In the last couple of weeks, certain significant developments pointing to the possibilities of strengthening the local government administration with financial and political autonomy has dominated national political discourse.
Although local government system is the third tier of administration, as enshrined in the 1999 constitution, it has been reported not to be getting a fair deal in the hands of successive administrations. While state governments have firmly expressed that situation at the council level has not been the same in most of the states.
It is inarguable that the system created primarily to ensure effective, measurable and efficient service delivery to the people has been faced with various difficulties.
Regrettably, rural development of the grassroots, which should always be the concern of every responsible and responsive political system, has not been primary focus, as development and participation have continued to escape people of the grassroots.
As the current review of the 1999 Constitutional takes shape, the quests for economic and political autonomy of local governments have intensified at the National Assembly. Though as stated above, local governments constitute the third tier of government, they have largely operated as appendages of state governments, who have brought about various setbacks to the development of the grassroots.
President Goodluck Jonathan has of late, joined other Nigerians in clamouring for the reforms of the councils to make the system democratic, more autonomous, accountable to the people and grassroots-oriented. He blamed the governors for the current trend in the system, accusing them of making it difficult for the councils to function.
The President who spoke through his Special Adviser on Political Affairs, Ahmed Gulak, maintained that the councils have special roles to play in his transformation agenda and by extension, the democratic process, which they are currently not doing. He particularly frowned at the state-local government joint account policy, insisting that it erodes the autonomy of the councils.
It was gathered that Jonathan’s observation incidentally came against the background of attempts by the governors, under the aegis of Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) to ensure that councils are no longer recognised as a critical segment of the federating units.
Interestingly, the bold move by Jonathan has gained support of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which at its recent meeting in Ibadan expressed concern on the abuse of the councils by the governors. The Association noted that the governors’ tricks in dissolving the council and appointing caretaker chairmen, at their discretion run counter to the letters of the constitution. This has raised hopes that the local government system will be restored to its constitutional status.
However, this would not be the first time a new deal had appeared to be in the offing for the councils. The problem had however, been the will to back the moves with commensurate implementations. For instance, report of the Justice Alfa Belgore panel, which was submitted to the President earlier in 2012, with the expectations that the local government system will be restored to its constitutional status is yet to witness concrete actions.
Prior to the motion by President Jonathan, participants at various public sessions on the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, across the country, which held some weeks ago had voted heavily to support an amendment of section 162 (6) of the 1999 Constitution to abolish the state joint local government account so that allocations due to local government councils would be paid to them directly. They pleaded with the National Assembly to remove the control of local government funds from state governors.
They argued that for local government administration to realise its lofty goals, the country should return to true federalism, enthrone positive leadership, pursuit of economic self-reliance through internally generated revenue, and embrace attitudinal and behavioural changes to achieve good governance.
It was against the above arguments, that a public analyst, Salisu Suleiman reminded us of the fact that the local government chairmen are usually surrounded by unecessary protocols making them to be brash, arrogant, suave, solicitous and shockingly crude. Unlike other analysts, Suleiman blamed the local government chairmen for corruption and financial management which have so far contributed largely to under-development of the grassroots; and question their competency in handling the allocations from the federation account.
His words: “They are the institutional memories of councils and know where every kobo is. However, no matter the positions they occupy - from the chairman, councillors, treasurers, directors, cashiers and other positions, local government administration in Nigeria today has become a source of godless, mind-boggling pilfering of public resources.”
Whereas, another research conducted by a lecturer at Department of Local Government and Development Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria Abubakar Usman using three states from the North-west, South-East and South-Western parts of Nigeria indicates a very weak relationship between local government (decentralisation) as operational in Nigeria and service delivery. Reasons for this development was linked to limited autonomy, high level government interferences among others were highlighted. Other scholars are of opinion that, in addition to their internally generated revenue, as far back as 1999, the Nigerian local governments were being given enough by the Federal Government in order to provide infrastructural development to the citizens, but it seems the allocated revenue are being mismanaged by political leaders and local governments’ officials in the country.
Abubakar Jimoh, National Coordinator, Youths Against Disaster Initiative (YADI), lives in Abuja.