Stakeholders’ conversation with editors emphasises the need for persistent advocacy, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
The table was actually not round at the media executives’ roundtable organised on Thursday by the Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn, a non-governmental organisation that supports how governments organize their core business of making, implementing, tracking and accounting for policies, plans and budgets used in delivering public goods and services to the citizenry, and how citizens themselves engage with these processes.
Organised in collaboration with another NGO, Democracy Vanguard, with the support of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, it was to provide a platform for key leaders in the media to reflect on contemporary governance challenges and reforms in the country, especially at the
Proceeding from the theme, “Enhancing Governance and Service Delivery at the Subnational Level: Leveraging
on the ongoing Constitution Amendment Exercise,” the organisers highlighted the key bills that survived the fifth alterations to the 1999 Constitution as altered at the National Assembly and wanted to know how the media could help to project them for passage by the state Houses of Assembly.
After some false starts, the National Assembly had eventually passed 44 of the 68 bills intended to alter the provisions of the constitution that inhibit service delivery at the subnational level, particularly at the local councils. Of more interest are those bills that would strengthen local government administration by enhancing and deepening its administrative and financial independence.
The significance of local administration as a catalyst for the rapid and wholesome development of the nation has always been known. Indeed not a few development experts have argued that given its nearness to the larger population of Nigerians, any talk of concrete growth and development without reforming the councils for greater efficiency in service delivery would be a loose one.
In spite of this general awareness of the positive potential of the councils, the states have continued to undermine them, usurping not only their constitutionally guaranteed responsibilities but also arresting the finances that could have been used by them for service delivery. When the states are not refusing to hold elections into the councils as mandated by the constitution, they are busy dissolving the few ones that have been democratically elected.
Concerned by the destructive arbitrariness of the states, the federal government tried to restore sanity through President Muhammadu Buhari’s Executive Order 10 of 2020, which sort to assert the authority of the constitution by instructing the Accountant-General of the Federation to ensure that the council’s share of the Federation Account gets to them directly. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upon a suit filed by the states struck down the executive order as unconstitutional.
In an obvious response to this judicial strengthening of states arbitrariness and popular clamour for council autonomy, the federal legislature in its fifth alteration to the constitution passed two bills to remedy the situation. Bill No 1 is An Act to alter the CFRN, 1999 to abrogate the State Joint Local Government Accounts and Provide for a special account into which shall be paid all allocations due to Local Government Councils from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State and for related matters. It altered Section 162 and related clauses, which provided for the joint account that the states had used to strangulate the councils and made fresh provisions to grant them financial independence.
Bill No 2, An Act to alter the provisions of the CFRN, 1999 to establish Local Government Councils as a tier of government and guarantee their democratic existence, tenure; and related matters, alters Section 7 and makes it clearer in its intention to enshrine democracy at the tier. It insulates the councils from the overbearing control of the states by guaranteeing their tenure and making explicit their functions.
The two bills along with the 42 others have now been sent to the state Houses of Assembly for passage. To pass, 24 of the 36 houses have to approve them to meet the threshold. The challenge now is the opposition of the state governors who have a stranglehold on the assemblies and may bully them to decline concurrence.
This is why PERL and its allies have turned to the media, asking what it could do to rein in the recalcitrant and essentially not-fit-for purpose governors who are bent on derailing the alterations at the state level. The call for help from that quarter makes sense given the historical impact of the media on public policy formulation and implementation in the country. This much was made clear by Soni Irabor, media icon and communication guru, who, despite just recovering from ill-health, still delivered a well-researched keynote address, which specified the role of the media in the matter as holding the governors to account by persistently highlighting the bills as substantial palliatives to the serious governance issues of the moment.
The challenge to the execution of this mandate, as Reuben Abati, another media guru and public policy analyst, puts it, however, is the timing of the consideration of the bills, which falls within the 2023 electioneering period. Not only would the politicians be busy with politicking, the media would also be preoccupied with the coverage of the campaigns. So, what is to be done?
Editors in the hall after receiving insights from an array of experts gave useful pieces of advice, principal among which is that stakeholders would have to keep the issues alive by sustaining the conversations around concrete activities, including monitoring the assemblies’ consideration of the bills for active media coverage.
Overall, it was a useful conversation, which laid bare the significant milestones of the fifth alteration and the challenges ahead that the media needs to help tackle in the belief that everyone stands to gain from its successful outcome.
It is also important that the point was made and understood that the media on its own could do nothing unless the stakeholders generate the activities and the content for it to use to agitate the minds of the public for the necessary support for the desired outcome. A point appreciated by NERL’s Adiya Ode, who promised to keep the conversation alive through further engagements with the media.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from email@example.com