Anxiety as FG, states lock horns over LG autonomy

Since its elevation to a tier of the government in 1976, the local government system has been fighting different hurdles, which have limited, and almost crippled, the Councils’ functionality. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report examines the latest face-off between the federal government and states over autonomy for the third tier.

Seen as the closest level of the government to the people, scholars and commentators have since the return of democracy in 1999 clamoured for an appreciable level of autonomy for the local government councils.

They argue that without a substantial degree of autonomy to execute their policies and programmes, the local governments will exist only on paper in contrast with their counterparts in developed countries.

Legal fireworks

In a bid to free local governments from the stronghold of governors, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), has instituted a suit on behalf of the federal government, before the Supreme Court, against the 36 governors seeking full autonomy for local governments.

In a suit marked SC/CV/343/2024, the AGF urged the apex court to issue an order prohibiting state governors from unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected LG leaders.

The suit is also asking for an order permitting the funds standing in the credits of local governments to be directly channelled to them from the federation account in line with the provisions of the Constitution as against the alleged unlawful joint accounts created by governors.

The federal government also prayed the Supreme Court for an order stopping governors from further constituting caretaker committees to run the affairs of local governments as against the constitutionally recognised and guaranteed democratic system.

Reactions

In an interview with this reporter, the convener of Elections Monitoring Network, a civil society organisation (CSO), Aishat Abdulqudus, commended the federal government for instituting litigation against the 36 governments for undermining local governance.

She said, “The development will help reinstate the autonomy of local governance and also facilitate the development of the economy through the grassroots. Local government autonomy will improve the revenue generation of the country.

“I am happy that Mr. President has begun to toe our path to salvage our people by giving the local governments autonomy to operate as enshrined in the constitution. The decision to compel the 36 states of the federation to give autonomy to local governments is a step in the right direction. This will surely help in bringing development to our people, particularly the grassroots.

“It will equally boost the nation’s economy by increasing our Internally Generated Revenue through the agricultural value chain and other commercial activities that will come up after the local governments get their autonomy.”

She also urged the federal government to adopt a policy that would prevent governors and other politicians from intruding in local government elections.

“I would be glad if President Tinubu would also address the challenges affecting the conduct of local government elections in the nation. The president should do something to stop politicians from messing up with the processes of local government elections for their personal interests. We are all aware of how local government elections are conducted under the watch of governors across the country.

“From the primary to the mainstream election, the processes are always being manipulated by politicians for their personal interest against the interests of the majority.”

Continuing, she said, “Unfortunately, LG elections are tainted by heavy partisanship. Governors handpick loyalists within the ruling party in their states and impose them on the people without little or no recourse to due electoral process.

“Many opposition parties express their grievances by boycotting the polls while the citizens express apathy towards the process by refusing to participate. Consequently, voter apathy is rife in LG elections than at the national polls. This is dangerous for the republic. Without engagement with the people at the grassroots, states fail to deliver the dividends of democracy to their citizens.

“Also, many governors illegally impose caretaker committees on LGs and refuse to conduct elections. The act overly increases the power of governors and undermines LG autonomy. For instance, shortly after assuming office in 2019, Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo sacked the LG chairmen in the 33 LGs and appointed caretaker committees to replace them. However, the Supreme Court declared Makinde’s action an illegality in 2021.Three days after his swearing in, Governor Caleb Mutfwang suspended the 17 LG councils in Plateau state last year.

“According to reports, 433 out of the 774 LGs in the country are currently governed by transition and caretaker committees. Nineteen out of 36 states have unelected LG councils.”

Also, in an interview with this reporter, a lecturer in the department of Public Administration and Local Government, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr. Chidi Onah, also lamented the overbearing influence of governors on local governments.

He said, “Arguably, the biggest challenge seems to be the overbearing influence of governors, many of whom see the third tier as an appendage of the state government.

“It has become a normal practice for new governors on assumption of office to dissolve local government administrations. All they are after is the local government funds.

“In May 2019, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) banned governors, public officers and financial institutions/stakeholders from tampering with the statutory allocations of the local government councils from the Federation Account effective from June 1, 2019. It also set a daily cash withdrawal limit of N500, 000 for all the local governments, and that any other transaction above the limit should be done through cheques or electronic transfers.

“To the surprise of many Nigerians, governors rejected the idea and eventually dragged the NFIU to court over the issue. Citing certain provisions in the Constitution, the governors, under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, said the federal government should be restrained from interfering with the state government’s powers to tamper with local government funds. But the court ruled that the governors had no locus standi to spend funds allocated to the local councils.”

Kicks

However, speaking with Blueprint Weekend, a lawyer, Samuel Tobi Ajagun, faulted the federal government’s decision to sue the 36 states of the federation in its bid to institutionalise local government autonomy.

He argued that, “It is proper to solve the fundamental problem from the root, by amending the relevant sections of the Constitution, rather than seeking a judicial interpretation on the matter.

“Those who advocate autonomy at that level of government lack a proper understanding of the concept of true federalism. In a true federal system, there are only two tiers of government, the central government and the component units. The local government is not a tier of the government; so, calling for local government autonomy and challenging governors for not giving local governments a free hand to operate depicts ignorance of the law.”

Underdevelopment

For development economist Onuche Oguche, the financial restrictions faced by the 774 local government councils in the country were hampering their growth in the rural areas.

He said, “The capacity of local government councils to offer crucial services to grassroots communities is gravely affected by financial, inadequate infrastructure and the lack of autonomy. The situation has led to frustration and the likelihood of growing discontent in the country.

“In terms of trends and realities, our local governments have faced a variety of difficulties in the midst of political and economic changes.

“The situation had led to frustration among the citizens. As a result, citizens are now frustrated and there is a likelihood that discontent will grow. Local governments’ total dependence on their state counterparts contributes to the ineffectiveness of this system of the government. They thus become only shadows of the government and mere ghost environments. It can thus be safely stated that the major challenge bedeviling the operation of local governments and which hinders their significance in making contributions to national development is their lack of autonomy.

“For local governments to play a significant role in national development, they need to be completely autonomous in terms of revenue allocation and funding, which they presently lack.

“For a local government to have true autonomy, financial autonomy must be accorded it. There is the need for better policies for tax and distribution of public funds for the good of the people. The sharing formula of the Federation Account should be amended to give local governments greater funding to perform their functions and promote local and national development. Local governments should also be given direct access to their allocated revenue and be put in direct charge of local government funds, rather than through the states. This will go a long way to ensure their autonomy and also bring about grassroots’ development.”