Editorial

Local Council autonomy debate, to be or not?

Nigeria’s local government areas are such like no other in any part of the world. Here we have 774 local government areas spread across 36 states and FCT. While some states have more than 40 councils in all, others have less than ten. Naturally, this sort of disequilibrium breeds instability as fears are raised in the minds of citizens as to the intention of the creators of these councils in relation to equity and justice. For example, while Bayelsans complain bitterly about its eight local governments, although they are a major contributor to national revenue, Kano prances around in joy and haughtiness celebrating its many councils as treasure trough from the Nigerian feeding bottle system.

A casual observer will wonder what the problem may be with this lopsidedness. After all, in a “typical” federal system, aren’t states expected to create as many states as possible? So, if Kano decides to have many states whose cup of tea is that? The problem however is that Nigeria is no ordinary federal system. It is a federal system that is designed to suit Nigeria’s peculiarities. All the same in the end, there just have to be found some measures of equity in order to assuage some of the conflicts we often see these days.

In the last several years, local government elections have become a farce. States spend scarce resources to organise these elections to the dismay of the citizenry. At least no council poll gulps less than N1 billion. Yet, after the council officials emerge, there is hardly anything on ground in each of the local government areas to suggest leadership exist there. Local governments have become appendages of states and the council chairs and the councilors are mere sidekicks of the governors. The problem is that local governments have been emasculated by the states. This is the major reason there has been clamour for what is called “local government autonomy”.

Problem is that those who ask for local government autonomy are the same people asking for “true”federalism. You cannot have a federal system where local governments are autonomous. You cannot ask for another federating unit within a federation. You cannot claim to want states to be federating units as they are although people want more powers devolved to the states and at the same time clamour for local governments to be made federating units too. Because that is what local government autonomy stands for. What we are simply asking for is catastrophe. We are of the belief that these councils have functioned before, it is human beings that have not allowed them function effectively now. You cannot therefore legislate human behaviour.

We need to think deeper as to the reason we need these councils. Is it so that we have another layer of government where political leaders ship their lieutenants to fill vacant political posts or are councils actually supposed to be centres of development? If we wish to make local councils centres of development then we should be radical in our approach even as another constitutional amendment is upon us through the National Assembly. Can we please stop wasting money pretending to organise council poll when we know who will win? Since it has become anathema for opposition political parties within a state to win a council election, what’s the need holding it and throwing money into a bottomless pit?

We should accept to remove local governments from listing in the federal constitution. However, the constitution can prescribe what characteristics a place must have to be proclaimed a council after a referendum. Then, state assemblies should create such councils and approve nominees by the governor of those who will fill the positions. This system should last for 20 to 30 years until our state electoral bodies are sufficiently independent not to deliver council elections to ruling parties. With this, money would have been saved that could have gone to needless electioneering. We agree that local governments created by states or federal government must be democratically governed. But, what we have now is neither democracy nor autocracy. We do not know the process of selection.

To solve the disequilibrium in the distribution of councils, states are the real custodians of local government existence. This does not mean we cannot continue with what we have and continue with the murmurings of states like Bayelsa because federation revenue is shared to local councils and the more councils you have the more money you get. With what we have seen with democratic elections at the councils in all the states, we believe it is time we stopped deceiving ourselves and stop those elections. They are a mockery of democracy!

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