Promoting democracy at local level by Punch Editorial Board

CAPITALISING on the perfunctory interest of the electorate in local government administration, state governors in Nigeria are mercilessly manipulating the third tier of government to suit their inordinate political whims. Contrary to sound democratic norms, no fewer than 10 states are currently operating the LGs under an illegal system in which they have imposed “caretaker committees” to run government at the grassroots. Often, these committee members are personal political allies handpicked by the governors without going through elections, a situation not envisaged by the framers of the 1999 Constitution. In part, this ruthless exploitation of the LG system accounts for the absence of basic governance at the community level.

After 21 years of the Fourth Republic, there is a strong temptation to presume that democracy has taken root here. Up to the point of holding general elections every four years, that is true. Beyond that, however, the reckless manner governors have hijacked the LG structure in their states suggests that democracy is a scarce commodity at that level. Having taken control of the machinery of the LGs, the governors have rendered them comatose. The outcome has been disastrous for the masses.

Undemocratically, Anambra has not held LG polls since 2013; Katsina since 2014 and Ogun and Sokoto since 2016. In Kwara, directors of personnel management are manning the LGs. In Oyo and Imo states, the governors dissolved the elected LG councils in their domains immediately they assumed office in 2019 and 2020 respectively. This is arbitrary, dictatorial and unconstitutional.

At this point, the LGs cannot perform their critical constitutionally-assigned duties. According to the Fourth Schedule of the constitution, these tasks include the construction and maintenance of roads, street lightings; the provision and maintenance of health services, and primary, adult and vocational education. Other roles are the establishment of homes for the destitute or infirm; provision and maintenance of public conveniences, sewage and refuse disposal, and regulation of shops/kiosks, restaurants and sale of liquor. Today, LGs are not performing these basic functions, as the governors have taken them over. It is a glaring anomaly in this republic.

Local Governments are critical in political governance and are the first point of contact for the average citizen. Properly run, they can instigate the economic renewal of the country. In Australia, the 537 LGs there employed 10 per cent of public workers in 2018, and raised $18.9 billion in rates in 2018/19, official records state. It is not the case in Nigeria, but LGs are essential. Take roads for example. Of Nigeria’s 200,000 kilometres of roads, the Federal Government has just 36,000km, while the 36 states have another 32,000km. That means 134,000km (the bulk) of the roads in Nigeria belong to the LGs, but this vital tier lies prostrate.

The rigmarole is a vexing double axe. In the states where LG elections hold, the ruling party tends to win 100 per cent. In fact, the opposition parties, citing bias by the electoral umpire, usually withdraw. This gives a bad impression of a rigged democracy. On the other hand, many governors employ delaying tactics and put off elections, perhaps unsure that their party will win all the seats in a free contest. Either way, development at the grassroots is the victim.

Legally, these governors have no excuse. In 2016, the Supreme Court put paid to such an aberration, when it finally ruled that caretaker committees are illegal and unknown to the constitution. During his first term, Ekiti Governor, Kayode Fayemi, had dissolved the state’s LG councils, but in a unanimous judgement, a five-man panel of the Supreme Court described his action as “executive recklessness” and ordered that all states stop it. Besides, the caretaker committee arrangement is against the provisions of the 1999 Constitution in Section 7 (1), which prescribes a “system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed.”

Rather than the law and the constitution ending the irresponsible political culture, the governors have succeeded in appropriating the LGs for their narrow political interests. There is no explanation for this, other than the skewed political system in operation in Nigeria. Against the tenets of true federalism, the framers of the constitution damaged the document by their recognition of LGs as the third tier of government. As such, 774 LGs are listed in the constitution. This entitles them to revenue sharing from the centre. The supposition is that the governors want to control this money in addition to the state allocations.

This ineffectual system has to go, because it is the antithesis of federalism, where the central government and the federating units (states, regions, cantons or Länders) form a union. Undoubtedly, it has to be replaced by a productive and competitive federalism, as it was in the 1963 Constitution in which the regions controlled LGs, and currently holds in federal systems like the United States, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and Germany. Unlike when former President Olusegun Obasanjo seized the LGs allocations of Lagos State for creating additional LGAs, the states should be free to create LGs as they deem fit in the new system. In Germany, there are 12,013 municipalities (LGs), about 89,000 five-tiered LGs in the US and 4,500 municipalities and LG districts in Canada.

For now, the LGs are just mere political appliances in the hands of governors. Therefore, the only way they can fulfil their constitutional mandate is for Nigeria to opt for the best global federalism practices. The 774 LGs should be removed from the constitution and fiscal federalism entrenched. This way, a state will have to fund its own LGs without waiting for any money from the centre that can be appropriated without accountability.

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