Battle for the Soul of Local Governments

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Davidson Iriekpen joins the debate on whether the conduct of local government elections should be transferred to the Independent National Electoral Commission or not

During the last local government election in Edo State, there was an allegation that while voting was ongoing in a stronghold of the opposition, where the ruling party was likely to lose, suddenly all the candidates of the ruling party were declared winners of an election that was yet to be concluded.

At the end of the elections, not only did the ruling party clear the 19 chairmanship seats, but all the councillorship seats as well.

In Lagos State recently, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) cleared all the 57 chairmanship seats and 369 councillorship positions out of the 376 leaving only seven to the opposition.

The two states are not the only culprits in this game of ‘landslide victories’ over opposition candidates by the ruling party at the state level. Since 2015, no fewer than 12 states that have conducted local government elections have witnessed the ruling parties clearing the entire results. For instance, in Kebbi and Benue states recently, the APC swept all the chairmanship seats and councillorship positions. The same goes for states governed by the PDP.

Perhaps, this was why the Senate during its plenary session last month, proposed the alteration, as part of constitutional reforms, to make local governments independent of states. The upper chamber argued that allowing states to oversee local government elections makes a mess of the call for autonomy, as it moved that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should conduct local polls.

Before then, the debate for local government autonomy has been on the front burner over the years on the ground that governors usurp the powers of the councils. In most cases, instead of governors allowing elections to take place at the council, they resort to using administrators thereby denying the people at the grassroots the ability to choose who run the affairs of their councils. The norm now is that ruling parties used states’ apparatus and electoral commissions to have their way.

For instance, before the council elections in Lagos State, several issues, ranging from the controversial primaries of the APC, the state Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC) administrative fees, the surreptitious amendment of the state electoral law by the state’s House of Assembly and its speedy approval by the governor that same day among other developments were expected to affect the outcome of the polls. But in the end, the result was not different from the usual.

Although the Senate proposal is at variance with the cries for devolution of powers from the centre to the states, as it would increase the administrative burden of the national electoral umpire, many see it as a solution to what they described as autocracy of state governors.

In fact, since the commencement of the current lap of Nigerian democracy in 1999, state governors have become like emperors in their domains where they trample on the rights and even the finances of the local councils. Almost all the governors have virtually stifled democracy at the grassroots because of the illegal demand not only to control the funds accruable to the councils from the federation accounts but also to force their brand of democracy on the people. Rather than give the councils the autonomy that the constitution envisaged would engender development of the tier that is closest to the people, the governors, in most cases, find excuses to turn the local governments to pawns in their selfish power games. These excuses have made them to install interim administrators to run the affairs of the councils.

Where it is obvious that the ruling party and the governor may not have their way in winning a free and fair contest to control council administrations, they either seek the protection of a manipulated judiciary or go all out to embark on bare-faced rigging through their control of their electoral commissions which are anything but independent.

Even when there is a change of government that resulted in the council administrations falling on the side of opposition platforms, state governors, like it recently happened in Ondo with the emergence of the APC government of Rotimi Akeredolu, have a way of dissolving the third tier by fiat before getting dubious judicial covers for their actions. And because political control of the councils is necessary to build a hegemony that many governors crave especially in securing re-election, the local government became important building blocks in the construction of their power edifices.

Many analysts have argued that the mismanagement of the grassroots electoral process by the states is usually cited by those who opposed the idea of introducing state police. They argue that with the way many governors, who refuse to remove the log in their eyes but complain about the speck in the eyes of the president, manage their states, especially council funds and politics, the state police would definitely be turned into a terror gang to haunt and hunt the opposition.

While meeting with senior journalists in Abuja recently, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, attested to the sham called local government elections when he described the conduct of the polls as a shame and mockery of democracy. He added that the current system was not working.

The speaker said the local government elections have benefited only those who constituted themselves into middlemen to grab the resources meant for the development of the grassroots. He accused the state electoral commissions of promoting a mockery of democracy by organising elections where only one political party wins.

“If we keep sticking to it and expecting it to work someday, I don’t know who termed it as the very definition of foolishness. I have never seen where democracy is mocked like in Nigerian local government elections, so I don’t see how we can continue to mock ourselves that we are practising democracy at the third tier of government.”

According to him, repeated efforts to grant autonomy to local governments through constitutional reviews have remained a mirage because of vested interests. He posited that as long as the resources appropriated to councils are mismanaged by a powerful few, so long would it remain the bane of development in Nigeria.

He said: “If local governments are able to achieve autonomy, it will improve the pool of quality leadership that will manage the resources at that level more efficiently and at the end of the day. We can have an oasis of prosperity in the desert of nothingness and instead of all our people migrating to the cities, they will be able to find some kind of prosperity at the local level that can sustain them.’’

For instance, the National Chairman of the Progressive Peoples Alliance, Peter Ameh, said was it was important that the conduct of local government elections should be transferred to INEC because it was impossible to get a free and fair election under the current arrangement. “The current system encourages massive rigging because SIECs are under the control of the state governments which belong to a political party. As we have seen over the years, parties which control states will stop at nothing to tailor the results in their favour.

“You will discover that all council elections conducted in states are won by the party in power; the opposition is left with nothing. If local authorities have autonomy and tenure guarantees, it will be easy for the people to hold them to account. This will, in turn, bring development closer to the people.

“Look at Federal Capital Territory council elections for instance, consider the history of victories. No matter who is in government at the centre or as the minister, you will find that other political parties with strong candidates have often emerged victorious,” he said.

On his part, a lawyer, Mr. Malachy Ugwumadu, observed: “This has to do with the operation of the concept of federalism. INEC is an establishment created under Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution and has the responsibility to conduct elections in the country. The need to have an equivalent of INEC at the state level for the purpose of the local government elections was borne out of the same concept of federalism.

“The concept recognises the juxtaposition of power at the national and state levels. That concept inherent in it also advocates the notion of independence at that state level.

“If we admit that proper federalism is to be practised in Nigeria, the federating states should have the capacity to conduct their own elections. That is the argument for the state electoral commissions. However, we have come to see that we cannot continue to create further crises in a bid to operationalise federalism as conceived in developed countries.

“Remember that these advanced countries have gone beyond the mundane challenges of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability. These are political vices that make nonsense of our federalism. Therefore, as seen from the Nigerian experience, it is best to allow INEC superintend over these elections.

“Much as I concede that this will run contrary to the concept of federalism, our experience has shown that the same way houses of assembly have become an appendage of the state governments, what happens during local government elections is usually the wish of the incumbent state government.

“It has, therefore, become difficult for opposing parties to win local government elections in a state. Whereas INEC is independent, the state electoral bodies are not. I, therefore, agree that perhaps, what can happen is that, INEC should have a supervisory role rather than taking over completely the activities of the state electoral commissions.”

However, the Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party in Ekiti State, Jackson Adebayo, reasoned otherwise. He said: “In a normal democratic federation, each unit of the federation should have its own electoral body. While the federal government manages the body that conducts national election, the local election should be left in the hands of state governments.

“INEC, as created by the constitution, is to conduct elections into the offices of the president, governors, and members of the National Assembly, state Houses of Assembly as well as elected officials of the Federal Capital Territory.

“INEC, as presently constituted, has failed the majority of Nigerians because it has too much to chew. It has become irresponsible and easily manipulated. With the political culture in Nigeria, it will be a disaster if INEC conducts local government elections, especially in opposition states because of greed and nepotism. Those who drafted the constitution must have thought of this when leaving local governments out of areas where INEC conducts elections. I can only agree that INEC should conduct local government elections if Nigeria is restructured.”

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The norm now is that ruling parties used states’ apparatus and electoral commissions to have their way.