Michael Jegede argues that the quest for local governments' autonomy is not the governors' decision but that of the people
Autonomy for Local Governments which is the third tier of government in Nigeria is one of the cardinal issues listed for consideration in the current effort of the National Assembly to further review the 1999 constitution to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the Nigerian people.
As a way of ensuring that Nigerians are completely carried along in the exercise, both chambers of the National Assembly in November last year, held public sessions and public hearings to get the people's input on all the items to be considered for review and amendment. The House of Representatives held the people's public sessions across the 360 federal constituencies, while the Senate conducted public hearings in the six geo-political zones of the country.
Reports at the end of the exercise by the Green and Red chambers of the National Assembly clearly indicated that majority of Nigerians (both the high and the low in the society) are in total support of strengthening local government councils via autonomy.
It was indeed the only item that got the 'yes votes' from participants in all the 360 federal constituencies. Similarly, various speakers at the zonal public hearings argued very strongly in favour of LG autonomy.
Unfortunately, the recent outburst by the Nigeria Governors' Forum (NGF) has shown that the governors are mainly the only group that does not think there is need for any form of autonomy for the effective and efficient running of the local government administration.
NGF chairman, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, reportedly said they (governors) will do everything possible as a pressure group to stop lawmakers (state and federal) from granting autonomy to local governments.
Asked why the governors were opposed to local council autonomy, while addressing newsmen, Amaechi said: "Let a state governor or let the states create as many local governments as they want to create. Don't put it there as a constitutional issue... The governors are a pressure group, if we succeed in putting the pressure on both National and State Assemblies and say look there are two tiers of governance. There is no country in the world where there are three federating units; there are only two all over the world. Why should you say that there must be third federating units in Nigeria?"
Notwithstanding the whys and wherefores propounded by the NGF for kicking against the agitation for independent LGs, informed Nigerians know the real motive behind their stance on the matter. It is a known fact that state governments are in the habit of emasculating local governments under their control, thereby reducing them to mere appendages against their recognition as the third tier of government in the constitution.
The governors have continued to take advantage of the deficiency in the constitution, where even though local councils are acknowledged as a tier of government, framers of the constitution failed to give them the full autonomy needed to operate as such. Local governments are diametrically subjected to the control of the state governments, in a manner that they really cannot do anything on their own. And this, in the views of most Nigerians, has adversely affected development at the local council level.
Reacting to the position of the NGF, Vice Chairman of Senate Committee on Niger Delta Affairs, Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman, said there was no cause for alarm. According to the Senator, representing Kogi Central senatorial district, the governors do not have the constitutional power to hinder the granting of autonomy to LGs in the ongoing constitution review process.
Abatemi-Usman, whose bill seeking for financial autonomy for local governments had scaled through seconding reading and was referred to the Senate Committee on Constitution Review in March last year, argued that of all the items listed for consideration, nothing could be more necessary than LG autonomy. He observed that the operation of the state/local government joint account as currently practiced was an aberration that must be corrected in the interest of Nigerians, regardless of the position of the governors.
"I have always been an advocate of autonomy for local governments. This was what prompted me to put up a bill for their financial autonomy when I became a Senator in 2011 to free them from the stranglehold and claws of the state governors. I am very much happy that the entire Nigerian people have seen the need for local governments to be granted autonomy, as reflected in the public people's sessions held by the House of Representatives in the 360 federal constituencies and the public hearing conducted by the Senate in the six geo-political zones.
Therefore, the people's desire will definitely prevail over that of the governors. How can they (governors) stand against the wish of the generality of Nigerians, who elected them into office?"
Also, in his reaction, Chairman Senate Committee on Media and Publicity, Senator Eyinanya Abaribe, was reported to have said that the position of the governors on local government autonomy is not binding. The Senate spokesman said it is the public opinion expressed through the National Assembly and the various State Assemblies that would determine the autonomy of local government administration, while acknowledging that the governors are however entitled to their notion on the issue.
Abaribe was quoted as saying: "If at the end of the day, the bill on the autonomy for local government administration passes through the two chambers of the National Assembly, there will be no problem as we will just follow the constitution, and if it doesn't work, then it is not our fault as we now know who does not want democracy to work at that level."
Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, had equally lent his voice to the debate on local government autonomy in an interview. An expert in local government administration, Moro was a council chairman for about eight years and one-time chairman of the Benue State chapter of Association of local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON).
Responding to questions in the course of the media chat, he said: "I am an advocate for a holistic autonomy for local governments. I want a situation where the local government will operate as a true tier of government. We are operating federalism, a federalism that is epitomised or encapsulated in the three tiers of government of the federal, state and local government.
"And so, I expect that the framers of the constitution would have gone further than the scanty provisions in section 7 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to a level where provisions should have been made for the local governments to get their allocation direct from the federation account, for the local governments to exercise jurisdiction over their revenue avenues, and for the local government chairmen to run these local governments as a third tier; the lowest tier of government, in which case they should be free to take their decisions. They should be free to be accountable to the people who have elected them."
Other prominent Nigerians in the likes former President Olusegun Obasanjo, erstwhile Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and former Senate President, Senator Ken Nnamani, have likewise not hidden their total support for an autonomous local government system in Nigeria.
For instance, Obasanjo who spearheaded the 1976 local government reform, recently, lamented that the essence of creating local governments had been defeated, when he received the national executives of ALGON at his residence in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
While advocating for financial autonomy for LGs, he said "Since the National Assembly is considering constitution amendment, it is also important to amend the local government laws so that there would be no means the states will 'ambush' the local government money and there will also be ways we can call the local governments to order or make them accountable."
Even the incumbent President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who was once a governor, is on the side of the people on the debate for LG autonomy. I think the President understands that it is not about what obtains in other part of the world, as posited by Amaechi, but what the people who elected him into office are asking for.
It is my hope, therefore, that members of the National Assembly and State Assemblies, who are constitutionally empowered to effect changes in the constitution on behalf the people, would not pander to the whims and caprices of the governors, in their Machiavellian move to ensure continued emasculation of the local governments. The legislators must know that the people hold them in high esteem. And so, any attempt to disappoint them (the Nigerian people) in order to favour the governors may lead to loss of trust and confidence.
*Jegede lives in Lagos