it for their own selfish end, instead of looking at the bigger picture. Analysts argue that for the current moves to succeed, there is need for the federal legislature to do a lot of sensitization and consultation on the issue. Apart from engaging the NGF, not a few believe that there is need for the House of Representatives, intervention which prides itself as the “House of the people” to get the politicalparties, especially the ruling All Progressives Congress APC) to key into the idea.
If the House succeeds in getting the APC to cue into the local government autonomy project, it will change from being an agenda of the legislature to that of the ruling party,that way it’s actualisation will be much easier.