Nigeria’s democracy is developing, albeit slowly. As in other participatory democracies, an increasing number of people are becoming interested in who governs them. They want to be a part of the decision-making process that affects their lives, particularly at the grassroots level. And rightly so, because not only does broad public participation in politics promote good governance, but it is also a step toward power devolution, which is currently popular around the world.
The Ogun State House of Assembly passed the Local Government Autonomy Bill into law in part to prepare for the eventual realization of genuine restructuring of the country, with Governor Dapo Abiodun at the forefront. In doing so, the state has created a new horizon of hope for local government administration not only in Ogun State, but throughout Nigeria.
Apart from being the first state in the South-West to pass the bill, the governor has also established a special committee to investigate ways of releasing some sources of Internally Generated Revenues to local governments in order to make them more functional and independent.
As a result, it goes without saying that Governor Abiodun recognizes the importance of local democracy. Anyone who believes in democracy must believe in strong local governments. According to John Mill, a staunch supporter of local government, “strong local governance fosters strong local democracy.”
This is the proper way to achieve the goals and objectives of local government administration in Nigeria as a third-tier of government. There can be no meaningful development at the grassroots level without financial independence. According to French doctrine, “one can govern better from a distance but administer better when one is closer.”
By enacting the autonomy bill, the Ogun State government has created opportunities for the council areas’ rapid development. As another 19th century advocate of local governance, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it succinctly: “Local Governments can unlock local development better than central and state governments because of their local proximity and knowledge, as well as the local specificity of their services.”
In the context of the country’s current situation, strong local governments can combat insecurity, stimulate the local economy, and reduce poverty. According to the World Bank, “poverty is best addressed at the local government level.”
Regrettably, the politics of state/local government joint account has been largely responsible for the abysmal failure of Local Governments to meet the needs of the people at the grassroots level over the years. Every attempt to grant local governments autonomy had been met with opposition from state governors, who frequently argued over the right to exercise close oversight over them. The most recent example of such opposition was the recent opposition to the President’s Executive Order 10 of 2020, which grants financial autonomy to local governments as well as state legislatures and judiciaries.
Local government administration in Nigeria has evolved since the British colonial era, when ‘Native Authorities’ were used to maintain law and order rather than to provide social services, with varying systems of operation in different regions of the country. However, the 1976 reform, initiated by the military government, recognized Local Government as a third-tier of government and granted them financial autonomy to facilitate sustainable grassroots development.
However, the politics of State/Local Government Joint Account brought about by the 1999 constitution rendered this third-tier of government almost irrelevant in the administration of the country, eroding the financial independence previously enjoyed by the local government. The State Local Government Joint Account was established in Section 162, paragraph six of the 1999 Constitution, subordinating them to the state government. Because the provision forbids direct funding of Local Governments from the Federation, successive governors have always found it easy to castrate the local governments and make them perpetual appendages of the state. As a result, they have turned local governments into conduit pipes for siphoning off public funds intended for development. They (state governors) frequently treat elected council chairmen with contempt, bullying and trampling on local government’s financial and administrative autonomy.
This explains why there is a lack of essential social capital at the grassroots level-trust and confidence between the government government. Citizens at the local level in Nigeria have lost trust in elected officers at Local Government Councils as a result of this disconnect.
Abiodun has contributed his own quota to the pool of ideas about how to make the country better by supporting the easy passage of the Local Government autonomy bill in the face of vehement opposition from some governors. He has demonstrated how the executive and legislative branches of government can coexist harmoniously for the benefit of the people.
The bill was approved by the lawmakers following a concurrent vote on the 44 bills sent to the state legislature by the National Assembly. Among these are bills providing financial independence for the State Houses of Assembly, the State Judiciary, and Local Government, as well as an Act authorizing the renaming of the Egbado North and South Local Government Areas to Yewa North and Yewa South LGAs, respectively.
This is in accordance with the collective resolution of stakeholders who had previously agreed at a forum that all 44 proposed changes should be given accelerated concurrence by the House and then transmitted to the National Assembly for further transmission to Mr President for his assent. They believe that the principle of separation of powers among the three branches of government will strengthen the democratic tenets of our constitution.
All of this implies that the State Joint Local Government Account, which had accounted for grassroots development, has been abolished. With the bill’s provision allowing for the creation of a Special account into which all allocations due to Local Government Councils from the Federation Account and the state government are to be paid, elected chairmen can now prioritize projects.
In Ogun State, a new era of good governance has begun. The era of impunity has ended. Until now, there has hardly been a state in the Federal Republic of Nigeria where some form of illegality has not been committed with funds from the Local Government through a fictitious state/Local Government joint account project. There have even been instances where governors have gone out of their way to dissolve elected council officers on the basis of flimsy excuses and then appoint administrators, the majority of whom are party loyalists, acolytes, and relations.
Indeed, as soon as a new governor takes office, one of his first acts is to dissolve the existing local councils to make way for his stooges known as caretaker committees, who lack both the mandate of the people and the moral strength to resist the state government’s excruciating control, which perpetuates the rot within the system. As a result, they turn the entire Local Government administration process into a conduit pipe for siphoning money from the grassroots people.
To change the old order of executive recklessness and impunity, it takes a strong man like Governor Abiodun. The bill, as passed by state legislators, includes several impediments to the growth of local government. One of the immediate benefits of the new paradigm shift is the realization of the longing for each local council’s potential to generate revenue for grassroots development. As in the past, a lack of funds severely limited the ability of local governments to initiate projects on their own. Corruption, undue political interference, a lack of qualified professional personnel, a leadership problem, and a general lack of work attitude exacerbate the financial vulnerability of local councils.
These are some of the problems that the new bill aims to address by ensuring the transfer of financial authority from the state to local governments. To this extent, local government autonomy is predicated on two premises. One is the ability to initiate a local development plan that includes economic, social, and environmental aspects. And two, the constitutional authority to prioritize budget expenditure.
Essentially, this is the reason for the governor’s and Ogun State lawmakers’ overwhelming support for the Senate bill seeking power devolution to the grassroots through financial and administrative autonomy.
According to the bill as presented to the House of Assembly, each local government council is required to establish and maintain its own special account called the Local Government Allocation Account, into which all allocations will be paid.
The bills also seek to amend the Constitution to repeal the state joint local government account and create a special account for the payment of all allocations due to local government councils from the federation account and the state government. The legislations also require each state to pay a proportion of its internally generated revenue to local government councils in its jurisdiction on the terms and in the manner prescribed by the House of Assembly. The bill seeks administrative autonomy by allowing local governments to hold their own elections.
To be sure, Nigeria has a federal system of government in place, with a Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), 36 states, and 774 local governments. The purpose of the Local Government structure is to facilitate grassroots development. However, the underperformance of administration at this level of government has been blamed on the executive recklessness of some governors, who regard the council areas as mere appendages of the states. Since the advent of the current democratic governance, significant resources have been committed to this critical tier of government, but with little or no positive impact on the socioeconomic lives of the rural populace.
Moving forward, there is now widespread agreement on the need for a review of the 1999 Constitution in order to make local government more functional, responsive, responsible, and competitive. Many legal experts have pointed out flaws in the current system, which lists the names of local governments in each state in the constitution. Creating local councils, they argue, undermines the state’s autonomy. On that note, the first step in addressing the problems of local governments in Nigeria is to treat local government as a matter of state law rather than federal law. Abiodun’s place has set the standard for others to follow for having the courage, tenacity, and genuine sincerity of purpose to support Local Government autonomy in Nigeria.
Femi Ogbonnikan wrote from Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State.