President Buhari and local govt autonomy
The Executive Order signed by President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2020 to out rightly grant financial autonomy to the judiciary, legislature as well as the local government councils, as the third tier of government is highly commendable. The order also mandates the Accountant-General of the federation to deduct from source amount due to state legislatures and judiciaries from the monthly allocation to each state for states that refuse to grant such autonomy. This will definitely remain one of the landmark achievements of this administration on policy paradigm shift towards a more people-friendly leadership structure of the long-running dysfunctional polity.
Worthy of note is that it runs in tandem with Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution which clearly spells out the functions of the local government. These include the provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocation education, the development of agricultural and natural resources other than the exploitation of minerals.
Other key functions include the naming of streets, numbering of houses, the provision and maintenance of public conveniences and sewage/ waste disposal. It is also the duty of local governments to undertake the registration of deaths’, births and of course, marriages.
On the economic front, the responsibility of the assessment and collection of tenement rates, control and regulation of outdoor advertising licencing, assessing the health status of bukaterias in their areas and control of alcohol, rest squarely on their shoulders. To what extent these pertinent roles and duties have been discharged is a matter of conjecture.
Before now successive state government administrations had viewed the local councils as mere appendages to the second-tier structure. To them, they are the drain-pipes for self-aggrandizement or feather their nests as part of the monthly allocations from the federal centre. In fact, several governors climb on the roof top to clamour for restructuring along with true fiscal federalism only to turn deaf ears to the call for financial autonomy for the local governments.
To emphasize their responsibility to the people at the grassroots, President Buhari recently reminded the chairmen that should they fold their arms and allow the sharing spree to go on by the state governors, the responsibility would be on them to account for every kobo allocated to their local councils. Well said!
In a research paper titled: “Local Government and Fiscal Autonomy for Local Government in Nigeria” by Eme, Okechukwu I. and Izueke, Edwin of the Department of Public Administration and Local Government, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, they praised the federal government for joining the fray, especially in championing the course of local government autonomy.
They highlighted the guidelines for the 1979 local government reforms, which clearly remarked that, “the states have continued to encroach upon what would have been the exclusive preserve of local governments. With this reform, the local government was granted the power of grassroots governance with apparent improvement in the autonomy as the third tier of government in the country”.
It is instructive that even the military administration of General Ibahim Babangida from 1986 took bold steps to strengthen the autonomy of local government. By January 1988, good measures of autonomy came the way local government with the scrapping of the state ministries of local government throughout the country. This led to the removal of the political control and bureaucratic redtapism perpetuated by these state ministries.
According to Adeyemo (2003) the lack of administrative independence and fiscal autonomy by local governments have exposed the duplicity of the so called decentralization and inter-governmental relations in Nigerian federalism. The researchers emphasized that governments at all levels, particularly the local government must be ready to diversify and embark on policy reforms with respect to revenue generation and mobilization. “The local governments should wield their powers and legal authority to impose taxes rather than to depend heavily on federal and state government grants or allocations”.
As pointed out in my essay titled: “Local government administration as scapegoat” published in 2004, efforts by the then Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to reform local government administration was met with much opposition from the state governors. Back then, one Oladotun Falue, a marketing consultant with Odutola Group of Companies, described the existing 774 local governments as “stealing centres”.
Similarly, Professor Aliyu Abdullahi, a distinguished educationist and the then Provost of the Federal College of Education ,Okene, kogi state had cause to draw public attention to the gross negligence of the duties of local government councils. Several critics believed that they collect huge monthly allocations from Abuja with virtually no physical evidence of the expenditure on ground at the grassroots!
These two views therefore, ostensibly endorsed the President’s berating of the councils on account of official corruption, financial impropriety and mismanagement of resources. But is it the sole culprit? Or, was this a sweeping accusation of scape-goatism; of the pot calling the kettle black? That certainly remains the million-Naira question.
According to Godwin Ibekwe, who was then the Anambra state NULGE President the other two arms of government have at various times, cornered LGA funds. Beyond that, the Conference of Political Parties (CNPP), a coalition of 20 political parties view the president’s move as blatant violation of the nation’s Constitution. APGA called it “a coup against the Nigerian people” But was it? As the hounds hunt the harried hares let us tread cautiously on the thorny paths to freedom .
Facts are that the local government councils have been a matter of political intrigues in the two decades. What with the governors’ squabble with the third tier of government, the joint-account brouhaha and the invalidation of the controversial Electoral Act 2001? What with the controversial tenure of the councils and the issue of their creation?
It is praise-worthy that back in May 2016, the then Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode signed into law the ‘Local government administration amendment law’. This allows Chairmen and other elected officials of local governments in Lagos State to enjoy four-year tenure as against three.
Profoundly, the tenure elongation brings elected council officials at par with their counterparts at the state level, including governor, deputy, and speaker and members of the House of Assembly. How one wishes that such a bold move could be nationalized.
On revitalizing local government administration system for development the GGA made some salient recommendations. It suggests that state governors should be deprived of the powers to unilaterally dissolve elected local government councils. They should embark on a three-tier government model backed law. They should adopt more innovation, competition and inclusion of people at the grassroots. And finally, they should make conditions of work for the employees more attractive and replicate anti-corruption bodies that exist at the federal and state levels. Let us key into all these models.
The Etsu Nupe-led panel on local government council reform had to concentrate on sensitive issues such as the calibre of men and women who pilot the affairs of the councils and having institutional framework for constant auditing and monitoring of their finances.
Indeed, time was when some Nigerians laughed at the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka’s ambition to become a local government chairman. But what is wrong with that if it is for servant leadership?
Whatever reforms we embark upon, no inkling should be given that someone somewhere wants local governments scrapped for selfish motives-economic or political. The entire country as it is now needs holistic restructuring. And the best level to begin with is local government autonomy.