Those who came up with the idea of three tiers of government must have thought of the inconveniences and challenges inherent in placing all the burden of a nation on just one arm of government at the centre. Just as the separation of power among the three arms of government – the executive, legislature and judiciary, serves as a check on the abuse of power, the idea of three tiers of government was conceived to pave way for easy and convenient administration.
In particular, the creation of local government is, by all intent and purposes, to bring government and development nearer to the people at the grassroots. The 1999 Constitution recognises this noble objective and thus confers the status of a third tier of government on the local government. Regrettably however, what the 1999 constitution gave with the right hand, it took it back with the left hand.
It is tempting to assume that the Nigerian constitution deliberately places the local government councils in Nigeria at the mercy of the states, especially given the ridiculous garb the third tier of government has assumed in recent time. It is hardly convenient to regard local government council as a tier of government again. It is, at best, an appendage or a department of the state.
The idea of running local governments in Nigeria with political appointees of the state governors in the name of caretaker committees is a typical example.
It is true that the constitution would never have contemplated the idea of a caretaker committee because the position of local government as the third tier of government is clearly stated. But the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the constitution again provide a leeway for manipulations by the state governments.
Again, the running of joint account between the state and local governments is another issue that calls to question the autonomy of local government. This also is made possible by the inconsistencies of the constitution. The place given to local government in the constitution is not only weak, but also ambiguous.
For instance, section 162, sub-section 6 of the 1999 constitution says, “the amount standing to the credit of local government councils from the federation account shall also be allocated to the state for the benefit of their local councils on such terms and such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly”.
While this provision could be said to be cut and run, section 162, sub-section 8 totally strips local government of its economic autonomy required to function effectively as a tier of government. It says, “The amount standing to the credit of the local councils shall be distributed among the local government councils of that state on such terms and such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the state”.
This particular section subjects the local government councils to a law they do not have control over, thereby placing them at the mercy of the state. By this section, the constitution has vested or conferred on the state the power to dictate what goes to the local government councils from the federation account. What then makes the local council a tier of government when the state governors are the custodians of the cheque books to the joint account?
The desire of the state governors to continue to maintain a joint account with the local government councils, has particularly lent credence to the notion that local government is a conduit pipe through which money is routed to the state from the federation account.
There is no doubt that local governments in Nigeria have not lived up to their responsibilities as the third tier of government. But we must acknowledge too that the enormity of demands and responsibilities imposed on the local governments by the constitution is far more than the internal revenue they generate from the registration of wheel barrows, goats, market stalls etc. Placing the local governments at the mercy of the state as regards what accrue to them from the federation account therefore amounts to giving them responsibilities without appropriate authorisation to their finances. How do we expect them to perform?
If truly local government is one of the federating units and the third tier of government, it should be made autonomous both politically and economically, in such a way that neither its political structure nor economic fortune would be determined or subjected to manipulation by the states. The same reason that makes the states to fight tooth and nail for economic autonomy from the federal government makes it equally expedient for local government to be totally independent of the state. The state governments therefore have no moral right to insist on maintaining joint account with their respective local government councils.
Meanwhile, the constitution should reserve a safe place or provide a soft landing for local government to have its own executive, legislative and judicial arms of government as obtained at the state and federal levels.
Again, our electoral law should be reviewed in such a way that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the state governors to have control over who takes charge of the affairs of the local government. The state electoral commission should be under the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Though not totally impossible, it will be difficult for state governors to manipulate elections into local governments if the chairmen and members of the state electoral commission were appointed by the INEC chairman.
The current process of electing local government chairmen and councillors is not different from caretaker committee arrangement. This is because the electoral process that brings in the local government leadership is not independent. The state governors appoint the state electoral umpires. This explains why the ruling parties in all the states sweep all the polls in various local governments in the country. This process has far-reaching effects. It does not provide room for grassroot democracy. It rather places the people at the helms of local governments affairs at a disadvantaged position that makes them accountable only to their godfathers who put them there. They therefore have no moral justifications to complain, let alone make noise when allocations due them are being withheld. He who pays the piper dictates the tune.
The option A4 we experimented sometimes ago, has clearly shown that if grassroot democracy is given a chance, the people at the local government level shall determine who becomes what in both the state and federal levels. This will, in turn, strengthen our democracy.
As a nation, we have the option of either to scrap the local government system from our constitution, so that we know we have two tiers of government, or to strengthen our local government system with all its status and autonomy guaranteed by the constitution.