NJC is an aberration in a federation, says Akintola
Chief Niyi Akintola is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He is passionate about constitutional development and the rule of law. In this interview with ROTIMI AGBOLUAJE, Akintola said National Judicial Council (NJC) is an aberration in a federation. He also explained that certain conditions must be met before the State and Local Government Joint Account can be removed from the 1999 Constitution.
Constitutional amendment has been stuck, what do you think we can do to ensure that we have a correct and impactful constitutional amendment?
Until we go back to the philosophy of our forefathers at the Lancaster Constitutional Conference, we will continue to be at the same spot. Dr. Nnamidi Azikiwe, said let us forget our differences, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, said no, we should rather respect our differences. We must start respecting our differences. Nigeria is not a nation, but a country of many nationalities. Nigeria is a heterogeneous society with so many nationalities, languages, cultures and others. We must get that clear. We must start to respect our differences, because the differences are there. So, the centralists, who want to force us together at all cost, will not succeed. It won’t work. Incidentally, I was one of the lead counsels to the National Assembly on constitutional amendment. Let me give you one example concerning the judiciary. Over 92 per cent of memos we received on judicial sector reform kicked against the National Judicial Council (NJC).
They said it was too centralised, that we should go back to the setting where each state would have its own judiciary controlled by the state Judiciary Service Commission. Some members of the National Assembly kicked against it, but we were prevailed upon by the judiciary itself to let it be. They brought pressure to bear on the members of the National Assembly to retain the NJC. The proposal was to strengthen the Judicial Service Commission so as to make it independent of the governors and to ensure that the governors will not be able to interfere with their jobs. But because of the antecedent of the governors in the past, some governors emasculated the judiciary to the extent that judges were not paid their salaries. Judges were owed for 13 months in this country. That was why the military under the late General Sanni Abacha conceived that idea of a central body. It is an aberration, but was conceived because of the past experience. Most of the governors and the stakeholders at the state level were not pleased with retaining NJC as a central controlling body for judiciary.
On labour matters, I was a member of the 2014 confab. The opinion was that labour should be federalised and not be centralised, but some labour leaders came and brought pressure to bear. Wages were meant to be decentralised.
So, the Nigerian elites don’t really know what they want. Many of you are from different organisations. You weren’t employed on the same terms of engagement. In developed countries, workers are paid based on their productivity, experience and other criteria. Here in Nigeria, somebody working in Ido Local Government of Oyo State would want to earn the same as someone who works in Lagos Island Local Government. It is madness. It doesn’t work that way. Until we become pragmatic and subject our problems to empirical analysis, we can’t move forward. The 8th Assembly failed and the 9th Assembly is also failing in that direction. In my local government, we don’t have an estate, yet we have a director of Physical Planning, Director of Estates and they are all on Grade Level 16, which drains the purse of the local government. We need to start appreciating that we are different.
Constitutional requirements also have limitations. We must start appreciating our limitations. That was why Uncle Bola Ige of blessed memory said only a stupid politician will not appreciate his limitation in any environment. And that’s what’s happening now.
Can we at least push for local government autonomy as it is?
It was the trajectory of local government administration that has brought about this. There is a road contract awarded by Gov. Seyi Makinde in my local government – Omi Adio to Ido – that road was first constructed by a local government chairman, Alhaji Oyebamiji. It was a local government that constructed that road then, not a federal or state government. The Council even installed streetlights all the way from Omi Adio to Ido. There was no road linking Eleyele to Ido then. It was a local government that modernised that axis. Local governments had control over their resources but they were still under the state.
Chief Kolapo Ishola was the governor then, but he wasn’t sitting on their funds. There’s no federal system in the world where you have three tiers of government. Local government is an aberration. But the ability to put a safety valve to checkmate the excesses of a governor is what we should be addressing. Under the Second Republic, the local government was autonomous and they were operating independently. In fact, it paid politicians to become Local Government Chairmen rather than becoming commissioners. Then, only the party leaders would become local government chairmen. They pushed their members to become members of the house of assembly. At that time, it was more beneficial for a politician to stay in his or her local government and develop it than going to the state. But today, commissioners are more powerful than the local government chairmen.
Again, that goes down to the issue of respecting our differences. At that time, I remember Uncle Wole Oyelese was chairman of a local government. From there, he became a minister. The local government commission of the state sent staff to him, but he rejected them. He said he was in Egbeda Local Government, and therefore, no one should dictate to him the number of staff he would employ. He said he only knew those who could work for him and galvanise his programmes to success. And the heaven didn’t fall. But today, somebody will sit down at the secretariat and post 10 grade level 16 officers to a council, including the one the council needs and those it doesn’t need. These are the issues that are militating against the constitutional amendment. In other words, the people at the National Assembly are disconnected from the people at the state and local levels.
The issue of joint accounts has been contentious. How do we resolve it?
The Joint Account emanated from this state and I will give you the historical background. The former Deputy Governor in Oyo State, Taofeek Arapaja was the Chairman of Ibadan Municipal Council then. That was the name before it was split into five. He was the chairman, the local government was autonomous but he was left with practically nothing. No funds, because 90 per cent of the primary school teachers in the state are domiciled in his local government, and over 50 per cent of them were not indigenous to the local government. They’re from other parts of the state. He discovered that the wives of most of the Permanent Secretaries and Directors who are civil servants were teachers. They lived with their husbands, so they all resided in Ibadan and when allocation came, they would deduct primary school teachers from the allocation.
So, the chairman was left with nothing and gave directives that all non-indigene teachers who are not from the Municipal should go back to their respective local governments. Then, there was commotion in the state. Of course, he had the backing of some Ibadan elites. So, the then Military Governor ordered his arrest. The man was adamant and we were backing him. As a way out, they conceived an idea and set up a committee. In that case, it was resolved that before money was shared to all the local governments, as soon as the allocation of local government came for all the 33 local governments, the salaries of teachers, health workers and all other workers, who were working in the local governments would be deducted. How do we do that? They resolved to have a joint account. Then, other states started copying it. It was Sokoto State that followed. So, it started from here.
Even at the constitutional amendment sitting where I served as one of the consultants, they are challenging council autonomy. Even after the abolition of the Local Government Joint Account at the sittings, the local government workers and National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) came there and told them that it would be dangerous to abolish it. The National Assembly had to listen to their request and decided to take the thing out, having observed that it would bring commotion, chaos, riots and a breakdown of law and order.
Are you saying the Joint Account should be retained in the constitution?
Provided it would recognise our differences, which I have just enumerated. For instance, if municipal towns in the country have no indigenes that are workers in those local governments and if they are saddled with the burden of bearing all the expenses, it will affect their own purses. Even as we speak here in Oyo State today, there is no local government in Oke-Ogun that doesn’t have more money than local governments in Ibadan because they have fewer workers. The bulk of the primary school teachers are here in Ibadan. The bulk of the health workers are here.
And most of the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of the state belongs to the local governments. You can look at the 4th Schedule of the Constitution. The states enacted a law regarding this and it started from Lagos.
What would you say about a splinter group within the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) called the Nigerian Law Society?
They have the right to belong to associations of their choice. Nigeria is the only country, which is a federation that has only one centralised body. In Britain, it is not the case. I was part of the study team that went for 10 days to understudy them. There are many regulatory authorities there and that’s a unitary state, not even a federal state. We have the Law Society of England and that of Scotland. We have different Inns of Court, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, and the likes. In America, the Bar in New York is different from the bar in New Jersey as close as they are. You know only a bridge separates the two states. You have to pass the exams before you can practice there. So, I don’t see anything wrong in going that way too. Nigeria is a very huge country.
But someone was sanctioned for being a member?
I wouldn’t know. I made my comment on it that things should have been better handled. The majority of our elders supported it, while some kicked against it. Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. It should have been handled better.
An applicant for SAN is required to pay a huge amount of money to get the privilege. Is that not outrageous?
Well, it is not a tea party to have the title. He who wants greatness should be ready to finance greatness. That is how I paid millions of naira because I wanted to become a governor. He who wants greatness should be ready to finance greatness.