Senate and Local Government Autonomy

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By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi

Among so many bills recently passed or still working on by the nation’s Senate in the ongoing constitution amendment. This piece is particularly struck by the passage of the local government financial, administrative autonomy bill which among other provisions seeks that each local government council to creates and maintain its own special account to be called Local Government Allocation Account into which all the allocations will be paid.

Aside from seeking to grant full financial and administrative autonomy to local governments, the bills seek to amend the Constitution to repeal the state joint local government account and provide for a special account where all allocations due to the local government councils, from the federation account and state government, shall be paid.

While this development is welcomed and applauded, there is a lot that is wrong with the local government system in Nigeria, and unless all those wrongs are examined critically and remedies applied to them, it can only create more problems. Guiding against that, via timely corrective action before it happens is the objective of this piece.

Take as an illustration, apart from the fact that well foresighted Nigerians have in the past argued that to free local councils from the clutches of the state governors and ensure credible elections into local councils, the power to appoint chairpersons and commissioners of the state electoral bodies should be removed from the state governors, the global community, especially development-based groups and elections observers, do not think that what Nigeria is doing is the best way to organize elections be it at federal, states or local government levels as governments actions often fail to meet the four basic conditions necessary to create an enabling environment for holding of free and fair elections.

These conditions they noted include; an honest, competent and non-partisan body to administer the election, the knowledge and willingness of the political community to accept basic rules and regulations governing the contest for power, a developed system of political parties and teams of candidates presented to the electorates as alternative choices. And an independent judiciary to interpret electoral laws and settle election disputes.

Such worries partly explain the inertia and damning/reports that trail every election in the country monitored by international observers. Local governments and elections say a recent report, are two essential features of modern democracies. They help to establish, nurture and sustain democracy and democratic political culture. Elections provide the electorate with the power to freely participate in choosing their leaders and in providing the much-needed support and legitimacy to the state. Yet, its electoral approach/process has become curiously old fashioned and derogates the sanctity of elections as an institutional mechanism for conferring political power on citizens in a democratic dispensation.

This claim is supported by many facts. In the accounts by Massoud Omar, Department of Local Government and Development Studies, Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, credible elections into local government councils have been non-existent since independence in 1960 till date. This is because the local councils are often subjected to controls by the upper levels of government in the federal system of government.

During the First Republic, the native authorities (as local governments were then called) were under the control of the regional governments. The Constitution of the Second Republic (1979-1983) gave state governors the power to dissolve local councils and appoint Caretaker Committees to run the affairs of local councils.

‘The 1999 Constitution currently being operated empowers state governors to appoint chairpersons of State Independent Electoral Commissions, the electoral umpires mandated to conduct local government elections in the 36 states of the federation.

As the situation stands, there is some ambiguity as to whether the state governors can dissolve local councils before elections are conducted at the expiration of their tenure, but often, state governors capitalise on this ambiguity to dissolve local councils at the end of their tenure and appoint Caretaker Committees. Often, these Committees are staffed with cronies and party sympathisers’.

Anambra State is a vivid example of a state where Caretaker Committees took charge of local council affairs for about 10 years under four successive governors – Chris Ngige, Peter Obi, Andy Uba and Virginia Etiaba and again Peter Obi who towards the end of his administration organized election on January 11, 2014.

Those elected have since vacated their positions since 2016. As of the time of filing this report, no local council elections have been held in the state since the dissolution under Governor Willy Obiano’s led administration.

Similarly, in most states where local government elections seem to have been held, there appears no remarkable difference between such a result and that of a one-party affair.

According to a commentator, it amounts to the “selection” and “appointment” of local representatives because state governors use the incumbency factor to rig elections in favour of their preferred candidates.

Situations, where local councils are controlled by opposition parties, are rare, and where this happens, the local councils are dissolved and caretaker committees, often made up of sympathizers of the ruling party, are appointed in their place.

Even though it cannot be characterized as an impossibility that a party at some points swept (wins) all the local council positions in a state, analysts are particularly worried about the frequency and disturbed by the accompanying belief that the main reason for this trend of affairs is that whoever controls the local councils is sure to gain control of the state government during gubernatorial elections.

To change this narrative in ways that will guarantee true autonomy for the local government areas, the following steps need to be taken; first is the need to recognize that three electoral laws govern the process of electing people into political offices. They include The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, The Electoral Act 2010; and The INEC Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, 2019.

From the above, supervision of Election- Section 78 of the Constitution provides that the registration of voters and the conduct of elections shall be subject to the direction and supervision of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Secondly, Part One of the Electoral Act also provides that each State of the Federation and Federal Capital Territory, must establish an INEC office which shall perform functions that will be assigned to it from time to time by the commission, and any person appointed to the office shall be answerable to the commission and will hold office for five years. This provision is made under Section 6 of the Act.

The Act also provides under Section 9 that the Commission (INEC) shall compile, maintain and update continuously a National Register of Voters for each State and the Federal Capital Territory and Local Government, which will include the names of all persons entitled to vote in any Federal, State, Local Government or Area Council elections in Nigeria.

In the face of all these provisions/responsibilities performed by INEC at both state and local government levels, won’t it be considered as wisdom if the Electoral Act is again amended to allow/empower INEC to handle local council elections in the country since they already exist in, and capped with the information/data of all the electorates in the 36 states/FCT and in all the 774 Local Government Areas in the country? The reason is predicated on the argument that in the past two decades of its existence; INEC may not have performed perfectly well.

However, if its performance is juxtaposed with experiences Nigerians have suffered in the hands of the States Independent Electoral Commission that of INEC will be judged a Child’s play.

Utomi Jerome-Mario is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), a Lagos-based non-governmental organization (NGO). He can be reached via [email protected]/08032725374

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