On the Issue of Council Autonomy

SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE! simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE! simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

By simon kolawole

The Bola Tinubu administration is at loggerheads with the states over local government autonomy. The federal government filed a lawsuit against the 36 governors at the Supreme Court seeking an order to allow federation allocations to be credited directly to the accounts of the councils, to stop the governors from constituting caretaker committees to run council affairs, and to restrain the governors from receiving, spending, or tampering with funds released from the federation account for the benefit of local governments when no democratically elected system is in place. In one word, the federal government wants the local councils to be autonomous — like the states themselves.

While we await the ruling of the Supreme Court, I have been reading arguments on the merits and demerits of council autonomy. Those in support of autonomy argue that being the closest government to the people, councils should be politically and economically independent, with democratically elected leaders. Those against autonomy think the councils could go on the loose with public funds, like state governments, if they have unfettered access to allocations. President Olusegun Obasanjo once called them “774 stealing centres”. There seems to be not much rigorous diagnosis of why the councils are weak. We tend to think it is all down to autonomy or lack of it.

To resolve my dilemma, I have tried to understand the place of councils in federal set-ups across the world. For a federal system — or any system whatsoever — to connect properly with the people, there must be a well-run grassroots governance which is devoid of any other layer between the government and the communities. It can be called local government areas (LGAs), municipalities, counties, councils, boroughs, whatever. They typically do drain management, sanitation, waste collection, street lightning, roads, and other essential services delegated by superior governments. The devolution of power across the world is effected mainly through the empowerment of councils.

Some advocates of federalism will say there are only two tiers in a federal system. That is 95 percent correct. Federalism is a union of two equal tiers of government — the centre (federal) and the states (subnational). Councils are an administrative, not federative, unit. But things are changing with the need to deepen democracy. In his article, ‘Local governments in federal systems: deepening federal democracy?’, Prof Nico Steytler, a South African scholar, notes that “local government is increasingly recognized in federal constitutions as an order of government, alongside the federal and state governments, with the right to a measure of autonomy regarding the affairs of the local community”.

In 1988, for instance, the Federative Republic of Brazil elevated councils (“municipio”) to a tier of government and granted them total autonomy from the states. In the Commonwealth of Australia, which is also a federation, local governments are treated as the third tier but with limited autonomy. Its federal constitution does not expressly mention local governments. Attempts were made to include them in the federal constitution but the referendums in 1974 and 1988 did not succeed. As things stand, every state constitution recognises local governments in its own territory. However, in Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, local authorities self-govern but they are not a federative unit.

In opposing the idea of council autonomy in Nigeria, some campaigners argue that the LGAs were created by the military and the numbers disproportionately favour the north. They posit that because the north has more LGAs than the south, granting councils autonomy and releasing their federation allocations directly to them will entrench injustice and imbalance in the political economy. I really don’t understand this logic, but I admit that emotional arguments are usually like that. I prefer we focus the debate on how to reform the councils to deliver governance to the grassroots — including a functioning primary health care system and improved enrolment in primary schools.

It is argued in some corners that Lagos and Kano used to have the same number of LGAs but Kano has now more than doubled the size of Lagos state. Kano has 44 and Lagos has 20. Jigawa, which was carved out of Kano in 1991, has 27. This takes the old Kano state to 71 LGAs “whereas Lagos remains stuck at 20”. On this basis, some are opposed to council autonomy “until Nigeria is restructured and the injustice is rectified”. However, some of these figures are incorrect and the comparison of Lagos with Kano only shows how data can be deployed to validate bias. In fact, at no time did Kano and Lagos states have the same number of LGAs. In 1979, Lagos had eight LGAs and the old Kano had 20.

At independence, the LGAs were called Native Authorities. Actually, there were a total of 246 NAs as at 1950, with the north alone having 144 (59 percent). The West (today’s south-west plus Edo and Delta states) had 55 and the East (south-east and south-south, minus Edo and Delta) had 47. That was what we inherited from the colonial masters. It is, therefore, disingenuous to hold the military responsible for the configuration. I am not sure of the criteria used in creating the LGAs, but I do not think landmass — which advantages the north — was the sole consideration. Otherwise, Toro LGA, which is about the same size as Lagos state, will not be just one local government in Bauchi state.

Although, the Lagos/Kano comparison is whipped up perennially to enhance the argument about northern domination of Nigeria, I do not think we should discount it. It serves a purpose. Without these debates, there may not be serious attempts to even things up in the federation. However, we cannot stretch the Lagos/Kano too far. The old Oyo state had only 11 LGAs at creation in 1976 but now has 33. Add that to the 30 LGAs in Osun state, which was carved out of Oyo state in 1991, and the old Oyo state now has 63. The old Imo had 20 LGAs in 1979. Today, it has 27 while Abia, carved out of the state in 1991, has 17. That is a total of 44. Ebonyi, partly carved out of Imo in 1996, has 13.

We can spend so much time arguing over “northern domination” of the national cake and then forget the real issue at stake: how to make the councils work better for the grassroots and for our democracy. If the councils do well, many things we complain about will be fixed: the roads in front of our houses, the drainage on our streets, the attention at the primary health care where basic treatments and drugs are supposed to be available, the sanitation of our environments and the enrolment of children into primary schools. If the councils continue to function like they do, we will continue to suffer from governance deficit. That is what we should be discussing, not Lord Lugard.

Even though I have a dilemma over the issue of local government autonomy, I still have a bias. I try to be as practical as possible because of the way we are. Given our history and practice of federalism and democracy in Nigeria, council autonomy will not work. The capacity is not there. The governance structure is weak. Pouring trillions of naira directly to the local governments will change nothing. We would just end up with a new generation of political billionaires. We are already dealing with waste and corruption at the federal and state levels. Only very few councils are manned by competent hands. That is the reality — the unfortunate situation we have found ourselves as a people.

I tend to prefer the Australian model for the councils. In Australia, LGAs are not treated as a tier of government and do not have direct relationship with the federal government. Rather, they operate as administrative units for the states to deliver household services to the grassroots. They build infrastructure, provide community facilities such as libraries and parks, maintain local roads and handle town planning and development approvals. I seem to prefer an amendment to the Nigerian constitution to define and place the councils as administrative units of the states. Let the states “own” the local councils and deploy them as their foot soldiers for service delivery to the people.

Nonetheless, there should be a democratic system of electing the officials to manage the political affairs of the councils, though this will be influenced by the governors. What we call council elections today are appointments made by the governors and formalised through the ballot. There is no need to deceive ourselves. But, still, there should be periodic elections. Enough of this caretaker joke. I think that every state should create as many councils as it wants as long as it can fund them. India, with a population of 1.1 billion, has 250,000 councils. The US, with a population of 328 million, has 90,000. Switzerland, with eight million people, has 2,775. Nigeria, with 200 million people, has 774.

Finally, I also think that the state joint local government account — into which councils’ allocations are paid and which the states habitually sit upon — should be abolished. All federation allocations to the councils should go to the states directly. Let them develop an equitable sharing formula in line with their priorities. Fair enough, councils have tax handles allocated to them in the constitution, so they can also generate revenue in addition to whatever they get from the federation through the states. I do not know if my suggestions would solve the problems at hand, but the reality on the ground is that the current system is not working for the people. We need to try something new.



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