It is good news that President Goodluck Jonathan has forwarded a Bill to the National Assembly to stop the operation of the Joint State/Local Government Accounts. The president’s action is predicated on calls by well-meaning Nigerians for financial autonomy to be granted the constitutionally recognized 774 Local Government Areas in the country.
The Minister of Culture and Tourism, Chief Edem Duke, who stated this in Abuja last week, also said that government is fully committed to ensuring that effective local government system that would serve as a catalyst for grassroots development is entrenched. The Bill, if passed into law and assented to by the president, would be one of the best that has emanated from the presidency. We are hopeful that it will eventually become law. For many years, local government allocation has been hijacked by the various state governments because of absence of a truly local government system in our practice of democracy.
Section 7(1) of the 1999 Constitution allows for an elected administration in the councils but in practice, most of the councils in Nigeria are administered by appointed chairmen or caretaker committees. Only very few can be said to be under democratically elected officials. Even in those with elected administrations, their finances are under direct control of the state government. Hence, there is no visible development in practically all the 774 councils in Nigeria.
Their roads are as dilapidated as ever. There is nothing to show that there is grassroots government in Nigeria. And, this is the tier of government that is supposed to be closer to the people. Unfortunately, the nation’s councils exist only on paper. In reality, they are not centres of rural governance and development Ordinarily, local government is supposed to be the third tier of government.
As a third tier government, all local governments are supposed to be independent. And, because some state governors do not ascribe to this independence, they have done all in their power to ensure the emasculation of the councils so that they can utilise their federal allocations as they like. One instrument that gave the governors the power of control of the councils is the State/Local Government Joint Accounts. Once this umbilical cord is broken, the councils can be in a position to develop their areas. Under the uniform account system, States have dictated projects for councils and disbursed council funds as they like.
That is why officials at the local government level are largely not elected. In some states where elections were held in the councils, the party in power ensured that its candidates won all the seats. They do this in connivance with electoral officers of the State Independent Electoral Commission (SIECs). This scenario obtains because SIEC officials are appointed by the governor, who expect them to be loyal to him and his party. With SIEC in place, outcome of council polls are predictable. With SIEC, it will be difficult for the opposition to win an election at council level. This is why many state governments have not conducted council polls despite constitutional provision for elected council administration in the country.
We applaud the president for coming forth with this important Bill that will restore financial autonomy to the councils. It is, indeed, a bold but necessary initiative that will instill confidence and give verve to the local government system in the country. Let the National Assembly expedite action on the Bill and pass it so that the president can assent to it. But, the new initiative should not, in any way, be an invitation for council chairmen to become emperors. At the same time, we urge the federal legislators to resist any attempt to kill the Bill.
In fact, the legislators should ensure that the structure of the councils is clearly defined so that state governors would not encroach on their activities. Let them not succumb to pressure and lobbying from governors to stifle the Bill. This Bill is of national interest and importance. Local government autonomy should not stop at finances; it should cover elections into the councils as well. Over time, SIEC has not lived up to public expectation where conduct of council polls is concerned.
In all its elections, the party in power in any state usually wins the entire seats. This is not good for our democracy. Perhaps, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will in future handle council polls just as it handles all other polls in the country. All elected council officials should have uniform tenure throughout the country. We say this because SIECs, as experience has shown, are more often than not loyal to the governments that appoint their members.