Appropriation of council funds by states is evil, says Dogara
In this interview with NIYI BELLO, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara, spoke about the unconstitutional erosion of the powers of the third tier of government, illegal take-over of council funds by governors and why State Electoral Commissions should be scrapped among other issues affecting the structure of the Nigerian federation. Excerpts.
Local councils are comatose in Nigeria
Local government administration is not working and the reason is very simple. All the local governments in the country are specified in the First Schedule of the 1979 Constitution. The work they do or the functions assigned to them are as specified there. But above that, section 7 of the constitution is very instructive; it says local governments must be democratically elected. So if we start from that section of the constitution, how many local governments will you say have executives that were democratically elected? How many of those councils do you see are performing the responsibilities assigned to them under the 4th schedule of the 1979 constitution? The answer is quite obvious. It is a system that is in crisis. Since 1999 when we had this latest advent of politics, I don’t want to go back to the days of military regime, you will attest to the fact that there is hardly any local government that has lived up to its constitutional mandate. They are actually groaning under interference from state governments and I will say that it is by design of the constitution. Those who drafted the 1999 constitution actually muddled up a lot of things with regards to running of local governments.
I do not know what model they adopted really because you look at all the federations in law, in nations that are described as federal republics, countries like Brazil, for instance, India, the United States, there appears to be a model that they are following but I don’t know what model the framers of the 1999 constitution wanted to promote in Nigeria.
Now, you talked about the independence of local government councils in Nigeria. I don’t know whether it is achievable, whether we should talk about certain semi-autonomy or some kind of semi-independence. Because when you are talking about independence of local government councils such as is practised in India, to a larger extent, in the United States of America and in Brazil, to some extent, they have a democratically elected council, a democratically elected council legislature, you have even council courts and council police. You have councils that are directly in charge of recruiting their personnel and disciplining them, you have councils that are in charge of resources that come into the council and appropriate them because they have legislators. The chairmen operate as the executive and they can be impeached if they go against certain rules and so, they are completely independent. As such, they deliver on mandates that are given to them. But in Nigeria, that was not the model that was promoted when they talked about things like joint accounts for instance.
The governor will sit in the state executive meeting and they will come up with a resolution that they have sacked an elected council executive and then they appoint council caretaker committees. And to be candid, that is a gross violation of the constitution. I don’t know if the framers were able to anticipate that that may likely be the situation that most of the state governors will violate the powers that were assigned to the states with respect to local governments under the constitution. That has become the norm, rather than the exception. Caretaker councils run majority of the councils in Nigeria, even in this era of change, and there is nowhere in the constitution where that is mentioned. So, I don’t know what kind of democracy we are practising. The constitution is very clear as to how these things should be done but unfortunately, some of them, in their wisdom, have constituted themselves as middlemen in the chain. They block the flow of the powers conferred by the constitution, and incidentally, nothing is done at the level where decisions or punitive measures should be taken against such unwholesome decisions directly at disobeying two crystal clear provisions of the constitution. That has become the bane of local government administration in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, joint account is one of the biggest evils because it gives the 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 is regarded as the ministry of petroleum resources. So 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 the powers that be.
How the House can tackle the problem
These are constitutional issues and you know under the constitution we have powers. Governmental powers are carved and shared horizontally and vertically. We have only the vertical powers under the constitution. The exclusive, concurrent and residual lists. Part of the confusion we run into is the local government system is subject of laws passed by the state assemblies and not the National Assembly. So, for us to tackle this problem, since they are constitutional, it means that the only avenue we have is to embark on constitution amendment. If we don’t get it on that level, I don’t think it is going to work. The truth is that you try a system and you desperately try to see that the system works, there have been court cases, there have been judicial pronouncements, but unfortunately, virtually all the key players have stuck to their guns. The only way we can rescue the local government system in Nigeria is by introducing amendments to the constitution and that is what we are trying to do. We attempted it in the 6th Assembly but most of the critical aspects of what we are talking about did not scale 2/3rd votes from all the state assemblies in Nigeria. In the 7th Assembly, however, this issue of autonomy, financial autonomy of local government got the endorsement of 20 state assemblies but unfortunately, we needed 2/3rd, so we were short of 4. So, it means that even if the president had assented to the Bill on Constitution Amendment, that aspect wouldn’t have scaled through.
Now, the problem is this. We will have to make this local government system a bit independent. I am not saying absolute independence because we may not achieve that since ours is a strong federation. It is not a weak federation like what you have in the United States where councils and states join their own money and then appropriate it and pay royalties in taxes to the Federal Government. What we can do is make sure that in the spirit of the constitution, the local government administration is democratically elected to ensure that by provision of the constitution, that any local government that is not democratically constituted will not have access to any funding from the federation. That was the problem we had. There was this issue of Lagos creating more council and then President Obasanjo decided to deny them allocation from federation account before the courts now said you are just a trustee, you can’t do that.
As a matter of fact, the money does not belong to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But unfortunately, the court did not provide a remedy, even though there is a remedy inherent in the constitution itself. But the problem is that it is not working.
So any remedy that is not working is not a remedy. For instance, if a state government insists on running the affairs of the local governments on caretaker administration when the constitution clearly insists that it should be democratically elected, that amounts to serious violation of the provisions of the constitution, which in itself, is one of the biggest grounds for impeachment. How many governors have been impeached in practical terms, when they appear, I’m not saying they do, to have the state assemblies in their pockets? So that is where the challenge is. We are trying to say, okay, if your local government administration is caretaker, you cannot draw funds from the federation account. In addition to that, we want to ensure that they have financial autonomy. Each local government council will maintain an accountant with the Accountant-General of the Federation where monies due to it will directly be paid. That, of course, means that the issue of joint account is eliminated.
On State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs)
With them hardly do opposition win in the states. I don’t know of any state where that is a reality. Even if it appears to be a reality, it is an arrangement to just put one or two so that they can decorate the process with a political gown of democracy to say that it was actually competitive. But I don’t think throughout the history of local government elections since 1999 when the state electoral commission took charge, there has ever been a situation where any credible election was conducted in any state. I stand to be corrected. The point is this, he who pays the piper, they say, dictates the tune. The state independent electoral commission, the head of those agencies are appointed by the state governors. In one of the states, I think in my state, in the last administration, it was even the political adviser to the governor that later became the chairman of the commission. I don’t know how independent those commissions are. The truth is they are not working and they will never work democratically. They will never work because of interest and you know the interest is with regards to this issue of financial independence of local councils. The only motivation for any chief executive to insist that all the local chairmen must be from his party is to ensure that when these funds are hijacked at the level of the state serving as the middleman, and they are shared or re-appropriated, there is no single voice of dissent. That is just the motivation. So, as long as these factors are right there, you will never get it right, they will never get it right. It is not because they don’t want get it or they cannot do it, it is just that the motivation won’t be there for them to do the right thing. So, the only right thing is just to abolish the state independent electoral commission. Like I said, they have never worked, they will never work.
What to do with SIECs
There is that provision in the constitutional amendment but whether it will pass or not, I want to say that it will take more than the National Assembly’s intention to see that sanity is restored to the third tier of government. It will take the intervention of the president as he rightly pointed out in his inaugural address, it will take the intervention of the media as members of the fourth estate of the realm and it will take the intervention of civil society organisations to put pressure at the level of the state. Otherwise, like I said, the motivation is very obvious, it is the same motivation that will keep this process from generating the 2/3 supports that we need from state assemblies to be able to pass it. So, the president will have to talk to the APC governors, for instance, and some of the PDP governors will also have to be talked to. The media will have to up and doing in regards to advocacy for these things to be done and civil societies, the main drivers of this thing and the community-based organisations have to go out to the state assemblies and impress on that that it is important for this to pass. If we do that, we will free the local governments and I tell you if we are able to achieve that, the benefits of independent local governments are quite many. Look at the pool of leadership it will attract, for instance, if it were the case that funds meant for local governments are paid as a matter of first line charge, not going to the state, and there are funds to undertake all those responsibilities vested on local councils under the 4th Schedule of the constitution, a lot of people, instead of going to the Senate or even House of Representatives, may decide to even be councillors, or even local council chairmen. Even professors, people in academia, doctors, so the pool of the leadership at the local level will improve and once we have that quality, they will deliver on the mandates of the council.