Wednesday 15 June 2016

#MustRead - Wanted: Effective Local Governments

by: Obo Effanga

Although the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils, that provision of our grund norm has been observed more in breach across the country, no thanks to state governors. Across the country, most of our local governments are run by persons who were simply handpicked by state governors. 

Over the weekend, Governor Akinwumi Ambode of Lagos State appointed sole administrators for the state’s ’57 local government councils’. For those who remember, the Nigerian Constitution recognises only 20 local government areas (LGAs) in Lagos but the state purportedly 37 local government development councils from the 20 and ended up having 57 LGAs/LCDAs or a hybrid of both.

That is not the crux of this write up. The fact remains that across the country, virtually all the state governments have desecrated the sanctity of democratic governance at the local government level. Even when the state pretends to promote democratic governance at the LGAs, the election is often a charade, more so as the election is conducted by the respective State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) which is hardly independent. And in virtually all the elections conducted by each SIEC, the political party that controls the state government almost always wins all the seats in the local councils and of chairpersons of the LGAs.

Typically, state governments would fail to conduct fresh elections before the expiration of tenure of elected LG councils so that the governors go ahead to appoint interim officials called caretaker committees/administration or even sole administrators as Lagos just did. At other times, the governors simply sack all elected LG administrations, with the support of the state houses of assembly. In several instances, those interim officers are allowed to contest the sham called LG elections that are later called and thus get transmuted from illegitimate administrators to constitutionally-recognised LG administrators.

Even if we excuse the irregularities that go on at the LG administration, we must at least expect the local government to deliver on its primary responsibilities. For this to happen, the country must make adequate provisions for revenue mobilisation and allocation to this tier of government. By the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution, the largest chunk of the revenues to local governments is mobilised through allocations from the federation account and the internally-generated revenues of the local governments.

Statutory allocation of funds to local governments from the public revenue of the federation is predictable and traceable. Every month, the Federation Account Allocation Committee meets to share the revenue from the Federation Account to the Federal Government, the 36 states (as federating units) and the 774 local government areas/area councils based on a determined sharing formula. But while the funds accruing to the federal and the 36 state governments are presented directly to them, those of local government areas are paid to them through their respective states, because states are the federating units.

This provides avenue for abuse because most state governments keep back a great chunk of the federation allocation meant for the local governments, in the name of ‘statutory deductions’ or as contribution to the ‘joint allocation accounts’ of the state and the LGs. This fund is managed and controlled by the state government. The state government thereafter barely releases such sum enough to pay salaries and maintain the local government offices.

Under some dubious state government laws, many state governments end up designing and executing projects, as well as expending funds on behalf of the local governments, thus deducting ‘at source’, moneys meant to go to those local governments. Some state governments centrally buy equipment including tractors and official cars for local government, distribute to the local government areas and charge the cost to the local government funds. This happens with little or no consultation, even as to cost with the local governments.

The internally-generated revenue source for LGs is based on the functions of local government councils as stated in the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution. These include collection of rates, radio and television licences and licensing of bicycles, trucks (other than mechanically-propelled trucks), canoes, wheelbarrows and carts. They also include assessment of privately-owned houses or tenements for the purpose of levying such rates as may be prescribed by the House of assembly of the state.

Apparently the Constitution sees local government areas as mere rural, local authorities where many commercial activities are carried out with bicycles, wheelbarrows, non-mechanical trucks, canoes etc. This may still be relevant in the very rural local government areas, but certainly not those in cosmopolitan areas.

Local government authorities can generate more revenues from the nature of functions assigned to them under the Constitution, even if it is just to foot the cost of carrying out those functions only. These functions include establishment and maintenance of cemeteries, burial grounds and homes for destitute or infirm; establishment, maintenance and regulation of slaughterhouses, slaughter slabs, markets, motor parks and public conveniences and; control and regulation of outdoor advertising and hoarding.

As lucrative as the above IGR sources could potentially be for local government administrations, they have in most cases been ‘outsourced’, more like traded-off to criminal-minded political elites and party leaders, supporters and cronies at the detriment of the local government and people. These ‘revenue points’ or ‘pay points’ thus become nothing but very corruptive drainpipes of the third tier of government. In fact, the political economy of the allocation of these revenue points accounts for the various conflicts and violence recorded in many local government councils now.

There is ample evidence that the huge amounts of money that accrue to the local governments from the federation account and from the IGR sources have not been judiciously and responsibly utilised to provide service to the various local communities that make up our local government areas.

Perhaps we may find out that many of the local government administrators themselves are not aware or could not be bothered about the constitutional provisions meant to assist them in meeting the needs of their communities. To compound the problem, many of the local government administrations did not emerge as a result of a democratic process, and even where there was a semblance of democratic process, the beneficiaries were hand-picked and hand-held to their positions by the state governors or other political chieftains. The result is that many local government administrations exist as mere appendages or stooges of the state governor. They are therefore unable to assert their constitutional guarantees or stand up to the state government’s unconstitutional deductions or holding back of the funds due to their local government councils from the Federation Account allocations.

We must questions the necessity and mandate of state ministries as local government. This is because in practice, that ministry tends to supervise and manage the affairs of local governments as if the latter were a mere department of the state government, instead of an independent tier of government. We do not, after all, have a federal ministry in charge of state (government) affairs.

Another concern about local government administration is the quality of personnel of both the elected and appointed public officers as well as the civil servants who run the administration. Society too often focuses attention mainly on what happens at the federal and state levels of government. Local government administrations have mainly been taken over by people with very limited knowledge, responsibility and commitment expected. Local government administration is a third tier of government, not one of the cash points meant to reward the politicos, political jobbers, hangers on and failed politicians.

Local government administration in Nigeria represents the nadir of public service where staff don’t even feel obliged to turn up for work. Not surprisingly, many local government offices are sleepy locations that only come alive at about the end of the month, when the federation allocation is expected to arrive.

Whatever arrangement is created by individual states for the local government system, the local government must operate in an accountable manner to the citizens. This they must do by involving the citizens in the formulation and implementation of policies and very importantly the budget.

We must save the local government system by ensuring that local government laws of the various states are in line with the constitutional provision which guarantees the system of local government by “democratically elected local government councils”. A democratically-elected LG administration is more likely to act in the interest of the people than one appointed by a state governor.

We must strengthen the independence of the SIECs. We must also promote the election and appointment of experienced and independent-minded local government officials who would not unduly kowtow to the state governments or see themselves as holding offices at the pleasure of the governor or other political gladiator.

We should also block the loopholes in the revenue mobilisation by ensuring that the federation account allocations get to the targets; ensure appropriate and efficient IGR collection by ending the practice of allotting revenue collection sources to political supporters. We must also ensure value for money and cut spending on irrelevant overheads and anti-people items (e.g. goodwill messages in national newspapers for political stalwarts). We should also involve community people and civil society in project identification and budgeting processes.

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