Nigeria’s democracy is evolving, through rather very slowly. As in other participatory democracies, more and more people are now becoming increasingly interested in the choice of who governs over them. They want to be part of the process where decisions that affect their lives are taken, especially at the grassroots level. And rightly so, because not only that broad participation of people in politics promotes good governance, it is also the pathway towards power devolution which is now the in-thing around the world.
It is partly in bracing for the ultimate realisation of genuine restructuring of the country that the Ogun State House of Assembly has passed the Local Government Autonomy Bill into law with the active support of Governor Dapo Abiodun at the vanguard of it. And by doing so, the state has opened a new vista of hope for local government administration, not only in Ogun State but Nigeria as a whole.
Apart from the fact that the state is the first in the South-West to pass the bill, the governor has also gone a step further to set up a special committee to look into the ways of releasing some sources of Internally Generated Revenues to the local governments to make them more functional and independent.
It, therefore, goes without saying that Governor Abiodun appreciates the value of local democracy. Anyone who values democracy must value strong local governments. In the words of John Mill, one of the stout defenders of local government, “strong local governance fosters strong local democracy.”
This is the right way to achieve the goal and objectives of local government administration as a third-tier of government in Nigeria. Without financial independence, no meaningful development can take place at the grassroots level. According to the French doctrine, “one can govern better from far but can administer better when closer”.
By passing the autonomy bill into law, Ogun State government has opened up opportunities for accelerated development of the council areas. As Alexis de Tocqueville, another 19th century advocate of local governance succinctly put: “Local Governments can unlock local development better than central and state governments because of their local proximity and knowledge and the local specificity of their services.”
Putting it in the perspective of the current situation in the country, strong local governments can tackle insecurity, stimulate the local economy and reduce poverty. The World Bank once said: “Poverty is best tackled at the local government level.”
Regrettably, over the years, the politics of state/local government joint account has been largely responsible for the abysmal failure of Local Governments to meet the need of the people at the grassroots level. Every attempt to grant autonomy to local governments had been met with resistance from state governors who often argued over the right to exercise close oversight over them. The latest of such resistance was the recent opposition to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)’s Executive Order 10 of 2020, which grants financial autonomy to local governments as well as state legislatures and judiciaries.
Evolution of local government administration in Nigeria dates back to the British colonial era when ‘Native Authorities’ were used to maintain laws and order rather than provision of social services with varying system of operations in different regions of the country. However, the 1976 reform initiated by the military government which introduced a uniform system of administration throughout the country subsequently, recognised Local Government as a third-tier of government and granted them financial autonomy to facilitate sustainable grassroots development.
But unfortunately, the politics of State/Local Government Joint Account brought about by the 1999 constitution made this third-tier of government almost irrelevant in the administration of the country as it eroded away the financial independence hitherto enjoyed by the local government. Section 162, paragraph six, of the 1999 Constitution established State Local Government Joint Account thereby subordinating them to the state government. And because the provision does not allow direct funding of the Local Governments from the Federation, successive governors have always found it easy to castrate the local Government and make them perpetual appendages of the state. As such, they have turned local councils to conduit pipes for siphoning of the public funds meant for development. More often than not, they (state governors) treat elected council chairmen with utter contempt, bullying and riding roughshod on the financial and administrative autonomy of local governments.
This explains the reason for the absence of essential social capital-trust and confidence that exist between the government and the government-at the grassroots level. Due to this disconnect, the citizens at the local level have no trust for elected officers at Local Government Councils in Nigeria.
By supporting the easy passage of the Local Government autonomy bill in the face of vehement opposition of some governors, Abiodun has contributed his own quota to the pool of ideas about how to make the country better. He has demonstrated how executive and legislature as arms of government can work together harmoniously for the common good of the people.
The lawmakers’ approval of the Bill followed a concurrent voting on the 44 bills transmitted to the state legislature by the National Assembly. These include, among others, the bill providing financial independence for State Houses of Assembly, State Judiciary and Local Government as well as an Act authorising the name change for Egbado North and South Local Government Areas to Yewa North and Yewa South LGAs, respectively.
This is in keeping fate with the collective resolution of the stakeholders who had earlier agreed at a forum that all the 44 proposed alterations should be given accelerated concurrence by the House and then be transmitted to the National Assembly for onward transmission to Mr. President for his assent. It is their belief that the democratic tenets in our constitution would be further strengthened with the principle of separation of powers among the three tiers of government.
All this implies that the State Joint Local Government Account which has accounted for low level development at the grassroots has been abrogated. With the provision contained in the bill which allows for a Special account into which all allocations due to Local Government Councils from the Federation Account and from the state government are to be paid, elected chairmen can now determine their priority projects.
It is a dawn of new era of good governance in Ogun State. The era of impunity is gone for good. Until now, there is hardly any state of the Federation of Nigeria where one form of illegality or the other is not committed with funds of Local Government through spurious state/Local Government joint account project. Instances even abound where some governors have had to go out of their ways to dissolve elected council officers on account of flimsy excuses and subsequently appoint administrators, most of whom are party loyalists, acolytes and relations.
As a matter of fact, as soon as a new governor comes into office, one of the first actions is to dissolve the existing local councils to give way for his stooges called caretaker committee, who neither have the mandate of the people nor the moral strength to resist the excruciating control of the state government that perpetuates the rot within the system. And as such, they turn the entire process of Local Government administration into conduit pipe for siphoning money belonging to the grassroots people.
It takes a man of strong will like Governor Abiodun to change the old order of executive recklessness and impunity. The bill as passed by the state lawmakers has factored in several impediments for the growth of local government. One of the immediate benefits of the new paradigm shift is the realization of the yearning for the unlocking of the potentials of each local council to generate its revenue for the development of the grassroots. As experienced in recent past, the lack of funds had severely restricted the capacity of local governments to initiate projects on their own. The financial vulnerability of the local councils is further accentuated by corruption, undue political interference, lack of qualified professional personnel, leadership problem and general poor work attitude.
These are some of the ills the new bill seeks to address by ensuring the transfer of financial powers from the state to the local government. To this extent, the autonomy of local government is predicated on two premises. One is the capacity to initiate local development plan, including economic, social and environmental. And two, the constitutional powers to set priorities in their budget expenditure.
Basically, this is the ‘raison d’etre’ for the overwhelming support the governor and the Ogun State lawmakers gave to the Senate bill seeking for power devolution to the grassroots through financial and administrative autonomy
According to the bill as presented to the House of Assembly, each local government council is to create and maintain its own special account to be called Local Government Allocation Account into which all the allocations will be paid.
The bills also seek to amend the Constitution to repeal the state joint local government account and provide for a special account where all allocations due to the local governments councils, from the federation account and state government shall be paid. The legislations also mandate each state to pay to local government councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its internally generated revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly. For administrative autonomy, the bill seeks to allow local governments to conduct their own elections.
To be sure, Nigeria currently operates a federal system of government with a Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), 36 states and 774 Local Governments. The essence of Local Government structure is to facilitate development at the grassroots. But unfortunately, the under-performance of administration at this level of government has been blamed on executive recklessness of some governors who see the council areas as mere appendages of the states. Since the advent of the present democratic governance, quite a huge amount of resources have been committed to this vital tier of government but with little or no positive impacts on the socio-economic lives of rural populace.
Moving forward, there is now a general consensus on the need for a review of the 1999 Constitution in such a way that it will make the local government more functional, responsive and responsible and more competitive. Many legal experts have picked holes in the current arrangement where the names of local governments in each state are listed in the constitution. According to them, it undermines the autonomy of the state to create local councils. And on this note, the starting point in tackling the problems of local governments in Nigeria is to treat local government as a matter of state law, not federal law. For having the courage, tenacity and genuine sincerity of purpose to support of Local Government autonomy in Nigeria, Abiodun’s place has set the pace for others to follow.
Femi Ogbonnikan wrote from Abeokuta, Ogun State capital.