Opinion

LG autonomy: Between rhetoric and realism

The last few days have brought up different issues to the front burner of national discourse. We have had the very exciting news of the restoration of the health of our president. Muhammad Buhari, being offshore for a couple of weeks and understandably  absent from any form of public appearance, has now been holding meetings with various shades of our leaders. With the pictures that have accompanied the meetings, for now the President’s virulent critics have been made to put their mouths in a permanent state of shut up, as the saying goes.
My prayers, and I think that of many other Nigerians, is that our president returns to Nigeria hale and hearty. President Buhari simply remains seemingly the last hope for sanity in the land. Like other mortals, our president may not be faultless, but he has demonstrated sufficient commitment and passion  to restoring our collective integrity, especially in the comity of nations. He may not have the requisite economic credentials as some allege, but he surely possesses the required wherewithal to fight economic saboteurs. May God grant our president long life to substantially deal with the maladies of our nation.
And we have also had the commendable move of the National Assembly on constitution amendment in which the Senate reviewed and considered 33 bills. A major landmark of the amendment was its transparency. For the first time in Nigeria’s legislative experience, the country moved away from the presumebly manipulative ‘Nays and the Ayes’ system to a scientific and transparent electronic system. With  this amendment the National Assembly has proved to be dependable, reliable and progressive.
Now, back to the heart and soul of today’s intervention; the Paris Loan Refund. This is another issue that, expectedly, has dominated the nation’s public discourse penultimate week and which, in many states, has almost created bad blood between labour and government. The Paris loan issue and the vote by the national assembly to give autonomy to local government are intertwined.
The amendments as encapsulated in Bill numbers 5 and 6 seek to abrogate the State Joint Local Government Accounts and empower each Local Government Council to maintain its own special account into which all allocations due to the Local Government Council shall be directly paid from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State and also make provisions for savings in the Federation Account before distribution to other levels of Government and at strengthening local government administration in Nigeria by guaranteeing the democratic existence, funding, and tenure of local government councils.
These are, no doubt, highly commendable as they seek to put the destinies of local governments squarely on the shoulders of their administrators. But my concern here is more on the ability of most  local governments in the country to shoulder the enormous task of its first line charge bearing in mind that in most states where there have been serious agitations on how the Paris club refund would be utilised, the major agitation has come from local government workers who have been owed several months in salary arrears.
One must necessarily pity the workers affected by this salary issue; it is not fun to work for a government or any system for that matter, putting up your diligent best in many instances only for the employer to renege or unable on an agreement to pay for your services, especially in an extended family system like ours. Thus, one would hardly hesitate to back the agitated workers when they demanded that a major portion of the loan refund should be spent on resolving their salary issues as no logic can assuage a starved stomach.
But we are in unusual times. We are passing through truly troubled times and thus we must expect unusual developments.  There is no better way to navigate the troubled waters of these times than for all of us to ensure that we do not rock the boat lest it capsizes. The naked truth is that resources are so stretched today that it takes ingenuity for any government to sustain basic activities and still pay salaries. And the situation has been worsened by the lopsided constitutional arrangement that burdens local governments with paying salaries of teachers at the basic levels of the educational system without giving them enough resources to meet the resultant obligation.
The development has put most state governments in difficult positions; giving the wrong impression that executive governors are insensitive to the plight of workers at the third tier of government when in reality it is the technicalities of the relationship between the state and the councils that have brought the anomaly into existence. The imperative of enduring legacies has also constrained a few governors. It is perhaps this wrong impression that made all the strata of local government workers to support the call for autonomy of local governments in the country with the expectation that it will, as the argument goes, free councils from the stranglehold of governors.
If the bill eventually becomes law and local government administration is fully granted the supposed autonomy, will the councils be able to pay their workers, especially the primary school teachers? How many of the councils are solvent enough to meet developmentals needs of their juridictions? Will the burden not still revert to state governments whose constituencies are the entire local governments areas in the states?
The granting of that autonomy by the national assembly might yet be  an icing on the cake, but not the end of the agitation to finding a lasting solution to the challenges that have made most local government areas apparently impotent platforms for development.
Kwara state governor, Dr Abdulfatah Ahmed has consistently advocated a constitutional amendment that will make the payment of teachers salaries at the primary and secondary levels the responsibility of states or federal governments. And I think beyond that, local governments and states boundaries should be redelineated in such a manner to ensure financial independent and autonomy.
But now that the amendment of the constitution has granted financial autonomy to the local government administration, the onus lies on the third tier of government to look inward for real financial independence as the Paris club refund is not infinitude. Will the local government councils adjust? Only time will tell.
But in the meantime, as I observed earlier, we all need to appreciate the challenges of the times we are in and work with government to achieve some levels of development with the available meagre resources. We cannot also neglect to pay workers, otherwise it will bred dispute and industrial crises. Which explains why we need to strike an effective balance between the two sides for the betterment of our state.
And like my colleague, Dr Muideen Akorede, once illustrated, ours is like an on going construction of a family house with a leaking roof. The family needs to pay health, education and social bills in addition to fixing the leaking roof. Akorede suggested, and I agree absolutely with him, that a wise and compassionate head with limited resources will fix part of the roof for the comfort of the family and pay parts of the remaining bills for security and integrity of the family.
God bless Nigeria.

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