Do States Deserve More Powers?


Monday Discourse

States want the federal government to devolve more powers to them. But the fear that states may become more tyrannical if given more control is real. Tobi Soniyi, Segun James and Shola Oyeyipo examine the arguments for and against power devolution to the states

Some have argued that Nigeria is not working because there are too much powers at the centre. The states can do more if given more powers, the argument goes.

In October, seventeen governors from the southern part of Nigeria met in Lagos to discuss issues of common interest. At the end of their meeting, the governors among others demanded true federalism (whatever that means). They also asked for devolution of powers.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Lagos State governor Akinwunmi Ambode does not miss the chance to demand for powers to be devolved to states. Citing the experience of Lagos, he believes that if states are given more powers, they will undertake more developmental projects.

Speaking at the Fourth Quarter, 2017 Town Hall Meeting, the 9th in the series, held in Kosofe Local Government, Ambode reiterated his support for devolution of powers.
Echoing his godfather, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the governor said he agreed with Tinubu on the need to restructure Nigeria

The governor, while responding to a question raised by a resident on calls for true federalism said, “I support true federalism; I support all the issues raised by Asiwaju; we are on the same page. That is the page of APC; that is where we are and that is what we are committed to. Like I have always said, we need to deal with issues that relate to devolution of powers.

“Like somebody said, if I have more resources, all these items that you are coming to raise here, once you raise it, I will just say done. I need more money. So, why should somebody be saying they are the ones in charge of inland waterways when the waterways is transporting my own people and my own services and when there is a law about it”.

While declaring the 57th Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association open in Lagos, Ambode urged legal practitioners to support the demand for devolution of power.
Other groups including the Southern Leaders’ Forum, Southern Leaders of Thought have also been making the case for a true federalism and devolution of powers.

Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar has also lent his voice to the argument in support of devolution of powers. Similarly, renowned constitutional lawyer, author and leader of the Igbo Leaders of Thoughts, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, SAN has also been a leading voice in the case for restructuring.

The Argument Against
Those from the north tend to prefer the status quo to remain. While the states in the south are unanimous in their demand for restructuring, there is no such unanimity in the north.

While Kano, Katsina, Nasarawa and Jigawa States have expressed support for a strong and united nation, they rejected the growing clamour for the restructuring of the country.

Kano, Katsina and Nasarawa also rejected demands for the devolution of power.
Benue and Plateau States, on the other hand, differed completely, saying restructuring was the way to go, as it would address all the current agitation from all sides.

Jigawa, Kano and Katsina made their positions known at the All Progressives Congress (APC) zonal forum on true federalism held in Kano, while Benue, Plateau and Nasarawa voiced their opinions at the same meeting held in Jos for the North-central zone.

A former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is also opposed to devolution of powers to states. He also disagreed with those clamouring for restructuring and devolution of powers.
According to him, the state governors have enough powers already to do whatever they want.
In an interview he granted African Arguments, the former president said, “I don’t believe in true federalism. What is true federalism?

“Why are they not accountable? What powers do they not have? “They have power.”
Obasanjo said that in reality states had powers to do what they like. He noted that in all but a few sectors, states could do whatever they wanted.
“In fact, state governors are more powerful than the president. That’s the truth,” he said. “If anybody tells you they want devolution or true federalism, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

The Present Arrangement
The 1999 Constitution as amended aimed at establishing a federal structure for the country through the concept of federalism by diving powers between the federal government and the state/local governments with each enjoying a degree of autonomy.
The constitution supposedly establishes a three tiers of government: federal, states and local government areas. It distributes powers among these tiers of government.

Obviously, the constitution gives too much powers to the federal government. Several reasons were responsible for this. First, the drafting of the constitution was supervised by the military. The military operated a centralised system of government. Secondly, concentrating more powers at the centre was a deliberate act. It was meant to prevent secession. With the Nigerian civil war in mind, the drafters of the constitution would not want to toy with the idea of giving too much powers to the state.
But giving more powers to the federal government has its drawbacks. States will have to depend on the federal for much of their needs.

Section 4 of the 1999 Constitution provides for the legislative powers of the federal government and state governments which are vested in the National Assembly (federal) and House of Assembly (state).
Both the states and the federal government are required to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the states and the federation.

The National Assembly can make law with respect to matters included in the exclusive legislative list while states’ houses of assembly cannot legislate on such matters. The list can be found in Part 1 of the Second Schedule of the Constitution. There are 68 of such matters.

Both the states’ house of assembly and the National Assembly can legislate on matters set out in the concurrent legislative lists but any law enacted by the House of Assembly (on a matter set out on the concurrent legislative list) if inconsistent with any valid laws of the National Assembly will become inoperative and void to the extent of the inconsistency. The concurrent list can be found in Part 2 of the Second Schedule to the Constitution. There are 30 items in that list.
However, section 7 of the constitution empowers the states’ houses of assembly to legislate on any other matter not included in the exclusive legislative list.

Unfair Arrangement
Critics have rightly pointed out that the arrangement above was unfair. First, the constitution grants exclusive powers to the federal government over 68 items. It then confer powers to legislate on the concurrent list on both the states and the federal governments and gives the federal government power to cover the field. Many have therefore called for a complete overhaul. States want some of the items in the exclusive legislative list removed from there and given to them.They want a less powerful federal government and a stronger state government.

As stated above, by allocating more powers to the federal government, those who drafted the constitution wanted stability. Having gone through a civil war, no one could argue that the idea of making the federal government stronger was not justified in the circumstances. Even in the United States of America, the states are not stronger that the centre.

The Paradox
Paradoxes abound in Nigeria. It is said that for every hypothesis, the opposite is also true. That is why when the Nigerian Governors Forum asked for the devolution of powers from the federal level to the states, the forum was silent on the need to devolve some powers from the states to the local government level, the tier of government nearest to the people.

States want more power, but they are busy dis-empowering local government areas. Tinubu, cited by Ambode angered a lot of people in Lagos after he took way from the local government areas in Lagos some of the items through which they used to generate revenues.

Crippling local government areas is not restricted to any political party. Whichever political party ruling a state ensures that it wins election into all the council seats at all costs. Whereas, the federal government allows the people of a state to choose which political party to vote for, states do not extend same right to their people to choose which parties govern them at the grassroots. For instance,last month, the All Progressive Grand Alliance won the Anambra State governorship election.

From Lagos to Enugu, Kwara and Akwa Ibom states, the political parties in power won virtually all the chairmanship seats in the states. The states’ independent electoral commissions exist only in name.
States don’t want local government to flourish but yet want the federal government to give them more powers. What an irony? Today, many local government areas across the country can not pay their workers’ salaries because greedy states have taken from them all their sources of revenues.

One of the arguments by states in support of their clamour for devolution powers is that the federation derives its strength from its constituents. The same argument also holds true for local governments. States derive their strength from local government areas.

Apart from suffocating the councils, states don’t even allow democracy to flourish at their level. They have turned their respective houses of assembly to an extension of the governors’ offices. Any speaker of a state house of assembly who refuses to play game with the state governor will be removed at will. While the National Assembly has fared better in checking the excess of the executive at the national level, state houses of assembly don’t enjoy such audacity.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, in 2011 sent a private bill to the National Assembly advocating power devolution. However, critics of the bill have rightly observed that his bill did not adequately look at the relationship between the states and the local government on the one hand and the state with the local government councils and the community on the other hand.

Although Agbakoba may be correct that devolution of power will not mean disintegration of Nigeria, but how will the governors use these powers? Will it lead to rapid development and will the people fill the impact of government more closely? These are the questions.

A Condition for Devolution of Powers
May be states deserve more powers. Including powers to have their own police. However, Nigerians must insist that for states to have more powers, they must be ready to relinquish their grip on councils. If the National Assembly agrees to consider devolution of powers to states, it must free local government areas from the states. If the states are not ready to relinquish their hold on local government areas, then thy do not deserve more powers. Period.

Learned author of several books on the constitution and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Sebastine Hon spoke the minds of many Nigerians when he said: “I am fully in support of devolution, which does not mean the central government merely shedding its weight in favour of the states.

“Rather, since the centre is too strong and is, therefore, susceptible to abuse, there should be devolution of powers to the states, while the local governments should also enjoy total autonomy. In that situation, the powers of the state governors will be considerably whittled down. Let me add that the joint states and local government accounts are responsible, in the main, for the enormous powers exercised by state governors. Once this issue is addressed, you will see a great improvement, for our collective good.”

What Role for the National Assembly
Fortunately, for the country, the National Assembly understands the problem at the local government level and it is determined to change this through amendment to the constitution. For instance, in during the ongoing constitutional amendment, the Senate approved several alterations, including proposals to grant autonomy to local governments through the abrogation of joint state/local government accounts, and proposals to deny recognition including funding for un-elected local government administrators. Similarly, the House of Representatives agreed with the Senate and voted in support making local government councils autonomous. Both chambers also supported autonomy for state legislature.

Commendable as this is, the likelihood is that states will mobilise the enormous resources at their disposal to ensure that their houses of assembly do not pass the amendments to make local government independent. Moreso, when both chambers of the National Assembly had chosen to reject amendment that would ensure that powers are devolved to the states.

On this, THISDAY Politics disagrees with the National Assembly and will prefer the lawmakers to give the states more powers. However, this should be done on the condition that the states agree to free the local government areas from their dominance. That is horse trading. Perhaps, many states will prefer to jettison devolution of powers to enable them to continue to dominate local governments. In which case neither devolution of powers nor local government autonomy will happen. But if they choose to let councils go, then states can take more powers. The National Assembly should be under no illusion that states will allow local governments to go for free. It simply won’t happen.

How to Go About it.
When President Muhammadu Buhari suggested that the issues of restructuring would be better handled by the National Assembly and the Council of States many felt that he did not go far enough and should have allowed a constitutional conference to discuss the issues.
Upon his return to Nigeria after spending months in London for treatment of an undisclosed ailment, the president met a very charged nation. He attempted to calm the people down through a broadcast he made even before he had written to the National Assembly to inform the lawmakers that he was back and had resumed duties as president.

In the much criticised broadcast, the president said:
“Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable. We shall not allow irresponsible elements to start trouble and when things get bad they run away and saddle others with the responsibility of bringing back order, if necessary with their blood.

“Every Nigerian has the right to live and pursue his business anywhere in Nigeria without let or hindrance. I believe the very vast majority of Nigerians share this view.
“This is not to deny that there are legitimate concerns. Every group has a grievance. But the beauty and attraction of a federation is that it allows different groups to air their grievances and work out a mode of co-existence.

“The National Assembly and the National Council of State are the legitimate and appropriate bodies for national discourse. The national consensus is that, it is better to live together than to live apart.”
Less than six months after, Nnamdi Kanu, who then was leading the rebellious Indigenous Peoples of Biafra has disappeared, probably gone abroad as the president had predicted.

Perhaps, another suggestion by the president may also come true: the National Assembly offers the best and most realistic chance to get powers devolved to states. It is therefore wrong to contend that devolution of powers can not happen under the constitution.

Writing in the Nigerian Eye, Victor Agboga said: “A common and erroneous view is that under the 1999 constitution, devolution of powers in not achievable.
“It must be sounded loud and clear that no provision or section of the 1999 Constitution precludes, prevents or forbids the National Assembly from making constitutional Acts devolving powers to the Houses of Assembly on a matter listed in the exclusive legislative list.

“What the 1999 Constitution did is to grant powers to National Assembly to make laws on matters listed in the exclusive legislative list.”
According to him, the 1999 Constitution does not expressly or impliedly bar the National Assembly from making laws that will devolve powers.

He stated further that the National Assembly could in accordance with Section 4(3) enact Acts that will grant states powers to establish state prisons, allow states to record finger prints, save criminal records and establish railway authorities among others things.
He said: “The implication of Section 4(3) of the 1999 Constitution is that the National Assembly can enact not only substantive laws on matters in the exclusive legislative list but also regulatory and power conferring laws for states via legislation (devolution).”

He argued that this arrangement was a better alternative to having the constitution directly devolving most powers to the states, adding: “a future amendment of such constitution will be rigid and almost impossible but with powers residing in the National Assembly a simple Act of Parliament can grant and withdraw powers to and from the states when necessary.”
Perhaps, had all the energy and resources deployed in the agitation for restructuring and devolution of powers targeted at the National Assembly, may be some of the expectations of the restructuring advocates will be closed to being met by now.

Calling for another conference where all will gather and agree on a document that no one will implement is a sheer waste of time and resources. Besides, it is a booby trap that successive government set for the elites. Interestingly, the elites had always fallen for it.
We can be a realist for once. We can not agree more with Agboga when he said: “Due to the foregoing, Nigerians calling for structural change should have a re-think and use the mechanism in place (provisions of the 1999 Constitution) to achieve their aim.

“The potential of the 1999 Constitution have not been fully explored at all. The best means of achieving decentralization and devolution is to elect enlightened and visionary parliamentarians, future candidates must be ready to undertake that he/she will pursue devolution by sponsoring radical and extensive bills that will go a long way in changing the structure of governments and their institutions.
“The key to achieving devolution is hidden in the National Assembly, Nigerians must push this institution to come up with Acts that will allow the federal to surrender powers to the states.”

States want more power, but they are busy dis-empowering local government areas.

The key to achieving devolution is hidden in the National Assembly, Nigerians must push this institution to come up with Acts that will allow the federal to surrender powers to the states

May be states deserve more powers. Including powers to have their own police. However, Nigerians must insist that for states to have more powers, they must be ready to relinquish their grip on councils