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Salvaging the local council system via credible elections

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One of the salient points raised by President Muhammadu Buhari during his June 10, 2021 interview with Arise TV was the centrality of the local council system to the welfare and well-being of Nigerians. His interviewers had taken the President’s mind back to the First Republic, reminding him that taxation worked then but does not work in the current era. They had pointed out that it was one of the reasons many Nigerians harp on restructuring the federation. They also reminded President Buhari that devolution of powers and restructuring was part of the campaign promises of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 and asked for his position on the issue.

While responding to the question, the President explained that the destruction of the local council system was the root of the challenges that the country is currently facing.

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“You have to define what devolution of power means. It is about taking some things in the legislative list to the residual and keeping a few at the concurrence, while we have a strong defence in the centre. If the federal, state, and local systems were being followed properly we would not have all these problems. But the problem is that the local government has been virtually killed. And that is not good for this country because those that become local council chairmen are being compromised. You as a local government are supposed to receive N300 million. A document is given to you to sign that you have received N300 million but you are given only N100 million,” he lamented.

Many political observers believe that one of the factors that gave rise to the scenario painted by the President is the manner of choosing the local council chairmen and councillors.

Section 7 (1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed”. However, because the constitution put the local councils under the control of the state governments, on several occasions, many states truncated the tenure of the democratically elected council chairmen and councillors and replaced them with members of the ruling political party in the state, as caretaker committees. In some states, the government would decide not to conduct elections, preferring to run the councils with caretaker committees. In other states, elections are regularly conducted but the outcome always favour the ruling party in the state. This has resulted in growing voter apathy towards local council elections across the states.

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For instance, last Saturday, voter apathy marred the council polls conducted by both the Lagos and Ogun state governments. Although both the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC) and Ogun State Independent Electoral Commission (OGSIEC) made efforts to ensure that election materials and personnel got to the various wards early, the majority of the electorate simply stayed away.

A resident of Itire area of Lagos State, who didn’t bother to vote in the election, Adejoke Adeleke, had told The Guardian: “The last time I voted was on June 12, 1993. They already have the people they want and they are not the people we want. So, I don’t need to waste my time voting.”

Adeleke’s prediction came to pass given the outcome of the election as the result announced by LASIEC showed that the ruling APC won all chairmanship seats in the 20 local government areas and 37 Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs). The ruling party also won 375 out of the 377 councillorship seats spread across the councils. The result showed that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) won the councillorship seat in Ward G, Yaba LCDA, while the Young Progressive Party (YPP) won the other one in Ward D, Orile-Agege LCDA. In Ogun State, the Chairman of OGSIEC, Babatunde Osibodu, also announced the ruling APC as the winner of the 20 chairmanship seats in the state.

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The results did not come as a surprise to students of Nigerian politics. In Enugu State, elections conducted by the Enugu State Independent Electoral Commission (ENSIEC) that produced local council chairmen and councillors left much to be desired. In fact, the state, which is dominated by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had always produced the helmsmen in the 17 local councils despite the existence of other political parties. The situation has become so uninspiring that aspirants from other political parties don’t get into it anymore. When the last council election was held in the state in December 2020, the electoral commission announced the ruling PDP as the winner in all the local governments without figures allocated to the candidates that participated in the process.

In December 2020, Borno State Independent Electoral Commission (BOSIEC) conducted local council elections with the ruling APC winning all the 27 chairmanship and 312 councillorship seats. The same month, the Kogi State Independent Electoral Commission (KOSIEC) conducted council elections and the ruling APC won all the 21 chairmanship and 239 councillorship positions. In March this year, Sokoto State had its council elections and the ruling PDP won all the 23 chairmanship and 244 councillorship seats. In April this year, PDP cleared all the chairmanship and councillorship seats in the council election conducted by the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission (RSIEC). The result of the council elections held in May 2021 in Oyo State was also 100 per cent in favour of the ruling PDP in the state. The story was the same in Jigawa State where the ruling APC cleared all the 27 chairmanship seats and 286 out of the 287 councillorship seats in the council elections conducted last month. The pattern of victory is the same across the states, leaving observers to wonder where Nigeria’s democracy is headed if the current trend is allowed to persist.

Speaking on the issue, elder statesman and chieftain of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Anthony Sani, accused state governors of stifling democracy in the country by killing competitiveness at local council elections.

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Sani, who is the immediate past Secretary of ACF, said that unless the governors retraced their steps to allow credible elections to hold at the grassroots level, the nation’s democracy would be doomed.

According to him, “the growing apathy and lack of competitiveness in local government elections have to do with the attitudes of the state governors who use state electoral commissions to edge out any opposition party from the contests.

“The state governors do not allow multi-party democracy to thrive, and they do not even allow internal democracy to take root in the ruling party. For example, they use the so-called consensus to kill competition and even ideas. It is only if the governors allow aspirants to campaign on real issues of concern to the people that members of the ruling party would be enlightened and choose candidates of their choice and hold themselves accountable for their choice.

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“In the same way, it is only when political parties and their candidate's campaign that the electorate can be enlightened to make informed judgment during voting and hold themselves accountable for their judgment.

“Unfortunately, most of our state governors do not know that part of their contributions is to promote multi-party democracy in which political parties can mobilise the people by breaking barriers and building bridges across aisles for the purpose of strengthening the unity of the country. Rather, the attitudes of the governors tend to inflame people’s worst instincts. As a result, there is no motivation to play politics at that level,” he said.

On how to deepen the nation’s democracy, Sani argued that the place of opposition in a multi-party democracy is to provide their platforms as viable alternatives, noting that democracy without viable opposition is a sham.

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“If such important aspect of multi-party democracy is totally absent at local government level, it would be hard for multi-party democracy to thrive.

“We do not know why state governors do not want to regard democracy to be a contest of ideas and reasons at local government level. Rather, they prefer it to be a zero-sum game of winners take all. The drawback of this kind of attitude is the fact that the political parties have been denied their roles as mobilising and enlightening agencies needed for peaceful coexistence. As a result, the governors have failed to promote states inhabited by people who are socially diverse, economically empowered, and politically active.

“The way forward is to expunge the provision for state electoral commissions from the constitution and allow the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct all elections. That way, the governors would be denied state electoral commissions with which they kill multi-party democracy at local government level. Such will attract people of maturity and ideas into local government politics and help to grow multi-party democracy,” he noted.

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On the attitude of the state governments with respect to the conduct of local council elections and what it portends for the nation’s democracy, Fatai-Abatan said: “The zero-sum game which has characterised political competition is dangerous for democracy, as it has the propensity of shooting Nigeria to a one-party state. Such a phenomenon is an indication of a lack of tolerance and liberalisation of the political process. Having a one-party dominance will not promote grassroots governance.”

On the way forward, the university teacher said there was a need for the political elite and parties to imbibe the political culture that sees opposition as a partner in progress in a democracy.

“They should see politics more as a non-zero-sum game where there is some level of tolerance and accommodation of political opposition. Viewing politics as a game of domination has implications for democracy in Nigeria,” he warned.

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The chairperson of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), Dr. Abiola Afolabi-Akiyode, said the apathy experienced during local council elections has to do with the formation and character of the state electoral commissions.

“The ruling party in the states determines the members of the SIEC. As such, they skew the process to install their candidates at the local council and this is unlikely to change until SIEC is independent of the ruling party. Again the nonchalant attitude or lackluster posture of opposition parties is a concern to voters in the sense that some of them have resigned to fate ab initio. They are often not known to the electorate due to their unattractive campaign strategies as well as their inability to mobilise voters for support ahead of the elections,” he said.

Akiyode also accused the ruling party of muzzling the opposition through the instrument of the state.

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“The ruling party takes advantage of their access to state resources which they deploy effectively during the campaign and on election day. As a result, the priorities that are supposed to be accorded the local government elections by stakeholders are not there. This has always been the case across the country,” he noted.

He noted that the results of recent council elections in the country revealed a persisting capacity deficit with respect to human and financial resources and the technical expertise needed for the conduct of a standard election at the local level.

“The legal framework of election at the local level is not sufficient enough to guarantee electoral integrity, which will ensure political inclusion and dictate a political party’s conduct in the elections. The leadership question at the local level is also a major concern. The independence and autonomy of local government structure and key institutions like the SIEC are also major concerns,” he noted.

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A lawyer, James Ogidi, who spoke to The Guardian on the flaws in the local council elections, faulted the provision of the constitution that allows the state chief executives to appoint the chairman and members of the SIEC.

“What the governors have turned this into is to appoint the chairman and members from their own political party. Under that kind of arrangement, it becomes difficult for the process to be credible, transparent, and make meaning to anybody desiring a change. How can someone wake up in the morning from a political party not in government in a state to go and vote against that party and still expect his vote to count? It is not possible,” he said.

Citing the conduct of the last council election in Enugu State, Ogidi added: “We have even gotten to the point where you come to the field and won’t find result sheets. It was easier for ENSIEC to declare PDP winner in the last council election because they hiked the fees such that opposition members could not buy the forms. Even when there was a protest and the fees were reduced, how many of them could afford it? The point is that the government in power sees the local government as an extension of the Government House and, therefore, decides who they want to be there.

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“Imagine a situation where somebody who has not bought a form, has not campaigned, not to talk of participating in the election, is already being referred to as ‘incoming, Mayor and what have you. That is the extent to which we can go, all in the guise of controlling power.”

On how the development has affected opposition politics in Nigeria’s democracy, Ogidi stated: “You cannot play opposition without resources and power. What we have succeeded in doing is to empower the wrong persons and in the process derail development. Go to some council areas; you won’t find any single sign of development because the governor is the one calling the shots on what they will do and what they will not do. Allocations meant for developments at the council level are shared to please those in power, thereby denying the people the needed development”.

He said the winner-take-all syndrome at the state level improves space and visibility for only the party in power. “It is not what any lover of democracy should encourage because there is no room for competition and excellence. You broaden democracy and ideas when there is cross-examination of ideas and input and when people are constructively opposing your views and ideas because they would not impact the people, not when you are being accepted because you are of the same political party,” Ogidi argued.

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Like Sani, he canvassed the scrapping of the state electoral commissions and empowering INEC to conduct every election in the country. He, however, warned that without a change of mindset, doing so might not make any meaningful impact on the system.

A human rights lawyer in Enugu, Olu Omotayo, also attributed the refusal of the state governors to allow the local councils to operate independently to the cause of apathy in council elections.

“In all the states, the ruling party normally wins all the respective local government elections. The state electoral bodies appointed by the state executive owe their loyalty to the government of the day. So, what happens in respect of local government elections in the country is more of a process of selection rather than election. This makes the electorate to lose interest in the entire process”, he said.

Omotayo said that until there was a change in orientation, the anomaly would continue to affect the nation’s democracy.

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“It portends grave danger to our democracy because in a federal system, each tier of government should be able to cooperate and operate independently of each other. Under the U. S. federalism adopted by Nigeria, local government is seen as the most important tier of government because of its nearness to the people at the grassroots. We cannot have massive development of the citizenry until local government councils are allowed to operate independently and effectively devoid of control of the state government,” he stated.

Also analysing the situation, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Speaker of the Oyo State House of Assembly, Chief Akin Onigbinde, argued that political contests, participation, and quest for power should basically be a contest for the superiority of political ideas.

“The reward is the power to control the levers of power for a tenure. This can be for four years, three or two years depending on the provisions of the laws.

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“In all and every contest, some factors must be held predictable and constant. One of such is the independence and impartiality of the electoral umpire. Whether in football, hockey, table tennis, or local government elections, the umpire must never be or perceived to be interested in any of the contestants, not to talk of being a ‘member’ of a team participating in the contest.

“A situation in which an arm of government, namely the executive, constitutes or is perceived to have a level of control over an electoral umpire, cannot inspire public confidence. If anything, it will generate apathy and cynicism. This is why there was so much uproar on the nomination of a card-carrying member of a political party by the president to the membership of INEC. This may also be the reason local government elections are ‘won’ by the ruling parties in states, who constitute the electoral commissions,” he said.

The result, according to him, is that opposition politics would become unattractive and unbeneficial to society since the rule in practice is usually winner-takes-all.

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“Opposition ideas are doomed to lose market, relevance or attractiveness, since these ideas, no matter how viable, are often perceived as ‘enemy ideas’.

“Opposition politics, properly understood and practiced, is desirable, efficacious in shaping ideas for the advancement of social order. Opposition must never be seen as a plague to be avoided by those that hold the levers of power. Most importantly, the opposition must be able to go into the next election, confident that it will win or lose, on the strength or weakness of its programmes or ideas and not on a skewed electoral infrastructure,” he added.

He condemned the winner-takes-all attitude at the state level, noting that, “whichever party wins an election, the citizenry remains the same.”

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“Among the winners and losers, all citizens will be men and women of talents that can contribute to the peace, progress and elevation of society. A winner-takes-all stand has the potential of excluding human talents because they are in opposition, and enthronement of mediocrity or outright villains, who are party people.

“This mindset creates a lopsided distribution of social amenities and infrastructure to over-reward the ‘loyal’ sections of the society and punish the opposition.

“On the long run, the opposition individuals and communities become relatively underserved, under empowered, marginalised, pauperised and incapable of participating in a fair contest with a far more favoured, pampered and over rewarded winner that has taken all.”

According to a former NBA Chairman, Ikeja Branch, Adesina Ademola Ogunlana Esq, the masses now see government as selfish, exploitative, and not caring for them, hence their growing indifference to local council elections.

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“The way forward will be tough as there is need to energise and re-orientate the impoverished public which is apathetic, cynical, and worst of all, highly corrupted by the political class,” Ogunlana said.

Ikechukwu Ugwoke Esq, said: “The major cause of the growing apathy in local council elections is because the local government in Nigeria is neither the government nor local. The constitutional provision is quite clear as to the status of local government as the third tier of government in Nigeria. But the state governments all over the country have willfully refused to allow this tier of government to function as it is supposed.

“There seem to be a general consensus and or conspiracies among the governors in the country and even the party leadership to allow each state government controls the local government areas in their states. That explains why there are no competitions from other political parties in a state.

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“The ruling party in a given state takes it all. Anyone who ventures to challenge the ruling party through another political party is completely on his or her own. The opposition political party at the national level will not even get involved. There cannot be competitive when there is no level playing ground for other political parties to compete.

“In line with our constitution, local government in Nigeria is supposed to have a separate legal entity, distinct from the state and Federal Government, administered by democratically elected officials. It is also provided that local government should have specific powers to perform a range of functions assigned by the law.

“As a tier of the government, it should enjoy substantial autonomy to perform an array of functions and policies as required by law. The state governors have refused to allow all these to be.”

A public affair, David Edochie, also stated that local government elections were bastardised after the local government reforms that transferred the control of local councils to the state governments, saying the governors have muzzled up the system since then.

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“So, it could be virtually said that local government election does not exist; it’s about a conspiracy between the governors and the members of the SIEC, who are appointed by the governors to manipulate results, favour them and be able to divert funds that belong to local governments.

“When they do that time and over again, people become bored about participating in what is just a mere shred called local government election. The results are predetermined and skewed towards favouring the ruling party in the state, particularly the governor, who has mapped out strategies of diverting funds that are supposedly meant for the local government. Therefore, we cannot categorically say that elections are conducted for local governments.

“The so-called local council chairmen are handpicked through the party structure and ushered into office through the SIEC, who are appointees of the state governor. This is the reason you cannot see jubilation among the masses when the results are announced, instead, people are disgruntled and unhappy. Even the so-called winners know that they were never voted for but handpicked into the various positions. So, local government election is completely dead and does not exist,” he surmised.

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On how the trend is affecting the role of the opposition in the nation’s democracy, Edochie said the situation undermined the nation’s democracy and its tenets.

“You cannot be an umpire in a process or election you have an interest. Basically, the state governors are more or less the umpire that determines who wins the local government election. Therefore, in this matter, opposition, as it were, does not really arise and it cannot be equated in a proper political context.

“Because there is no fair contest, it kills and undermines our democracy and democratic tenets. As a matter of fact, it does not in any way help in the growth and development of our democracy. The people who initiated that style never meant well for the masses and they did not foresee the dangers ahead of it.

“Discussing opposition at the local government level does not suffice because the process itself in the first place is not inclusive. Rather, it is predetermined, narrow, and parochial in nature. Therefore, our democracy’s garment is torn by this system,” he said.

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