For A Sustainable Local Government System – Thisday

There is need to reform the system, not outright scrapping
The Chairman of the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission, (RMAFC), Mr. Elias Mbam, recently suggested scrapping the Joint State and Local government Accounts (JAC) presently in operation. He said such measure would forestall the continued abuse by the state governors who tamper with local council’s share of the federal allocation by virtue of the joint account. Apparently in furtherance of this proposal, a bill which seeks to grant financial autonomy to the 774 local government councils in the country has passed the second reading in the House of Representatives. But this may be an exercise in futility given that the National Assembly on its own does not have the power to make the local governments financially autonomous.

The 1999 constitution in its Fourth Schedule outlines the functions, duties and responsibilities of the local governments. Unfortunately, the constitution is completely silent regarding any protective mechanism that guarantees their financial and political autonomy. There is not even a clear-cut guideline as to a timeline for elections of the officials nor is there any word on their tenure. Most of these crucial decisions are left at the whims of the state governors who have effectively hijacked the local governments in their states, using their funds to dispense patronage to political allies and cronies.

This sorry state of affairs has, not unexpectedly, engendered all manner of agitations from various quarters asking that the local government system either be scrapped or made financially autonomous so as to enable them perform their expected duties to the people. However, to take the local government funds from the control of state governments will require amendment to section 162 of the Constitution and that will need the concurrence of no fewer than 24 States Houses of Assembly. Given the disposition of the governors and the control most of them have on their states’ legislature, it is not likely such a move would succeed. Even as things stand, section 7 of the Constitution stipulates that state governments shall contribute to the joint local government account for their development but the reverse is the case in all the 36 states.

On the political front, holding local government elections is no longer considered a democratic imperative by the governors. In most of the states of the federation today, the local governments are run by caretaker committees which have been declared illegal by about 10 judicial verdicts from 1999 to date. In states where elections were conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) as stipulated by the constitution, what transpired were no more than a mockery of democracy. This is not surprising. Unlike the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) members, the state electoral bodies are peopled mostly by card-carrying members of the ruling parties in the states. This was very evident in the recent council polls in Kano State where the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) won all the councillorship and chairmanship seats.

Whatever the current imperfections, however, we do not subscribe to any talk about scrapping the local government system. World over, local administrations exist to bring government or a semblance of it closer to the people. In Nigeria where there is a big gulf between the electorate and the “elected overlords” both at the state and federal levels, the situation could be worse if there were no local government administration. Even so, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the local government system, and whatever perceived faults in the system are a reflection of what occurs at the other two tiers of government.

The local government should therefore not be made to suffer for what is a general systemic malaise. What is needed is a reform that promotes policies that entrench democratic ethos, good governance, financial autonomy and accountability. That is what should preoccupy all the stakeholders interested in reforming the local government administration.

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