Most Nigerians have over time craved for change in the local government system as presently constituted in order to bring it to conform with present day realities as well as to make the councils live up to the expectations of the people who have continued to yearn for development at the grassroots.
The need for this change is occasioned by the failure of the nation’s 774 local government areas, which are supposed to be the closest tier of government to the people, to make positive impact in the lives of a majority of the country’s population, who live in rural areas.
While most analysts blame Nigeria’s faulty federal structure for the failure of the councils, the States/Local Governments’ Joint Accounts run by the respective 36 state government and their local governments are seen by many as the major reason for the inability of past and present administrations at the councils to meet the two primary objectives spelt out in the Local Governments’ reform of 1976, which are: To promote participatory democracy, and ensure rapid socio-economic development at the local level.
The Nigerian Constitution, in Section 7(1), guarantees a system of local government by democratically elected government councils, but the second component of the section makes the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of the local govern- ments dependent on state laws.
Besides the guarantee, the constitution inadvertently makes it possible for state governments to cripple the local governments financially by routing funds standing to their credit in the Federation Account through the Joint Accounts rather than directly to them.
Whereas it was argued then that the operation of the Joint Accounts was meant to bring even development to all parts of the country as well as to curb corruption, the arrangement has over time, adversely affected the financial viability of the councils as some state governments have continued to make inexplicable deductions from the accounts.
Section 162 (8) of the Constitution, which explains how the amount standing in the Joint Account should be distributed to the local governments in each state, states: “The amount standing to the credit of local government councils of a state shall be distributed among the local government councils of that state on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of the state.”
This constitutional provision, rather than ensure fiscal responsibility, has provided a window for state governments to hold them hostage and make them their appendages. In practice, the operation of the Joint Accounts has denied local governments of their financial autonomy.
Though the states have continually maintained that the federal and state governments are the federating units, while the local governments are mere administrative units of the states, it should be noted that the state governments were not meant to be beneficiaries of the Joint Accounts, but to serve as trustees.
They are required to maintain the accounts for the benefit of the local governments by ensuring that funds allocated for this third tier of government are equitably and fairly shared among the councils, adhering strictly to constitutionally stipulated criteria.
But, recent reports from across the country indicate that most state governments implement the Joint Accounts contrary to its intention. Instances abound where some governors hand out only wage bills to the various council chairmen in their respective states, who in most cases, are appointed rather than elected as required by the law.
The National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), the umbrella body of councils’ employees, confirmed the report during a recent visit to former President Olusegun Obasanjo to enlist his support in rescuing the local governments. The union’s president, Ibraheem Khaleel, told Obasanjo that “the states have rendered the local governments impotent.”
The former president accused state governments of incapacitating the councils.
“There is no exception to this bastardisation and encroachment by states. Both are supposed to be separate tiers of government, with each having its roles and functions, but that is not the case anymore,” he said.
As we join concerned stakeholders in the campaign to save the councils from imminent extinction, we insist on an amendment to the provisions of Sections 7 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which states that “The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed; and accordingly, the Government of every State shall, subject to Section 8 of this Constitution, ensure their existence under a Law, which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such councils,” in order to provide for financial autonomy for the councils.
To this end, the National Assembly should see the perilous state of the councils as a matter of urgent national concern, and accord priority to amendment of the local government extant law in the ongoing constitution amendment process.
The running of local governments through caretaker committees should be stopped.