Who benefits from Local Government Autonomy?

AYODELE OKUNFOLAMI argues that local governments should be made administrative departments of states

Last Thursday, June 13, 2024, Justice Garba Lawal, who led the seven-member panel of Justices of the Supreme Court reserved judgement on a suit filed by the federal government against the 36 state governors to enforce the autonomy of administration of local government areas as stipulated in the Nigerian constitution. The Attorney General of the Federation, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), had gone to the apex court to issue an order prohibiting state governors from embarking on unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected local government leaders. The AGF also wants the Supreme Court to make an order permitting the funds standing in the credits of local governments to be directly channelled to them from the Federation Account as against joint accounts created by governors.

This move by the AGF of the federation is not the first. Talks on granting financial autonomy to local government councils have been ongoing in this fourth republic and probably the Supreme Court ruling, if this suit ends gets a logical conclusion, will put pay to the argument. Ironically, Lateef Fagbemi as a then private lawyer was on the side of the governors in December 2022 when he served as plaintiff for the governors against Buhari administration’s attempt to enforce constitutional provisions stipulating autonomy for LGAs. What has changed? Is the AGF playing politics or just does the bidding of his paymaster per time?

The local government councils are seen as the closest to the people and so word on the street is that if granted autonomy, the move on the dial for upward development would be made. However, things are not as direct as that. It is akin to the recurring arguments of state policing, federalism, changing to parliamentary system of government, electoral reforms and other Nigerian topics that get us full throated. Now, some overpaid idle hands have brought back the dim-witted proposal of a six-year single term rotational presidency. Besides these things having a way of distracting us from the more urgent issues, it slyly absorbs the elected leadership of its failures which in my opinion is the problem.

My knowledge on constitutional matters is pedestrian and will therefore not go through that turf, I would rather we looked at the issue more wholistically and less emotively so that we will not put ourselves in another legal logjam that would then require another constitutional amendment or Supreme Court verdict to untangle.

Before we give financial autonomy, we need to be concerned about the people we directly want to hand this money to. The quasi-democratic way local government chairmen and councillors are being (s)elected leaves much to be desired. There is usually acute voter apathy during grassroot polls. The electorate seem to be more interested, vocal and assertive about the personality and performance of the president, governor and national assembly members but indifferent about the local chairs. But do we blame the voter? These elections are so predictable in favour of the party of the sitting governor, that is why we see no difference between a “democratically elected” chairman and an imposed sole administrator. Local council polls is seen more like a rigged referendum in favour of a sitting governor than a fair competitive exercise to pick a chairman. Take the optics of it for a moment, is it not an oddity that a strong political party would win more than a third of the votes in the general elections across a state but can’t win a counsellorship seat in a ward within its political stronghold?

Opposition political parties don’t help matters either. It is common practice to have grand rallies on the eve of governorship elections where party bigwigs from all around the federation converge on any square, ground or stadium to support and raise the hand of the party’s flag bearer in order to woo voters. This is absent in local government campaigns. The individual candidates themselves often don’t take their push beyond the uninspired, only to cry foul after the results don’t go their way. At least at my own end of town, I have never witnessed door-to-door drives for votes in the fairly small sized administrative territory.

Some have suggested that the Independent National Electoral Commission be given the mandate to conduct the grassroots elections instead of the States Independent Electoral Commission. I think this constitutional proposal negates the principle of true federalism that the AGF is proposing. Also, the INEC-conducted local council area elections of the Federal Capital Territory over time have followed the low-voter-turnout and ruling-party-victory patterns observed by elections conducted by SIECs. In other words, it is beyond who conducts the election. Just as INEC was knocked in the past for its questioned impartiality but is becoming more credible, the SIECs should also be given some time to be built up as strong independent institutions.

Fiscal self-sufficiency for the lowest tier of government is another hot potato that affects LGs as going concerns. If allocations meant for this level of government continues to pass through the state government, it becomes awkward demanding accountability for primary school education and primary healthcare from the chairs or counsellors. Do the counsellors even have appropriation bills or laws? We are in a society where we consult and demand more from traditional leaders ahead of LG chairs over community matters putting further dent on the roles of the so-called tier of government.

The AGF should remember that both chambers of the National Assembly had voted about two years ago for LG autonomy in one of its perennial constitutional amendment exercises which was rejected by no fewer than 11 states. We should rethink this thing.

In my opinion, sovereign LGs may give us a dubious federal structure where states governments become weaker. We already have state governors passing the buck of infrastructure to the centre calling some roads federal. Autonomous LGs will now make them lazier as they would hands off primary healthcare and education. That aside, states are today claiming insolvency and inability to pay minimum wage, pensions and other fiscal responsibilities; is it local governments that have been unable to handle drainages and cholera that we expect to pay salaries? Will local government chairs now be given security votes to tackle insecurity?

Have we considered the politics? We know how tyrannical the Governors’ Forum can be, what then happens when we now have Chairmen’s Forum consisting of 774 members (more than the entire National Assembly)?! Are we now going to have 774 people marching to Abuja monthly for their allocations?

As we anticipate the Supreme Court judgement, I would rather we looked beyond a judicial pronouncement to political and sustainable solutions. First, the AGF as a member of the Federal Executive Council, instead of meeting sparingly only to approve questionable and inflated contracts, he should table before his colleagues who are former governors on why they disapprove of LG autonomy. He can also use his office to renegotiate the sharing formula because if the idea of LG autonomy is development, then the LGs 774 local councils cannot continue to get a paltry 20 percent of the federal allocation while the FG gets the lion share of more than 52 percent.

Unfortunately, this LG autonomy is having a pitch of a battle against governors. It should actually be a fight for the overall development of Nigeria. So, I would also suggest that just as Lagos State LG allocations were withheld during Obasanjo’s administration, the AGF can ask for a legal permit for the FG to withhold LG allocations of states that have undemocratic heads of councils aka Care Taker Chairmen. At least, this can get at governors that have refused to do the needful.

Finally, I propose that as an alternative to making this tier of government autonomous, we should make them administrative departments not political entities.  What this implies is that instead of having to continuously cast meaningless votes that produce stereotypical results for handicapped executives, the state governors appoint senior civil servants to manage all the government agencies in the local council. These council managers will serve as intermediaries between the local community and government. What it also implies is that there would be no more federal allocations for local governments. What will be obtainable will just be federal and states’ accounts and those state allocations should no more be based on the number of local governments that were unrighteously balkanised by the military.

Okunfolami writes from

Festac, Lagos

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