Hon Aminu Tambowal
Amid the general perception of local governments as mere appendages of the state governors who often handpick their cronies as sole administrators or caretaker/transition committees rather than allow for election of chairmen and councillors, Davidson Iriekpen ponders what can be done to safeguard the objective of the third tier government
The Cross River State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mr. Mike Igini, stirred the hornet’s nest last week when he urged the National Assembly to stop the monthly allocations of 511 local government areas across the country that were being run by caretaker committees.
Igini in an interview with journalists in Calabar said it was against the provisions of the1999 Constitution for the affairs of a local government to be managed by unelected officials. He lamented that the widespread use of caretaker committees by governors to run the affairs of local governments was a movement away from democracy, saying it is for that reason that majority of the local councils have remained unaccountable to the people.
Funding of Unelected Councils
Igini argued that if the National Assembly could take the step of suspending the allocations to local governments run by caretaker committees would help the course of democracy, especially, at the grassroots, He said there was an urgent need to review the state electoral laws and electoral management at the local government level to reflect the aspiration of voters at the grassroots.
He said, “Nigeria is under partial democracy. We have three tiers of governance: the federal, the state and the local government tiers. But evidently, the local governments have been turned into vassals of the states held in thrall by party and executive structures that have confiscated the local government tier and strangulated development at the point where it is nearest to Nigerians.
“Of the 36 states and the FCT, only 13 have elected local governments, namely, Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, Sokoto, Cross River, Ebonyi, Kwara, Taraba, Jigawa, Ogun, Niger and Zamfara. Other states are, therefore, in breach of section seven of the constitution; an impeachable offence with the implication that a whole 511 local government areas where Nigerians are domiciled do not experience democracy at the moment because it is only 263 LGAs out of 774 that have elected councils.
“The setting up of caretaker committees is a movement away from democracy and this has resulted in the failure of that tier of government. Accountability in all its facets must start from the LGAs. The National Assembly should ensure that there are no allocations to those local government areas in order to reverse the trend.”
In the last three months, one issue that has constantly dominated national discourse, especially since the commencement of the constitution amendment process, is how to liberate the local government system from the stranglehold of state governors.
Currently, the near demise of the local government system is neither a northern nor a southern phenomenon. Altogether, only about a quarter of the 36 states of the federation are known to have conducted election into local government councils. All the others are being run by individuals handpicked by the respective states governors.
The practice cuts across the regions and political parties. Many of the state governments regard the third tier of government as a mere administrative appendage placed under commissioners for local government and chieftaincy matters.
Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), read jointly with Section 8, states, “the system of local government by democratically-elected councils is by this constitution guaranteed, and accordingly, the government of every state shall, subject to section 8 of this constitution, ensure their existence under a law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such councils.”
The wisdom of the framers of the country’s constitution to accord the local government system its due recognition and properly equip it to discharge its responsibilities was based on the belief that it would bring governance and popular democracy to the people at the grassroots and act as a catalyst for rapid socio-economic development of the country.
But the subsisting practice across the states confirms the absolute reluctance of the state governors, since the enthronement of democratic rule in 1999, to accept the existence of the local government system as a separate tier of government.
The thought of independent council chairmen with such huge funds for developmental and other purposes is considered by most state chief executives as a threat. The intention of the constitution for a grassroots developmental machine is thus subverted on the altar of political power play.
Currently, the local government system has not only lost its financial independence but also its operational autonomy, thereby rendering most of them redundant and incapable of delivering even the simplest of social services to the grassroots. Many analysts would argue that the situation is part of the reasons why the country is underdeveloped.
Diversion of Council Funds
To a lot of Nigerians, it is an open secret that governors have been dipping their hands into local government funds. Any elected chairman seen to be offering any form of resistance to such a practice risks removal on the basis of some spurious allegations.
Although many amendments have been effected in the constitution, there are still so many defects in it. Even when the local government administration is being run by duly elected officials, the governor, with the support of the state assembly, can suspend or remove the council chairman.
While questionable elections are conducted into a lot of the local government councils, the governors, with the cooperation of the lawmakers, have on many occasions nullified their mandates.
It is believed that in a truly federal political entity, the control of local administration should strictly fall within the purview of the state or regional government. But many analysts have argued that the manner in which this control is being exercised in Nigeria is antithetical not only to the principles of federalism but also to the basic tenets of democracy. The failure of state governments to ensure that elections are conducted into local government councils is not justifiable on any ground going by Section 7 of the constitution.
The reason for the governors’ preference for caretaker committees to run the local government areas is more often than not so that the committees can be dissolved and reconstituted at will. Observers believe that the local government has become “a fishing ground for the big boys.” They put whosoever they desire at the helm of affairs. And taking undue advantage of the joint account with the local governments, state governors now determine how much should go to the councils, contrary to the actual amount allocated to them.
House of Representatives to the Rescue
It was against this background that the House of Representatives and the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) last week reached an accord on the need to entrench full administrative and financial autonomy in the local government system.
Under the new accord, the House of Representatives has pledged to use the opportunity provided by the ongoing review of the 1999 Constitution to make clear provisions for a local government system that will not be tied to the apron strings of the state government. In addition, the House is considering an amendment to the constitution that will restrict the release of the monthly allocation accruing to the States/Local Government Joint Accounts to only states that have democratically elected local councils.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, gave this hint when he hosted the executive committee of ALGON who paid him a courtesy visit at the National Assembly complex. He noted that it was not the intention of the framers of the 1999 Constitution that the local government councils should be subsumed under the states.
“The House is seriously considering passing an amendment to guarantee the financial autonomy of local government councils. What we are thinking is to tie the release of funds to the condition that states must have democratically elected local councils.
“However, the local government councils have a lot of advocacy to do at the state level. They must be prepared to work with the state Houses of Assembly to pass the amendments to the constitution when it comes. The state Houses of Assembly should also be prepared to accept amendments for their own financial autonomy as well as the autonomy of the legislative arms of the local government councils,” Tambuwal said.
The speaker emphasised that the proposed amendments were not designed to fight anybody or group but to ensure that democracy and good governance were fully entrenched at the three tiers of government in Nigeria. He described political power as transient and urged all those in political positions today to do the right thing for the growth of democracy in the country.
Earlier, the ALGON delegation, led by the national president of the association and chairman, Enugu South local government council, Mr. Uzor Nwabueze Okafor, requested the House of Representatives to rescue the local government system from the stranglehold of the state governments.
In his remarks, Okafor identified the challenges faced by the local government system to include the refusal of many states to conduct periodic elections at the local councils and the lack of direct access to funds accruing to councils from the Federation Account. According to him, the situation of the local councils was a negation of the stipulations of Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution.
It remains to be seen if the federal and state legislators would see the local government system through its present difficulties.