COVID-19: Stakeholders bicker over N900m deduction from councils in Cross River

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THE decision of the Cross River State Government to deduct N50 million each from the 18 local councils totalling N900 million is raising dust in the state.

The main opposition All Progressives Congress, APC, and a Public Affairs Commentator, Efa Oka, pooh-poohed the move, which they said is calculated to hijack local councils’ funds and stifle development in the third tier of government.

Cross State has been without the third tier of government since December 2016 and January 2017 for Bakassi Local Government Area. The Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission, CROSIEC, had announced March 28, 2020 as date for the election but the exercise has been hampered by the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Although, the state is yet to record any COVID-19 case, the Executive Council on April 6 approached the House of Assembly to approve the N50 million contribution from each of the local councils to combat deadly plague.

In a letter to the House by the Secretary to the State Government, SSG,, Barr. Barr. Tina Agbor, the government said desires “to effectively pursue the implementation of measures that will curb the spread of Coronavirus. The main focus of Government is to apply precautionary measures against contracting the virus. The Executive Council at its 6th emergency meeting of Wednesday 1st April, 2020, approved that the 18 Local Government Councils in the State key into the fight against COVID 19 by contributing N50 million only.”

Why we approved deduction – Lawmakers

After deliberating on the request at a plenary, the assembly approved the deductions as its corporate support to boost the government’s prosecution of the COVID-19 fight.

Members applauded the State Governor, Professor Ben Ayade for being proactive in the fight against COVID 19 pandemic currently ravaging the world adding that Ayade has taken proactive steps to prevent the pandemic from spreading to the state.

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They, however, called for the creation of isolation centres in other parts of the state to effectively cater for any emergency that may occur.

There is no crisis in Cross River – state govt

Speaking on the brewing crisis over the issue, Mr. Christian Ita, Special Adviser Media & Publicity to the Governor Ayade, said: ‘’There is no brewing crisis as it exists only in the imagination of the purveyors of the fake news. The House of Assembly has since approved the request. It is important to state that the fight against COVID-19 is a collective one, and as such local councils contributing to fight the pandemic should not even be an issue for wrong embellishments.

‘’No state can fight it alone. With all its wealth, Lagos State got N10 billion from the Federal Government. Cross River is a poor state given its second to the last position on the revenue sharing table. So, pooling resources to fight this scourge to keep the people safe is a sensible thing to do.’’

APC kick, says it’s not in masses’ interest

However, the APC kicked against the move and the approval by the House of Assembly. In a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Mr Bassey Ita, the party said: “It is ridiculous that with whooping provisions in the previous and recent budgets for healthcare in the state, the government is still going cap in hand to councils for funds to tackle the COVID-19 epidemic.’’

The APC said it is irked by the decision of the state government to tamper with council funds because it is not in the best interest of the masses.

“Our consideration on this is that the COVID-19 outbreak has further exposed the false impression always given by the PDP-led government of Senator Ben Ayade about the financial strength of the state as expressed in its budgetary provisions,’’ which it said are enough to take care of such emergencies.

The party continued: “The implication of this development is that some hawks within the PDP-led government are only interested in siphoning and hijacking council funds for their selfish gains. The State House of Assembly has in the light of this reality demonstrated that it is a rubber stamp of the State Governor and does not truly represent the interest of the masses.

“The passage or endorsement of such an unnecessary request by implication is to the effect that local government administration will continue to suffer under the jackboot of the state government even as a separate arm of government. It means also that the independent or autonomy status projected of the local governments by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration is a farce altogether.

“If allowed to stay, this scenario will be replicated at all times the state government is embarking on any programme of interest meaning that councils will become Automated Teller Machines, ATM, of the state government.”

Oka vows to sue State Exco, assembly, councils if money is disbursed

Speaking in like manner, Oka wondered what the state government had done with the N500 million it said had earlier released to fight COVID-19 before seeking N900 million from local councils and vowed to challenge the matter in court if the funds are disbursed.

His words: ‘’Cross Riverians have not been told what that money was spent on, that is if the money has been released, or seen what the money is being used for. The release of another N900 million will bring the total amount to N1.4 Billion and I ask is that the money required to maintain the five-bed isolation centre at the Teaching Hospital or the isolation space at the Ogoja General Hospital? What exactly are we doing?

‘’The Cross River State Executive Council, as headed by Senator Ayade Benedict, and the Cross River State House of Assembly do not have such powers to by a CRSEXCO approval and a resolution by the House of Assembly approve the disbursement of money by another tier of government. It is the Local Government Executive Council that can recommend to the Local Government Legislative Council who will debate and approve such expenditure and send notice of same to the House of Assembly for their information only. The State EXCO has no business whatsoever with how the Local Governments are to spend their money or what they want to spend same on.

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‘’I can assure the Heads of Local Government Administration (HOLGAs) that any of them that signs for such monies to be released to the Cross River State Government from the Local Governments which they head, will go to jail. I can also assure them that they cannot rely on the Resolution of Cross River State House of Assembly as a defence when they are charged to court for a criminal offence as provided for in our laws because you cannot by a Resolution change the clear provisions of the law. NFIU had in 2019 sent out regulations to the Local Government Councils drawing the attention of civil servants to the risk of going to prison if they are found aiding political office holders to launder money from Local Government Councils particularly those that do not have elected Local Government Councils as is the case with Cross River State.

‘’Now, Section 2(2) of the Local Government Law of Cross River State states as follows: It shall be the duty of Local Governments within the state to manage the human and material resources of the local government in providing a range of basic and essential services to the residents of the Local Government and to participate in Economic Planning and Development of the Local Government Area as provided for in the Constitution.’
‘’The Cross River State Governor has for about five years now refused, until recently, to conduct Local Government elections to fill vacancies in the councils.

‘’Section 3(2)(b) of the same law provides as follows that the function of the Local Government Legislative Council shall include ‘to Debate, Amend and Approve an Annual estimate of revenue and Expenditure for Local Government; provided however that the said Estimate is laid before the Cross River State House of Assembly for its information and consequent monitoring by the appropriate committees of the House.’

‘’Thus from the clear provisions of the law, it is only the Local Government Legislative Council that has the right and power to debate, amend and approve how monies due to the council are spent and not the State EXCO or the State House of Assembly and so what the Governor is attempting to do using the Cross River State House of Assembly, contrary to the provisions of the Local Government Law of Cross River State is illegal and borders on criminality if same is read with the clear provisions of the Money Laundering Act and other Financial Acts as passed by the National Assembly.

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There is nowhere in that law that gives the Governor of Cross River State or the Executive Council power to seek approval of the Cross River State House of Assembly for the disbursement of Monies in the coffers of or due to the Local Government Councils in Cross River State. The only power the Cross River State House of Assembly has in relations to the expenditure of the Local Government Councils is that of her relevant Committee monitoring the expenditure after the budget estimate has been laid before the House, in fact the Law does not give the House the power to look into the estimate or even debate on the estimate, their duties end with only the monitoring of the implementation of the budgets through the relevant Committee of the House.

‘’To this end I will take the government of Cross River State and the State House of Assembly to Court if they go ahead to approve and disburse by a resolution the payment of the sum N900 million from the accounts of the Local Government Councils in Cross River State.’’

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