Lauratu Umar Abdulsalam
In a democracy, it is common knowledge that power belongs to the people and not just the people in power. The implication of this is that the citizenry, through their elected representatives at various levels of government, can reflect their choices on issues that are of concern to them. This, in fact, is the dividing line between democracy and autocracy. While the former allows for the people’s will to prevail by way of a simple majority vote, the later allows the whims of those in power to dominate.
It doesn’t require any labour to know that the biggest threat to democracy is the subversion of the will of the people by those in power. The moment people’s voices begin to be overshadowed by those of their elected representatives, the journey to autocracy or any of its equally ugly variation has begun. Unfortunately, regarding one issue that is of concern to over 180 million Nigerians, that is the issue of local government autonomy, Nigeria seems to be walking down that ugly road.
The 1999 constitution recognises the existence of the local government as the third tier of government after the federal and state governments. The idea, since 1979, when the decree establishing it as a system of government was introduced into the constitution, is to bring government closer to the people and ensure effective service delivery to the rural areas. To achieve this aim, several local government reforms have been undertaken by different governments over the course of time.
Essentially, finance and leadership recruitment processes are key areas of concern for any discourse on local government autonomy. Incidentally, these are the two areas most State governors are determined never to let go of, even when a majority of the citizens are clamouring for freedom for local governments in those areas.
Presently, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria recognises 768 local government areas and six area councils. These local governments and area councils are supposed to be administered by democratically elected chairmen and councillors.
The State Independent Electoral Commissions that are directly under the watch and control of the State governors conduct elections into the executive and legislative arms of this local councils. The local government councils, by law, receive monthly allocations from the federation account. It is on record that between 1999 till date, each of the 768 local government areas and six area councils have received not less than N30 billion each from the Federation Account. If you sum it up, it would be over N23 trillion altogether.
Due to near-zero development projects in our rural areas, a puzzled mind would ask “what have they done with all that money?” Well, there is a problem. That problem is from a provision in the 1999 constitution, which allows for the creation of what is called State/Local Governments Joint Account. All funds accruing to local governments in a State from the Federation Account are lumped into the Joint Account. Each State has a Joint Account Committee that is constituted by the State government to oversee the distribution of funds to local government areas in accordance with ‘prevailing needs’ of the councils. As a result, a local government council that got, say, a monthly allocation of N300 million from the Federation Account may end up with N10 Million! There are reports of cases where due to the personal misunderstandings between council chairmen and the State governors, the concerned councils were denied allocations until their chairmen learnt how to ‘behave well’.
As pointed out earlier, the leadership recruitment process for local government areas is entirely at the mercy of the State governors. In most cases, elections are irregular – holding only when it pleases the State governors. What you would meet in most of the LGAs are caretaker committees appointed by the governors. If this is not a flagrant abuse of democracy, I don’t know what else is!
In view of the fact that the local government administration is mostly the only semblance of government most Nigerians who are rural dwellers know, the National Assembly embarked on a constitutional amendment process and came up with new proposals which, in their belief and of course those of the majority of citizens who mean well for the country, would revive and strengthen activities that would bring democratic dividends closer to the grassroots.
The proposed amendments are:
● Cancellation of State/Local Government Joint Account to enable direct funding of local governments from the Federation Account;
● Abolition of State Independent Electoral Commissions to enable INEC to conduct local government elections;
● Stoppage of allocation from Federation Account to any unelected local government administrator.
These and other related proposals are before the State Houses of Assemblies for them to concur with the National Assembly so that the amendments can take effect in our constitution.
Citizens, civil society organisations, traditional rulers, well-meaning politicians, and interestingly, two governors, are all clamouring for true autonomy for the local government. More so, the entire National Assembly has thrown its weight behind the proposal by doing the needful – concluding works on the proposed amendment and handing it over to the State Houses of Assemblies for voting on.
As it is clear, most of the State governors are doing all within their powers to frustrate all efforts towards gaining freedom for local governments in Nigeria. It is also common knowledge that the State Houses of Assemblies are closely tied to the aprons of the State governors, which is putting them in difficult situations.
It is important to point out here that if truly our governors and members of State Houses of Assembly are true representatives of the interest and voices of the citizens, given that the people want true autonomy for the local government, in a truly representative democracy, this shouldn’t be a problem. But as things are, democracy is under threat and there is the need for all concerned to rise to the rescue.
The proposed amendments need at least 24 State Houses of Assembly to vote in support of the National Assembly to become effective.
As citizens, we must join our voices to this clarion call. The media – mainstream and social – must intensify their commitment to the process.
Assembly members are our representatives, they must reflect our wishes on this matter. We must look for their functional phone numbers and reach them via calls and/or text messages with the message: ‘endorse Local Government Autonomy’. We must make ourselves available for rallies and peaceful gatherings where the issue of local government autonomy is to be championed.
The time for whatever action we must take in support of gaining true Autonomy for Local Government is now! Join the movement.
Lauratu Umar Abdulsalam is a media and communication for development practitioner.