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Who will save local councils from state governors?

The relationship between local governments and state governors, and the fuzzy rules governing the administration of local councils have been at the centre of public conversation for quite some time. Last week, the topic received priority attention when the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, said emphatically that morally decadent state governors have enfeebled, abused and turned local governments into cash cows for personal reasons.
Are local governments still an important third tier of government that oversees the development of rural, regional and urban areas? Why should state governors misuse or withhold money received from the federation account that is specifically intended for management of local councils? If President Muhammadu Buhari is committed to the fight against corruption, perhaps, a good starting point for his campaign would be to scrutinise how state governors misappropriate local government funds.
In an interview published in the Vanguard on Sunday, 4 December 2016, Dogara presented an unimpeachable and no-holds-barred assessment of the relationship between local governments and state governors, noting how powerless local councils had been rendered since 1999. He said: “Section 7 of the Constitution… talks about the system of local government being democratically elected, it is guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution, so if we start from Section 7 of the Constitution, how many local governments will you say have executives that were democratically elected? How many of those councils do you see are performing the responsibilities assigned to them under the 4th Schedule of the 1999 Constitution? The answer is quite obvious, and it is a system in crisis. Since 1999 when we had this latest advent of politics, … you will attest to the fact that there is hardly any local government that has lived up to its constitutional mandate and the reasons are quite obvious.”
The House Speaker attributed the problem to the 1999 Constitution, in particular the wise men and women, who drafted the constitution. He said: “Constitution makers, those who drafted the 1999 Constitution actually muddled up a lot of things with regard to running of local governments. I do not know what model they adopted really because when you look at the federations across the world… I don’t know what model the framers of the 1999 Constitution wanted to promote in Nigeria.”
Dogara continued: “… when you are talking about independence of local government councils, such as is practised in India, the United States of America and Brazil, they have a democratically elected council, a democratically elected council legislature, you have even council courts, you have council police, you have councils that are directly in charge of recruiting their personnel and disciplining them, you have councils that are in charge of resources that come into the council and appropriate them because they have legislators… But in Nigeria, that was not the model that was promoted by the framers of the 1999 Constitution when they talked about things like joint accounts for instance.”
Looking like a man frustrated by bureaucratic rules and the authoritarian character of state governors, Dogara said many of the local councils in Nigeria were managed by caretaker committees. This practice, he said, represented a violation of the constitution. He argued there was nowhere the constitution directed the management of local councils by caretaker committees. He said he didn’t understand the kind of democracy that is being practised in Nigeria, especially the brazen abuse by state governors of the constitutional clauses on how local councils should be administered. On all counts, Dogara is absolutely correct.
The House Speaker noted the absurdity of the arrangement in which states and the local councils maintained joint accounts. The implication, therefore, is that when funds are allocated to local councils, the governors could easily dip their hands into that account and reallocate the money to other projects that have little or nothing to do with the development of rural communities. When funds are earmarked for local councils, according to Dogara, rather than the money getting to the local councils, “they are hijacked at that level and appropriated according to the whims of the powers-that-be”. Herein lies one of the most bizarre arrangements relating to the definition of the relationship between the states and local councils.
So, what is the solution to all of this mess? Dogara did not hesitate to make public his simple solution to the problem. He said: “The only way we can rescue the local government system in Nigeria is by introducing amendments to the Constitution and that is what we are trying to do. We attempted it in the 6th Assembly but most of the critical aspects of what we are talking about here did not scale 2/3rd votes from all the state assemblies in Nigeria… What we can, therefore, do is to make sure that in the spirit of the Constitution, the local government administration is democratically elected to ensure that, by the provision of the Constitution, any local government that is not democratically constituted will not have access to funding from the federation account.”
I think this is a good idea that will end the current situation in which state governors see it as their divine right to decide whether to disburse or withhold funds received from the federation account and intended for the administration of local councils. So, a sound starting point should be to make local councils financially independent. That means, as Dogara explained, requiring every local council to have an account into which money from the federation account would be paid directly. This will not only eliminate the nonsense known as joint accounts between states and local councils but it will also curtail the powers that state governors have assigned to themselves to misuse funds meant for local government administration.
Everywhere you go, everyone you speak with, you will find there is growing anger over the way state governors have stalled the administration of local councils across the country. The abuse is widespread. The biggest puzzle is why state governors’ rampant meddling into local government administration has not yet registered on President Buhari’s anti-corruption radar. This is a paradox because Buhari is generally perceived as an anti-corruption Czar who would break all barriers to dig out crooked politicians and citizens.
The contemptuous disregard for constitutional provisions for local council autonomy is not only worrying but also represents an assault on our collective intelligence. The failure to conduct local council elections in many states is a failure of democracy in Nigeria. There are reasons to be concerned about the death of the third tier of government in the country, a tier of government that is recognised in the constitution. State governors must stop interfering unnecessarily in the administration of local councils.
For decades, local councils were conceptualised as a pot of gold sitting undetected and untouched. No sooner did state governors discover that treasure trove of gold than they began to dip their grubby fingers into that pot. This is why many state governors find it difficult to withdraw or suspend interference in local government affairs.
Long before now, long before many citizens appreciated the role local councils play in strengthening our democracy, some state governors had engineered the idea of managing local councils through caretaker committees, not minding that it is against the spirit and letters of the constitution. It is fraudulent for anyone to manage local governments through caretaker committees. Nevertheless, my main concern is that in a country of more than 150 million people, no one has seen reason to challenge the caretaker committees in the courts. As Dogara pointed out, establishment of caretaker committees to manage local councils is clearly illegal.
Whenever people say Nigeria is a democracy, I wonder and query the kind of democracy we are practising. What is democratic about state governors siphoning money meant for local council administration? What is democratic about state governors stalling endlessly the conduct of local council elections? What is democratic about state governors appointing people to serve as local government executives when the constitution is clear that the executives should be elected by voters?
The challenge that faces the nation is how to resuscitate and empower local governments in the country. If local councils are not working, if they are not serving the needs of citizens in various parts of the country, if local councils have become a channel for the embezzlement of public funds, they must be dismantled and reconfigured to become relevant and to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Local governments must serve the interests of citizens for whom the councils were established.
Make no mistake about it. When state governors and other narrow-minded politicians insist local councils must be kept the way they are, it is not because they believe local councils are the most effective grassroots-based tier of government that would make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. When state governors say they want to maintain local councils the way they are, it is not because they are driven to serve their people more effectively through local councils. Remember this. Self-immolation is not one of the personality traits of Nigerian politicians.

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