THEWILL EDITORIAL: Need for Local Government Autonomy

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July 18, (THEWILL) – The quest for financial autonomy by the 774 Local Government Councils across Nigeria is one issue that has dominated discussions in recent times. These local councils, being the closest to the grassroots, are expected to perform certain roles that will ameliorate the difficulties daily encountered by the people at the local level.

To the people at the grassroots, the state capitals and the governors seem far away, leaving them to depend solely on the local government councils for most of their daily needs.

In the past, the provision of medical assistance for issues, such as child delivery at maternity centres and treatment for minor injuries, to sickness or the provision of first aid, were performed by the local councils.

However, the local councils have become a shadow of themselves. They can no longer perform their duties to the people and their finances have been reduced through manipulation by state governors through the State/ Local Government Joint Accounts.

Observers see the governors making use of resources belonging to the local councils to run their various states. This unholy financial wedlock between the states and the councils, which has made the latter unable to perform its statutory role of serving the grassroots, has received condemnation from many Nigerians.

President Muhammadu Buhari also condemned the corrupt tendencies. On June 10, 2021, while speaking to Arise TV, the President said that if the federal, state and local systems were being followed properly, there would be no problem. He went on to allege that the problem in the system stemmed from the fact that the chairmen of the local government councils were being compromised.

“You, as a local government chairman, are supposed to receive N300 million. A document is given to you to sign that you have received N300 million, but you are given only N100 million,” he said.

In 2019, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) stirred the hornet’s nest when it issued guidelines that barred governors from interfering with statutory allocation accruing to local government councils from the Federation Account.

The guidelines titled, ‘NFIU enforcement and guidelines to reduce crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawal from Local Government funds throughout Nigeria’, took effect on June 1, 2019.

The NFIU directive was aimed at enthroning financial transparency at the local council level and freeing funds for development at the grassroots. NFIU therefore imposed a daily cash transaction limit of N500,000 on all the 774 local government councils in the country. It also barred commercial banks, financial institutions, public officers and other stakeholders from tampering with local council statutory allocations.

The governors frowned at these guidelines, which they see as an affront on the state’s control of the local government councils. They vehemently kicked against it. Acting under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors Forum, the governors had at the height of the controversy, approached President Buhari to complain that the NFIU was acting beyond its mandate with its new directive.

The Forum in a letter dated May 15, 2019, argued that the NFIU Act of 2018 did not give the body the powers that it tried to exercise in the guidelines, saying it was acting in excess of its powers and in doing so, showed complete disregard for the constitution.

While the governors opposed the NFIU’s directive and kicked against it vehemently, many Nigerians were particularly happy and believe that the intervention by the NFIU will make the third tier of government and the closest to the people at the grassroots have enough funds to carry out its desired functions and programmes.

While we are not against the supervision of the spending at the local government level by the various state assemblies, we are of the opinion that the tendency to tamper with local government funds, on the part of state governors, is not in the best interest of the citizens, who are deprived of the services expectedly performed by the councils.

We agree with the President that local government chairmen are being compromised as they are made to sign money they didn’t receive during the monthly state /local governments Joint Account Committee meetings.

We have also realised that this is the reason why the ruling party in the states often manipulates local government council elections through the various state electoral commissions in order to have easy access to their funds. This is as many of the governors have refused to conduct elections at local councils and instituted illegal caretaker committees whose members were usually handpicked.

We appeal to the state governors to desist from this act of manipulating the local government funds and allow the chairmen of local councils enough funds to take care of their citizens.

The air of freedom, we believe, will result in the development of the grassroots, if granted. This is our position.