There were indications yesterday that the proposal by the National Assembly to grant financial autonomy to the 774 local government areas in the country through constitution amendment by the concurrence of 24 of the 36 state assemblies has been rejected.
The National Assembly had in October this year, transmitted to the state Houses of Assembly 23 items it had amended in the constitution but requiring concurrence by 2/3 of the 36 state Houses of Assembly in line with constitutional provision.
Among the items forwarded to the state assemblies for concurrence were proposals for financial autonomy for local councils as against the joint accounts stipulated by the 1999 constitution; financial autonomy for state assemblies; separation of office of the Attorney General of the Federal from that of the Minister of Justice. Ditto for the offices of the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice at the state level, among others.
But at the presentation of reports of the Conference of Speakers of State Houses of Assembly on the constitution alteration bill yesterday, the chairman of the conference, Hon. Samuel Ikon, disclosed that the lawmakers had concurred to financial autonomy for the state assemblies. He was, however, silent on what happened to the proposal for local government autonomy.
Ikon, Speaker of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, said the required concurrence from at least 24 of the 36 state assemblies was also given to the constitution amendment proposal for separation of the offices of Attorney General and the Minister of Justice at the federal level, and Commissioner for Justice at the state level. He failed to speak on the proposal for local government autonomy.
His words: ”Few weeks back, we the Speakers of the State Houses of Assembly were here to receive the resolutions of the conference committee of the National Assembly on Constitution Review, containing 23 items for concurrence from us and I assured then on behalf of other Speakers that we shall stand on the side of the people and democracy as far as the proposed items for amendments were concerned.
“Today, I am happy to inform you all that with these resolutions of ours, which we are transmitting to the National Assembly, we have stood on the side of the people and acted to further deepen democracy in our country.
“We have specifically concurred to the need for financial autonomy for state Houses of Assembly, separation of the office of Attorney General from that of the Minister of Justice at both the Federal and state levels etc.”
In a subtle confirmation that request for local government autonomy was jettisoned by the state legislators by way of non-concurrence in the report they submitted, the Senate president, David Mark, in his remarks after receiving the report, said: “If the local government autonomy is not achieved this time, it can be re-presented in future through a similar process.”
He continued: ”I appreciate the fact that we have amended some aspects of the constitution, and that we are going to amend some aspects of the constitution based on what we have drafted. But let me make one point clear, it doesn’t matter how many times we amend the constitution; it doesn’t matter how often we re-write the constitution unless the operators are prepared to go by the constitution.
“So the exercise is not just a matter of amendment but we the operators – Nigerians – must also be prepared to adhere strictly to the constitution. That is the critical aspect of it. It is not constitution amended to serve any particular section, or a constitution to be obeyed by a section of this country or any group of Nigerians.
“It is a constitution that is binding on all of us irrespective of our positions in the society; irrespective of our positions in the country. So, we, the operators are very important and we are key in the working of the constitution.
“I have not read the areas that you have gotten more than the required percentage; so I can’t make comment on it. But the Speaker of Akwa Ibom State (House of Assembly) has spoken about the one that state lawmakers passed, which is the financial autonomy of the state legislature. In the first amendments, the state assemblies did not have the courage to do it, but I must congratulate you for the courage.
“One of the areas, which I think we asked you to approve also, is the local government autonomy. I don’t know if you had the courage to do that, but if you have not concurred to it now, no problem; it is a continuous exercise; it shall be represented in subsequent exercise.”
It was not clear last night if the state assemblies concurred to independent candidacy, immunity for lawmakers in respect of words spoken or written in the exercise of their legislative duties.