Re-engineering the Local Government System for Effective Grass root Democracy and Sustainable Development

Being text of a presentation by Ben Oguntuase Former Special Adviser (Policy & Strategy), EKSG; Former NAS Capn (1996 – 1999) at the Town Hall Meeting organized by the National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity) in Akure on Saturday February 4, 2012.

It is an honour to be asked to speak at this Town Hall meeting today. I thank the organizers for the courtesy extended. Since I left office as the NAS Capn some thirteen years ago, I have watched keenly the continuing evolution of this Association/Confraternity into a formidable force with special focus on the welfare of the underprivileged and good governance in the nation. The introduction of the Town Hall Meeting as a component part of our SPC meeting format is one of those laudable efforts to engage with the people at the grass root level. 

2. The theme of today’s meeting is therefore very apt especially for its focus on grass root sustainable development under the democratic agenda. I trust that after this meeting, we would have succeeded in a critical evaluation of our Local Government system of administration and management and suggest ways to not just improve it, but re-engineer it to achieve the objective intended in the theme – Effective Grass root Democracy and Sustainable Development.

3. The Local Government system has come under various reviews. The last major review was carried out under President Obasanjo sometimes in 2001. That level of governance was seen as critical to national development and it became necessary to give it the required focus. Unfortunately, things have still not fared well due to various factors some of which we will highlight here. I have always held some very strong views on how grass root governance should be organized.

4. In November 2001, I wrote an article titled City State which was published in a number of dailies. In the article, with respect to the Local Government system, I wrote that “the system has not worked and will never work”. My position then was that we should do away with the Local Government system and replace it with City Government system and that we should follow this up with either scrapping our traditional form of government or reforming it radically. I still hold this view today even stronger than before. I will explain shortly.

5. Our current Local Government system is established in our constitution in Section 7. Section 7(1) states:

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.

6. Section 7(2) provides the parameters for Local Government boundary delineation while Section 7(3) states that

It shall be the duty of a local government council within the State to participate in economic planning and development of the area referred to in subsection (2) of this section and to this end an economic planning board shall be established by a Law enacted by the House of Assembly of the State.

I doubt if such a Board exists in any LGA throughout the federation. If it does anywhere, it will be the exception, not the rule.

7. In general, administration of the Local Government is to be based on laws passed by the State House of Assembly which is also empowered to “make provisions for statutory allocation of public revenue to local government councils within the State” – Section 7(6b).

8. Section 162 (6) establishes the State Joint Local Government Account “into which shall be paid all allocations to the Local Government Councils of the State from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State”. Section 162 (7) states:

Each State shall pay to Local Government Councils in its area of jurisdiction such proportion of its total revenue on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.

While Section 162(8) states that:

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.

9. The Fourth Schedule spells out the functions of Local Government Councils which lists as the very first function:

The consideration and the making of recommendations to a State commission on economic planning or any similar body on:-

    1. the economic development of the State, particularly in so far as the areas of authority of the council and of the State are affected, and 
    2. proposals made by the said commission or body”

10. Again, the Local Government Councils are expected to be active in the economic planning process of the states. LGCs also have specific responsibilities in Health, Education, Agriculture, Development of local infrastructure and collection of taxes and rates. In all cases, whatever they do is still subject to the control of the House of Assembly of the States as contained in Fourth Schedule 2(d).

11. It all sounds well on paper, but in practice, it does not work that way and clever means have been devised across the States to frustrate democratic practice at the grass root and this cuts across all political parties.

12. The first problem is with the foundation. We are operating our LGA system on a Presidential system of democracy side by side with our feudal traditional system that finds comfort in the British Parliamentary system of government. Unfortunately for us, we have several centres of feudal authority and supremacy, Obas, Emirs, Obis, Amayanabos, etc unlike Britain which has only one, the Queen.

13. There are significant differences between the parliamentary system and the presidential system. In looking at these differences, let us do a brief review of Britain and the United States as models. British parliamentary system evolved from a feudal origin. It was a system designed to bring commoners into governance while at the same time protect the honour of the Lords and the Monarchy. Largely because of feudal influence and the need perhaps to preserve the monarchy and the peerage in some form, there is no such thing as separate Executive and Legislature. You have to be a Legislator to serve in the Executive. Their form of government also appears very suitable for a relatively socially and culturally homogeneous society as Britain was during their early period when this form of government was fashioned out.

14. On the other hand the American Presidential system has part of its underlining philosophy in the total elimination of all forms of feudal trappings from their system. The first wave of immigrants ran away from feudalism in Europe and confronted it in the original Indian native settings of America. They adopted a truly Republican system of government. America is a highly heterogeneous, culturally diverse society.

15. We in Nigeria have lived through both systems. We are also thoroughly confused by both and further compounded by our pre-colonial form of government which we seem unable to do away with. Yet, I am fully convinced that until we solve this problem of conflict between our traditional system of government and the modern systems we are experimenting with, progress for us as a nation will continue to be a major challenge.

16. We cannot have true democracy at the grass root when we still have the hangover of hereditary feudal system so pervasive at various levels of governance in our society. But we can still make some progress if politicians would allow.

17. Presently, all States have the Local Government Service Commission which centrally handles the civil service of the Local Government Councils. By structure and design, these civil servants are answerable to the LG Service Commission which is under the control of the State Government. Civil servants in a Local Government Area are not answerable to authorities within the Local Government. Because of this, many of the staff in a Local Government Council, especially the Principal Officers, are not necessarily indigenes of that LGA. The implication is that each Local Government is not exclusive to its indigenes. It is like having the Attorney General of Ondo State be an indigene of Akwa Ibom, or the Accountant General of Zamfara State being an indigene of Oyo State or the Head of Service of Borno State being an indigene of Abia State.

18. I did a study of the Local Government personnel structure in Ekiti State sometimes in 2010 and in exasperation; I made a recommendation for a major review, calling urgently for the indigenization of LGA Administration. I stated that:

Presently, there is no provision requiring that the staff and management of a Local Government Area comprise indigenes/residents of the LGA. It is therefore possible, as is often the case, that the staff especially Management Staff of a Local Government are from other LGAs. The danger posed is that such a Management Staff may not have the commitment an indigene might have. This often breeds the “KILL-AND-GO” mentality of a mercenary in Local Government administration. We can contemplate what it would be like to have an indigene of Bauchi State serve as Ekiti State Head of Service, or an indigene of Cross River serving as the State’s Accountant General! Every LGA ought to be able to provide its own personnel to run its affairs.

19. At some point in Ekiti State, most of the Directors of Administration in the various LGCs were from a particular LGA simply because at some point also in the past, the Chairman of the State Local Government Service Commission had come from that particular dominant Local Government.

20. Part of the responsibilities of the Local Government Service Commissions is to keep this absurdity going. It is time to scrap the State Local Government Service Commissions while every Local Government should have its own Service Commission that would regulate the terms and conditions of employment in each Local Government. It is absurd to continue to think that employees in different Local Government Areas would continue to earn the same remuneration when existential conditions are clearly different across the various Local Government Areas. The structure of Local Governments also need not be the same. Of what use would a Supervisory Councilor for Agriculture be in Lagos Island LGA compared to same in Ikole LGA of Ekiti State? The focus of a Supervisory Councilor for Works in this Local Government we are in now would clearly be different from that of his counterpart in say Okeigbo LGA or in Okrika LGA in Rivers State.

21. But there is still another major threat to LGA administration. LGAs have become the “WINNER-TAKES-ALL” battle ground for all political parties. Elections at the LGA level have really never been allowed to reflect the true wish of the people by the party in power at the State level. Evidently, most of the Governors express commitment to democracy but cannot tolerate opposition. Their Party must win all the positions across all the LGAs at all cost! This is clearly dubious and we need to address it. If we reflect on what Governors do with their State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIEC), we would be wary of supporting the clamour for State Police! May be INEC presence might be required in the conduct of Local Government elections.

22. Also, I doubt if there is any Governor today who can allow the Federal Government to do unto the States what the State Governors do unto Local Governments. Through the State’s Joint Account Allocation Committees, JAAC, LGA resources are routinely diverted and imposed upon by the State Chief Executive. LGAs do not have the authority even of the mandate they have to expend without approval of their Governors. It is not the same relationship between the States and the President. Something is clearly wrong somewhere. The solution might be to have a law that rigidly forbids JAAC as a statutory body and allows each LGA to have full access to its resources unfettered.

23. Ultimately, I am advocating that we even cancel the Local Government system altogether and instead opt for City Governments as we have in the USA. Here was my take on this issue in my November 2001 article and I believe nothing has happened to make me change my mind.

As we all know, Local Government system is a fall out from the Provincial system of government we had under the colonial, parliamentary and military systems of government. Today we have 774 local governments and pressure continues to mount on the need for more. At the same time, there is no evidence on ground that increased number of local governments has truly brought governance and development to the grass root. In fact it is a system in crisis within itself and across the political landscape ….. The United States anchors its basic government unit on the city and it is working well for them. It can also work for us far better than the colonially inspired provincial/local government system.

Here is what we can do. Abolish all local governments. Then each city, no matter how big as in Lagos or Kano, and each village, no matter how small, as at a given date, for example May 29, 1999, should become incorporated as a self-governing semi-autonomous entity. Each one will choose its own form of government, tenure of its elected officials provided no one can govern a city or town or village in perpetuity as a result of a single election. A city may choose to have three, four, and five or even six-year term with or without term limit for its elected officials. Thus a city can be governed by the same person in perpetuity subject to periodic re-validation of mandate with periodicity as shall be determined by each city. One city may choose this approach while another may just opt for single-term tenure.

Every city/town/village will have its own full complement of government apparatus such as police, judiciary, prison, etc (modify I am modifying to “apparatus for purposes of administering sanctions and reward”). Each shall also decide on its economic system through which to fund its development provided nothing they do shall discriminate against any Nigerian and shall not obstruct the free flow of commerce across city boundaries. No new city or town or village shall be incorporated. In any event, in delineating existing boundaries, the entire land space in Nigeria would have been so delineated anyway such that there will be no virgin land left on which to found any new city.

Each city should decide whether it wants to be governed by the feudal system or whether to become fully republican. Should a city choose the Oba, Emir, Obi, or such form of government, such feudal lords would know that their power and influence would not go beyond their city. My preference however is that we also terminate once and for all the feudal system and go fully republican and democratic. In the alternative, we should do away with the hereditary aspect of traditional institution and democratize it fully such that any resident of any city can become the Oba or the Emir if that is the title they wish to retain. Each must also come under the democratic mandate of election to govern as mentioned earlier.

Many readers would likely be thinking by now that I am crazy. If that is so, then I am happy that I am presenting an idea that could achieve a dramatic breakthrough in our political, social and economic system and rapidly transform Nigeria to a strong, united and modern nation. History has it that in most cases, it is the ideas that are initially thought of as crazy that actually rapidly transform human societies.

The most obvious advantages here are that governance will truly be at the grassroots, greater autonomy will be achieved with maximum respect for our diversity while the cry for new local governments will cease for good. Besides, there will no longer be any need for the unending clamour for a Yoruba Oba in Ilorin, Tiv/Junkun war will be over, Abeokuta will have no need for four Obas, and there will be no need for chieftaincy titles. A city can confer honour on anyone it chooses, but no longer chieftaincy titles as we currently know it.

Our basic structure will finally be individuals, family, city, state and federal. If we want to adopt the Presidential system of government, let us do it fully. It cannot work for us with a combination of the Local Government system and the feudal system of hereditary succession. By the way, it is important to note that Ibadan city that has a more democratic approach to feudal succession is not known to have any crisis each time an Olubadan dies and a new one is to be appointed! That’s a pointer to what the proposed reform can achieve.

24. A colleague gave me this information on Agriculture:

A thorough examination of the reason why Nigeria as a country has failed to provide adequate food and guarantee food security to its Citizens reveals that Federal and State tiers of Government have hijacked the role of Local Government system in sustainable agricultural development.

Sustainable Agriculture is simply the harnessing of the naturally endowed resources of each Local Government Area to the maximum. The 774 Local Government Areas of the country could be likened to 774 natural endowment Banks dedicated to Agricultural development. Sunshine, Land and Water are the tripod on which Agriculture is seated. Sunshine is divine, Land is not expanding but decreasing due to many natural and unnatural forces such as desertification, sea encroachment, erosion etc. Water which is the limiting factor to Agricultural production could be said to have been conquered by man’s advanced knowledge of water harvesting for irrigation, up to the artificial rain in Thailand.

Therefore except the Local Government Areas refocus to tap the natural endowment potential towards Agricultural development, the Country shall continue to wonder in the wilderness towards Agricultural development and optimization.

The National Council on Agriculture has not functioned as intended. States and LGAs are not really strategically involved in its policy formulation and implementation processes.

Infrastructure for Agriculture development is not on ground at all compared with the Health delivery sector i.e. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Health Centers. It can also not be compared with the Education Delivery Services like the Primary School under the Local Government. The Country shall remain dependent on food import from outside our border.

The donour Agencies only follow up on our practices. They don’t provide real expertise and actually exploit local Stakeholders. They provide us loans at prohibitive interest rates which really never serve our purpose. They never really contribute much scientifically towards our Agricultural development.

Legislation is therefore required to change this pattern so as to make the Local Government Areas the custodian of our Agricultural Production activities.

25. So Ladies and Gentlemen, in summary, I have called for the abolition of LGA system in favour of City Governments as a final radical solution. In the interim, we should abolish the Local Government Service Commission in each State in favour of each LGA having its own LG Service Commission and have full indigenization and domestication of all the staff of each LGC. Our hereditary feudal system should be reviewed in favour of a democratized system of traditional governance with only one centre of authority in the governance of each entity. I have also asked for possible INEC participation in LGA elections to help reduce the “winner-takes-all” mentality of State Governors and the ruling political party. Of course JAAC must go. Finally, rather than leave the fortune of the LGAs to the whims and caprices of the States House of Assembly, we should have a Part III (while existing Part III becomes Part IV) of the Second Schedule of the Constitution detailing the Legislative List of LGAs. The House of Assembly should not have the power to ubiquitously legislate over the LGAs at will. The mandate of the LGCs must be respected.

This is what I see as the possible approach to re-engineering the Local Government system for effective grass root democracy and sustainable development. I wish us all useful deliberation. Thank you.

Ben Oguntuase
February 4, 2012
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