The debate over local government autonomy seems endless but members of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees are determined to press home their demand
| By Vincent Nzemeke | Jun. 9, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT
THE campaign for local government autonomy assumed an interesting dimension at the on-going national conference in Abuja when some leaders of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees, NULGE, staged a peaceful protest to press home their demand.
The association hinged its request on the fact that except there is a law that enables local governments to operate independently from state governments, the dividends of democracy will remain a forlorn dream in many parts of the country.
Lucky Ewa, NULGE’s deputy president, who led the protest, told the conference committee on political restructuring and forms of government which had recommended that granting local governments full autonomy would bring them closer to the people and enable them fulfil their constitutional roles.
Ewa alleged that some state governors have reduced local governments to mere administrative units since they are directly responsible for sharing funds to the local governments.
“Between May 1999 to May 2003, about N750 billion was said to have been released to local government but only N69.9 billion got to the local government. Through the state and local government joint allocation account committee, JAAC, state governors hijacked the balance. Nigeria, at this point of our national life needs this council that will act as a catalyst for development and strengthening of our democracy.”
Ewa also frowned at the way and manner the governors are running the local government without due recourse to democratic principles. He added that the union’s position is that local government officials must be elected by the people and allowed to operate independently.
“The union wishes to reiterate its recommendation that every local government be a democratically elected government and must be allowed to play its constitutional roles without interference.”
Although Ewa’s presentation is the most recent, there have always been calls for local government autonomy over the years. Just as Ewa explained, there are thousands of people who believe that the local government structure has been hijacked by state governors to feather their nests.
While Ewa and NULGE called for autonomy, a few Nigerians have gone as far as calling for the total abolition of local governments as the third tier of government. Such people argue that the local government which, is constitutionally empowered to engender grassroots development, has failed in that regard.
Under the 1999 Constitution, local governments have a long list of functions. But it appears that the 774 local governments in Nigeria have abdicated these functions and are now contented with being conduit pipes for governors to siphon funds meant for the development of the local government areas.
Local governments are supposed to be responsible for “collection of rates, establishment and maintenance of cemeteries, licensing of bicycles, trucks, canoes, wheel barrows and carts; establishment, maintenance and regulation of markets, motor parks and public conveniences.
The functions also include the construction and maintenance of roads, streets, drains and other public highways, parks, open spaces, or such public facilities as may be prescribed from time to time by the House of Assembly of a State.
Since the NULGE’s protest at the national conference, there have been renewed calls for and against local government autonomy. Those who insist that the local governments must go, argue that they are not living up to their obligations. But Ewa has cautioned that instead of mulling over the idea of abolishing local governments, the local government system should be strengthened as a way of addressing the problems of poverty, unemployment and insecurity at the grassroots.
Sharing similar sentiments, Ibrahim Khaleel, national President of NULGE, frowned at the notion that local governments should be abolished and their functions transferred to state governments. He reiterated that the local government system in the country had contributed immensely to grassroots development, insisting that any plan to transfer the roles of local government councils to state governments would be counterproductive.
“The recommendation of the National Conference Committee on Devolution of Powers to expunge local government system from the 1999 Constitution cannot stand. We have decided at the National Executive Council meeting of the union that we would resist plans that are against the people.
“The issue of local government autonomy is not what we should be talking about, as it has been concluded by Nigerians who made decisions on it. It is a unanimous decision of all Nigerians and l don’t think the conference can change the decision of the people,’’ he added.
Anayo Arinze, publicity secretary of African Democratic Congress, ADC, has advised the national conference delegates to drum up support for local government autonomy rather than voting for its scrapping. He argued that local government autonomy would bring governance and development closer to the people.
“Everybody cannot come to the federal capital to air his views; so, people should be able to ventilate their views through their chairmen or councillors in local government councils. What the government should do is to give the councils autonomy; the national conference should also ensure the endorsement of local government autonomy,’’ he said.
Arinze said that the current practice where state governments controlled the local governments had somewhat frustrated efforts to promote grassroots development in the country. He stressed that local governments should be responsible for the provision of infrastructure and other amenities at the grassroots level since they are conversant with the people’s needs in the neighbourhoods.
As the delegates continue to deliberate, some Nigerians are, indeed, supportive of the total abolition of local governments Chinonso Okonwo, a civil servant in Abuja, said local government officials are appointees of state governors who cannot bring any development to the people. He opined that if local government autonomy cannot be achieved, it is better to abolish it.
He said: “Let us tell ourselves the truth; local government chairmen cannot do much because they are appointed by state governors. That is why you find the ruling party winning all the local government elections in their states. That is because the governors are in full control. If local government cannot be allowed to operate independently, then I think there is no point having them.”