“The only way we can add value to local government is by giving them political and financial independence, as this will expand opportunities in the grassroots.” – Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara
Local Government can be described as a collective term for local councils, and/or an administrative body for a small geographical area such as a county or district. In Nigeria, local government is the third tier of government, and its statutory functions are spelt out in the Fourth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. These include – but are not limited to – construction and maintenance of roads, provision of public conveniences, sewage and refuse disposal, the provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocational education, the development of agriculture and natural resources (other than the exploitation of minerals), and the provision and maintenance of health services.
From the foregoing, the importance of Local Government in any democracy cannot be overstated, and it is believed – rightly so – that effective Local Government administration would help speed up the pace of development. In some democracies around the world, such as the United States (which provides a model for most), the Local Government structure is fully defined with council courts and police, while it is not in others. What most nations agree on, however, is that true autonomy – or that which is closest to it – further deepens democracy and positively impacts citizens through the attendant improvement in the quality of governance.
The topic of local government autonomy is one which has generated a lot of debate. During the Obasanjo administration, a technical committee was set up to look into the relevance, sustainability and viability of the local government system and while some advocated that it be completely done away with, the government opted instead, to maintain it.
There have also been different attempts by the legislature to grant autonomy to local governments, but such proposed amendments to the Constitution have failed to meet the required approval of 2/3rds of state assemblies. Speaking on these previous attempts, Speaker Yakubu Dogara – who is now championing the campaign for local government autonomy – recently noted that: “We [the House] attempted it in the 6th Assembly but most of the critical aspects of what we are talking about here did not scale 2/3rd votes from all the state assemblies in Nigeria. In the 7th Assembly, however, this issue of autonomy of local government got endorsement of 20 state assemblies but, unfortunately, we needed 2/3rd, so we were short of four. So, it means that even if the President had assented to the Bill on constitution amendment, that aspect wouldn’t have scaled through.”
He also described local government administration in the country as “a system in crisis”, and stated that: “since 1999, there has hardly been any local government that has lived up to its constitutional mandate.”
Pursuant to this, the House of Representatives has identified local government autonomy as a major issue in the ongoing Constitution review process. In order to achieve this, clauses which would grant financial and political autonomy to local government are being considered. This, the Speaker explained, saying that: “the only way we can rescue the local government system in Nigeria is by introducing amendments to the Constitution….What we can therefore do is to make sure that in the spirit of the Constitution, the local government administration is democratically elected to ensure that, by the provision of the Constitution, any local government that is not democratically constituted will not have access to funding from the federation account.”
Daily, citizens decry the terrible state of infrastructure in the most interior parts of state capitals and in smaller towns. Lack of infrastructural development has also been identified as one of the leading causes of rural-urban migration and many keen observers of trends in governance opine that if Local Government councils had financial autonomy, thereby enabling them to fully execute their constitutionally defined mandate, there would be more development in rural areas. Being the tier of government that is closest to the people, local governments would also do a much better job of identifying areas in which intervention is most required. The Speaker also believes that a more effective and independent local government system would increase competition at that level and attract an even better quality of aspirants.
It was in response to Speaker Dogara’s impassioned advocacy for local government autonomy, that the leadership of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) paid him a solidarity visit on Wednesday, January 18, 2017. The president of the body, Comrade Ibrahim Khalil, spoke at length on the benefits that Nigerians stand to gain if the proposed amendments scale through, and some of the things he mentioned include improved healthcare and infrastructure. The Speaker, in his response, urged the union to engage with elected officials at state level, especially in State Assemblies.
Another cogent issue that autonomy would effectively fix is the dissolution of Local Government councils and subsequent appointment of caretaker committees by state governors. The question surrounding the legality of sacking elected council chairmen and appointing caretaker committees was put to rest by the Supreme Court judgment which described the move as “executive recklessness”. The decision by the apex court has, therefore, made it clear that state executives lack the constitutional backing to sack elected council chairmen, and this provides an excellent premise upon which the argument for the independence of the Local Government may also be based.
While stressing the need for independence, the Speaker acknowledged that; “We may not achieve that [absolute independence] since ours is a strong federation. It is not a weak federation like what you have in the United States where councils and states join money and then appropriate it and pay royalties in taxes to the Federal Government.”
Therefore, in a strong federation like ours, that level of autonomy would most probably be impossible to achieve, but that still does not and should not preclude us from working to grant as much independence as possible, and there would be no better place from which to begin, than from finance and democratic composition.
Many Nigerians focus on the Federal Government and demand interventions regarding the most basic challenges, but in the words of Calvin Coolidge, “what we need is not more federal government, but better local government.”