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‘Insecurity will fizzle out if states allow local councils to function properly’

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Senator Sandy Ojang Onor represents Cross River Central Senatorial District in the Senate. As a former local government chairman, Onor, in this interview with JOHN AKUBO, reinforces the need to allow the third tier of government to function independently, insisting such would help in addressing the problem of insecurity facing the country.

With insecurity persisting in the country, where can the local councils come in as the country seeks solutions?
I was a local government chairman. Local government chairmen are supposed to be chief security officers of their respective local governments. They relate intimately with their Divisional Police Officers (DPOs) and traditional rulers. Between them, a beautiful proactive network including town council chairmen, women groups, youth groups and so on, is established. So if local governments are economically viable, properly empowered and functioning well, before insurgency gets to the level of recognition in the country, it is nipped in the bud because the local people know these guys. There will be no hiding place for criminal elements in the communities.

At a closed-door session recently, a colleague raised the issue that there are ungoverned spaces in the country. It was a new concept but I got up and supported him. Local governments have been killed. The terrains are very bad such that governance doesn’t hold in many places.

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If in a local government you have only one Divisional Police Station, it can’t carter for the needs of the people. But if local governments are functioning well, there would be chiefs; there would be women groups and between them, the vigilantes. So, whoever comes to the area that is new will be trapped.

These people pass through territories. The inhabitants know these territories. They know who is a stranger and who is a resident in the place. A network of vigilance would be created not as seen currently because government is far away from the people. With this distance, the people feel alienated and become despondent and vulnerable to criminal activities. That is what is going on in the country currently. So, to answer your question, a functional local government system would be a recipe for solving insecurity and other challenges by 50 per cent.

What is required to make local governments function properly? 
The trouble we have in this country is that we personalise governance; we institutionalise selfishness. I watched a situation where serving governors said local governments are organically tied to states; that you can’t separate them. But immediately they left office and found that their successors were toeing the same line with them, they now came together and put up the argument that local governments aught to be independent. The governors don’t like the independence of local governments because they think they would not be in control of the state enough. They know that there are local government chairmen who could become so strong that you can’t go to those local governments and behave anyhow. Governors don’t like that. They don’t like to share their power with anyone as if it is something personal. So, what do we do?

The Supreme Court interpreted the law and said that whereas the states have supervisory powers over the local governments, they are independent; just the same way the Federal Government has some supervisory powers over states but they are independent, because it is a federation. So, we have to recognise local governments as federating units on their own and allow them liberty to function. It is well known that if the local government system is working, most of the present security challenges would fizzle out.

We are practicing federalism and it is a federal structure. Let us begin to learn from the local government system. We have chairmen who are serving as executive at that level and people learn like that. Democracy is like an organism; it grows. Democracy is not an event but a process.

Now that the debate on restructuring is on, particularly with regard to state police and community policing, do you think this is the best time to give autonomy to local councils? 
It is the best time ever. I spoke on the floor of the Senate the other day. I never used to believe in state police. I always believed they would be corrupted, undermined, distorted, rendered useless, self-serving and instruments of brutality by the states. But with the deterioration of security in the country, can anyone make that argument today? You would just be engaging in theoretical elegance while the meat of the matter stares you in the face which is that if your brother died the other day and you could be the next victim tomorrow. So, we need state police; after all, are the federal police not also being used? If they want to deploy them against you, do they not deploy them? We need state police. We even need their local government variance. Let everybody be on top of the security situation in the country. Let everybody’s hands be on deck. That is my position; we can’t wait anymore.

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I am happy my colleagues in the Senate are beginning to see it that way, whether you are PDP, APC or what have you. The moment has come for us to tell ourselves the truth. That is why I commended the Senate President the other day for the courage to allow this matter to be debated at all. When you look at the entire security situation in this country and aggregately interrogate it, you are going to say that not even the civil war days is worse than this one. So, we need everything; we need every formula that is legitimate to make this work.

So, let us do away with the state electoral commission and give the local government what they need. Let us empower the police, hire more people into the Armed Forces and the police. Let us also digitalise. Let us look for foreign support since we have been unable to deal with it.

A colleague of mine told me that the Israeli Prime Minister was in Uganda and one other African country and was saying that they would help them with the structure of voting so that as you vote it goes to the server straight up. If we can be dealing with Automated Teller Machines (ATM) in this country when you need money and it is working, why is that one not working? There is something dubious about it; there is some mischief in it.

Why do you think the country has not toed this path?
This country needs a leader that is downright nationalistic, that has the charm, charisma, intellect and the willingness to sacrifice. I believe that once Nigerians get that kind of leader and see that he operates with sincerity, honesty, and objectivity, without nepotism and is blind to favoritism in matters that relate to governance, people will follow. Today, Ghana is what it is because they had a Jerry Rawlings. You know Ghana’s situation was getting worse than Nigeria’s. So, we need somebody who will come and be serious.

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We know that Nigeria has so many complexities, but honestly Nigeria deeply yearns for change, proper and constructive change. Take for instance this local government issue. Who does not know that governors do not want local governments to function properly because they want to be ambushing their funds? Even when the National Assembly comes out with their law, the state legislators are browbeaten by state governors not to pass those laws. But there must be other ways if the Federal Government cooperates with us; we are ready on our own. There must be other ways of ensuring that these states don’t have access to those funds anymore. Once states do not have access to these funds, local government would become unattractive to them.

What has become of the NFIU directive on the disbursement of local council funds? 
They are doing their best but the state governors are fighting them.

Based on your experience as a former local government chairman, do you really see the third tier of government as a means of grassroots development?
Lack of consistency with policy initiative and with systemic implementation of the very structure of the local government in Nigeria has been at the root of our problems. There has been this dubious debate on what federalism actually means and a lot of Nigerians are alluding to the fact that there is what is called true federalism as opposed to false federalism. There is no such thing. So, when I hear Nigerians speak that true federalism is a relationship of the state and the national, I just laugh. Once what you have is basically complementary, mutual respect between one level of government and another, shared duties and responsibilities, federalism is at work. When the component units have liberty to grow as much as possible, federalism is at work. But the intimate component of that federal structure is determined by the uniqueness of the historical experiences of the various countries.

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Therefore, in one country federalism could be two tiers – state and national/federal; in another country it could be national/federal, state and local.

So, when you argue that when local government is part of the federation, it is no longer federalism, the argument is completely escapist, unfortunate and untrue. Scholarship has risen to that level and it is so. If you ask me based on my experience in Nigeria, local governments should function effectively and efficiently as an independent tier of government.

So, the Supreme Court can help us. We in the legislature can also rejig the constitution in such a way that the kernel of independence allows uniqueness for every local government, which is the major source through which every local government is fed and allowed to stand. What Ogbomosho local government wants would be different from what Modakeke local government wants. A local government administers to the peculiarities of the people. You could have your airport in Lagos but a local man in my village doesn’t care about your airport. He cares about the town hall, the small market and the health centre. One local government to the other attends to these peculiarities and makes government beautiful. If local governments are functioning properly, many people won’t care about what happens at the state or federal level.

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