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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Editorial: Redefining our Local Governments.

A potentially ground-breaking suit is now pending at the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The federal government has taken the 36 states there with prayers that border on giving local governments enough space to breathe.

Principally, that the nation’s monetary allocations belonging to all the 774 local government councils be directly credited to them; that the state governors be restrained from receiving and spending the said funds; and to halt the present practice whereby most governors randomly constitute caretaker committees to run the councils. Put simply, the administration of President Bola Tinubu is seeking freedom for the third tier of government from the stranglehold of the second tier.

The choice of judicial redress is hinged on the assumption, a widely-held view it must be stated, that the non or under-performance of the councils is mainly a product of the overbearing, gross meddling and, in many instances, outright capture by governors. We shouldn’t forget that the latest move to galvanize or reposition the local government leg of the federation is not particularly new. It actually dates way back to the military era.

Local councils were removed from the items under the control of traditional rulers. Like the higher tiers, provisions were made for elected officials addressed as chairpersons and councillors. That way, representation which is a prime principle of democracy was incorporated into grassroots administration. Councils across the country started having uniform administrative structures statutorily. Revenues from the federation account were allocated to them.

And to further demonstrate the permanence of local governments, all their names and capitals were well documented in the constitution. How more iron-cast can their recognition get? So, issues surrounding the autonomy and functionality of the tier of government that’s “closest to the people” have featured one way or the other alongside others in the course of our national development.

Sadly, local councils are being looked on as the sick babies of the Nigerian federation. While the federal and state governments have been struggling to actualise the fine concepts of inclusivity, transparency, productivity and beneficial outputs for as long as ever, the local governments have even been written off in the minds of many people as hopelessly helpless. An article written by Matthew T. Page and Abdul H. Wando in 2022 for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gives a fair view of the condition of our local governments. It reads partly: “Frequently overlooked, Nigeria’s local governments are disproportionately important; if they functioned well, they would be best positioned to meet people’s basic needs and to build their resilience to cope with everyday challenges. In reality, however, ‘no local government (in Nigeria) works for the people.’ Instead, ‘every household is its own local government,’ sourcing its basic needs – water, electricity, education, and healthcare – however it can.

“Exhausted by local government kleptocracy – a system in which those who govern steal from the governed – Nigerians understand that they must fend for themselves. While local government corruption is a global problem not unique to Nigeria, it is nevertheless crucial to address. It fuels democratic backsliding, communal conflict, and poverty. By hurting governance outcomes at the subnational level, local government corruption is quietly hobbling Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.” Well, Nigeria’s growing depravity which has a strong base at the lower rung of governance is doing more than just “hobbling” it. With some other predatory co-conspirators, corruption is actually pushing the country down menacingly on the path of doom.

A key dilemma of the local government system in Nigeria is its categorisation in the constitution alongside federal and state, the two levels of government recognised in most countries that practice federalism. Many of the loopholes now begging to be filled have resulted from the improper definition of the relevant details. There’s a relatively clear division of roles and responsibilities between the first and second tiers of government. For the third, however, even its constitutional duties are easily subsumed under those of the state overlords.

Most nations that operate federalism mainly distribute powers between the government at the centre referred to as federal or national and the subnational components called state or province. The inability to deliver real time benefits of democracy to the people creates the need for another layer that’s more accessible, hence the councils which are variously named municipalities, counties, local government councils, boroughs, among others.

Nomenclature is clearly not our problem here. But the responsibilities they’re designed and strategically positioned to shoulder are ever-present. No doubt, amenities and services like primary health care, elementary education, feeder and internal roads of rural areas, sanitation, basic security and local markets are best handled at the grassroots. Time and energy should, therefore, not be spared in injecting our councils with life. As critical as this matter is, it is usually drowned out by the noise that constantly characterises the Nigerian polity.

Agitations for restructuring, for instance, keep falling flat because, to start with, the very idea is numb on clear characterisations. But we can’t afford to ignore or shabbily treat the quest to properly place our local governments.

We must come to terms fast with the fact that resolving these ambiguities would require more than seeking legal interpretations. Efforts should be channelled into amending the constitution to put the local councils in a position that’s in tandem with current realities. And that has to be drastic and purposeful enough to signal a marked departure from our old, self-sabotaging ways.

Identifying the local government as a tier in the constitution for decades hasn’t helped in recording sustainable achievements. We must then tinker with the structure. Let states create them to serve primarily as administrative centres. Even that status has to be reconfigured to include re-booting them for mobilising the populace towards achieving the much-needed socio-political and economic engineering which is lacking at the moment. Nigerians have been so serially disappointed by the ruling class that the trust deficit between officials and the people is now arguably at its highest in our political history. One way to correct that is for the local populations to practically take ownership of the official machineries that superintend their regular needs and activities.

Deliberate participation then becomes inevitable. A 2022 piece by Robert Longley in ThoughtCo. titled, “What Is a Grassroots Movement? Definition and Examples” puts the desirability of this phenomenon thus: “Grassroots movements are self-organised local-level efforts to encourage other members of the community to participate in activities, such as fundraising and voter registration drives, in support of a given social, economic, or political cause.

“The power of grassroots movements comes from their ability to harness the effort of ordinary people whose shared sense of justice and knowledge about a given issue can be used to influence policymakers. In growing the seeds of an idea into a flourishing cause through increased participation in the political process, grassroots movements are often said to create democracy – government by the people. Drawing their power from ordinary people, grassroots movements need large numbers of participants.… Grassroots organisations increase their size and power by recruiting and training new volunteer leaders and activists. The leaders of grassroots campaigns must master a wide variety of skills….”

This mirrors a thriving democracy, one in which the citizens do not assume a laid-back posture where those who are supposed to lead turn on their hapless compatriots instead.

Even if the major focus of our local governments in the next decade or two is to develop a participatory and responsive democratic culture, so be it. That would require instituting and enabling redesigned local governments in the form of administrative units across Nigeria.

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