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Senate’s proposal on council election stirs controversy


The Senate during a plenary

The outcome of last Saturday’s local government election in Lagos State in which the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), cleared all the 57chairmanship seats and 369 councillorship positions out of the 376 leaving only seven to the opposition, must have triggered the Senate to vote to alter the 1999 Constitution with the aim of stripping the states of power to constitute electoral commissions to conduct council polls.

While Lagos is not the only culprit in this game of “landslide victories” over opposition candidates by the ruling party at the state level, the exercise of Saturday may have been the immediate cause of the Senate’s attempt. During its plenary session on Tuesday, the Senate proposed the alteration as part of constitutional reforms to make local governments become independent of states.

The upper chamber argued that allowing states to oversee local government elections makes a mess of the call for autonomy, as it moved that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should conduct the local poll.

It would be recalled that the debate for local government autonomy has been on the front burner over the years on the ground that governors usurp the powers of the council.In most cases, instead of governors allowing elections to take place at the council, they resort to using administrators thereby depriving democracy at the grassroots level until recently when the House of Representatives threatened to move a motion to withhold allocations to any state where council election is not conducted.

Many believed that decision of the lower chamber was one of the factors that forced many governors to concede to conduct council election. This however did not remove the norms where ruling parties used states’ apparatus and State Electoral Commissions to have their way.

No fewer than 12 states that have conducted local government elections since 2015 when the ruling parties cleared the entire results. The Lagos exercise held on Saturday being the latest.

Before the election, several issues ranging from the controversial chairmanship and councillorship primaries of the APC, the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC) administrative fees, the surreptitious amendment of the State Electoral Law by the State House of Assembly and its speedy approval by the governor that same day among other developments were expected to have influenced the outcome of the polls. But in the end, the result was not different from the usual.

Although the Senate proposal is at variance with the new cries for devolution of powers from the centre to the states, as it would increase the administrative burden of the national electoral umpire, many see it as a solution to what they described as autocracy of state governors.

In fact, since the commencement of the current lap of Nigerian democracy in 1999, state governors have become like demi-gods in their domains where they trample on the rights and even the finances of the local councils.

Almost all the governors have virtually stifled democracy at the grassroots because of the illegal demand not only to control the funds accruable to the councils from the federation accounts but also to force their brand of democracy on the people.Rather than give the councils the autonomy that the constitution envisaged would engender development of the tier that is closest to the people, the governors, in most cases, find excuses to turn the local governments to pawns in their selfish power games.

About the same time that the debate was going on at the Senate, Katsina State governor, Aminu Bello Masari, was telling a Stakeholders’ meeting convened to discuss council election in the state, was justifying why his administration cannot hold local government elections.The governor expressed reservations about the councils ability to fend for themselves after the election saying, “we have been bailing out the councils for the past two years in the payment of salaries. At least N500 million was being borrowed the councils by government to pay salaries alone.”

Reducing the councils in Katsina to mere appendages of his administration, Masari said over N9 billion has so far been borrowed the councils to pay salaries, and that with autonomy after the polls, it was doubtful if they would be able to cope with the development.

Where it is obvious that the ruling party and the governor may not have their way in winning a free and fair contest to control council administrations, they either seek the protection of a manipulated judiciary or go all out to embark on bare-faced rigging through their control of their electoral commissions which are anything but independent.

Even when there is a change of government that resulted in the council administrations falling on the side of opposition platforms, state governors, like it recently happened in Ondo with the emergence of the APC government of Rotimi Akeredolu, have a way of dissolving the third tier by fiat before getting dubious judicial covers for their actions.

And because political control of the councils is necessary to build a hegemony that many governors crave especially in securing reelection for first termers like Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos, the local government became important building blocks in the construction of their power edifices.

Of course, this obvious mismanagement of the grassroots electoral process by the states is a major factor threatening the noble proposal for state police which many rely on to improve security and further establish Nigeria as a federation of component units.

Many analysts argue that with the way many governors, who refuse to remove the log in their eyes but complain about the speck in the eyes of the president, manage their states especially council funds and politics, the state police would definitely be turned into a terror gang to haunt and hunt the opposition.

WORRIED by this development, a group of 25 political parties, under the aegis of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC) earlier in the year demanded for amendments to the 2010 Electoral Act to scrap States Electoral Commissions.IPAC, which is constituted mostly by fringe political parties across the country that should, by their small strengths, be more relevant at local settings, are always at the receiving end in the mismanagement of council poll.

Led by its National Chairman, Muhammad Naldo, IPAC recommended the scrapping of SIECs to allow level-playing fields for all political parties to participate in council elections. It said that the SIECs are using INEC apparatuses to conduct elections, including party registers and ballot boxes but the only thing they don’t provide is the manpower.

The organisation had argued “if INEC could provide manpower for all elections, why couldn’t it repeat it at the state and local government levels? The SIECs are not independent. So, we want an independent electoral umpire to conduct elections at state and LG levels.”

A former National Secretary of IPAC, Emmanuel Mok, who was also the pioneer National Chairman of the defunct National Transformation Party (NTP), spoke in support of the decision of the upper chamber, saying, “it would at least set free the grassroots democracy from the firm grip of governors who were using it to suppress, oppress and intimidate opposition parties.”

His reaction in regards to the fear that such development would place too much powers and responsibilities on the central government was that “it justifies the demand that INEC should be made independent of the executive for it to function appropriately.”

Citing the Lagos council poll, Mok said, “Until something drastic is done, no governor, as far as he is the one that would appoint SIEC Chairman, would fold his hands and allow opposition party thrive in council election.”Reacting to the Senate proposal, former Minority Leader in the Senate. Dr. Olorunimbe Mamora, expressed his discomfort saying the move might not sail through due to the enormous powers governor wield over the State House of Assembly.

It would be recalled that an attempt to establish council autonomy during a public debate at constitutional amendment during the Goodluck Jonathan administration was thwarted by the governors who prevailed on their legislative arms to reject the proposal.

According to Mamora, “In the first instance, the Senate decision would not be in line with the principle of devolution of powers and true federalism we are clamouring for.”He noted that it would end up amounting to over concentration of powers at the centre and would also empower the Federal Government to interfere directly through INEC in local affairs of state and the grassroots people.

Although, the former lawmaker noted that putting what is happening in the council elections into consideration, “the Senate proposal to cede that responsibility to INEC would not solve the issue. First, our lawmakers must realise the fact that the leadership of INEC itself are not angels and therefore can go the way of State Electoral Commissions in the conduct of council poll as time goes on and that they should not forget that the national electoral commission is also having a lot of cases in respect of elections in various courts across the country.”

He however said that the issue is about attitude and the desire by the authorities to do the needful in the protection of the country’s democracy.But arguing in support of the Senate’s move, National Secretary of the National Conscience Party (NCP), Mr. Ayodele Akele said the planned amendment was a step in the right direction “going by the shenanigans that have been characterizing council elections across the country where ruling parties in collaboration with the State House of Assembly and the State Electoral Commission collaborate to stiffen opposition parties out of the race.”

He suggested that a commission should be set up to examine the process of conducting council elections in the country to see what could be done to encourage grassroots participation in elections.

In his opinion, the Secretary General, United Niger Delta Energy Development Security Strategy (UNDEDSS), Mr. Tony Uranta said what the Senate decided to do ordinarily should have been the situation if there is full devolution of powers in the country.

He said the fact that the state governors are giving money to the local governments and also decide or nominate who represent their states at the centre like Ministers, Ambassador and the rest is wrong, adding, “that is the reason governors are too powerful and can do whatever they want with the councils.”

On whether the Senate has the power to amend the constitution to effect its proposal, Uranta said, “I will not give any definite answer because of the skewed structure we currently have in the country.”

But in restructuring the “skewed structure” of the federation which the on-going constitutional amendment is supposed to partly address, further strengthening of the institutions of state with legal insulation against political interference, could provide answers to the questions of solving Nigeria’s problems of nationhood.

For instance, a strong and independent Judiciary manned by patriotic and devoted personnel with a legislature that knows its onions and would not cow under the influence of a wayward executive, would protect the constitution and by extension, the country’s democracy.And as Nigeria continues on the march towards a perfect democracy, this does not seem to be too tall a dream to achieve.

MEANWHILE, the Chairperson of LASIEC, Justice Ayotunde Philips (rtd) has appealed to aggrieved candidates to forward their grievances to the Elections Petitions Tribunal.

The chairmanship candidate of KOWA party in Ikeja, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, who participated in the Saturday exercise called for the cancellation of election on the premise that the downpour prevented thousands of electorate from participating.

But the Publicity Secretary of APC, Joe Igbokwe expressed gratitude to the electorate for their unflinching support, saying “the gesture was a sign of appreciation to the development strides that the administration of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has brought to the state in the last two years.”

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