National Assembly and the Local Government Autonomy

By Abubakar Jimoh

Two years ago, a certain significant development pointing to the possibilities of strengthening the local government administration with financial and political autonomy dominated the realm of the nation’s political issues.

This rekindled recently when National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) staged a protest at the national assembly complex to register their grievance and encourage the national assembly to pass the local government autonomy bill into law.

It would be recalled that in 2012, one major contentious issue in the amendment of the 1999 constitution is autonomy to local governments. While the National Assembly saw a greater need to grant financial autonomy to the councils in order to make them more effective in bringing dividends of democracy closer to the people, the state governors argued that the proposed amendment of the 1999 Constitution should contain only the federal and state as tiers of government, while local governments should be regarded as an extension of the ministries in the states.

As part of the efforts to address the contentious issue, three bills seeking local government autonomy, sponsored by two members of the House of Representatives and a senator were submitted to the National Assembly. A bill titled: “an Act to amend Section 7,162, of the 1999 Constitution and provision of political and financial independence for local government administration in the country” was sponsored by Hon. Ekwunife Uche Lilian. Another bill entitled: “a bill for an Act to Alter the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to ensure effective and efficient operations of the local government councils in Nigeria for social, economic and political development and for other matters connected” was sponsored by Hon. Mohammed Shamsidin Ango Abdulahi, and it seeks to amend Section 7, 313 and Sections 162 among others in the 1999 Constitution (amended) and gives political and economic independence to the 774 local councils across the country. The third bill was sponsored by Senator Nurudeen Abatemi Usman with primary aims at correcting the ambiguity in certain sections of the Constitution, and clearly establishing that local government chairmen are the chief executive officers of their councils; and proposing a four-year tenure for local government chairmen.

Although local government system represents the third tier of administration, as stated in the 1999 constitution, it has been reported not to be getting a fair deal in the hands of successive administrations in Nigeria. While governments especially at the state levels have firmly expressed that situation at the council level has not been the same in most of the states. Local governments are largely operated as appendages of the state governments resulting in various setbacks to the development of the grassroots. In fact, it was reported that some of them are governed by the caretaker committees appointed by the state governors.

Regrettably, rural development of the grassroots which should always be the concern of every responsible and responsive political system has not been primary focus, as development and participation have continued to escape people of the grassroots. This informed the view of a Nigerian political analyst, K.O Olaniyan in a paper titled “Local Government Administration and the Challenges of Development in Nigeria within the Provisions of the 1999 Constitution” where he wrote: “Development remains insignificant if it does not positively affect the lives of those in the periphery of decision making arrangement. The Nigerian state therefore created local government as the third tier of government whose objective is to ensure effective, measurable and efficient service delivery to the people. However, Local government is faced with various difficulties.”

Similarly, in 2012, participants at various public sessions on the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, across the country voted heavily to support an amendment of section 162 (6) of the 1999 Constitution to abolish the state joint local government account so that allocations due to Local Government Councils would be paid to them directly. They also voted against the state assuming responsibility of finding of the councils, maintaining that they be accorded the status of a third tier of government. They pleaded with the National Assembly to remove the control of local government funds from state governors.

Against this backdrop, a public analyst, Salisu Suleiman in a piece titled “Local Government, Local Problem” in 2009 lamented: “The local governments Chairmen are usually surrounded by useless protocols making them to be brash, arrogant, suave, solicitous and shockingly crude. One trait of character that is ever present though, is their well-horned capacity to detect the minutest opportunity for fraud and diversion of public funds. Their word is law. He knows everything, except the concept of public and local government administration.

“At a lower level, local government treasurers and cashiers also live like royalty. As custodians of money, they help themselves liberally from the public purse by exploiting the inherent weaknesses of the archaic accounting systems still in use in most local government areas. Truth be told, they are probably more powerful than the local government chairman because they are permanent staff of the council, while chairmen come and go. They are the institutional memories of councils and know where every kobo is. However, no matter the positions they occupy – from the chairman, councilors, treasurers, directors, cashiers and other positions, local government administration in Nigeria today has become a source of godless, mind-boggling theft of public resources.”

Unlike other scholars, he blamed local government Chairmen for corruption and financial management which have so far contributed largely to under-development of grassroot; and question their competency in handling the allocations from the federation account. “It has become vogue for chairmen to own houses in London, Dubai and South Africa. There was the case of a chairman who was duped of N40 million he stole to buy a house in London. And he dare not report to the police. Another chairman died of a heart attack when he learnt that the factory he supposedly acquired belonged to a Lebanese national and was never in the market. A lady chairman got her investments in property worth hundreds of millions in Abuja bull-dozed because it was built on a green area,” he added.

Also, Jon Gambrell of Associated Press while giving accounts of inefficiency of local government administrative in an article titled “In Nigeria, Corruption Roots in Local Governments” in 2011 posited: “Nigeria inherited local governments from British colonialists and kept the system in place after gaining independence in 1960. Little changed under Nigeria’s military dictatorships and when democracy took hold in 1999. The governments, run by council members and overseen by a chairman, remain responsible for road maintenance, sewage systems and markets, as well as assisting in health care and education in their areas. Yet even on Ikoyi Island in Lagos, which once housed the nation’s federal government, potholed roads with little asphalt run past some of the most expensive real estate in all of Africa. Public schools remain dilapidated and overcrowded. Passers-by relieve themselves in open drains.”

On the same vain, another piece titled “Problems of Local Government Budgeting in Nigeria” posted by StudentsDiary.net added that “Corruption is one of the major problems facing the local government. In fact, a mere mention of the local government exudes corruption. The popular myth propagated by the council officials is that the councils are always short of funds. No doubt, the heavy funding that runs into billions of Naira as seen from the tables may not be enough because of the high level of corruption in the councils. It has also been observed that most local government councils do not accord adequate regard to the budget process. The fall out of this situation is the indiscriminate and unplanned execution of projects. The state governments which would have served as a check are not free from this cankerworm. Evidently, there is contract scams in all local government councils in Nigeria. These contracts are inflated and worse still, the projects are not executed and thereby defeating the essence of budgets.”

Another study conducted by Samihah Khalil and Salihu A. Adelabu at Northern University of Malaysia,  covering 33 local governments in Nigeria in terms of disbursement of statutory allocation, and budget and budgeting analysis gathered that as far back as 1999, the Nigerian local governments are being given enough by the Federal Government in order to provide infrastructural development to the citizens in the local area, but public revenue are being mismanaged by political leaders and local governments’ officials in Nigeria. They confirmed that less than 5% of the statutory allocation accrued to the local governments under consideration is being expended on infrastructural development, while over 10% is used for personnel expenditure as the cost of delivering infrastructural development by local governments in Nigeria.

Apart from the above, high level of illiteracy has also been attributed to the underperformance of the local government administrator across the country.  Effort to tackle this triggered the development of a Training and Capacity Building Manual entitled “Local Government Administration and Development in Nigeria” developed by Olisa Agbakoba and Hilary Ogbonna for local government administrators to: enable them appreciate their roles as developmental agents; harness various resources at their disposal to bring about meaningful grassroots development; and help various interest groups and grassroots constituencies reach an understanding of issues in local government administration.

Meanwhile, some other political analysts both within and outside the country have attributed under-development at grassroot levels to other factors apart from those highlighted by the aforementioned analysts. For instance, in his analysis, Kolawole Sola of Department of Industrial Relations and Personnel Management, Lagos State University reported that the struggle to bring about a local government system in Nigeria has been a long drawn one. “Efforts have geared towards moving the system from local administration to local government with functional political and economic autonomy. Yet, local government administration is confronted with issues and challenges such as: federal and state government’s interventions in the constitutional apportioned responsibilities of local government,” he said.

He however, argues that for local government administration to realize its lofty goals, the country should return to true federalism, enthrone positive leadership, pursuit of economic self-reliance through internally generated revenue, and embrace attitudinal and behavioural changes to achieve good governance.

In another research conducted by Abubakar Usman, a lecture at Department of Local Government and Development Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria using three states from the North-west, South-East and South-Western parts of Nigeria indicates a very weak relationship between local government (decentralisation) as operational in Nigeria and service delivery. Reasons for this development were linked to limited autonomy and high level government interferences.

Whereas, another study by Jimoh A. Oladipo at Department of Business Administration, University of Ilorin, has coined the fact that the events of the second war and its aftermath have succeeded not only in making the concept of development a necessity objective but also in identifying the appropriate investment for implementing development projects. To him, the advocacy for decentralization measures as an all-check against concentrating power in any one particular organization finds relevance in the instrumentality of local governments in planning and implementing projects to address the issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

In delivering mandates set out by the constitution, local government faces significant risks and challenges which in the analysis of Benjamin Ogbebulu in a piece titled “Repositioning Local Government As The Bedrock Of Service Delivery In Nigeria”, need to be addressed if the aspirations of the rural people are to be met through the local government as most rural people are yet to benefit much from the dividends of present democratisation in the country. He mentioned as part of the factor underlining effectiveness of local government administration to include clarifying the respective roles of the state and local government; streamlining the performance Management framework with a clearer local focus; allowing local government in the country to improve its own governance; and improving the transparency and accountability of the funding system for the local, state and Federal Government.

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