LOCAL GOVERNMENT FINANCIAL AUTONOMY – MY PERSPECTIVE
By Effiong Oquong Esq.
The issue of financial autonomy granted Local Government by the Federal government but opposed by the State governors has generated so much debate, commentaries, commendation and condemnation depending on which sides of the contending parties one chose to support.
It all began with the financial guidelines issued by the Central Bank’s NFIU Committee on direct remittances of local government allocations to the 774 local government councils beginning June 2019. The first Governor to attack the proposal was Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State and before you could say Jack Robinson, pronto, Akwa Ibom State Government together with the 31Local government chairmen representing their respective local government councils had gone to court to challenge the financial autonomy with the Chairmen reportedly saying they do not need financial autonomy.
Some people have described the rejection of financial autonomy by the Chairmen as “slaves who are in love with their chain”. Others have made a mile out of it trying to view it from a political prism and blaming the opposing party as being oppressors, anti-people, and what have you. One very vocal lawyer on the social media space even went as far as saying that President Buhari was opposed to restructuring, so why is he giving financial autonomy to local government councils now, that it’s an attempt to pitch the people against opposition state governors. Imagine that level of partisanship and reasoning.
The issue of financial profligacy is above party lines, after all the man who call the first shots was Governor Fayemi of APC. Akwa Ibom just jumped straight into fire and got burnt. Neither am I carried with the argument that Local government Chairmen are ” slaves in love with their chain”. He who wears the shoe knows where it pinches.
The issue of financial autonomy to local government councils is not a new thing in Nigeria. In 2005, Olusegun Obasanjo, then President of Nigeria attempted it and failed. In his own case, arising from much outcry from the public, he sponsored a bill to the National Assembly to grant financial autonomy to local government councils. The Bill was passed and he quickly gave his assent. The then governors opposed it vehemently and went to the Supreme Court to challenge the law. In the build up to the case, Obasanjo invited all the 774 Chairmen to Aso Rock for a fact-finding exercise as to whether in reality their funds were being pilfered by state governors. He had asked Chairmen to come to the meeting with evidence of any such pilfering, if any.
I went to the meeting fully prepared with my monthly allocation papers for the last six months and the accompanying cheques that showed a large gulf between the allocation papers and the actual money released to me. I had thought others had prepared themselves also.
When we arrived the meeting venue at the banquet hall, we were arranged to sit according to our state and local government areas alphabetically. Abia state was first and Obasanjo asked the Chairmen one after another whether their state government had pilfered their money and one after the other they said capital NO. The next was Anambra and they all chorused NO for an answer. For us from Akwa Ibom state, we had agreed before the meeting to let the cat out of the bag because we were very angry about how much was being taken out from our allocation each months during the state local government joint accounts committee meetings.
However, following the response of Chairmen from Abia and Anambra,my colleagues quickly arranged themselves and decided “not to disgrace our governor” by telling the true story of our experience, so they reason. And so one after the other, I looked at the face of my colleagues as the also said NO. My local government is Urueoffong Oruko and I occupy the 30th position. So when it was my turn to speak, my colleagues were eagerly and sternly looking at me because they knew that I’m an unrepentant stickler to principles and an uncompromising believer in that which is virtuous and truthful.
So the first words that came out of my mouth was that if indeed they have not pilfered my colleagues allocation that indeed for the last six months, the allocation of Urueoffong Oruko had been pilfered with reckless abandon and I brought out the papers and photo copies of the cheques I had with me. President Obasanjo called for it and I tendered my exhibits. My colleagues and others were stunned and they all looked at me as a pariah, a sell-out. I didn’t mind because I’d cleared my mind and was standing on the side of the truth.
The reports by other States were similar to that of Abia, Anambra and Akwa Ibom States. I looked at Obasanjo and his face looked furlong. I was not in his mind but I could see from his countenance how he felt betrayed by the very people he was fighting for. He had invited the entire press corp to make a good story and to keep the discussion on the front burner of public discourse but the story that came out the following morning was that “Chairmen of Councils said their respective allocations were not pilfered by their state governments.”
The Federal Government lost the case at the Supreme Court and I lost my position as a Chairman of Council 3 days after the meeting. I was only nine months into a 3years tenure. Nobody had sympathy for me. My colleagues did not sympathized, worse still even my constituents were not sympathetic. Some of “my people” were even sponsored by the state government to stage a fake protests to the governor in support of my sack and in solidarity with my Vice Chairman who was promoted to my office. Even my family members blamed me for having the effrontery to stand out from the crowd to tell the truth. They told me that nobody will clap for me and indeed nobody did clapped rather I was castigated left, right and center. I was told the governor just gave the marching order to the State House of Assembly to remove me from office and so they did. 23 of the 24 members house voted for my removal. Only my State House of Assembly member abstained. Note the word “abstained” but not “voted against.” Some members of the House told me that their hands were tight and that in politics I needed to be circumspect in certain matters.
I can say for sure that those Chairmen who answered NO did so against their conscience. They were afraid not to lose their priceless positions as elected Chairmen of their respective local government councils, after all, it wasn’t an easy thing to contest election and win. I do not also want to blame “my people” who protested and held play cards against me. They did so for pecuniary reasons and had since regretted their action and apologized and I’ve forgiven them.
Those to blame, I must say, are State Governors. They feed fat on local government’s funds. Most of them use local government funds to do inter-ministerial direct labour jobs, to pay contractors, to give political patronages to their supporters, to sponsor their elections, to pay thousands of area boys as “Special Assistants” and “Senior Special Assistants”, to sponsor social events, to pay greedy pastors and marabout’s, to donate to churches, to pay Monarchs, to pay teacher’s salaries and pension, to maintain social services, while they allocate state allocations exclusively to themselves and families.
The real problem are the State Governors, QED. Those Chairmen who play along are only dragged along by State Governors. They are afraid to suffer the fate I did. They want to keep their offices and dare not challenge the behemoths called State Governors. They are having the backlash while the governors are hidden away from the peoples venom. The problem of Nigeria are therefore the governors across party lines, whether PDP or APC or APGA. Those of them who today are in the Senate and spoke glowingly the other day in support of the autonomy are hypocrites. What did they do while in office with local government council’s allocation.
I pity PMB on this score. I feel for him. That some Chairmen are against the autonomy is of no moment. They will continue to do so publicly to avoid the venoms of their state governors but in their hearts of hearts they support financial autonomy.
I can recalled that the issue of local government autonomy was included in the constitutional amendments proposed by the federal government, supported by the people, sanctioned by the National Assembly alongside judiciary and legislative houses autonomy. It was shot down at the State Houses of Assembly when governors agitated against it. These “Governors” are indeed wicked. But can’t the people working at the local government councils and the labour unions not stand up for their rights, after all they cannot all be sacked. Or can’t our Courts for once display judicial activism by looking more on the letters of the law than the law itself? For EFCC, enough of their scavenging for infractions at the federal government MDAs and officials, they should turn their beam lights to State and Local government council’s account. It stinks.
Meanwhile, the debate continues but who will bell the cat? Can PMB go the whole hug in this exercise? Time will tell.