National Assembly push for LGs’ autonomy, devolution of power close to conclusion
• To bar states from assessing funds for unelected councils
Again, the knotty issue of granting administrative and financial autonomy to the 774 local councils in the polity has resonated in the renewed attempt by the National Assembly to review the 1999 Constitution as amended.
The initiative, which particularly seeks to alter Section 162 of the 1999 constitution that provides for the State Joint Local Government Account (SLGA) is part of the preoccupation of the Engr. Sulaimon Yussuff Lasun-led House of Representatives Special ad-hoc Committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution.
Other issues of utmost importance to the ad-hoc committee which held a 3-day retreat in Abeokuta, Ogun state penultimate week were the need for devolution of powers, electoral reform, and the need for state police, the separation of the office of the attorney general and office of the minister of justice, financial and administrative autonomy to local government, separation of the auditor general of the Federation and auditor general of the Federal government and the reform of judiciary considering the recent Kogi governorship election debacle upon the sudden death of the All Progressive Congress (APC) candidate, Prince Abubakar Audu.
Previous attempts to grant autonomy to local councils had met the brick wall as the preponderance views among the 36 states Governors of the country were that the matter falls within the purview of the states’ government, warning that attempt by the National Assembly to legislate on the issue will tilt the country towards a unitary state, thereby undermining and weakening the fundamental principle of federalism.
Such position has not gone down well with the President of Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, who contended that the local councils deserve to be given the opportunity to explore their potentials without any encumbrances from the states government.
Khaleel who blamed states governors for the plight of the local councils noted: “In Nigeria, not only is the local government continually undermined and over-ruled by federal and state governments, elections for local councils are ignored or undermined, and at times it is indefinitely postponed. In their place are established transition or caretaker committees largely made up of appointees as a reward for loyalty to the powers that be. Their legal status being such that they do not have the authority to draw down funds earmarked for local government functions.
“Revenue collection by local government in Nigeria, despite the legislation in place, is chronically hampered because funds from central government are misplaced, withheld or subject to ‘penalties ‘ that undermine its value, and this often results in the remainder not being sufficient to pay salaries. In Nigeria, some local government workers have not been paid for up to 18 months ‘ and the much heralded harmonisation of terms and conditions of state and local government workers has failed to materialise 10 years after being agreed.
“Today, almost all revenue generating items starting from sales of markets daily tolls, construction of roads, motor parks, slaughter slabs, environmental services and rates collection have been outsourced or contracted out by state governments. The law of Internally Generated Revenue stipulates that the State shall give to the local government 10 per cent of whatever is being generated on a monthly basis notwithstanding what the local government themselves can get. In practice, this is not attainable and no State has ever been punished for reneging or otherwise.”
Undoubtedly, NULGE has once again found a strong ally in the 8th National Assembly whose members are favourably disposed to free the local councils from the stranglehold of the states governors.
Indeed, Lasun who spoke at the end of the retreat aimed at putting in place a framework for the conduct of the exercise explained the rationale behind the move to grant autonomy to the local councils. “It is no longer news that local government all over the country today are almost close to non existence. And so we feel that development is rural based and the local government has a central role to play to developing our environment. So part of the alteration this time around will have to do with financial and administrative autonomy for local government.”
Continuing, he noted: “We have discovered that all over the world, centre of development have been found to be at the grassroots because we are talking about people. People don’t exist in vacuum. We all come from small components of the society; from your family to the compound to your village to your town and this is what constitutes a local government. And we have discovered that over time local governments do no longer exist. It is not even a question of whether elections were conducted or not. But we have considered that.
“Any state would not be able to access local government money any longer if there are no elected officials at the local government. This is part of what we are plotting in the alteration we are going to do. If you don’t have elected local government officials, we make sure you don’t get your money from the Federation Account. It goes beyond party lines, we are all Nigerians and don’t forget that after election have been conducted, won and lost, then governance starts. Constitution is about governance; it is not about political parties.”
Lasun who is the Deputy Speaker of the House however ruled out the possibility of stripping the states government the power to constitute the States Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) in the Constitution review exercise at the retreat attended by stakeholders comprising lawmakers from various State Houses of Assembly; Chairman, Ogun State Council of Obas, Oba Kehinde Olugbenle (The Olu of Ilaro and Paramount Ruler of Yewaland); among others.
He assured that the renewed effort to amend the Constitution would be completed by March 2017, explaining that the need to fast track the process was borne out of the need to avert a situation whereby issues to be tabled for amendment could not be politicized.
Furthermore, he stated that the Constitution Alteration Bill had already been segmented into 14 Bills, aside the fact that his committee in conjunction with various stakeholders is considering over 30 Bills to achieve the desired objective.
He noted that unlike previous futile amendment process, which was captured in a single document, the exercise this time around would be presented on a piecemeal basis to the President for assent to avert a situation whereby “we don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”
Lasun who disclosed that his committee has taken a critical look at the report of the conference committee set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan said: “ Having considered the reasons why the alterations Bill in the 7th Assembly was declined by the President, we have decided that the process should commence de novo and fast-tracked to ensure a timeous passage of the Bills.
“One other innovation we have brought is that in the previous alterations, the assignment always dovetails into the third or fourth year of the administration tenure. But this time around we are struggling very hard to make sure that we get this alteration completed before the second year of the tenure of this government so that political meanings will not be read into any alteration that we have undertaken.”
During the retreat where the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara was represented by the House leader, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, retired Jurist and former Justice minister and Attorney General of the federation, Prince Bola Ajibola who delivered a paper on the “Imperatives of Constitution review/amendment in nation building,” stressed the need to review the Constitution noting that it remains the panacea to the economic recession plaguing the country.
Imploring participants to reframe the Constitution in such a way that would address the economic recession in the country, he made reference to the spate of job loses and hardship Nigerians are forced to contend with due to the economic recession, to buttress his assertions.
He thereby enjoined the lawmakers to use the instrument of constitution review to boost productivity and instill the culture of self-reliance among the 36 federating states of the country.
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