Devolution of powers

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Ray Ekpu

Last Friday a very important event took place which many people may not have noticed because of their feverish preparation for the election of State Governors and State Houses of Assembly members which was to take place the next day. President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law some bills that indicate that power is being gradually devolved from the centre to the states.

The National Assembly and the President deserve to be given a pat on the back because since 1999 efforts had been made to alter some parts of the Constitution to give the country the muscle of true federalism. All such efforts had failed due to the rigorous process of amending the Constitution. That process involves both houses of the National Assembly, the 36 state Houses of Assembly two thirds of which must give their nod to any constitutional amendment and of course the President who must give his accent when all the processes are tidied up by these various bodies.

Of course, the past sessions of the National Assembly also distracted themselves with their internal politics and the struggle for suzerainty with the Executive, which led to a series of carpet crossings during the 8th National Assembly. All of these issues compel us to say “thank you” to the President and presiding officers and members of the 9th National Assembly for being able to pull through some amendments of some portions of the Constitution before the end of their tenure. This is no mean achievement because of the multiple interests involved in deciding how power should be shared in a federation of states with unequal demographics and unequal contributions to the advancement of the polity.

In a statement issued last Friday the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Babajide Omoworare, informed us of the pleasant development from the presidency. He told us that the President had signed a number of bills on constitutional amendments. With the bills signed into law, matters such as Railways and Electricity, which were in the Exclusive List are now on the Concurrent List. That means that state governments are free to provide train services within their states while the Federal Government will concentrate on providing inter-state train services.

The same thing applies to electricity power generation, transmission and distribution in areas covered by the national grid. This will, hopefully, significantly improve the amount of electricity available to Nigerians. For several decades the Federal Government has spent billions of dollars trying to generate, transmit and distribute power to Nigerians but we still remain largely in darkness. The generator market has experienced a big boom over the years; big companies buy the mega generators while small persons buy the I-better-pass-my-neighbour, which produces a lot of fumes that have killed many people who live in face me-I face-you type of apartments.

With the President’s assent, State Houses of assembly and the Judiciary have now acquired financial independence. This will obviously add some blocks to the building of an independent judiciary and House of Assembly. The current view is that most, if not all, the State Houses of Assembly are in the breast pockets of their governors because if they want money for their services they have to crawl, cap in hand, to meet the governors for money. This tends to compromise them. The same thing applies to the judiciary in their states. These two institutions are now in a position to assert their independence and autonomy.

Also, the Nigeria Prison Service is now to be officially called the Nigeria Correctional Service. It is also within the power of the states to also establish their Correctional Centres as this item is now in the Concurrent List. You may ask: what is the significance of the name change? The name change implies that place of confinement is expected to correct and reform their inmates so that when they step out of there they will become better citizens.

Our prisons, sorry correctional centres, are very badly managed. Food there is poor, medical services are almost non-existent; they are poorly equipped for learning and teaching. One hopes that the change of name is not just that: a change of name. We hope that modern learning and teaching facilities will be provided so that those who leave there at the end of their imprisonment can turn a new leaf and move away from the life of crime. But let me ask: why wasn’t the name of the Nigeria Police Force changed to Nigeria Police Service? The Force in its name seems to tempt policemen to use force where persuasion is called for and to use maximum force when minimum force can serve the purpose. Some years ago there were attempts to bring about that change of name but it didn’t happen. I hope that someday it will be possible to make policemen to realise that they are performing a service, an invaluable service, to the community and that force is not necessarily a cure-all.

And I am sure that many people will be asking why the reviewers of the Constitution did not include the establishment of State Police by State Governments in their review. We pretend that we can run away from this subject for ever yet we have enormous security challenges which the addition of state police to the contingent of our security forces would have helped to resolve. We believe like the ostrich that hides its face in the sand thinking that if it doesn’t see the problems then they don’t exist. Right now about 25 states have one kind of security outfit or the other to take care of their security issues.

There are also regional security outfits such as Amotekun in the South West and Ebubeagu in the South East. So why are we pretending that we have only one Police Force, the Nigeria Police Force? I have heard it said by opponents of State Police that if approved, the governors will abuse it by using it to persecute their political opponents. That is also possible with the Federal Police if the President is inclined towards being dictatorial.

Besides, I think that from what has been happening in the polity so far no governor would think that he can do anything illegal and get away with it. Even the President has been sued on various issues. There have also been demonstrations by an assortment of people on various issues. So in a sense our democracy is gradually acquiring some attributes of a democratic country. That means that State Governors can be checkmated on issues of vital importance. Or have you forgotten the EndSARS movement? Even though some intruders stepped in and poisoned the atmosphere it had the potential of making the authorities to sit up and listen. Even President Buhari told them: “I have heard you loud and clear.” If we have State Police we can make governors who want to be dictators to hear us loud and clear. So that is an assignment for the 10th National Assembly.

It is clear that we have not yet accepted that Local Governments ought to be part of State Governments. The National Assembly wanted autonomy for Local Governments but most of the State Houses of Assembly did not approve. So since the states did not meet the 2/3 requirement for its autonomy, that was dropped. I think that we complicated matters for ourselves when we put the names of all the Local Governments in the Constitution. Since then states that wanted to create new Local Governments could not. Lagos State under Governor Bola Tinubu took up the gauntlet on this issue with the Obasanjo presidency. It did not succeed. Infact, the Federal Government withheld the funds belonging to Lagos State local governments.

The real problem with local governments is that they receive money from the Federal allocation. To get more money from FAAC, states would like to create more local governments. But the Constitution makes it very difficult for this to happen, because if this happens all states would like to have their villages named as local governments so as to get more money. We have to decide at some point if we want Local Governments to be autonomous or part of state Government architecture.

The other matter on which the President has given his assent is the appointment of Ministers and Commissioners. The law signed says that Federal and State Governments must name their Minister and Commissioner nominees within 60 days. This provision arose because many Nigerians criticised Buhari when it took him about six months to name his nominees for ministerial appointments. This is a good decision because it will compel the President and Governors to appreciate the sense of urgency involved in the administration of their territories.

Apart from this attempt to urge the President and Governors to hit the ground running, the National Assembly owes us the duty of screening the nominees very seriously. The same applies to the State Houses of Assembly. In other democracies such screening amounts to a grilling that runs into several days and involves a severe scrutiny of the nominees past and present. So I hope that the National Assembly will banish the habit of telling any nominee to just “bow and go.” That is ridiculous no matter who he was in the past. The screening must be serious enough for the nominee to realise that the job means a lot to the country and ought to mean a lot to him. The other thing is that some favoured nominees are simply clapped on the hand with loaves of bread in place of serious screening. That must end.

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