Still on Local Government Reforms

10.10.2003

local governmentYour memo to the Technical Committee on Local Government Reforms now headed by Mallam Liman Ciroma as published in your column on Thisday newspapers was a well-articulated piece. However, I believe some of the issues you raised need to be revisited.

I agree with you on the 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. But think of this. If you know Nigeria and our politics as much as I believe you do, you will realise that the so-called real politicians will asphyxiate the noble ambitions of these civil servants as the bureaucrats and technocrats would be quick to realise that on the Nigerian political minefield, it is a different ball game altogether. As a fact, I do not see any of them getting the nomination of any of the major political parties to run for elections. But make no mistake about this; it is an apposite suggestion. Fortunately, the governor of my state, Dr. Sam Egwu, had advocated and actually implemented it during the run-up to the deferred local government elections last year. It is worth taking another look at it. However, to allay my worst fears, 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. This I believe 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 borne out of our patronage politics.

As an aside, in what I might refer to as the devolution of economic policy, the committee should also digress a little from the political into the realms of economics by assigning specific national economic assignments 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. The committee should assign to the local governments the management of 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 misdistributions 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.

Back to your memo. In it, you “expressed the need to raise the educational qualification for eligibility to contest local government seats” and went ahead to state that “a recognised diploma for the post of councillor is necessary while a degree or its equivalent is needed for the post of local government, both with at least 10 years experience.” Much as I agree that the level of education plays a key role in the decision-making mien of an individual, but for some odd reason, the realities of Nigerian politics stands that natural line of thought on its head. As a fact, I dare write that in my best performing local government chairman since 1991 also possesses the least educational qualifications. His only experience prior to assuming office, by the way, was in rural development advocacy i.e. working and relating the people. And you probably know better than I do that most of the malaise, maladies and malfeasances in our national developmental process is attributable to our graduates (bachelors, masters and doctorate degree holders, and even professors) in office. On the other hand, should the 21st century place higher premium on education, then so be it.

In addition to these, 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 what you did not celebrate or, at best, mentioned sparingly in rather passive moods – democracy.

In your memo, you stated, “. … in a democratic rule, leadership is further weakened by enormous pressure from the people and the ruling party seeking patronage”. Your apparent disgust is more in part to your assertion that “in countries ridden with corruption, democracy seems to guarantee poor governance.” No doubt, this 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 it is democracy.

By now we all know that the etymological derivation of democracy simply as the rule of people is also its universal characterisation. 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 recommendation of the Liman Ciroma Committee. For a start, we should, as stated in your memo, return the responsibility of conducting elections to the Independent National Electoral Commission because it is more difficult to manipulate elections to local government elections in Bekwarra from Abuja than Calabar.

Surprisingly, you succumbed to the issue of supervision of local governments. As the seminal 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 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 should be modelled around the National Council of States. For example, the first civilian governor of Abia State, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu established a Joint Consultative Council, which was recommended by the then National Council on Inter-Governmental Relations to other states. The council had the governor as chairman, his deputy as vice chairman and local government chairmen as members. It held monthly meetings to discuss and exchange ideas on issues of governance, security, border disputes, etc. The Liman Ciroma Committee should consider recommending such a council as part of the reforms.

Direct supervision of governments by higher tiers of government reduces the democratic content, 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 are merely a scattering of exceptions and not acceptations to the rule. They will eventually pale in significance.

As Lord Bryce states, democracy bestows an enduring confidence 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. That is my point.

This article was written as reply to “Memo to Liman Ciroma Committee” published by Thisday Newspaper’s Backpage Columnist, Aliyu Tilde (Blunt Point, October 3, 2003).

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