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I do not agree with the National Assembly’s bill granting autonomy to local governments, the so-called third tier of government. The nitty-gritty of LG autonomy is that the Councils will no longer be tied to the apron-strings of State Governments. The bone of contention usually is financial autonomy; that the Councils have control of their finances unlike what operates at the moment where States ride roughshod over Councils and play hide-and-seek or monkey games with Council funds. Autonomy means that Councils to a very large extent will be independent of State Governments in the way they administer themselves and how they deploy their resources. They will be able to take their destiny in their own hands, as it were, and be held accountable for their performance or the absence of it, unlike in the present situation where the deplorable showing of most LGs is traceable to over-bearing State Governments that muzzle and deny them of the freedom, liberties, and funding required to discharge their obligations to the grassroots.
On the surface, the principle sounds noble. Its most profound argument is that it brings or has the potential to bring government nearer to the grassroots. Realising that governments are elitist and only the urban areas benefit mostly from what is called Government presence, the argument appears logical that LGs are needed to bring development closer to the people. This is presumed to be the closest thing to the democracy of the Greek City-states where the people gathered in the village square to take decisions. Population explosion and the rise of cities have, however, truncated the Greek city-states kind of democracy. Nowhere again do the people rule or take decisions directly on issues that affect them, even at LG level. Government of the people by the people and for the people belonged in the distant past. What we have now, at best, is representative government.
LGs are expected to have a better understanding of the problems and needs of their people since they are closer to them. In theory, this reasoning appears germane but in practice, it is very far from the truth. LGs are not more interested in development issues as States or National governments. All the aberrations noticed at National and State levels are no less present at LG level. Indeed, but for States, many localities will not smell the presence of government, the existence of LG right under their nose notwithstanding. LGs have been known to be as wasteful, corrupt, inept, and disdainful of the people as State and National governments. No doubt, many State Governments have marginalised LGs under their watch – embezzled their funds; interfered in their administration; treated LG officials as errand boys; wielded the power of life-and-death over them – and it is this over-bearing influence of State Governors that the proponents of LG autonomy seek to curb; the belief being that once the albatross of State Governors is broken, LGs will be better able to perform their constitutionally-enshrined responsibilities. But this may not necessarily be so!
Also, the concept of LG autonomy flies in the face of demands for true federalism and a return to the 1960 or 1963 Constitutional arrangements. It is surprising how we speak from both sides of the mouth on the vexed issue of true federalism. We approbate and reprobate at the same time, as it were. But we cannot have our cake and eat it. It is either we want true federalism or we want to continue with the unitary system of government foisted on us by the military; the concept of LG autonomy standing in contradistinction to States (the so-called federating units) being one of such anomalies. LG autonomy stands antithetical to the principle of true Federalism. From history, we understand that the federating units were the various peoples grouped into three regions at Independence, later broken into four. It was the Yakubu Gowon military regime, as a result of the exigencies of the 1966 – 1970 Civil War, that began the splintering of Nigerian into 12 states. Today we have 36 states and 774 LGs. Ever since the military came, distorted, and ultimately jettisoned the British parliamentary system and foisted the American-styled presidential system on the country, it has been wastages, failures, and confusion galore. Running Nigerian on the unitary mode has been ruinous.
There is no place for LGs as presently formulated under federalism properly so-called. Each Federating unit should decide the number and forms of LGs – and fund them. If States or regions are truly the federating units, then, they must have a measure of control over their geographical space and not shift the control now to the Centre. State Governments have been averse to LG autonomy for discordant reasons; some for selfish and self-serving reasons but others because they genuinely believe it is an aberration. For this, States have been vilified, a recent example being former President Olusegun Obasanjo who described State governors opposed to LG autonomy as enemies of the polity. They may not necessarily be! Obasanjo may not only be ignorant of the issues involved; he is, in fact, also part of the problem of the structural defects militating against the progress of the country today. We have seen that the splintering of the regions have led to the creation of States and LGs that are “begging bowls” running to Abuja now and again for dole outs. Imagine states that cannot pay salaries! Many cannot pay the subsisting minimum wage of N18,000; not to talk of the proposed new minimum wage of N30,000! Each State should determine the structure and number of LGs it requires. It is glaring to even the blind that the present LG structure robs Peter to pay Paul. LG autonomy is the least of our needs and worries at this critical time. It can only take us farther away from the goal of urgent restructuring in the right direction. The States will be right if they move to suffocate the LG autonomy bill; scrapping the LGs altogether and reducing the number of States to reduce cost of governance and have more compact and result-oriented governance structure like what operated in the First Republic is moving in the right direction; not shoring up wasteful LGs.