Local Governments, Buccaneering Governors – Obi Nwakanma

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Sam Onwuemedo, Director of Press and Media for the Government House, Owerri, a position generally known in common parlance as “Chief Press Officer to the Governor,” shot-off a protest e-mail to me quite recently. It was, he said, “nauseating” – those were his words – that I had it in for Mr. Anayo “Rochas” Okorocha, Governor of Imo state. I could sense Sam, even in the cold alphabets of his mail, straining to remain polite, and maintain the good-keep between us built on a long relationship. He was, after all, once my colleague in the Vanguard.

I was in fact something of his “boss” as the Assistant Editor to Fola Arogundade, jolly editor then, of the Sunday Vanguard, when Sam was earning his paces, and making his reputation as the Owerri correspondent of the paper. And he was a damned good reporter too. He and I even collaborated to report the now famous “Otokoto saga” when it broke. And so I was myself taken slightly aback, when Mr. Onwuemedo hinted that I had some primordial bias for Okorocha. His grouse, simply is that I had “misinformed” the public on the story of Okorocha appointing members of the State Assemblies as interim local government administrators; a charge which Onwuemedo denies as unfounded. The Imo state governor did no such thing. My response is: ok, I stand corrected. One is gratified that no such plunder of the constitution is taking place. Yet, there are still unanswered questions about the governor’s handling of the funds of the local governments.

How come, governor Okorocha, without grounds in the constitution, seized the allocations made to the Imo state local governments, under an ambiguous rule that cannot be justified, either morally or legally? We are,” said a current representative and member of the 7th National Assembly, with whom I had some long-distance conversation on this matter, in a constitutional bind. The local governments have no fiscal autonomy. “The 7th National Assembly granted financial autonomy” he said, “but twenty state governors in the states opposed and killed it.” I do feel the need to look at this question rather closely. Those like me who believe and fought for constitutional rule find the use of the excuse that the current Federal constitution flawed inexcusable. Many critics of Nigeria’s Federal constitution of 1999 do say, “it is a flawed constitution.”

Yes, of course, the 1999 constitution is flawed. It is like every other constitution crafted by human intelligence, flawed, and incomplete. The sub editors at the Government press in 1999 for instance left an alphabet-soup of howlers dotting the entire topography of the final drafts of Nigeria’s Federal constitution. But beyond that, the 1999 constitution does contain clear provisions. There are grounds for amendment under the alteration Act. All written constitutions are evolutionary documents because they are not written on stone. They change. Among the fundamental problems with the Federal constitution is that it creates what I call a “cookie-cutter federation,” in which all parts of Nigeria; all states and local governments, irrespective of their unique conditions, are made to fit into a single archetype.

This document denies the states the power for self-definition. It creates a pyramid structure of power with the federal government at the top, pissing on everyone downstairs. Yet, the constitution of Nigeria also establishes unambiguously, the local governments as a third-tier of the federation, and that constitution, I believe grants the local governments financial autonomy, in spite of the misinterpretation that has prevailed. I think it is incumbent on the civil rights and Constitutional lawyers, to test this question before the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The ground for my conviction is simply on Schedule C, sections 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 & 8 of the constitution of the Federation of Nigeria, which provides guidelines for the disbursement of Federal revenue.

The constitution makes incumbent already on the Federal government to allocate revenue to local governments. Sections 2 & 3 of that schedule states very unambiguously that (3) “Any amount standing to the credit of the Federation Account shall be distributed among the Federal and State Governments and the Local Government Councils in each State on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.” Perhaps even more unambiguously is section(7) of that schedule “Each State shall pay to Local Government Councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its total revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly,” and that (8) “The amount standing to the credit of Local Government Councils of a 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.”

There is nowhere, where the constitution grants the governors of a state the power or authority to manage, disburse, or determine, or distribute money already allocated to the local governments from the federation accounts to which these governments have legitimate claims. It is the role of the Houses of Assembly. There is no exclusionary clause, in my reading, on the intentions of the Nigerian constitution, in establishing the financial authority of the third tier of government.

In other words, the same laws that established the financial authority of the states under federal laws, established same for the local governments. The foregoing is without question at the complicated roots of the questions, and conflicts that have generated such claims as whether the local governments are granted fiscal autonomy by the constitution. It ought to be resolved by the courts that the constitution already vests local governments with fiscal autonomy.

What the courts need to do is protect that autonomy by compelling state Assemblies to transfer the allocations directly to the treasuries of the local governments on receipt, and under the financial laws of the states. It is not the job of the National Assembly at this stage, but of the courts to rectify this anomaly of playing local government allocation into a joint account with states. The Fourth schedule under which the Local government is established in the constitution, does not make it an appendage of the state, but a partner. It has clearly defined functions.

If a state can, in the spirit of the constitution assume the power already granted it to fully establish itself fiscally, so should a local government. Just as a state should establish its own laws, so should a local government. Just as a state should establish its own Electoral Commission, to conduct only state elections, a local government must be able to establish an Electoral board, for municipal elections. Through its charter, a local government should be able to set its own election timetable, constitute its own local election board grated by state law, with the proviso, that where a local election is unable to hold within the specific calendar established by its municipal laws, the state House of Assembly may assume oversight powers, to mandate the governor to appointan interim administrator, for a period no more than six months, within which a Municipal election board should be established to conduct local government elections. No local government should be without elected government for more than six months.

All those members of the State Houses of Assembly, particularly in Imo state, who are actually elected to represent the local governments in the State Houses, have failed always to protect the highest interests of their constituents, and have, out of either pure ignorance or greed, handed state governors like Rochas Okorocha, powers over local governments, which the constitution does not grant them.

This article was originally published on Vanguard.

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