There is a growing desire for autonomy at the third tier of government and a mounting debate over the propriety of the idea, writes Jaiyeola Andrews
There has been a sustained argument that the 774 local government areas, which form the third tier of government in Nigeria, are contributing to little to national development to justify their existence. Few would dispute that the local governments have not really facilitated rapid development at the grassroots, which is the essence of their creation.
The failure of the councils to discharge their role well has tended to make them unpopular before the citizens, as council officials are better known for their ability to squander funds meant for service delivery at the grassroots.
Under the Stranglehold of States
The problem of the local governments is even compounded by the unbridled interference of the state governments. In many cases, elected council executives are dissolved by the state governments without due process. Some are suspended for reasons that more often than not border on petty politics.
Constitutionally, local governments in Nigeria are not autonomous; they are creations of their respective states, which makes it difficult for them to exercise financial independence. Analysts have identified this lack of independence as the bane of effective local government operation in the country.
The state governments have a stranglehold on the local government system, and this is accentuated by the fact that the election of most council officials is sponsored by the state governors. The governors’ control of the grassroots through the elected councils is often seen as a measure of their control of the states’ political structures.
State/Local Government Joint Account
The law setting up local governments makes provision for the establishment of a state/local government joint account committee in each of the states. Ordinarily, this is meant as an avenue for effective disbursement and channeling of funds from the Federation Account and the states to developmental projects at the local government level. But in reality, the state/local government joint account committees exist as virtual drainpipes for the diversion and siphoning of council resources by the state governments.
Consequently, even when the heads of the local governments desire to be committed to effective discharge of their roles, they are often hampered by largely politician-made inadequacy of funds.
Despite the problems of the local government system, the preponderance of opinion seems to be that the third tier government remains an essential instrument of national development. Rather than scrap the system, most people argue, it should be reformed and made more financially independent for effective performance.
The struggle for local government autonomy in Nigeria is as old as the history of Nigeria. During the colonial period, there were reforms through the Northern Nigeria, Western Nigeria, and Eastern Nigeria local government laws of 1954, which were meant to democratise local government administration. Despite these attempts, the regional governments at the time maintained a strong grip on the local governments for various political reasons. The situation did not improve until the 1976 local government reforms.
Erosion of Local Democracy
The federal government spearheaded the reform to achieve local government autonomy. The federal government had observed that state governments continued to encroach on the exclusive powers and responsibilities of the local governments. The 1976 local government reform led to some observable improvement in the independence of the councils, as their place was specifically defined in the 1979 Constitution.
The 1979 Constitution said, “The system of democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed.” Despite the fact that the local government system is entrenched in the constitution as a third tier of government, successive civilian administrations since 1979 have seriously ignored the autonomy rule. Ironically, the military regimes appeared to fare better in terms of guaranteeing the autonomy of the local governments.
Merits versus Demerits of Autonomy
Proponents of council autonomy believe that it would help the course of grassroots development by eliminating the negative influence and interference of the state governors. Other benefits of local government autonomy, they say, include guaranteeing the right of the council heads to govern and manage their natural resources using appropriate planning standards; opportunity to design appropriate policies, programmes and projects suited to peculiar areas; preservation of the cultural heritage of communities; and effectively delivery of democratic dividends to the grassroots.
However, some analysts have also identified the disadvantages of an autonomous local council system to include additional burden on the managerial and technical capability of the councils; delay of critical decisions, policies and programmes by local politics; and unrestrained corruption.
The Case for Autonomy
The predominant viewpoint, however, seems to be that the country needs autonomous local governments for effective local administration. Analysts also advocate appropriate laws to check possible excesses of the officials in an autonomous local government system.
A Peoples Democratic Party governorship candidate in Lagos State at the 2011 general election, Dr. Ade Dosunmu, said, “Within the context of stimulating development through the participatory governance at the grassroots, autonomy therefore becomes very crucial to imbue transparency, accountability and necessary oversights for managing resources. Lack of transparency and accountability in resource management at the local government level is also a direct consequence of lack of capacity amongst the people at the grassroots to engage the system for transparency and accountability.
“Autonomy in relative sense would also translate into political engagement for the people because some semblance of democratic culture, rather than the roguish emasculation of the electoral process as manifested by the meddlesomeness of political overlords at the state level, would have been significantly addressed.
“For a country with a population in far excess of 120 million people, there is no way the federal and state governments can make meaningful impact in the lives of the people without effective and efficient local governments.
“The British colonial authority realised this very much, when it introduced the first Native Administration Ordinance No. 4 of 1916. The purpose is to bring governance closer to the people, aside other interests at that time. Although the importance of grassroots government is not lost on successive governments (military and civilians) in Nigeria, the challenge has been that of efficiency and service delivery.
“Unfortunately, the local government system has been a shadow of it envisaged role; offering little or nothing to the overall development of the country.”
Dosunmu admitted that “nothing is fundamentally wrong with the local government system in Nigeria, except that it lacks the political will and financial autonomy to perform its statutory functions, duties and responsibilities as stipulated by the laws which also need to be revisited in the light of emerging realities.”
There is a school of thought that believes the top-bottom strategy of development being practised in Nigeria in relation to grassroots development has not worked. Proponents of this view advocate the removal of local governments from the constitution to allow states to solely create local councils if they need them – unlike the current system where states create local governments that must, however, be approved by the National Assembly. This school of thought wants autonomy and a constitutionally fixed tenure for local governments.
The House of Representatives member for Kabba/Bunn/Ijumu Federal Constituency of Kogi State, Hon. Tajudeen Ayo Yusuf, said the constitution expressly recognises that there are three tiers of government, with each tier designed to be independent in practice, control and operation. Unfortunately, he said, “The local government councils are not autonomous in real terms. It is clearly an aberration. It negates the spirit and principles of the constitution in relation to the recognition of the three tiers of government as distinct.
“It is a misnomer that since the advent of democratic rule in Nigeria in 1999 about 80 per cent of the state governments have never and do not have duly elected local government councils in place. In most cases, these local government councils are seen and treated like appendages of the state government. This is not good for meaningful political development and negates strict adherence to the constitution of the country.”
Yusuf regretted the situation where the governors appoint local government commissioners to supervise the councils.
“The argument being advanced for the retention of this status quo that local government councils do not have the requisite capacity to be autonomous is not realistic and tenable. To be honest, one can equally swing this logic to the other end. In reality, many states do not have the requisite human capital to drive their programmes, policies and projects.
“To bridge this shortfall in capacity, some state governments embark on regular training, re-training and exposure of personnel to modern programmes, planning modules and implementation strategies to enhance efficiency and productivity. The same human capacity development initiative can be extended to the local government councils,” Yusuf maintained.
National president of National Association of Nigerian Students, Mr. Dauda Mohammed, in Jos recently, called for a review of the constitution to make the local governments as well as the states Houses of Assembly and the judiciary truly independent. H e said, “This will surely further strengthen our democratic process and promote accountability at the various tiers of government.”
Abolition of Joint Committee
Last year, the chairman of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, Mr. Elias Mbam, recommended the abolition of the State and Local government Joint Accounts in states to ensure the autonomy, transparency and accountability of local government administration in the country.
Records show that as far back as 1955 to 1965, local governments generated about 12 per cent of public revenues, before the advent of the country’s oil economy. Experts say the negative influence of state governors on the councils through the state/local government joint accounts has effectively eroded the lofty contributions of local government to national development.
To address the anomalies in the local government system, three bills seeking autonomy for the councils – sponsored by two members of the House of Representatives and a senator have passed second reading at the respective chambers and have been referred to the National Assembly ad-hoc committees on constitutional review. Separately sponsored by Mrs. Uche Ekwunife and Mohammed Shamsidin Ango Abdulahi at the lower chamber and Senator Nurudeen Abatemi Usman at the upper chamber, the bills basically aim to establish an autonomous and effective local government system in the country.
Buttressing his position on the autonomy of the local councils recently, Usman revealed that virtually all the corruption cases against former state governors before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission have their roots in the state/local government joint accounts.
As the debate over local government autonomy intensifies, experts say a major constitutional crisis may await the country if the issue of the fiscal powers and responsibilities of the local governments is not properly addressed