Government in Nigeria “is detached from its people at every level of the federation”, said Chidi Odinkalu, chair of the National Human Rights Commission, when interviewed for ARI’s briefing note “State(s) of crisis”. For most Nigerians, the state and unelected local government authorities are the most proximate form of government. Yet too little attention is paid to how these institutions operate and impact – or fail to impact – on the daily lives of citizens.
In an ARI blog series launched in 2016, “NIGERIA: HAVE YOUR SAY”, Nigerians from many different walks of life reflect on aspects of sub-national government from Borno in the north-east to Lagos in the south-west; and from Sokoto in the north-west to Enugu in the south-east. There are no overtly self-serving or politically partisan inclusions.
ARI aims to provide a platform that will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of local governance in Nigeria and to draw attention to suggestions for improvement.
“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” (Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria)
Functioning local government is pivotal to the development of communities, especially when the central and state governments are in effect absent. Lagos State’s 20 local government areas (LGAs) were supplemented in 2003 with the establishment of 37 local council development areas (LCDAs), entities not statutorily approved by the National Assembly but with the same function as LGAs. A Supreme Court judgement ruled the creation of the LCDAs as “valid but inchoate”.
For the 57 local authorities to perform their constitutional role, adequate financing is essential. Without it, the provision of social services and infrastructure is impossible. The Lagos State government continues to hold the purse strings, only disbursing funds to cover the running costs of each local government body despite the constitutional requirement that 20.6% of the Federation Account must be allocated to this tier of government. Also in contravention of the constitution, the state has failed to hold any local government elections since 2011.
Grassroots democracy curtailed
When local elections were staged in October 2011, at the start of former governor Babatunde Fashola’s second term, prospective councillors promised to improve deplorable roads and under-resourced health care facilities during a campaign characterised by voter apathy.The credibility of the polls was challenged by opposition parties who cited as evidence of fraud various electoral irregularities and the fact that the incumbent party – the Action Congress of Nigeria – won all 57 seats. It was clear that support for the governor was a prerequisite for victory. Any residual semblance of LGA/LCDA independence disappeared after the elected officials’ mandate expired in October 2014 and no new election was called.
The state government, charged with organising local elections, attributed its inability to do so to the failure of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conclude its compilation of the national voter register in time. In place of elected LGA/LCDA chairmen, 57 “sole administrators” were appointed by Fashola in late 2014. When Akinwunmi Ambode was elected governor the following year, he oversaw a new round of appointments, bringing in his people to oversee the management of local government. This action has undermined local democracy: the appointees are directly responsible and accountable to the governor rather than the electorate.
This system of governance dates back to Nigeria’s Second Republic. During the early 1980s,“caretaker committees” ran local governments throughout the federation. They were staffed with party loyalists appointed by the state government. Since the return to multi-party democracy in 1999, political elites’ fear of losing contested elections, and the access that comes with a government position, has preserved the existence of unelected local officials.
“Sole administrator” systems also exist in neighbouring Oyo, Osun and Ondo states. In Lagos, this has undermined the principle of checks and balances between the electorate and the state legislature and executive, facilitating corruption and impunity. Local government is supposed to be independent. Instead, it has been deprived of its autonomy and reduced to a mere appendage of the state government. The Lagos State House of Assembly is complicit in this process as – in theory – its approval is required for the governor’s nomination of LGA/LCDA heads. In reality, it is an institution in the pocket of the governor.
In Baruwa, Ayobo-Ipaja LCDA, for example, local council leader Hon. Abiodun Agbaje may be fully aware of the deplorable road conditions experienced by residents, but he is unable to address these infrastructure challenges without the support of the state and/or the governor – the holders of the purse strings. This is the reality facing almost all the LGAs/LCDAs in Lagos State.
A small step in the right direction?
In January 2017, Governor Ambode announced that local government elections would be conducted on 22 July – 33 months overdue. This marks progress of sorts. Without improvements to the quality and transparency of the polls a clean sweep for the incumbent party – as happened in Ogun, Ebonyi, Benue, Jigawa, Taraba and Yobe states – is almost certain. The Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission, charged with conducting local council elections, continues to be heavily influenced by the will of the governor. Nevertheless, even though opposition groups are unlikely to make inroads, the polls do at least give them a chance to broadcast their views about the shortcomings of governance and service delivery.
Seun Akinyemi is an independent researcher based in Lagos.