Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Restructuring and enhanced subnational accountability mechanisms

The debate for restructuring Nigeria along the path of a weaker and leaner central government and more autonomous and stronger federating units has been ongoing for some time. Although there has been no consensus about the exact contours of the restructuring process, especially whether states have to remain as they are, or some states will be merged to become more self-sustaining entities, there is a virtual consensus for devolution of powers to the federating units. But the exact powers and duties to be devolved to these federating units are still a subject of controversy.


The restructuring argument has been posited as a magic or silver bullet that will cure Nigeria of most of its ailments. It has been stated to be the tonic that will release the energies and harness the potential of the various cultural, regional, social and geographic entities within the Nigerian federation.


The arguments in favour of restructuring have gained more vibrancy and urgency since it became a cornerstone of the campaign position of some presidential candidates. The older generation of Nigerians have a rather romantic remembrance of the days of the regions when regional autonomy ensured some level of resource control and every region developed at its pace, with the spirit of competition and a race to the top driving the regions. This discourse agrees with the need for a restructuring which will give greater autonomy to the federating units to harness their resources, build their infrastructure, provide education and health, etc. and pay taxes to the central government for the maintenance of common policy positions relating to such issues as defence, currency, external affairs etc.


However, it is imperative to warn that restructuring alone, not coupled with other reforms, is bound to fail and will give restructuring a bad name so that a clamour for centralisation will arise thereafter. Restructuring must go, inter alia, with other reforms especially around the areas of enhanced anti-corruption laws and policy implementation, transparency and accountability. The postulation is that if more resources and responsibilities are entrusted to state governments, with the current structure of an almighty governor, who is an emperor and who no one questions, with a subservient state House of Assembly whose principal officers are anointed by the governor, restructuring will provide the leeway for unbridled stealing of public resources, pauperisation of the masses and mass misery.


Governors account to no one but their conscience which is dead. They brook no opposition in their states and with the party line-up and hierarchy in their pockets, they determine who becomes senators, members of the legislature at the federal and state levels and chairmen and councilors at the local government level. Governors are extremely brazen in their misconduct. The best example is their manipulation of local government elections and local government funds. In each state, despite the clear provisions of Section 7 of the constitution calling for a system of democratically elected local governments, most governors appoint caretaker committees. They refuse to hold elections into local governments and when they agree to do so, it is usually towards the end of their tenure. Also, if they conduct local government election, the results are usually a scandal. Governors usually constitute a supine State Independent Electoral Commission that will always announce that the ruling party swept all the seats. In most of the states, it is a clean slate as they hardly concede any chairmanship position. They could be magnanimous to give the opposition a few councillors. For local government funds, governors using the state local government joint accounts simply steal most of the money. Despite billions of naira accruing to all local governments across Nigeria, hardly can any state government account for up to 50 per cent of the accruals and internally generated revenue since 1999.


Since 2015, the Federal Government has released several bailout packages and paid up previous monies due to the states. The Federal Government had specifically urged the states to use the funds to pay workers’ salaries and entitlements. However, most of the state governors simply pocket the funds and refuse to pay the poor workers. Criticising a governor in a state is seen as treason. Over the years, the Federal Government has been more tolerant of opposition compared to state governments. Again, the so-called progressive state governments have refused to provide information on their budgets especially the details of what they spend public resources on. They postulate that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the states and have taken the challenge up to the Supreme Court, asking the court to rule in their favour. Essentially, governors are proposing a right to manage public resources without a concomitant duty to account to taxpayers and the people through whom they derive all their purported powers and authority vide Section 14 of the Constitution.


It is within this context that any further powers, duties and resources made available to governors with this mindset will be like pouring water into a basket. It will be wasted as it will not lead to development. The poser arises; what accountability and transparency reforms should therefore accompany restructuring? The first is about internal democracy in political parties, which guarantees that no single individual commands the structure of the party in a bid to determine who becomes a candidate or otherwise. Party primaries should be by direct suffrage so that party members will be free to hold conscience-based positions that may conflict with the position of the governor. Requisite amendments to the Electoral Act can secure this. The second is that State Independent Electoral Commissions must be made independent indeed to avoid the manipulation of state level elections. The third is that state level Auditors-General need to be strengthened and made really independent to oversee state level expenditure and put the audit reports in the public domain. Strengthening should be through a review of the appointment procedure to take it away from politics, secured tenure, funding from the first line charge and an Audit Service Commission to attend to recruitment, discipline and general policy matters. The second and third can be secured by requisite constitutional amendments.


The fourth is about budgetary reforms which guarantee that budget formulation, approval, implementation, monitoring and evaluation should no longer be done secretly. Certain components of education and health should become fundamental rights with a caveat that provisions must be made for them before other budgetary expenditure. All the information about the foregoing budget issues should be available to the public through relevant portals and the Freedom of Information Act should be applicable to every state. The fifth is that certain definite misconduct, not subject to the discretion of the legislature, must now automatically trigger the removal of a governor from office. For instance, any governor who owes salaries and pensions over and above six months must be made to vacate office. Legislation and policy can secure the last two issues.


The above list is not an exhaustive list of the kind of laws, policies and action that can improve accountability and transparency at the state level. It is a list designed to kick-start a debate about subnational accountability within the context of restructuring.



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