NASS’s initiatives to free the local governments

Stakeholders have since 1999 discovered the constitutional impediments to smooth running of the local governments but few are ready to tackle the challenge, Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA writes on the moves by the National Assembly to right the wrongs.

Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution provides that the system of democratically elected local government shall be guaranteed. The constitution, however, gives out what looks like a clear authority with the left hand by further providing that the government of each state shall ensure the existence of the local governments.

The constitution says: “The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed; and accordingly, the government of every state shall, subject to Section 8 of this Constitution, ensure their existence under a law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and function of such councils.”

The constitution goes further to state that the person authorised to prescribe will also have power to define the area of jurisdiction with clear attention paid to the common interest of the communities within the area, traditional association of the people and administrative convenience.

The above has been the cog in the wheel of progress of the local governments since the inception of the Fourth Republic. Whereas the constitution guarantees that local governments are to be run by democratically elected authorities, it also in another breath denies the councils the main live wire, the financial capacity that will enable them to function. The constitution further ties the councils to the apron strings of the states by approving the composition of the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), the agency authorised to conduct elections to the councils. The commission is strictly composed by the governor after confirmation by the State Assembly.

Section 162(5),(6),(7)  and (8) of the 1999 Constitution completely domiciled the financial outlay of the local governments in the hands of the states, with the creation of the State and Local Government Account in Section 6 and subsequent mandate that empowers the states to practically toy with the lives of the states. Though the drafters of the constitution had envisaged that the creation of joint state and local government account would enhance the payment of 10 percent of the states’ Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) to the credit of the councils, the provision has been more of a burden.

The sections read: (3) “Any amount standing to the credit of the Federation Account shall be distributed among the Federal and State Governments and the Local Government Councils in each state on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.

(5) “The amount standing to the credit of Local Government Councils in the Federation Account shall also 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 the National Assembly.

(6)“Each State shall maintain a special account to be called “State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid all allocations to the Local Government Councils of the State from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State.

(7)“Each State shall pay to Local Government Councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its total revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.

(8)“The amount standing to the credit of Local Government Councils of a State shall be distributed among the Local Government Councils of that State on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the State.

With the clear provisions above, it becomes more of a dream to see the councils operate “democratically” without financial autonomy. It also became clear that the state Assemblies which share the control of the councils with the governors are also virtually in the pockets of the states’ chief executives.

It did not take long before the National Assembly spotted the crisis called local government management in the current republic.  The constitution amendment efforts in the early part of the republic targeted the perceived anomaly but it was the 2006 effort that got very close to setting the local governments free. The National Assembly in that effort attempted to create a level playing field for the councils by ensuring direct allocation of federal funds to the third tier of government.

It immediately degenerated into a war between the Abuja forces and the states as the governors took offence and insisted on maintaining control of the councils.

There are two sides to the arguments on the local government debacle though. Some lawmakers in the National Assembly who have future ambition of contesting governorship seats are sympathetic to the cause of the states and are advancing arguments in favour of the retention of status quo. The existing situation ensures that the councils operate as departments of the states while funds allocated to the councils are turned to pocket money of the governors. The other side of the argument is that incumbent governors believe that some members of the National Assembly only get to Abuja to constitute themselves into opposition to their home states. But a majority of the National Assembly members tend to push through the need for amendments to the local government situation each amendment session.

While governors see the attempt to amend the constitution and free the councils as a challenge during the 2006 constitution amendment session, the National Assembly pulled it through at its own level by passing it into law. The 2006 proposal would have ensured the direct allocation of funds to the councils, while the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would have taken over the conduct

of elections into the third tier of government. The constitution amendment process however failed to sail through the final process inthe National Assembly as a result of the Third term proposal for the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

The key argument of the status quo campaigners in the amendment process,peopled mainly by the state governors, is that a federation should operate a two tier of government with the states operating as the federating units. The states are uncomfortable that councils would be identified as federating units when they are in fact vassals of the states. But the constitution already recognises the councils as points of revenue allocation. In fact, the current revenue sharing formula indicates that the states are entitled to 26 percent of the Federation account, while the councils are entitled to 16 percent.

The Sixth Assembly of the legislature in Abuja immediately  in 2008 started another constitution amendment exercise. Like the 2006 exercise, it went through the process of conducting public hearings at the states and eventually got a report for adoption on the floors of the two chambers. In the report adopted, the National Assembly again proposed that local governments should be free of states’ control, while the SIECs are to be merged with the INEC. The state assemblies are to lose power of control over the councils. The proposal failed to secure the votes of 24 state Assemblies when it was transmitted to them in line with the amendment process. Thus, the councils remain where they are while the First amendment to the 1999 Constitution came into effect in 2010.

A similar situation repeated itself in the 2012 to 2015 version of the amendment process when the National Assembly proposed “full administrative and financial autonomy to the councils.” The bid was vehemently opposed by the Governors’ Forum, even though it was factionalised at the time.  The National Assembly again got the bill passed at its own level and transmitted same to the states. Only 16 states agreed with the proposal to free the councils, while 20 others voted against. The constitution provides that 24 states must adopt the proposal to sail through. The bid had been expunged from the 2015 amendment to the 1999 Constitution which eventually failed to sail through due to failure of the then President Goodluck Jonathan to assent the bill before he left office.

It is on record that some officers in the leadership of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) visited the immediate past Senate president, David Mark to kick against attempts at outlawing the Joint Account of states and councils on the fear that council chairmen could behave like drunken sailors who will fritter resources and owe primary school teachers their salaries. This was the case in many states, they claimed, when the council chairmen were fully in charge. However, the NUT leadership was not unaware of the damage to governors do to the councils by milking them of their funds. This was why the NUT leadership proposed the creation of Primary School Commission which will take direct custody of teachers’ salaries, while the remaining funds will be channeled to the coffers of the councils.