10th December 2023


Since the return to Democracy in 1999, successive state governors across the country have continued to organise the local government elections which have been suspected to run contrary to the tenets of democracy, writes ABDULRAHMAN ZAKARIYAU

The local government is the third tier of government and the closest tier of government to the people after the state government. Indeed, the local government is where ordinary citizens at the grassroots have direct contact and feel the impact of government. In Nigeria’s experience since 1999, the local government only exists on paper without performing its expected constitutional functions.

Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution as amended states that “The main functions of a local government council include the consideration and the making of recommendations to state commission on economic planning or any similar body on the economic development of the state, particularly in so far as the areas of authority of the council and of the state are affected, and proposals made by the said commission or body; collection of rates, radio and television licenses; establishment and maintenance of cemeteries, burial grounds and homes for the destitute or infirm; licensing of bicycles, trucks (other than mechanically propelled trucks), canoes, wheelbarrows and carts; establishment, maintenance and regulation of slaughter houses, slaughter slabs, markets, motor parks and public conveniences; construction and maintenance of roads, streets, street lightings, drains and other public highways, parks, gardens, open spaces, or such public facilities as may be prescribed from time to time by the House of Assembly of a state.”

“The naming of roads and streets and numbering of houses; provision and maintenance of public conveniences, sewage and refuse disposal; registration of all births, deaths, and marriages; assessment of privately owned houses or tenements for the purpose of levying such rates as may be prescribed by the House of Assembly of a state; and control and regulation of outdoor advertising and hoarding, movement and keeping of pets of all description” amongst others.

Constitutionally, the local government system was designed to reflect federal and state-level structures of a democratically elected executive in the chairperson, a deputy, and a legislature composed of elected councilors. Today, most local government chairpersons are not elected, but appointed and ‘coronated’ by state governors. It is now a norm for the ruling party in each state to sweep the local government polls, turning council elections into a virtual farce.

In the November 2023 local government elections in Taraba State, the State Independent Electoral Commissions returned the ruling PDP as winners in all 16 local government areas. The most recent example is that the All Progressives Congress won all 38 chairmanship and 177 councillorship seats across the local government and local council development areas of Ekiti State.

However, the main opposition party in the state, the PDP alleged that the APC only wrote the names of members and announced them as winners of the election.

A former Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, had described local government elections in Nigeria as organised crime and mere “coronation ceremonies.” Igini also accused the political elite of being the greatest threat to democracy in the country.

The ex-REC, who spoke on a Channels Television programme, Politics Today, observed that Nigerians had lost the 744 local governments in the country to sitting governors, who always insisted on having joint accounts with the third tier of government.

He said, “Look at the local governments in Nigeria; we have lost 774 local governments in the country to every sitting governor. Today, local government elections in Nigeria are nothing but organised crime. We should not be calling them elections at all. Don’t call them local government elections; they are nothing, but organised crime or coronation ceremonies carried out across the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But Nigerians are not doing anything about it, and you have lost your local governments because there is no democracy taking place there.

“We may not even need to register political parties. If you allow true democracy to take place in the local government system, all these other political parties will win one, two, or three local government areas. Once this happens, that will be the end of the control of local government funds through the joint accounts because parties A, B, and C will not allow the money of its local government area to be hijacked by any sitting government or the controlling party.”

Also, the South-West Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Chief Sanya Atofarati, said, “I can tell you that there was no election. What happened in Ekiti State was that the APC-led government decided to write some people’s names and announced them as councillors and chairmen.”

Atofarati said that he was informed by the PDP caretaker committee in Ekiti State that “the party resolved to boycott the election owing to the fact that the process was compromised in the sense that the supposed electoral umpire comprised two card-carrying members of the APC.

“How do you have confidence in that committee? How do you expect equity with that? If care is not taken, we would be endangering the lives of our members and the citizens of Ekiti State because the people would have resisted that kind of manipulation.”

Notably, this anomaly is not peculiar to the states above. In almost all the states where council polls are held, it has become a tradition that illegal means are used to return candidates of the ruling party. Succinctly put, governors ensure the SIECs return their party’s candidates as winners in all LGs. In states where there are no elections, the norm has been the appointment of chairpersons who will dance to their tune.

As this persists, the political parties trade blame. The dominant political parties; APC and PDP blame and condemn the process only when they are at the receiving end, while they remain unperturbed when and where they display such bizarre and barefaced selection in the place of election of council chairmen and councillor.

A Professor of Political Science at the University of Ilorin and President of the Nigerian Political Science Association, Prof Hassan Saliu, explained that this had persisted because politics had remained a business in Nigeria. He pointed out that the governors were capitalising on the loopholes in the constitution to perpetrate such acts to control local government resources for their selfish purposes.

Prof Saliu said, “You cannot understand what is happening at the level of local government. First of all, while appreciating the nature of politics in Nigeria, if we must tell ourselves the truth, politics is now business except that they don’t have warehouses or shopping malls where you buy and sell. The governors use all means to ensure their party wins all council polls and in states where elections are not conducted, they appoint their loyalists because the money coming to the local government councils is huge.

“To the governors, it is business that requires them to appoint their cronies and money will start flowing and you will be getting the money. That is corruption. This is not good for our system that any party in power will win all the local government elections. In some areas, no election will take place. In some areas, they will cancel the results to favour them, all because they want to dictate what happens in the local government and how council resources are used. They also engage in this undemocratic act to protect their illegality and inadequacy, he added.

The NPSA president continued, “So what do we need to do? Some people are calling for the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct local government elections. They used to do it before, but what were the results? With the way INEC is now being put on the spot. I don’t know whether that will satisfy all Nigerians. So, what I am saying essentially is that they are capitalising on the loopholes in our constitution.

“You call for an election as a governor and in some other areas; a governor can dissolve the local government whenever he wishes. So that lacuna is being capitalised upon by governors to put their cronies in charge of local government areas. It is a terrible situation, and it boils down to the issue of having a democracy without democrats. The governors were elected through a relatively free and fair contest, why can’t they allow credible elections in local government?

Speaking on the damning consequence the governors’ grip on local governments will have on the third tier of government, a political analyst and former National Chairman of the National Democratic Party, Chudi Chukwuani said the governors’ actions have denied local government areas meaningful development.

Chukwuani told Saturday PUNCH that it was difficult for a fraudulent election to produce a positive result. In his words, “For many years, governors appoint friends, loyalists, and even family members as caretaker chairpersons in many local government areas. Places where elections are conducted, they ensure their imposed candidates win. That is why there is no development at that level.”

The political analyst added, “Because they are not credibly elected by the people at the grassroots, the development of the local government council will not be of concern to them. They will be loyal and answerable to the governors who imposed them on the people. Local government resources that are supposed to be used for infrastructure, economic, and other forms of development will be diverted into private pockets.”

According to him, the process will produce corrupt, compromised, and incompetent chairperson at the local level, adding that “so, the local government will be denied development in all fronts. The governors’ action is dangerous for democracy. This is because democracy is first and foremost local. So, when democracy is not allowed to thrive at the local level, then there is no democracy.

“Their fixation on local government council is why most local government areas are in terrible condition. The governors manage the resources and give them what they (governors) wish and to do that, they will install their cronies on the council caretaker committee or conduct questionable elections.

“So, if Nigeria is democratic, we must understand that democracy is local, and the local government should be granted full autonomy. And the best way to achieve this is to allow INEC to conduct the local government elections. They have state offices in all the states of the federation. So, there should be no reason why they should not conduct local government elections.”

Moving forward, Africa’s frontline non-profit organisation promoting participatory democracy, human rights, and civic participation, Yiaga Africa, described the situation as unacceptable.

The Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo, who in an interview with our correspondent described the governors’ action as disappointing, recommended constitutional amendment as a solution.

“It is unfortunate, disappointing and it’s unacceptable where governors who are the creation of the constitution decide to violate the constitution just to advance their interest,” he stated.

Itodo explained that “the failure to conduct credible local council elections is denying people who are part of the democratic process their rights to elect leaders at a local government level who can make decisions on their behalf because local governments are the closest to the people. If you want to learn about democracy and see democracy at play, it’s at a local government level. So, failure to conduct local government elections is crippling local governance at the expense of the people.”

On why the governors are determined to continue to control the local government, he revealed that “it is about control and power. The state governors always want the local government to be subservient to them. So, one way of capturing them is to ensure elections are not held, and in places where they are held, they are not a reflection of the votes cast by people. This is why every time we see elections happen at a local government level, the governor’s party tends to return 100 per cent of victory in all the local councils with a few exceptions.

He continued, “So, it is about power and control. And it is also about resources. That is why despite the executive order issued by the former President, Muhammad Buhari, on direct allocation, we still see situations where a local government chairman still returns the money sent to them directly from the federation accounts into the coffers of the state governors because they see the state governors as demi-gods.”

According to the YIAGA executive director, this explains why the Governors’ Forum has never supported local government autonomy despite attempts by the National Assembly to strengthen that level of government in the public interest.

He added, “I believe strongly that if you strengthen local governments or local governance, it will empower people to participate actively in the democratic process. And then it also deepens development. If you have the kind of robust engagement you have at the federal and state levels at the local government, then all our local government areas will become developed, and we can see citizens and people get actively involved in the process.

“Concerning recommendations, the constitution needs to be amended to establish local government as a third tier of government and to design local governments with the requisite institutions that are necessary for advancing its independence. So, local government needs to have a constitutionally established distribution of powers within the local governments.

“You have a local council, Legislative Council like we have them now, and established institutions like Service Commission that will strengthen and manage recruitment at that level. There should be the accountability of local government chairmen, the security of tenure, and the regularity of elections. Once we have a constitution that provides that broad framework, governors will not remove local government officials at will. The fact is that this strengthens accountability, and what Nigeria’s democracy needs now, is to strengthen accountability.”

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