At last, sanity – The Nation

The Supreme Court verdict, which just held that governors cannot breach elected local government tenures, should enforce democracy at the grassroots

The Supreme Court verdict of December 11, 2019, which upheld the inviolability of elected local government tenures, couldn’t have come at a better time.

That is the lynchpin of the legal advisory from Abubakar Malami, SAN, Minister of  Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, to state governments, that sacking elected council officials is beyond their powers. That should impose some sanity on the elected local government system which, for too long, has been a helpless victim of governors’ executive rascality.

Still, the general legal platform was shambolic enough. Here is the 1999 Constitution, which though christened itself “federal”, is self-shackled by military-era command mentality. It lists the number of local governments nationwide in a schedule, forgetting that list was an accident of history: Local governments are dynamic, not immutable; and should really be the business of the states, not faraway Abuja’s.

That needless listing is why Lagos State Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs), have not become full-fledged local governments that they were originally conceived to be, more than 10 years after their creation and operation.  This is because the state cannot force the National Assembly to do a “consequential listing”, that would make the LCDAs full local governments.

Then there is the sitting government, which has started shovelling money direct to the local governments, outside of the state/local governments joint accounts, as required by the founding legal operating protocol.

That could well be for good reasons: most states are fairly accused of seizing, and using as they please, money due to the local governments from the Federation Account. That is bad and should be condemned. What is not clear is if that radical departure from the norm can stand legal scrutiny, when challenged by the state governments.

Besides, in a polity crying itself hoarse for re-federalisation, to get the country better run, such a direct Federal Government-local government transaction is a clear anomaly to the federal doctrine. The federating partners are the Federal Government and the states. Despite the so-called “third-tier,” another military-era contraption, local governments are strange in a federal structure, except of course, as sole and exclusive business of the states.

With a supposedly federal constitution undermining itself with unitary provisions and the sitting government procuring “ways and means” to fend off states from the local governments’ pot of gold — hardly a bad intent — you could understand the governors, too, pouncing on the local councils, as own patriotic contribution to the general impunity!

Hardly any governor’s tenure is complete until he has “fired” local government chairmen and “dissolved” local government councils. It has happened in Rivers, Cross River, Imo, Ekiti and Oyo. In Imo, it was rather dramatic, for former Governor Emeka Ihedioha, who purportedly sacked the councils, but was himself sacked after seven months, only for Hope Uzodinma to reinstate the sacked council cadres!  To those who want to tar Ihedioha, he did nothing unusual: his predecessor, Rochas Okorocha, did exactly the same thing! Yet, democracy at this level of government is constitutionally guaranteed.

Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi’s attempt to abridge Ekiti local governments’ tenure, led to the latest Supreme Court pronouncement. The apex court shot down whatever law the Ekiti legislature might have passed, to justify the governor’s action, as inferior to the democratic local government system entrenched in the 1999 Constitution. It also ruled that elected council officials shall not be removed before the end of their tenure. In the case of any of them being found wanting, however, only the council’s legislative arm, following processes stipulated by law, can remove them — not any governor.

But state legislatures purporting to give governors powers they don’t have would appear a reaction to an earlier 2014 Supreme Court pronouncement on the matter, which voided a 2006 dissolution of the then extant Abia State local governments, by Governor Orji Uzor Kalu; and the wholesale sacking of 148 elected chairmen and councillors. The apex court after declaring the action as illegal and amounting to “official recklessness,” ordered Abia State to pay the wrongly sacked officials their salaries and entitlements for 23 months, the period they were wrongly shut out of their mandate by the reckless state executive.

Oyo is caught in the latest maelstrom of wrongful removal of elected councillors. Two hours after he was sworn in, Governor Seyi Makinde ordered the sack of them all, against a subsisting order of an Oyo State high court. Now, the AGF has not only told him to reinstate the sacked councillors but has also directed Shina Olukolu, the Oyo State Commissioner of Police, to enforce the reinstatement.

Oyo thus heads for a political crisis, in which the state government could tar the AGF’s advisory — though right in law and fair in politics — as some political “witch hunt,” since the beneficiary APC council cadres belong to the federal ruling party. All these would have been avoided, if Governor Makinde had stayed true to the law that created his office, and not tried to be the superman above the law. Yet, possible crises can’t be an excuse not to act by the dictates of the law.

Democracy, at the local government level, is in total mess, no thanks to an undemocratic evolution since 1999. It is high time we took a definite stand, on making that level of governance well and truly democratic.

Indeed, a lot is wrong: the Federal Government trying to control the local governments from Abuja (a chore it has neither skills nor tools to do); and the ruling order in the state suborning local governments as ruling parties’ administrative arm (given that ruling parties always sweep local government polls), in a cynical assault on  political choice at the grassroots. At that level, different parties should be able to test their popularity, and grow into national prominence. It needs a comprehensive re-tinkering, which may include ringing reforms.

Until then, however, the polity must enforce the democratisation of that level of government, as expressly stated in the 1999 Constitution. That is why the latest Supreme Court verdict is welcome sanity. If we must have genuine democracy, it must show in law and politics at the local government level.

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