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Socialist Democracy March 2004

 

SEIZURE OF FUNDS OVER NEW LOCAL GOVERNMENTS:

What Council Workers Should Do

By Demola Yaya

 

Background

 

Since April 7, 2004 when President Olusegun Obasanjo instructed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance, to withhold council allocation to states where new local governments were created, there have been a lot of ripples and controversies.

Obasanjo, who hardly abides with the constitution claims that the action was taken in defence of 1999 constitution, which he swore to protect. He said on radio programme on May 1st, 2004: "we are ruled by constitution and by law and my oath of office is to defend the constitution and the law. The constitution as it stands today is that we have 774 local governments and area council, 6 area councils in Abuja and the rest local governments are constitutional. When the local governments of those states become constitutional or revert to the path of constitutionality, they would get their money…it is for us to be guided by law and constitution, if we take law into our hands, we would have anarchy in the nation" (Vanguard newspaper, May 2, 2004). Obasanjo was reacting to the call by workers at the 2004 May Day rally in Lagos for release of council allocation to Lagos state.

Obasanjo's argument for withholding the allocation is hinged on the fact that by the creation of new local governments in the affected states i.e. Lagos, Nasarawa, Ebonyi, Niger and Katsina, the old local government areas have been tampered with in respect of their names and boundaries as they were divided into smaller units and therefore, not recognised by the 1999 constitution. The constitution only recognises 774 local governments. In Lagos state for instance, the constitution recognises 20 local governments. With creation of 37 new local governments, the hitherto existing names have changed, boundaries adjusted and divided into smaller units. For instance, Alimosho L.G. which is duly recognised by the constitution has been divided into 5 local governments while the 'old' name Alimosho - is no longer existing. Same applies to the 19 other local governments in the state, recognised by the constitution. As such, council allocations to the affected states have to be withheld.

On the other hand, the state governments, especially Lagos state, claim that they have fulfilled all constitutional requirements for creation of new local governments and that what remains is an Act by the National Assembly, making consequential provisions with regard to the new local governments. They accuse federal government of unduly punishing local government workers as withholding of allocation implies withholding of their salaries. The affected workers include teachers in primary schools, local health officials, workers at the local government secretariats, amongst others. States are also alleging that the withheld funds has not allowed local governments to develop and provide amenities in their respective councils.

In the past, the arguments by state governments for creating new local governments used to hinge on bringing government nearer to the people in the grassroots; bringing development to the people via provision of social amenities; generation of employment opportunities, etc. However, these reasons are no longer tenable.

In the first instance, experience has shown that creation of new local governments does not necessarily bring development to the poor people at the grass roots. It instead brings pains and agonies to the residents and petty traders who are constantly harassed for taxes and levies like tenement levy at prohibitive rates. Money generated from the poor and allocations from federation account are not used for developmental projects or purposes but to pay the fat salaries and allowances of the chairmen and councillors and their assistants, execute inflated contracts and elephant projects awarded to the politicians and godfathers while local government workers' salaries are owed in arrears. To say the least, newly created local governments bring nightmare to the people.

In the other instance, referendums, which are one of the procedures to follow for the creation of the local governments, were conducted with mega fraud and manipulation. In Lagos state for instance, 6.4 million yes votes for creation of new councils were manufactured within three hours of the so-called referendum. The INEC voters' register used for the conduct of the exercise had 4.5 million names. Where did the excess number come from, assuming all registered voters voted i.e. nobody died, nobody travelled out of Lagos? Granted that all the constitutional procedures for creating the local governments were followed duly, the last stage, which is the National Assembly consequential provision, is yet to be made. To that effect, the newly created local governments are not recognised by the constitution, as processes for their recognition are not yet complete.

 

HYPOCRISY GALORE

 

But nobody should be carried away that Obasanjo is "technically correct" to have withheld the local governments' statutory allocation to the affected states based on the aforesaid factors. Obasanjo is only playing politics with the matter. He has never been a defender of the constitution. Where it favours him, he claims to defend constitution but ignores it when it runs contrary to his government anti-poor policies and politics.

For instance, despite hues and cries and court judgments against the unconstitutionality of the 774 local governments being run by caretaker committees, Obasanjo turned against the constitution and funded them for 22 months!

The AD in Lagos State on the other hand ignored both legal actions and protests by opposition parties in the state against the viability of the newly created local governments and illegal conditionalities attached to conduct of elections to the local governments in the state by Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC). AD manipulated its way and shut out opposition parties from contesting against it in the March 27 farce called elections.

 

WHAT L.G. WORKERS SHOULD DO

 

Based on the aforementioned, neither the federal government nor the affected states should be supported in their claims and counter claims on the legality or illegality of the local government creation palaver, and consequently on the legality and illegality of withholding local authority statutory allocation by the federal government. Primary school teachers, local government workers and their households have been the ones at the receiving end as withholding of statutory allocation implies stoppage of their salaries. Even when state governments collected allocations, workers' salaries were not being paid regularly while leave bonuses and allowances were being denied.

The reason for this however, is that most National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) leaderships at local and state levels are appendages of local and state government politicians, hence, they could not maintain a principled stance on the status of the so called newly created local governments. This gives technical loophole for the Obasanjo led federal government to withhold allocation to the affected states.

Therefore, the issue of workers control and accountability at local government, state and federal levels will always remain crucial to the workers’ living standard in general and regular payment of wages in particular. To get out of this current logjam, NULGE, especially in the states where unconstitutional local governments are being operated, must lead a campaign urging the affected state governments to put the implementation of their newly created local governments on hold until their constitutionality or otherwise is established by the relevant bodies especially since the matter is already in court.

With this approach, NULGE will have all rights to demand the immediate release by the federal government of the local government allocations to the affected states. Of course, NULGE and labour movement in general must henceforth put forward workers control and accountability of all resources accruing to all strata of the government. If this is not done, we are surely going back to an era where states will collect local governments allocation without workers getting paid at the end of the day.

More importantly, workers, both locally and nationally need to organise a struggle to kick out all political vampires at federal, states and local government levels. Workers need their own government that will implement policies that will bring about permanent decent lives as opposed to PDP, AD, ANPP governments of corruption, privatisation, deregulation, etc which bring misery and poverty to Nigerian poor masses at all levels.

 

 

Socialist Democracy March 2004