One of the most important issues in the ongoing constitution review process that will be concluded this year is the fate of local government councils in Nigeria. Even though local governments have always been defined as the third tier of government, the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) did not explicitly state so. An examination of the Fourth Schedule of the constitution which defines the roles of the local governments did not state whether local government councils are a separate tier of government or are part of states.
As a result, local government councils have found themselves treated as though they were a ministry of the state government: local government allocations are pooled into a joint state/local government account controlled by the state; elections into local government councils are non-periodic, if carried out at all; and local government chairmen could be sacked at any time by the state governor. This has caused the local governments to be very ineffective in discharging their duties.
The idea of the local governments being the closest to the grassroots is not just in name, but also to assume responsibility for important issues such as provision of primary, adult and vocational education; provision of primary health care services; and many aspects of revenue collection in addition to duties such as maintenance of cemeteries, numbering of houses and naming of streets, and registration of births and deaths.
It is the failure of the local governments to deliver on these things that we see even the Federal Government step into the gap: from the Universal Basic Education Commission for primary education and the building of primary healthcare centres. One major reason for this federal intervention, as stated earlier, has been the fact that allocations to local governments are not given to them directly. What ends up trickling down to them is only enough for paying staff salaries and very few developmental projects.
The idea behind the push for local government autonomy is to cut them off the apron strings of state governments and make them a truly independent tier of government answerable only to the people. This will also abolish the existence of joint state/local government accounts and make their federal allocations come directly to them. It will then empower the local governments to take their own decisions on which projects and activities to implement and which not to.
But even beyond granting local government autonomy solely for funding purposes, it is also important that local governments are explicitly defined in the constitution rather than left ambiguously to the interpretation of people. If we say that they are the government closest to the people, this should mean that they are a tier of government by themselves.
Also, it is important that there are nationally-defined laws guiding the election and removal of officers of local government councils. State independent electoral commissions (SIECs) exist solely for the conduct of local governments. However, very few states conduct regular local government elections and have a defined tenure for the officers of the local government councils. In many cases, the local government chairmen are removed from office as defined by the various laws guiding their existence in the states. I believe that as long as the local governments are funded by the federal government, they should also be guided by federal laws and the constitution. Right now, there are instances of sackings of local government chairmen which have resulted in either court cases or political instability in Imo, Bayelsa and Ondo States.
Another good way to make states conduct elections regularly into local governments is to make it a pre-requisite for receiving federal allocation. This would make it that local governments are brought to life and they perform their expected duties rather than becoming appendages of state governments, which they fill up with their cronies and do not empower them to perform their constitutionally-defined roles.
It is about time we looked at our local governments seriously and make them live up to their responsibilities. With a working local government system, a lot of work would be taken off the back of the federal and state governments.
To answer the question in the title of this piece; yes, we need the ongoing constitution review process to critically look into the structure and administration of local governments and grant them autonomy.