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Why Buhari must save the local councils

At his inauguration on May 29 last year, President Muhammadu Buhari said: “Constitutionally there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of…

At his inauguration on May 29 last year, President Muhammadu Buhari said: “Constitutionally there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of government but that should not mean the Federal Government should fold its arms and close its eyes to what is going on in the states and local governments. Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account.”

The prospects of the president looking over the shoulders of state governors and local government chairmen or poking his nose into their affairs must be positively unnerving to them. I do not think Buhari necessarily wants to police the states and local government councils. He served notice that he would not let the corrupt hide and thrive in the other two tiers of government in the name of limits to his constitutional powers. Buhari’s real ambition here, as he noted, is to “ensure that there is responsible and accountable governance at all levels of government in the country.”

It is no brainer that corrupt and irresponsible governance at the state and the local government levels would sorely undermine a clean and responsible federal government.

The president is not yet looking into what is happening at the local government level. He is at the moment busy turning the table against the lucky beneficiaries of Goodluck Jonathan’s generosity at our collective expense. Turning corruption into an act of presidential benevolence as the former president did, makes fighting it look like an act of state oppression.

I welcome the president’s decision not close his eyes to what is happening at the local government level. This is not about the anti-corruption battle at that level. It is about a local government system beset with some fundamental problems. We continue to ignore them at the ultimate peril of good governance and service delivery at the grass roots.

When Buhari looks into what is happening at the local government level, I presume he would be surprised to see that a) the third tier of government lacks a clear system of administration, b) the constitution is mealy-mouthed about the local government system c) the functions the constitution purports to assign to the local governments in the Fourth Schedule are hopelessly irrelevant to a modern government and d) the president will come face to face with one more anomaly in the nature and the operation of our federalism.

Let us push back the hands of the clock a little. In 1976, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki headed a panel on local government reforms constituted by the Murtala/Obasanjo administration. Its report gave rise to the reforms that created the local government as the third tier of government. There have been further reforms in the local government system since then with rising fortunes and falling fortunes for the system. The problem is that we are still ambivalent about the local government system. Should the local government be a third tier of government independent of the federal and state governments or should it be an administrative arm of state governments funded from the consolidated revenue of the federation?

The Babangida reforms addressed that question and voted for full autonomy for the local governments. It downgraded the ministry for local government into a department in the governor’s office. The statutory allocation to local government councils was paid directly to them from the consolidated revenue of the federation. Much of those reforms have been eroded by latter administrative actions. The ministry for local government has since returned to its glory and reckoning. Allocations to local councils are made by the local government joint accounts committee. This is the source of the corruption that cripples the local government councils throughout the country.

The generals obviously wanted the local councils to function as autonomous governments. The federal and state structures of government are replicated in the local councils with executive and legislative arms. What is missing is the judiciary. It is academic now to question the hoary military wisdom of saddling the federation with the anomaly of three tiers of government. We can live with it as part of the detritus of military rule.

There are good and urgent reasons why we should clean up the scrappy constitutional provisions as they affect the local government system. The system looms large in the horizon of our democracy and good governance. If we base our calculation on the number of local government areas listed in the fifth schedule to the constitution, there are 774 governments in the local council system. If we factor in development areas and local government areas not listed in the fifth schedule, the number would probably tip the scale at close to 900. If the local government chairmen formed a trade union, the president would tremble, I tell you.

States are more or less defined by their local government areas. This has created a constitutional problem. We may be happy to skirt around it but we cannot run away from the fact that it raises questions about the constitutional right of state governors to create local government areas. An unholy rush and rash in the creation of local government areas soon after the return to civil rule in 1999 raised the red flag about the system itself. Had President Obasanjo not seen the danger in time and put his foot down, the state governors would have turned every hamlet into a local government by now. It had nothing to do with good governance; it had everything to do with improving state allocations from the federation account. The local government features in our revenue allocation formula; the more local governments a state has, the more money flows into its coffers from the federation account. Politics 101: now you know why DSP Alamiesiegha created 16 local government areas in his land deficit state, Bayelsa.

In a federal system with the unique feature of uniformity, nothing about the local government system is uniform any more. The tenure of local councils varies from state to state: three years in some and two years in others. The enabling transition decree in 1999 prescribed a four-year tenure. Section 7 (1) of the constitution provides that “The system of local government by democratically elected local government council is under this constitution guaranteed……” This magisterial pronouncement does not square with the facts on the ground.

State governors ignore this because they have appropriated the local governments as part of their fiefdom. Two different sets of governments operate at the local government council level. In 12 states or so, the local government councils are elected; in the remaining 24 states, there are no elected councils. These states operate a system of local council administration unknown to the constitution. It goes by either interim councils or caretaker committees.

Unelected men and women running a government in a democracy is a serious constitutional breach. It derogates from best practices in constitutional governments. We can all see that the local government councils have become an important patronage in our political system. They are packed with the appointees of the state governors and their friends. The governors get away with this constitutional murder because no one is looking into what is happening at the local government level.

Nor should the president ignore this: we have two forms of local governments: local governments and development areas. The latter is unknown to the constitution. The funding of the development areas with statutory funds meant for the local government from which they were carved is clearly illegal. It is an impeachable offence too.

Your call, Mr. President.

(Note: This column was first published on January 24, 2016. I felt obliged to re-publish it because the fate of the local government system hangs in the balance.