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Local government autonomy: Bringing development to grassroots

Following the clamour for local government autonomy, a new lease of life that will usher in new development strides and galvanise labour activism at the grassroots level may be beckoning, as the joint state/local government account and the power of state houses of assemblies to regulate activities of the local governments, which one way or another counters the objective of LG autonomy, may soon be a thing of the past. JOY EKEKE, writes…

A reform of the local government system in Nigeria carried out in 1976 by the Olusegun Obasanjo regime and documented in both the 1979 and 1999 Constitution, is yet to be felt many years after, going by the reality on the ground.
The stated objectives of the reform included, establishment of local government autonomy, which will enhance the proximity of governance and development to the grassroots, boost economic activities and give that strata of government direct access to federal allocation.

Since then, local government has remained further behind in the pace of development, looking rather like a snail in a horse race.

Reasons for the failure of reforms to kick-start may be due to the creation of the joint state/local government account; and the power of state Houses of Assembly to regulate activities of the local governments which one way or another counters the objective of LG autonomy.

This became a continuum during every administration, both military and civilian rule decapitating the potential of the local governments and its employees, just as employees became subject to the state governments; salaries were accrued massively and not duly paid, funds meant for the local government were further misappropriated or misapplied by by state governors.

This led to groaning and yearning of unions representing the third tier of government, with so much power (grassroots), but little to use. At the state level, there were complaints; protests, but they did not yield any positive results.

On September 15, 2016, like the rainbow after a rain, the announcement of President Muhammadu Buhari, pledging to support autonomy for local governments when he received the leadership of the Association of Local Governments in Nigeria (ALGON), in Abuja, came as a huge celebration for local government administrators and indeed, the Nigeria Labour Congress, who serves as labour centre.

Buhari urged local government administrators across the country to push for an amendment to the Constitution that would limit the powers of state government over their activities.

“This will limit the damage they can do to you. The quicker you do this the better, so that you can help your people much more”, the president was quoted as saying in a statement by his media aide,Mallam Garba Shehu.

“The states feel like they own the local government, if they are of the same party. It is worse if they are not.

“This is a very serious constitutional problem and unless there is absolute clarity and transparency, the relationship will continue to be exploited against the interest of the ordinary people of the country”, he said.

Expressing his appreciation, The President of National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Kaduna, Alhaji Jabir Danlami, commended President Buhari for supporting local government autonomy.

Danlami said that if autonomy could be granted to local councils, it would lead to massive development at the grass root level.

This was the much needed push, support and endorsement needed to begin to lobby for a favorable amendment of the 1999 Constitution at the National Assembly for local government autonomy, to free the third tier of government from the shackles and apron string of the state.

Labour centers, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations began the agitation for the full implementation and amendment of the 1999 Constitutional provisions.

A courtesy visit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara revealed that they had technically won the support of the federal lawmakers towards the actualization of an amendment.

Dogara seized the opportunity to call on Nigerians to lend their voices to the push for financial and administrative autonomy for local governments in the country.

He noted that if state Houses of Assembly were not pressurized, they may not vote in favour of the proposal.

“It will take more than the will of the legislature at the federal level to ensure that these radical changes are achieved. We all know that in the last assembly, when we passed it to the states, most of the states voted it down that they don’t want the autonomy for local government councils.

“In the process of amending the Constitution, the state legislators must be engaged, and we will have to have a return of 2/3rd approval from the state assemblies. So if we put forward these proposals and we fail to gather 2/3rd support it means that automatically it has failed and there is nothing that we can do about it”, the lawmaker maintained.

Workers at the tier under the aegis of the National Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE staged zonal rallies in all six of the country’s geopolitical zones, with a grand finale held in Abuja, to vent their anger against the removal of democracy at the local government level and a relegation of democracy in the country’s local government system.

NULGE National President, Comrade Ibrahim Abdulkadir, bemoaned the absence of democracy at the local government level saying it had essentially belittled the essence of democracy at that level. “We are saying that because the people at the grassroots level don’t know any other leadership apart from their councilor and chairman. Sincerely speaking, without giving them that opportunity, you have completely disconnected them from democracy. By not having that, you are creating a chaotic situation in the whole country and that is what we are witnessing today.”

As expected, rising oppositions against the agitation surfaced, including former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who maintained that the local governments are sub-units of the states.

“In 2012, I went before ALGON in Enugu and told them that their clamour for local government autonomy from state governments is misguided. I told them that it is wrong for the federal government to be creating local governments and giving them money directly from the federation account. What is the meaning of “local” then, I asked? How does the transfer of local government dependence on state to central government translate to autonomy? Even our state governments are nearly totally dependent on the federal government, meaning they do not even have the autonomy that we are trying to give to the local governments that are below them. This is a complete absurdity.”

Against all odds, the National Assembly approved the abrogation of joint accounts for states and local government; and provided for Local government to operate their special accounts called the Local Government Account.

On autonomy for local governments, 281 members voted to approve it, while 12 were against it. One member abstained.

This development has generated loud applause for the 8th assembly, and one of such commendations came from the National President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba.

“The National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of Local Government authority in spite of tremendous pressure from strong vested interest groups. The 8th National Assembly has made history and shall be remembered for bowing not to the insular interests but the popular wishes of the people.

“Their initiative, we believe, is an improvement on the efforts of the previous Assemblies, which goes to show that government is not only a continuum, with tenacity and requisite experience at the National Assembly, we shall get our democracy right.

Wabba disclosed that the effects on the local government system, workers and the Nigerian people are overwhelming.

He said,“The cumulative effects of these on the local government system, workers and the Nigerian people are overwhelming and range from the arrest of the growth of the local government system of administration; abortion, prevention and denial of generations of the Nigerian youth from acquiring the needed administrative and political leadership training at the local government level; gross socio-economic under development; rise in violent crimes across the country; mutual distrust between local governments and the populace; mass disenfranchisement; arrest of democratic culture; mass resentment; loss of values and ethics; over concentration of power at two levels of government, etc.”

Wabba insisted that autonomy of local government would ensure that the local government system develops as a third tier of government with the capacity to discharge its constitutional responsibilities to its constituents; strengthen democratic decentralisation of power and put power back in the hands of the citizenry at the grassroots level of governance; give a voice to the voiceless, especially the minorities who have been short-changed at the state and federal levels of government; make local governments training ground for leadership at state and federal levels of power; deliver development to about 180million Nigerians; stem rural-urban migration; lower crime rate; and quicken payment of salaries, pensions and gratuities.

Wabba further explained that the campaign for administrative and financial autonomy for the Third arm of Government would free 10 per cent of the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) by each of the 36 states and FCT; as well as, eliminate the imposition of extra budgetary expenditure on the local governments by States.

Even with the stemming projections from the state house of assembly to conform to the National assembly, many believe the pressure is swiftly mounting on the state legislature.

During the last constitution review, the National Assembly approved financial autonomy for the states, but in a turn of events, the state assemblies themselves rejected the autonomy by voting no to financial autonomy when the matter was brought before them as part of the process of constitution amendment.

Though, the sate houses of assembly failed to get the required concurrence from at least 24 of the 36 states to vote in favour of local government autonomy.

The president of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, urged the members of the state assemblies not to accede, but to go ahead and vote in favour of autonomy for both local government and state legislatures.

He said, “They should understand that this issue is not a political issue but a thing that has to do with development of the grassroots and the country. Besides, they are also the representative of these Nigerians who are at the grassroots and walloping in deprivation.

“There was pressure on the members of the National Assembly during the constitution review process not to grant autonomy, but they stood by Nigerians. So, we are calling on members of the state assemblies not to succumb to pressure. They should have the fear of God because, if you look at the country, there is a lot of poverty and hunger at the rural areas and this is as a result of the non-functionality of the local government system.”

As situation stands, many are optimistic that a repeat of the 7th assembly w ould not be the case as provision of Section 9 of the constitution states that; any bill passed by the National Assembly must still secure the approval of two-thirds majority (24) of the 36 state houses of assembly before it would be included in the constitution.

As labour waits with bated breath for a new dawn on local government autonomy through legislation, it is hoped that this time around all ‘T’s would be crossed and ‘I’s duly dotted and that accountability and employee welfare would not be compromised by those to be entrusted with the commonwealth of the grassroots.

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