From Okwe Obi, Abuja

Sam Ifeanyi Onuigbo, Chairman of the Security, Climate Change and Special Interventions Committee of the North East Development Commission, has urged the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to take over the conduct of local government elections. He believes that unless local government councils are insulated from state government control, efforts to bring democracy to the grassroots will be futile.

Onuigbo made these remarks while speaking to reporters in Abuja on Thursday, discussing expectations from the National Assembly’s Constitution review exercise. He expressed regret that state governors have consistently hampered the free operation of local councils as the third tier of government since the beginning of the Fourth Republic.

To reverse this trend, Onuigbo proposed that INEC, rather than State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), should be responsible for conducting council polls. He argued that council polls conducted by SIECs have historically lacked transparency and become a charade, as incumbent governors ensure their party wins all chairman and councilor positions.

Onuigbo, also the sponsor of Nigeria’s Climate Change Act, emphasized the importance of genuine and complete devolution of powers, including fiscal autonomy and transparent elections. He noted that previous attempts to review the constitution did not address the need to separate local councils from state executive control.

He urged the planned constitution review to examine Sections 124 subsection 4 and 197 of the 1999 Constitution. He believes that abolishing State Independent Electoral Commissions is the key to establishing a free and accountable local council system in the country. He argued that SIECs have become tools for state chief executives to subjugate the third tier of government as an appendage of the state governments.

Onuigbo condemned the practice of Joint Accounting Committees with state governments, stating: “It is imperative to conduct a thorough review ensuring the real independence of local governments, thereby ensuring that all funds allocated to them are utilized for the betterment of the public.”

He continued: “The Constitution recognizes local governments as the third tier of government, yet the effectiveness of local councils has been significantly compromised by state governors who wield practical control over their administration.”

“The worrisome concern stems from the observation that the party affiliated with the government often sweeps these elections, raising questions about the fairness and integrity of the process.”

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Regarding calls for an entirely new constitution, Onuigbo observed that incremental reviews have helped to deepen Nigeria’s democracy, citing the 9th National Assembly’s transfer of electricity regulation from the exclusive to the concurrent list as a prime example.

He added that Local Government Councils have a significant role to play in making democratic dividends available to the masses, stressing that making the councils truly autonomous would increase the resources available for chairmen and councilors to effectively fulfill their mandate.

Onuigbo recalled that the President of the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) was made a member of the National Council on Climate Change to encourage local government participation in climate change mitigation efforts.

He noted that truly independent local government councils would go a long way in curbing insecurity and youth restiveness by engaging young people in various gainful communal endeavors.

He stated: “Further, Local Councils would be free to undertake public enlightenment for grassroots participation in policies and actions related to climate change.”

“When discussing emissions, they often originate from communities where local governments are responsible. Additionally, the importance of nature-based solutions cannot be overstated.”

“Hence, it’s crucial to empower local governments to fulfil their responsibilities. Typically, individuals, especially miners and timber merchants obtain permission to engage in illegal mining and fell trees from local government authorities.”

“We need awareness that is why in structuring the Act (Climate Change Act) we gave different roles to every stakeholder. We want to carry everybody along.”