In the twilight of the Obasanjo administration in 2007, the former President awarded a contract for the construction and equipping of 774 comprehensive health centres. The project which was intended to improve health care delivery at the grassroots was meant to see one model primary health centre in every local government area in the country. Although the contract fell short of constitutional provisions and fiscal discipline of a federalist state, which made the Yar’Adua administration cancel, the old man sure had reasons for his action.
I can also hazard a guess. Obasanjo, given his role in local government reforms in the past must have recalled that local governments were the closest to the majority of Nigerians and that access to primary health care facilities would do a lot to alleviate the hardship faced by people in the rural areas. He must also have identified the inability of council chairmen all over the country to initiate such projects since the 1999 constitution made councils mere appendages to state governments, who may not all be interested in pursuing such project at that time. Anyway, the contract was cancelled and the health centres were never built! Leaving Nigeria’s rural populace, which constitute 70 percent of the country’s population, worse off, as local government administration remains the only way in which people in the grassroots can see themselves as part of government, an essential ingredient for participatory democracy.
Apart from being in the best position to cater to the primary needs of the rural populace in the areas of health, education (including adult and vocational), agriculture among others, local government administration is also supposed to be a two-channel of communication between the local communities and the other two tiers of government. Local government administration to a lot of locals justifies the definition of democracy as the government of the people, by the people for the people. All these are services, satisfaction and opportunities that the bulk of Nigerians have missed since the country returned to democracy in 1999.
The major culprit for the castrate state of local government administration is the 1999 Constitution and its legendary confusion. Although it guarantees the existence of system of local government administration in S7 (1), it donates the right for the determination of the structure, duties, composition and finance in the same sub section to the state through its legislature. The constitution confuses us further when it states in S7 (6) )b) as follows; “ the House of Assembly of a State shall make provision for the statutory allocation of public revenue to local government councils within the state even though the provision immediately preceding that states as follows: “ the National Assembly shall make provisions for statutory allocation of public revenue to local government councils in the Federation”
The foregoing and a few other lacunas in the 1999 Constitution have given state governors the opportunity to tinker with the existence, structure and finance of local government councils all over the country. By far the most paralysing of the steps taken by Governors is the cornering of the financial allocations of the state through what is known as the State Joint Local Government Account. This situation has made it impossible for most local government councils to embark on capital projects that would impact on the lives of their people.
Expectedly, attending the possession of the finances of local councils by state governments is the total emasculation of the structure and composition of the councils. With the aid of their houses of assembly, Governors are in control of the State Electoral bodies which conduct elections into councils. That is when elections are allowed to hold.! So year in year old, state governors select their cronies, people who would do their bidding and foist them on the local people without consideration for wishes of the people. These characters usually serve as caretaker committees who are only accountable to the Governor and the House of Assembly when the Governor so chooses.
This is why Governors would not support the autonomy of local government councils. They have enjoyed their overlord status for so long that atermination would be unthinkable. Sound bites from Governors Rotimi Ameachi, Kayode Fayemi clearly show where the hearts of our Governors are on this matter. At different fora the two of them have presented arguments ranging from the considerable, to the selfish and the insignificant to support their opposition to autonomous councils. None of these arguments contemplated the import of autonomy on the rural populace; none of these arguments address how granting autonomy to local councils can speed up the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals most especially MDGs 2, 4 5 and 6. It is indeed ironic that state governors who complain about the federal government’s attempt to emasculate them would want to control everything in their own states.
While one concedes the theoretical positions of authorities like KC Wheare that a Federal State strictly has two federating units, Nigerian politicians and politics are of a different stock. The urge to win at all costs, the desire to appropriate any semblance of power within their reach is the reason we have not had any impactful governance in our councils in the past few years. In spite of whatever anyone says, the developmental challenges of Nigeria are more enormous than to expect that state governments would reach every nook and cranny of their states, this is why is it is important for people in the local areas to be in a position to elect their own representatives. Not even the suspicion between the Federal and State Government should rob the mass of the people the opportunity to feel the impact of government.
Any meaningful reform must address the mutual suspicion between the federal and state government such councils are not used as agents of destabilisation in states. It must look into the composition of the electoral bodies responsible for elections into the councils. To ensure that the people’s choice are relevant, I am of the opinion that state governments should have no role in the composition of this body. This would save us the distrust which has followed virtually every local government elections that we have had in this political dispensation. You always find yourself asking how the Governor’s party in ends up winning elections all the councils in all states.
The review of the constitution must also make the indiscriminate removal of council officials from office by state governor impossible forthwith. For the sake of uniformity, the tenure, composition and functions of these councils should also be stated in the constitution such that councils can concentrate on the very important mission of taking development into the rural populace.
One should ordinarily assume that members of the National Assembly will overwhelming endorse the autonomy of local government councils, given the preponderance of opinion in favour of the provision and its expedience for the rounded national development, but a deep knowledge of Nigeria politics would instruct otherwise. Events have shown that most Nigerian Governors are determined that the autonomy project do not succeed. We also know that virtually all legislators owe their governors one or the other. If it is not paying back the favour for the current ticket, it is about securing the ticket for the next election but can we appeal to the conscience of our lawmakers this one time? To borrow the words of American industrialist, Henry Ford, “the only motive that can keep politics pure is the motive of doing good for one’s country and its people” That is our appeal.
Adedokun, a Lagos based PR consultant, wrote in via [email protected]. You can follow him on twitter @niranadedokun