Comrade Emmanuel Fashe is the National Publicity Secretary of the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE). He speaks with MOSES ALAO on the agitation for political and financial autonomy for local governments and the imperative of such decision for governance in the country.
Nigerians have continued to decry the overbearing influence wielded by the states on local governments in the country, despite the fact that it is recognised as a third tier of government. At the level of your union, how do you see this situation and what is your stand?
We have been at the vanguard of agitation for local government autonomy from state governments. We have been at it for over 10 years now. The autonomy we are looking for is political and financial autonomy as well.
You said Nigerians decry the overbearing influence of states on the local governments. Sincerely that influence is uncalled for. Local governments are supposed to be in charge of administration at the grass roots and they should affect governance and development, but these have not been so because of the influence of state governments. NULGE as an organised union has been agitating for local government autonomy so that the local governments can have an enabling environment to serve the people, which, of course, is the reason they are set up in the first instance.
One of the basic points of reference of states-local government relationship is the issue of State-Local Government Joint Account and Allocation Committee (JAAC). As a union of workers at the local government level, which is supposed to champion the cause for their welfare and well-being, how has JAAC been affecting you?
JAAC is constitutional anyway, but then, its operation in most of the states in the country leaves much to be desired. What is published in the papers as accruing to the local governments from the federation account is very handsome, but what eventually goes to the local governments after the JAAC is so small that some local government councils will hardly be able to pay their workers. When they cannot pay workers, how can they even talk of delivering the services for which they were created? The workers of these local governments are members of NULGE, so the issue is affecting us negatively. So, I can tell you without mincing words that the operation of this JAAC is affecting local government workers and governance at the grass roots negatively. That is why we are saying that local governments should be funded directly like other tiers of government, so that the local governments will not only be able to pay workers’ salaries but also be enabled to deliver on services and bring about development to the grass roots.
There is the insinuation that going by the level of corruption in the country, if local governments are funded directly, it will be another avenue for corruption to thrive. In fact, some states are using this view as the basis for the influence on local governments. What is your take on this?
My brother, you cannot run away from funding local governments because of corruption. Of course, states are being funded directly, what happens there? Are they not corrupt? You cannot treat local governments as less important because of that flimsy excuse. Anti-corruption mechanisms are in place to check corruption and if government so desires, it can put in more measures. The same measures it is using to check the states should also be applied to the local governments. If states are saying that they are controlling local governments to prevent local government administrators from being corrupt, it is like a pot calling a kettle black. It is like saying pickpockets should be punished while armed robbers should walk free, because the corruption at the local level is a child’s play compared to what is happening in other tiers.
You said JAAC is constitutional, which means that for the local governments to get the desired financial autonomy there must be a wholesale review of the constitution to take local governments away from the states. Won’t this take long to achieve?
Of course, we have been at the vanguard of this agitation for a long time. For the avoidance of doubt, what NULGE is clamouring for as a stakeholder in the local government project is for the local governments to be totally liberated from the claws of the states. We want the abolition of joint account and the electoral system that leaves local governments at the whims and caprices of governors because elections are conducted by State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) should be abolished too. The same body that conducts election in federal and state political offices should be the same that conduct elections for local governments’ offices too. So, we are not only after financial autonomy; we want political autonomy too. We are not saying that local governments should be independent isalnds, inter-governmental relations should continue and there are mechanisms to ensure this and check excesses of all tiers of government. The Federal Government can put mechanism in place to check excesses at the local governments, but they should be liberated from the states to deliver services to the people.
Do you see yourself succeeding, because whatever review the National Assembly does on the constitution would have to go to state Houses of Assembly, where governors have succeeded in killing such past efforts?
We are optimistic and hopeful that we will succeed. If you follow the trend of this agitation, some years back when this issue was sent to state assemblies, we could not must more than five or six states to support local government autonomy. In 2014, when the National Assembly passed the bill into law sent it to state Assemblies, we were able to get 14 states where the legislators voted in support of local government autonomy. This time round, with proper enlightenment, we are hopeful that the effort will succeed. Presently, that bill has passed second reading at the National Assembly and we believe that this time, when it gets to the state legislators, they will support local government autonomy, because the lawmakers are representing their people and what those people want is that local governments should be liberated and given autonomy.
But there has been the claim that the quality of personnel at the local government level is poor. Don’t you think it would portend great danger for the country to leave an autonomous third tier of government in the hands of poor and incompetent personnel?
That claim is untrue. If you look at the personnel in the local governments today, you will find out that we have qualified and quality manpower at the local governments. In fact, the quality of manpower at the local governments even surpasses what you find in some states and federal civil service. We attend the same polytechnics, colleges of education and universities, so the fact that we serve at the local governments does not make our learning inferior to those in state or federal civil service.