In line with its tradition of taking hard and difficult decisions with far-reaching implications on the Nigerian system, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari recently granted financial autonomy to local governments in Nigeria. This license was contained in a release by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to the effect that from June 1st, 2019, disbursement from the joint state/local government accounts in relation to local government allocations would be exclusively done by local governments and that states would cease to participate in the disbursement. This was a seal to the autonomy many Nigerians had been calling for the serially abused local government system in Nigeria. The NFIU directive stopped the control of local government funds by states and limited the cash withdrawals by local governments to N500,000 daily. The move is seen as the most radical in giving the local governments the needed power to manage their affairs and resources outside the states which have treated local government funds as its own and have leased paltry amounts to the councils.
The decision has been widely lauded and seen as a way of ensuring the third tier of government lives up to its real constitutional roles as the tier of government nearest to the people and with constitutional capacity to attend to their basic needs more than other tiers of government. Simply put, local governments have been conquered vassal estates of the states and their resources spent at the whims and caprices of the state governments who have perfected the art of rail-roading their hirelings to control these local governments on their behalf. Through a ubiquitous state/local government joint account, the allocations for local governments have been spent as the state governments deem fit and this has grandly defeated the idea behind the third tier of government as the local governments were reduced to mere appendages that satisfy the desires of the states and nothing more.
But with the license granted the local government systems by the Buhari government through this NFIU directive, there is no doubt that the local governments will play more expansive and vital roles in the lives of the citizens if they manage the resources that accrue to them justly. There is no doubt that the bold decision of the Buhari government is freeing the local governments from the stranglehold of the states and unleashing their real potentials on the populace, if the monster of corruption and fiscal brigandage is curbed with this new order. There is no doubt that this decisive impetus granted local governments by the Buhari government is going to initiate a regime of responsibility, which has been denied this vital tier of government for the greater parts of its existence.
Before this directive, the local government has undergone a macabre rape by politicians and sundry interests that see the system as a milk cow for them and their cahoots while the interests of the people suffer. Every month, humongous allocations have been released to the local governments and these allocations are appropriated by the states through the notorious state/local government joint account and frittered away in reprehensible manners. Through a shambolic state electoral system, state governors effortlessly impose their lickspittle and feckless hirelings to control these local governments and these were often so powerless to ask questions about the resources of the local governments or challenge the governors to let free these resources. So, with this order, the local governments became more appendages of the state governments while the important roles they should play in the lives of the citizens and for which they were created were abandoned to rot.
Successive governments, especially since the advent of the present democratic dispensation 20 years ago, have moaned in criminal helplessness as this misnomer thrived. Yes, the civil society, local government workers and other motley interests have raised a weak call for the reversal of this order but nothing substantial was done to correct this. The Obasanjo regime whelped in sterile helplessness that the local governments had become mere 774 stealing centers but that regime did nothing to correct this in its eight years in power. The Yar’adua government did not even betray any knowledge of the fact that the system was raped by states and their political actors at will. The Jonathan regime, notorious for its lack of will to even recognize the problems afflicting the nation it pretended to govern, showed no inkling that there was any problem with the local government system when he was moonlighting all over. At best, what happened was the raising of some splotches of noise here and there about local government autonomy and nothing more, as the system practically wobbled under the undue meddlesomeness of state governors.
But with the new directive by the Buhari government, which is notable for taking hard but necessary decisions that stand to nudge the nation forward, there is no doubt that the original intendment behind the creation of local governments would be realized. There is no doubt that from the ashes of near-death, the local government is about to spring forth and take up its constitutional roles and be held accountable for its actions and inactions. This indeed, is a laudable and far-reaching decision that will not only impact on governance but delivery of democracy dividends for the citizens and generations yet unborn will relish this revolutionary action by the Buhari government which enriches the quest for restructuring more than the slanted political manipulations it had suffered in recent times.
However, this new status calls for some follow-up actions and two of these actions stand out for their presumed impact in ensuring the ends of this radical decision are not defeated in the long run. One is on the quality and conduct of elections into local governments and the other is on the focusing of anti-corruption klieg lights on the local governments to ensure they conform to the noble intents behind this decision.
On the conduct of local government elections, one is positively inclined to recommend that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) take over the conduct of elections to local government councils from the state electoral committees who are merely inclined to ram in the cronies of state governors to control this vital tier through the shambolic and horrific elections they conduct to local councils. INEC should take over the conduct of local government election and streamline it with the national election calendar so there would be form and content to local government administration in line with the new lease of life it had been granted. Leaving the conduct of local government elections in the hands of state electoral commissions will wholly defeat the essence of the bold decision to grant financial autonomy to local governments for governors will merely railroad their cronies in as local government chairmen and in cohorts with them, fangle out ways of still controlling the purses of local governments.
Equally important is the need for the various anti-corruption agencies to increase interests in local governments by closely monitoring the finances of the local government to ensure they are not frittered away by the helmsmen of these councils. Granted, a daily cash withdrawal limit has been set but knowing Nigerian politicians for what they are, there is no gainsaying that they will device ingenious ways of short-circuiting the directive as well as other anti-corruption measures put in place to drain the resources of the councils and leave us just at the macabre state the system is now. The anti-graft agencies will have to come closer the local councils and closely monitor their activities if the new policy is not to be frustrated by corrupt players at that level. One way to ensure probity and accountability is to ensure the publication of the monthly allocations for each local government council to enable citizens compare such with the service they receive from these councils. But let the anti-corruption agencies carry out regular swoops on the local councils to ensure they don’t become new drain pipes for the resources of the people.
There are very many other reforms needed to make the local government more effective but granting them financial autonomy as had been done by the Buhari government, is like granting it a soul. This indeed is revolutionary but it behooves on all of us as citizens and shareholders of the local governments to ensure that the noble aims behind this bold decision are not defeated by pernicious politicians and their very many sly ways. We can do this by focusing more attention on the business of local governments and reporting misdemeanors in the system to relevant disciplinary agencies for redress.
All said, the Buhari regime merits any worthwhile praise and commendation for mustering the scarce political will to take this radical decision that will not only restore the potency, viability and importance of this tier of government but redraw the governance map in Nigeria.
In The Spotlight
The hailstorm of public condemnation that trailed media reports of the outrageous plan by the National Assembly to spend over N5.5b on imported Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) has once again appropriately refocused public attention on the contentious issue of the emolument of Nigerian legislators. While Nigeria labors for breath under bureaucratic overweight, corruption, a shaky economy and an Islamic insurgency, the nation has been asphyxiated by the huge of cost of governance, especially the jumbo pay and perks of lawmakers. The disclosure by the ad hoc Welfare Committee of the Ahmad Lawan-led Senate of plans to embark on the purchase is coming barely four years after some senators staked about N6.6b on imported brand new luxury vehicles. It is pathetic that while the average Nigerian buckles under the yoke of poverty; unemployment and the failure of government to discharge its statutory responsibility to the populace, elected lawmakers would have so much leeway on profligacy and the mundane, which the SUV issue represents. The nation’s political leaders need to walk the talk; and must understand that service to the nation demands personal sacrifice devoid of self-aggrandizement.
President Buhari must bring the pressure of his office to bear on these “legislooters” to cancel what unarguably is an insult on the collective sensibilities of Nigerians. This is more so at a time government revenue is said to be dwindling. When juxtaposed with an economy in free-fall; and the rising insecurity and government’s failure to ensure safety of lives and property of Nigerians, the extent of government’s contempt and disdain for its citizens becomes obvious. It is just as well that over 7000 Nigerians have sued the Senate over the unsavory development, and the refusal by the lawmakers to opt for cheaper means of transportation or ploughing the funds into the local automobile industry, thereby preventing such a hefty amount from leaving the economy.
Worse even, the squandermania is a blatant breach of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led Executive Order Three, which mandated patronage of made in Nigeria goods and services. According to stakeholders expending such a humongous amount of money on cars would further affect investment drive into the country, especially in the automobile sector and leave wrong signals for public servants at a time that concerns are being expressed against the high cost of governance in the country especially at a time that government is relying on borrowing to finance the budget and pay workers’ salaries.
In so many ways, lawmakers conduct themselves as if they were above the law to the detriment of public service ethics. This pathetic phenomenon has bogged down the nation, as lawmakers would rather serve themselves than serve the Nigerian people who elected them. It is unacceptable that Nigerians don’t even know the remuneration package of their lawmakers, let alone explain the source of funds for their conspicuous consumption and ostentatious lifestyles. Even from the little information available, there is nowhere in the world where people who do so little get so much pay. This is not part of the attributes of statesmen; rather it is a huge disservice to the nation.
That Nigeria cannot sustain the high cost of governance is incontrovertible. The planned N5.5bn expenditure is unnecessary, insensitive and a flagrant betrayal of the expectations of Nigerians. While the majority of Nigerians wallow in abject poverty, their elected representatives treat themselves so sumptuously that it rankles. This waste in government and the extravagant lifestyle of state actors, especially legislators, constitute such a drain on the treasury that it is impossible for any country carrying such a burden to make progress. This is further compounded by the annual budget; about 70% of which is appropriated to recurrent expenditure. Indeed, the emerging consensus is that lawmakers and their executive counterparts take so much from public coffers, with no such corresponding policy outcomes as could justify the squander; that it even borders on criminality.
In order to kick start his now comatose slugfest with corruption, President Buhari must reduce the high cost of governance. This was a key campaign promise. He promised to cut his own salary but failed to do so during his first term; he wouldn’t be the first to do so. Late President Yar’Adua cut his by 20% in 2009. French President Francois Hollande cut his by 30% in 2012; US President Barack Obama took a 5% cut in 2013 while Russia’s Vladimir Putin cut his by 10% in 2015. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta had a 20% pay cut. The President honoring his promise to cut his salary might have humbled the present legislators and nudge them into taking similar measures. Unfortunately, with legislators seeing themselves as the repository of sovereignty, and not the people; the desired next level change can only be elusive.
Corruption is one of the main reasons lawmakers have failed to perform their duties creditably and dutifully. Their oversight functions – a crucial part of their legislative duties – has been transformed into avenues for rent-seeking as lawmakers “shake-down” Ministers and Heads of parastatals for bribes during budget and committee hearings. The 7th legislature took this obnoxious practice to asinine levels, and went the distance to settle scores with officials who “refused to play ball.” The legislators fought a long-running battle with SEC chair, Arunma Oteh after she openly accused the Chairman of the House Committee on Capital Market of demanding a bribe from the Commission. This allegation culminated in the arraignment of the committee chairman on corruption charges. There was no love lost as the Reps mounted sustained pressure on President Jonathan to sack her. Not getting their way, the legislators refused to allocate funds to the SEC. Of course, this was blackmail carried too far, which did little credit to the image of the House and that of its members.
Legislative powers in all civilized democracies are not deployed to gratify the ego and whims of the legislature or its members. The last legislature was known to pick on anyone who takes it to task even when there is justification for doing so. For example, former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Lamido Sanusi’s comment on the emolument of lawmakers put him at loggerheads with the legislators. In a brazen show of megalomania ostensibly to teach Sanusi a lesson, the Reps embarked on amending the CBN Act purposely to curtail the powers of its governor, disregarding the fact that Sanusi’s term as governor of the apex bank was near its end. This shows the extent to which the legislators could go to deal with perceived “enemies”.
Nigerian lawmakers remain bitterly opposed to disclosure of their salaries and allowances. Their emoluments have always been shrouded in darkness, like backroom dealings among the Mafia. The authoritative London-based magazine, The Economist, in a recent report, ranked Nigerian lawmakers as the highest paid in the world. The report revealed the annual salary of legislators in several countries, which include USA, $174,000; Ghana, $46,500; Indonesia, $65,800; Thailand, $43,800; India, $11,200; Italy, $182,000; Bangladesh, $4,000; Israel, $114,800; Hong Kong, $130,000; Japan, $149,700; and Singapore, $154,000. The Nigerian federal legislator’s annual earning was put at about $189,000 (N30 million) annually. This amount, scandalous as it may seem, is nothing compared to what they get from the system through other means. The sensibility of the people may be further incensed when the various allowances ostensibly for running their offices which include oversight allowance, recess allowance, wardrobe allowance and the bizarre constituency allowance, among others, are computed.
Nigerian lawmakers are quick to dismiss such figures as not factual, but it is instructive that each of them has always dodged questions about the actual salary and corresponding allowances suggesting that there is something to hide. Legislators are representatives elected by the people to create and pass laws, represent the people who elected them and also do oversight functions. They pass the budget and through the public accounts committee, scrutinize the financial transactions of government and through the approval of the report of auditor-general of the federation. It is an irony that the National Assembly, which ought to be the legislative gendarme of the treasury, has derailed in its function. Instead, it constitutes a drain pipe on the same treasury.
Nigerian legislators have subverted their role of ensuring transparency and accountability in government through self-enrichment and primitive accumulation. Lawmakers draw salaries on first-line charge on the federation account. There is nothing evident in their activities to suggest they are in office to represent the people who elected them and who desire the dividends of democracy. Nigerian legislators have not only lost their moral authority, they also have by their dealings transformed the National Assembly into an infrastructure of corruption. The matter has gone past the caution threshold.
The National Assembly has itself become part of the problem of the nation’s democracy and needs total restructuring. In the developed world where cost of governance is coterminous with concrete deliverables and not on padded emolument of public officers, the US spends 21% of its budget on running the government; Netherlands (47.7%); Sweden, (42.8%) and England (37.8%). Senegal scrapped its Senate in order to free resources for development. In Nigeria’s case, the bi-cameral arrangement is not only expensive and unnecessary, legislative business must be made a part-time activity so that it is only those Nigerians desirous of public service will seek public office. Amidst the abject poverty in the land, Nigerians can no longer tolerate a situation where a legislators feed fat on the commonwealth. The planned expenditure of N5.5bn on cars smack of a massive moral deficit on the part of the Senate President and should be canceled immediately as a sign of respect for the suffering people of this nation. If the NASS hopes to get away with this, it will not get away with the harsh verdict of history.