Local Government: Conduits of corruption?

Local government councils in Nigeria depict the picture of a captured territory with the army of occupation engaged in mindless sleaze. They are like a castrated horse that is not conscious of having lost its soul. A tour of a local government areas usually leaves observers with a painful tale and experience of how and what governance should not be in the country 56 years after independence from the colonial lords. Though closest to the grassroots, a local council in the country is far away from the lives of the rural dwellers. It provokes the bile in their system each time it crosses the minds of such people that they are under the jurisdiction of a local government.

Billions of naira that are reeled off as budgets annually and meant to bring positive changes to the lives of the citizens develop wings through the conspiracy of a few elite and internal collaborators. The people are swindled through phony contracts, manipulation of documents and all manner of inducements being perpetrated by the ruling political elite and bureaucrats.  Although mouth-watering figures are announced in the name of fiscal appropriations, the basic things of life like motorable roads, potable water, electricity, education, health care and others are almost non-existent or had become decrepit. Nonetheless, more than 70 per cent of the 170 million Nigerian population live in rural communities spread across 774 local government areas in 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Deprived of even the minimal comfort of life and inflicted by poverty, the people are confronted with double jeopardy because of the failure of local government system and inertia of concerned authorities who ought to do the needful. This has necessitated a number of teasers such as: what is really responsible for the apparent tragedy of a people in relation to the activities of the closet rung of leadership to the citizens? How did it get to such level of deterioration and neglect? What solution can be proffered to address the problems?

In the views of many observers, the predicament of local government in the country is a double-edged sword. It is partly self-inflicted problem on the one hand and institutional on the other. Its weak structure are as a result of ambivalence of the governed, coupled with lack of capacity and acumen by those  saddled with the process  meant to galvanise, harness and deploy the latent and huge human, material and natural resources in the local councils.


Local government reforms: From 1914 to date

In the beginning was the idea of a political division close to the people at the grass roots conceived. During the colonial era, particularly after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, a political arrangement with the task of catering for the needs of the grassroot people was constituted under the nomenclature of the Native Authority or Administrative System.

The arrangement made use of traditional institutions in accordance with the Indirect Rule system as the political governance philosophy of the British colonialists. The British overlords did not want to disrupt the extant structure at the local level because of the huge financial consequences that would have followed. Thus, the traditional rulers and their chiefs constituted were constituted into an administrative block and supervised by the colonialists.

A combination of factors such as lack of Western education on the part of the traditional rulers and chiefs in the Native Authority and their inability to enforce tax levy on their subjects the revenue from which was meant to pay their salaries, among others, led to the collapse of the system. As FataiOlasupo and Dr (Mrs) I.O Fayomi of the Department of Local Government Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, noted, one of the strong points of the system was its success in whittling down the autocratic hold of the traditional rulers and their chiefs on their subjects.

They, however, queried why the Native Authority arrangement should be called a local government system given the way it was operated by the British. “It is fraudulent to call it [a] local government [system] because there was nothing governmental about it to warrant that nomenclature. If it was not democratic, legislative (it had no legislative power at all) or clientele service delivery system, what then is governmental about it?… the operators of this Native Authority system could neither be described as executives, legislators nor administrators because they executed, legislated or administered nothing.”

A slight modification of the nomenclature to Sole Native Authority later done with a view to correcting some of the noticeable defects in the system did not solve any of the identified problems. Rather, it led to the marginalisation of women and the elite decried their exclusion from the running of the system. According to Olasupo and Fayomi, the shortcomings noticed prompted a colonial officer to recommend the democratisation of the local administration arrangement.

“…the last colonial Secretary of State, Lord Creech-Jones…had argued that: ‘The key to resolving the problems of African administration lay in the development of an efficient and democratic system of local government. I wish to emphasise the words: efficient, democratic and local. Local because the system of government must be

the words: efficient, democratic and local. Local because the system of government must be close to the common people (the poor in particular) and their problems, efficient because it must be capable of managing local services in a way which will help to raise the standard of living, and democratic because it must not only find a place for the growing class of educated men, but at the same time command the respect and support of the mass of the people.”

Under the regional government, following the adoption of Richards Constitution of 1946 which led to the creation of three regions, public administration at the grass roots took on a multi-tier nature as opposed to the single-tier model in the Native Authority. Olasupo and Fayomi explain: “This multi-tier system was a concentric circle of variety of three local government systems: e.g. the county, district and local council or provincial, divisional councils. The service types they rendered to the rural people made the distinctions among these three layers.

“To alleviate the suffering the poor, county or provincial councils were assigned with services related to education, maintenance of roads and bridges. The districts or divisional councils were in charge of markets, dispensaries and sanitary services while local or district councils, the smallest of them all, were responsible for the maintenance of streams and footpaths,” they said.

Although there had been various reforms of the local government system since its beginning during the colonial rule, it was not until 1976 that a radical reform of the system was done during the military junta of Olusegun Obasanjo/Shehu Yar’Adua in 1976. The military government of the duo decreed a uniform local government system across the country with a view to stabilising and rationalising government at the local level. Yar’Adua, in his remark prefacing the guidelines for the uniform council system said, “This must of necessity entail the decentralisation of some significant functions of state governments to local levels in order to harness local resources for rapid development.”

Speaking on the 1976 reform and how it was different from others, the Executive Director of African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, Dr OtiveIgbuzor, said, “the 1976 reformsconceptualised local government as the third tier of government operating within a common institutional framework with defined functions and responsibilities. As the third tier of government, the local government gets statutory grants from federal and state governments, and is expected to serve as agent of development, especially in rural areas.

“75 percent of members of the council are to be elected through the secret ballot on a no-party basis under the direct and indirect systems of election. The remaining 25 percent are to be nominated by the state government. Following the reform, the Federal Government in 1977, allocated five percent of federally collected revenue to local government,” he said.

The roles assigned to the local government as a result of the 1976 reforms featured in the deliberations of the subsequently inaugurated constituent assembly which gave birth to the 1979 Constitution. Among other recommendations, the reforms state that each local government to have a population ranging between 150,000 and 800,000. hat constitution specifically spelt out the running of the local government councils by democratically elected administrators.

But the fortunes of the councils took a dip during the Shehu Shagari administration. Shagari took over government on October 1, 1979, as a civilian president in the Second Republic after long years of military interregnum. Rather than conduct election into the councils or at least set machinery in motion towards ensuring that democratically elected officials run the councils, the Shagari government reversed the gains of the councils by appointing sole administrators to run the 301 local government councils created in the 1976 reforms.

When the military junta of Muhammadu Buhari seized power in a putsch, terminating Shagari’s second term of office, the military leader continued that sole administratorship model he inherited. But the Ibrahim Babangida military government, which ousted Buhari, continued with the tradition but, according to Igbuzor, carried out a couple of reforms. “During Babangida regime, there were certain reforms aimed at ensuring local government autonomy. These included the abolition of the Ministry of Local Government; establishment of executive and legislative arms in local councils; and direct allocation to local government without passing through state government.

“The regime also increased local government statutory allocation from 15 percent to 20 percent with effect from 1992. It is important to point out that the intergovernmental relations between the federal, state and local government has been characterised by both co-operation and conflict; but it is conflict that has predominated state-local government relations. Some state governments have been known to have hijacked and diverted Federal Government’s allocation to local governments. This is why one of the features of the reform during Babangida’s regime was to make allocations directly to local governments without going through state government,” he said.

However, some observers claim that the advent of the Fourth Republic brought a lot of misfortunes for the local governments. Following outcry from local government officials, the Obasanjo administration took some steps aimed at addressing the issues, one of which was the huge salary arrears of primary school teachers. One of the fresh impetuses was the direct payment of the salary of teachers by the Federal Government. The system has since changed.


Local govt and the advent of three-year tenure

Although efforts to achieve meaningful reforms in the local government system have failed largely in the past, that did not stop system operators from making further attempts.  The current Fourth Republic was ushered in with local government election. The election, which was held on December 5, 1998 and conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has been adjudged to be the best council election in the history of the country. This has made stakeholders to renew clamour for the conduct of council polls by INEC.

According to Igbuzor, the military decree upon which the local government election of 1998 was held stipulated a three years tenure for them. “The electoral law under which the officials of the local government were elected was the Basic Constitutional and Transitional Provisions Decree No. 36 of 1998, which provided for tenure of three years. This means that their tenure was supposed to end by May, 2002. But the local government officials desired to have their tenure extended by one year to be at par with all other political leaders in other tiers of government.

“They found ready support in the National Assembly where many of the leading officials are engaged in struggle for political power with the State Governors. The National Assembly then extended the tenure of local government officials by legislation. In any case, the matter was settled by the Supreme Court, which held that ‘no law by the National Assembly can increase or alter the tenure of elected officers of local government.’


The reintroduction of caretaker system

After the expiration of their tenure in 2002, since they were sworn in on May 29, 1999, election into the 774 councils was slated for May 18, 2012 by the States Independent Electoral Commission (SIECs), which is constitutionally empowered to do the election. However, INEC  updating voter register rested with INEC. INEC dragged its feet on the assignment and the governors then appointed caretaker committees to serve for 3 months.

A new date was chosen to be August 10, 2002.  The new date was not to be because INEC new parties that were registered then clamoured to participate in the election and asked for a shift to give them time to participate in the polls. When a new date was fixed for December of the same year, 24 additional parties had been registered and this gave room to suspicion that some forces were behind the moves. Focus on the 2003 election shifted attention from the councils to the states and central government, leaving the governors to continue to recycle caretaker committees, first from three months, to six and now one year. After the 2003 elections were concluded, the Forum of State Independent Electoral Commissions (FOSIECOM) agreed on 21 June, 2003 for the council election. Buton 17 June 2003, the 36 governors met and resolved to push for constitutional amendment to empower to empower them to appoint council chairmen and councilors. The governors met with President Obasanjo on the matter and the outcome of the meeting was to a Technical Committee on the Review of the Structure of Local government Councils in Nigeria headed Alhaji UmaruNdayako. The report of the committee never saw the light of day.


Functions of local government

Currently, most of the states run different variants of what the 1999 Constitution prescribes as the local government system in the country. A greater percentage of the states have preferred sole administration to elected local one in the councils, even in spite of public outcry. The public anger is further heightened by the failure of the system to have any discernible impact on the lives of the people at the grass-root level, as those in charged have failed to mitigate the hardship of the populace by shirking theirfunctions at that level of government.

These functions as provided in the fourth schedule of the constitution under two categories: exclusive list and concurrent list. The former include formulating economic plans and development schemes; collecting rates and issuing radio and televisions licences; constructing and maintaining roads; streets, street lighting, drains, and so on; controlling and regulating outdoor advertising, shops, kiosks, restaurants, etc. Under the concurrent items are: providing and maintaining primary, adult and vocational education; developing agriculture and natural resources other than the exploitation of minerals and providing health services.

Regrettably, virtually all these functions have either been completely hijacked by states in a deliberate effort to castrate and subjugate the local councils. Their autonomy has been substantially eroded and their constitutional rights encroached upon, as funds that statutorily belonging to them are cornered by state governments under the guise of having executed certain contracts on behalf of the local councils. Such monies are deducted from the joint account of the councils, just as states are accused of lodging the allocations of local councils into fixed deposit to rip off the latter.

Apart from phony contracts, some local collaborators operate as syndicate in the councils by fleecing the system of huge revenues through anticipatory vouchers. The vouchers are prepared in advance to rip off the council of internally generate revenue.

The woes of the local government is also compounded by what some top officials described as gross incompetence of members of staff , which is aggravated by the inept leadership either elected or appointive, as such positions are often determined by political patronage. Even though the local government has a law-making organ composed of by councilors where elections are conducted, they constitute mere rubber-stamps as they tend to kowtow before chairmen and political godfathers that railroaded and funded their journeys to the councils. Thus, the mechanism for checks and balances is missing or totally kept in abeyance, thereby compromising the cardinal principles of good governance, transparency and accountability.