In this piece, Kauthar Anumba-Khaleel examines the prospects of the proposal to grant local government system autonomy in the state Houses of Assembly.
Following the adoption of proposals by the National Assembly in the ongoing constitution review and onward transmission to state Houses of Assembly, Nigerians are watching the body language of state legislators on some of the proposals which have remained contentious over the years. One of such is local government autonomy, which, until date, has suffered setbacks despite attempts by the National Assembly to strengthen the local government administration with financial and political autonomy.
It would be recalled that in a bid to grant financial autonomy to the councils to enable them function independently and effectively bring dividends of democracy to rural areas, the 7th National Assembly approved the proposal to grant financial independence to the Local Government Councils in the country and the states. However, this was not to be as the proposal was rejected by the state assemblies. The rejection was largely attributed to the overwhelming influence state governors had over state legislators and the former’s position on how the system ought to be, arguing that the proposed amendment of the 1999 Constitution should contain only two tiers of government i.e. the federal and state while local governments be an extension of the ministries in the states.
The clamour for local government autonomy predates Nigeria’s independence when reforms aimed at democratising local government administrations were initiated by regional governments in the 1950s. These reforms however, did little to change the narrative until the mid-70s. In 1976, the federal government accorded the local government the status of the third tier of government, granted it powers of grassroots governance and development even as it went further to guarantee the statutory nature of local governments by embodying it in section 7(1) of the 1979 constitution which stated that: “the system of democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed”. This autonomy again, faced opposition between 1979 and 1983. Since then, steps have been taken to free the local government system from the stronghold of state governments.
It would be again recalled that in a bid to revitalise and strengthen the system, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1988, scrapped the state ministries of local government to seize control created by the Ministries in the performance of local government councils.
Also, to restore democracy at the grassroots, local government elections were for the first time in nine years, conducted across the country in 1987. Prior to this, elections to the local councils were last conducted in 1976. Additionally, scheme of service for local government employees was approved; funds were disbursed directly to local governments; there was an increase in the statutory allocation to LGs from 10 percent to 20 percent between 1990 and 1992; federal allocation to local governments increased from N1.177 billion in 1986 to N8.1 billion in 1991 while the monthly allocation from the federal account moved from N675 million in 1991 to N1 billion in 1992.
Regrettably, since the country’s return to democracy, the independence of the local government system on state governments has remained a source of concern for analysts, a factor they say is a major reason that inhibits rural development.
According to political analyst, K.O Olaniyan, in a paper titled “Local Government Administration and the Challenges of Development in Nigeria within the Provisions of the 1999 Constitution”, “Development remains insignificant if it does not positively affect the lives of those in the periphery of decision making arrangement. The Nigerian state therefore, created local government as the third tier of government whose objective is to ensure effective, measurable and efficient service delivery to the people. However, local government is faced with various difficulties.”
Others have argued that for local government administration to realise its goals, the country should return to true federalism, pursuit of economic self-reliance through internally generated revenue, and embrace attitudinal and behavioural changes to achieve good governance. They pointed out that the local government system faces challenges amongst which is interference from state governments that needs to be addressed if ever the aspirations of the rural populace are to be met through the local government.
Against this backdrop, steps were taken by the 8th National Assembly to correct this anomaly through the introduction of bill seeking to amend the constitution to grant the third tier of government the right platform for which to effectively carry out its constitutional duties independently. The bill, which is amongst many other bills in the ongoing review of the constitution, was adopted by both chambers of the federal legislature and is reported to be on its way to state assemblies for adoption.
A glimmer of hope was offered in that regard when the 19 Northern State Houses of Assembly expressed their support for autonomy of local government.
It would be recalled that the chairman of the Northern State Speakers’ Forum and Speaker of the Niger State House of Assembly, Hon Marafa Ahmed Guni, disclosed in Minna last month, when he received officials and members of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) who were on solidarity rally to the Assembly.
Guni, who assured the union that the Northern States Houses of Assembly were ready to support the autonomy of local government councils because it will improve the wellbeing of the people and bring about good governance at the grassroots, said, “Without mincing words, I am assuring you that we, in Niger State House of Assembly, are giving the assurances that we will support the local government autonomy; not only this State House of Assembly.”
“I am talking to you as the chairman of the 19 Northern States of Nigeria. All these states are supporting two issues: local government autonomy and the autonomy of the legislature in the review of the 1999 constitution”.
“When we were in Lagos for the constitutional review, we did not only talk about local government autonomy, we also talked about additional percentage of allocation to the local government if we want them to survive. When we receive the constitution in Niger State, we will call all stakeholders and even meet at the 19 Northern Houses of Assembly level, but as far as local government autonomy is concerned, it is a done deal. We have taken a decision and there is no going back on that”.
This assurance from the northern states lawmakers however, does not translate to the success of the amendment as they do not form the required quorum required for the proposal to scale through. If the position of the state houses of Assembly of the northern region is anything to go by, all that is needed is approval from five states from the south to muster the two-third required for the proposal to make the cut.
Pundits have expressed optimism that other state houses of assembly will take a cue from their northern counter-parts and support the proposal. According to Ronald Alabi, “it will be a great undoing if northern states support LG autonomy and the south doesn’t. As a country, we have to take steps to correct every and anything that has stalled development and giving local government autonomy is one of these things. I strongly believe that Houses of assembly in the south will support it because I’m sure they will not like to be responsible for its failure to scale through”.
Similarly, Emeka Iloanusi contends that with the support expressed by the Northern state assemblies and advocacy visits by NULGE as well as proponents to the assemblies, more states from the south will throw their weight behind the proposal. “There has been a lot of advocacy and lobbying going on over autonomy of local government and I know it has yielded results. The houses of assembly in the north have shown their support, with time, others will do so. It is important that this is done so it can be said that Nigeria is truly a federalist state”.
While optimists welcome the support, others fear that the proposal may not have a smooth sail in the southern state assemblies and this cannot be totally divorced from the position of the South Western Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) who kicked against it saying it came with “hidden traps set to benefit Fulani herdsmen.”
In a statement signed by its national chairman, Olawale Osun, the group alleged a link between the retention of Land Use Act in the constitution and proposals to grant the local governments autonomy, an allegation the National Assembly has debunked saying it “is simply to give the local government areas the opportunity and the chance to function better and more efficiently; there is no any hidden agenda”.
Whatever positions are held, the success of the proposal for local government autonomy as well as others is for the second time, now dependent on the 36 state Houses of Assembly.