By Tahir Ibrahim Tahir Talban Bauchi
Two out of the three tiers of government; being the Federal and State governments, have flourished financially, under our current democratic dispensation of the 4th republic, leaving out the local governments, whose fate lies in the hands of state governors. In all honesty, the governors have not been prudent in expending these resources. And much of the poverty that abounds in the grassroots is as a result of too little, or absence of; a touch of these funds in the lives of the common man in the villages. Various interventions have come in the form of the Paris Club Refunds, of which the local governments have a large share of; but have unfortunately not shared in its release, with the local governments having nothing to show for it, nationwide. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) has said that a figure of about 14.7 trillion local government funds where cornered by state governments in the last 10 years.
This is being mitigated as just recently, President Muhammadu Buhari was lauded for signing into law, the Local Government Fiscal Autonomy Bill, which seeks to change the status quo; where states manage the funds meant for local governments, at the peril of the latter. Effective from June 1st, 2019, all local governments of the federation will receive their allocations directly to their accounts, with the joint accounts to exist only for the receipt of the federal allocation, and not its disbursement. This has been widely lauded as a step forward in the restructuring debate.
The Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit has thrown its weight behind this law. It seeks to protect the financial integrity of expenditure, by monitoring the disbursements from the local government accounts; allowing only a daily withdrawal of 500, 000 Naira in cash. Funds meant for the local governments cannot be expended from the joint account, without reaching a certain local government account. This would be monitored by an e-payment module in all the banks. The NFIU has said that any bank found to violate this directive will be sanctioned.
The States/Local government joint account system was constitutionally tailored to drive the development of local communities through the effective monitoring of local govt funds. This has largely failed with the states lording over local government funds and diverting them for state use. The new NFIU guidelines on the management of local government funds will definitely censor the expenditure of these funds, but perhaps a more brazen constitutional amendment that abolishes the joint account should be made.
Most states do not run local government polls, and just appoint party faithfuls as council caretaker chairmen. Such appointees are perpetual yes men and merely exist as account officers to the local funds, which the governors expend at will. Even if they are elected, they are produced by a rigged State Independent Electoral Commission election, who are just ceremonially a step ahead of the appointed care taker chairmen. For there to be credible elections in the council polls, they must be taken over by the National electoral body. For INEC not to be overwhelmed, national council polls should be held 6 months, or preferably, a year after the national elections, to allow for funding and the resolution of logistics based issues.
This will produce genuine local government chairmen as the political leaders of the third-tier of government, who would be accountable to their electorates. They will be answerable to their councillors also, just as the states and local governments are held to account by their respective assemblies. Otherwise, the expenditure of the local councils will remain an arrangement affair between the governors and their stoogies as chairmen. The states have continually refused to hold elections for up to 6 or 7 years, and not a single state assembly has taken any punitive actions in that regard.
It is quite commendable that the PMB administration has come this far in adjusting this anomaly that short changes the councils of their 20 percent of the federation allocation; and it is one of the landmark achievements of President Buhari. However, the real autonomy, would be having democratically elected council chairmen, to run the council funds. They must be produced by a fair and transparent electoral body, which we know, does not reside in the state run electoral bodies. PMB has said that he would love to leave a legacy of credible elections, and I believe that the council polls will be most instrumental, in bringing the dividends of democracy to the grassroots; were it to be run by the national electoral body. A hausa proverb says, ‘an gudu, ba’a tsira ba’, meaning, we have run away from danger, but we are not safe from its wrath! PMB can make a run for it, and go for INEC conducted polls, which will produce true council chairmen; so that the common man can vote for who will directly impact his life, there and then, in his locality.