Until of recent when I stumbled on the letter written by Fuad Oki on April 17, 2021, trending in the social media, I had long forgotten about the ‘tumbledown’ called local government councils, (the councils). The reason for my not noticing their existence simply arose from their unimpactful state. Contrary to the rationale for the establishment of local government councils, which essentially is to serve as catalysts for rapid development at the grassroots, the councils have turned out to be a curse to the grassroots people. Rather than being agents of development, councils have largely succeeded in under-developing their areas of operation. If there is any trophy for a level of governance that has bastardised largely the master plan of a state and given an ugly face to the environment, it is the councils that would easily secure the award.
Is it in the realm of so many hanging markets at intersections or Illegal raising of existing structures without structural verification of stability? Is it in the area of erection of all manner of mushroom stores and so on, creation and/or endorsement of all manner of illegal bus stops and parks, imposition of all manner of indiscriminate taxes and levies, poor traffic management, most times bordering on harassment of innocent motorists, derelict state of educational facilities, particularly the primary schools, mostly looking like war or earthquake-ravaged structures, grossly substandard health care facilities, zero waste management capability with refuse and litter all over the place, poor sanitation and drainage management and clearing culture? All these and many more evidence the comatose state of the councils. Any enquiry put out as to their abysmal failure would be met with the excuse that the councils lack resources to discharge these responsibilities, strangely, even where such acts require no financial commitment to implement.
The truth is that simple policy measures without financial implications could assuage the deplorable situations in most local government councils. Although the resources for the execution of council projects are meant to accrue from three sources, primarily, statutory allocation from the Federal Government and the states, internally generated revenue and grants, I do know that in, some instances, the councils even procure loans from financial institutions in addition to the primary sources. It is startling, however, that, notwithstanding these accruals, there is still failure of performance of the councils at the grassroots level.
The impact is not felt by the people. From a recent study carried out by a non-governmental organisation, there is huge dissatisfaction among the people, and the bitterness is reflected largely in the responses to the administered questionnaires wherein the people practically canvassed the eradication of the councils. Another palpable excuse often supplied by the helmsmen of the councils is that the state government makes illegal deduction of huge sums of money from their allocations. While this is true in a lot of instances on the part of some governors, the worst is that, in practically all the states, exempting Kaduna, the accruable sum of 10 per cent from the states’ IGR is never paid to the councils. But even at that, the little allocation that ends up with the councils, coupled with the councils’ IGR, would have triggered some impact, if only the council leaders are loyal to their oaths.
Regrettably, in most of the councils, there is nothing reflective of such revenue in terms of projects. In an attempt to insulate the local government councils from the invasion of the revenue accruable to the councils, the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Agency (NFIA) insisted that funds accruable to the council must be paid directly to the accounts of the constitutionally recognized local government councils in the country. With this development, albeit the directive not so legitimate, one would have thought that the councils would have been saved from this invasion. Alas! The council managers are still bullied by some governors into making undue remittances in so many other amorphous ways. This ultimately defeats the noble intentions of the NFIA and certainly calls for sanctions.
The NFIA and, by extension, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission need to urgently step in to make a scapegoat of some of the council chairmen that budge to this illegitimate demand. We certainly need development at the grassroot. This brings me to the question of local government autonomy. This has been on the front burner for some time but not much progress has been made. The drag is not unconnected with the nefarious activities of some state governors and, by extension, the Houses of Assembly in thwarting the constitution amendment process that would have conferred on the councils the necessary autonomy. Just as in the cases of the judiciary and the legislature, the governors and the Houses of Assembly enjoy the subjugation of the councils to their authority and manipulation.
The states insist that the councils must remain their milking cow. It is, therefore, imperative that the constitutional aberration of subjecting their structure and administrative control to the state legislature must be dismantled to clear the way for the councils’ autonomy. I recall my experience as a consultant in the constitution amendment process of the National Assembly that it was the states’ legislature that frustrated the last attempt to amend the Constitution and confer on the councils the desired autonomy. The fact remains that each council possesses its own legislature that ought to act as checks and balances in its activities. Why involve the state legislature? I opine that this is an overkill. The argument by the governors that there are only two tiers of government recognised under the Constitution by the fact of Nigeria being a federalist state is specious.
The contention certainly cannot be right as the councils are creatures of the Constitution and so many provisions recognise their existence. Beyond this, there is no universal conception of federalism as to automatically dictate to Nigeria the content of her federalism. Each nation fashions out its nature of federalism that suits its peculiarities. The nature of federalism in America is not synonymous with that of Canada nor is the latter equivalent of federalism that is practised in Australia. So, there is no hard and fast rule about the tiers of government necessary to make a nation a federation. If the country likes, it can even have four tiers. Hence, if the goal is to fast-track development at the grassroots, the councils must be liberated from the apron strings of the states and made to be independent. Just a few days ago, I read about the suspension of some council chairmen by the state legislature.
This confirms my fear as the will of the electorate as reflected in the mandate given to them is thwarted by a stranger. This act, in case of the legislators, has been serially deprecated by the courts as unconstitutional. The councils have their legislatures that could have done the needful, if necessary. This again draws attention to the process of emergence of the council leaders. By the Constitution of Nigeria, they ought to be elected via democratic means. This implies that they must pass through the nomination process of the political parties through primaries and emerge from the general election as victors. Experience has shown that, in a whole lot of instances, the free will of the electorate has not been allowed to triumph. This is not unconnected largely with the manipulation of the primaries by godfathers and outright rigging of the elections.
This brings to fore the constitutional idea of allowing the State Independent Electoral Commissions to conduct council elections. In the light of what has transpired so far and the outcome of the conduct of the state (council) elections, no credible election obtains at that level.
In practically all the states that have conducted local government elections over time, the ruling party in the State has always had “moonslide” victory. He who pays the piper dictates the tune, as the State Electoral Commission constitutes a parastatal under the governor’s office.
The time is now ripe to have a central electoral body for all elections, if we desire credible leaders at the Council levels. The continuous retention of the present status quo will continue to engender bad governance at the grassroots. The quality of elected operators leaves much to be desired and militates against any service delivery. The ancillary issue to this is the manner and mode of exercise of the power conferred on these state electoral bodies. In a whole lot of instances, the commissions are unable to fix the period of elections as and when due, even where the tenure of existing occupants are expiring. This has, in several instances, given birth to several devices and nomenclatures such as Caretakers, Administrators, Council Managers, etc.
In several decisions of the apex court in Nigeria, this practice has been deprecated. By way of example, the decision of the Supreme Court in the cases of Governor, Ekiti State & Ors. v. Olunbunmo; Eze v. Governor of Abia State and A.S.H.A. v Tijjani, to mention a few, speak to this fact. Out of exasperation, the Attorney-General of the Federation, in a letter of 14th January, 2020, to his counterpart in Oyo State, equally condemned the same practice, which was fast becoming a pattern in the country.
Therefore, since elections at other levels are never deferred for such temporary vehicles, I believe the same sanctity must apply to the councils. In this respect, let me commend Mr. Fuad Oki for putting a trigger to this in Lagos State. It is also instructive to note that, pending the listing of the Local Government Development Areas (LCDA), or whichever nomenclature used, in the Constitution as councils, states with such vessels cannot legally conduct any election into them. My sense of it, therefore, is that any election into the balkanized constitutional local governments or the LCDAs are illegal. The commissions must, therefore, be cautious of this and guard against it.
The good news is that the Constitution of all the political parties recognize only the constitutionally listed LGAs. Consequently, primaries of the party must kowtow by applying the same provision. The sacrilegious status of election is further fortified by Article 21 of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which provides that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
In the course of writing this column, I stumbled on a trending video of aspirants into the office of chairmanship in Kaduna State under the All Progressives Congress writing qualifying examination. Trust the vintage Governor Nasir El-Rufai who first introduced electronic voting into the conduct of the local government elections and is now belling the cat in this regard again. Kudos to you, my brother. If we all, therefore, agree that the local government councils remain the bastion of grassroots development, we must join the crusade for their autonomy in all ramifications and also advocate the restraints on the part of the states from breathing down the neck of the local government. The time for the reform is now. We cannot afford any further procrastination.