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
Finally, June 12 as a historically iconic date is official. It is no longer a mere symbol of what could have been. It is now encoded as a take-off date for the resurgence of the democratic experience in Nigeria.
And the credit goes to President Muhammadu Buhari, a man whose comrades-in-arms, led by Ibrahim Babangida had, in a streak of authoritarian madness, vitiated the peoples’ will in 1993. Whenever the injustice of June 12 is remembered, it will always be said that Buhari was the man who righted that wrong. History will be kind to him in this regard. But June 12, known euphemistically as the 26-year old pregnancy and national albatross, which has haunted the trajectory of Nigeria’s precarious democracy, can only get final closure if, and when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar tells Nigerians why he kept Abiola to die in detention while other political prisoners were released.
Without doubt, Nigerian democracy has come a long away. Most Nigerians who are old enough to remember the significance of June 12, hailed the decision of the Buhari administration to recognize June 12 as Democracy Day. Whether it was an obligatory atonement emanating from genuine contrition, or an expedient after-thought contrived for political reasons, Buhari’s conferment of the national honor, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Abiola, and his public apology to his family were acts of nobility and magnanimity.
Viewed as an act of statesmanship, the apology and multiple honors granted Abiola underlines the move towards appeasement, reconciliation and national unity. Buhari claimed the reason for the double honor rightfully granted the late Abiola was not “to open old wounds but to put right a national wrong.” To assuage the feelings of Nigerians and “recognize that a wrong has been committed,” the president made his offering: “This retrospective and posthumous recognition is only a symbolic token of redress and recompense for the grievous injury done to the peace and unity of our country. Our decision to recognize and honor June 12 and its actors is in the national interest. It is aimed at setting national healing process and reconciliation of the 25-year festering wound caused by the annulment of the June 12th election. I earnestly invite all Nigerians across our entire national divide to accept it in good faith.”
The travails of the prevailing democratic order make imperative the interrogation of what June 12 called Democracy Day is all about. Do Nigerians really appreciate what democracy means? Are Nigerian politicians making democracy worthwhile or perverting its content and process? Undoubtedly there are many Nigerians who have stories to tell about the great men and women who participated in those stirring events that culminated in the final stage when Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn-in as the third elected president of Nigeria. Perhaps the most significant actor in those events of 1998 and 1999 was Gen. Abubakar, the last serving soldier to hold the office of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Gen. Abubakar was known among his colleagues as a rigorously apolitical soldier. He joined the nascent Nigerian Air force in 1963 but crossed into the army in 1966, a move that proved to be quite fortuitous. He was a member of the military tribunal that tried and condemned the soldiers who staged the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990 - the bloodiest attempt to topple IBB. After that event, Abubakar faded from the news. In the wake of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Nigeria was grip by crisis. Abubakar played a significant role in installing Gen. Sani Abacha in power in November 1993. When Gen. Oladipo Diya fell suddenly in 1997, it was Abubakar’s turn to rise in the byzantine politics of the Abacha court. He became Chief of Defence Staff and Abacha’s de-jure second-in-command.
But Abubakar was not a favorite of the Abacha court. He had an uncanny ability not to betray his emotions and would rarely volunteer any comment during meetings. His trademark poker face like a ventriloquist confounded even his most ardent critics and detractors. After the arrest of Diya and the generals in the fake coup of 1997, many of the top generals who survived were falling over each other to deify Abacha. They knew Abacha wielded absolute power of life and death. Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 changed the power geometry in Nigeria forever. The military announced Abubakar as the new Head of State. In an unprecedented twist, the Chief Justice brought out the tattered 1979 Constitution to swear-in Abubakar as new military ruler. The five political parties that had hitherto unanimously nominated Abacha for President collapsed like a pack of cards. Chief Bola Ige had famously described the five parties as “the five fingers of a leprous hand.”
When Abubakar took office, he had to clear all the old files pending on the late Abacha’s desk. In one of the files, there was a letter addressed to Abubakar awaiting Abacha’s signature. The letter demanded Abubakar’s compulsory retirement which was to be announced on the date Abubakar was sworn-in as Head of State if Abacha had survived to that day. The irony was not lost him. He knew his offence. He had refused to wear the Abacha loyalty badge that many generals were wearing. He had told those who cared to listen that his loyalty was to Nigeria and not to an individual. Abacha died. Abubakar survived.
But Chief Abiola, the presumed winner of June 12 did not survive. By the time Abubakar took power, Abiola had been in detention for four years. He was kept in solitary confinement and seldom allowed to see the sun. The circumstances in which Abiola was being detained were surreal. Then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was one of the last people to see him alive. Annan described how Abiola was watching the England-Argentina World Cup match on television without the sound when he entered the room. When Annan asked the guard to turn up the sound, he was told this was not possible.
When Annan greeted him, Abiola asked: “Who are you?” On hearing he was the UN secretary general, Abiola was overcome with emotion and kissed his hand. “What happened to the Egyptian [Boutros Boutros Ghali]?” he asked. Annan explained he had taken over the position in January last year. Abiola had no idea that the Pope had visited Nigeria and had pleaded for his release. He had only heard the day before Annan’s visit that Abacha, had died. He had been almost completely isolated from the world for nearly four years. Abiola said he had been allowed a radio in prison for his first month, but in mid-1994 was cut off completely. His guards refused to talk to him and he had stopped trying to get information from them. He had no newspapers and was only given two books - the Bible and the Qur’an.
Gen. Abubakar had asked Annan to get a written assurance from Abiola that, if released, he would not immediately declare himself president as a result of the 1993 elections. Abubakar feared massive disruption, with Abiola being hailed in the south, while the northern Hausa controlled the army. He wanted Abiola to support a period of transition until new presidential elections in which he and others could compete and Annan said Abiola appreciated much had changed since 1993 and he did not want to come straight out of prison into Aso Rock. But he was apparently reluctant to give a signed undertaking. Instead he opted to meet Abubakar and give his word. Instead he died on July 7, 1998.
Although many seem carried away by the prospects for national reconciliation, which the recognition of June 12, exemplifies, the deeper import of the injustice of the Babangida regime would be lost if the country doesn’t muster the courage to exhume and resurrect what certain quarters consider a fossil of Nigeria’s political history. Abubakar must tell Nigerians why he kept Abiola in prison, until he collapsed and died after drinking tea during a meeting with two US envoys –Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice. The US diplomats, who travelled with Abiola to a nearby hospital and watched as doctors tried to revive him, said Abiola was in a poor state of health after four years of brutal imprisonment. “He had some record of hypertension,” Pickering said. “Both of his legs were swollen and he showed them to us.”
For the record, upon taking office, Abubakar received a delegation of Afenifere, the Pan-Yoruba group led by Senator Abraham Adesanya. The meeting ended in an upbeat note as Abubakar promised to release Abiola and other political prisoners. Days later, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Kunle Ajibade, Chief Bola Ige, Mrs. Chris Anyanwu and Gen. Diya were all released. But Abiola remained detention. Even more shocking, there was no change of circumstances as Abiola remained in the same solitary confinement where Abacha’s Man Friday, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, had consigned him.
Yet there was no apparent reason why Abiola was not released with the other prisoners of conscience. Abiola’s claim to power had been weakened by the destruction of the political structures that supported his mandate. The political parties, the national and state parliaments and elected executives were all gone. What sort of negotiation could be imperative that could not be done with Abiola as a free man? By the time of his sudden death, neither Abubakar nor any agent of his government had volunteered to see Abiola, talk less of negotiating with hm.
Gen. Abubakar delivered on his promise to return Nigeria to democratic rule in 1999, and for that the country owes him a debt of eternal gratitude. But he also owes the country an explanation why Abiola was still kept in detention after many of the leading political prisoners had been release. It is one secret he must share with Nigerians, 26 years after the death of the man who paid the ultimate price for the current democratic dispensation that Nigerians have enjoyed for the past 20 years. Until Gen. Abubakar breaks his deafening silence, June 12 as Democracy Day will remain a mockery of justice and atonement.
The continuous silence of Gen. Abubakar speaks to an unwillingness to confront the monstrosity of that great injustice, and constitutes an act of violence to the collective memory of Nigerians. Feelings might be assuaged, and emotions dissipated over June 12, but Nigerians in their minds and hearts remain open to revisiting this vexing national question of why Abiola was never released. The clamor for national reconciliation transcends the recognition of June 12 and if genuine honor is to be accorded to what June 12 symbolizes, Abubakar must address the hovering controversy; there must be investigation of persons or institutions; who were willfully culpable in the atrocities of the military junta. The assassination and unexplained disappearance of pro-democracy activists, journalists, human rights lawyers; the brutal murder of perceived enemies of the junta and the wanton destruction of property and deliberate incapacitation of opponents must now be brought to light.
This is an opportunity for all such acts of injustice hanging on Nigeria to be addressed, and all found guilty must face the lawful consequences of their actions. As a first step towards atonement, there should be a roll call of honor of all the victims of June 12, dead or alive. Most importantly, there is need for the dramatis personae, including Gen. Abubakar to come out and offer an unreserved apology to Abiola and other victims of June 12. This is necessary for them to make personal atonement and seek inner peace for the injustices perpetrated. Atonement and reconciliation are volitional for the attainment of peace; it can rarely be done on behalf of another, especially when the perpetrators are alive. The successful foreclosure of the June 12 controversy will only be complete when Gen. Abubakar tells Nigerians why he allowed Abiola to die in detention. The country deserves to know the truth.