Imperative of LG autonomy in Nigeria

Jide Ojo

Jide Ojo

There have been several news reports over last Friday’s Supreme Court decision over the illegal dissolution of elected council chairmen and councillors in Katsina and Oyo states. The Nation newspaper of Saturday, May 8, 2021 reported that the apex court, in two judgments on Friday, May 7, 2021, set aside the decision by Governors Aminu Masari of Katsina State and Seyi Makinde of Oyo State to dissolve elected Local Government councils in their states. A five-man panel of the apex court was unanimous in holding that no governor has the power to sack democratically elected council chairmen and councillors. It held that Masari and Makinde, by sacking democratically elected local government councils, acted in breach of Section 7(1) of the 1999 Constitution.

The two judgments were on the appeals filed by sacked LG chairmen and councillors from Katsina and Oyo states. The LG chairmen and councillors from the 34 LGs in Katsina, led by Abubakar Ibrahim Yantaba, were elected under the banner of the Peoples Democratic Party but were sacked in 2015 by Masari of the All Progressives Congress. Those from the 33 LGAs as well as 35 Local Council Development Areas in Oyo, led by Ayodeji Abass-Aleshinloye, elected under the banner of the APC, were sacked in 2019 by Makinde of the PDP. Justice Adamu Jauro who read the lead judgment in the appeal relating to Katsina, held that Masari acted illegally and unconstitutional by sacking the appellants on allegation of financial misappropriation of council funds. Justice Jauro ordered the Katsina State Government to pay the appellants all their entitlements from the date of their illegal dissolution to the date they were supposed to lawfully vacate office.

In the Oyo case, Justice Ejembi Eko, in the lead judgment, held that Makinde acted “invidiously and in contemptuous disregard of a High Court judgement,” when he dissolved the democratically elected chairmen and councillors, and appointed caretaker committees to replace them. Justice Eko set aside an earlier judgment by the Court of Appeal in Ibadan, which validated Makinde’s action, noting that the lower court was wrong when it held that there was no reasonable cause of action in the suit the appellants filed to prevent their sack. He noted the three-year tenure of the sacked chairmen and councillors had since expired but proceeded to hold that they deserved to be compensated for their tenure that was “illegally truncated” on May 29, 2019.

Justice Eko ordered the Oyo State Government to pay the sacked hairmen and councillors their accrued salaries and allowances and directed the Attorney-General of Oyo State to, before August 7 this year, file an affidavit confirming the payment of the salaries and allowances to the appellants. He equally awarded a cost of N20 million in favour of the appellants. Other members of the panel, Justices Kekere Ekun, Inyang Okoro, Ibrahim Saulawa and Adamu Jauro, agreed with the lead judgment. It should be noted that this is not the first time the Supreme Court was declaring unlawful the practice by state governors to dissolve elected LGs upon assuming office.

The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, had pointed out this fact when he faulted Makinde’s decision, in a letter dated January 14, 2020. In the letter marked: HAGF/OYO/2020/Vol.1/1, which was addressed to Oyo State’s Attorney General, Professor Oyelowo Oyewo, Malami drew Makinde’s attention to past decisions of the Supreme Court on the issue and advised him to reverse the dissolution. But, rather than heed the AGF’s advice, Makinde queried Malami’s jurisdictional competence, claiming among others, that the issue was internal to Oyo State.

I decided to quote the report comprehensively to give you, readers, opportunities of having background information to the case. I reliably learnt that Supreme Court has given similar judgements in Abia, Ekiti, and Plateau states. The question is, why do governors who swore to uphold the country’s constitution at inauguration turn around to breach it immediately after assuming office? Many have said that this is due to political expediency. It is believed that governors want to have their loyalists occupying all the political structures of the states. This seems baseless and irrational because even with those loyalists occupying those seats, incumbent governors have lost re-election bids. Some have even lost election into the Senate after two terms as governors of their respective states.

I was privileged to be among the panel of three that discussed this issue on a national television last Saturday night. The point was made that this despicable act of dissolving duly elected local government officials and inaugurating illegal caretaker committee was borne out of the desire to control the resources of the Local Government Areas. This control was made possible by the constitutional provision. The major threat to financial autonomy of local government in Nigeria lies in some of the sub-sections of Section 162 of the Nigerian Constitution. Here are some of the relevant provisions in that section. Sub-section (5) says, “The amount standing to the credit of Local Government Councils in the Federation Account shall also be allocated to the State for the benefit of their Local Government Councils on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.”

Sub-section (6) says, “Each State shall maintain a special account to be called “State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid all allocations to the Local Government Councils of the State from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State.” Sub (7) reads, “Each State shall pay to Local Government Councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its total revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.” And finally, sub-section (8) says, “The amount standing to the credit of the Local Government Councils of a state shall be distributed among the Local Government Councils of that state on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the state.”

Unless and until the “State Joint Local Government Account” is abolished and council funds from the federation account are directly paid to these 768 LGAs and six Area Councils of the Federal Capital Territory (see, s. 3(6) of the CFRN), they will continue to be dependent on the state governments for their existence. Quite unfortunately, the 2018 constitution amendment on Local Government autonomy did not scale through.

In 2019, Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit tried to salvage local government administration by issuing guidelines with effect from June 1, 2019 that all funds due to the LGAs should be paid directly into their respective accounts and that all Money Deposit Banks should not honour any cash withdrawal request from the LGs beyond N500,000 daily while all other financial transactions are to be made via cheques or electronic money transfers. State governors rose stoutly against this and lodged complaints with the President that the NFIU went beyond its brief by issuing such a guideline. The Nigeria Governors’ Forum even sued the NFIU on this matter.

I am of the considered view that going forward, the Supreme Court should not only stop at asking the dissolved council chairmen and councillors to be compensated, it should also ask the Federal Government through the Accountant General to withhold allocations due to the affected LGAs until the governors reinstated the dissolved council members. Otherwise, the judgement of the court will continue to be a mere academic exercise.

There is also the need to improve significantly the quality of elections conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commissions into the local governments. Not a few believe that the purported elections into the LGAs organised by the 36 SIECs are mere coronation as the ruling party at the state level, more often than not, wins all the chairmanship and councillorship positions. The SIECs need to be granted financial autonomy with their funding being on the first line charge of the state Consolidated Revenue Fund like that of the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Apart from the aforementioned, local governments face huge corruption challenges both from the political leadership and even the bureaucracy. There is virtually lack of financial accountability at most of the local government areas. As earlier pointed out, there are no budget, no active legislative council, and no sufficient civil society engagement at the grassroots level. The little internally generated revenues being collected by the administrative staff of local governments are not properly accounted for. This is antithetical to good governance practice and should be addressed via legislation and enforcement of legal provisions and policy guidelines.

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