The House of Representatives last week passed for a second reading a bill to amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act (2007), to mandate state governments to have democratically elected local government councils as opposed to the prevailing practice of appointing caretaker committees. The bill’s sponsor, Mr. Edward Pwajok, explained that the amendment would make it mandatory for a local government council to be democratically elected in order to be able to access funds from the capital market. He frowned at the current practice of some states which administer the local government councils through appointed committees, in clear violation of the Constitution.
We support Mr. Pwajok’s position and urge the House of Representatives to work assiduously on the bill. Section 7 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states that “the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed; and accordingly, the Government of every State shall … ensure their existence under a law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such Councils.”
And, every state guarantees the local government areas in the Federation of Nigeria as an autonomous and independent level of government. Section 162(6) provides the vital financial link between the local governments and the state governments through a special account called “State Joint Local Government Account” into which is paid all allocations to the local government councils of the state from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State.
Thus, the Constitution is unequivocal in its recognition of the local governments and their administrative and financial autonomy, and the roles of the state governments in making them functional.
It is, therefore, unwise for state governments to ignore the constitutional provisions and proceed to run the local governments at their whims. There can be no doubt that the complexities and expenses of conducting local government elections can be intimidating, messy and even contentious. But, this is part of democracy and ought to be respected. If we must make democracy our political culture, we must accept regular local government elections as a necessity to gauge the will of the people and secure their mandate.
The case for the bill is further buttressed by the fact that a local government council desirous of raising funds for whatever cause ought to be certain that it has the mandate of the people. The local government system as presently structured and administered does not seem to be working at its optimum. The testy, uncertain relationship between the state governments and the local governments is not the ideal. The competence, prudence and the integrity of local council officials have many times raised questions on whether this level of government is truly functional or sustainable.
There have been suggestions to scrap the third tier and grant the states the ultimate responsibility for the administration of local governments. That way, each state reserves the right to create as many local government areas or development centres as it can conveniently administer, without the interference of the Federal Government as happened during the Obasanjo administration of 1999-2007. Then, the Federal Government refused to recognise the local government development council areas created by the Lagos State Government by withholding federal allocations to Lagos local governments.
As attractive and convenient as it might seem, this does not address the issue of checks and balances and how to prevent waste, fraud and abuse by governors who would act as the overlords.
Democracy permits the constant review of what can be improved and we urge the House of Representatives to give the issue the attention it deserves. A functional, democratic government at the grassroots is the best guarantee of the true dividends of democracy.