By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“Until a rotten tooth is removed, one must chew carefully.”- Nigerian proverb.
GOVERNOR of Rivers State and Chairman of the Governors Forum, Rotimi Amaechi provided a useful glimpse into the thinking of some governors on some of the key issues being discussed for constitutional amendments.
Governor Amaechi is a very influential governor, so his words should be accorded serious consideration. He is governor of one of the richest states at the heart of the Niger Delta with strong views on resource allocation.
This means that what he says about sharing resources among and between federating units should carry some weight. He is chairman of the Governors Forum, a powerful group that has the final say on most matters to do with the economy and politics of the land.
Governor Amaechi wants to see a two-tier federal system, involving only federal and state governments. He made the case that far from granting autonomy to local governments for which there is popular clamour, local government should be abolished as a federating unit.
The Governor reportedly said emphatically that governors will not support “this talk of autonomy for local government”.
This position of the Governor is revealing, and represents a refreshing candour from a powerful man.
Now the nation knows that governors (and logically, state legislators) will shoot down proposals to amend the Constitution and give local government councils full financial and administrative autonomy, no matter what the nation thinks.
Many Nigerians believe that a serious error was made by the authors of our Constitution who made all necessary provisions for democratically – elected local councils as third tiers, and they then introduced crippling controls over their full functions in Section 7 of the Constitution.
The hope now is that this error, if that is what it was, should be addressed by the current review exercise. Nigerians now have another interesting scenario to deal with. This scenario solves the problem of the absence of autonomy by local councils by abolishing them altogether.
It also adds another interesting perspective to the debate over the nature and structure of our federal system.
One of such perspectives, in fact, argues that states should be abolished, and geo-political zones as presently constituted should be accorded legal status as federating regions with wide autonomy, and each of the six may decide whether they want local councils or sub-regional structures, and may create them as they wish.
The more popular clamour is for full autonomy for local councils, principally to encourage the growth and development of democratic values, institutions and practices and enhance citizen-state relations.
The third perspective is the one the Governor does not like: a federal system with its current excess baggage, and states and local councils which by default or design, severely compromise each other’s capacities to function better.
In simple terms, if Governor Amaechi says it now, it should come to pass: no amendments will succeed which seek to make local councils autonomous. It is also trite to argue that governors will not even hear of any proposals which give geo-political zones some legal recognition, and presumably some responsibilities.
Governors who want local councils abolished so that only states and the (newly-improved, slimmer) Federal Government will exist will not welcome any other structure, under whatever guise.
Governors must also know that they are unlikely to get the local councils abolished as third-level federating units. There is too much interest in going the other way; and if they won’t let them function independently, it will be difficult to see how they will be allowed to abolish local councils.
Survival of status-quo
So it is very likely that the status-quo will survive the reviews, unless the all-powerful governors have more cards up their sleeves than Nigerians realise.
It is difficult to see what motivation President Jonathan (who is the other party in the matter with interest and clout) will have to say on the governors’ take on local councils’ autonomy.
Chances are that if the governors do not like it, the National Assembly and the President are unlikely to push or win against them on this issue. And this is the reason Governor Amaechi’s comments on other areas also needs to be noted.
He makes the case against legislating financial autonomy for state legislatures, another issue with popular support.
Again, at the heart of this issue is the manner governors exercise determining control over democratic institutions which are intended to function with genuine autonomy from them.
The popular clamour is for some sort of legislation which should guarantee state legislatures first line, direct access into resources which are sufficient to shield them from restrictive influences of state executive arms.
The Governor argues that there should be a political, rather than a legal solution to this problem, and it can be solved in a manner which both allows the judiciary and legislature at state levels to do their work unhindered, and the executive to continue to perform the task of the principal allocator of funds.
If governors feel that neither the Constitution nor public opinion should prescribe how they fund other arms of government under the current political dispensation, it is safe to assume that this will be the final position at the end of the review.
They should, and will encounter fierce resistance from state legislators, but their current political and financial clout should help them survive with a few token concessions.
After all, at the end of it all, this will be a matter settled between governors, state legislators, and federal legislators. The Presidency is likely to stay out of this one.
Fight for more responsibility
But the Presidency will dig in for a bruising fight if the governors take up the fight for more responsibility and more resources from the federal level, which they may. And they have many good cases here, as the Governor explained.
The Federal Government has too much responsibility which it discharges badly, or leaves to states to discharge.
So, it has power, but sheds responsibility. States do much of their own, and would do much of what the Federal Government does better. So they want both responsibility and power. And the resources that go with them.
There are valid reasons why the allocation of responsibilities and resources need to be revisited to improve the manner our federal system works. But these issues are not likely to reflect popular positions.
They are likely to be settled in horse-trading or opportunistic negotiations that are likely to leave the federal structure pretty much as it is.
The irony may be lost on governors when they ask for additional powers and resources from the Federal Government, and then continuously deny the right of citizens to elect and hold accountable, local-level governance structures with potentials to improve lives. Nigerians who look forward to some substantive amendments to our Constitution should pay attention to what governors want out of it.
Even if their chairman is flying kites at this stage, it is likely that governors are planning either of two outcomes: A radically restructured federal system that gives states a lot more power and resources; or the preservation of the status quo.