Senators disagree on LG autonomy, suggest ways out
The conspiracy of the political elite to stifle the third tier of government system for their selfish interests has had its toll on developments at the grassroots level for years. Political analysts have linked insurgency, kidnapping, armed robbery and other vices to the inability of local governments to properly function and make meaningful impact on the economic life of those at the grassroots.
The extent of the collapse of the system was captured recently when Senate Leader, Yahaya Abdullahi, representing Yobe North, expressed frustration over the burden the failure of the local government system places on political office holders. Senator Abdullahi had indicated that constituents besiege the residences of elected representatives on a daily bases as well as bombard their phone lines with messages with heavy demands for financial assistance.
Not done, he said road infrastructure for communities, drainages, boreholes and other social amenities that should have ordinarily been provided by the third tier of government is now part of elected officials’ burden. The senate leader lamented that constituency members even abuse such privileges by making requests for financial support when their wives put to bed, or when their children fall sick or they need money for school fees.
Abdullahi spoke recently while responding to the media’s inquest into the controversial N5.5b allegedly earmarked for the purchase of official vehicles for the legislators.
Abdullahi asked rhetorically, “The N5.5b for senators, what is the problem there? It’s an insult to say that a senator of the Federal Republic cannot ride an SUV in Nigeria. The N5.5b is from the National Assembly’s fund, which they will pay back at the end.”
He said he was a former permanent secretary and he knows what ministers get, saying that he could not even compare senators with ministers because they get higher than senators.
“Go and tell the people that the work that we do is more than the work of every minister. The weight that is on me today, there is no minister of the federal republic that has it,” he retorted.
Abdullahi was of the opinion that if the local government system were working, the people at the grassroots would have been empowered and they would not resort to begging, harassing political appointees for handouts before they can live.
Apparently worried by the lacuna, he promised that the Senate would work to ensure the 9th Senate achieved local government autonomy. In the first place, he noted, the lack of strong constitutional foundation exposed the local government in Nigeria to the whims and caprices of both state and federal governments. It was rendered an unfortunate ‘orphan’ by the inherent weakness of the constitutional foundation and the contradictions created by the 1976 reforms, he said.
However, another Senator, Ibrahim Hassan Hadejia, representing Jigawa North East, expressed contrary view to Abdullahi’s on the autonomy for local governments in the country.
He said, “My take on that is, even if you give local government autonomy, the political appointees may not see a cessation of people coming to them for various demands. It is the nature of our politics and I think it has little to do with autonomy. When we are talking of local government’s performance, my expectation is not for local government to start giving people handouts, because your wife has given birth or someone wants to marry a second wife. All these personal issues are really distractions as far as I am concerned.”
He said the focus should be with issues that are within their domain, adding, “There are certain responsibilities that have been reserved for the local governments by their peculiar nature – primary school education, primary healthcare, sanitation. If they take care of those little things, the state government should be able to handle some of the heavy lift and the Federal Government should handle the large scale intervention issues that go across several states.”
Senator Hadejia who was the immediate past Deputy Governor of Jihgawa State gave an example of his state where in 2014/2015 when prices dipped to their lowest, they spent almost 11 months supporting Local governments to pay salaries.
“Jigawa did not take bailout money from anybody,” he said, “we provided bailout for the local governments, because some of them were earning so little then that they could not pay their recurrent expenditure. So we had to borrow them money which they will pay back after they recover at the end of the day.
“So, if you talk about autonomy for a state that found itself in that situation it would be a load off the neck of the state government.”
He also said autonomy means the local governments would go and sort themselves out, noting, “I don’t have any problem with autonomy at that level. Let us look at local government administration and how we can inculcate discipline at that level so that when you give them autonomy it would be for them to have reforms to do those basic things that I am telling you.
“Secondly, we need to understand budgeting for what it is – you are planning to spend money on certain areas. As it is now there is very little correlation between the budget for Federal Government, states and local governments.”
He said he experimented by having a meeting with all the local government chairmen in his senatorial zone and members of the House of Assembly in his senatorial zone.
“What I intend to do is, we would be meeting monthly with the three House of Representatives members; we would meet quarterly with the House of Assembly members and local government chairmen.
“In my state the governor has generously given almost N150 m to each state House of Assembly member for the constituency projects. The difference is that he is not giving the N150m; he is giving them an allocation of that amount in the budget for them to sit with their people and identify projects that will come within that N150m range. He said for every project there is an MDA that is constitutionally empowered to handle that project.”
According to him, the execution of the project would be handed over to that MDA, who would do an advertisement in the newspapers, follow due process, identify contractor that would do it and the implementing agency.
“They can call it their constituency project, but the government would not allow them to bring their brothers to execute the projects. So, to our surprise in the state, there were myriads of projects that have been executed.
“The money is there and our due process is so strong that every project has to be executed, whether it is as small as an additional classroom in the school or water treatment plant; so many of them around. It is left to you. Every project that they can conceive there is an MDA that is responsible for it.”
Senator Hadejia further observed that if his state government was doing too many micro projects through the state House of Assembly members there should be a correlation between what that state Assembly man is doing and the local government chairman so that there shouldn’t be duplication.
“My brother, this is my compendium of projects, let me see your budget. We are doing the same thing here, take this while I take the other.
“At the state level, there is that synergy and then I come in. The constituency project we are talking about, if you multiply by nine Assemblymen in my senatorial district that is almost running to over N1b which is more than my N200m constituency projects. So, for me to sit here and conceive a constituency project without bringing them in it is a complete failure of planning and budgeting.
“This is what I think should be happening; that synergy between local governments and others by organising a meeting, so that we can correlate. Taking N200m and breaking it into pieces may not make impact.
“I can easily take my N200m, go and meet the governor that I have a constituency project that is N350m; here is my N200m, add N150m for me let me go and do 200 ward beds in a general Hospital in Hadejia or a female hostel in the state university at Kafin Hausa.
“It is something big; it is something that will be visible and it will cater for all the eight local governments in my senatorial zone.
“When you talk about autonomy, for me, it is not about the money; it is about the discipline and the cohesion between the various levels of governments, so that anything that happens in the eight local governments in my zone affects the governor; it is his constituency. Every local government in Nigeria is the president’s constituency. Whatever project you are going to execute will end up in a macro or micro constituency somewhere. So, we are all doing it for the same Nigerian people.
“That is the only way to also guarantee fairness and balance in projects. This is why you will find a preponderance of projects located in one area to the detriment of others and political competition.”
He cited a situation whereby the local government chairman is doing a borehole in a small community and the senator who comes from a different party, his followers would tell him if he allows the chairman to do that project he will kill him politically.
“Then you go and do your own borehole two metres away from his own and yet some people are walking two to three kilometres to get water. It is a question of planning. For me, the autonomy issue does not arise.”
One interesting scenario that has played out is the issue of former state governors who, having become elected Senators, suddenly become local government autonomy converts overnight. Whereas while in office, they did not allow for the constitution to be amended to give autonomy to local governments. They did not hold election at that tier of government to elect their executives. Rather, they illegally imposed on the people caretaker chairmen.
This played out at the twilight of the 8th Senate when Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (Niger North) moved a motion on the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) and Local Government Finances”. Most of the senators were unanimous in urging the 36 state governments and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to fully implement the new Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit’s guidelines for the promotion of good governance at the grassroots levels. They also called on all financial institutions to support the implementation of the guidelines of the NFIU with diligence and professionalism.
Nigeria’s 36 governors, however, stood against the new financial regulations, which seek to end their control of local government finances. NFIU had announced a ban on transactions on state and local governments’ joint accounts, arguing that such accounts are only transitional accounts from where funds should go directly o the accounts of local governments. NFIU also placed a limit on cash withdrawals from local governments accounts to a maximum of N500,000 per day. It warned banks to ensure strict compliance.
Governors, under the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), however, said they were angered by the new directive, which they described as unconstitutional.