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Nigerian Towns Want Direct Federal Funding to Curb Skimming

People wash and bathe in a village on the banks of the river Nun in Nigeria's oil state of Bayelsa, Nov. 27, 2012.

People wash and bathe in a village on the banks of the river Nun in Nigeria's oil state of Bayelsa, Nov. 27, 2012.

As Nigerian lawmakers review the country's 14-year-old constitution, some local governments are petitioning for an amendment to have federal funds skip state coffers and go directly to them. Supporters say the move will help developers build roads, schools and hospitals. But critics say it will just widen the circle of people who can steal federal funding.

The way it works now, local governments in Nigeria get money from state governments and the states get their money from the federal government. Most of the money comes from oil.

One proposed constitutional revision would channel funding directly from federal coffers to the towns, by-passing states to prevent skimming money along the way.

Oke Joseph, who used to work for a local government in the Niger Delta, says the move would help local governments build schools, hospitals, marketplaces, housing and roads. And, he says, he has high hopes that lawmakers will change the system.

“That is the beauty of democracy. When you have a bad manager that has no competence in managing your government, you vote him out,” he said.

Other local government workers are more skeptical, saying local leaders are just as likely to steal as state leaders. Transparency International lists Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and large-scale corruption in Nigeria’s oil business is well documented.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter but it imports most of the fuel it uses. Locals complain that they get few, if any, benefits from living in an oil-rich country.

After a meeting on the other side of Warri, a dilapidated oil city in the Niger Delta, local administrator Oyede Onoriede says he fears that things will only be worse if states stop supervising funding. Prices for development projects meant to help people could be inflated, he says, and civil servants’ salaries may not get paid as local leaders take home the newly available funds.

“They are afraid that their money will be diverted -- will be siphoned. They will not get their salaries. At least under state supervision, before a governor would ask what your wage [should be],” said Onoriede.

But some activists, like Onyiye Ghandi, say Nigeria has a history of local authorities successfully governing themselves as they did shortly after the country became independent from Britain in 1960.

He says when local governments control their money, they know best how to spend it.

“Governance ought to be brought closer to the people. That is actually the raison d’etre - the primary reason - for local governments in the first place. So that the government will be brought closer to the grass roots- to the people. So the clamor for local government autonomy is welcome,” he said.

Ghandi calls today’s infrastructure development in Nigeria an “illusion.” Local authorities, he says, may be more corrupt, in the future. But he adds, it could not be worse than the lack of rural development that Nigeria faces today.

Hilary Uguru Contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.