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Making Local Government Administration People-centred
Nigeria has recorded a significant increase in her Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 2005 without a corresponding decline in poverty. By the second quarter of 2011, the GDP expanded by 7.7 percent and yet did not significantly translate into taking millions of Nigerians out of the poverty level. While experts and bureaucrats continue to offer tangible and equally plausible proposals for redressing the anomalies which underlie the management of resources for effective deliveries on good governance, one significant sector that appears taken for granted and accorded less rigorous searchlights is the administration of local government system. Therefore, the failure of the local government to meaningfully touch the lives of the over 70 per cent of the people, who inhabit our rural communities and engender development at the grassroots, remains a major missing link in the effort to effectively undertake diagnostic and prognostic remedies for misgovernance.
The United Nations (UN) describes the local government as a political sub-division of a nation (or in a federal system, a state) which is constituted by a law and has substantial control of local affairs, including the power to impose taxes or to exert labour for prescribed purposes.
The governing body of such an entity is elected or otherwise locally selected. A large chunk (over 70 per cent) of Nigeria’s population inhabits the rural areas on daily income of less than $1. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its study of decentralisation and rural property taxation in 2004 noted that: “A problem facing many developing countries is that the central government [federal and states] does not already provide an adequate level of services uniformly throughout the country.
Instead, many government services are relatively easily available only to those living in the major cities. Coupled with it is that there is a lack of presence of central government agencies in outlying regions (local areas).” What this implies invariably is that only a local system of governance with funding capacity and efficient administrative structure can close the existing gap.
Bottom-top approach to development is indisputably strategic in getting Nigeria out of the serious governance challenges which incidentally have become negatively rooted at the local government level.
It is, however, necessary to emphasise that it is only a viable local government system that can complement any approach aimed at fast-tracking and deepening development in all ramifications. Within the context of stimulating development through the participatory governance at the grassroots, autonomy therefore becomes very crucial to imbue transparency, accountability and necessary oversights for managing resources. Lack of transparency and accountability in resource management at the local government level is also a direct consequence of lack of capacity among the people at the grassroots to engage the system for transparency and accountability. Autonomy in relative sense would also translate into political engagement for the people because some semblance of democratic culture rather than the roguish emasculation of electoral process as manifested by the meddlesomeness of political overlords at the state level would have been significantly addressed. For a country with a population in far excess of 120 million people, there is no way the federal and state governments can make meaningful impact in the lives of the people without effective and efficient local governments. The British colonial authority realised this very much when it introduced the first Native Administration Ordinance No. 4 of 1916. The purpose was to bring governance closer to the people, aside other interests at that time.
Although the importance of grassroots government is not lost on successive governments (military and civilians) in Nigeria, the challenge has been that of efficiency and service delivery. Unfortunately, the local government system has been a shadow of its envisaged role; offering little or nothing to the overall development of the country. But a close look at the challenges and prospects of local government administration will show that nothing is fundamentally wrong with local government system in Nigeria, except that it lacked the political will and financial autonomy to perform its statutory functions, duties and responsibilities as stipulated by laws which also need to be revisited in the light of emerging realities.
Regrettably, the local government administration model in Nigeria, which predates regional governments, has not satisfactorily delivered services to the people after almost a century of existence. It has not only derailed from the laudable objective, but has over the years, become worsened by the appendage status it acquired from successive military regimes, which subjected it to the whims and caprices of the chief executives of states. Ironically, the Nigerian local government system has been going through the worst period in history since the restoration of civil rule in 1999. The undermining of democratic aspirations of Nigerians which has so far manifested glaringly in the administration of local government under successive civilian administrations could well be traced to the political affliction which has stymied the local government system since the days of military rule. The introductory remarks to the far-reaching 1976 Local Government Reforms highlighted this problem when it observed that “the state governments have continued to encroach upon what would have been the exclusive preserve of local governments.’
For decades, the critical issue of making the local government system genuinely an independent entity in the true spirit of federalism and emboldened by a well- structured administration defined by financial autonomy through the instrument of the law, has been a topical national discourse. There is no contention whatsoever that the local government system is a grassroots government and remained the closest to the people. That is why the ongoing process by the National Assembly to amend Sections 7 and 162 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) to give the 774 local governments financial autonomy must be situated within the context of making the local governments work for the people to significantly reduce poverty level in the country and engender national development. It, therefore, should be in the interest of all if all stakeholders see the granting of financial autonomy to the local governments as a national concern and genuine intervention in making the people feel the impact of governance at the grassroots. Since there is no Nigerian without a local government status or origin, the federal and state governments should support every modest effort by the National Assembly to free the local governments from undue political interference and encumbrances.
However, it is instructive that the National Assembly should consider a more robust reform of the local government system that will guarantee political autonomy and efficient system than reducing the problem to Joint State/Local Government Account regime and other financial entanglements as enshrined in Section 162. The implication of this is to also consider a review of the Fourth Schedule of the constitution outlining the functions, duties and responsibilities of local governments.
Making the local government financially autonomous must be complemented with stability to reduce distraction from any quarter to the barest minimum. The insights provided by legal luminary, Professor Ben Nwabueze and a University don, D.O. Adeyemo, among other scholars, on the issue of autonomy are now very pertinent for consideration. In his publication, “The presidential Constitution of Nigeria”, Nwabueze defines autonomy under a federal system as a condition whereby “each government enjoys a separate existence and independence from the control of the other governments”. Adeyemo, in his publication on Local government autonomy (2005), posits that an autonomy requires not just the legal and physical existence of an apparatus of government like a legislative assembly, governor, court etc. but that each government must exist, not as an appendage of another government but as autonomous entity in the sense of being able to exercise its own will in the conduct of its affairs free from direction of another government.
There is no doubt that the process of constitutional amendment is a complex exercise which will need concurrence of no fewer than 24 state Houses of Assembly. However, agitators for and against financial autonomy need to sincerely put the people first and consider the direct funding of the local government as a sure way of making life meaningful for the rural populace. Another major challenge confronting local government administration is instability in the system. If we are to be guided by prevailing experience, there is the need to invest local government system with stability through political autonomy. The constitution should consider a fixed tenure for elected local government officials with provisions outlawing undue interregnum in the administration of local government by way of self-serving; politically motivated caretaker committees. Interestingly, despite divergence of opinions during debates on autonomy for local government in Nigeria, the point of convergence has been that the people for whom local government exist, have not significantly benefited from the system. Therefore, the important challenge is to make local government system overcome its perennial failure to meet the needs of the people by effectively performing its statutory responsibilities.
Since the Native Administration Ordinance No. 4 of 1916 under the colonial government, local government system has been subjected to several reforms with some notable changes. Notably, the far reaching local government reform of 1976 which classified existing local administrations as a tier of government. Thereafter, successive military and civilian governments at the centre have made several changes to the financial and administrative status of local government by seeking better ways to properly manage the system. The planned amendment to sections 7 and 162 of the 1999 Constitution by the House of Representative should be with the aim of freeing the local government from every encumbrance. Since governance is about the people and development, the argument over financial autonomy and independence should be situated within the context of bringing development to the people. If this is the case, the importance of local governments as a system with the potentials for deploying most strategic impacts capable of reducing poverty and improving human livelihoods as well as sustainable development would have been well-consummated.
Finally, it has become more pertinent to see reform of local government administration in Nigeria as a necessary task that would guarantee genuine democracy where popular participation in governance is sine qua non for national transformation and sustainable development. Writing to the politician, Joseph C. Cabell in 1816, Thomas Jefferson submitted: “the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among many, distributing to everyone exactly the function he is competent to”. Debating the future of Nigeria at this time has made the urgent task of revisiting autonomy as a key element of federalism very compelling. Getting the local government to deliver democratic dividends to the teeming mass of our people is another potent way of reducing the stress that has dominated our national politics and diverted quality attention from governance at the detriment of the majority of people who are denied development in the face of governance that is in comatose at the local level. Revisiting autonomy for local government is about investing our people with political power to demand accountable, responsive and pro-people democracy. A stitch in time, saves nine.
Dr. Dosunmu, an expert in public administration and governance, was the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Lagos State in the 2011 election.Share