In line with its tradition of taking hard and difficult decisions with far-reaching implications on the Nigerian system, the present government recently re-emphasized financial autonomy to Local Governments in Nigeria. This reminder 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 credited to Local Government Accounts and that states would cease to be signatories to their accounts.

This was a seal to the autonomy many Nigerians had been calling for, as the antidote to 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 released paltry amounts to the councils.

The decision has been widely lauded and seen as a way of ensuring that 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 that 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 emphasis on financial autonomy by the present 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 NFIU is emancipating 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 this 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, 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 centres 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 NFIU which is notable for taking hard but necessary decisions that stand to nudge the nation forward, there is no doubt that the original intendtion 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 would 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 governments 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 drainpipes for the resources of the people.

There are very many other reforms needed to make the local governments more effective but granting them financial autonomy as had been done by this regime, is like granting it a soul. This indeed is revolutionary but it behooves 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, this new directive 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 at the local government level.

- Monday Onyekachi Ubani Esq, is the former 2nd National Vice President of the Nigeria Bar association, NBA.

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