President Muhammadu Buhari, in his inaugural address on May 29, 2015, touched on the contentious issue of financial autonomy for the country’s 774 local governments.
It is no longer debatable that constitutional bottlenecks hinder present day local governments from performing like their predecessors which maintained roads in their areas.
Buhari had said, “Elsewhere relations between Abuja and the states have to be clarified if we are to serve the country better.
“Constitutionally, there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of government but that should not mean the Federal Government should fold its arms and close its eyes to what is going on in the states and local governments.
“Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account. While the Federal Government cannot interfere in the details of its operations, it will ensure that the gross corruption at the local level is checked.
“As far as the constitution allows me, I will try to ensure that there is responsible and accountable governance at all levels of government in the country.
“For I will not have kept my own trust with the Nigerian people if I allow abuse under my watch.’’
During voting for the alteration of the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly (NASS) concurred with Buhari on the need to strengthen the third tier of government in Nigeria.
The NASS approved full financial and administrative autonomy for local councils by amending Section 124 of the Constitution.
The section makes consequential provision for making the local councils full third tier of government without undue interference from state governments.
The position of NASS was hailed by Nigerians who hoped that the state assemblies would concur.
They reasoned that like Buhari and NASS members, state legislators realised the need for strengthening the third tier of government.
But that was not to be as only eight state legislatures had endorsed autonomy for local governments.
This became public knowledge when the Chairman, Conference of Speakers, Mr Abdulmumin Kamba, transmitted the resolutions of State Houses of Assembly on Constitution amendment to NASS leadership, in Abuja.
He said that 34 houses of assembly went through the 29 Amendment Bills sent to them and concurred with NASS on 15.
Mr Yakubu Dogara, the Speaker House of Representatives, who was present on the occasion, criticised the state legislators for voting against local government autonomy.
He commended the state assemblies for approving autonomy for themselves but flayed them for denying local governments the same autonomy.
The speaker said that hope was not lost as the assemblies could still decide to give their approval when the National Assembly would present it again in the future.
“I must commend you for deciding that the legislature in states should be independent.’’
On the rejection of local government autonomy, Dogara, said: “This is not an expression of the opinion of the National Assembly; I want to appropriate this as my personal opinion.
“I can say that I am disappointed because I thought that the courage demonstrated by these highly skilled legislators, some of whom are seated before us, would have delivered the long-awaited local government autonomy.
“But unfortunately, maybe our courage didn’t go that far.
“But you see, courage isn’t really the absence of fear, but it is acting in spite of your fears.
“If it was not because of men and women of courage, I tell you that the democracy itself that we experience now wouldn’t have been possible.
“When William Wilberforce said slaves must be freed, he belonged to the party, majority of whom were slave owners and on account of that, a revolution started,” he added.
Dogara added, “while most of the measures the National Assembly are seeking to introduce may not be popular, if they stand by them, the kind of future that will come from it will only ensure the deepening of democracy and the progress of Nigeria.
“Just as the financial independence for state legislatures failed the other time, maybe in the next exercise, because our state legislatures are now independent, they will be able to extend this same independence to local governments.
“We all know the benefits of the independence of the third tier,’’ Dogara said.
Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) initially decried the position of the state assemblies.
Later, NULGE National President, Ibrahim Khaleel, clarified issues on the position of state assemblies.
He said local government autonomy had not been rejected by state assemblies as the bill was still under consideration by 26 houses of assembly.
Khaleel said only 10 houses of assembly had considered the bill and passed it.
Among the 10 states that had considered it, eight – Kwara, Benue, Niger, Plateau, Bauchi, Cross River, Bayelsa and Ogun – voted for local government autonomy, while Edo and Imo-rejected it.
The NULGE president said he had sought clarification from the Chairman, Conference of Speakers and senior officials of the National Assembly.
He noted that Rivers and Lagos states had not worked on the Local Government Autonomy Bill.
Khaleel added that 24 other states which joined in transmitting the bill to NASS said they had stepped the bill down for further consultation.
“So, 24 state houses of assembly are still working on it, many of them are already holding public hearing on it.
“For example, Sokoto State just conducted public hearing on the bill, while Gombe has just called for memorandum from its citizens on Local Government Autonomy Bill.
“Others also deferred it to hold public hearing and for further discussions before they vote and forward it to Chairman, Conference of Speakers.
“It is just that only eight so far have voted for it among 10 states who have fully considered it.
“ It is possible that we will still get the remaining 16 states out of the remaining states that have not voted on Local Government Autonomy Bill.
“We can see that it has not been rejected; So, we can’t say local government autonomy has been rejected.
“It is still work in progress.”
Khaleel said the Speaker of House of Representatives could not be blamed for his outburst and attributed his posture to the “complexity of the on-going constitution amendment process’’.
Khaleel said the union was not asking legislators to automatically endorse the bill but to conduct public hearing as agreed by the Speakers’ Forum and the Governors’ Forum.
“The idea behind establishing local government is to bring governance closer to the people and provide platform for everybody to participate at his own community level.
“But the governors have hijacked this tier of government for their own advantage.
“This is why we are doggedly following this issue and we are not happy with most of the governors that are foot-dragging on this issue.’’
On his part, Mr Leonard Nkah, Ebonyi NULGE President, appealed to members of Ebonyi House of Assembly to endorse the bill.
Ebonyi was one of the states that deferred voting on local government autonomy.
Nkah said the members should not understand autonomy to mean that the third tier of government would exist in a different world and have nothing to do with the state government.
“The Ebonyi State House of Assembly should rise to its legislative duties like so many other states that have respected yearnings and aspirations of the people of Nigeria by voting Yes to the long overdue autonomy of local governments.
“NULGE Ebonyi State wishes to call on all members of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly to re-visit this all important aspect of the constitution amendment and vote Yes to local government autonomy.’’
Although the NULGE national president has clarified issues on the rejection of local government autonomy; Dogara’s outburst represents the feeling of Nigerians.
Like Khaleel suggested, public hearing should be conducted in order to get the input of Nigerians so that the outcome of the amendment will represent the wishes of the people.
Ukoh writes for News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)