CECILIA OGEZI writes on the many hurdles in achieving local government autonomy

Local governments are not sovereign and unlike states, they are surbodinate governments, which derive their existence and power from law enacted by a superior government.

Local government in Nigeria is rooted on historical antecedent of reforms. The nature and structure of transactions and interactions between the three tiers of government determine the degree of the autonomy.

In view of the importance of local government as the bedrock of democracy, 148 local government areas were created in 1989 and 140 in 1991and now totalling 774 in the effort to bring governance nearer to the grassroot.

Local government is a political authority set up by a nation or state as a subordinate authority for the purpose of dispersing or decentralising political power; the objective which is to make appropriate services and development activities responsive to local wishes by delegating them to local representatives .

The 1976, 1979,1989 and 1999 local government reforms sought to make local government the bedrock of national politics, in a much more relevant perspective to the present day government arrangement local government is perceived as grassroots democracy.

Even though the system in practice in various countries may have a lot of divergences, one distinctive feature that makes a lot of difference, is the level of autonomy.

But If it is an extension of Central or State government, the local populace would not participate actively in the conduct of the affairs of the local government as that Federal or State would be in charge for its employment and policies. it is as absolutely necessary to pinpoint out that in as much as there are distinctions among Nation-States, so also are there diversities within these Nation-States at various time periods. Therefore any meaningful study of local government systems should take the issue of autonomy very seriously. The bottom-line is to identify the circumstances and dynamics that shape the colorations of the system at any given situation.

The topical issue of local government (LG) autonomy in Nigeria in relation to the development of the localities, the raison d’etre of LGs, has been examined as well as some dominant autonomy issues. These include representative LGs, the size of LGs, revenue, and personnel. It has discovered that inadequate handling of virtually all the above issues has posed some challenges for LGs’ developmental efforts in the localities. Inadequate autonomy has been found to be the independent variable in the challenges. Other challenges include inadequate finances, weak intergovernmental relations, fledging democracy and grand corruption. These must be adequately tackled for LGs to make more positive impact in the localities. Some pertinent recommendations are as follows. The advent of local government administration in Nigeria took off in an unpopular manner when it was vested in the hands of traditional authorities during the colonial era. Post-Independence era was followed with the importance of bringing the local government system to the limelight.

Over the years, efforts have been geared towards democratizing the local government and make it more responsive to developmental needs but proved abortive.

The Dillon rule which was derived from written decision of Judge John F. Dillon of Iowa in 1868 and is the cornerstone of American municipal law maintains that a political subdivision of a state is connected to the state as a child is connected to a parent. Dillon’s Rule is used in interpreting state law when there is a question of whether or not a local government has a certain power. Dillon’s Rule narrowly defines the power of local governments.

Local government is an unavoidable tier of government in Nigeria’s federal structure as stipulated in section 7(1) and 7(6a) of the 1999 Constitution.

National Assembly Stance

The Senate recently passed a bill for an act to further alter the provision of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and for other matters connected therewith, 2013.The committee proposed a total of 31 clauses affecting 26 sections and second schedule of the 1999 constitution.

From the 31 clauses set out, 13 were passed while 10 did not scale through.

Among the ones not passed is the alteration of section 162 of the constitution to provide for direct payment to the local government from the federation account.

In the Senate, the debate on the local government autonomy witnessed glowing support and people were optimistic about granting autonomy to the local government.

As 73 Senators are required to vote in support for any clause to be passed. 99 Senators registered to vote and only 59 voted in favour of granting autonomy to the local government while 38 voted in retention of the extant law. Two Senator abstained from voting.

But the House of Representatives took a different position by endorsing the local government autonomy with 293 lawmakers voting in support, 39 against and 7 abstained from voting. The Representatives further blocked the unelected local government chairman from getting funds from federal government allocation.

Autonomy and Local Democracy becomes possible if Nigeria’s developments discourse, which is now being wholly influenced by internal and external forces looks inwards, to reflect local needs and aspirations and if the Federal Government, Local and International Non Governmental Organization and Donors, who have the inclination to establish counter structures at the grassroots, are attuned to the need for local leadership growth, capital accumulation, entrepreneurship and increased participation of people in grassroots governance.

The capacity of autonomy to serve as a pillar of local government that are accountable to the electorate and capable of promoting public goods and services equally entails a balance in macro and micro institutions of governance.

The Paradox of Local Government Autonomy is One contemporary paradox of Nigerian politics is that the disempowerment of the local government erosion of its stability, autonomy and embeddedness did not provide for empowerment of the civil society or contribute to the overall development goal set in the Nigerian constitution.

Nigeria’s case is cumbersome as it is heavily dependent on the National Assembly and it States Counterparts for its development and is facing pressure exerted by Nigerian Union of Local Government Employee (NULGE) and concerned citizens for faster decision.

Unmediated by constitutional norms and an absence of a buffer to salvage the poor and powerless has produced growing inequality, social polarization and political instability.

Granting full autonomy to the grassroots helps ensure the participation of the less empowered population in the planning, execution and monitoring of social and economic development.

Those who opposed to local government autonomy do have good reasons too. They argue that the local government is not technically a third tier of government. It is merely a politico-administrative province of the state governments. It is the responsibility of each state government. Ideally, a state government should decide the form and the system of local government best suited to its political and administrative needs.

The generals created a constitutional problem since 1979 when they decided to define states by the composition of their local government areas. This has been used to argue, incorrectly, that states are not empowered by the constitution to create local governments because doing so would require a constitutional amendment. They argue that a newly created local government area is perfected only when the schedule is amended and it is listed therein among the local governments in the state that created it.

This argument did not arise in the second republic. Governors felt free to create and some of them created new local government areas and did not have to perfect them through a constitutional amendment. It became a problem under Obasanjo. He did not want states to create more local government areas. As far as he was concerned, more local government areas would not necessarily make good and responsible governance. They would be a drain on the national coffers He, of course, acted illegally. The Supreme Court said so when the Lagos State Government took the matter before the apex court. The president did not budge. The states gave in by downgrading the new local government areas into development areas.

Under the Babangida reforms, the local government became a third tier of government. It received its statutory share from the federation account directly from sources, not through the state governments. The reforms abolished the ministry for local governments and chieftaincy affairs. Or more correctly, it downgraded it to a division in the governor’s office. It has since been rolled back.

The Mantu committee, perhaps reading Obasanjo’s mindset, offered its most comprehensive proposed constitutional amendments on the local government system. It wanted local governments to receive their fund directly from the office of the accountant-general of the federation and the auditor-general of the federation to audit the accounts of the local governments.

The various reforms have muddled the concept of the local government system,Although we do not seem to be entirely persuaded that the local government should be the third tier of government, its current structure makes it a de facto third tier of government. Federal and state government structures are duplicated at the local government level: an executive arm headed by an executive local government chairman and a unicameral legislature headed by the speaker. Only one thing is missing: the judiciary as the third arm of the local government. The local government stands on two legs instead of three. Do we need three tiers of government?

We have been mealy-mouthed about this question. Nigeria has 811 governments. If you add the development areas that fully function as local governments, we probably have more than 900 governments – the largest in the world. That is a huge burden on the federation account. You can see why federal, state and local governments do no more than service recurrent expenditure. Development suffers at the three tiers of government.

They thought of it as an administrative unit of the regional governments, hence the full participation of traditional rulers in the NA administration.

The NA enjoyed a measure of autonomy, thanks to the sensible devolution of powers to them by the regional governments. It is to be noted that although the regional governments shared in the concept and the philosophy of the native authority system, there was no uniformity in its administration.

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