How feasible is local government autonomy?

How feasible is local government autonomy?

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Local government autonomy has been on the front burner for a long time. President Muhammadu Buhari has lent his voice against the excessive state government control over the councils. LEKE SALAUDEEN examines the effects of lack of administrative and fiscal autonomy on the performance of the third-tier of government.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s support for the amendment of the constitution to pave the way for local government autonomy has reopened the debate on the contentious issue. When he received the leadership of the Association of Local Governments in Nigeria (ALGON), the president  called for a constitutional amendment that would clearly define the relationship among the three tiers of government.

The debate focuses on the local government effectiveness and the joint account operated by the state and the local governments. Many people are of the view that, without administrative and financial autonomy, it will be very difficult for the local government to carry out its constitutional mandate to the people at the grassroots. Analysts perceive local government as a viable instrument for rural transformation and for the delivery of social services to the people. However, despite its strategic importance to national development, they noted that the local government’s contribution has been minimal. Some observers agreed that the ineffectiveness of the local government derives primarily from the excessive government control.

Beyond that, Nigerians are divided on the issue. While some say autonomy for local government will speed -up development in the country others believe it will worsen the corruption.

President Buhari observed that the relationship between the three tiers of government is not a very nice one, especially between the local government and the states. “The states feel like they own local government, if they are of the same party. It is worse if they are not. This is a very serious constitutional problem and unless there is absolute clarity and transparency, the relationship will continue to be exploited against the interest of the ordinary people of the country”.

The President of Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, painted a gloomy picture of local government in Nigeria. He said the local government is in a parlous state; it is chronically under resourced, it is not managed efficiently and it’s unable to provide the services the people need.

Khaleel noted that the functions and responsibilities of local government have been hijacked by the state government. According to him, while development has eluded the people at the local level, the governors corruptly enrich themselves with the money that belongs to local government.

The NULGE president said: “In Nigeria, not only is the local government continually undermined and over-ruled by federal and state governments, elections for local assemblies are ignored or are undermined, and it is definitely postponed. In their place are established transition or caretaker committees largely made up of appointees as a reward for loyalty to the powers that be. Their legal status being such that they do not have the authority to draw down funds earmarked for local government functions.

“Revenue collection by local government in Nigeria, despite the legislation in place, is chronically hampered because funds from central government  are misplaced, withheld or subject to ‘penalties ‘ that undermine its value, and this often results in the remainder not being sufficient to pay salaries. In Nigeria, some local government workers have not been paid for up to 18 months ‘ and the much heralded harmonisation of terms and conditions of state and local government workers has failed to materialise 10 years after being agreed.

“Today, almost all revenue generating items starting from sales of markets daily tolls, construction of roads, motor parks, slaughter slabs, environmental services and rates collection have been outsourced or contracted out by state governments. The law of Internally Generated Revenue stipulates that the State shall give to the local government 10 per cent of whatever is being generated on a monthly basis notwithstanding what the local government themselves can get.  In practice, this is not attainable and no State has ever been punished for reneging or otherwise”.

Governors Forum against LG autonomy

The Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) is stoutly opposed to any move to grant autonomy to local governments. The body has continued to maintain that local councils are integral part of state governments. The Forum’s argument is premised on the fact that, in all known federation, the federating units are usually the states and the centre. That autonomy will only make sense in the relationship between the states and the centre where we look at a spectrum that runs on the two extremes of unitary system and confederation. The governors argue that, in a federal system, there is no provision for local government as a federating partner and to talk of one is to engage in absurdity.

According to the NGF, the understanding over the years has been that in a true federalism, the issue relating to the creation, delineation and funding of local authorities is within the constitutional purview of states, which have political and judicial status that the local government do not have. The states are federating units while the local governments are merely administrative units.

The Forum admitted that local governments have politico-legal existence in so far as the constitution recognised them and even listed their names. “These local governments so named are the beneficiaries of federal allocations, just like the states and the federal government. It is this existing arrangement that has made some to erroneously assume and even argue that the local governments are on the same level of autonomy as states and federal governments.

“What we have today is a disruptive and abominable legacy of military rule. It was the practice of the military to create local governments and even states. Since the military went on a frenzy of proliferating the local governments, it took on itself the burden of its funding, just as it was funding the states from the Federation Account. The military then passed on this legacy at its disengagement in 1999. Nevertheless, the issue of local governments’ autonomy should only come into play within the context of their relationship with their states,” the NGF said.

Why LGs are ineffective

A political scientist, Dr Rufus Oladimeji, agreed with President Buhari that the solution to the local government lies in the constitutional amendment. He frowned at the practice whereby local governments with democratically elected executive are answerable to the state government. Once they are accountable to the state governors they can’t perform their functions; local governments should be accountable to the people just as the states and federal governments are, he insisted.

Oladimeji stressed that the constitutional provision that tied the local government to the state government should be amended. “It shouldn’t be there. Remove all those elements that hinder local government from operating as a tier of government. The joint account should be abrogated and they should be allowed to conduct their own election independently. It is necessary to have a full blown local government with full autonomy”, he suggested.

He said: “putting local councils in the pockets of state governments do not encourage competent and qualified people to serve as chairmen or councillors. The governors remove chairmen and councillors at will either because they don’t belong to the ruling party in the state or they are not willing to do the bidding of the governor. The state governments intervene in their activities. The state governors determine what to do with joint account; the funds on many occasions are diverted. This is not good for the country and our democracy”.

Aformer local government chairman, Dr Alex Ogbonna, said the dereliction of local government can be attributed to the lack of financial autonomy, corruption and undue interference in local government affairs, with regards to the areas of Joint state- local government account which gives the state government undue benefit over local government.

Ogbonna said the states have undermined the financial viability of local government by diverting statutorily allocated grants for local governments as well as encroaching on their revenue yielding functions like markets, motor parks, tenement rates and liquor licensing. He described the hijacking of local government services by state governments as a grave concern, and especially of those elements of service delivery that deliver an income.

He said the tendency to ignore the political factor in the management of local government had reduced local government to instruments of regulation and control. According to him, local governments which ought to be seen as instrument of mobilisation is usually not complex and generally does not require sophisticated and highly qualified personnel for effective performance.

Local Government in other countries

Local government in the United States, Switzerland, Australia, Germany and other countries have huge responsibilities and resources, but still operate within the purview of their states.

In Australia, the state governments are constitutionally responsible for local government. The Federal Constitution sets out this responsibility, and each state decides on the role of local government in its own constitution; any major change would require the constitution to be changed. In recent years, this constitutional relationship has been bypassed by strengthening relations between federal government and local government. The Federal Government has supported particular initiatives financially. There are also signs of occasionally alliance between federal and local government in order to ‘squeeze’ the states.

The United States also has a federal structure. Each state is responsible for local government, and each state has different approaches. Local governments are ‘creatures of the States’. The states can therefore change the status of local government although this rarely happens.

In Germany, the local government is characterised by diversity, especially in its unique city states. The Federal Republic of Germany consisted of 11 Lander (States) when it was founded. Since re-unification in 1990, Germany has 16 Lander including the three city states of Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin. Regarding the assignment of land tasks, the Basic Law merely distinguishes between two orders: the federation and the Lander.

Austria belongs to the category of the federal system where local government is extensively regulated by the federal constitution. The more rigorous the federal constitutional regime, however, the less space remains for the Lander and their legislation. Even then, the competence to regulate local government is mainly assigned to the Lander not the federal legislature.

New Zealand has the system closest to that in the United Kingdom. There is no written constitution and, therefore, no constitutional position for local government. The national parliament can make changes to the system as it deems fit. New Zealand’s local government went through a major period of reform in the late 1980’s. The 1989 Local Government Act defines local government’s general responsibilities.

Third tier of government, a myth?

The general assumption is that there are three-tiers of government,  federal, state and local governments. In reality, the local government is an appendage of the state government.

The financial control exercised by state governments reduces the autonomy of the local government and this paves the way for financial manipulation of the local government. Section 162(5) of the 1999 Constitution states that the amount standing to the credit of local government councils in the federation accounts shall be allocated to the state for the benefit of their local government councils on such terms and in such manner as may be prescribed by National Assembly.

Section 162(6) states that each state shall maintain a special account called the “State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid allocation to the local government councils of the state from Federation Account and from the Government of the State.

Besides, the local government budget must be presented to the state governor for approval. These provisions make local government subservient to the state government.


Source : Thenationonline

Thenationonline

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