Local government election don’t meet democratic standard.
National President of the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees, Olatunji Ambali, tells ALEXANDER OKERE how state governments are allegedly weaponising poverty through non-payment of salary arrears of local government workers and how aggrieved council workers plan to change the narrative in 2023
How will you assess local government administration in Nigeria?
The local government system in Nigeria has been bastardised as a result of the systematic destruction by state political actors; for example, state governors. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in this conundrum as a result of the lacuna in the 1999 Constitution. From 1984 or 1986 up to 1994, the Nigerian local government system was autonomous and that was the year local governments were able to deliver dividends of democracy, making a positive impact in the area of rural development and infrastructure, like the grading of community roads. If you look at the road network in Nigeria, over 80 per cent of the roads fall within the local governments directly. Most Trunk C roads are in the local government areas; that is where farm products are moved from the villages to the markets.
But because of the way political actors have been misapplying, misappropriating, and pilfering local government funds, Nigerians are denied the benefit of meaningful growth and development. Democratic governance is not felt by the people because local governments are the first point of contact between the government and the people. Once that most important tier of government is missing, it gives room for banditry and terrorism because so many states are ungoverned. The forests are vacant and available for criminals, bandits, terrorists and others. Looking at it now, because local governments have been bastardised and crippled, they are no longer functional in Nigeria.
How effective have council chairmen been?
It is not about the chairmen (of local government areas). Look at the procedure of their emergence. Most of them do not win elections; they don’t even have the mandate of the people, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. Most states in Nigeria refuse to conduct elections. They (governors) prefer to appoint their surrogates and political hangers-on to be at the helm of affairs in the local government areas, making them unaccountable to the people. Even where elections are purportedly conducted, they don’t meet democratic standards. What happens in the local government areas is a coronation, not elections. That is why when a political party is at the helm of affairs at the state level, all the councillors and chairmen are from that party. It is only in Abuja that one finds a mixture of different political parties where the Independent National Electoral Commission conducts an election.
So, democracy has not been allowed to thrive at the local government level. Local government areas are supposed to be the political incubation centre where political leaders should emerge. But because of the overbearing influence of governors who want to control the presidency, the Senate, media, and local governments, democracy is not allowed to thrive. That was why during the ammendment of the constitution, NULGE championed a course that there should be political autonomy at the local government level such that INEC should be allowed to conduct elections at the local government level, but because we are also demanding financial and administrative autonomy, we realised that we needed to drop that temporarily so that the other two would go through. But even the other two that were supposed to be ammended, as of today, the report reaching us is not palatable enough. The (Nigerian) Governors’ Forum led by Governor (Kayode) Fayemi met in Abuja and was trying to coerce, induce and threaten speakers of Houses of Assembly to abandon the statutory role of debating the bill and passing it. Out of the 12 states that debated the bill, 10 successfully voted in support of autonomy; all of them voted that local governments should be directly funded.
Your union last week bemoaned the non-payment of months of salary arrears of local government workers by states and local governments. Can you paint a picture of what the situation is at the moment?
In the South-West, the most critical are the Ekiti State Government and the Ondo State Government which owe workers arrears ranging from four to seven months of unpaid salaries, let alone gratuity that remains unpaid for long. In the South-East, the situation is the same; even the minimum wage was not paid in Enugu State and when you look at what is happening in Imo State, it is almost the same thing. In Anambra State, it is similar. In Ebonyi, what is paid there cannot be up to the minimum wage.
In the North-Central, in states like Kogi, Kwara, and the FCT, Niger, and Nasarawa, there are challenges. In the North-West, Zamfara State pays the lowest minimum wage in Nigeria with a backlog of unpaid arrears, gratuity and pension. In Kaduna State, until recently, many local government workers were disengaged; some of them died. Borno State does not pay the minimum wage. Kebbi State does not pay workers properly.
But the Ekiti State Government said though it incurred the debt from the previous administration, it was working to pay. Are you not aware of such an effort?
If the debt was not incurred by Governor Fayemi, fine. What about the bailout fund that was collected by him? If he had judiciously used that money, that debt would have been paid. When we started clamouring, in conjunction with the Nigeria Labour Congress, that we had a backlog of unpaid arrears, the Federal Government took a fine decision and said the fund should be used to pay a part of the debt and the remaining should be used for infrastructural development. But most of them (governors) prioritised infrastructure without human capital development. Most governors awarded themselves huge allowances, security gratuity, and pensions, but people who worked for eight years passed laws that they will receive houses and cars yearly while those who worked seriously for 35 years are allowed to languish in penury.
How has this affected your members?
The first thing is that it has affected Nigerians because what we are witnessing now is that Nigerians have resorted to arms; some youths that are supposed to be given gainful employment, vocational skills and functional education at the local government level but the funds have been diverted for other purposes. These youths have taken to arms. That is why we have banditry and terrorism. Some workers with mild ailments who cannot afford drugs and good food are dying in droves. Generally, it has affected the psyche of our workers. Psychologically, there is no hope. When one retires and is not paid their pension, it leads to hopelessness and frustration. Nationally, we have lost many members.
Your union identified Rivers and Jigawa states as the two states living up to the expectation of their council workers. What do you think they do differently that other states can learn?
Rivers State stands out as number one among them. As wonderful as Governor (Nyesom) Wike is, he has the fear of God; he never touches local government allocations. As the local government allocations are released, the governor has a standing instruction that the same amount released should be sent to all the local government areas. That is commendable. That ushered in tremendous growth and development as the councils were able to embark on projects for the betterment of their people.
On the funding of primary education which the Supreme Court said councils should only participate in, what we are witnessing is the opposite such that local government funds are used to fund primary education without the Federal Government paying a dime. So, only Governor Wike funds primary education from state allocation. That makes a lot of money available at the local government level and that is why the man is popular in his state.
The second governor is Badaru (Abubakar) of Jigawa State. I was there physically. The man doesn’t owe pension and gratuity. He has paid the gratuity for last month (August). So, it is not rocket science; it is about political will and genuine interest, and human consideration for one’s citizens,
There are arguments that politicians are using poverty as a weapon against the masses. Do you think it is the case in the area of the welfare of local government workers?
They have put fear in the minds of Nigerians such that we have a very weak civil opposition to anti-people policies. NULGE is fighting for local government autonomy which is for the good of Nigerians. In other climes, well-fed people who receive good education and are conscious of civil rights would have trooped out and demanded the actualisation of that autonomy because all of us belong to communities but we cannot visit them. Governors continue to pauperise people, put fear in their minds and continue to destroy the system. That is a threat to democracy. Despite the President signing the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit bill into law, the governors challenged it in court. They (governors) don’t want to grant autonomy to the judiciary and the local governments. They want to lord it over everybody. Something must be done. The President needs to caution them.
Has NULGE had negotiations with the indebted states to know why they cannot meet their financial obligations to council workers?
We have facts and records to show that all of them are capable of doing that (paying salaries) if they prioritise their needs and allow local governments to collect what is due to them. But what they do is stifle local governments of funds and threaten them. For instance, why does the Zamfara State governor that pays a minimum wage of N7,500 earn the same salary as the Lagos State governor? In terms of remuneration, he (Zamfara State governor) pays himself what his contemporaries take but when it comes to workers, he denies them the opportunity.
Many Zamfara communities have been attacked by terrorists. Do you think paying the council workers such an amount makes them easily influenced by armed groups?
Not directly because some of them (workers) are elderly. But when workers are unable to take care of their children and wards, what happens? The young ones don’t have the time; they can’t wait; so, something must be done. There is a linkage between anti-people policies and criminality. That is why Zamfara and Kaduna states have become the epicentre of criminality and banditry in Nigeria. An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.
Some of the affected states claim they are not responsible for the payment of local government workers. What is your reaction to that?
Politicians are full of innuendos and propaganda but when facts are presented on the table, they cannot be controverted.
At the seventh state quadrennial inauguration of the newly elected executives of NULGE in Kogi State last month, you said Nigeria was on the brink of collapse owing to bad leadership. Can you throw more light on that?
You and I know that is a statement of fact. Bandits threatened to kidnap the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Academic Staff Union of Universities has shut down universities for over five months. What do you call that? The President came into office with brilliant ideas to change Nigeria but unfortunately, what we are witnessing is a betrayal of that determination of Mr President. He needs to do more than what we are witnessing now. He should be able to find a way to address the insecurity and ensure that universities remain open and students return to school. He should show more interest in the aviation sector in Nigeria. There is impunity. The President should be courageous enough to track monies allocated to local governments in the last seven years to know in whose pockets those monies ended so that at the end of the day, sanity will be brought back into the system.
With electioneering for the 2023 elections drawing near, what are your concerns about the management of local government funds? Do you suspect that they could be used to fund campaigns?
If monies meant for local governments are not remitted and those who sit over the monies are leading campaigns, it is suggestive.
Was that why you called on local government workers to vote out political parties and indebted governors who do not support local government autonomy?
Yes, because they are against the Nigerian people. If Nigerians demand a functional, efficient and autonomous local government system, if Nigerians are lamenting that they can no longer go to their farms, if they are now vulnerable to kidnapping and banditry and terrorism, if they suffer the implication of joblessness and youth restiveness, the answer should be that we use our voter cards to do the needful. We will not support violence but within our civil rights, we have the right to determine who governs us. Workers should get up and vote out bad leadership.
With the rising level of poverty in Nigeria and the reports of voters selling their votes during general elections, do you think local government workers who have been pauperised by politicians, as you said, won’t collect cups of rice and other items of inducement from politicians?
No. If they give them (workers) money as a gift, they should take it. It is part of the money they owe workers which they diverted. They (politicians) are paying workers through another source. But workers should not sell their conscience or give out their voter cards. Workers should get up and use their voter cards to teach politicians a lesson. I know that despite the pauperisation of local government workers, we still find a way to survive; some of us have resorted to farming, so that should not be a problem.
Do you have hope that things will get better in 2023?
Yes. The President will be leaving. That is the first change. A new person will emerge. Whether he will come from parties A, B, or C, we don’t know. Only God knows, but we will come out and perform our civic responsibility to have a better Nigeria.