Democracy in Nigeria is evolving, quite slowly. As in other participatory democracies, more and more people are becoming increasingly interested in choosing who governs them. They want to be part of the process of making decisions that affect their lives, especially at the grassroots level. And rightly so, because not only does this broad participation of people in politics promote good governance, it is also the path to power decentralization that is now happening all over the world.
It is partly in preparation for the eventual realization of a real restructuring of the country that the Ogun State House of Assembly has passed the Local Government Autonomy Bill with the active support of Governor Dapo Abiodun at the forefront. And in doing so, the state has opened up a new vista of hope for the local government not only in Ogun state, but in Nigeria as a whole.
In addition to the state being the first in the Southwest to pass the bill, the governor has also gone a step further by creating a special commission to investigate how some sources of internally generated revenue can be released to the locals. governments to make them more functional and independent.
It goes without saying that Governor Abiodun values the value of local democracy. Anyone who values democracy should value strong local governments. In the words of John Mill, one of the staunch defenders of local government, “strong local government fosters strong local democracy.”
This is the right way to achieve the aim and objectives of the local government as the third tier of government in Nigeria. Without financial independence, there can be no meaningful development at the grassroots level. According to French doctrine, “it is better to rule from afar, but better to govern when closer”.
By enacting the Autonomy Act into law, the Ogun State Government has created opportunities for accelerated development of the council areas. As Alexis de Tocqueville, another 19th-century advocate of local government, put it succinctly, “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.”
In the context 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.”
Unfortunately, over the years, the shared-cost policies of the state and local government have been largely responsible for the appalling failure of local governments to meet the basic needs of the people. Any attempt to grant local governments autonomy was met with resistance from state governors, who often argued over the right to closely monitor them. The latest such resistance has been 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 legislators and the judiciary.
The evolution of local government administration in Nigeria dates back to the British colonial era, when native authorities were used to enforce law and order rather than provide social services with a different system of operations in different regions of the country. The 1976 reform, initiated by the military government, which subsequently introduced a unified system of governance across the country, recognized local government as a third tier of government and granted them financial autonomy to facilitate sustainable base development.
But unfortunately, the joint-account policy of the state and local government brought about by the 1999 constitution made this third tier of government almost irrelevant in the governance of the country, as it diminished the financial independence the local government had until now. , took away. Section 162, paragraph six, of the 1999 constitution established the joint account of the local government, making them subordinate to the state government. And because the provision does not allow direct funding of local governments by the Federation, successive governors have always found it easy to castrate the local government and make them permanent appendages of the state. As such, they have turned city councils into conduits for siphoning the public funds destined for development. More often than not, they (state governors) treat elected council presidents with utter contempt, bullying and robbing local governments of financial and administrative autonomy.
This explains the reason for the lack of essential social capital trust and trust that exists between government and government – at the grassroots level. Because of this disconnection, the citizens at the local level do not trust elected officials in local government councils in Nigeria.
By supporting the easy passing of the local government’s autonomy law, despite fierce opposition from some governors, Abiodun has contributed its own quota to the pool of ideas on how to make the country better. He has shown how the executive and legislative branches as branches of government can work together harmoniously for the common good of the people.
The bill’s approval by lawmakers followed a simultaneous vote on the 44 bills passed to the state legislature by the National Assembly. These include the bill providing financial independence to the parliament buildings, the judiciary and local government, as well as a law authorizing the name change of the local government areas of Egbado North and South to Yewa North and Yewa South LGAs, respectively.
This is in line with the collective resolution of the stakeholders previously agreed in a forum that all 44 proposed amendments must be speeded up by the House and then sent to the National Assembly for further transmission to Mr. President for his approval. It is their belief that the democratic principles in our constitution would be further reinforced with the principle of separation of powers between the three levels of government.
All this means that the state joint account of the local government, which was responsible for low-level development at the grassroots level, has been revoked. With the provision in the bill allowing for a special account into which all allocations due to the local governing councils of the Federation account and of the state government should be deposited, elected presidents can now determine their priority projects.
It is the dawn of a new era of good governance in Ogun State. The era of impunity is over for good. Till now there is hardly any state of the Federation of Nigeria where some kind of illegality is not committed with local government funds through a spurious joint account project between the state and the local government. There have even been instances where some governors have had to go out of their way to dissolve elected council officials over flimsy excuses and then appoint governors, most of whom are party loyalists, acolytes and associates.
In fact, one of the first actions when a new governor takes office is to dissolve the existing local councils to make way for his front men, the caretaker commission, who have neither the people’s mandate nor the moral strength to resist the unbearable control of the state government perpetuating the rot within the system. And as such, they turn the whole process of local government governance into money transfer lines that belong to the grassroots people.
It takes a strong-willed man like Governor Abiodun to change the old order of executive recklessness and impunity. The bill as passed by state legislators has taken into account several obstacles to local government growth. One of the immediate benefits of the new paradigm shift is the realization of the desire to unlock the potential of each municipality to generate its revenue for base development. As has been shown in the recent past, the lack of funds had severely limited the capacity of local governments to initiate projects on their own. The financial fragility of the local councils is further accentuated by corruption, undue political interference, lack of qualified professional staff, leadership difficulties and a general poor work attitude.
These are some of the issues the new bill aims to address by ensuring the transfer of financial powers from the state to the local government. To that extent, the autonomy of local government rests on two premises. One is the ability to initiate a local development plan, including economic, social and environmental. And two, the constitutional powers to prioritize their budget spending.
In short, this is the ‘raison d’être’ for the overwhelming support that the governor and Ogun state legislators have given to the Senate bill seeking power transfer to the grassroots through financial and administrative autonomy
Under the bill as submitted to the House of Representatives, each city council must create and maintain its own special account, called the Local Government Allocation Account, into which all allocations will be deposited.
The bills also aim to amend the constitution to repeal the communal local government account and provide for a special account where all allocations due to the councils of local governments, from the federation account and the state government will be paid . The law also requires each state to pay to local government councils in its jurisdiction such a portion of its internally generated revenue under such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Representatives. With a view to administrative autonomy, the bill aims to enable local authorities to hold their own elections.
To be sure, Nigeria currently has a federal system of government with a Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), 36 states and 774 Local Governments. The essence of the local government structure is to facilitate grassroots development. But sadly, the underperformance of governance at this level of government has been attributed to the executive recklessness of some governors who see council areas as mere appendages of states. Since the advent of the current democratic governance, quite a large amount of resources has been devoted to this vital level of governance, but with little or no positive impact on the socio-economic life of the rural population.
Going forward, there is now a general consensus on the need for a revision of the 1999 constitution in such a way that local government becomes more functional, responsive and accountable and competitive. Many legal experts have picked holes in the current arrangement that lists the names of local governments in each state in the constitution. According to them, it undermines the autonomy of the state to establish local councils. And in this regard, the premise in addressing the problems of local governments in Nigeria is to treat local government as a matter of state law, not federal law. As Abiodun has the courage, tenacity and genuine sincerity to support local government autonomy in Nigeria, Abiodun’s place has set the pace for others to follow.
Femi Ogbonnikan wrote from Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun state.