LG autonomy bill: All eyes now on Supreme Court

By Omoniyi Salaudeen

The prolonged agitation for devolution of power to the local government is gradually running its full circle. On Tuesday, the National Assembly passed another bill which is an amendment of Section 124 of the 1999 Constitution to grant full financial and administrative autonomy to the 774 local governments in the country.

With this development, there is now a green light at the end of the tunnel that the old regime of the State/LG Joint account, which has rendered council administration as a third tier of government ineffective will soon be a thing of the past. It’s a new wind of change the state governors have to come to terms with whether or not they like it.

Advocates of a change of status quo believe that the autonomy of local government is the only way to unleash the potential for grassroots development.

Though public reaction to the bill has been a mixed grill of optimism and cynicism, there is a renewed hope that the age-long clamour for power devolution may be underway.

It’s an idea whose time has come. People are now upbeat that the bill will bring a new lease of life to the grassroots, as it will end decades of financial hemorrhage that has accounted for the arrested development at the grassroots level.

For so long, state governors have opposed the idea of financial autonomy for the council administration hiding under the State Joint Account as enshrined in the existing constitution to siphon the federal allocation meant for the grassroots.

However, with the latest development, they have been effectively put on the defensive.

To be sure, the Nigerian constitution under Section 162(6) provides for the establishment of the State Joint Local Account (SJLGA), stating: “Each State shall maintain a special account to be called ‘State Joint Local Government Account’ into which shall be paid all allocations to the local government councils of the state from the Federation Account and from the government of the state.”

This section of the constitution is what state governments have always capitalized on to muzzle the powers of elected local government chairmen to their selfish advantage.

Under the 1999 Constitution (as amended), local government is generally known as the third tier of government to be run by democratically elected chairmen and councilors who exercise all the powers of government enjoyed by the executive and legislature at state and federal levels.

However, due to the interdependency relationship established between the state and local government, it has become a common practice for governors to dissolve elected chairmen and constitute a caretaker committee to run the council administration. As such, they capitalize on the arrangement to fiddle with public funds meant for grassroots development.

At present, no less than 21 states are under the administration of caretaker committees put in place by their respective governors as against the provision of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees the operation of local government by democratically elected officials. These include Jigawa, Rivers, Anambra, Imo, Kwara, Zamfara, Benue, Bauchi, Plateau, Abia, Enugu, Katsina, Kano, Sokoto, Yobe, Ondo, Osun, Delta, Akwa Ibom, and Cross Rivers.   

In 2022, following the report of the Senate Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution (Fifth Alteration) Bills, the two chambers of the National Assembly overwhelmingly voted for a bill seeking the abrogation of state joint local government account in favour of a special account where all allocations due to the local governments’ councils, from the federation account and state government, shall be paid into.

The bill entitled: ‘Bill for an Act to Alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to Abrogate the State Joint Local Government Account and Provide for a Special Account into which shall be paid all Allocations due to Local Government Councils from the Federation Account and the Government of the State; and for Related Matters’ was sponsored by Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, a PDP member representing Abia State in House of Representatives. Former President Muhammadu Buhari subsequently signed the bill into law.

However, the Bill is as good as the paper on which the draft bill has been written as it failed to scale through the hurdle of the constitutional requirement of the 2/3 majority votes of the state houses of assembly which are always at the beck and call of the governors.

Based on that experience, many public affairs analysts, leaders of thought, as well as local government employees are now skeptical about the possibility of the governors foiling the new bill passed on Tuesday by the National Assembly granting full financial and administrative autonomy to all the 774 local council authorities across Nigeria by amending Section 124 of the Nigerian constitution.

The section provides a consequential provision for the making of the local councils a full third-tier government without undue interference from the state governments. The section equally deleted the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) from the constitution thereby vesting the powers to conduct council elections on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

The amendment was one of the 22 others approved by the House of Representatives last week and ratified by the Senate on Tuesday.

Both chambers had through a conference committee harmonised versions of the amendments to the constitution carried out by their respective committees last month. The newly amended document will be sent to state houses of assembly for approval.

It’s a waiting game. This time around, stakeholders are anxiously watching for the outcome of the renewed effort to change the narrative.

A prominent leader of thought and notable political figure, Chief Chekwas Okorie, who has been a consistent advocate of power devolution, shared his perspective on the issue with Sunday Sun, pointing out the inconsistency of the bill with the constitution.

He said: “The Bill has not completely addressed the issue of autonomy of Local Government, but it will help. Once the bill is signed into law, it becomes a law to follow. But beyond that, the autonomy of local government is a constitutional matter. We have confusion about an aspect of that bill that is inconsistent with the provision of the constitution and that aspect will be null and void to the extent of that inconsistency. I think at the end of the day, what will eventually solve that issue is to amend the constitution to give local government full autonomy.

“Already, the Attorney-General of the Federation is in the Supreme Court to demand that fund allocation be given directly to local government and the governors are challenging it. That is an issue before the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court rules, anything it says is final because the judges always rely on the provisions of the Constitution. So, the Supreme Court can give a judgment that will either support or make nonsense of this bill. What I am saying in effect is that the bill will help to solve the issue of local government autonomy to some extent; it is not comprehensive enough.

“You will recall that the 9th National Assembly had made some efforts in that direction. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had earlier passed the same bill for the concurrency of the state assemblies as required by the law for the amendment of the constitution, but could not meet the required number of votes. Up till today, only about 14 states out of a minimum of 24 concurred with the bill. So, amending the Electoral Act is not the same as a constitutional amendment. Even as much as I expect the judgment of the Supreme Court to go in favour of the bill, it will only address the issue of fund allocation. It does not address the issue of complete autonomy of local government as a third tier of government.

“Fund allocation to local government has been a major source of corruption. When you hear a government is being chased around like the former governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, and others before him, it is because of local government funds and the so-called security vote that they appropriated to themselves. That is why we have 30 or more states that are reluctant to hold local government elections.

“What they are doing is to run local government with caretaker chairmen appointed by them. Even where elections are held, only the appointees of governors win. I have not seen a governor who has allowed local government to run as expected. That is why all of us are calling for a constitutional amendment. And until that is done, we will not be able to take governance to the grassroots level. It is only when you take governance to the grassroots that we can address the issue of agriculture, insecurity and so many other things that they handle at the local level which the state governors cannot handle.”

However, former Deputy National Chairman (Southwest) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Shuaib Oyedokun, in his slightly different opinion, described the bill as a milestone in the search for a workable local government system in the country.

According to him, the increasing public awareness of the arbitrary powers of the governors and the mounting pressure will compel the state houses of assembly to do the needful.

His words: “I think it is the ideal thing. That is the basic element of democracy in practical terms. That is what the constitution stipulates, that is what democracy entails. During the Obasanjo administration, there was evidence of reaching out to the grassroots through the local government. But the state governors will not allow the constitutionally recognized tier of government to function which is why there is a lot of confusion. As I said before, during the Obasanjo administration, we had elected local government chairmen throughout his tenure. So, the organ was working well for the common man. It is now a vogue for governors to replace elected local government chairmen with caretaker committee chairmen handpicked by them. That is what has accounted for poor governance at the local level.

“I think it is a very good development. The controversial aspect of it that can make it work well is to free local government elections from the hands of the state electoral body and pass it to INEC. That will make the system work.

“Federal Government allocation to state and local government are almost equal now. And that is what the state will be missing if local government autonomy is passed into law. But the problem is how to secure the concurrency of the state houses of assembly. I don’t think the National Assembly has got up to 2/3 of the state assembly to support the bill.

“Therefore, there must be pressure from the people at the grassroots level to secure that. Unlike before, the awareness is greater now and the pressure is mounting. People have seen the disadvantages of these caretaker committees. It is dictatorial, it does not represent the wish of the people and it cannot work.”   

Also, renowned constitutional and human rights lawyer, Dr Tunji Abayomi, in his contribution, outrightly told Sunday Sun that the bill would fall due to its inconsistency with the constitution.     

“Have they amended the constitution relating to local government? How is it going to work without amending the Constitution? You don’t pass a bill before the amendment of Constitution. They must first amend the Constitution before they pass the bill because everything must be in conformity with the Constitution.

“It may be an effort in futility if the constitution is not amended. If the constitution is not amended to give autonomy to local government, the law becomes inconsistent with the constitution. And by the doctrine of repugnancy, the law will fall.

“The governors are fixated on state/local government account because the constitution creates an interdependent relationship between the local governments and the states. If you now give them (LG) independence, then there is a problem there. There will now be a conflict between the law and the constitution. What the governors are saying is that the law cannot stand because the constitution disallows it.

“It is a fairly complex problem. To amend the constitution as it is now, the National Assembly does not need the support of the state houses of assembly; it only needs the concurrency of the president. This is because what is called the Nigerian constitution is a mere law. And they don’t need the support of state houses of assembly to amend a law. It is only a constitution that is made by the people that needs the concurrence of the state houses of assembly.

“But this constitution was not made by the people; it was passed as a mere law in exercise of legislative powers by the military. So, the people are confused. And there will always be confusion.

“Earlier before the passage of the new bill, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) had instituted a suit at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Federal Government, seeking an ‘order prohibiting state governors from the unilateral, arbitrary, and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected local government leaders for local governments.’

“He also prayed the court to expressly state that funds meant for local governments from the federation account should be paid directly to the local governments, rather than through the state governments. All this is to curtail the alleged gross misconduct and abuse of power leveled against the governors.

“With the present state of things, only the judgment of the Supreme Court can eventually lay the matter to rest. Like every other issue, the judgment of the Supreme Court will settle the matter,” Abayomi declared.

The post LG autonomy bill: All eyes now on Supreme Court appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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