Governor Rotimi Amaechi
Tobi Soniyi, Onwuka Nzeshi and Dele Ogbodo
The Senate yesterday reacted to the statement credited to the Rivers State Governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, who is also the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), that the forum would oppose in its entirety the call for local government autonomy in the ongoing constitution review process.
The upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly added that the statement was the personal opinion of the state governors and not binding on the Nigerian people.
This came as the chances of the 774 local government councils gaining financial and administrative autonomy further waned yesterday as the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila endorsed the position of the Nigeria Governors Forum that autonomy for the councils was unnecessary and should not be granted.
The National Assembly had in its quest to review the 1999 Constitution listed autonomy for the local governments as one of the cardinal issues.
Speaking to THISDAY yesterday, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Eyinanya Abaribe, said though the governors are entitled to their personal opinions, it is the public opinion expressed through the various State Houses of Assemblies and the National Assembly that would determine the autonomy of local government administration.
He said: “If at the end of the day, the bill on the autonomy for local government administration passes through the two chambers of the National Assembly, there will be no problem as we will just follow the constitution, and if it doesn’t work, then it is not our fault as we now know who does not want democracy to work at that level.”
He said what was certain was that the National Assembly would seek the opinion of the public on the issue. “We also assume also that the governors are also part of what their constituents in the various states want and not their private feelings that really matter.” he said.
Also speaking to THISDAY on the matter, the Chairman Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Senator Ita Enang, said: “My own take is that the governors are stakeholders, and if the governors say the local government cannot be, the legislators will have their opinion, but it is when the National Assembly passes the bill that the state Houses of Assembly will come. Some may pass, some may not pass, some may have the same opinion with their governors, but we will not stop doing our job.”
Asked whether Amaechi’s comment would not jeopardise the ongoing constitution review process, he said: “The National Assembly will sample opinions and ask everybody what they want done and the governors forum are also part of those stakeholders and have the right to their own opinion.
However, Gbajabiamila in a chat with THISDAY yesterday, said the position of the Governors’ Forum was a reflection of the position of those who believe in true federalism.
He explained that all over the world, federal structures are built on two tiers namely the federal and state and not three as erroneously believed by some Nigerians.
“The states are the federating units not local governments. local governments are administrative units that should enjoy some degree of independence. There is a subtle difference between independence and autonomy and this is not mere semantics.
“You can be independent and not autonomous, in other words you don’t exist by yourself and for yourself and you can be autonomous and not independent. Now if you say we need to develop our own home grown interpretation of federalism because of local nuances and peculiarities that’s a different thing but bear in mind it will create a lot of potential conflict with several masters running one boat and will not be in keeping with international best practices.
“We need to understand and get it clear that Nigeria like all other federal entities is not a three- tiered structure but a two- tiered one. We need to find other ways to reign in governors that short change local governments without bastardising the principles and ideals of federalism,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Prof Epiphany Azinge (SAN), yesterday accused state governors of undermining the autonomy of the local government councils.
Azinge, who spoke at a briefing to announce the institute’s activities for 2013, said states had not allowed local government to flourish.
He said: “The autonomy of local governments is so important that we cannot compromise in this country as state governors have been strangulating them for a long time thus making them the least performing tier of government.
“The issue of autonomy for local governments in the country is one that the National Assembly should take seriously and ensure that it is part of the amendment to make for an accelerated development of the country.
“The governors have for quite some time stopped these local governments which we know is close to the grassroots from performing.”
He explained that the Institute had been engaged by the Yobe State Government to review the state’s laws.
“We signed an agreement with the Government of Yobe State to review the laws of the state,” he said, adding that the exercise would be concluded within nine months.
“I have no doubt that we have the wherewithal to undertake the project – it is an opportunity for other states to invite us to review their laws, we want the public to know that you don’t have to travel outside the shores of the country to get the necessary expertise to review laws.
“We have the capacity to do this even at the federal level.”
Azinge added that the Institute would soon release its ranking of the law faculties of the various universities in the country.
The ranking, he said,
was based on several factors, including the quality of libraries and staff strength, among others.
Azinge also spoke on the need to use the traditional method of dispute resolution to settle most of the cases that come to the courts.
Speaking of the Institute’s plans for the reform of the justice administration system, he said, “We want it to be restructured in such a way that issues that are handled by the traditional rulers going straight to the Customary Courts of Appeal and not customary courts, over and above we have to come to terms that most of the cases in this country are resolved traditionally, it is an attempt for us to underscore the fact that it has always been there with us.
“We want to encourage people to adopt that and reduce the pressure on the courts.”
He also spoke of the Institute’s plans to propose a bill for the establishment of the National Association of Lobbyists.
“Lobbying is an indispensable aspect of the work of the US Congress, where there are people recongnised as lobbyists.
“We feel that as a leading light in the legal sector, it is our responsibility to champion this by proposing the bill.
“We will not be lobbyists on our own but we intend to propose the bill.”