If JAAC is to remain, state govts should lose unilateral power over LGs —Osaghae, DG NIIA

If JAAC is to remain, state govts should lose unilateral power over LGs —Osaghae, DG NIIA

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The push for local government autonomy by the Federal Government, through the courts, is the crux of the interview that WALE AKINSELURE had with the Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Professor Eghosa Osaghae. Excerpts:

THE Federal government recently instituted a legal action against governors of the 36 states over alleged misconduct in the administration of local government. The move, according to the Federal Government, is to ensure full autonomy for local governments in the country. What is your take on this move by the Federal Government?

First, it is a constitutional issue that guarantees a substantial level of autonomy to local governments. I am sure that everyone in the country has been worried that in spite of those constitutional guarantees, local governments have not enjoyed the measure of autonomy that they were designed to enjoy. Second, I have always argued that it seems state governments themselves are not really in support of autonomy for local governments for reasons I am sure the states themselves best know. But, I suspect many of these states have a feeling that if local governments become really autonomous, they may lose control of some of them, especially where you have partisan politics at that lower level. In other words, it is possible that if you have free and fair elections, for instance, in local governments, some of those local governments may actually no longer be controlled by the parties in the states. So, to that extent, you can say there is a possible asymmetry that might result from free and fair elections at that level. I have argued myself, for a long time, that local autonomy will require federal support because it seems as if the state governments themselves are not so predisposed to granting the relevant autonomy, then local governments will require some extraneous force. The courts on their own, cannot institute such a case but under the military, it was very clear that local autonomy was something that the Federal government pushed for, which many students of federalism would consider quite a contradiction. But, I think what the federal authorities, state governments under military rule, was trying to achieve was to weaken the power of the states to some degree. However, now that local autonomy has become some guaranteed principle in our constitution, I think everything that can be done should be done to give meaning to local autonomy. So, it is just as well that the Federal Government is finally saying to the states, if you don’t want to do this, maybe we can go to the courts and let the courts interpret that provision so we can bring local autonomy fully into motion.

 

Since it’s a constitutional issue, don’t you think the Federal Government, filing a suit in this regard, is a serious contradiction? The question would be, why not leave the issue to a constitutional amendment process rather than bring in an extraneous force?            

There are many ways to propel the forces of amendment. One of them is through accelerated processing. You can as well say why don’t you leave the adoption of a new anthem to a constitutional amendment process. The point is that there are many issues that need to be considered, and I think the issue of local autonomy is already on the table. But, it is something that already exists. That is the difference. It is not as if it is a new thing that the Federal Government is pushing for. Look at the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution, it talks about the powers and functions of local governments and the ordinary interpretation of that schedule is the effect that there is substantial local autonomy. We have also gone through processes of amendment that have talked about local government funds not being subject to state control. We have all of these in process. So, it is not a fundamental shift in the constitution that the Federal Government is talking about. It is giving effect to what already exists in the constitution. Therefore, that is not a contradiction at all; it is not something that requires an amendment.

 

What about the argument that the Federal Government is only trying to accumulate more powers than the states by having more control over local government?                      

If local governments enjoy autonomy, there is nothing that says, therefore, they now fall under the control of the Federal Government. Local governments exist within states and to every intent and purpose, they have the physical existence within state arena. So, it is a misreading of the Federal Government’s intention. If local governments function, it means that the constitutional intention of a three-tier federal system would be put to full effect. Imagine what would happen if local governments are actually able to work effectively; they have funds, they have projects, they have budgets, they have representatives, therefore, they are able to do things that maybe the Federal Government and state governments are not able to do. The point in what the Federal Government is doing is to say, let us activate local governments as a tier of government. Right now, many people say, local governments only exist in name. So, I don’t think it is the intention of the Federal Government that local governments will now fall under federal control.

 

Knowing the powers that state governors amass and wield, don’t you feel we might be in for a long haul? Moreover, during the first sitting on the Federal Government’s suit, some states failed to file in their defence in court.         

If there is accelerated hearing in court, and the court rules, that is it. The point really is we need reforms at the local government level. Look at the point made by the Attorney General of the Federation, the other day, local government elections have become some kind of joke. If party A controls State A and they have local government elections, they win all the seats, as if those viable and strong opposition parties do not exist. That tells us something about how local governments have been subordinated to the whims and caprices of not just state governments but also state governors. I think they are deserving of some kind of defence. The proposal has been made that even local government elections should be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). That kind of proposal has come out of the frustrations that we have witnessed in local government elections run by state electoral commissions. So, I think we are dealing with the forces of state governments that want to ensure that there is absolute control of their territories meaning they also have to control local government areas and the fact that local governments themselves deserve autonomy. The strangulation of local governments through control of their finances has been a problem. If local governments now have access to their own funding from the Federation Account, independent of the states, then everything else must be done to ensure that they are able to exercise the autonomy that has been guaranteed in the constitution. It is a pity that maybe not states, but most states have subordinated local governments as they are extension of the state governments, as though they are ministries. Many times, you hear statements from governors that dissolve elected local councils at will. Those things are not good for local governments. So, if we agree that local governments should function, we must agree that they deserve some degree of autonomy such as the constitution has guaranteed to be effective and I think this is what the Federal Government is pushing for.

 

There is the State Joint Local Government Account, that is superintended by state governments under the auspices of the Joint Accounts Allocation Committee (JAAC). Can JAAC, therefore, be regarded as an aberration?

The constitutional provision for JAAC is made in the spirit of cooperative governance, cooperative federalism. There are joint states, federal projects, programmes and policies, so there are joint state, local programmes and policies. These are not jurisdictional definitions that are done with the mindset of creating conflict. The whole point about federalism is cooperative governance. So, JAAC ought to be very effective in that sense. But, if JAAC is going to remain, local governments must be strengthened to have a voice so that there is negotiation, bargaining. It is not unilateralism on the part of the state governments to simply declare, this is what we will do and local governments have to comply. JAAC is a holding fund for local governments. We should understand that JAAC came into existence because, at some point, in our own history, there were local government functionaries that filtered funds as if they were not under any form of control. It is the balances that are necessary that we are trying to create all round. So, I won’t say JAAC should be thrown completely out but if local governments become more effectively autonomous, then JAAC can become something to be bargained and negotiated.

 

How do you admonish the three levels of government: federal, states, local, to conduct themselves in this latest drive for local government autonomy?

They should see this in just the spirit of cooperative government. Federalism is not about jurisdictional conflicts. Federalism is about ensuring that there is harmony; that there is inter-governmental cooperation and to the extent that the constitution has delineated the boundaries that these different spheres of government would have. To that extent, the constitution also expects that they would cooperate with each another for the effective governance of our country. Right now, we have federal and state governments as the effective governments in the country but the third leg, the local governments, we, as a country, years ago, decided that the local government would become autonomous. We were the second federal country to do so, after the old Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito. Marshal Tito was the first federal leader to elevate local government to the third tier of a federal system. Nigeria followed suit and the scholarship, theory of federalism practice has applauded Nigeria. Since Nigeria did this, many other federal systems, including South Africa, have introduced the principle of autonomy as one of the guiding principles for local government operations and functions. I think we are not doing things that are meant to be disruptive of our federal system. Effective local government, effective state government, effective Federal Government, these three will work together in harmony in the spirit of cooperative federalism.

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