Since the advent of Nigeria’s fourth Republic democracy in 1999, there has been clamour for Local Government Councils’ autonomy as the third tier of government. In practical terms, this tier of government is almost non-existent as State governors have effectively succeeded in turning them to their cash cows. With the National Assembly (NASS)’s three attempts at amending the provision roundly frustrated by States Assemblies humbly in the pockets of governors, Special Correspondent, LAURATU UMAR ABDULSALAM attributes this ugly situation to the constitutional provision that allows for Joint State/Local Government Account that is completely beneficial to the State Chief Executives.
In a democracy, it is common knowledge that power belongs to the people and not just the people in power. The implication is that the citizenry, through their elected representatives at various levels of government, can reflect their choices on issues of concern to them. This, in fact, is the dividing line between democracy and autocracy. While the former allows for the people’s will to prevail by way of simple majority vote, the later solely allows whims of those in power to dominate governance space.
It doesn’t require any labour to know that the biggest threat to democracy is the subversion of the people’s will by those in power. The moment elected representatives’ views begin to overshadow the people’s voices, it is safe to assume that the journey to autocracy or any of its equally ugly variation has just begun. Sadly, one thorny issue that has remained a concern to millions of Nigerians, is the controversial Local Government Autonomy as Nigeria seems to be walking down that ugly road repeatedly.
The 1999 constitution recognizes the existence of Local Government as the third tier of government after the Federal and State governments. Since 1979, when the decree established it as a system of government in the constitution, the idea was to bring government closer to the people and ensure effective service delivery to the rural areas. To achieve this objective, several Local Government reforms have been undertaken by different governments over the course of time.
Essentially, finance and leadership recruitment process are key areas of concern in any discourse on Local Government autonomy. Incidentally, these are two areas that most State governors are determined never to let go, even when majority of their citizens are clamouring for freedom for local governments in those areas.
As at today, there are 768 Local Government Areas and 6 Area Councils recognized by the 1999 Constitution (as amended). By law, these Local Governments and Area Councils are to be administered by democratically elected Chairmen and Councillors. Sadly, the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), directly under the watch and control of State governors, are the agencies saddled with the responsibilities of conducting elections for the Councils’ executive and legislative arms.
Again, by law, the Local Government Councils receive monthly allocations from the Federation Account and it is on record that from 1999 till date, each of the 774 Local Government and Area Councils have received not less than N30 billion each from that source. Summing that up, the figure would be in the region of over N23 trillion for all the Council Areas in Nigeria.
However, given the near-zero development projects in our rural areas, a puzzled mind should certainly ask: ‘What have they done with all that money?’ Here lies the problem – the 1999 constitutional provision that recognises the so-called State and Local Governments Joint Account. All funds accruing to Local Governments in a State from the Federation Account are lumped into the Joint Account. Each State has a Joint Account Committee that is constituted by the State government to oversee the distribution of funds to Local Government Areas in accordance with ‘prevailing needs’ of the Councils. As a result, a Local Government Council that officially received a monthly allocation of N300 million from the Federation Account for instance, may end up with N10 million!
Reported cases abound where due to the personal misunderstanding between a Council Chairman and a State governor, the concerned council was denied allocations until the perceived erring chairman learns how to ‘behave well’.
Also as earlier pointed out, the leadership recruitment process for Local Government Areas is entirely at the mercy of State governors. In most cases, elections are irregular – holding only when it pleases the all-powerful State governors. What you would meet in most LGAs are Caretaker Committees appointed by the governors. If this is not a flagrant abuse of democracy, I don’t know what else to call it!
Given that Local Government administration is mainly the only semblance of government close to most Nigerians in the rural communities, the consensus is that it must be allowed to thrive and blossom. Against this backdrop, moves by the National Assembly for a constitutional amendment process threw up the proposed local government autonomy, which in their wisdom and of course the majority that mean well for Nigeria, would revive and strengthen structure to deliver democracy dividends at the grassroots.
The proposed amendments are:
v Annulment of State/Local Government Joint Account to enable direct funding to Local Government accounts from the Federation Account;
v Abolition of State Independent Electoral Commissions to enable INEC conduct Local Government elections in States; and
v Stoppage of allocation from Federation Account to any unelected Local Government administrator.
These and other related proposals were sent to the 36 State Houses of Assembly for concurrence with a view to be in sync as well as align with the position of National Assembly for effective implementation of the constitutional amendment.
Though the citizens, civil society organizations (CSOs), traditional rulers, and well-meaning politicians are on the same page, interestingly only a few governors have lend their voices to those clamouring for true autonomy for local governments.
As unambiguously stated, most State governors are doing all within their powers to frustrate efforts towards gaining freedom for the Local Governments. It is also common knowledge that State Houses of Assemblies are closely tied to the apron strings of their State governors and this ugly situation places the Assemblies in a precarious and difficult situation to act independently.
However, it is important to state that if truly, the governors and the Assembly members are justly representing the interest and voices of the citizens, there should be no problem given that the people are in support of autonomy for Local Government, in a truly representative democracy.
But as things are and if allowed to continue, Nigeria’s democracy will continue to be under threat, thus the need for all concerned to rise to the occasion and rescue the local Governments from the Governors’ tyrannical stranglehold.
On the whole, as the people’s representatives, States Assembly members must strive to reflect the wishes of their constituents in this direction with the people also going the extra mile to engage and interface closely with their elected representatives. This should include getting their functional phone numbers that can be used for calls and or text messages with the missive ‘Endorse Local Government Autonomy’. It is time for Nigerians to make themselves available for town hall meetings, rallies and peaceful gatherings where the issue of Local Government Autonomy can be further championed.
The time for whatever action we must take in support of gaining true Autonomy for Local Government is now! Join the movement.