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Monochrome is the new colour of democracy


Vice President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo

Those who wish to see the nature of our democracy in full bloom should take a stroll down the states. There, they would find that although democracy is by nature a government of many colours, it is entirely monochrome at the state level. The most telling evidence is to see what happens at local government elections conducted by the states.

The party that controls the state government must necessarily control the state legislature as well as the local government councils. Every time local government elections are conducted by the states, the newspapers crow with the tired and tiresome headline: APC sweeps local council elections. And so did it happen that All Progressives Congress (APC) swept the local government councils in Lagos last month. And before that, the party also swept all the local government councils in Benue State in June. The lack of inclusiveness in our form of democracy makes it a tangled web of primitive accumulation and the exercise of power.

The monochrome nature of our democracy at the state and local government levels cannot be mistaken for political pluralism. Yet, this has never bothered many of us. After all, the conduct of the local government elections sees democracy in action. Many parties and individuals participate and the people make, arguably, informed choices among parties and individuals. Surely, you cannot offer a better evidence than this, that our democracy, in keeping with the best global practices in the system, allows all those who wish to serve at those levels of government to subject themselves to the scrutiny and the decision of the people. It, therefore, follows that the party that controls the state government and keeps on sweeping the local council elections is popular and is at one with the people. And it should follow too that the monochrome nature of our democracy cannot elevate national discourse. In truth, political pluralism is dead. It is simply a one-party system in action.

The control of local government councils has been a messy problem since the generals, in their wisdom, imposed the three tiers of government on the country. This takes us back to the second republic when what to do with the local government councils became as problematic as over-feeding yourself with amala. I knew of no state government during that period that conducted a local government election for the entire four years and three months or so that that republic lasted. To ensure their grip on the local councils, each state governor introduced something strange to our constitution: interim local government councils, in which everyone from the chairmen to the councillors, were the direct appointees of the state governors.

The practice continues to this day. No one raised an eyebrow then and no one raises an eyebrow now. We never gave a thought to the anomaly of our country operating two systems of local government – elected and unelected men and women. When a state governor gets tired of appointing new people into the local government councils every six months or so, he feels obliged to go through the patently fraudulent motion of conducting local government council elections. I speak in general terms.

There is no difference between the ‘elected’ chairmen and councillors and those appointed to run the interim local government administration because they are all appointees of the state governors. A state governor does not need to be popular to control the local government councils. He only needs to be (a) manipulative and (b) be a closet dictator.

We have 774 local government councils in the country. This number refers to the local governments listed in the Fourth Schedule to the constitution. There is also the anomaly of local government councils in several states that are not listed in the constitution and, therefore, not legal government entities but are operating as such. They are called development areas. They suffer no disability by their unconstitutional existence because they feed on the legitimate allocations of the local government areas from which they were carved out. Yet, we lay claims to a constitutional government.

The local government system has become problematic because we have never seriously given some serious thoughts to its place in the proper administration of the country and parts thereof. The politicians won’t touch it because the local government system offers something for all card-carrying party members: the senior ones among them hand pick those they wish to be appointed or elected chairmen and councillors. Positions at this level are, therefore, part of the spoils of party politics. This sort of administrative mish-mash in our system is anathema to our democracy. Or so, I think.

Something just has to give. We should seriously interrogate the place of the local government system as a third tier of government in our country. The first question is: do we really, really need three tiers of government in the country? The concept of the local government evolved from the reasoning that in a democracy you need a system of government close enough to the people. A distant government is poorly placed to appreciate the problems of the people at the grassroots. Splendid.

It is not necessary to fault this argument. It is basically sound in that when we see the face of government in our local government chairmen and councillors it makes us feel that we are part of the government. What is at issue here is not the necessity for local government administration, rather it is this: which, between the centre and the states, should control the local governments? The states, of course. The local governments are administrative units of the state administration. They cannot constitute a third tier of government.

In the current constitutional amendments, the Senate is once again canvassing for the autonomy of local governments. The argument is that for the local government councils to function properly, they should receive their funding directly from the consolidated fund like the federal and state governments. At present, their fund is channelled through the state governments and is disbursed through the local government joint accounts committees. Each local government gets a pittance and are left high and dry by the state governors who corner the bulk of their allocation. The new argument won’t work either.

The local governments are actually useless in most states of the federation. Poor and impoverished, they cannot drive development at the grass roots level. Jonathan’s national conference tackled the local government issue. It came to the sensible conclusion that we do not need three tiers of government in the country. Two tiers, federal and state, are unarguably what we need. It recommended that the local governments should strictly be the business of the state governments. The wisdom of this recommendation is unassailable.

It means that local governments should not feature in the revenue allocation formula. This, alone, would impoverish many states. But that is all right. It also means that each state would be free to determine the nature of its local government system. If a state feels it is in its interest to reduce the number of local governments or even scrap them, it should be free to do so. If a state decides not to conduct elections into local government councils, it should be allowed the freedom not to do so too.

This, I think, would be a sensible response to the current agitation for restructuring. To make the local governments autonomous would be inimical to the states and empower the state governors to openly steal from them. To retain them as in the current set up would only demonstrate our collective insensitivity to the nature of our federalism with all the wahala.

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