Of Impunity & Quest for Legacy in Local Governments

March 23, 2020
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The alleged perfect heist of close to 25 trillion Naira from the coffers of the 774 local government councils in Nigeria since 1999 by successive state governments and political stakeholders paints a clearer picture of organized political corruption working with the same template for over 20 years. This huge sum of money allocated to the third tier of government whose enormous responsibilities include alleviating the plight of the extremely poor rural dwellers who made up about 70 percent of Nigeria’s population. Such deprivation of needed funds could be the reason for the 87 million Nigerians living under income of $2 per day placing Nigeria atop India as the extreme poverty capital of the world.

This paper will review the impunity in the local governments in Nigeria since 1999 in comparison with the reign of Tammany Hall under the leadership of Boss Tweed and his Nigerian counterparts. It will discuss efforts to tame the political corruption and reverse course with the introduction of NFIU directives and reaction of the governors. It will review the tepid compliance of some governors, and a particular outlier Gov. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State who have made moves to embrace the directives in order to shore up their legacy in the local government and bring the much-needed economic development to lift millions out of poverty.

Brief review of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall

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To many, most specifically students of political history, the trajectory of political development in the local governments of Nigeria rings familiar to the infamous account of Tammany Hall political machine in the United States. Tammany Hall controlled and dominated the New York City and New York State politics for over a century. A political organization formed with the good intention of providing for the new Irish and other immigrants, helped them settle and provided them jobs in return for their votes. This gradually drifted off course into the realm of graft and massive political corruption.

Their height of impunity was attained under Boss Tweed who deployed the enormous connection, influence, and resources of Tammany Hall for imposition of candidates during the nomination process, rigged elections, and engaged in voter fraud by employing the use of street gangs such as Dead Rabbit. A combination of these tactics thwarted the will of the people. In no time Tammany Hall controlled many elected political positions, including but not limited to; governor, mayors, city councils, members, and speaker of house of assembly.

As published by Aimee Lamoureux, Tweed’s inner caucus of friends were known as Tweed’s ring who specialized in bribery, monetary fraud, and political thievery. They devised different fraudulent tactics and techniques to skim money from city projects. They padded bills, raised accounts with false vouchers, awarded contracts to the highest bidders, and used inferior materials, all in effort to rob the taxpayers of New York City. They stole between seventy-five and two hundred million dollars during their tenure from 1867 to 1871.

Ironically, the political graft went unopposed for some time because those who would have benefitted the most from a more fair and upright political system were the same people who were benefitting even more from Tweed’s swindles leaving those at the lowest ebb of the society, at the time, to bear the full brunt in poverty and penury.

As in most evil schemes, there is always an expiry date. The combined forces of the reformers like Tilden and Green, the New York Times newspaper and cartoons by Thomas Nast of the Harper’s Weekly all were instrumental in exposing the rut and led to the take down of Boss Tweed and his ring in Tammany Hall. Tweed was arrested, tried, and convicted, but he fled to Cuba. He was repatriated and died in prison. Even though his demise did not end the Tammany hall’s influence, it highlighted the evil of a political machine run amok to the detriment of the poor.

Comparison with 774 Local Governments of Nigeria

Perhaps, it is not out of ordinary to compare the happenings in the local government of Nigeria since 1999 to Tammany Hall with our governors acting the script of Boss Tweed and the stakeholders of the 774 local government councils assuming the roles of Tweed’s ring. Like Boss Tweed, the 36 governors collectively took the obvious coloration of political corruption by dictating the tune of every political dance in the local government councils.

Expectedly, governors called all of the shots from appointing the election umpire, nominating candidates handpicked by the local government council stakeholders, to winning election at any cost. Like Boss Tweed, the governors dictated who got appointed where. Like Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, the governors controlled the house of assembly and the judiciary. In fact, the governors have the power to do everything Boss Tweed did and more.

Sequentially, stakeholders like Tweed’s ring, performed the dance to the full satisfaction of the governors. The feasts usually commence as soon as the Chairman was sworn in. While the governors through JAAC earmarked deductions in the fanciful non-existing joint projects, the balance of allocation was handed over to the Chairman who returned to the council and the party started with direct payments to members of the stakeholders. Some were awarded contracts for rural roads, culvert constructions and buildings. They would promptly receive the mobilization fees but no work would be done.

Interestingly, not all stakeholders were LG cabals, however, a good many of them were. The stakeholders short listed names to be appointed while the LG cabals added names to be inserted into the payroll to receive salaries without work. Some stakeholders were also added to the payrolls and get paid while others receive cash on a weekly or monthly basis for doing nothing. It is of interest to know that these cabals were prominent personalities in various rural communities who are well aware of the degrading extreme poverty of their rural people.

Furthermore, the local government chairmen did cater to most of the appointed and elected officials in their local government council. All the members of the state house of assembly, federal house of representatives, and senate, as well as, ministers, commissioners, and Special Advisers were expected to receive special favors in sort of an ignoble ritual usually live cows costing not less than N250,000.00 each. The governors receive cows from each of the local government council chairmen… What a waste.

Apart from the direct payments to LG cabals, each local government councils have a ring of LG cabals whose primary responsibility is the internally generated revenue (IGR). This is typically referred to as Chairman’s back-pocket money and there is a template on how to record paltry amount in the books. IGR runs in hundreds of thousands to hundreds of million Naira, depending on the population and urbanization of the council. Each council keeps numerous bank accounts for the movements of funds to cover and confuse the tracks of the money.

The irony is that the majority of the local government chairmen do not reside in the council. Most of the stakeholders and LG cabals who directly and indirectly benefit from the local government do not live in the council. Almost all of them are in the various urban center proximity to the council while the millions of extreme poor of the rural communities continue to wallow in poverty and penury. The governors like Boss Tweed and the stakeholders like the Tweed’s ring, both are unwittingly responsible for the vast maladministration resulting in the loss of over 25 Trillion Naira.

A case of Bola Tinubu as Boss Tweed

Another interesting scenario, one of the original governors whose credentials sharply mirrors Boss Tweed’s reigns is none other than former Governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Bola Tinubu. Tinubu political machine loomed larger than life in Lagos State from 1999 until today. His political machine has unprecedented power, strategic and strong enough to hold most of the political positions both appointed and elected in Lagos state. Tinubu political machine controls the governorship, senate, house of representatives, state house of assembly, and chairmen of local government councils for the past 20 years. His political machine was responsible for nominating candidates for ministerial and other appointing positions. Tinubu is said to stand as Boss Tweed while the stakeholders are the Tweed’s ring and their tentacles were responsible for uprooting an incumbent governor, denied him re-election and replaced him with Tinubu’s stooge, as well as, nominated the sitting Vice President of Nigeria today.

The Impunity of Local Governments and Outrage

According to Premium Times, the 36 state governments have ripped off over 15 Trillion Naira of the federal allocation meant for the coffers of local governments in 12 years. The number is much higher when you extrapolate to the 20 years of democracy, the total is definitely up to 25 Trillion Naira, all things being equal. This huge sum of money could have gone to the third tier, the 774 local governments needed for the enormous responsibilities of alleviating the extreme poor residing in the rural communities of Nigeria.

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Speaking recently, the Secretary to the Federal Government, Boss Mustapha bemoaned the many ruinous years and warned that we cannot live with the continued mismanagement of public funds on the guise of joint accounts any longer. He cited the dangers and consequences of the sustained degradation of our local government system which manifested in increased wave of crimes and social maladies like terrorism, kidnapping, cultism, neighborhood gangs, human trafficking baby factories, dilapidated primary schools, health centers, influx of youths into urban centers, and pernicious rural poverty. He warned that the starvation of local governments of funds is responsible for Boko Haram.

Consequently, the enormous political corruption at the local government has become so glaring and widely reported that the Buhari administration had to step in through the Central Bank to curtail the perennial corruption. Despite the opposition of the governors the Nigeria Financial Investigative Unit (NFIU) issued a directive titled, NFIU enforcement and guidelines to reduce crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawals from local government funds throughout Nigeria. The directive took effect June 1st, 2019 and targeted at the governors, public officials and banks hosting JAAC accounts to henceforth stop tampering with the allocations to local government councils. It imposes a N500,000.00 daily withdrawal cap and defaulters are liable to face local and international sanctions, including but not limited to; blacklisting of governors, state governments, and shut down of erring banks.

Expectedly, the reaction of the governors through Nigerian Governors Forum to the directive was fast and furious. The governors even sought audience with President Buhari arguing the NFIU had acted beyond its boundary and actually contravened the constitution as they overheated the polity (whatever that is). However, the outpouring of support for the directives from the public, media, and even the senate dampened the governors’ protestation. Numerous newspaper editorial praised the Buhari administration for bringing the hammer down on the 20 years local government political corruption without going the lengthy route of amending the constitution. NFIU directives are precise, targeted and it is working.

Moves by Outlier Governors to Comply

Surprisingly, 20 years into the LGA impunity, while some of the current governors still want to continue to wallow in the same cesspool of political graft, a few outlier governors with an eye to posterity have embraced and latched onto the NFIU directives to shore up their legacy. In fact, it is our opinion that each current serving governor should work hard not to allow his or her name to be associated with such filthy dredge of the past in the local governments.

Current governors should understand that the fall in oil price is not abating. The federal allocation will continue to dwindle and the need to do more through the local government to reach millions of rural poor has become more necessary. Instead of reenacting Boss Tweed, they should do more to immunize, inoculate, and shield the elected local government chairmen from the distracting pressures of the LGA cabals and charge them towards performance excellence to lift millions in rural communities from poverty.

In a recent publication by the Guardian, few state governors have turned the corner and have started paying needed attention to the local government councils. This is good news as it is possible for the federal allocation to reach the councils intact. One of the few outlier governors is His Excellency Rt Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, the Executive Governor of Enugu State. Perusing his targeted actions and utterances regarding local governments confirms that he wanted more for the rural areas. The Enugu State House of Assembly recently voted in favor and the Governor has signed an executive bill establishing a small to medium scale industries in each of the 17 local government councils. The objective is to carry the local communities along to drive the economic development of Enugu State.

The first salvo of Gov. Ugwuanyi was the appointment of the Transition Caretaker Committee Chairmen for 90 days to provide a level playing field and to enable proper planning for LG election. The performance of the TC Chairmen was marked with creativity, out of the box ideas in poverty alleviation, and infrastructure development, such as, distributing, wheelbarrows, constructing and maintaining feeder roads, school building renovations. There are remarkable and visible economic developments in local governments especially in the rural communities.

Secondly, Gov. Ugwuanyi set out to nominate untainted and experienced candidates, thus shelving the overbearing influence of LGA cabals who usually dominate and handpick lackeys who will do their insatiable bids to loot. Despite efforts of the Governor to enthrone hitch-free consensus by inviting stakeholders to consultative meetings, the nomination process was a tad tumultuous as few LG cabals protested as they fermented all sorts of rumors against the leadership. At the end of the day, cool heads carried the day and 17 credible, experienced, and quality candidates were nominated to fly the flags of PDP at the LG polls. On February 29th, the People’s Democratic Party as expected swept the polls winning the 17 local government Chairmanship positions in a landslide and they were sworn in on March 2nd, 2020.

At the swearing in, Gov. Ugwuanyi did not mince words in addressing the 17 newly elected chairmen. He charged them to lead with utmost sense of transparency, accountability, probity, and humanity. He reminded them of his continued support and respect for the local government autonomy. He insisted that there shall be no interference whatsoever in the running of the Councils. He promised continued synergy with the councils for the betterment of the poor rural dwellers. He asked them to work diligently to carry out their constitutional responsibilities to help Enugu State government to develop the rural economy. He hammered on competitive development in construction and maintenance of feeder road, health facilities, primary schools, portable water, rural electrification, investment in agriculture, etc.

Furthermore, Gov. Ugwuanyi charged the new Chairmen to complement the state government’s efforts and prioritize security and peace in their respective local governments. He reiterated the need for them to live among their people in line with the understanding reached before the election. He added that in very difficult economic times their government must wear a human face and work to lift their people out of poverty. He concluded by reminding them that their loyalty is to God, the country, and to the people of Enugu State.

Call for more action Remarkably, it is obvious that Gov. Ugwuanyi has broken from the pack, sort of an outlier from a statistical normal curve as he is working to shore up his local government legacy. However, electing, swearing in and advising the new 17 LG chairmen may not be enough to curb a 20 years long corruption past practices. While the NFIU directives curtailed the state government interference, it does nothing about the LG cabals who are deeply entrenched in each council who are ready to continue to exert pressure and nudge the chairmen towards under-performance.

Another way of getting the LG cabals in check is by encouraging the chairmen to shun the persisting and ignoble rituals in the councils where favors are dispatched at will to stakeholders at the detriment of the people. Instead, such favors should be banned and the funds used for specific poverty alleviation projects in the name of the stakeholders in his or her immediate community. Stakeholders should stop making monthly demands and seeking contracts they would abandon, rather allow others who are ready and willing to execute contracts to benefit the rural poor.

Governors should strongly caution the chairmen, stakeholders, and LG cabals against their incessant looting of internally generated revenue (IGR). Such funds must be collected with a modicum of accountability and transparency, to be appropriately channeled towards poverty alleviation programs in the councils. The days when the Chairman and LG cabal colonize sources of revenue and IGR should be over and done with.

The question in the 17 local councils of Enugu State should be how many rural poor are lifted from poverty. How many of them are provided shelters? How many are provided with skill acquisition training, not just training, but how many are provided with seed money to practice the skills they learned? How many of the feeder roads are constructed or graded? How many primary and secondary school buildings are renovated? What is the impact of the small or medium scale industries in each of the communities in the council? With these answers in affirmative it will become obvious that Enugu State has embraced the NFIU directives and our rural poor are feeling the dividend of democracy.

Like we insisted in our past and related publication, legacy is said to be important in leadership and it is akin to leaving footmarks on the sands of time. His Excellency Gov. Ugwuanyi is indeed extending his legacy in the realm of our local economy. We ask him to be bold and courageous and not relent. Change does not come easy, but it’s worth the battle, because legacy is very important. Despite his 8 years term in office we want his work to last forever. We want Ugwuanyi’s legacy in local government to be immortalized in books. And above all we want Ugwuanyi’s legacy to be about everything he did for others. With such, his name will be engraved on the hearts of millions of rural impoverished people who will benefit from the enthronement of quality leadership at local government councils.

Conclusion

Tammy Hall and Boss Tweed represented examples of deep-rooted political corruption which tormented the people of New York for many years. However, it seems like the scale and scope of the impunity at the local governments in Nigeria dwarfs whatever was done by Boss Tweed. Local governments are a fundamental part and parcel of our political system. Local governments are closest to the people more than states and the federal government. For 20 years successive governors have denied the local governments their autonomy making it impossible for federal allocations from the federal government to get to them, banishing millions of our rural population into abject poverty and penury. Perhaps, the Nigerian governors since 1999 fit squarely into the biblical verse reminding us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and it will take repentance and redemption to set them free. Unfortunately, such repentance is not available to those governors who have served their full term of 8 years. But the current governors with eyes on posterity have the opportunity to embrace and latch onto the NFIU directives to shore up their legacy. In fact, it even is better for the governors to positively interfere in local government councils as Gov. Ugwuanyi is doing, if such would translate into rapid economic development for the local government councils. Every governor in 2020 should be governing with an eye on his legacy. The question is whether the governor wants to be the governor that is referred to as Boss Tweed or a governor to be remembered by the number of lives you touched and lifted from poverty? You make the choice.

Dr. Obori Adaka, political and social commentator, writes from Enugu.



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