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There is financial crisis rocking almost all the local government councils in Edo State. Council workers are weeping and protesting over unpaid salaries, contractors are complaining bitterly that they have not been paid for work done while the people in these council areas are perplexed over the pitiable state of affairs in their Local Government Areas. The Comrade Governor in an angry reaction has ordered salaries and other allowances of council office holders including security votes of the chairmen to stop until all outstanding salaries owed the workers are paid. This is certainly not the best of times for council officials or workers.
What is however the problem? Those who want to trace this crisis to the dwindling federal allocation are not being sincere as the crisis of unpaid salaries predates the problem of reduced allocation from the centre. If Edo State Government can still pay salaries to their workers regularly, the local government councils need to confess the real reasons behind their inability to discharge their statutory obligations. While the State Government is still paying some contractual obligations, projects at the local government level have virtually ceased. What has happened to their funds and why have things been allowed to degenerate to this absurd level? Does the ministry of local government still exist and do they monitor the income and expenditure of the councils apart from helping them to share the monthly allocation that is sent through a joint state and local government account.
The local government councils as the third tier of government have an important role to play in grassroot development and apart from paying salaries to workers and primary school teachers, have specified functions to perform like tarring and maintenance of side roads, construction and maintenance of markets, motor parks, cemeteries, abattoirs, primary schools, health centres, skill acquisition centres, etc. To be able to discharge these responsibilities, the 774 councils nationwide, are recognised in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and are given monthly allocations from the Federation account. They also have a statutory right to collect revenue in their council areas to complement the federal allocation.
When former president Olusegun Obasanjo stopped federal allocation to Lagos state over a disagreement about new local government councils, the old councils survived because of the revenue they generated internally. We are aware that the Federal government has not defaulted in remitting allocation to the states for distribution to the local governments and that is why the financial mess of the local councils in Edo state is puzzling. We can also not see any significant project that could have gulped the council resources to justify their present predicament. Some councils have tried to explain that their personnel costs especially the payment of teachers salaries is higher than their total revenue receipts hence their deficit financial positions. While it is true that a few councils suffer this burden, none of them have seriously addressed this problem by attempting to expand their revenue base. In the past, there were incentives from the state government for local councils with the highest internally generated revenue but today the only focus of council administrators is the federal allocation and how to share it. A lot of touts and political jobbers have forcefully taken over the revenue collection duties of the local governments leaving the councils totally impoverished. Council officials who have been courageous enough to confront this illegality have been warned by political chieftains to steer clear or risk suspension.
The state government in their own quest to increase internally generated revenue have also encroached and hijacked revenue areas meant for local governments leaving these councils even poorer. The state government is also by law expected to give a certain percentage of their internally generated revenue to all the local government councils. We understand that the state government has never complied and so we appeal to them to obey the law and pay the councils the arrears of these monies. It was nice to hear the governor declare that local government funds are not tampered with in Edo state but we wish to advise the governor for the sake of his integrity to add the caveat `to the best of his knowledge’. We say so in good faith because we are aware that the governor does not preside over the joint allocation meetings where council funds are shared and so he cannot be absolutely certain of what goes on there. It is a notorious fact that under the guise of statutory deductions, council funds are brazenly sliced to ridiculous levels. We call on the governor to investigate previous allocations and the genuineness of past statutory deductions.
The ministry of local government must wake up and play a more effective supervisory role rather than compounding the financial situations of the councils. Allocations from the joint account to councils must be transparently published just as allocation from the federation account are published so that monies going to councils are known and the difference between what comes from Abuja and what is given by the state highlighted with reasons. Project costing and approval requests sent from councils to state must be well scrutinised and even after approval, proper monitoring must be done to ensure quality completion .
As the states appreciate the federal government for financial bailout, the local councils have no choice for now than to also look up to the state government for bailout. Council workers cannot wait indefinitely for the payment of their wage arrears. The state government by virtue of their supervisory role of the local governments must hold itself partially responsible for the financial mess of these councils and so while bailing them out, must devise means to check further and future excesses. The local government councils must complement the efforts of the State government and not be a minus.