The heat from the fever-pitched campaigning in the presidential and parliamentary elections next month (Feb.) may make the various parties and their candidates to miss a very important issue that should define the campaigns. We pray they don’t because it strikes at the very heart of our fledgling democracy.
The latest report we have received is that 23 out 36 state legislatures have thrown out a carefully worked constitutional amendment that would have made local governments independent of the states. At present, they are strings for the shoes of state governors. Together, the 774 local governments named in the 1999 Federal Constitution make up the third tier of government. The first and second tiers are the federal government and state governments in that order. However, whereas the first two are fairly autonomous of each other, the third tier supposedly, is tied to the apron strings of state governments.
Although statutorily, local governments are entitled to a share of federally collected revenues, the money doesn’t go directly to them. The state governors put it in a joint account, which is anything but joined. They control and even steal what statutorily belongs to the local governments. This is so because the constitution has contrarily made it possible for governors to remove even popularly elected council chairmen at any time they so wish and appoint their cronies as caretakers of councils.
It was this constitutional blind spot that the National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) set out last year to remove. And the federal lawmakers did a painstaking job that took them to the six-geographical zones to sample opinions of Nigerians at public hearings. The result was an overwhelming yes vote for local government autonomy. But there was one snag that stopped them from moving forward. The Constitution provides that for their recommendation to become law it must be endorsed by a two-thirds majority in each state House of Assembly.
Alas! It failed there. Only one-third of the 36 state legislatures passed the draft constitutional amendment. It is not difficult to see why the amendment failed to pass in the majority of the states. The state lawmakers there are in the pockets of their governors who paid to put them in the House in the first place. Several of the governors are up for re-election this year and losing control of the joint account would harm their return to power. So they made sure the lawmakers, already in their pockets, did not bite the hand that feeds them. They did just as they were ordered.
The governors also got help from a trade union turned black sheep – the National Union of Teachers (NUT). It broke rank with the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) on the matter, the governors having convinced (or bribed) the former that an autonomous local government system would not be able to pay their wages. It is not as though the salaries are regular now. In Edo and Benue states, for example, teachers’ wages have not been paid for months on end. In Benue in particular, primary and junior secondary school were shut down much of last year because of a strike by teachers over non-payment of salary.