Democracy and Local Government Reforms

01.09.2004

local government reformsReforms. The language of reforms is now the policy lingo of the second term of the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo: economic reforms, electoral reforms, public sector reforms, judicial reforms, pension reforms, budget reforms, political reforms, constitutional reforms, banking reforms, power sector reforms, police reforms, local government reforms, etc..

Despite the submission of the Report of the Technical Committee on Local Government Reforms initially headed by the late Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Ndayako and later headed by (also now late) Mallam Liman Ciroma, the subject of local government reforms has just refused to fade away. The issue initially attracted widespread attention once again with the Federal Government’s impoundment of funds meant for local governments in states that conducted elections in new local government areas. Again, it gained currency with this odd presidential action repeated in states that have not conducted local government elections. Recently, the Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara, called for the same Aso Rock spell to be cast in his home state of Abia because the State Governor had not sworn in the new Chairmen of local government areas. President Obasanjo has also most recently decried the tampering and deduction of funds meant for local governments by states governors in addition to other perceived distortions in managing our local government system.

A number of issues still need to be revisited as we seek to give our local government councils a new lease of life. Some commentators had suggested that we need to open up the electoral space to allow civil servants participate in elections without the risk of terminating any part of the period of service. This proposition is aimed at improving the quality of human capital available to run the affairs of this tier of government and I quite agree with this position. Even though the bureaucrats and technocrats would be quick to realise that on the Nigerian political minefield, it is a different ball game altogether as the so-called real politicians will asphyxiate the noble ambitions of these civil servants. However, to allay the worst fears of this dispiriting scenario, I believe that the issue of independent candidacy for local government elections should be taken very seriously. In the alternative, we can adapt the Ugandan model, which will require that the only precondition for contesting is membership of a political party and not nomination or sponsorship by such parties. In this regard, candidates do not necessarily have to be the official candidates of their political parties. I believe that this adaptation will also reduce the volatile tensions generated by intra-party squabbles at the local levels in nominating party candidates, which often spill over into the administration process with untold consequences that are borne out of the patronage nature of politics.

Again, it is very apposite to work out a tangible devolution of specific economic policies to the local governments. The reason is simple. With little or nothing to do in economic policy management, local governments have only become fortresses for revenue allocation to private pockets. As it is said, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Since they cannot afford to build good roads, schools, hospitals, and the like, they simply share what is left after paying their usually over-bloated overhead costs. For example, I suggest that the local government councils should be made to manage such grassroots’ based economic policies as the nation’s agricultural policy. The task of ensuring the national goal of food security should be in their domains. The local governments can do this through the establishment of farm settlements based on the crops cultivatable in their areas. In doing this, the local governments can play a major role in SME development, job creation and ultimately reverse the maldistributions of wealth. This should attract a review of the revenue allocation formula in favour of the local governments. The federal government can then set up mechanisms within the National Planning Commission to assess the local governments and provide matching grants to the best performing ones in addition to their allocations from the Federation Account. The states can also follow suit.

However, I strongly believe that solutions to the problems at the local governments, and add state and federal governments too, can be found within the precincts of democracy.

No doubt, the supposition that the corruption virus continues to attack and infect the weak cells of our democracy is shared by a number of Nigerians who have now given up on the growth of democracy in Nigeria. But I beg to differ because if we accept that the basic virus at the local government is corruption then I postulate that the only cure and indeed vaccine against corruption in governance is democracy.

By now we all know that the existential definition of democracy, and also its universal characterisation, is simply the rule of people. Because it requires the protection of basic liberties such as speech, assembly, movement, conscience, religion and private property and guarantees the rights of the individual to vote, equality, justice and freedom, democracy remains the best form of government when compared with autocracy – the rule of one man, monarchy – the rule of a king or queen, aristocracy – the rule of the upper class and oligarchy – the rule of the few.

When practiced at its most elementary forms at the local governments, democracy helps to instil habits of transparency and accountability, which eviscerates corruption. A good example can be found in our various town unions. Members of town union executive committees are usually elected in the freest democratic formats possible. Once elected and in office they strive to manage their affairs in as transparent a manner as is imitable. If they demount from the accountability high grounds, the ‘ordinary’ members are always quick to react to steer the course. These executive committee members derive their legitimacy from an open democratic process and their authority from the members who they serve. If it has been successfully applied at these quasi-local levels of town unions, then it should be applicable at the local government levels. An electoral process that places premium on openness and transparency should be the most proactive reforms agenda for our local government areas. For a start, the responsibility of conducting elections to the local government councils should be returned to the Independent National Electoral Commission because it is more difficult to manipulate elections to local government elections in Bekwarra Local Government Area from Abuja than Calabar.

We should also review the issue of supervision of local governments. As the influential English philosopher, John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government, man’s natural state of perfect freedom is “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal.” He implies that the rule of man over man is justifiable only on the premise of reciprocal consent, arguing further that if the government dissolves or violates its trust, the power to institute a new one must naturally revert to the people. Therefore, adapting from the town unions example that I stated earlier, if the federal and state governments withdraw their direct supervision of the local governments, as is the case presently, the authority and legitimacy of elected local government officials would revert to the people because by the principle of reciprocity of governance, as in physics, action begets reaction. A functional relationship between state and local governments can, however, be modelled around the National Council of States. Such a council should have the governor as chairman, his deputy as vice chairman and local government chairmen as members. The council can hold monthly meetings to discuss and exchange ideas on issues of governance, security, border disputes, etc. Direct supervision of governments by higher tiers of government reduces its democratic content, which is the essence of democracy.

Democracy in our local societies remains a bulwark against corruption and economic mismanagement. Undoubtedly, building democracy has its pains but in the long run, the gains make the process worth the while. As untidy and difficult as the development of democratic traditions is, we must continue to be more willing to blunder in struggling for democracy. Oftentimes in a true democracy, the people may choose terrible or mediocre personalities but such instances will ultimately be a scattering of exceptions and not acceptations to the rule. They will eventually pale in significance.

Democracy has an abiding faith in man, therefore, if our local governments have fallen short of our expectations and in need of reforms, then we should just apply more democracy.

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