Only Rivers, Edo, Imo have rejected LG autonomy – NULGE boss …

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The National President of the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees, Ibrahim-Khaleel Abdulkadir, speaks on local government autonomy and other topical issues in this interview with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU

What is your reaction to the news that state assemblies have rejected the aspect of constitutional amendment that deals with local government autonomy?

I want to believe that the news was wrongly reported. There was a mix-up somewhere. The truth is that only 12 state assemblies have concluded the aspect that deals with local government autonomy. So far, about three states – Rivers, Edo and Imo – have rejected it while nine voted in favour of the bill. Lagos has not taken any action on the entire bill sent to it by the National Assembly while 24 of the assemblies deliberated and took action on some items on the bills and particularly on the bill of local government autonomy which was stepped down on the basis of the fact that they want to consult widely through public hearing. As I talk to you, Sokoto State just voted in favour of the bill. So, this is the clear picture. Some state assemblies are still working on the bill.

Do you believe some state governors are preventing the bill from being passed?

We are all Nigerians and we know the attitude of the governors towards the local government issue. Nigerians are on one side while governors are on their own. May be because of the advantage of being in the position of leadership and the control of the state resources and the overbearing influence they have over state assemblies, the smooth passage of the bill is being obstructed. Like most democratic societies, Nigerians support local government autonomy because I have never seen a gathering where Nigerians rejected local government autonomy. Nigerians believe in it because we believe it is a system that will provide inclusive participation.

What action will NULGE take against Imo, Edo and Rivers for rejecting the bill?

We have already taken some actions against Imo State. Our members staged a rally at the state assembly to express their disappointment. The funny fact is that these three states that rejected the bill never engaged members of the public through public hearing. They did not even subject the matter to public discourse. They decided to sit at the plenary and take a decision maybe because they were influenced by their governors. In Rivers, it was very funny. There was no time the members of the state assembly in Rivers organised a public hearing or engaged its citizens on whether they were in support or against the local government autonomy. I wonder why Governor (Nyesome) Wike influenced the lawmakers to reject the bill because this is the only state in Nigeria that took up the responsibility of paying primary school teachers salaries since the Supreme Court judgment in 2002. It was the only state that obeyed that judgment. If you look at it, financially, the Rivers State Government is not tampering with the local government funds. Maybe the only interest Governor Wike has in the matter is that he wants to retain the power of appointing stooges periodically as heads of local governments as caretaker chairmen after every three months. That is the only state where after every three months, the tenure of caretaker chairmen expires and the governor then appoints new people. Maybe that is the power Governor Wike wants to retain.

How many state assemblies have yet to take any action on the bill?

Lagos is the only state that has yet to do so. In fact, Lagos Assembly has not done anything on all the bills forwarded to it by the National Assembly as regards constitutional amendment.

Is there any governor that is openly supporting local government autonomy?

Many of them actually support it. The Benue State governor has been openly supporting us. When we visited him, he told us that he didn’t support local government autonomy but he was convinced that the people of Benue wanted it and Nigerians at large also supported it and because democracy is about what the people want, he would allow the Benue State Assembly to perform its duties without any interference and that was why Benue State was the first to vote in favour of local government autonomy. We were also in Cross River, where the governor told us he was in support of the bill and the state assembly has also voted in favour of the bill. In Imo State, Governor Rochas Okorocha seemed to be in support but what he was saying was differed from what he delivered because as the chairman of the APC Governors Forum, he was the most visited governor by the leadership of NULGE. We believed that if we engaged him, he would be able to influence his colleagues in the forum and he promised us that he would fight our cause but unfortunately, he didn’t even allow the Imo State Assembly to organise a public hearing on the matter. According to several media reports, the state assembly members took the decision against their will because of the fear of the unknown. So, they bowed to Governor Okorocha.

You seem very optimistic that autonomy for local government will change Nigeria but won’t it be undermined by the fact that state electoral bodies conduct local government elections and governors always ensure that their parties win 100 per cent?

This is one of the key issues that make NULGE and other stakeholders come out to champion the agitation for a free local government system. If you look at our position from day one, we have been canvassing three elements: democratic autonomy and abolition of state independent electoral commissions so that INEC can handle the elections; second is the financial autonomy which will involve the scrapping of the state and local government joint accounts; and then, the administrative autonomy which involves recognising the Local Government Service Commission as a body that will be responsible for all establishment matters that concern local government. We have the Federal Civil Service and state civil service commission recognised in the constitution but when it comes to the local government, the reverse is the case and that is why we have many challenges in the management of the staff of local government across the country. It is so porous that any governor can conduct random employment exercises for local governments to the extent that many local governments cannot pay salaries. We believe if these three demands could be met, the local government would be more effective and serve its purpose.

Should states have powers to create local governments the way Lagos did?

That would be disastrous because it would create confusion. In some countries, states are sustaining the central government. But in Nigeria, every tier of government gets a substantial part of its revenue from the Federal Government. That makes Nigeria a different country. Local governments also get a substantial amount of their revenue from the Federal Government. So, the moment states have the power to create local governments, it could be implied that local governments would have to depend on states for financing and not the Federal Government. We believe that any call for such is the selfish agenda of some governors, particularly some APC governors who came up with the recommendations during the restructuring conference headed by Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State. I believe that recommendation is against the opinion of Nigerians. If you recall, the 7th National Assembly organised a public hearing in all the 360 federal constituencies and 347 came out with genuine resolutions that they wanted local government autonomy. So, where did el-Rufai get his own recommendation from? We were at the town hall meeting organised by the APC and our representatives were at all the venues and there was never a time where it was agreed upon that local governments should not be given autonomy. So, we believe it is the position of the APC as a party.

Should state police be approved?

Let me tell you, the way we are today, without engaging all Nigerians in debating critical issues, we may end up creating more problems for the country. Even though governors have no control over the police, the way things are at the moment are not encouraging. Recently, we had issues with the Kaduna State Government. When we, along with the Nigeria Labour Congress, organised civil protests, you should have seen the number of policemen mobilised by el-Rufai to stop the NLC from exercising its constitutional right. You should have seen the number of armoured vehicles mobilised to stop NLC from holding that rally. Recently too, just because he had a disagreement with a serving senator, he decided to demolish his house. This is happening when el-Rufai and his colleagues don’t have control over the police. By the time you give governors power over the police and control of arms, Nigerians will become slaves in their country. Even now, I am not sure all my constitutional rights are guaranteed or I am under the colonial rule of these governors. So, what we are facing today is colonialism being perpetrated by the governors. If you look at Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution, it is clearly stated that local government chairmen must be democratically elected. How many state governments ever conducted local government elections? Even el-Rufai, with all his assumed exposure, has failed to organise local government election because of his selfish agenda. He has been in charge of the state for nearly three years without organising local government election. Will he conduct the election when he is about to leave office? Well, that is what some of them are doing.

How many states have conducted local government elections since 2015?

I don’t have the figure at the moment but the truth is that even the ones that organised elections were the elections credible?

Do you believe there was underage voting in the Kano LG election?

It is not about what I think. It is an open secret. It was all over social media and pictures and videos were published in the media and that has always been the case. Recently, Delta State organised a local government election but what happened there? It was also the same in Lagos State where one party won everything. Election remains a critical aspect of democracy and the moment it is undermined, we are back to military rule.

Did local governments benefit from the Paris Club refund which was approved by the Federal Government?

The issue is that the process was not transparent. Nigerians were not given even information. As a union, we wrote many letters to the ministers of finance and labour as well as the leadership of the NLC to intervene because at some point, we had no clue as to how the money was disbursed and spent. When the first, second and third tranches were released, there were no details regarding how much of the money was meant for local governments and because of that, it was like the Federal Government had given open cheques to state governments to do whatever they wanted with the monies. I believe if the Federal Government is serious about the war against corruption, a mechanism should be out in place to check how each state government utilised the refunds. It is disheartening that the Federal Government’s intervention fund for payment of salaries was not properly utilised because our members are still owed salaries.

How many states currently owe salaries?

Many states owe salaries. In Kogi, Osun, Delta, Bayelsa, Benue and many more owe salaries.

Which state is the worst as regards non-payment of salaries?

Kogi State is the worst.

Have you visited Kogi State over the issue?

We were there under the auspices of the NLC. We held rallies and tried to engage the government but most of these governors are very insensitive. That is the truth. And in a democratic government, it is disastrous for a leader to be insensitive. Sometimes, these governors can be very arrogant without looking at the opinion of others. We believe that most of the governors don’t know the meaning of governance. They don’t see themselves as leaders but are merely opportunists.

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