By Afe Babalola
Last week I began an examination of the problems which have adversely affected the smooth operation of Local Governments in Nigeria and how they have as a result been unable to serve the purpose of bringing government close to the people. I stated how such problems led to the recommendation of the last Constitutional Conference for a removal of the 774 Local governments from the Constitution. The recommendation attracted much debate and opposition most notably from the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees which staged a protest march on the National Judicial Institute, the venue of the Conference. Members of the Union expressed a fear for the loss of their jobs and means of livelihood amongst others.
Previous attemipt atfinding perfect structure for local government
Without a doubt, questions relating to the structure, operation, stability and effectiveness of local governments in Nigeria have for long, right from the colonial period, to the 70s and up to 1999 been recurring ones. In recognition of the fact that local governments are the closest to the people and by their nature are most capable of affecting the lives of the citizenry numerous attempts have been made to come up with a perfect set up for local government administration. The British colonial government came up with the indirect rule system whereby traditional rulers had a say in administration at the local government level. However, the reforms of 1976 and the Constitution of 1979 brought in a new system without any role for traditional rulers. Subsequent upheavals in the system led to the decision of the Buhari administration to reduce the number from 770 to 301 approved by the Constitution. Still faced with inadequacies in the system, the Federal Government set up a review committee headed by Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, which Committee found that the problems troubling the system were more as a result of the attitude of those charged with the its operations rather than the system itself.
Decades after, the observations of the Dasuki Committee still ring true. Many local governments today are regarded more or less as the appendages of state governments. Funds which should go to the local governments are normally diverted by state government under the guise of the Joint State-Local Government Account. To make matters worse, those charged with the running of affairs of the local government now see themselves as lords answerable to no one and treat funds which do get to the local governments as their private property. Most of them earn outrageous salaries designed to drain the finances of the councils. It is both wasteful and uncalled for. And I ask; on what basis should the councilors be sitting as parliamentarians, collecting salaries, emoluments, allowances, constituency allowances and all manner of perquisites of office? Without mincing words, Nigeria cannot afford this expensive arrangement given our limited resources and the widespread poverty in the land.
What is being paid currently by Nigeria is enormous as everything under local administration is at a standstill. Nothing is just moving. All the earnings and allocations are being expended on salaries, allowances and emoluments without any visible project or developmental structure on ground to affect the lives of the ordinary man positively.
In organized climes across the globe, councilors (or their equivalents)serve on part-time basis with periodic sittings. Not only that, professionals and seasoned retired administrators and captains of industry willingly participate in local administration as they see service at this level as a golden opportunity to serve and affect positively the lives of the people at the grassroots. Apart from serving on part-time basis, these professionals on local administration sit at week-ends and mostly without remunerations! And where remunerations are paid, they are only in respect of sitting allowances without more! The simple lesson for us to learn from the aforesaid procedure is that these people derive joy in serving their people in the real sense of it and without any string attached. What stops us from adopting the same method?
Blanket removal of local governments is not the solution
I do not believe in the blanket removal of local government or their subjugation to state government. If a state could not perform its own duties, what hope is there that it will be able to take on the added responsibilities meant for local governments? Further if states could show so much disdain to the local governments even at this time when they still enjoy some form of protection by reason of their being listed in the Constitution, what hope is there that they will not be subjected to further abuse when they are left entirely to the mercy of state governments?
Introduction of zero party system to elections at local government level
I suggest reforms starting from the manner in which persons are elected to serve on local government councils. I suggest that election to local councils should no longer be on political party basis but strictly on zero party. I make this recommendation taking into cognizance Nigeria’s peculiar situation coupled with our pronounced underdevelopment and poverty-stricken grassroots. We would recollect that in 1976/77, Nigeria experimented something similar during the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. It was a glorious era in the annals of local government administration in this country as considerable progress was made in terms of visible achievements that touched the lives of the grassroots. At that time election to Local Government Councils was based on zero party system. Educated, experienced and patriotic citizens were elected on zero party system. They were paid sitting allowances,
In fact many worked without collecting any sitting allowance. Indeed the current economic realities coupled with the huge cost of governance at all levels make it imperative that such a system be given a trial again. What is more, having the elections on a zero party system will ensure that candidates will be drawn from the locality in which they seek election. It cannot but be so as it will be difficult for a person from outside the locality to win the votes of the residents of the particular local government. This will bring into office persons who are conversant with the needs of their local governments and who have a higher incentive to serve in an area in which they are known as opposed to the current system whereby a person who has hardly ever lived in a local government is sponsored by a party either as a sort of reward or for past favours done to a political godfather or in anticipation of receiving a share of looted funds from the treasury of the local government.