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Local governments must be independent

The suit filed by the federal government against the 36 states of the country over local government autonomy is indeed the push that is needed,…

The suit filed by the federal government against the 36 states of the country over local government autonomy is indeed the push that is needed, just as it is expedient to rescue that tier of government. We commend the federal government for taking this step.  If the legal route is what we need to make the local government independent, then it must be done and pursued vigorously too.  It is indeed unfortunate that a tier of government duly recognised by the constitution only exists in name.

The move to make the local governments independent did not start today. It has been a long running battle. Since the return of democracy in 1999, there has been outcry over the state of local government areas in the country, yet the situation has not changed.

The practice at the moment is that the local governments exist only as an appendage of the state governments. Most states operate joint accounts by which money that is meant for the local government areas is paid into the accounts managed by the state government and the latter gives to the LGs whatever it so desires.

Now, this totally negates the position of the LG as the third tier of government, which ordinarily should be independent. This act has totally crippled activities at that level as in most cases, what the LGs get can only take care of salaries and nothing else. In fact stifling the local governments is the biggest injustice done to the masses, especially those at the grassroots.

This is because the local governments are closest to the people and development cannot get to them if there is no governance at that level. It is indeed time to truly devolve powers and allow each tier to take care of what it is supposed to.

Money meant for the LGs must be paid to them directly. Efforts have been made in the past to address this issue. In fact, in 2019, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) issued guidelines which moved to block what it called illegal withdrawal of monies belonging to local councils by state governments. A statement signed by Ahmed Dikko, the then NFIU acting Chief Media Analyst, directed all financial institutions, public servants and other stakeholders to comply with provisions of the guidelines and ensure including; full enforcement of corresponding sanctions against violations from 1st June, 2019.

It noted that investigation uncovered that cash withdrawal and transactions of the State, Joint Local Government Accounts (SJLGA), “poses biggest corruption, money laundering and security threats at the grassroots levels and to the entire financial system and the country as a whole”.

The unit explained that the new guidelines were backed by section 162 (6) (8) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution.

Despite this, states have continued to retain the control of funds and of everything else at the local government level.

We urge this government to see this action through. It must ensure that the suit is diligently prosecuted, just as we call on the highest court in the land to expedite action on this very crucial matter.  We call on civil society groups to also join in the fight.  Any section of the constitution that needs to be tinkered with to ensure that this succeeds must be done and quickly too. No efforts must be spared in breaking the hold of governors on the local government areas.  This is because the issue of local government autonomy can no longer be delayed for the sake of the ordinary people who reside at the grassroots. And this should be the beginning of other things to come.

In addition, elections must be held at the local government level. The idea of governors just selecting their cronies under the guise of caretaker committee must be stopped forthwith. All major offices at that level must be occupied through the ballot. We also call on qualified persons of proven integrity to show interest in leadership at this level. They must not all vie for positions at the federal level. There should be massive campaigns to create awareness on the importance of governance at the local government level, so that the people can hold the leaders to account for their stewardship.

We also urge the state governors to obey whatever ruling is delivered. The governors, already, have a lot on their plates to occupy them. They should not be encroaching into other areas. In fact the governors must note the fact that a functional local government will make their work easier.  Therefore, they should help put in place mechanisms that will make the local governments work.

It must be stated that once Nigeria is able to get it right at the local government level, most of the nation’s problems will be solved.

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