The prompt enforcement of that ruling, which earned President Yar’Adua a huge commendation across the country, would set the tone for more judicial activism. A few weeks later, the president ordered the immediate release of the Lagos State local governments‘ funds amounting to 10.8 billion naira (N10,829,527,300.43 precisely), which had been seized by the previous administration, bringing to an end a long-drawn legal and political battle that had pitched the federal government against the Lagos State government.
The controversy had started in April 2004 following the creation of 37 local government areas by then governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu. Riled by what he considered to be an impudent act, Obasanjo had directed that the funds of local government councils in Lagos be withheld, to be released only on the condition that the governor reverted to the original 20 local government councils in the state. Following this directive, the state had filed a lawsuit against the federal government at the Supreme Court, urging it to determine the propriety and legality of the action.
In the somewhat controversial ruling that had followed, the Supreme Court had declared the 37 local council development areas (LCDAs) created by Tinubu inchoate and inoperable‘, since the National Assembly had not listed them in the constitution. The apex court, however, had also ruled that the federal government had no right to withhold the funds of the state.
With both the federal government and Lagos state claiming victory in what had become a personality clash between Obasanjo and Tinubu (with the former flexing presidential muscles), a stalemate was imminent. To stave off the stalemate, some prominent Yoruba citizens had intervened through a committee of elders led by Prince Bola Ajibola (SAN). That effort had culminated in the LGAs being rechristened Local Council Development Authorities (LCDAs) by Tinubu. This had brought a temporary truce between the duo and encouraged Obasanjo to order the release of a first tranche of N10 billion from the entitlements of the 20 local government councils then estimated at about N21 billion. This rapprochement, however, would not endure, because the balance was withheld when the Lagos State government insisted on conducting elections into the 37 LCDAs. This was the situation at the time Yar‘Adua assumed office.
Following widespread consultation with legal experts, who held that the decision to withhold the funds contravened the Supreme Court ruling on the matter, the president ordered the accountant general of the federation to release the funds to the Lagos State government. For a man whose ascendancy owed less to his personal effort than to the sleight of hand wrought by his predecessor, Yar‘Adua was gradually becoming his own man. But given that one of the most challenging features of the rule of law is that it has no place for the strongman‘, there were also early signs that not many Nigerians appreciated the importance of the foundation that Yar‘Adua was trying to erect.