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Rethinking decentralization and grassroots development in Nigeria

But with the new democratic consciousness that is infusing political reflection about government, centralization is fact giving way to the idea of participatory understanding of government and governance. The idea of development democracy demands that the “commanding height” which the government seeks should be brought low to the level of the grassroots where the people themselves can become the real center of democratic and development participation. Thus, development democracy begins at the level of local governance.

The local government within the lopsided federal arrangement in Nigeria is the most neglected tier of government in the theory and practice of democracy and federalism in Nigeria. And this becomes a deep indictment of Nigeria’s democratic and development credentials because it is at this level that most Nigerians have their beings. For instance, the infrastructural efforts of government barely manage to percolate down to the different localities that make up the different local government areas in Nigeria. Nigeria’s top-down development model ensures that the resources are effectively frittered away before they get down to the real places where the real people, the struggling Nigerians, are.

The challenge that democratic governance therefore poses for Nigeria’s development dynamics is the urgent need for an overhaul of the local government administrative and governance frameworks. Local government administration must, in other words, transition into a local governance dynamics that will efficiently transform the lives and existence of the grassroots which legitimize all development models, and is in turn empowered significantly to participate and benefit from the democratic process. To achieve a meaningful local governance capacitation model, there is a need for both decentralization of institutional frameworks and the devolution of powers.

Decentralization requires, as a first condition, the substantive recognition of the local government as a tier of democratic empowerment. Within the Nigerian context, this inevitably requires some proactive institutional arrangements that will constitute the administrative matrix for facilitating local governance. The governance structure can be greatly facilitated, for instance, around the sustainable development goals (SDGs). In fact, it seems to me that the local governance structures and dynamics represent the best means by which the SDGs can best be achieved. This is because, essentially, the SDGs are brought down to earth amongst those they are meant to benefit and empower. 

But the constitution must remain the central focus for any substantive decentralization of institutional frameworks and devolution dynamics that will make local governance a reality. As it is, Nigerians have already commenced self-help in the absence of the state and its empowerment in their lives. But if the state must truly become democratic and legitimate, there is the need to tinker with the constitutional requirements that would shoot the local government into democratic reckoning in governance matters. Decentralization requires the devolution of powers.

The unitary federal arrangement in Nigeria already loads the dice against the local government and its grassroots requirements. The executive and the concurrent legislative lists in the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution are constituted in such a way that they have stifled the governance capacity of the residual list. What is left on that list are residual list are mere residues of governance, like chieftaincy matters, which has barely any effect on the effective empowerment of the people.

Bottom up development therefore requires that cogent issues like policing, extraction of mineral resources, taxation, trade and commerce, etc. be reallocated into the residual list to make it truly conducive for democratic governance to gain ground among the people that matters. These substantive issues provide the context for wider governance participation amongst the citizens, the civil society, global partners and state actors to ensure that Nigerians get the best of good governance.

In the final analysis, it seems to me that while the clamor for the restructuring of the Nigerian polity is a welcome development, it is not something that can be achieved in the twinkling of an eye. Our best bet remains a gradualist approach. Decentralization and devolution of powers, within the ambit of constitutional amendment, provides a logical win-win situation which the Nigerian state can explore as part of its conditions for an effective good governance for Nigerians.                      

    

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