WITH GEORGE AGBA
Hon. Ahmed Abubakar Walama is the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs in Gombe State, with vast experience in local council administration, having served as chairman of Dukku local government area in the state for seven years. In this no-holds-barred interview with GEORGE AGBA, he speaks on the strategy being adopted by the state governor, Ibrahim Dankwambo, in managing local government funds without issues of accountability reported in other states. He also bares his mind on other sundry issues of governance.
Funding has always been the major problem of local governments, especially the issue of joint account. As a former local government chairman and now commissioner in charge of the local councils, what do you think is the right step in addressing this issue?
The 1999 constitution (as amended) makes provision for the state and local governments to have a joint account. It is a constitutional provision. At the local government level we have
the JAC, which is the joint account for the local governments themselves. We have 11 local governments in Gombe State. Like what I said earlier on I was local government chairman for seven and a half years. All the monies accruing to individual local government come into this account we call JAC account. With this, all the monies come into one account but each local government knows what it earns for a particular month. Because most states of the federation are agrarian, most of their local governments are agrarian, with little or no means of internally generated revenue. By and large, the local government councils, like most of the states, depend on the federation account for their source of funds to do whatever they are going to do and so also is Gombe State which is part of the larger federation. But we are lucky in Gombe State in a sense that the funds accruing into this joint account from the federation have not been mismanaged or been abused like what you see in some other states where you hear the hues and cries. And like what you have in all other states, we have our own budget in Gombe State. Based on the budget, we make sure that, depending on the capital and current expenditure towards budgeting, we have capital projects in our local governments. Unfortunately, of recent, the country plunged into recession, specifically in 2016 which was official. What we usually get from the federation reduced abysmally and it has been tough now because the finances accruing into the joint account is nothing to write home about. In Gombe, we spend about N1.2 billion on salaries alone and what we get from the federation account is sometimes less that N1.2 billion. So, we are left with no choice than to source for funds through agreements just to pay salaries. This is what has been happening in Gombe State since 2015 till date unlike under past administrations when it was rosy. In spite of that, Gombe is one of the lucky states. We have never defaulted in terms of payment of salaries, allowances and gratuity. Salaries and pensions have been regular. If you retire today on the first day of the month, before the end of the month, let’s say from 15th of the month you will be enrolled and eventually, your pension will be paid. We have no pension liability in Gombe. What we have is gratuity issue which is as a result of federal government default in paying its own share because the federal government is supposed to pay some percentage into the gratuity, which they have been defaulting from 2008 till date. So, we have been having some backlogs of gratuity that have not been paid.
But because of the magnanimity of our governor, His Excellency, Ibrahim Dankwambo, when the last Paris Club Refund was paid, state and local governments set aside N1 billion each and paid some backlogs of the gratuities. Like I earlier said, we have not been owing a single penny for pensions, salaries and other allowances both at the state and local government level. This is how far we have gone even though funds have not been forthcoming like what it used to be. Despite that, because of the shrewd and judicious management of funds by our governor and with the joint account of local governments, the state government still fund projects in the local governments. There is no local government in Gombe State you go to now that you cannot find a project which is above N1 billion being sponsored by the state.
In Nigeria, government is always fund of developing the centre and abandoning the rural areas controlled by local government councils. In Gombe, are this projects you are talking about actually permeating through major towns to villages where people at the grassroots reside?
Well, like I said earlier on, we have been very lucky. Democracy is 21 years in the state. We celebrated our 20 years anniversary in October 2016. If you can find time to come to Gombe and visit our local government areas, you won’t believe the kind of development you will see. Development is not only concentrated in Gombe town, which is the state capital. All other local governments in the state are evenly developing. For instance, in about four or five local governments, you will find what they call political wards. We have 114 political wards in Gombe State with 11 local governments. We have three senatorial districts in the state like in other states. In Gombe North we have five local governments, in Gombe Central we have two local governments and in Gombe South we have four local governments. Out of the five local governments in Gombe North, if you take away the state capital which is completely developed based on our standard in this part of the globe, all the 10 wards in the other four local governments are on asphalt roads. If you go to Nafada there is the other ward which has a difficult terrain to reach. There are ongoing road projects there of about two point something billion naira. The remaining nine wards are on asphalt road. In Gombe Central where you have two local governments, apart from one political ward in Aku local government, all the remaining 19 wards are on asphalt road. In fact in some wards, you find bridges like the 8 span bridge in Kuri which was built with over N8.5 billion. If you go to Gombe South, which has more difficult terrain because of the hilly nature of the local governments, there are about three road projects that cost about N3.5 billion. All other wards in all the local governments of the zone are on asphalt road. Only two wards are not on national grid out of the 114 political wards in the state.
There are other aspects of development, like schools. Because of the collaboration among the state, the local governments and UBEC in terms of funding, you will find out that there is no local government that has no model school now which was not built with over N1.5 billion. So, primary schools have been spread across.
In terms of health facilities, we have superseded the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard. You can’t go more than three to five kilometers without seeing any health facility, either health care, maternity or dispensery across the 114 political wards. So, like I said, development in Gombe State is even. We are agrarian by nature and you will find that in terms of agricultural potentials, most of our 114 political wards are located on the river bank across the 11 local governments. Agricultural potentials have been tapped very well and we are building on that strength so that we can deliver the dividends of democracy to our people. So, this is the nature of Gombe State; it is an even development across the wards, not only in local government headquarters only. Even in the wards, there has been tremendous development that has been recorded over time, particularly in the last six years. It has been unprecedented.
In terms of local government funds, you can’t tell me that Gombe State is not found wanting when other states and their local governments are having running battles over funds accruing from the federation account not being released as at when due or are completely being withheld. How is this possible?
Ours in Gombe State has been an exemplary system. Like I said earlier on, the state has been coming to the aid of the local governments, even in terms of paying salaries. At the state and local governments payroll, salaries are a total of N1.2 billion and in the last 18 months, what we have been getting from the federation account is not up to the N1.2 billion meant for salaries. Apart from February and March earlier this year, what we have been getting from the federation account is less than N1 billion. So, the relationship between the state and local governments in terms of joint accounts has been a success in Gombe State and it is a model that can be copied anywhere. I just spoke to you in terms of infrastructural development. You can see the amount of money that has been spent, not only in local government headquarters, but in the entire 14 political wards. So, you can see that most of the funding comes in the ratio of between 70-30. In agriculture, the state and local governments jointly fund subsidy in terms of fertilizers and seedlings. In the last two years, the federal government has not been paying a penny for fertilizers and seedlings. It is the state government that has been taking all the responsibilities in this regard. You can see that he relationship between the State and local governments has been a huge success and good story. Sometimes you find that even the relationship among the local governments themselves is healthy. It is not all the local governments that are financially buoyant. There are some local governments- about two or three- that don’t have allocations that can sustain them and they have been getting assistance and understanding from the other local governments through the joint account because of th relationship between the state and the local governments. You find that the state government benefit more because of that relationship than the local governments themselves. So, the Gombe model is a different model.
In a country that is ridden with corruption and public officers are not sincere to even themselves, how has the governor been able to check against misappropriation and embezzlement of funds by council chairmen?
The local government system we have in the country today has a lot of problems because there are no checks and balances. The capacity at the local government level nationwide is low, but to nip this in the bud, we have a robust and dynamic system in Gombe where you have checks and balances at the local level. Besides, local governments in Gombe don’t have executive structure like in other states. In Gombe, laws are made for the local governments by the state assembly both in terms of financing and running the local governments. We in the local government and chieftaincy affairs ministry mediate between the state and the local governments as well as the state assembly. So, we are basically coordinating the ministry in terms of running the local governments and we go strictly by the budget. Whatever the local governments have in their account, if they have any request that is above N500,000, they have to write to the ministry, quoting the level of funding and the adequacy of the funds and when they come with their request, the ministry for local governments will process it based on their request and seek approval from the governor. When it is approved we take the approval, convey it to them and the state treasury through the state accountant general. So, because of this procedure, you find that the monies meant for local governments are not lying in the local governments’ account; it with the state treasury where we have joint account like I said earlier on. Because of that, if there is no tangible project you have to warrant the release of funds, there is nothing you can do. What we did in Gombe is that we centralised our payroll system. The local governments have no way of handling the payroll system; if they want to add or delete, they have to come to the centre. So, there is no abuse of office or embezzlement. In fact, I can boldly say there are no ghost workers in Gombe State down to the local governments. Everybody is captured properly through the BVN. Anybody who has been paid salary through the centralised payroll system in the office of the accountant general is a known person who has been biometrically captured. And if you have projects, you have to come to the centre and seek approval and if we are convinced with what you want to do the money will be released into your account through th office of the accountant general. In terms of monitoring, we have the local government service commission which monitors activities of the local governments. So, because of this kind of dynamic structure His Excellency, Governor Dankwambo, has put in place in Gombe State, there is no way anyone can abuse his office as a local government chairman.