By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, on Tuesday, lauded Federal Government’s decision to grant financial autonomy to the 774 Local Government Councils in the country.
The senior lawyers who spoke to Vanguard in separate interviews, maintained that under the 1999 Constitution, as amended, State Governors, lacked the power to distribute statutory allocations that accrued to LGCs in their state.
According to them, section 162 of the Constitution merely permitted the transfer of funds from the federation account to LGCs through the account of States, and not for governors to assume the responsibility of sharing such fund to the LGs.
While commending FG for making what he described as “a strong positive intervention”, a professor of law, Mr. Earnest Ojukwu, SAN, said there was need for the LGs to abide by accountability standards.
He said: “It is a very welcome development. I don’t think any law states that Local Government fund must be passed through the State. But just passing money directly to Local Governments does not solve the fundamental issue of transparency, openness and accountability.
“We must also ensure that Local Governments abide by accountability standards. The decision does not also solve the challenge of Governors interfering and sacking elected Chairmen and Councilors. On the whole it is a strong positive Federal Government intervention and if the rule relating to cash withdrawals is followed or enforced, we shall begin to get our Local Governments accountability in the right path”.
Similarly, Yunuz Uztaz, SAN, decried that governors had in the past, misused funds that accrued to LGCs in their state.
He said: “Section 7(6) of the Constitution provides that it is the National Assembly that shall make provisions for statutory allocation to the Local Governments. There is no provision that their money’s should go through the State Governors”.
On his part, a constitutional lawyer, Mr. Mohammed Abeny, SAN, said: “The present Constitution is based on three tiers of government to wit; Federal, State and Local Governments.
“Allocation of revenue has followed that pattern. The fact that states Governors have continued to divert local government financial allocations to their use, is an aberration that is contrary to section 7 of the constitution under which the financial autonomy of local government Councils is guaranteed.
“Whatever the federal government can do to restore the financial autonomy of local government councils will be welcomed”.
Equally weighing-in on the matter, a former governorship aspirant in Ondo State, Chief Olusola OKE, SAN, said: “The constitution is very clear on the allocation of funds in the federation account. Section 162 of the 1999 constitution stipulated that funds that accrued to the government of the federation shall be allocated in a defined formula among the three tiers of government to wit: Federal, State and Local Governments. Even though it also provides that monies due to the LGs shall be paid through the State. The state is a mere passage through which that money goes to the LGs.
“The state Assembly or government of the state is not empowered to interfere, spend, allocate or budget that money as part of their fund. It is a constitutional infraction for any state to dip hand into money due to LGs from the federation account. But this has been the bane of our democracy.
“Even under the military, the LGs were treated as a department of the state, so their money has continued to be spent, appropriated, diverted, converted and not utilized for state purposes, and sometimes, the LGs are merely there to endorse contract already awarded.
“I think what the federal government is trying to do is to sanitize that situation. Unfortunately, there is not so much the federal government can achieve at the end of the day because the FG is not supposed to police the affairs of the LGs, especially where the LGs themselves are silent over the subject matter mute. You cannot cry more than the bereaved. The LGs will come from behind to complain but when they see the governors they will keep mute.
“I think the ultimate solution is to amend the constitution so that the three tiers of government will maintain an account with the Central Bank, so that money due to the LGs will be allocated to them directly instead of passing through the state.
“What the states are doing at the moment is outside the intendment of the Constitution. The federal government must be commended for doing something in that regard. Whether what FG is doing will solve the problem is another issue entirely”, he added.
It will be recalled that FG had through the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, NFIU, set June 1 as the take-off date for the new directive that will ensure that LG allocations are paid straight to their respective bank accounts.