NOTWITHSTANDING the dangerous curve the nation’s economy is navigating right now, President Muhammadu Buhari can still turn out a hero.
And that may not just be about how he handles the gargantuan matters of economy and insecurity, but more about how he interrogates the small issues that affect the lives of the people.
One of such is the management of the local government structure in this democracy. Not a few would agree that the local government system has been a major victim of the current democratic experience and anyone who would free that segment from the claws of the state governments would easily be scored a good mark by the people.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the local governments are the closest to the people. Of the three tires of government, the local government is seen as the true government of the people. The house of the local government chairman is far easily accessible and they are bombarded daily with issues of everyday life.
Under the military, there were no issues with funding of the local governments. The 1976 Local Government Reforms made them the third tier of government and ensured they collected their funds direct from Federation Account. That was the practice all through the military era. But the same military left the local governments in ruins on their departure in 1999.
Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution bequeathed to the country by the military guaranteed the system of democratically elected government in the local governments. It, however, encumbered the councils when it empowering the state assemblies to make laws defining their operations. Part two of the Third Schedule to the Constitution established the States Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), which conducts elections into the councils, while the constitution further ratifies the existence of the Joint State and Local Government Accounts.
Those provisions have been used by the state governments to subsume the local governments under their control, whereby the state assemblies have passed laws that tamper with the tenure of local governments; the state governments have also assumed authority over the management of local government allocations, allotting to them whatever they deemed fit.
The situation has worsened since the invention of the local government Transition Committees, which the governors put in place from time to time to evade council elections and keep the councils under their armpit.
Who will save the local governments? That has been the question on the lips of many each time the National Assembly embarks on constitution amendment. The National Assembly has done the needful twice, in 2010 and 2014, on the two occasions the state assemblies have shot down the bid.
And things are getting bad at the local councils. The councils, which used to be centres of leadership recruitment from the grassroots, have suddenly become ghost towns. I grew up in an era you can describe as the golden age of local governments. Almost all the major roads we have today in my hometown were constructed by local governments. And those performing chairmen always rose to become leaders at the state level as they easily draw the crowd to themselves during elections. Indeed, one of the chairmen won elections on three occasions.
Today, the glory of the councils has evaporated. Governors only “dish” out whatever amount that catches their fancy out of the hundreds of millions that the councils get. The 16 per cent of Federation Account due to the councils are simply added to that of the states’ 26 per cent. In effect, the governors are practically managing 42 per cent of the Federation Account.
Some governors have put forward the argument that a federation is usually made up of two tiers of government, the central and the federating units. They have insisted that councils should be made as adjuncts of the states.
That is as far as the argument can go. The constitutional provision right now is that councils are separate entities which are also entitled to ten per cent of states’ Internally Generated Revenue (IGR).
Rather than allot the councils their due of the states’ IGR, the states have appropriated all.
Can President Buhari weather the storm, rein in the governors and allow for local government autonomy? If he does that, he will become an instant hero in many communities across the country.
His words are giving positive signals and the best thing he can do is to pull this through. He has a good ally in the National Assembly, which has twice passed the provision and I have no doubt the assembly will again pass it this time.
The signal of hope has already been ignited by the president on Thursday when he assured the nation his administration would support a constitution amendment to free local government areas from the stranglehold of the states.
The president had told the visiting leadership of the Association of Local Governments in Nigeria (ALGON) in