In defence of local government autonomy
Continued from Yesterday
One recent event would demonstrate the main reason why State Governors seek to dominate and control local governments. This is the suit instituted by the Governors through the Governors’ Forum and the Attorneys-General of the States against the guidelines issued by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) on cash withdrawal from local government accounts.
The NFIU’s guideline was entitled “Enforcement, Guidelines and Policies for Mitigation of Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Proliferation of Weapons: NFIU Enforcement and Guidelines to reduce crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawal from local government funds throughout Nigeria, effective 1st June, 2019”. The gravamen of the NFIU’s Guidelines is that local government councils should not make cash withdrawal in excess of N500,000 (five hundred thousand Naira) per day.
That any withdrawal in excess of N500,000 per day can be made by electronic means or by cheque to facilitate monitoring in the interest of combating money laundering, terrorism financing, proliferation of arms and other forms of corruption and abuse of power. The Governors were not happy at the Guidelines. The Local Governments did not complain against the Guidelines.
It was the Governors that were aggrieved because they know the Guidelines would not allow them to direct the local government officials to arbitrarily make withdrawals to satisfy their whims and caprices.
The Suit instituted against the guideline was marked SUIT NO. FHC/ABJ/CS/563/2019: AG Abia State & 36 Ors V. Ag Federation & 2 Ors, including NULGE, at Court 5, FHC, ABUJA,
First, based on a Preliminary Objection raised, the name of the Governors’ Forum (i.e. the 37th Defendant – Incorporated Trustees Of Nigeria Governors Forum) was struck out on the ground that it was not incorporated to be a public interest litigant capable of challenging government policies.
The Federal High Court, per Hon. Justice Ekwo, held that the Claimants did not convince the Court that the NFIU’s Guidelines either contradicted the NFIU Act or are unconstitutional.
Anyone who knows the danger a typical Governor constitutes to the wellbeing of local governments would support the call by NULGE for Local Government Autonomy. In moving the Court to join NULGE as defendant in the Suit by the Governors to defend and/or support the NFIU’s Guidelines, as the counsel representing NULGE in the case, we cited bitter and painful experiences of the looting of local government funds by a typical Governor across Nigeria. The members of NULGE, NULGE itself and the constituents in the local governments suffer the negative consequences of the control of local governments by the Governors. Some of the facts of deprivations (supported with documentary evidence in exhibits) which are consequences of unconscionable powers exercised by the Governors, as at the pendency of the case, over local government funds, included the following:
In Oyo State as at August 2017, virtually all Local Governments in the State owed arrears of salaries and Pensions ranging from One (1) to Eleven (11) months.
Similarly, in several states of the Federation, salaries of local government workers were paid in arrears, notwithstanding the fact that allocations were promptly paid by the Federal Government as and when due.
In Kano State, it was in the public space that there was a pending case of alleged Money Laundering involving over N3,000,000,000 (Three Billion Naira) against a former Governor who allegedly directed that 44 Local Governments should donate N70, 000, 000 (Seventy Million Naira) each towards his presidential ambition in 2015.
In Ogun State, Contributory pensions for over one hundred months were unremitted, as at the pendency of the Suit.
In Zamfara State, Local Government workers were being paid salaries based on N6, 500 (Six Thousand, Five Hundred Naira) minimum wage as against the then N18, 000 (Eighteen Thousand Naira) statutory minimum wage.
In several States including Borno, Kogi and Kwara States, among others, local government workers were being paid on percentage basis, ranging between 25% and 80% of their monthly salaries.
In several States, including Ekiti State, under the tenure of a former Governor, several illegal deductions were being made from local government funds. These deductions, included: Social Security Fund; Ministry of Local Government Affairs; Local Government Security Fund; Social Security Fund; Office of Accountant General (JAAC Office), Office of the Auditor General for Local Government; Stomach Infrastructure; Furniture; Armed Forces Remembrance Day; Xmas Gifts (Children); Xmas Gifts (General), Christmas Decoration (16 LGs); Health Program; International Women’s Day; Bursary and Security. The values of these deductions ranged on a monthly basis between N12, 788, 688.70 (i.e. about twelve million Naira) and N878, 500,924. 75 (i.e. about eight hundred and seventy nine million Naira).
On a National Scale, as at 30/4/2019, Local Government workers were being owed between One (1) and Twenty-Three (23) months’ arrears of salaries whilst Union check off dues were unremitted for periods ranging from one to twenty-three months. Moreover, cooperative deductions made from workers’ salaries remained unpaid to the cooperative societies.
In the context of the foregoing, there is a good context for the advocacy for local government autonomy being championed by NULGE.
The scope and character of local government autonomy envisioned by NULGE are captured in the provisions of the Bill on local government autonomy, by way of an amendment of the Constitution. Though the Bill had been passed by the Senate, it suffered a setback on the long run. The Bill, as passed by the Senate, had two key components. These are: to alter the Constitution of the FRN, 1999 to abrogate State Joint LG Acct & provide for a special account into which shall be paid all allocations due to LG Councils from the Federation Account & from the Government of the State, and
to establish Local Government Councils as tier of government and guarantee their democratic existence, tenure; and for related matters.
Thus, we may conclude that the call for local government autonomy is rooted in the life experiences of the reckless disposition of the typical Governor to the funds of local governments and the deprivation of meaningful development at that level of governance.
The call is thus a way of deepening democracy and the wellbeing of ordinary people at the grassroots level. This does not mean that the local governments are corruption-free. However, other democratic measures that promote transparency and accountability may be put in place along with measures to realize increased constitutionally-backed local government autonomy.
Aborisade is a lawyer.