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S’Court begins sitting as states counter FG on LG funds

The Attorneys- General of the 36 states have filed an objection to the local government funds suit instituted by the Federal Government at the Supreme Court.

The Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of Gombe State, Zubairu Umar, in an interview with The PUNCH on Tuesday, confirmed that the 36 states were challenging the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear the local governments’ fund case.

The suit, filed by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), is slated to commence on Thursday (tomorrow).

A seven-man panel of the apex court led by Justice Garba Lawal, had on May 30, 2024, given the state attorneys-general, who are the defendants, seven days to file their defence.

The court also ordered all the state AGs to be in court on the adjourned date.

Lawal issued the order while ruling in the application for abridgement of time argued by Fagbemi.

The apex court also directed the AGF to file his reply upon receipt of the governors’ defence within two days.

In the suit, the Federal Government is seeking full autonomy for all local government councils in the country over alleged misconduct in the administration of local government councils.

The government specifically prayed the court to issue an order prohibiting state governors from embarking on unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected local government leaders.

Fagbemi urged the court to grant an order to withhold the funds meant for the local governments in such states that unlawfully dissolve democratically elected local government officials and run them through illegal transitional implementation committees.

He also prayed the Supreme Court for an order to allow the monthly allocations of LGs to be directly paid to them from the Federation Account in line with the provisions of the Constitution as against the alleged unlawful joint accounts created by governors.

But the states in their defence argued that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to entertain the suit.

In a unanimous objection, the defendants faulted the AGF for instituting the case.

Speaking to The PUNCH on the states’ grounds for objection on Tuesday, the Gombe AG, Umar, said, “What we are contending is that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to entertain the suit, as presently instituted.”

The justice commissioner explained that all the states filed similar objections to the suit, adding that the applications would be heard on Thursday.

He stated, “All the 36 states have filed similar objections. The Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation has yesterday (Monday) filed his response to the states’ preliminary objections. The processes will be heard by the Supreme Court at its next sitting.

Umar questioned the legal grounds for the case, describing autonomy as a non-issue in his state, asserting that the LGAs had financial autonomy.

“On the side of Gombe State, local government autonomy is a non-issue because our local government councils are democratically elected and independently manage their finances that go directly into their accounts. They enjoy unfettered financial autonomy,” he added.

In the same manner, the Kwara State Government said it had asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the suit filed by the Federal Government seeking full autonomy for the 774 local government councils in the country.

In the process filed at the apex court, the state contended that granting the reliefs sought by the Federal Government, “will further impoverish most Nigerians who are downtrodden in the local government areas.”

The objection was contained in the counter-affidavit to the Originating Summons of the Federal Government filed by the Kwara State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice,  Senior Ibrahim-Sulyman, and obtained by the News Agency of Nigeria on Tuesday.

The Kwara State AG asked the apex court to dismiss the originating summons filed by the Federal Government and the reliefs sought, in the interest of justice.

The Kwara AG, who is the 23rd defendant in the case, further said the agitation of the plaintiff regarding joint account “is grossly misconceived and a contradiction to the provisions of section 162 (6) and (8) of the Constitution.’’

The section, according to the AG, provides that funds meant for the local governments “must be allocated to the state in a special statutory account and shall, in turn, be distributed to all the LGs in the state in such terms as may be prescribed by the state House of Assembly.”

He also argued that the misconception of the Federal Government should be nipped in the bud because of an earlier apex court decision in a similar case between Abia State and the AGF.

He referred to the subsisting judgment of the court delivered by a former Supreme Court Justice, Late Justice Nikki Tobi, in the case, which held: “The National Assembly cannot validly make a law permitting the direct allocation of funds to the local government councils.

“Rather, such money must be allocated directly to the state, which shall in turn pay same into the state joint local government account vide section 162 (6) of the Constitution.”

Ibrahim-Sulyman argued that, going by the decision of the court, the Federal Government in the present case “is turning itself into performing the function of the legislature.’’

He contended, “The ideal thing is for the plaintiff to ensure that a bill is sponsored for the amendment of the constitution or a new statute to that effect.

‘’The plaintiff cannot use the back door of the judiciary to import into our law what is not legislated upon by the National Assembly.”

The AG added that contrary to the position of the plaintiff, there was no time Kwara State failed to disburse from the federation account funds meant for the local government.

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