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LG Autonomy: Issues As FG Battles 36 States At Supreme Court



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For the third time since the return to civilian rule in 1999, the Federal Government is locked in another battle with state governments over the autonomy of local government areas, LGAs.

The first time was in 2008/2009 when the Federal Government kicked against the creation of new LGAs by states.

The second was when immediate past President Muhammadu Buhari tried to stop allocations to LGAs that do not have democratically elected officials.

Now, the Federal Government has dragged the 36 states to the Supreme Court over the same issue. The suit was started on May 26, and penultimate Thursday, the apex court fixed a full-blown hearing for June 13, a day after the June 12 Democracy Day celebration.

Given the disquiet that the emasculation of local councils has generated the latest legal fisticuffs are raising an avalanche of questions.

Will the Supreme Court agree with the Federal Government on the non-remission of allocations to undemocratic LGAs? Will the Federal Government side-step the states and remit allocations directly to councils? Who controls the councils, FG or states? Will councils become federating units? Currently, the states are the federating units but the councils are constitutionally recognised as the third-tier of government.

As governor of Lagos State, Senator Bola Tinubu, who is now the President created 37 new councils. A couple of other states also created councils, which pitted them against then President Olusegun Obasanjo, who insisted that new councils were illegal as 774 LGAs are listed in the Constitution.

While other states soft-pedaled, Governor Tinubu stood his ground leading to a legal battle that ended at the apex court. In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that states could create councils but the new councils must be ratified by the National Assembly to be listed in the Constitution.

Consequently, the 37 new councils were designated as Local Council Development Areas, LCDAs. While the legal battle lasted, then President Obasanjo refused to release allocations meant for the affected LCDAs. The funds were later released by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s Administration.

S-Court gives 36 state governors 7 days to respond to suit

Entertaining the case on May 30, the apex court, which fixed June 13 to commence a full-blown hearing of the matter, ordered the governors, to within seven days (from May 30), enter their defence to the suit the Federal Government filed to secure full autonomy for the 774 LGAs.

The order followed the FG’s application through the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, for an accelerated hearing of the matter and for the abridgement of the time allowed for all state governors to file their response to the suit.

In its ruling, a seven-man panel of the apex court led by Justice Garba Lawal said the AGF should upon receipt of the processes containing defence of the governors, respond to it within two days.

The central government is arguing that efficient governance at the third tier of government has been hampered by the overbearing influence of state governors, who retain funds meant for them in joint accounts in the respective states and only release to the LGAs what they wish.

Thus, the FG in the suit is seeking an order to guarantee the independence of the LGAs.

In the suit marked: SC/CV/343/2024, the Federal Government urged the court to issue an order prohibiting state governors from embarking on unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected local government leaders.

It also prayed the Supreme Court make an order permitting the funds standing in the credits of local governments to be directly channelled to them from the Federation Account in line with the provisions of the Constitution as against the joint accounts created by governors.

Furthermore, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Lateef Fagbemi, begged the court to stop the governors from further constituting caretaker committees to administer the affairs of local governments in violation of the constitutionally recognised and guaranteed democratic system.

Specifically, Fagbemi asked for an order of injunction, restraining the governors, their agents and privies, from receiving, spending or tampering with funds released from the Federation Account for the benefit of local governments when no democratically elected local government system is put in place in the states.

Arguing that the Constitution recognises the three tiers of government – federal, state and local, the AGF contended that “by the provisions of the Constitution, there must be a democratically elected local government system and that the Constitution has not made provisions for any other systems of governance at the local government level other than the democratically elected local government system.

He lamented that despite statutory provisions, “governors have failed and refused to put in place a democratically elected local government system even where no state of emergency has been declared to warrant the suspension of democratic institutions in the state.

He continued: “The failure of the governors to put a democratically elected local government system in place is a deliberate subversion of the 1999 Constitution which they and the President have sworn to uphold.

“All efforts to make the governors comply with the dictates of the 1999 Constitution in terms of putting in place, a democratically elected local government system, has not yielded any result and that to continue to disburse funds from the Federation Account to governors for non-existing democratically elected local government is to undermine the sanctity of the 1999 Constitution.

“In the face of the violations of the 1999 Constitution, the Federal Government is not obligated under section 162 of the Constitution to pay any State funds standing to the credit of local governments where no democratically elected local government is in

In December 2022, former President Buhari accused governors of pilfering LGA funds and tried to stop it.

However, governors rose against the move by the Nigerian Finance Intelligence Unit, NFIU, to abolish the states/local governments’ joint accounts through which a host of governors in the country exercised absolute control over councils’ funds.

The NFIU placed a limit on cash withdrawals from local government accounts to a maximum of N500,000 per day. It warned banks to ensure strict compliance.

However, the state governments kicked against the Buhari administration’s move to enforce the constitutional provisions stipulating autonomy for LGAs.

The state governments, through Fagbemi, who was then a private lawyer, filed a suit to stop the NFIU’s move to abolish the state/LGA joint accounts, arguing that it was illegal.

According to them, under the federal system of government, the NFIU, a federal agency did not have the power to decide for the state governments how to use their funds.

In December 2023, the Senate urged the Federal Government to stop allocation of funds to local governments run by caretaker committees.

Perhaps, the latest move is a response to the Senate’s plea.

Currently, the number of LGAs without democracy in the country is 454, which is 58.66 per cent of the 774 local councils, and the anomaly is against the provisions of Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which guarantees the system of local government by democratically elected officials.

From this month, the number of LGAs without elected chairmen and councillors may go higher as the tenure of council officers expires in Rivers (June 17).

Only 320 LGAs (41.31 per cent) across 16 states and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, have elected officers.

Reasons cited for the inability of many states to conduct council polls include insecurity, paucity of funds, political and legal battles.

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