It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the people and government of Lagos State, to welcome you my dear colleagues to this very important meeting of the Southern Governors Forum (SGF). We will recall that the maiden gathering of this forum was held in 2001 at the Akodo Beach Resort, Ibeju Lekki, here in Lagos.
The initiative to set up the SGF was received with mixed feelings at the time. There were those who read partisan political moves into the idea. Others saw it as essentially sectional and potentially divisive while some dismissed the SGF as another superfluous talk shop of doubtful utility.
However, the convener of the inaugural edition of the forum and my illustrious predecessor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, gave a robust articulation of the necessity for the forum in his address to participants, which remains relevant and pertinent even today. On that occasion he said, â€œWe are of course aware that our northern brothers have met regularly and publicly articulated common positions of interest in the polity. While some have condemned such meetings, I believe very strongly that such fora should indeed be actively encouraged and supported. Our democracy and federal system can only be strengthened when various groups and component parts of the country are free to discuss and pursue their perceived common aspirations within the framework of the law.
There are unquestionably issues of common interest to us as governors of states in the southern region of Nigeria. This does not mean that there are no matters which the South-West, the South-East, or the South-South, respectively, may feel constrained to pursue separately at other foraâ€.
From its modest beginning in 2001, the SGF held at least nine meetings over the following four years with the last one taking place again in Lagos on Friday, 25th February, 2005. During this period, the forum became a significant voice on matters of critical import both to the south and to Nigeria as a whole.
Perhaps, we need to quickly remind ourselves some of the landmark achievements obtained through the pressure exerted by this forum in the past. The first was its collective advocacy for the special allocation to oil producing states in the federation account which resulted in the current formula of 13% accruing for Derivation in allocating revenues from the Federation Account.
Another major victory won towards strengthening the countryâ€™s practice of true federalism was the declaration by the Supreme Court in 2002 that the then prevalent practice of the federal government deducting monies from the Federation Account as a first line charge for the funding of Joint Venture Contracts, NNPC priority projects, servicing of Federal Governmentâ€™s external debt, the judiciary and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and other federal obligations were illegal and unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court in that case abolished the special funds created by the Federal Government to enable it draw funds from the Federation Account to pay for matters that fell within its exclusive responsibility before sharing whatever was left with the states and local governments.
Despite these successes, there is still a lot to be done. There is certainly a lot to be done about true federalism; an issue that requires urgent, meticulous and proactive attention by this forum.
No less disturbing is the failure to undertake the periodic review of the revenue allocation formula as provided for by the constitution to reflect evolving realities. This is another critical matter that ought to engage this forum in order to enhance the viability of the states and local governments as well as their capacity to fulfill their developmental roles in the polity. All too often, states are disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of hand-outs from the federal government.
This is a function of our present national constitution that burdens the federal government with activities and responsibilities that rightly fall within the province of the states. The productivity and revenue-generating capacities of most of the states are thus stifled thus turning them into no better than street beggar states incapable of even meeting routine obligations of paying workersâ€™ salaries and pensions without federal support.
Lagos State has fought and won several legal battles since 1999 that has systematically strengthened her autonomy and enhanced her fiscal viability. Over the years, the state has won legal control over the management of its environment, control of urban and physical planning, regulation of overhead masts, registration and regulation of hotels and restaurants and control of her inland waterways. And these victories do not belong to Lagos alone, but to all other states in the federation and which they must explore significantly.
I believe that If Lagos has been able to achieve so much fighting singly, the SGF can accomplish much more by thinking, planning, strategizing and acting together.
This resuscitation of the SGF is coming at a most appropriate time. As we are aware, the Senate and House of Representatives are currently harmonizing their differences on the proposed amendments to the 1999 constitution before they are transmitted to the state Houses of Assembly for approval. It is important for this forum to comprehensively look at the proposed amendments with a view to working with our respective Houses of Assembly to ensure a coordinated response on our part that will strengthen the practice of democracy, federalism, constitutionalism and the rule of law.
In our deliberations, particularly on the pressing need for greater devolution of powers, responsibilities and resources from the centre to the states, our preoccupation must not be with having a weak centre and strong states or vice versa. Rather, in the words of the Indian politician and statesman, Bhupesh Gupta, on the floor of the Indian parliament on May 9th, 1969, â€œTherefore, we want a centre which will function on the basis of democratic principles and safeguard the unity and integrity of the nation as a whole; whereas at the same time we must have the states enjoying a wide range of powers, economic, political and otherwise, in order that out of this arrangement there develops a symphony of centre-state relations to the common good of the people of the country. There is no contradiction between having a democratic and viable centre and having at the same time, strong, democratic statesâ€.
On this note, I welcome you all to Lagos once again, in the confidence that our deliberations will be productive and in the best interest of our states and Nigeria.
â€“â€“Being the welcome address by Lagos State Governor Akinwumi Ambode at the meeting of the Southern Governorsâ€™ Forum last week