By Ise-Oluwa Ige
I n this piece,
Vanguard Law and Human Rights digs into the circumstances surrounding the challenges faced by the National Assembly in securing the concurrence of state lawmakers and assent of President Buhari to grant financial and administrative autonomy to Local Governments in Nigeria and argues that time is now for state governors and lawmakers to push politics aside and perform their constitutional duties in the interest of the people who emplaced them.
The failure by the parliaments of some states in the country to pass the bill seeking financial and administrative autonomy to local government in their respective jurisdictions, is raising a cloud of dust.
While some state governors and their lawmakers have considered and passed the bill in their respective jurisdictions, a significant others have refused to touch it and eight other proposed legislations.
Vanguard reports that a total of 68 bills seeking to alter provisions of the Constitution were presented at the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives on February 23, 2022 for passage.
That was after a total of N1 billion was approved for the constitutional amendment process.
But the Senate and the House of Representatives subsequently approved only 44 of the bills and transmitted same to the state parliaments for their resolution on March 27, 2022.
Among the bills rejected by the National Assembly were all five gender bills that sought to promote more opportunities for women in political parties, governance and the society at large – triggering protests from over 200 women groups across the country.
The federal legislature also voted to deny citizenship to the foreign-born husband of a Nigerian woman and the ability to take indigeneship of their husbands’ states after five years of being together.
The local government autonomy bill was one of the 44 bills transmitted by the National Assembly to the 36 state assemblies in March 2022 for their concurrence required to get Mr. President to sign them into law.
Constitutionally, a simple majority of votes is required in at least two-thirds of state assemblies (24 out of 36) in each of the bills to enable the president give his assent.
Unfortunately, of the 44 bills approved by the National Assembly and transmitted to the state assemblies, only 35 scaled through while the local government autonomy bill with eight others failed.
The nine bills that failed at state parliament
Besides the bill seeking abrogation of the State Joint Local Government Account and provide for special Account into which shall be paid all Allocations due to Local Government Councils from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State; and for Related Matters which failed passage at the state parliaments, others are those seeking establishment of Local Government as a tier of Government by guaranteeing their democratic existence, tenure; and for Related Matters; institutionalization of legislative bureaucracy in the Constitution and for Related Matters as well as the inclusion of Presiding Officers of the National Assembly in the membership of the National Security Council.
Others are bills seeking to ensure uniformity in the retirement age and pension rights of judicial officers of superior courts of records; impose the requirement of fair hearing in the process of recommendation of removal of judicial officers by the State Judicial Service Commission; and inclusion of Presiding Officers of the National Assembly in the membership of the National Security Council.
The 35 bills that scaled through
The bills that scaled through at the state assemblies were those seeking to change the names of Afikpo North and Afikpo South Local Government Areas (Ebonyi State); Kunchi Local Government Area (Kano State); Egbado North and Egbado South Local Government Areas (Ogun State), correction of the name of Atigbo Local Government Area (Oyo State) and Obia/Akpor Local Government Area (Rivers State).
Others are seeking financial autonomy for state legislatures and judiciaries); enforcement of legislative Summon; inauguration of members-elect); deletion of reference in the Constitution to the provisions of the Criminal Code, Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Act; Criminal Procedure Code or Evidence Act and provision for intervening events in the computation of time for the determination of pre-election petitions, election petitions and appeals therefrom.
Also, bills seeking expansion of the Interpretation of Judicial Office, appointment of Secretary of the National Judicial Council, devolution of powers (Airports); devolution of powers (fingerprints, identification and criminal records also succeeded.
Also on the list were bills seeking devolution of powers (Correctional Services); (Railways); (National Grid System); power to enforce compliance of remittance of Accruals into the Federation Account and Review of Revenue Allocation Formula) and devolution of powers (Independence of Certain Bodies).
The passed bills also include those seeking removal of transitional law-making powers of the Executive, (Domestication of Treaties); Constitution; (Timeline for the Presentation of Appropriation Bills); (Timeframe for the Submission of the Names of Ministerial or Commissioner Nominees); (Power to summon the President and Governors); (Authorization of Expenditure); (Replacement of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation with the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the FG); (Creation of the Office of Accountant-General of the Federation), and (Separation of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and of the State from the office of the Minister or Commissioner for Justice)
Details of states that passed the 35 bills
The states that passed the 35 bills include Abia, Adamawa, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Benue, Borno, Cross-River, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Enugu, Imo, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kogi, Lagos, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Rivers and Yobe.
According to Deputy Senate President and Chairman of Senate Committee on Constitution Amendment, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, the states yet to forward their resolutions on the bills include Gombe, Jigawa, Kebbi, Kwara, Oyo, Plateau, Sokoto, Taraba and Zamfara.
In the meantime, the Senate has directed the Clerk to the National Assembly to transmit the 35 bills that met the requirement of the provision of section 9(2) of the Constitution to the President for assent.
In a briefing after the plenary, the NASS said it was too early to say that the NASS had failed in passing the remaining nine bills as the amendment exercise was not yet over.
The Red Chamber thereafter called on Gombe, Jigawa, Kebbi, Kwara, Oyo, Plateau, Sokoto, Taraba, and Zamfara assemblies, which had yet to forward their resolutions on the 44 amendments sent to state assemblies, to reconsider their stand on the constitution amendments.
Bill on Local Govt. Council most contentious
But of all the nine bills that did not get passage at the state parliament, the one seeking to grant autonomy had generated most controversy.
In the bill, each local government council is to create and maintain its own special account to be called Local Government Allocation Account into which all the allocations will be paid.
The bill seeks to amend the Constitution to repeal the state joint local government account and provide for a special account where all allocations due to the local government councils, from the federation account and state government shall be paid.
The proposed legislation also mandates each state to pay to local government councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its internally generated revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly.
For administrative autonomy, the bill seeks to allow local governments to conduct their own elections.
Reforms proposed in LG Autonomy Bill progressive—ex-President Obasanjo
According to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the reforms proposed in the bill are aimed at making local councils autonomous “like the state governments.”
Obasanjo recalled that his military administration introduced local government reforms in 1976 but lamented the objectives have been scuttled.
“When in 1976 we brought in local government reforms, it was meant to be third tier of the government and not meant to be subjected to whims and caprices of any other government, just the same way that the state governments are autonomous from the FG,” he said.
Ex-President Obasanjo said he was unhappy that 42 years after, the aim of the reforms was yet to be achieved.
“Rather, most of the state governments are virtually stealing local government funds that the FG appropriates to them monthly.
“Local government is meant to be autonomous from the state government.
“But from what we know, by design, most states have incapacitated the local governments. They have virtually stolen the local governments’ money in what they called Joint Account. They are to contribute 10 per cent but they never contribute anything.
“So, what we have across the country are local government areas that have functions but cannot perform the functions. They have staff but most of them cannot pay the staff and we keep getting excuses upon excuses.
“The Bill passed by the NASS requires 24 State Houses of Assembly and like I am told, only nine states have signed it. I am proud of those states because they are what you will call progressive states that really believe in democracy.
“Again, I will say leadership of the NLC and NULGE who have always fought for the interest of the people, should know that the interest of the people at the local government will be best served if the LG has autonomy which they should have,” he said.
On the politics behind the non-passage of the LG autonomy bill and others,Vanguard reports that before the bill was presented at the NASS in February 2022, concerns were raised from various quarters on how the allocations of local governments in the country were allegedly being cornered by state governors while the anti-graft agencies were helpless given the fact that state governors are clothed with constitutional immunity against arrest and prosecution.
It was, therefore, not surprising when NFIU on May 6, 2019, creatively designed and issued guidelines to stimulate the reduction of crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawals from local government funds across the country, beginning from June 1, 2019.
The governors were not happy with the plans by the NFIU to take away their power of control over local council allocation.
Displeased by the guidelines, the 36 AGs and the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, NGF, had dragged the Attorney-General of the Federation, the NFIU and the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees to court to declare the action of the NFIU unconstitutional.
NFIU, state govts lock horns over LG allocations
The plaintiffs had, in the suit, urged the court to declare that the NFIU, “does not have the statutory powers, by its Establishment Act, to make guidelines for the regulation, monitoring and operation of the State Joint Local Government Accounts or any other account into which funds from the Joint Account are paid.”
The states also sought a declaration that the NFIU Guidelines known as “the NFIU Enforcement and Guidelines to Reduce Crime Vulnerabilities Crafted by Cash Withdrawal From Local Government Funds Throughout Nigeria,” particularly Provisions 1 to 6 thereof and the penalties prescribed thereabout, are ultra vires, the power of the Unit under Sections 3 (1) and 23(2) (a) of the Nigerian Financial Intelligent Unit Act, 2018 and is therefore unconstitutional.
They also sought for a declaration that by the combined effect of Section 4(7), 7(6) (a) and (b) and Section 162(6), (7) and (8) of the constitution, “the State Governments of the Federation are not subject to control or directive of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit or any other person or body on the terms and manner of the operation of State Joint Local Government Account other than by a law passed by the House of Assembly of the state.”
But the civil societies were solidly behind NFIU and any effort geared towards restoring sanity in the expenditure of local council allocations in the country.
The matter went on trial and at the end of the day, the trial judge, Justice Inyang Ekwo, in a well considered judgment, in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/563/2019, held that the case of the state governors lacked merit and subsequently dismissed it.
State govs lose LG allocation battle to NFIU
According to the judge, the state governors did not show how NFIU’s guidelines contradict or conflict with the provision of Sections 7(1), (6) (a) and (b) of the Constitution.
“I am also unable to see how the provisions of the 2nd defendant (NFIU)’s guidelines contradict or conflict with the provisions of Section 162(6) of the Constitution which creates the ‘State Joint Local Government Account’ into which allocations to the local government councils of the state from the Federation Account and from the government of the state shall be paid,” he said.
Justice Ekwo in addition said the guidelines did not contradict or conflict with the provisions of the 4th Schedule to the 1999 Constitution which prescribes the functions of a local government council.
“The duty of the court is limited to expounding the law and not expanding it.
“On the whole, I see the provisions of the guidelines of the 2nd defendant as seeking to direct the monitoring of accounts, transfers and any other means of payment or transfer of funds of local government councils as provided for in Section 3 (1) (r) of the Act of the NFIU.
“It only limits cash withdrawal made from any Local Government Account anywhere in the country to amount not exceeding N500,000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira) per day.
“Any amount higher than that can be done using other methods of banking transaction save cash.
“Unless it can be shown that there is any provision of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which these provisions of the 2nd defendant’s guidelines have contradicted or conflicted directly and practically, then the issue of unconstitutionality cannot be said to arise,” he said.
“I find in the end, that the case of the plaintiffs lacks merit and ought to be dismissed and it is hereby dismissed. This is the order of this Court,” the judge added.
That was the background fact that predated the Local Government Autonomy Bill that came before the NASS in March 2022.
Conference of state speakers team up with state governors over LG autonomy battle
As soon as the LG autonomy bill was passed by the NASS and transmitted to the state parliaments for their concurrence, the states had threatened to take no action on the bills unless four more constitutional amendment bills were considered and passed by the NASS
President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba, and representatives of other labour unions have called on governors to stop interfering in the legislative activities of state Assemblies. They also admonished the state Assemblies to approve local government autonomy.
Wabba said: “There is a sad situation of arms twisting here. NLC has a clear position on state police and that is that we are not mature for that. If a state government can sponsor thuggery, if it has state police, it would be worse. Look at the native police before it was disbanded. State INEC is not doing well. So, I commend the National Assembly for standing firm so far. On LG autonomy we stand. We need strong institutions not strong persons.”
NULGE President wants electorate to vote against parties not endorsing LG autonomy
Also, the President of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE, Ambali Akeem, who chided some governors and state assembly members in the country for their hesitant posture towards the bill, urged the electorate to vote against any political party that is not in support of LG autonomy.
He said: “We want to know the position of the Labour Party candidate, as well as those of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and others. Whoever is not ready to support LG autonomy, Nigerians should vote them out. It is not about salary, we believe in the indivisibility of Nigeria and we would rise up to resist them.”
He pointed out that the forum of the governor lacks convincing reasons the local government autonomy bill should not be passed, adding that the reasons adduced by some of them are selfish.
“Any state that is not stealing local government funds will have no problem passing the Local Government Autonomy Bill. If we are serious about fighting insecurity, the local government must be given financial autonomy.
“Between 2015 and date, the allocations to local government are about N500 billion, without aggregate development and improvement in local government. No wonder urban migration has continued to thrive, thereby leaving local governments vulnerable to banditry and terrorism.
“President Buhari meant well for the country; he sent a presidential order, but the governors went to court to challenge it. What is their problem? Do you want to be governor and chairman of the local government at the same time?” he asked.
He said, “Our power is our vote. Any member of the House who votes against autonomy, we should vote against them. After this, we would commission you to go to your various constituencies and wait for them, including the governors. You should be ready to campaign against any anti-local government politicians.”
State govts have put LGs in their pockets—Yomi Alliyu, SAN
Another senior member of the inner bar, Mr Yomi Alliyu, SAN, said no state government had the right to ‘curtail’ the autonomy of local governments, noting that LGs were recognised by the constitution as the third tier of government like the state and federal governments.
“Nobody can curtail the autonomy of the Local Government councils. They are entitled to be the third-tier of government and that is what they are. There is nothing anybody can do about that.”
“It is like the Federal Government putting state governments in their pockets. One of the former presidents tried it and met stiff resistance. If the FG can’t do that to the state governments, they (states) should not do it to the LGs.
“The LG is the grassroots and they should not be stranded. LG system should be encouraged. The government must make sure that the LG is autonomous and ensure accountability,” he stated.
He, however, noted that the problem with the Nigerian system was that there was a lot of duplication of duties from the FG down to the LG.
The National President of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria has also lambasted the National Assembly for ‘’allowing themselves to be used by the governors.’’
He said: “Also, concerning the National Assembly, I am highly disappointed. It is saddening and highly unfortunate that they have allowed themselves to be used by governors.
“If they know they can’t promote bills to protect the common citizens, why are they in the house? Why are they wasting tax-payers funds on unnecessary sittings? It is unfortunate.”
Although the 35 successful bills at the state parliaments have since been forwarded to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent, it will not be out of place for the lawmakers at the state level to push politics aside and perform their constitutional duties in the interest of the public they serve particularly when the National Assembly had indicated that the plan to get the remaining nine bills was not yet close if only they could perform their duties.
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.