By CLIFFORD NDUJIHE, Deputy Political Editor
Stakeholders in Nigeria’s democracy gathered in Enugu last week to ponder on the issues and circumstances that have bedeviled local government democracy since the advent of the Fourth Republic.
THE three-day conference on how to rediscover the local councils organized by the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) at Nike Lake Resort, Enugu lived up to its billings.
With resource persons drawn from leading higher institutions in Nigeria including inputs from eminent Nigerians and persons from the United States, Canada and Mexico among others, if the ideas canvassed at the parley were implemented the local councils, in no distant time, will become an oasis of development.
A common strand of thought ran through the avalanche of papers and speeches made at the forum: The local councils must be granted fiscal and political autonomy, and democratised to enable them perform their onerous roles of providing needed services at the grassroots to improve the lot of the citizenry.
However, the speakers differed on the approach. While some urged direct allocation to the councils and abrogation of the controversial state-local government joint account, some opposed the idea, saying it might be counter-productive in the long run. There were also suggestions that the councils should boost their internal revenue generation and depend less on statutory allocation. Other suggestions include removing or retaining the local councils as the third tier of government.
Held between November 27-30 with the theme: “National Conference on rediscovering the Nigerian Local Government System in the Emerging Constitution,” eminent persons, who spoke at the forum included President Goodluck Jonathan, who was represented by his Special Adviser Political Affairs, Dr Ahmed Gulak; former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar; former Senate President, Senator Ken Nnamani; Governors Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu (Niger) and Raji Fashola (Lagos). There were also Acting Governor of Enugu State, Sunday Onyebuchi; United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Amb Terence McCulley, who was represented by Consul General, Jeff Hawkins; ALGON President, Ozo Nwabueze Okafor and leaders of the association from all parts of the country; Dr Remi Ayoade; a team of Mayors from the United States of America including Eugene W. Grant and President of the Forum of Local Government Federations, Canada, Dr Rupak Chattopadhyay.
Leading papers delivered at the gathering include: ‘The functioning of the local government system in a federalist constitution: controversies, comparisons and consensus’ by Professor Muhammed Tawfiq Ladan of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; ‘The functioning of the local governments and their relationship with upper levels of government’ by Professor Assisi Asobie of the University of Nigeria, UNN; “Making local government for Nigeria: Fixing the missing links’ by Professor Haruna Dlakwa of the University of Maiduguri; ‘Federal account dependency, insolvency and access to development funds for local governments in Nigeria’ by Dr Sampson Ebimaro; and ‘The political, administrative and fiscal environment of local government in Nigeria, a historical analysis’ by Professor Adejo Odoh.
There were also: ‘Local government and inter fiscal relations and transfers: the principle, process and structure’ by Professor Chikelue Ofuebe (UNN); ‘Local government system in Nigeria: The dangers of quasi-fiscal, political and administrative autonomy’ by Professor F C Okoli (UNN); “Comparison of local government systems in selected federalist countries’ by Barr Raymond Onyegu; ‘Does direct federal-local government relations undermine federalism?’ by Professor J I Elaigwu; ‘Constitutionalising local governments in Nigeria: issues and problems’ by Barr Bamidele Aturu; and ‘MDGs: Countdown, appraisal and role of local governments in overcoming gaps and challenges’ by Dr Precious Kalamba Gbeneol (senior special assistant to the President on MDGs).
Councils understand the needs of the people – Nwabueze
Welcoming participants to the event, ALGON National President, Ozo Nwabueze Okafor, who reeled out his achievements as chairman of Enugu South local council, said he was able to achieve the feats because Governor Sullivan Chime was not shackling councils in the state and elections have been regular.
Citing the examples of Niger, Rivers and Kwara among others as states where regular council elections have been entrenched, he said some chairmen in these states have performed better than him. He urged states, which are yet to hold council polls to do so and deepen democracy in the country.
His words: “Devolution of power is the in thing now all over the world because the councils understand the needs of their people. If we are serious about national development we have to strengthen the local governments. About seven of the 15 MDGs fall under the purview of the local governments. Without autonomy and adequate funding how can meet the millennium development goals? If we strengthen the local governments we will bring development to the people because the council is a potent force we have to tap from.”
We must enthrone true fiscal federalism – Fashola
Fashola, who was represented by his Special Adviser on Political Affairs and Legislative Matters, Hon Musilim Folarin, said the federal arrangement in the country was non-negotiable because it is the surest way to enhance development. He urged true fiscal and political federalism and devolution of power to the constituent units for every section to develop at its own pace. He also restated the need for state police noting however that the overall objective of governance at all levels is to improve governance and provide direly needed services and amenities to the citizenry. Relatedly, Grant lamented that only 365 local councils in Nigeria have elected administrations. Aside strengthening the councils, he advised Nigerians “to go back and ensure that your people are actually elected because Nigerian people must control their government.
We must uproot state-LG joint account – Nnamani
In like manner, Nnamani decried the prevalence of unelected governments in most states, noting that development strides were being witnessed in councils where democracy prevails. He opposed state-local government joint accounts arguing that there is need for council budgets to be debated like those of the states and federal governments. Onyebuchi stressed the need for the strengthening of the councils because the council system is very vital in development of the council. He said that elsewhere socio-economic advancement of countries was measured by the well-being of their rural citizens.
Godfatherism hinders LGs – Atiku
Recalling how he inaugurated the ALGON on November 30, 1999 and the lofty objectives of the organization, Atiku said most of those objectives have been realized 13 years after. However, he said a lot of challenges still remain.
Atiku, who canvassed for resource control by the federating units and remittance of 70 per cent to the centre: “There is still a lot of work to be done. There are still objectives to be met and goals to attain. An issue at the forefront of current discussions on constitution amendment is the autonomy of local governments. Nigeria’s local governments still lack reasonable autonomy to provide services and implement development projects for the local populations in an efficient and timely manner. Taking a cue from the overbearing federal Government, state governments have been overbearing in their relationship with local administrations. Many have been abusing the joint state-local government accounts by tampering with local government funds as reports and petitions make clear. Interestingly while these abuses go on, many local government leaders are unable to say so for fear of angering their state governments.
“The direct allocation of funds from the federation to local governments was meant to ensure that the local governments get development funds from the centre in order to enhance their operational capacity. At the same time the joint state-local government account was meant to acknowledge the rightful role of the federating units in local government administration. However, the control that the state governments have over the joint account has ensured that the development objective of the direct allocation is not met. And it has left the local governments worse off than they were prior to that policy shift. “We need to re-examine our conception of local government administration. Should we continue with the practice of Federal Government creating local governments across the country and allocating resources to them directly? Or should it be left in the hands of federating states to decide for themselves the system of local government and the number of local authorities they need because of our historical and cultural differences?
“In my view there are three critical issues here. First is the structure of our federation; the second is our political practice; and the third is our disregard for rules and regulations. In a federation, local administration ought to be left in the hands of federating states or regions rather than an awkward situation where the local governments deal directly with the Federal government while sidetracking the state governments. The federating units should be left to determine the system and number of local governments and fund them accordingly in accordance with their historical and cultural peculiarities and development needs. Our focus should be on ensuring a more effective local administration, responsible fiscal management and accountability. And the proximity of state governments to local governments makes them more suited for that than the more federal government.
Niger: Without joint account 10 councils will disappear – Aliyu
Also speaking at the event, Governor Aliyu said he was not among governors who were abusing the state-local council joint account. He said Niger State was a model in the management of the joint account, which an independent committee oversees.
Disclosing that most of the 25 councils in the state generate less than N10 million and depend on extra funds and helping hand from the joint account, he said about five to 10 of the councils might not be able to pay salaries without additional funds from the joint pool.
He stressed the need for the councils to be empowered and challenged them to improve their internally generated revenue drive to accelerate development at the grassroots
He said: “When we talk about ‘government’ and ‘governance’ to a layman, it conjures up the image of the Local Government Chairman and the Councillors, as well as the activities surrounding them. Therefore any attempt at deepening democracy in whatever context will be a fallacy unless it is focused on strengthening and rediscovering the local government system for improved service delivery to the people.”
He said that “given the enormous responsibilities that the local government are saddled with, as spelt out clearly in the Constitution and the limited resources available to them by the present financing arrangement, what may seem more important at this point of our democratic development is to urge for a review of the federation allocation arrangement and even then restructuring of our federalism in such a manner that each tier of government should take only what it is best suited to do in terms of service delivery to the people.”
Why Nigerians must uphold the constitution –Hawkins
Also speaking, Hawkins regretted that despite express provision of the 1999 constitution for a democratically elected local government, more than half of Nigeria’s 774 local governments do not enjoy electoral mandate currently and in at least one state, Local council elections have not been held since 1999.”Convoking proper local government elections across the country is the right thing for average Nigerian citizens; it is also the right thing for local governments themselves. Nothing undermines the legitimacy of government more than the perception that it does not fully represent its constituents,” he said.Noting that the structure and functions of government in the United States bear some striking similarities to government in Nigeria, he pledged the US would work with ALGON to “make the reforms and take the tough decisions that are necessary” to strengthen the local councils.
Joint account erodes councils’ autonomy – Jonathan
President Jonathan, who spoke through Gulak on the second day of the conference, said the councils deserved full autonomy and regretted the situation where some governors dissolve local councils at will and refuse to conduct polls.
He said: “Vibrancy in the local governments means the constitution is functioning. Tenure of local governments depends on the whims and caprices of the state governors. That should not be so. The tenure of our local governments whether three or four years should be clearly defined in the Constitution.
“The President has no right to wake up and say he has dissolved a state government. So why must a state governor dissolve a council? Why are we following the constitution in breach? We must live up to our duty and expectation of upholding and defending the constitution.
“The President is 100 per cent in support of ALGON because the Local Government is the closest tier of government to the people. He is in support of Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution as amended, which says that at every given time the local government must be democratically elected. The situation where some governors dissolve local governments is unconstitutional, illegal and unsustainable.
“One issue affecting the local governments that the President is concerned about is the state-local government joint account. It erodes the autonomy of the local governments. The framers of the constitution did not envisage that the account will be run the way it is being run. The joint account means that allocation from the Federal Government and internally generated revenue must be put together for sharing but unfortunately, most local governments don’t get up to 20 per cent. How the local government chairmen function without funds?
It is for this reason that President Jonathan is fighting for full autonomy of the local government. So continue to mobilize and sensitise people for the amendment to come through.”
States with democratic LGs
States with unelected LGs