Most LGs in South East financially autonomous- NULGE

President Buhari at the meeting with the South East Governors

The Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) says most local government councils in the South East have been granted financial autonomy in line with the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) directive.

NFIU had directed that federal allocations be paid directly to individual council’s account starting from June 1.

The NFIU had on May 6 issued ‘Guidelines to Reduce Vulnerabilities Created by Cash Withdrawals from Local Government Funds throughout Nigeria,’ which sought to stop governors from tampering with funds meant for local government areas.

The Nigeria Governors Forum is, however, challenging the NFIU directive as unconstitutional and had taken the matter to the court.

Mr Kenneth Ugwueze, the Enugu State President of the NULGE, said that the directive by the NFIU on financial autonomy for local government councils had been complied with in the state.

Ugwueze said that the implementation was seamless as local government councils in the state had some measures of financial autonomy prior to the NFIU pronouncement.

“Complying with the NFIU directive was not difficult to implement in the state because local government councils here have always been financially autonomous.

“Prior to the directive, each local government council used to receive what was due to it from the Joint State and Local Government Allocation Account (JAAC),” he said.

He said that during the JAAC regime, “local government councils got what was due to them after statutory deductions had been made.

“All the 17 local government councils were directed to open the three accounts as stipulated in the NFIU directive.

“As we speak, all of them have opened the project, salary and single revenue accounts and the move has paid off.

“The system is not new to us in Enugu State. So I can say that the NFIU directive is effective here,” Ugwueze said.

However, an Enugu-based Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Divine Era Development and Social Rights Initiative, said that there was nothing to justify the claim that local government councils in the state were financially autonomous.

The Executive Director of the organisation, Ms Ogechukwu Enwelum, said that the impact of the local government councils were not being felt to justify such claim.

“We had a recent programme and town hall meeting with local government chairmen through the representatives of Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) in the South East.

“The feelers we got are that they are autonomous in terms of financial control and management of funds.

“Our worry is that we do not see the imprints of such financial autonomy in grassroots development,” she said.

On the alleged complicity of local government chairmen to sabotage the NFIU directive, Enwelum appealed to them not to be willing tools in the hands of state governors.

In Ebonyi, the state NULGE President, Mr Leonard Nkah said that the state government had also complied with the directive.

Nkah said that compliance to the directive by the 13 local government councils in the state had helped to maintain prudence and discipline in handling of funds accruing to them.

He said that the June salary of Ebonyi local government workers was delayed due to the adjustments to the new financial regime.

He, however, said that funds accruing to the local councils also needed to be used for the development of the rural communities.

The NULGE president said that the aim for the agitation for fiscal autonomy for local government councils would be defeated if such funds were not utilised for human and infrastructure development.

“We are aware that allocations for the month have been lodged into separate accounts of the 13 local government areas in Ebonyi.

“This is an indication that state government has implemented it. We believe that more will be done in terms of granting full autonomy to the local government system, especially, political and administrative autonomy,” he said.

Nkah said that local government areas needed to be free and competitive to be able to offer expected human and infrastructural development to the grassroots.

He appealed to council chairmen not to abuse the autonomy and to make probity and accountability their watchwords.

In Imo, the Movement for Political Renaissance, an NGO described the sack of elected local government chairmen in the state as an aberration to the rule of law.

The leader of the group, Mr Raymond Odoemena, said that there was hardly any autonomy for local government councils in a system where major decisions on councils’ funding were taken at the Government House.

Odoemena said that it was insensitive and a slap on the electoral process for a state governor to tamper with duly conducted elections at the local government level.

“This undermines efforts at repositioning the local government system and challenges with impunity the incontestable rights of Nigerians to go to the polls,” Odoemena said.

Mr Jacob Dayo, a lawyer and social activist called on the National Assembly to enact laws that would restrict the powers of state governors in forcefully removing elected councils officials.

Dayo said that by the financial autonomy directive, more grassroots participation in politics and development is expected.

“What remained is full implementation and a conscious effort by our national legislators to enact laws which would limit the extent to which a governor can exercise his executive powers,” Dayo said.

In Abia, Mr Ijioma Onyenucheya, the immediate past state President of the NULGE, said the federal government’s policy on local government financial autonomy has the potential to address the handling of local government finances in the state.

Onyenucheya said that the full implementation of the NFIU policy would enable local governments to discharge their statutory responsibilities as enshrined in the constitution and execute meaningful projects.

He however, expressed worry that the NFIU guidelines were being partially implemented in Abia, saying that JAAC was still in existence.

Onyenucheya said that the current federal allocation to local government councils in the state was disbursed through JAAC and not directly to the respective councils’ bank accounts.

He said that full implementation of the NFIU guidelines would help to ensure that local governments received their allocations intact and directly from the Central Bank of Nigeria as and when due.

Onyenucheya said that direct disbursement of federal allocation to councils would guarantee the prompt payment of salaries to council workers, primary school teachers, leave allowances and other workers’ statutory entitlements.

An authoritative source in the local government system confirmed that Abia councils had complied with the NFIU guidelines to open salary, revenue and project accounts.

The source, which pleaded anonymity, however said that the state government only disbursed monies for April salary into the salary account and nothing for projects.

“The state government released only the money to pay the April salary from the local governments’ allocation paid by the Federation Allocation Accounts Committee (FAAC).”

The source said that the local governments’ share from FAAC was disbursed to the state toward the end of June for May salary.

“The local governments’ allocation from FAAC came by June ending for May but it took the state three weeks before it disbursed the money to the local governments’ salary accounts.

“Nothing has changed. We can only experience positive change when local government allocations are paid directly from FAAC to the councils’ separate accounts,” he said.

Mr Uche Nwosu, a political analyst in Umuahia, said that the financial autonomy to the local government councils would enhance true democratisation at the local level.

Nwosu said that the local government system had been reduced to paying workers salaries only, having lost the financial autonomy and power to execute any meaningful projects.

He alleged that many states of the federation, including Abia, allegedly tampered with local government funds from FAAC through JAC and often gave what was barely able to pay salaries.

Nwosu, who is a former media aide to former Gov. Theodore Orji, said that most governors administered the local governments by proxy, with the appointment of transition committee made up of their cronies.

He said that the use of transition committees to run local governments and the introduction of JAC had virtually destroyed the system in most states.

“Now that councils have been mandated to operate separate accounts, it is hoped that state governments would find it difficult to manipulate their finances.

“Every local government will now have to manage its own finances in line with the NFIU guidelines. They are now accountable to the Federal Government,” Nwosu said.

Mrs Lilian Ezenwa, the Executive Director of Public Enlightenment Projects, an NGO, advocated effective monitoring of the usage of local government funds to check misappropriation.

Ezenwa called for strong collaboration among civil society organisations that would lead to the formation of a monitoring team to watch the utilisation of funds released for grassroots development via the local government councils.

She however, feared that the federal government’s policy would be sabotaged by the governors as long as they continued to administer the local governments with transition committees rather than elected officers.

“Financial autonomy is already being implemented but there is this palpable fear that since the transition committee members were appointed, they would always be willing to do the governor’s bidding.”

Meanwhile, a top government official in the state said that although the local government’s allocation “dropped in the JAAC, it was immediately disbursed to the councils’ account for the salary of workers, primary school teachers and pensions.”

The official, who pleaded anonymity, said that the state government “did not touch the money”, adding that the state did not have interest in the local government funds.