Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University

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Subjects of Interest

  • Commercial Policy
  • Economic Governance
  • Electric Power
  • Law & Economy
  • Public Sector Reform

Nigeria’s local government, development, and democracy 18 Jan 2023

As Nigeria draws close to the 2023 general election, it is important to bring back discussion about the form and nature of local government administration in Nigeria. In 1976, Nigeria began a journey toward a reformed local government administration. But some of the features of the local government administration envisaged by the 1976 reform have been distorted and abandoned. As usual, politicians have utilised some of the features that would ensure accountability and efficiency of local government administration to actually undermine its effectiveness.

The corruption and incoherence of local administration in Nigeria are costing the country so much in terms of development and democracy. Nigeria’s notable failure in development and democracy is majorly a result of pervasive incoherence and pervasion of the local government system. Fixing the deficiencies will be a boost to economic development and social stability.

Many argue that the heart of local government maladministration is the incoherent federal system. Nigeria’s federalism is a tripartite of federal, state, and local government. Usually, a federal arrangement is between two levels of government: federal and state or federal and local. But Nigeria amorphous federal structure ties the federal, state, and local levels of authority in an unclear scheme of fiscal and functional relationships. The Constitution defines the number and territorial integrity of local government areas in Nigeria. It further provides a fiscal arrangement of shared revenues from the Federation Account based on a sharing formula. Although the constitution sets out the functions of local government in distinct terms, it leaves the actual management of the local government to law made by the State House of Assembly.

In the Fourth Schedule, the constitution sets out the functions of the local government to include provision of social services like basic education, basic healthcare, and supportive services for market economy. This is a case of mixed autonomy. The local government is a distinct level of government of the federation. At the same time, it is subordinated to the laws made by the state house of assembly, the legislative arm of a co-ordinate level of government. That is not the best structure for effective administration.

Beyond the constitutional incoherence, the biggest setback for effective administration of local government in Nigeria is the distortion of its structure and essence by political leaders at the state level. The constitution requires that the local government should be managed by officials elected by the people. The idea is to constitute the local government as the nursery of democracy as self-determination. Since the local government performs functions that touch on the most basic and fundamental aspects of community wellbeing, the people will learn the ways of democracy as self-determination through robust engagement in townhall democracy in their local government councils. This was the idea. But it has not been the practice. Most of the local government councils are never elected. The state governors impose their cronies as caretakers.

The federal government has not done enough to force or incentivize state governments to respect the constitutional requirement of democratic leadership at the local level. The impunity is now institutionalized. Every new governor starts with dissolving local government councils and appointing caretakers. The Supreme Court once nullified state governors’ disbandment of elected local government councils and their resort to rule by caretakers. But the impunity continues. There is neither political will nor civic energy to reinstate democratic rule in the local councils.

The ultimate victim of this aberration is democracy itself. As long as the people are deprived the opportunity of learning the public spiritedness that underwrites democracy through local political engagement, there is little prospect of nurturing the values and norms that support democracy. This is the fear: that the truncation of electoral democracy in local council ultimately destroys the impulse to demand democratic accountability from other levels of government. Alexis Tocqueville in his classic, Democracy in America, argues that the secret of democracy in the United State is the quality of its townhall democracy. Without the nurturance of town councils where citizens develop the habit of public debate on policy issues and can demand accountability from local officials, the foundations of democracy will not be solid.

We are doing ourselves a great disservice when we deny citizens a democratic government at the closest quarters where they have real interest to demand and secure accountability. It might then be that the lack of civic commitment to democracy and the general cynicism about accountable governance across the country have much to do with the collapse of electoral democracy in local communities. This failure may be the greatest challenge to institutionalizing real democracy in the country.

Something else more dangerous goes together with this disengagement: no development. The country’s latest Multidimensional Poverty Index shows that about 133 million Nigerians do not have access to basic sanitation, access to education and healthcare, and are assailed with unmitigated risks. About 72% of Nigeria’s multidimensionally poor live in rural communities. The lack of political and fiscal autonomy means that these rural communities are deprived of finances and accountable leadership to reduce poverty by improving physical and social infrastructure. Poverty in Nigeria is mostly a rural phenomenon, and it is aggravating largely due to the collapse of basic governance in the rural communities. Except we are able to restore democratic elections and strengthen social service delivery in rural communities, we cannot engender democracy and ensure sustainable economic development in Nigeria.

Sadly, the dearth of effective local administration is becoming the death of democracy and development in Nigeria.   

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.