By BEN ETAGHENE
THE debate on whether there should be local government council autonomy has been on for some over two decades and if care is not taken, it may become an elastic issue comparable with the two–legged discourse over the tenure requirement for the president. But at the end of the day, the status quo will remain for the latter. The Americans for close to 50 years had been embroiled with a similar predicament without any acceptable alternative solution.
However, in the case of financial autonomy for the LGs, it had once been tried. That was during the Second Republic without any appreciable result, hence the National Union of Teachers’, NUT’s, interventionist appeal to the National Assembly, NASS, in the current debate not to leave the running of primary schools under the authority of the local governments. That previous poor performance of the LGs, also led to the present joint state/local proviso in the Constitution. The argument for the Federal Government to take over primary schools administration with the involvement of the state governments lacks merit in our search for true federalism.
The recent recommendation by members of the House of Representatives on the constitutional review favoured the granting of financial autonomy to the third tier of government. Though the Senate in its wisdom recommended contrary stance but these variant positions have to be harmonized later in a joint session. The Senate has taken a conservative view while the Reps took a pragmatic stance (both) which the need of the time with a progressive review will streamline. It is most desirable that the country should move towards modernism, efficiency and transparency. This can’t easily be achieved at this level without the grant of financial autonomy to the third tier of government.
At the moment the Federal Government is too large and too rich. The states are moderately rich based on what accrue to them at their monthly allocation from the federation account. This makes almost all of them, including the LGs, to be overtly dependent on the oil money. There is a cry in many quarters for a sort of devolution of powers to other tiers of government as a necessary option. And yet the suggestion of an autonomy to the local governments with direct fund allocations from the federation account at this point in time cannot be waved off. It is a decsion whose time has come as it promises some form of palliative relief to the Federal Government.
For too long has the LG remained an appendage of the state government and perform at the dictates of the governor. Across the country, there is no single LG that can be credited with good performance. No roads, no water, no welfare benefits, no medical facilities, no jobs, et al. There is a hidden spirit of laissez-faire and compromise between the LG chairmen and their governors who dish out to the former according to the dictate of their whims rather than what the Constitution allocates to them. The LGs often cite paucity of funds as being responsible for their low level of performance.
They are thus handicapped because after payment of staff salaries, the balance of what is given to them is shared between the chairmen and their councilors. The governors cannot check them because they are partners in the act. In other instances there are no local government elections. The governors appoint caretaker committee chairmen to run the councils- an illegality.
The caretaker committee is alien to the 1999 Constitution. These are of public knowledge yet nobody has had the gut to check them. Breaking the law with impunity in this regard raises the vital question about the type of democracy operational in the country. The prevailing situation only serve to mildly reduce people to the level of docility. This is not the Nigeria we knew growing up. Something has to give way. And our psychologists owe the society a duty to explain the factors behind this new attitude.
A change is urgently needed and it must start with the LGs’ financial autonomy. So our national lawmakers in Abuja, including those who relish in calling the National Assembly a parliament, must appreciate the importance of this aspect of their present assignment. Although granting autonomy may be a climax in line of agitation, but ultimately it will end as an anti-climax. Therefore, how they manage the new era status becomes the crucial test.
We have seen the recklessness of most past chairmen of the local government council bosses. The unemployment figure among the youth is staggering, yet most of them prefer to behave like czars who lavished public funds on themselves and on few friends. In the little town where I live down South, there is this funny tale of our past LG boss who came to office with one wife. But two years later, he became known with five wives with one in Lagos and another in Abuja, while three live in different mansions owned by him in town. His predecessor owns two streets with several houses in different towns.
So, against this backdrop, I am advocating for financial autonomy for the LGAs. By this position, one is unaware of the hard road to real federalism. We cannot give the LGAs a holistic autonomy. But with a well controlled regimentation and stringent recruitment a new era could evolve.
Mr. Etaghene, Editorial Director of The Bulletin, wrote from Delta State.