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What FG needs to do to compel governors on LG autonomy – Musa Elayo

Musa Elayo is a former Minister of State for Justice, as well as member of the House of Representatives. In this interview on Trust TV’s…

Musa Elayo is a former Minister of State for Justice, as well as member of the House of Representatives. In this interview on Trust TV’s 30 Minutes, the trained lawyer discussed the issue of local government administration, overbearing influence of state governors on it and how it is affecting democracy at all levels, viz-a-viz the recent legal action taken against state governments by the federal government.

 

We are now in the 25th year of continuous civil rule in Nigeria. While it may not be a full democracy, it is the first time Nigeria has experienced such an extended period of civil rule. One area of concern in this republic is the administration of local councils. It seems that state governments have taken over and effectively emasculated these councils. This situation has prompted the federal government, under President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to take action in the Supreme Court, with the aim of restoring the independence of local councils as guaranteed by the constitution, particularly in terms of financing and administration. What are your thoughts on this recent move by the federal government to address this issue?

There’s no doubt that from 1999 till date, the system of administration in the local government areas have nosedived beyond your imagination.

For some of us that come from local government areas, we can tell you this better. But I can tell you also that that has been the struggle since 1999 till date. It is getting worse by the day.

Incidentally, when I was in government as minister of state for justice, the current president of Nigeria created local governments in Lagos State and President Obasanjo withheld the allocation to the Lagos State Government until he was forced by a Supreme Court judgement to release the account, saying he had no power to do so.

So, that problem has been on since 1999 and successive governments have been trying to resolve it without much success.

Some governors appear to wield so much power over local governments, such that it seems they have taken them over, placing them under their control and doing as they wish with local councils.

Yes; the reason is simply because of the constitutional provision.

Does the constitutional provision state that local councils are just small units under state governments, such that governors can do what they wish with them?

Not quite that way. But as you know, when you have power – and you have people that have absolute power and control the resources of the local government, as well as have the power or duty to make laws for the running of the local government and don’t want to see the vibrancy of politics at that level – they will do everything to emasculate it.

If you observed, you would see that the practice we have these days is that once a governor belongs to a particular party, every elected council member, be he councillor or chairman, is from that political party.

And even when they conduct elections by the state electoral bodies, it’s the ruling party in the state that gets everything?

Yes. That tells you that definitely there is no democracy at the local government level.

Is this good for our democracy, because some see it as one of the Achilles heels, the weakness of this current republic?

It is not good for the system because once you destroy democracy at the local government level, then you are destroying it, even at the national level. That is why we have a complete destruction of the political system today.

You see, leaders emerge from their wards to the local government, state and the national level, so, if you emasculate that system from down, you can’t get anything up.

The governors have become very powerful because they control the money of the local government. They appoint, I mean they decide to elect or dissolve the local government.

They also edit the years. Some will say that their councils are just for two or three years, or whichever years they choose; why is it so?

The reason is simply because the governors took charge, or have taken control of political parties in their various states.

The governors elect ward executive, local government executive, state executive. And there is no supervision power over them. The federal government has no supervision power over them.

So, for me personally, unless we go back to the basics, unless we go back to amend the constitution drastically, I don’t see whether the governors will obey whatever judgement comes from the Supreme Court. I am sorry to say that, but that’s my humble opinion.

You mean they will just defy the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the highest court of the land?

Sure, they will. I will give you an example. I am not saying that all the states are involved, but a number of states have created what they call development areas.

Now, these development areas are independent of their parent local governments, in terms of function, revenue and everything.

Like a fourth tier of government?

Exactly; but with complete powers of a local government and not reporting to local governments at all. That’s what’s happening at the local government level.

Has anyone ever challenged that constitutionally, or you think it’s a waste of time?

Well, the governors have immunity. So, if you challenge the governor, how do you enforce it? Which court do you go to?

But now that the federal government has gone to the Supreme Court over this matter, has it gone to the right court?

Yes, they have gone to the right court, but then, like I said, I don’t think much is going to be achieved. I am telling you that we faced this in 1999 when the current president was the governor of Lagos State. He initially attempted it with local governments, but when the Supreme Court said ‘no you cannot create local governments,’ he turned them into what he called development areas. So, all the states that created such local governments called them development areas.

The problem is that when you go to a state House of Assembly, you normally have maybe two members from each local government; and when you say you are giving them independence or autonomy, they embrace it.

You see, if you go to some states, there are no local government functions at all. You see, the idea of a joint account is that when local government fund from the federal account goes to the local government, I mean goes to the state, the state is supposed to contribute a certain percentage of its own internally generated revenue and add this and send to the local government, but that’s not what is happening. What happens at the state level is that in the Ministry for Local Governments, the funds are controlled there, the local government chairman goes there and maybe pays his staff and teachers, and at the end of the day, maybe gets some running cost for his office and everybody disappears.

Some of the governors have claimed that if they just disburse the money, some of the local governments could be reckless, that there is no good structure to administer those funds. They also say they have so many staff and pensioners to pay, that at the end of the day, there isn’t enough. That is why the states are kind of helping the local governments to manage these funds. What do you make of this?

I don’t see any help there. You are supposed to have the Local Government Service Commission, which regulates the members of staff that are in local governments. You are supposed to have the Local Government Economy Development Board, which will help local governments to use the opportunity, I mean raise funds internally, but they are not there in most states. It is in the constitution, but they are not there. Then, whatever accrues to local governments from the federal account doesn’t even go there.

I am not saying that every state is involved. I can remember very well that in 1999 in Imo State, during the tenure of the then Governor Achike Udenwa, I think he didn’t tamper with it.

And probably the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)?

No; the FCT is not a state. What is happening in the states is unfortunate.

I can tell you that in some states, local government councils cannot award a N5,000 worth of contract, but they are supposed to be involved in the maintenance of bridges, rural roads, slaughter slabs and other things. If you go to some of these local governments, it is the state governments that are doing those things.

Beyond the political implications you have mentioned, many people believe that the emasculation of local governments by certain governors has contributed to the security challenges we face. The weakening of their systems and the takeover of local governments by these governors have left the tier of government closest to the people unable to perform its duties effectively; is that correct?

That’s absolutely correct. The problem, as I mentioned, lies in the constitution. Our constitution does not clearly define the local government as a third tier of government. Instead, it establishes the federal and state governments and places local governments as an appendage of the states.

Because the local government is not recognised as an independent tier, this creates significant issues. Some believe the federal government should not allocate resources to local governments, arguing that this responsibility should fall to the states since the local government is not a distinct tier.

What has really helped the country is the National Assembly’s decision not to alter the constitutional provisions regarding the number of local governments or to delete the provisions for their creation. If they had made such changes; and efforts are underway to ensure they do not, the situation would have been worse by now.

Considering the current circumstances, how likely do you think any constitutional change affecting the local government would be implemented?

I believe the best approach is through constitutional amendments. First, the local government should be recognised as the third tier of government. Secondly, the functions of local government, including legislation, administration and elections, should be completely removed from the control of the states, making them independent entities.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should conduct local government elections, and the National Assembly should make laws that affect local government administration. Funds should be allocated directly to local governments, with a structure in the constitution to monitor their spending. Direct allocation of funds from the federation account to local governments would be beneficial.

How could such change be possible when previous attempts to make changes were thwarted by state governors? Their concurrence is needed, requiring the agreement of a number of state assemblies.

Achieving this change is not difficult. If the president is determined to achieve it, he can. Serious political decisions are made at the party caucus level.

Does one exist now?

Certainly, there must be a caucus. For instance, a caucus of the All Progressives Congress (APC), comprising the president, vice president, secretary to the government, senior ministers, governors and the National Assembly leadership. If they take the matter to this caucus, which represents almost two-third of the party and states and reach a resolution, they could achieve the change. They could also involve the forum of governors and the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the next strong party, to gain a broader agreement.

The current challenge is that most members of the houses of assembly are nominees of the governor, making it difficult to achieve consensus.

Yes, for example, Wike has boasted that he bought forms for everybody in the last elections. He is perhaps the only one who has publicly admitted this, but it is likely that other governors did similar things.

That is very true.

But then, back to the point, is it because this caucus was very powerful in the Second Republic under Shehu Shagari that it decided a lot of things, but we haven’t seen that happening even under Obasanjo, whom you served as minister?

No; it was very strong.

But there are also multiple power centres. Because of this, someone might whisper to the president that it is not in his interest to make such changes if he wants a second term as the governors hold the key.

No. We have the governors’ forum, where governors meet, regardless of their political parties, to collectively make decisions they believe are in their states’ interests. There is also the party governors’ forums, where they discuss party-related issues privately.

These forums, although not constitutionally established, wield significant influence over the political system. They appoint party executives at all levels, fund political parties (rather than allow them to be self-funded), and decide election candidates. As the saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”

This seems like why it appears difficult to persuade governors to relinquish the power and extra funds they gain from controlling the joint account. Is there a solution?

There is a way out. Like I said, if the APC caucus agrees at that level, I can assure you that it is implementable.

Why is it very difficult to achieve, even under Obasanjo, who wielded so much power as president? Despite his influence, he couldn’t establish local government autonomy; instead he seemed to favour the creation the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), which allowed the use of local government funds to purchase unnecessary vehicles.

Under Obasanjo, the caucus was very strong. I can attest to this as a former member. Many issues, including those concerning local governments, were addressed at the caucus level.

I can tell you that the current president, incidentally was a member of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) then; and he was a very powerful governor. He provided the impetus for change, although he wasn’t under PDP control. However, PDP governors were hesitant.

Things changed when there was a judgement that prevented the creation of local governments, leading to a focus on developing existing areas. Other governors followed suit.

The only viable solution is to amend the constitution, making the local government a third tier. This requires the National Assembly to pass such an amendment. Without changing or amending section 7 and other relevant sections of the constitution that give power over local government to the states, I don’t see any progress. This change is achievable.

Could there be an enlightened self-interest for the governors? Former governors often lament the situation of local governments, yet when they were in office, they enjoyed having that power. I wonder if the current governors can give up that power easily, especially if the president isn’t strongly inclined to driving the caucus to achieve that change.

The problem is that party funding, leadership and elections have all been taken over by the governors. Their influence dominates all levels of party activities. Unfortunately, they control decisions at the local and state levels. Absolute power corrupts; and it is not easy for them to relinquish it. However, if they face enough pressure and public resolve, they might.

That’s why I said that if the president and the APC were willing to amend the situation, they could achieve it. In 1999, the formative years of our political activities, different methods were employed and certain results were achieved. But the major weakness that remains is the failure to amend section 7 of the constitution and other relevant provisions.

At one point, former President Obasanjo tried giving money directly to the local governments, but he was taken to court for acting unconstitutionally. The court ruled against him, forcing him to revert to distributing funds through the states. So, he did make an effort.

So it is back to what you said earlier, that even if this matter that the federal government has just taken to court succeeds, it isn’t likely to change much?

I think so. I hold that view very strongly.

Why did the minister of justice and the federal government go to court? Given their expertise and knowledge of the law, are they simply playing to the gallery, or what exactly are they trying to achieve?

They are not playing to the gallery, they are facing the reality. When Obasanjo was in office, we saw the reality, but those outside did not. Now that they are in power, they have seen the reality and recognise that what is happening is wrong. They want to see what they can do about it.

However, while they can go to court and seek constitutional interpretation from the Supreme Court, will it change anything? If a governor with immunity breaches the law, what can be done? Governors run their states and make their own decisions without checks and balances provided by the constitution or the federal government.

It seems that under this republic, one of the significant weaknesses is the extensive powers accruing to the governors. This allows them not only to make decisions for their states and local governments, but also, in some instances, to influence federal government actions; what is your take on this?

The governors have powers under the concurrent legislative list and the residual list, while the federal government holds more power under the exclusive legislative list. To achieve effective local government administration, which would foster development, good governance and a healthy political culture, local governments must be removed from state control and established as an independent third tier of governance.

This independence should encompass finances and elections, though collaboration with the state in areas of development and other matters could still occur. States are components of the federal government, but the president has no direct power over them.

I can tell you that if a governor doesn’t want a visitor in his state, it would be difficult for that person to enter, despite the fact that the police commissioner and the military are under federal control.

We have seen even sitting ministers struggle to visit their states if they are not in good terms with their sitting governors.

Yes. We Nigerians have a penchant for breaching laws, and many of our laws have inherent lacunas that provide escape routes. Therefore, we must make them clear and strict.

I have seen the National Assembly discussing amendments to give the INEC the power to conduct local government elections rather than state electoral commissions, which tend to favour the sitting government. Is this part of what you hope to see?

Yes, that is fundamental. You must remove the power of conducting local elections from the states. If you don’t, states will often appoint partisan members of their party to the State Electoral Commission, who will then have a mandate to ensure that party members win. After all, any disputes will go to a tribunal or court under state control.

For a long time now, even the judiciary has been under scrutiny, making the situation seem hopeless. Local governments must be established as a third tier of government in terms of elections and financial allocations from the federation account. This way, they will have enough resources to claim their entitlements from the states.

Currently, funds are taken to the states and placed in a joint account, and local governments receive only what the states decide to give them. This mismanagement creates a dire situation. For example, in my local government, workers rarely show up except to collect their salaries, which are now paid through the banks.

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