There is need to redefine the role and structure of the local government

The 1999 constitution (as amended) provides for a three-tier government, namely federal, state and local governments. In fact the constitution clearly defines the federating units of Nigeria and the local government areas in section 3(1) stating that there shall be 36 states in the country, and in section 3(6), that there shall be 768 local government areas in Nigeria as shown in the second column of Part 1 of the First Schedule of the constitution. But while there may be no ambiguity concerning the existence of the local government system of administration in the country, governors in virtually all the 36 states have since 1999 rendered that tier of government practically ineffectual.

The 1999 Constitution in its Fourth Schedule outlined the functions, duties and responsibilities of the local councils. Unfortunately, the same constitution is silent regarding any protective mechanism that guarantees financial and political autonomy to the councils. And to the extent that most of these crucial decisions are left at the whims of the state governors, it stands to reason that they are in control, perhaps because they are also held to account by their people for responsibilities that ordinarily should be that of local governments.

It is within that context that we should examine the call made last week by President Muhammadu Buhari for a constitutional amendment that would free local governments from the stranglehold of state governments. “The relationship between the three tiers of government is not a very nice one, especially that between the local governments and the states. The states feel like they own the local governments if they are of the same party. It is worse if they are not. This is a very serious constitutional problem” said Buhari while receiving officials of the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON).

While we share the misgivings of the president that in Nigeria today, most of the governors have deliberately emasculated the local government system in their states thereby preventing its growth as a truly separate and independent tier of government, it is neither practical nor expedient to expect that there is an easy way out. As things stand today, the best way to resolve this stalemate is through a constitutional review that will redefine the role and structure of the local government.

Even though section 7 of the 1999 Constitution states categorically that the councils shall be run by elected officials, most state governors prefer to appoint “caretaker committee” members so as to control the local government funds. But it is also a fact that the states bear many of the responsibilities that ordinarily should belong to that tier of government. It is perhaps for that reason that many of the governors do not see the need for the existence of local governments as a separate arm of government. Even those who believe they should stand on their own also argue that they have to be subsumed under the state governments which then mean they cannot be autonomous.

This newspaper has consistently called for a review of the present local administration system, essentially because at stake in the whole controversy is the issue of joint accounts held by the two but administered by the states. In most cases, the governors are only willing to release funds for recurrent and administrative expenditure with only a little cash to spare for the caretaker administrators. Even in releasing such money they do it with fanfare as though they were dispensing personal favour to the individuals who relish being considered for the post of “caretaker committee” chairmen.

However, as earlier stated, the ultimate solution will be in allowing every state to determine and run its own local government administration within the context of a restructured Nigeria.