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Let’s revisit the local government system

The local government has been problematic since the 1976 local government reforms elevated it to a third tier of government. The system has never been…

The local government has been problematic since the 1976 local government reforms elevated it to a third tier of government. The system has never been fully operated as a third tier of government. It is more correct to say it has been operated with unsatisfactory results as appendages of the state governments. The Nigerian state funds the 774 local government councils but the state governors claim their ownership. This is a peculiar anomaly for our democracy.

Whatever plans the generals had to make the local government a third tier of government in law and in practice was scuttled by the civilian governors as soon as they assumed office in 1979. Just to make sure we knew they owned the local councils, they dissolved them and sent the elected chairmen and councillors home. They then instituted a form of government not recognised by the constitution called interim local government councils. Some of the states did not bother to conduct local council elections until the military returned to power in the dying days of 1983 and once more locked the gates of democracy.

This continues to be the practice that defines the fate of the local councils. One of the first things new state governors do on assuming power is the dissolution of the councils elected under the watch of their predecessors. The ostensible reason for this clear breach of the constitution is that state governors pack the local councils with their former thugs and other acolytes who act as conduit pipes for draining council funds into the pockets of the state governors.

It is natural for the new state governors to fear that the chairmen and the councillors owe their loyalty to the governors that appointed them and are likely to do their bidding rather than the bidding of their new masters. The Plateau State governor was the first to dissolve his local government councils among the current set that came last month. A few days ago, as of this writing, the Benue State house of assembly recommended the suspension of the 23 local councils in the state on allegations of financial fraud.

This allegation is, of course, nonsense. The state assembly has not investigated them and cannot know of any financial fraud. In any case, frauds are not committed in the collective; therefore the 23 councils cannot be equally guilty of the same offence. The local councils hold offices for statutory period specified by the law. To abbreviate their tenure just because their godfathers have either lost an election or serve their tenure, clearly offends the law, the rule of law and best practices in democratic governance.

The constitution does not provide for interim governments at any level of government in the country. Still, no one has ever challenged the state governors and forced them to turn back from this path inimical to our constitutional and democratic development. I have often argued here and elsewhere that if we do not get the local government system right and fully fund the councils and make them functional as critical grassroots administration, ours will remain jaga-jaga democracy, barely papered over with pious words.

In trying to make it right at the local government level, at least three issues commend themselves for clarification. The first is the current anomalous set up of the local governments. The Fifth Schedule to the constitution lists the 36 states constitutionally defined by their local government areas. Some states have additional local government areas called development areas. These were the local government areas created under Obasanjo’s watch. He rejected them because he believed the states had no powers to create them.

No problem. The governors solved the funding problems by renaming them development areas. Since the new local governments were not perfected as constitutional facts, they do not officially receive allocations from the federation account. Instead, the state governments share the allocations to the local government areas from which they were created with them. If this is unconstitutional, nobody has so far said so to my knowledge. Is it right to have a combination of local governments and development areas in some states and not in others?

Let us try and answer that question with a question. Should we have a uniform local government structure throughout the country or should we allow each state to determine the structure best suited to its peculiar needs?

The second issue is the funding of the local governments. The Babangida administration settled for the financial autonomy of the local governments. This was the first attempt to elevate the local government to a third tier of government. Thus, in the transition programme, local government council allocations were released directly to them from the federation account. That administration believed, and rightly so, that financial autonomy would enable the local councils function properly as the third tier of government and prevent the state governors from continuing to steal their fund.

But the local government joint account nullified the anticipated financial autonomy of the local councils. Local government allocations are paid into the joint accounts from where they are disbursed to the local councils, albeit in abbreviated form determined by the state governors. The stealing of local council funds thus continues. Problem tweaked, not solved.

In the recent constitutional amendments, the national assembly proposed local government autonomy. The majority of the state houses of assembly gave it the thumbs down. They did their governors’ bidding. As matters stand, so long as the local government joint accounts give the governors access to the local council funds, no proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to make the local councils autonomous will succeed.

President Obasanjo reasoned that if the councils were funded from the federation account like the federal and state governments, then the federal government reserved the right to monitor how the councils used their fund. The law that gave effect to this was short lived. Abia State challenged it in court. The Supreme Court agreed that the president had no powers to have the auditor-general of the federation audit the local council accounts. The law was struck down with the ultimate judicial hammer. Its demise was victory for the state governors.

The third issue is to have the last word on the place of the local government system in our form of government. The 2013 political conference convened by President Goodluck Jonathan recommended that the local governments me given back to the states to own and fund and do whatever they like with them. It will be difficult but not impossible. We cannot have it both ways – third tier by funding from the federation account but with the ownership claimed by the state governors.

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