Emmanuel Onwubiko: Why Governors dread LG autonomy


 

“Mere good governance is not enough; it has to be pro-people and pro-active. Good governance is putting people at the center of development process.” – Narendra Modi.

Local councils all around the world are the nearest agency of governance to the grass roots just as if societal development of any sort is to become sustainable, good governance standards must as a matter of necessity be ingrained, deeply activated and profoundly animated in the governance processes that are obtained at the local government area councils.

In Nigeria, the fundamental reason for the establishment of governance at the local council levels, isn’t so much different from why for instance there is local council governance institutions in civilised democracies including the United Kingdom also known as Great British. The aim in summary is to give back ownership of government to the people who essential own the sovereignty of the nation State.

From the benefits hindsight, I am aware that in the United Kingdom for instance, the place of the local council to the population is so much important to such a level that most of the citizens may not even need to take cases of lack of development to the Prime minister of Great Britain who is the head of government in the United Kingdom. Local government structures ought to be piloted by the people who are domiciled within the territorial jurisdiction.

To put it contextually, political scholars say England has a mixed system of either single tier local government in the form of Unitary authorities London boroughs and metropolitan district councils or two tier local government with Country Councils as the upper tier and district or borough Councils as the lower tier (www.clgf.org.uk).

On the face of it, the territorial administration of England seems extremely complex; but in reality it is fairly simple compared to that of many Countries, says experts. Whereas a Country like Germany has four levels of administration-state, “lander,” district, and municipality in GB’ there are only one or two levels of local government called local authorities.

Apart from this some minor and strictly local functions are delegated to parish councils which most often are in the hands of volunteers. The precise structure of local government varies according to the nature of the territories, the experts say.(www.about-britain.com).

In much of England, there are county and district councils. Elsewhere, there is just a single tier of unitary authorities. County councils take responsibility for things like social services, education, roads and waste disposal. District councils take on roles such as housing, planning, parking and street cleaning. On many issues, while local government delivers the services, it is central government in London that decides what the services should be.

The term ‘local government’ refers to the councils that deliver local services in each part of the country. The current system of local government is quite complex, with different arrangements in place in different parts of the country.

In some parts of England there are two tiers of local government: county councils and district councils. Counties have some functions and districts have others (with a small amount of overlap). Counties are bigger than districts. So, in each county council area, there will be several district councils – normally between 5 and 12.

In other areas there are single-tier ‘unitary authorities’, which have all the functions of counties and districts.

For the most part, larger cities have unitary authorities and rural areas have two tiers. For example, in Hampshire, the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton have unitary authorities, but the rest of the county has a two-tier system. In Yorkshire, similarly, Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham are all unitary authorities, whereas most of North Yorkshire has both a county council and district councils. But this is not a universal pattern. For instance, the Isle of Wight, Wiltshire, and the East Riding of Yorkshire all have unitary authorities even though they are mainly rural.

Councils cover widely differing areas in terms of geography and population. In recent years, governments of all colours have sought to promote fewer, larger councils. They have believed that abolishing several small districts and replacing them with a unitary authority would bring ‘economies of scale’. The evidence of this is variable from across the country, but it is fair to say that merging councils tends to save only a very small percentage of costs, probably less than 1%.

County councils generally cover populations of between 500,000 and 1.2 million. District councils tend to cover populations of 70,000 up to 180,000. Unitary authorities typically cover populations of 100,000 up to 1 million.

How councils are organised? To this key question here is how the expert responds.

Expert say councillors are elected to each of these types of authority, for four-year terms. Different councils have different arrangements for making decisions: In some councils, committees of councillors run the main council services and make all the major decisions on budgeting and priorities.

Other councils have a ‘cabinet’ system, where councillors choose a leader for a four-year term and this person then appoints a series of ‘portfolio holders’ – similar to government ministers. The rest of the councillors organise themselves into committees, monitoring the performance of the portfolio holders.

In sixteen councils in England, instead of a council leader chosen by councillors, a directly elected mayor appoints a cabinet.

What the aforementioned facts about British local Councils demonstrate, is the initial statement I made that local councils are in place to take developments to the grass roots.

Fundamentally, we had to examine the British Local Council structures because politically, Nigeria got her independence from Great Britain. Governance from bottom to top in Nigeria began in those days when the British colonial administrators were around before Nigeria got independence.

In Nigeria, local government Councils are as old as Nigeria itself because before the October 1st 1960 independence that Nigeria got from Britain, Nigeria was ruled by the colonial government and the local government was called the administration system or Native authority.

However from the period that Nigeria got political independence up until 2022, the administration of the local councils have undergone divergent legislative reforms with the sole aim of devolving certain powers to the Councils. All these local government reforms were basically targeted at delivering autonomy to those who govern their local councils for the benefits of the grassroots. But one of thewonders of the World is that whereas in other jurisdictions, local councils are being strengthened to give more powers to the decision and policy makers at the grassroots, but in Nigeria, the governors have become major obstacles to local council autonomy and the question then is why do governors DREAD LOCAL GOVERNMENT AUTONOMY.

I said earlier that in Great British, local government Councils seems to be closer to the majority of the populace than even the Central Parliament in Westminster. In Nigeria, local councils are deliberately being sabotaged to become farther and farther from the people at the grassroots.

In Great Britain, the elections that take place at the different local councils to a very great extent, tells you which of the political and ideological platforms that could emerge as the party in government.

One of the things that fascinates me about the local councils in Britain is the existence of local council flats whereby most poor people hire under greatly subsidized costs. The local councils maintains their roads. And recently, the Parliament in Britain made a law permitting the Councils to collect fines from violators of traffic rules. Coming down to Nigeria, the major political conversation is why the governors who should be more interested in enthroned autonomy at the LG levels to take most of the burdens of building infrastructural projects away from their control, are the major encumbrance to local government autonomy. The governors even went as far as instituting a suit in the Federal High Court to frustrate the realisation of local government funding autonomy.

Few days back, governors of the 36 states of the federation met with the issue of losing the suit against financial autonomy for local governments topping the agenda.

Acting under the aegis of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, NGF, the governors in a statement issued in Abuja by the NGF Head of Media and Public Affairs, Abdulrazaque Bello-Barkindo, said the lingering issue of the local governments’ financial autonomy that had become topical nationwide since on Monday, might form part of the brief by the NGF chairman and Ekiti State governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi.

The statement read: ” Governors of the 36 states have been invited to a meeting according to a statement issued from the office of the Director General of the NGF, Mr Asishana Bayo Okauru.

This will be the 5th teleconference meeting in this year, 2022. Specifically, the deliberations will centre around SFTAS Updates, the CARES program, and a few expected presentations.

“The lingering issue of the Local Governments’ financial autonomy which became topical nationwide from yesterday may form part of the Chairman’s brief which is regularly given at the beginning of each meeting to open the matter for discussion among governors.”

And then, the Federal High Court proceeded to deliver a pro-people verdicts supporting Local Government funding autonomy.

Recall that the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja had on Monday, dismissed a suit governors of the 36 states of the federation, filed to query the constitutionality of regulations the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit, NFIU, issued to guarantee financial autonomy for local governments.

The governors, before the judgement, were in strong opposition to efforts by the Federal Government to monitor their handling of local governments’ funds. Justice Inyang Ekwo of a Federal High Court in Abuja dismissed a suit filed by the 36 states through their state Attorneys General and the Nigeria Governors’ Forum.

The states in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/563/2019 challenged the legality of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit Guidelines which came into effect on June 1, 2019.

The NFIU 2019 guidelines required among others, that the states/local government joint accounts should be used only for receiving funds and subsequently transferring them to local government accounts only.

The NFIU claimed that the guidelines, which also limit daily cash withdrawal from the State/LG joint account to N500, 000 are intended to reduce “crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawal from LG funds throughout Nigeria effective from June 1, 2019.”

I think the governors should be so ashamed of themselves for going to Court to stop a national funding transparency institution like NFIU from monitoring how funds meant for the revolutionary development of the Councils are dispensed thereby kicking against Local Government Accounting autonomy. The governors also met after losing the suit on local council autonomy and engaged in the pastime of leaking their wounds.

According to the governors, it has become imperative for state Attorney-Generals to be at alert for loss of funds because of the battle for local government autonomy and the ongoing suit to retrieve the $418 million Paris Fund.

Speaking at the two-day meeting for Attorney Generals of the 36 states, Chairman, NGF and Ekiti State governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, said the meeting was to seek inputs of state Attorney-Generals on the controversies surrounding the autonomy of the Judiciary and revenues from Value Added Tax, VAT.

Fayemi, who tasked the states chief law officers to be on the alert, said: “The spate of insecurity across many States, political and economic uncertainties in the country and the States have placed the office of the Attorney-General on red alert in ensuring that the state is not ambushed through frivolous cases/ court orders that may lead to heavy financial losses and grounding of government business. Speaking at the two-day meeting for Attorney Generals of the 36 states, Chairman, NGF and Ekiti State governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, said the meeting was to seek inputs of state Attorney-Generals on the controversies surrounding the autonomy of the Judiciary and revenues from Value Added Tax, VAT.

Fayemi, who tasked the states chief law officers to be on the alert, said: “The spate of insecurity across many States, political and economic uncertainties in the country and the States have placed the office of the Attorney-General on red alert in ensuring that the state is not ambushed through frivolous cases/ court orders that may lead to heavy financial losses and grounding of government business.

“We have no doubt that this meeting will afford you the opportunity to seek solutions.

“The NGF chairman, who was represented by the governor of Plateau State, Simon Lalong, noted that the meeting would review some pertinent legal issues, including the Administration of Criminal Justice System in the country.”Some of them are sufficiently contentious as to require resolution in court. We have a number of these cases and there is need to carry you along and seek your input.

“This is one of the reasons for this gathering and some of the lawyers handling these cases will be here to address you. “You are all aware of the controversy occasioned by the question of the autonomy of the Judiciary and Legislature. “The Forum has often been in support of autonomy, but we felt that the onus was on the states to determine and implement it.”

It is, therefore, expedient that as chief law officers, you exercise the right to review and monitor the extent of implementation in your states.”On the controversy surrounding local government autonomy, the NGF chairman explained that governors were not against the financial autonomy of local government, adding that the system must be ready to bear the consequences.

He said: ”I have given financial autonomy to local governments in my state since last year, after five months, they run back again. So its not that governors are not willing to give the autonomy because of the repercussion.

”He further tasked the states, chief law officers, to note some of the burning issues, such as the “administration of the criminal justice system, stamp duties, Value Added Tax, the fallout from the London Paris Club Refunds culminating in the criminal bid to deprive states of $419m.

”These require your attention, and the Forum looks forward to your views and advice on the way forward,”, he said.

Fayemi said the meeting was put in place to achieve an alignment of purpose between the activities of the NGF and the work the Attorneys General were appointed to do, noting that the forum, through its Peace and Inclusive Security Initiative, PISI, had commenced discussions with stakeholders on diverse ways to handle some of these security challenges and restore peace to communities.

In a presentation on insecurity at the sub-national level, the role of Attorney-General, the former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Kanu Agabi, charged the participants to always uphold the rule of law and be champions of liberty in their states.

Recall that the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, few days back dismissed a suit filed by the State governors to challenge the constitutionality of regulations the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) had issued to guarantee financial autonomy for local governments.

The governors failed to get the Federal High Court, Abuja, to stop the monitoring of spendings of the Local Government Councils by the NFIU.

Their failure followed the dismissal of the suit they filed alongside their Attorneys-General (AGs) seeking to stop the NFIU from implementing its guidelines on local government spending for allegedly breaching the constitution.

Meanwhile, the organised labour has applauded the ruling. While hailing the ruling, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba described it as a landmark judgement.

Wabba who responded to media request for reaction through a text message said:

“It’s a welcome development, we congratulate salute the courage of the judiciary for the landmark decision.

“NLC has always campaign for the strengthening of local government system and allowing them to function effectively through financial autonomy.”

The NFIU had on May 6, 2019, issued guidelines to stimulate the reduction of crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawals from local government funds across the country, beginning from June 1, 2019.

Displeased by the guidelines, the 36 AGs and the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) had dragged the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), the NFIU and the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) to court to declare the action of the NFIU unconstitutional.

Among the reliefs sought included a declaration that by the combined effect of Section 4(7), 7(6) (a) and (b) and Section 162(6), (7) and (8) of the constitution, “the State Governments of the Federation are not subject to control or directive of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit or any other person or body on the terms and manner of the operation of State Joint Local Government Account other than by a law passed by the House of Assembly of the state.”

However, delivering judgment in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/563/2019, Justice Inyang Ekwo, held that the case of the plaintiffs lacked merit and subsequently dismissed it.

According to the judge, plaintiffs did not show how the NFIU’s guidelines contradict or conflict with the provision of Sections 7(1), (6) (a) and (b) of the constitution.

“I am also unable to see how the provisions of the 2nd defendant (NFIU)’s guidelines contradict or conflict with the provisions of Section 162(6) of the constitution which creates the ‘State Joint Local Government Account’ into which allocations to the local government councils of the state from the Federation Account and from the government of the state shall be paid,” he said.

The court further held that the guidelines did not contradict Section 162(8) of the constitution which prescribed that the amount standing to the credit of the local government council of the state shall be distributed among the local government councils of that state on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the state.

Justice Ekwo in addition said the guidelines did not contradict or conflict with the provisions of the 4th Schedule to the 1999 Constitution which prescribes the functions of a local government council.

“The duty of the court is limited to expounding the law and not expanding it.

“On the whole, I see the provisions of the guidelines of the 2nd defendant as seeking to direct the monitoring of accounts, transfers and any other means of payment or transfer of funds of local government councils as provided for in Section 3 (1) (r) of the Act of the NFIU.

“It only limits cash withdrawal made from any Local Government Account anywhere in the country to amount not exceeding N500,000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira) per day.

Specifically, the plaintiffs had in the suit urged the court to declare that the NFIU, “does not have the statutory powers, by its establishment Act, to make guidelines for the regulation, monitoring and operation of the State Joint Local Government Accounts or any other account into which funds from the Joint Account are paid into.”

The states also sought a declaration that the NFIU Guidelines: known as “the NFIU Enforcement and Guidelines to Reduce Crime Vulnerabilities Crafted by Cash Withdrawal From Local Government Funds Throughout Nigeria,” particularly Provisions 1 to 6 thereof and the penalties prescribed thereabout are ultra vires the power of the Unit under Sections 3 (1) and 23(2) (a) of the Nigerian Financial Intelligent Unit Act, 2018 and is therefore unconstitutional.

As human rights practitioners under the aegis of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA), we applaud the Federal High Court for this landmark decision and hoped that should the governors proceed upstairs to appeal, that the jurists at both the Appellate Court and the COURT OF FINALITY presided over by elder statesmen, will validate this sound PRO-PEOPLE JUDGMENT OF THE FEDERAL HIGH COURT making it EMPHATIC THAT LOCAL GOVERNMENT COUNCIL AUTONOMY IS THE WAY TO GO AND AUTONOMY CAN’T BE ACTUALISED IF THE LOCAL COUNCILS CAN’T DETERMINE HOW THEIR REVENUES ARE SPENT TO ENSURE THAT THE BENEFITS ARE SUSTAINABLE, PRAGMATIC AND PRO-PEOPLE AND NOT TO RUN THE LGAs like the CASH-COW OF GOVERNORS.

EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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