LOCAL GOVERNMENT REFORMS AND TRUE FEDERALISM

By NBF News
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Since 1914 when the Southern and Northern protectorates were amalgamated to 1967, Nigeria was ruled without regard for its diversities. For 53 years (1914-1967), the citizens of the minority groups in Nigeria were made to feel that their languages, culture instructions and traditions could not be safeguarded and protected in the Nigerian polity.

Even after subsequent creation of states by the military in 1967 and 1976, the fire of separatism was not doused. The state creation fuelled the emergence on the political turf of centripetal and centrifugal tendencies, Nigeria in its 97 years of existence has gone through 10 constitutions in 1914, 1922, 1946, 1952, 1954, 1958, 1963, 1979, 1989 and 1999.

Nine weakness were shared by the constitutions as lack of structural balances, replacement of federalism of coordinate government by federalism of subordinate government since 1966, centralisation of power and persistent lack of respect for the principle of subsidiarity: inadequate attention of the need for economy in governance, lack of adequate measures to protect   the rights of ethnic minorities, monopoly of the power to control natural and human resources, persistent breach of principles of fiscal federalism and the pursuit of short-term political expediencies. In 1954 when the Lytteton Constitution was formed, a federal system of government was adopted by consensus.

The constitution among other things, guaranteed the sharing of power between the centre and the federating regions. It also recognised each set of authorities as coordinate (with the centre) and not subordinate as it is today, outside that, each government was granted the power to exercise control over human and natural resources within its territorial area, while also exercising fiscal federalism, which guarantees independent sources of revenues and formulas for reverence sharing. The involvement of military in governance and power over the years have destroyed these noble ideas.

The part to the Utopian, should start from the actualisation of a people's constitution.

Where we can say 'we people' like the Americans, that is how their constitution begins. In his influential book, Thomas Paine in his 'Rights of man 1789, which is generally acknowledged as valid' 'a constitution is not an act of government but of a people constituting a government'. By this definition, 1999 constitution was a decree by the military government' with no regards to the people's feelings and aspirations.

The creation of more states and local government by the military benefited certain groups.  - local government is the one that provides the greatest scope for grassroots development. Not only do local governments touch the lives of the people most intimately, it is also at their level that the practice of democracy has the greatest possibilities . In a country as large and as populous and diverse as Nigeria with tremendous varieties in local customs, traditions and general ways of life of the people and with different modes of social organisation, the need to ensure that various local governments are firmly in tune with all these becomes imperative.

In other words, local systems of governance must adapt to their social, political, economic and cultural environments. Britain and France take proper thoughts of these issues. For purposes of local government, England and Wales are divided into County Boroughs and Counties. Counties (outside London) are further divided into three types of county district; now country boroughs, urban districts and rural districts. Rural districts are themselves sub-divided into parishes. Special arrangements have, however, been made for London which has its own system.

Each local authority division is administered by a different council, though the councils within the county (excepting county boroughs) are subject to certain kinds of supervision by the county council. Local councils comprise a number of elected councillors (unpaid) presided over by a chairman, the normal term of office of a councillor is three years. The chairman of the borough council is the Mayor, a very ancient and honourable office. In some of the larger cities, he/she is by prescription known as the Lord Mayor. The county council membership strength vary according to the population of the county.

The council elects its chairman. Its power include education, the police, town planning,  health and housing and certain powers of supervision over districts, parishes and boroughs. The executive work is done by officials appointed and controlled by the council, holding office usually on good behaviour and not dismissible on political grounds. Urban and rural district councils' powers include matters relating to public health, water supply, minor roads, bridges and housing.

The main executive officers are the clerk, treasurer, engineer, sanitary inspector and medical officer. Parish councils' main powers are the maintenance of the public right of way, the management of parish property, the alteration of boundaries, burial grounds, public libraries and recreation grounds. They are generally two executive officers; a paid clerk and an unpaid treasurer. Over the years, the counties and county boroughs have lost their powers as to hospitals and lunacy, and the central government has also taken over the relief of the destitute.

Local self-government does not mean that the local bodies are free from all control by the central government. The most important feature of local government in France is centralisation. The minister of the interior at Paris just press a button- the prefects, sub prefects and mayors did the rest. The centralisation is a contrast to the decentralisation character of English local governance. The main local areas of France are the Departments, the arrondissements and the communes.

The executive head of the Department is a prefect appointed and removable by the president on the advice of the minister of the interior. The departments are divided into arrondissements; each is a department in miniatury, with a sub-prefect and an elective council made up of one member from each canton within the arrondissement. It is, however, a mere administrative district without corporate personality, with no property, revenues or expenses of its own, and neither the sub-prefect nor the council has any real power. The smallest area of France local government is the commune (a town or a parish).

Every commune has a municipal council. The local government must draw strength from the grassroots institutions in the locality and in fact become a symbiosis of the traditional and modern systems of governance. That will bring together the formal structure of local government, popular and participatory grassroots organisations and the traditional institutions of governance in each community. The subsidiary and solidarity principles must apply to the systems of local government.

This means that the imposition of a uniform local government system through the length and breadth of the country is a breach of these principles of subsidiary and local solidarity. Since the 1950s, local governments of a few countries including those stated above have undergone so many transitions, the Nigeria's systems of local governance moved from the colonial inheritance of indirect rule through national authorities to elected councils. A fundamental feature of this period was that each region or state carried out the reorganisation of its local governance system in the way it deemed fit since under the Nigeria Federal System, local government is a state subject. Thus, several system of local government existed.

In 1976, the Federal government entered directly and introduced the most pervasive land sweeping reforms. And, second, a uniform system of local governments system for the whole country was promulgated. Different local government areas were created that paid no respect to history, tradition, culture and community solidarity. Thus, today Nigeria has 774 local governments. During the inauguration of His royal Majesty Dr. Sanda Ndayako, etsu Nupe led Technical committee on councils reform, President Obasanjo said among other things that the present structure and operation of the local government negate the noble intentions of the 1976 local government reforms.  The technical committee is to diagnose the crisis of the local government system in the country. To examine the problem of inefficiency and high cost of governance with a view of reducing costs and wastage at the three tiers of government.

To review the performance of local government within the last four years and consider the desirability or otherwise of retaining the local governments as the third tier of government as it now stands; and to examine the high cost of electioneering campaign in the country and consider the desirability of whether political parties, rather than individual office seekers should canvass votes in elections. In effect, president Obasanjo  added that the function of the committee incorporates other 'weighty issues that impact, an equal measures, on the arrangements at the federal and state levels.

What President Obasanjo did   in the formation of the technical committee cannot be equated to backdoor constitution amendment. The National Assembly under the leadership of Senate Anyim Pius Anyim and Hon. Ghali Na'Abba had set the motion rolling on local government reformation, it was agreed upon by the law makers then, that the local governments should be removed as a beneficiary of federation allocation. Immediately this was made known to the public, the agitation for creation of more local governments went down.

Aduwo writes from Lagos.