Last July, despite a court ruling to the contrary, Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong sacked 17 local government chairmen in the state. The development, no doubt, caused many to conclude was another clear indication that even under the new dispensation of change is yet another sign of the deep malfunctioning of the political system the country is operating.
Apparently to underscore the view that Nigeria remains a nation with highly dysfunctional institutions where bizarre things can happen, the governor did what he did with utmost disregard for due process, even in a democracy like ours. A High Court in Jos had issued an injunction barring the governor from acting ultra vires because such an action violated due process. But Governor Lalong ordered armed police officers to barricade the local council secretariats across the state and prevented the sacked chairmen from entering their offices.
Defying the court injunction and claiming to be exercising the powers vested on him by the constitution, the Governor in a statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Rufus Bature, directed the sacked local council chairmen and councillors to hand over all government property in their care to Directors of Personnel Management, DPM, in the councils.
We noted that the local government chairpersons and councillors were elected into office in February, 2014 for a three-year term. According to the law establishing Local Government Authorities in the country; “A local government council shall stand dissolved after the expiration of a period of three years commencing from the date when the chairman took the oath of office or when the legislative council was inaugurated.” That Governor Lalong remains unfazed, saying his decision was final, marks the triumph of the rule of force over the rule of law. We condemn it and stress that such a brazen action must not be allowed to stand.
Governors are elected to run the states and not the local governments. Their obligation is to face this job, a constitutional responsibility which, regrettably, most of them have failed to discharge. The wisdom that dictated the emergence of local government as a tier of government has been obfuscated by the overbearing disposition and insatiable greed of the state governors who by deliberate and questionable policies have whimsically and arbitrarily emasculated their powers and relevance in the sphere exclusively reserved for them by the constitution. Therefore, to say every governor in various ways tries to pocket the local government chairmen for self-serving reasons will be an understatement.
Unarguably, state governors have practically crippled local government administration to the extent that one can hardly justify the need for their existence. The overbearing attitude of the state governors in the affairs of local government manifests itself in diverse ways. It is a notorious fact that no one can become a local government chairman without the support of the state governor. As a matter of fact, governors have been known to suspend or outrightly remove democratically elected local government chairmen for no reason at all or on the highly obnoxious and preposterous ground of disloyalty to them.
Local government, by design, is meant to serve as the machinery through which governance is brought directly to the grassroots. It is the tier of government whose functions are calculated to impact directly on the citizens. These functions are so designed and crafted in a way that only a government that is very close to the grassroots can perform them efficiently. Functions such as collection of tenement rates, establishment and maintenance of cemeteries, burial grounds and homes, maintenance, regulation of slaughter houses, slaughter slabs, markets, motor parks and public conveniences, maintenance of roads, streets, street lightings, drainage systems and other public highways, parks, gardens, open spaces, sewage and refuse disposal are exclusive spheres of influence and operation of local governments.
But to all intents and purposes, local government functions, such as collection of tenement rates and regulation of advertisement, have been hijacked by the governors, with the revenue generated there-from taken over unashamedly by the state governments concerned. For local governments to perform their statutory functions effectively and efficiently, proper funding is required. While the constitution made adequate arrangement for the funding of local governments, most if not all state governments have strangulated this constitutional arrangement. Allocations to local governments from the centre, paid into joint state/ local government accounts have more or less become free funds for the governors, fuelling agitation for local government autonomy. And it is hardly surprising that governors have been; and continue to be vehemently opposed to this autonomy.
But the truth is that the autonomy of the local government is highly advantageous and central to the fulfilment of its mandate. This cannot be over-emphasized. It would bring in its wake financial independence, and would invariably deprive the governors of the opportunity of determining what comes to the local councils’ coffers. A way of achieving this is to stop federal allocations to the local governments and allow every local government to generate its own resources. In other words, every local government should work to earn its pay. Then, every local government would have the right to control its resources. The regions developed better when they were able to control their resources. The oil money, which became the national cake, which all the tiers and arms of government depend on, led to the nation’s stunted growth. It killed industry, competition, economic ingenuity and creativity on the part of the constituent units of the Nigerian federation. It is, in fact, the source of the country’s woes.
On this note, we call on President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to take on the issue of local government autonomy frontally. Buhari’s government should see local government autonomy as central to its change agenda. The President should lead the debate on the desirability of reinforcing local government autonomy.
If needed development among several others must get to the grassroots as envisaged by the Nigerian Constitution and good conscience, voting for local government autonomy by all is the way forward.