This is the second of a three-part serial on the epoch encounter between The Tide Editorial Board and the Rivers State Commissioner for Local Government, Chieftaincy and Community Affairs.
So are we to say that the ministry has no power to punish any erring local government Chairmen?
The Ministry has powers that are exercised through the Governor. We recommend to the Governor, I cannot as a commissioner suspend the chairman. There are only two ways you can punish a chairman. If not, anything you do to him, is like water on duck fowl, The only two ways are; suspend or remove him, that is one.
The second is to withhold his monthly allocation. These are the only ways. None of these, I can do without the Governor’s approval. When their allocations come from Federation account, the highest they can stay with me is three days. The Governor has given the right. I don’t even need to tell the Governor before releasing them to them. Because, he has delegated me as the Chairman of Joint Allocation Committee. So as soon as the money comes, three days is the highest, so, if we are calculating and distributing, highest is three days, we release their money to them.
On no account can I delay it. So if you can’t delay the money you cannot deduct from it, you can’t punish them except you have approval and that must be on a very strong ground. Since we came, we have not delayed any local government allocation.
Since you can’t delay their funds, don’t you think 18 months is enough period to assess their performances?
Well, let me now come in there. Actually before a meeting of all Government Functionaries where the Governor set up another Committee to join us, to come out with a kind of a review to look at the assessment again, look at whatever is on ground and advise him again.
Before that, we have been doing our work. I was reading one of your papers where they were mentioning some of the things we said when we went to some local governments. Those visits, were visits to confirm some of the technical reports. We have a technical team headed by Mr. Okari. He is the Director Local Government we have other valuers and engineers from Ministry of Work, who normally join them and we send them round.
They have already gone round. We already have our assessment of these chairmen. What I do is that, those that I did not personally go to, I do a kind of impromptu unscheduled visit and I have this target what I want to see, and I quickly go and see them.
Doing this and informing His Excellency what His Excellency did as if to reconfirm what we have said, because he said by October this year, when he would be two, on the saddle, he would come up with a clear statement.
And of course for him to come out with a clear statement, he wants to be double sure. So I don’t think we are late, we have done our work. But what we are doing is kind of reconfirming it. So that even if a local government chairman says, it is political, we can say that, all these people involved cannot be political at the same time.
I’m sure you have looked at the local government law, will you say that you are very satisfied, or would you want amendment?
Well, for one I think the way it is, is ok. let me tell you I don’t want because I am a commissioner today, fight for so much powers to be given to the commissioner, punishing chairmen, because I don’t know who will become the commissioner tomorrow. The system as it is now, though it may look slow, it may look almost or slightly unwieldy, but you see in a society where there are so many possibilities, its always better for the Justice system grind slowly and steadily than to make it so fast as to allow for someone subjective or some one’s whims and caprices to prevail on the system.
What I am saying is that the system whereby like if I want to punish chairmen, I will recommend to His Excellency he will take action and seek the ratification of the Assembly, it may look slow, but I think it is better because if I want to say a chairman is bad, I have to be sure of my facts because, one, I have to convince the Governor, two, he will have to convince the Assembly.
The major problem we have is that the electoral system is so weak, throws up the wrong people in some cases. That is why one of the first things His Excellency did when he came in is to see what he can do to make sure the local government elections are free and fair.
That is what I think is necessary or what is needed. He did very well as all of you can testify, he may not have scored a hundred percent you can testify to the fact since, I started involvement in politics, the last local government elections was the freest, where RSIEC can come out against what is perceived to be the will of the majority party and government will not do anything, will allow them.
At least every person knows that in the last local government election, he tried to give RSIEC a free hand, with what he started, if he can build on it by the next election and makes sure that he gets it totally right, I think that will be the first major hurdle we will cross.
The next thing would be strengthening the electoral system to make sure that the right materials are put in there. The next would be to strengthen the regulatory system, for regulating the local government the monitoring apparatus. We have a lot of organs that regulate and monitor the local governments.
We have the Ministry, the House of Assembly; you have the Auditor General of Local government who is supposed to audit their account. You have the Local Government Service Commission, which is a parastatal which disciplines staff, promotes them and so on.
If these agencies are strengthened, and electoral process is good, I don’t think what we need is too much amendment of law.
The problem, Nigeria has, I always tell people, is not in most cases amendment of law, it is the enforcement of laws.
We have so many laws. But if you look at the law book, there are some laws that when you read, you will be surprised that these laws are there.
But people violate them with reckless abandon and nobody talks to no body. People can walk on the street for instance, if you feel pressed, you just stop somewhere and you help yourself. There are laws, that’s Public Nuisance. But who is punishing that man doing it, nobody.
So our problem is not law, new law, I don’t see that as our problems. Our problem is, enforcing the ones we have.
How do we change the orientation of Nigerians so that people will begin to obey law. How do we change the orientation of the man saddled with responsibility of enforcing these laws so that, he would see it, as a duty and perform it. He doesn’t need somebody to come and beg him to perform it. These are the things we need. For me, for now, I am not proposing a new law for local government. What I am proposing is, strengthening the institutional frame work for election, regulation and monitoring.
You were once, a Local Government chairman, and In those days, local government chairmen used to go to the mother Ministry, show loyalty, in one way or the other. How do they show loyalty these days?
Well let me tell you something. Sometime when people asked me, as a commissioner of Local Government, what is your greatest achievement, and I tell people that you know because ours is a system where you don’t construct building, people don’t see the gigantic structures, that they can touch.
We deal with the final and intangible elements of life. So, I tell people that, what I know in this government, that is the tribute any person should give to the Governor Rt Hon Rotimi Amaechi, when it comes to local government is that we have been able to entrench, financial sanity in Local Government system.
When you see local government chairmen go to pay homage to commissioner, or pay homage to Director, it is because as a commissioner, if you placed some hurdles, in the system, those hurdles will warrant him to always come and pay homage to you. But if you remove those hurdles, he does not need to pay homage to you and what we have done and what the Governor has done and the Ministry is implementing it, is that these hurdles are removed completely. There are some chairmen, these 23 Local Government chairmen now, apart from my visits to them, my regular meetings with them, may be they don’t even know my house, I can tell you that, they have not even come to my office; is because there are no hurdles on the way, artificial hurdles. Like the first is, if you can delay their money, I told you, that is some of the most serious things you can do to a chairman. If you can delay his money, he will be coming to beg you, if you can for every reason delay his money, he would come to you. Every time, he wants to be paying homage to you.
But I told you that, His Excellency’s system is that, a local government money, you cannot delay it for more than three days as soon as it comes from Federation Account.
The chairman does not need to call him ah, what is happening to my allocations now”, because as soon as the time comes it will go into his account.
Two, I cannot and I have never deducted one kobo from any Local government allocation.
Before now, when we were chairmen, there are so many reasons for which a commissioner can deduct money from a local Government Account. For instance, I can decide that, so and so seminar on anti corruption is very important that every Local Government, one, one million, I deduct at source because afterall the money is with me. It used to happen.
You can say, councilors in Local government, in Port Harcourt Local Ggovernment can write a petition that their arrears, statutory or benefits have not been paid, to past councillors, you look at it if it is in the law that they are supposed to be paid, all I will need to do is to invite the treasurer, why have you not paid this.
I approve, I deduct at source, it used to happen. When I was chairman, virtually every month, they were deducting money from our allocation at source to either pay past chairmen, past supervisors, past councillors, and so on and so forth.
But since we commenced, the Governor like I told you, one major thing he has done is entrenching sanity.
If you come to my office now there are a lot of past councillors, writing that they have not paid them, but we don’t because it is subject to abuse.
A lot of commissioners and treasurers, infact what we used to agitate then was, that even when they have finished paying them, the people will write another one.
We used to say that a commissioner and the treasurer make their own money from it.
So when you placed those hurdles, the chairman needs to be coming to you to pay homage.
Like I told you, from the word go, our assessment platform involves agencies, other corporate bodies so that even if you are loyal to me, on that day, you cannot be loyal to every body, so the assessment will at least have some level of objectivity so the moment they see that you cannot delay their money, even though I am assessing them, I cannot be too subjective because there are other people who will join me, they don’t need to do this personal loyalty thing and that thing has been removed from the system.
Now, what every Local Government get, I think The Tide is one of the papers that published it. Infact we ensure that the day as we finish from the JAC; because there is no deduction in Local Government Account, infact because, they being calling it statutory deductions, I managed to leave that word deduction. I decided to remove that word, because, what we do, is Statutory Distribution. The only thing we do, is, this is the amount of money, the Local Government is getting out of it this is what goes to traditional rulers. This is what goes to Local Government Service Commission; this is what goes to their pension fund.
We published all. The essence of that publication is, no Local Government chairman can tell his people a different story.
Infact we also directed the chairmen that at intervals, hold stakeholders meeting. The people already know how much you received; tell them what you do with it.
When you are holding the stakeholders meeting, inform us so that I can send a representative at least to know that you have done your stakeholders meeting. The other reason is, Federal Authorities giving the money will also see that the total figure they gave to us, is what we have given to the local government and that is one big credit to His Excellency.
Before now, no government has done it, published this figure, for everybody to see this figure, is very sacred figure, because so many things can be done from it.
Don’t you think Rivers State is ripe for more Local Governments?
If I am to speak the truth we need more local governments, because the local government system brings development close to the people. You know that, as a law abiding state, creation of local government is actually a process which involves states and Federal Government. And of course you know that, in states, where they have been doing it, you know the problems, we’ve been having.
Local Governments are creation of the constitution, we have 774 local governments. Their monies come direct every month, as Federation Account Allocation is advising the state, this is your own money, they also advise Local Governments, ABC this is your own money for a government like ours, that believes in absolute Due Process, you see that he will not want to go into that.
That will mean that, the money meant for 23 local governments, you will touch it by splitting and giving part to new local governments you create. So I think we need it. But His Excellency will rather wait for the legal process to throw up that I cannot tell you exactly how many local governments.
I cannot tell you exactly, we may even need more than 23 if the opportunity is there. I have not done a clear assessment of the need. From my background knowledge of the state and the local government, most of them need new local governments some even need at least two to really bring development very close to the people.
Local governments like Khana, in terms of landmass, and population, even local governments that people think are small. For instance a local government like Akuku-Toru, is a local government that certainly need another local government, whereas, the population may not be as big as Khana, because of the so much riverine network, therefore some communities are very far away from the headquarters.
For instance for you to go to Kula, from Abonnema, is a day’s journey on speed boat. A lot of chairmen, if a chairman is not a really serious chairman, he can be in office three years he will not go to Kula one day. I know when I was chairman I went to Kula, the people were telling me that did I know that there were local government chairmen, that served out their tenure in Abonnema and they did not come to Kula. It happens so we need a lot but I cannot say with a mathematical accuracy how many.
To be contd.