The essence of the Panskhin meeting was to enable the council chairmen strategize on how to approach Governor Jonah Jang, who was equally billed to attend the rally to release funds amounting to N7.4 billion belonging to local governments in the state.
Our correspondent learnt that prior to the planned meeting with the governor, the council chairmen had been able to establish that each council would receive N300 million if the funds were released by the state government. Investigations by Sunday Trust revealed that when the council chairmen assumed office, the state government informed them why it decided not to release the funds to their predecessors because they were not elected into office and that it was better to release the funds to elected chairmen since they would be more accountable and transparent in expending the funds.
The state government, according to our findings, pledged to release the funds to the present set of council chairmen to enable them fund development projects in their various areas, but six months after assuming office, the “trapped” funds have not been disbursed to the local governments. The non-release of the N7.4 billion has therefore become a source of worry to the council chairmen who complain that their statutory allocation after deductions was not enough for them to meet the financial obligations of their councils. Some of the deductions made from the allocation to local governments in the state include the 15 per cent deduction for the Universal Basic Education scheme, the percentage deducted for the payment and upkeep of traditional rulers and deduction for the state environmental sanitation exercise, which the council chairmen described as illegal as it is not authorized by law.
The council chairmen have also complained that even when the deductions from local government allocations are legal, the councils are sometimes over-charged.
Our correspondent learnt that because of these anomalies, the chairmen, who suspect that the state governor may be unaware of some of these deductions, have made several attempts to see the governor to no avail.
However, what hastened the decision to confront the state governor was a memo received by the local government chairmen from the state government asking them to submit a list of projects they intended to embark on.
The chairmen say they suspected that the intention of the memo may be to deny them what is rightfully theirs in terms of the release of the “trapped” funds while enabling the state government take credit for what ordinarily should have been the job of the local government administration..
They reasoned that with N300 million, most of them would be able to meet their financial obligations and deliver the dividends of democracy to their people at the grassroots without running cap in hand to any quarter for financial assistance.
Chairman of Kanam local government, Dr. Saleh Kanam, when contacted confirmed the growing cases of anomalies concerning the local government funds and stressed that while his colleagues and himself were barely able to carry out their basic responsibilities to the people, the state government was tying down their funds.
“Everybody has been waiting; this is about five months now since we came into office, most of us are only struggling to pay salaries. No local government chairman out of the 17 of us can tell you of any meaningful development project they are carrying out, when basically the salaries cannot be paid. You can’t talk of any developmental programme relating to projects from your constituency,” he lamented.
But the state government is not denying withholding the council funds. The state commissioner for local government and chieftaincy affairs, Mallam Nuhu Gagara admitted that the state government was holding the local government funds but insists that it is for accountability purposes. He said it was for the same reason that the state government asked the local governments to submit proposals on the number of projects they intend to carry out so that the utilization of the funds can easily be monitored.
Gagara added that the funds have not been released to the local governments because some of them are yet to submit the proposals and that was not the intention of the state government to execute projects for the local governments.
“The state government has kept over N7bn and the money is made public and at several public functions the governor announces this. It’s about six months now since the elected administration of the local government were sworn-in and the state government has directed each local government chairman to bring proposal for the projects that they intend to execute within this financial year; that is the 2009 financial year.
“I don’t think it’s out of place for the state government to look into their budget and proposals in other to pick priority areas for the projects that will be executed,” he stated.
But the chairmen are not happy with state government’s disposition, saying the situation may give opportunity for certain officials of the state to tamper with the funds. They allege for instance that the state government is not talking about the interest that must have accrued to the lump sum, as the state government has so far only admitted holding the principal sum.