By Omeiza Ajayi

The President Muhammadu Buhari  administration, last week, announced plans to begin direct allocation to local governments from June 1 to stop state governors from hijacking those funds through their Joint Account Allocation Committees. In this interview, elder statesman and former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah described the Federal Government’s move as unconstitutional, saying it is an attempt to “right a wrong with another wrong.”

I thought he was still a gentleman

While he conceded that most state governments have behaved less than honourably in administering the finances of local governments, Attah who has been a consistent advocate of true federalism, said the federal government has no right to deal directly with the third tier of government. He canvasses true federalism as the only way out of Nigeria’s numerous challenges.

Obong Victor Attah

You have been a consistent advocate of true federalism, what is your take on the decision of the Federal Government to fund the local governments directly?

The issue is, for how long will we continue to operate a system that forces us to compound one evil on another? When you read this Vanguard headline ‘FG stops Govs from seizing LG allocations’, it sounds fantastic because what has been going on was solely evil. The governors would receive money and yet starve the local governments. They just treated them as if they did not exist; give the chairman small pocket money and let him go and keep quiet. It is completely and totally wrong because the local government is the closest to the people. It has obligations and responsibilities to the people and they were not being allowed to perform their functions in any way because their funds were being seized by the states.

But there is no where in the world where you have federalism that the federal government relates directly with the local governments. Local government administration is purely and entirely the function of the state governments and I am surprised because Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was the Governor (of Lagos) with the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo as the Attorney General when Obasanjo did that evil of seizing Lagos state local governments funds. I joined them in the fight because they had also joined me in the fight for resource control.

All these things are wrong and they all come down to the fact that we are not operating a proper federal system. So, for how long will we persist in this attitude of placing one wrong on another? Is it until the country explodes. Why don’t we just stop, put a halt to all these evil and have a rebirth, complete rebirth and a complete rethink of what Nigeria should be and how its federalism should be operated?

You were a state governor for eight years. How did you relate with the LGs?

When I was in government, it was clear to everybody that the local government in which the state capital is located carries the highest burden of primary school teachers and running of primary schools is the responsibility of local governments. If the federal government sits and sends money to my local government, that local government, Uyo will not have the funds even to pay half the primary school teachers in Uyo. While the others would be awash with money, Uyo will not even have the money to pay all. You can say up to 40 percent of the primary school teachers are concentrated in Uyo and the other schools are redistributed to the other 30 local governments.

This is just one aspect of the responsibility of a local government not to mention in developing rural roads and other things that local governments are supposed to do. So, we took a decision that we are educating Akwa Ibom children and so we cannot put the burden on Uyo local government only simply because the capital is located in Uyo, all the civil servants are in Uyo, businesses are in Uyo, so Uyo carries, by far, the largest number of primary schools.

What we did was to make salaries of primary school teachers, first charge. We must take money and pay every primary school before we redistribute it. But at least, we honestly distributed the money even though I hear there were complaints about what my Commissioner for Local Government then was doing and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, came and investigated, and till today I do not know what the result of the investigation is.

The allocation formula is there with all the other elements but the one factor that clearly was lopsided was the issue of primary school teachers. All the local governments participated in designing the formula. They participated fully in what we did.

It is so completely and totally wrong that in a federal system, the central government should have direct relationship with the local government. It should never happen. It is the state governments that should even create the local governments. It is the state governments that administer the local governments. The laws for local governments are made by the State Houses of Assembly. So, we just take this federal idea and go halfway with this and put another half….and we do not operate it properly as it ought to be. We really must change this system. We must agree and emphasize on a new arrangement that makes it possible for local governments to be what they are, have the correct relationship with the state governments and then we will have a federal system that works for all of us.

How about the N500, 000 ceiling on daily withdrawal for the LGs?

What I am telling you is, all those should be made by the state assembly. The laws that states make for their local governments should be respected. This shouldn’t be a federal government law.

How about states that have refused to conduct LG elections? Should they also benefit from this direct allocation?

It is illegal and it cannot happen in a proper federal system. There are laws made that there should be an election and the tenures are stated and you must obey. That is why I tell you, that when you apply this federalism halfway and stop, there will be issues. A governor that does that should be impeached.

But the Houses of assembly are like rubber stamps. Would you advocate financial autonomy to the Houses first before the LGs?

They should not be rubber stamps if they were properly elected by the people. What I would rather we have is true federalism. We had it before under the parliamentary system and the local governments were there under the regions and we didn’t have these complaints because we operated a proper federal system. When we turn something upside down, we don’t know how to turn it back right up, we just turn it halfway up and then we have hotch-potch of nonsense. Total nonsense and more nonsense will come out of more nonsense because we are not running a proper system. Let Nigerians stop trying to think that we continue to panel beat this system. Let us go for a proper federal system and bring back the parliamentary system that we had.

This is like a fire brigade approach to just stop those evil governors from seizing their local government funds but it is wrong. That is why I said we are compounding wrong on wrong, evil on evil and the only way to kill that is having a proper system, properly enunciated and properly run. This is trying to use wrong to right a wrong and it makes it very faulty. Don’t try to use wrong to replace another wrong.