In Nigeria’s 36 states, the local government councils are mere outposts of the state governments, with the local government chairmen mere viceroys. They have no mind or distinct programmes that reflect the wishes of their people. Whenever a local council seeks to independently act for the people, requesting the legitimate income due it for execution of projects that would improve the people’s well-being, he is tagged a traitor and removed from office. In some cases the entire elected structure is uprooted to make room for sole administrators.
It is in this context that we welcome the idea by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) to ensure strict compliance of all tiers of government with section 162 of the 1999 Constitution. The new guidelines set by the NFIU to give effect to section 162 aim at effectively putting an end to state chief executives’ starving the third tier of government, thus making local governance a mere academic exercise.
We are not oblivious of the debate over the tenets of federalism that make states the federating units. Purists who advocate what they call true federalism have insisted that local governments are subject to the states. They blame the current structure of governance which is neither federal nor unitary on military incursion into governance in the country. This argument could be difficult to fault going by K. C. Wheare’s original proposition that a plural country is best governed by a federal system.
It is, however, apposite to note that the system has since evolved beyond Wheare’s original design, with various countries adapting it to suit peculiar conditions. Nigeria has been exposed to regular election of some selfish leaders who have little respect for the law, people and convention. Even if the Wheare concept were to be considered, the indiscipline of state leaders makes the NFIU intervention inevitable. Beyond the letters of the 1999 Constitution, the spirit clearly indicates that the local government system exists as a means of recruitment of political leaders, distribution of amenities, giving people at the grassroots a sense of belonging and ensuring a broad base for the federal structure.
Corruption is the bane of Nigeria’s underdevelopment. While states in the United States are the federating units and thus design the local government considered ideal for their location, money earmarked for the counties are not impounded by governors. County officials are not sacked at the whims of governors nor are development projects imposed. Areas where the counties are empowered to generate funds are not seized by states. The same is not the situation in Nigeria even when there is a specific constitutional provision that only elected leadership is permitted at that level.
This is not a task for only the NFIU. Civil society groups, elder statesmen, the academics, media and other informed well-meaning Nigerians should team up in mobilising the general public to fight this noble cause. In the same way that the youths succeeded in forcing constitutional amendments that have removed hurdles that prevented the young and vibrant from contesting elective offices, they should be galvanised to save the local government system.
It is good that federal legislators have supported the NFIU initiative. This should be taken further by ensuring that legal framework for distribution of power in the country is reviewed and contradictions cleaned up. It might be difficult to obtain the support of state legislatures that have already been pocketed by the governors, but when it becomes clear that the campaign has become a movement of the people, the lawmakers will be forced to fall in line. Where governors willfully intercept money allocated the local governments contrary to the relevant laws, especially the grundnorm, they should be investigated and duly prosecuted after leaving office.
In the interim, we support NFIU’s directive to banks on withdrawals from local government accounts. Anytime states impound sources of funding for local councils and governors hide behind the immunity clause in section 308 of the constitution, the commissioners of local government and other officials of the ministry should be visited with the full weight of the law. The argument by some governors that there is too much corruption at the local government level, hence the need for supervision at the state level, is puerile. There is worse corruption even at the state and the national levels. If a local government chairman is found to have meddled with council funds, let him be arrested and prosecuted. After all, they do not enjoy immunity. Even governors that enjoy immunity are now being tried and jailed after leaving office. So, it should not be difficult to make thieving local council executives account for their actions.
The truth is that the current structure has failed and it must be changed if people at the grassroots are to genuinely reap the dividend of democracy. Local councils can only be free when they have control over their allocations.