As the amendment of the 1999 constitution gets under way, the issue of autonomy for local government areas promises to generate so much interest and concern. NDUBUISI ORJI writes.
One of the most interesting features of the amendment of the 1999 constitution by the National Assembly is the issue of local government administration in the country. It is one issue that will be characterized by politics, intrigues and what have you. Already there are divided opinion on what should be the status of the local government areas in the country.
The Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON) as well as some segments of the society will want the new constitution to remove the councils from the stranglehold of the state governors. At his inception of office a few months ago, the ALGON President, Nwabueze Okafor had promised to pursue the issue of autonomy for councils in the country. For instance, President Goodluck Jonathan wants the local government to be granted autonomy in the amended constitution and expectedly, the President would be working towards achieving that objective. But the governors think otherwise.
Consequently, a clash between the governors and the federal government over the issue cannot be completely over ruled Recently President Jonathan and the Rivers State governor, Chibuike Amaechi at different for a gave an inkling of the impending battle for the soul of the local government in the days ahead. Speaking at a forum organised by ALGON in Enugu, Jonathan pledged total support for the granting of autonomy to the local government as it is the closest tier of government to the people.
The political adviser to the President, Ahmed Gulak who represented President Jonathan at the event said “ President Jonathan is fighting for full autonomy of the local government.” He urged ALGON to continue to mobilize and sensitise the people so that the amendment would sail through. In another development, Amaechi gave an indication that the Governors in the country under the aegis of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) will oppose moves to grant council areas in the country autonomy.
Amaechi is the chairman of the NGF. The River State governor who spoke while receiving some members of the House of Representatives Committee on Youths and Sports in Port Harcourt recently, argued that in every federation across the world there are usually two federating units- the states and the federal government. Therefore, to him, it does not make sense for anyone to be talking about Nigeria operating a three-tier federalism. “There are only two federating units in most countries in the world.
In Germany, there are two federating units. In America, there are local governments but there are only two federating units – the states and the federal government. The local counties (or what we call councils) are not part of the federating units. So, I want to urge the National Assembly to disregard this talk of autonomy for Local Government Councils that would make the Councils one of the federating units. We will not support it. Governors will not support it,” the governor declared.
Amaechi canvassed for the devolution of more power to the state, so that they can take up some of the responsibility currently being shouldered by the federal government. Like the Rivers State governor and many other governors in the country, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State believes that there is no need for the local government to be recognised in the constitution as a tier of government. According to him, local governments are mere “administrative vehicle that resides within the state, because there are two tiers of government in the Nigerian constitution-the state and the federal.”
In an interview with Daily Sun, Fayemi had stated that it is even a contradiction to have had the local government areas listed in the constitution as it is never a tier of government. While the proponents of local government autonomy argue that it will enhance development at the grassroots, the Ekiti governor thinks otherwise. “I am very opposed to local government becoming a tier of government, because I don’t think it enhances development in any serious way. But as an administration vehicle vested with some power to deliver on behalf of the people, there is nothing wrong with that.
You can as well vest the same power in communities.” However, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chieftain in Lagos state, Chief Tunde Daramola told Daily Sun that there is nothing wrong with the local government having autonomy in the new constitution. He said the devolution of power which the governors are clamouring for should also get down to the local government. Daramola said “From what I understand from their argument, they have made references to what obtains in other lands.
If you ask me, if you are talking of devolution of power, it should go all the way down, I don’t see why the local government cannot have autonomy. “In fact, when we were practising regions, the local government had autonomy. Yes they will still be accountable to the state just as the state will at the end of the day be accountable to the federal government. There is no total autonomy. Especially when you have to pay tax to the state and federal government,” he added.
The opposition of the NGF to issue of autonomy to the local government system is understandable. Since 2002 when the tenure of the first group of elected council officials in the current democratic dispensation elapsed, the local government councils across the country have become fiefdoms of the respective state governors. From 2002, the councils have been run according to the whims and caprices of the governors. Consequently, granting autonomy to the councils will seem to them whittling down of their powers over the council bosses.
Recall that after the failed gambit by ALGON in 2002 to have the tenure of elected council officials extended to four years, the governors quickly appointed their cronies and stooges to oversee the running of the councils as caretaker committee chairmen and members as stop gap measure pending the conduct of local government elections. From thence the councils become governors honey pot as many of the governors continued to use unelected council officials to run the local government system indefinitely.
In the past 10 years, the local government system has changed from being an organ of bringing government closer to the people to an organ for compensating political acolytes of the ruling parties in the states. Apart from failing to conduct council elections, in the few instances where the elections were conducted the parties of the governors, more often than not swept the polls. Latching on to the provision of section 7 of the 1999 constitution as amended, the various state governors acting through their Houses of Assembly have enacted laws fixing the tenure of the local government officials to suit their conveniences and giving the governors the leeway to appoint and sack council officials at will.
According to President Jonathan, “tenure of local governments (now) depends on the whims and caprices of the state governors. That should not be so. The tenure of our local governments, whether three or four years, should be clearly defined in the Constitution. “The President has no right to wake up and say he has dissolved a state government. So why must a state governor dissolve a council? Why are we following the constitution in breach? We must live up to our duty and expectation of upholding and defending the constitution,” he urges. Besides, Gulak stated that “one issue affecting the local governments that the President is concerned about is the state-local government joint account. It erodes the autonomy of the local governments.
The framers of the constitution did not envisage that the account will be run the way it is being run.” There is no doubt that the governors, having disclosed their opposition to autonomy for the councils will stop at nothing to ensure that they achieve their objective . It is also expected the Presidency would work round the clock to free the councils from the control of the states. But in this impending battle, the country will be looking up to the National Assembly to decide whether or not the local government will be autonomous.