By AYODELE Okunfolami
Newly elected Lagos State local government and local council development area chairmen have resumed work following the administration of oaths of office on them, on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. The event, which took place at the Lagos Secretariat in Alausa, was sequel to the local council polls that held the Saturday before. The LG elections in Lagos followed the nationwide trend of low turnout as residents in the commercial nerve centre of the nation used the day as an opportunity to rest instead of exercising their franchise. Actually, had vehicular movement been allowed, the turnout would have been poorer. Certain factors have continuously affected this democratically unhealthy practice.
One of such factors is the mindset of many Nigerians who think only of the general election which sees the average Nigerian getting his or her voter’s card, queuing under the rain or sun to vote for his or her preferred presidential and gubernatorial candidate, and throwing the voter’s card aside until another four years. In fact, if the federal and state legislative elections were not held simultaneously, our senators and representatives would have been elected by a minority of the electorate.
The Nigerian voter ought to be more alive to his civic responsibilities and enlightened on the importance of the local council administration. Local government is the third tier of government and ideally, should be the closest rung to the people but more often than not, the Nigerian voter tends to hold his elected executive in far away State Government House more accountable than the chairman next door.
Besides all politics being local, as the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, makes us to understand, the voter needs to know that these chairmen and councillors influence the choice of delegates for party primaries that would in turn nominate flag¬bearers for the presidential and governorship elections. More imperatively, the political theatre of the general elections begins with who controls the Local Councils.
Another thing that explains the apathy to local council polls is the perceived predictability of the process. Take the latest Lagos exercise for example (which is relatively the same in other states of the federation). Of the 20 local government and 37 local council development areas chairmanship seats for grabs, the ruling All Progressive Congress went swimmingly victorious in all 57. So at the end of the day, the local council polls is seen more like a rigged referendum in favour of a sitting governor than a fair competitive exercise to pick a chairman. Take the optics of it for a moment, is it not an oddity that a strong political party would win more than a third of the votes in the general elections across a state but can’t win a councillorship seat in a ward within its political stronghold?
Political parties don’t help matters either. It is common practice to have grand rallies on the eve of governorship elections where party bigwigs from all around the federation gather in any particular square, ground or stadium to support and raise the hand of the party’s flag-bearer in order to woo voters. This is absent in local government campaigns. The individual candidates themselves often don’t take their push beyond the pedestrian only to cry foul after the results don’t go their way. At least, at my own end of town, I never witnessed door-to-door drives for votes in the fairly small-sized administrative territory.
Some have suggested that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) be given the mandate to conduct the grassroots elections instead of the States Independent Electoral Commission. I think this constitutional proposal negates the principle of true federalism that we want for our nation. Also, the INEC-conducted local council area elections of the Federal Capital Territory have over time followed the low-voter-turnout and ruling-party-victory patterns observed in elections conducted by SIECs. In other words, it is beyond who conducts the election. Just as INEC was knocked in the past for its questioned impartiality but is becoming more credible, the SIECs should also be given some time to be built up as strong, independent institutions.
Fiscal self-sufficiency for the lowest tier of government is an additional subject that affects LGs as going concerns. As long as allocations meant for this level of government continue to pass through the state government, it becomes awkward demanding accountability for primary school education and primary healthcare from the chairs or councillors. Do the councillors even have appropriation bills or laws?
It becomes more puzzling when there are commissioners for local government affairs in the states executive councils probing the independence of the councils. Consultation of traditional leaders ahead of council chairmen over community matters puts a further dent on the role of the latter.
That is why the calls for autonomy of the councils are getting full-throated. Recently, both chambers of the National Assembly voted for local government autonomy in their constitutional amendment exercise. This autonomy is what the National Union of Local Government Employees has eternally canvassed. This move has received a measure of acceptance from the larger polity but I think before the State Houses of Assembly pass it, we should have a rethink.
Sovereign Local Governments may give us a dubious federal structure in which state governments become weaker. We already have state governors passing the buck of infrastructure to the centre, especially regarding federal roads. Autonomous councils will now make them lazier as they would hands off primary healthcare and education. That aside, states are today insolvent and depending on foreign grants to pay salaries and pensions. Is it then local governments that have been unable to handle floods that we expect to pay salaries?
What about the politics? We know how tyrannical the Governors’ Forum can be. What then happens when we now have Chairmen’s Forum, consisting of 774 members (more than the entire National Assembly)?
I propose that instead of making this tier of government autonomous, we should make them administrative departments, not political entities.
What this implies is that instead of having to continuously cast meaningless votes that should produce stereotypical results for handicapped executives, the state governors appoint senior civil servants to manage all the government agencies in the local council. These council managers will serve as intermediaries between the local communities and government.
Okunfolami writes from Lagos.