The election that ushered in democratically elected chairmen and councillors into 774 local government councils across the country in 1999 was conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). That council election was the last to be conducted by INEC. However, the electoral body did not then specify the tenure of the elected council officers.
The reason INEC conducted the council polls at that time was quite obvious even though the 1999 Constitution did not empower the commission to conduct local government elections. Under the constitution, it is the sole responsibility of State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) to conduct council elections in their respective states.
But observers note that the conduct of council polls across the country by INEC in 1999 was quite understandable, as SIECs were not yet in place at that point in time. However, Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution provides inter alia: "The system of local government by democratically elected council is under this constitution guaranteed and accordingly, the government of every state shall, subject to this section of the Constitution, ensure their existence under a law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and function of such councils.
"It shall be the duty of a local government council within the state to participate in economic planning and development of the area referred to in subsection 2 of this section and to this end, an economic planning board shall be established by a law enacted by the State House of Assembly."
All the same, rifts in councils across the country emerged shortly after the inauguration of the various state houses of assembly. The first problem cropped up when some state legislatures fixed the tenure of the council chairmen and councillors at three years, instead of the four years applicable to other elected officers at state and national levels.
The second rift occurred when the states started implementing the state/local government joint account. Some council chairmen initially resisted the operation of the joint account but the opposition thawed out when it became clear that the arrangement was constitutional.
Nevertheless, some analysts, who note that the 1999 Constitution does not adequately provide for the autonomy of the third tier of government, call for the autonomy of local governments so as to boost development at the grassroots level. Key political public office holders, including President Goodluck Jonathan, also want the autonomy of local government guaranteed in the amended constitution. The president, who spoke at the recent conference organised by Association of Local Government of Nigeria (ALGON) in Enugu, declared his support for local government autonomy.
Represented by Alhaji Ahmed Gulak, his Special Adviser on Political Affairs, Jonathan also expressed his opposition to the state/local government joint account. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and former Senate President Ken Nnamani also endorsed the abolition of state/local government joint account. They argued that the ongoing efforts to review the constitution should guarantee the autonomy of the country's 774 local government councils.
Echoes from the public hearing on the review of the 1999 Constitution across the country also indicate that most Nigerians want the autonomy of local governments guaranteed by the constitution. For instance, the participants of the stakeholders' meeting for Akure South/North Federal Constituency in Ondo State called for the autonomy of local government councils. They said that some governors were guilty of mismanaging council funds as a result of the operation of the joint account. They, therefore, insisted on a constitutional amendment that would ensure that funds allocated to local government councils were paid directly into the councils' accounts.
In spite of the widespread call for the financial autonomy of local governments, some people still drum support for the retention of state/local government joint account. At the South-South stakeholders' meeting on the constitution review in Calabar, for instance, Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State argued that there was nothing wrong with the running of the state/local government joint account. The governor, who was represented by his deputy, Mr Ejiok Cobham, stressed that the operation of the joint account was necessary to ensure speedy development.
"The joint account will check duplication of projects because the state is in a position to regulate development at both the grassroots and state levels," Imoke said. Mr Emma Ezeagu, the General Secretary, Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), however, bemoaned a situation in which several SIECs were not conducting council elections as at when due, while council funds were being allocated to local government caretaker committees. He stressed that the allocation of funds to local government caretaker committees was wrong, as the constitution did not specify that funds should be allocated to unelected councils.
Besides, an opinion poll recently conducted by a national newspaper indicated that majority of Nigerians would like the autonomy of local government councils strengthened. Over 70 per cent of the survey's 470 respondents endorsed increased autonomy for local governments. One of the respondents, Olukayode Adedeji, said: "Local governments should be federating units. Local government elections should be included in our general elections and it is not even out of place to have more local governments."
Another respondent, Ademola Adesoji, said: '"The local governments should operate as federating units, and the chairmen and councillors should have four-year tenure. The issue of holding positions in the interim for local government chairmen should be discouraged. It is high time local governments made their own decisions. In Anambra, they have not conducted local government elections since 1999 and this should not be. The local government ought to have its autonomy," he added.
Sharing similar sentiments, Alhaji Ibrahim Khalil, the National President of Nigeria Union of Local Employees (NULGE), stressed that Nigeria had a lot to gain if the autonomy of local governments was guaranteed. He said that the state/local government joint account policy 'had killed the local government system'. Khalil emphasised that councils were created by law 'under democratic tenets and values that needed to be entrenched but the dominance of state governors on local government administration had crippled the system.'
Sen. Smart Adeyemi echoed Khalil's viewpoints, alleging that some state governors are working against local government autonomy for selfish reasons. The lawmaker noted that the governors were demanding extra powers from the Federal Government, while they were trying to frustrate the campaign for the autonomy of the third tier of government.
Adeyemi, who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on FCT, alleged that some governors have siphoned council funds to such an extent that the councils in their states could not even pay staff salaries or construct culverts.
The people have spoken and their calls for local governments' autonomy have been lucid and logical. Observers, nonetheless, insist that what remains is for the elected representatives and other stakeholders to ensure that the people's wishes are reflected in the revised constitution. (NAN)