Memo To Liman Ciroma Committee
President Obasanjo has constituted a technical committee on local government reforms. He is principally concerned with the alarming corruption at the “third tier” of government and the possible involvement of traditional rulers in its future administration. The committee is now headed by Malam Liman Ciroma, after the death of its first chairman, late Etsu Nupe. This essay is a memo, sort of, briefly discussing the difficulty of the task of the committee and containing some few suggestions on the reform measures required. But as it is the tradition with students of administration law, it starts with a review of major trends in local government administration during the last fifty years in the country.
This is not the first time local governments are coming under scrutiny. In fact, it appears that in every decade since 1950, there has been a reconstruction of their structure and a redefinition of their roles. Between 1952 and 1966 the emphasis was on democratization under the ambit of regional administrations. Traditional rulers were increasingly becoming less powerful as indirect rule gradually gave way to popular participation.
The second phase started immediately after states were created in 1966. Instruments of coercion – police, prison and judiciary – were taken over by state and federal governments, while development matters like primary education, health, roads, water, etc, remained under local government councils. More local councils were also created.
However, for the next decade there were still no nationwide rules regarding their structure and functions. That had to wait until 1976 when harmonization become the thrust of reform. Guidelines for the creation of new ones were given; committees, councils – executive and traditional – local government service boards, and so on, were formed. The objectives were four: decentralization of decision-making, stabilization of administration, popular participation and recognition of the future role of traditional rulers.
In preparation for civil rule, there was the growing need to insulate local governments from undue influence of, and abuses by, state governments. The temptation to make them completely independent was high, given the failure of the 1976 reform to provide such protection. But 1979 constitution, in respect for the principle of federalism, suppressed that temptation. And though the constitution gave guidelines to their creation and guaranteed the democratic basis of their councils, it was silent over whether state governments can be compelled to carry out their constitutional duties vis-à-vis local governments. Jakande and some governors dissolved elected councils and replaced them by management committees, an act that the courts declared unconstitutional. Many councils were created on political grounds which were abolished by the military in 1984.
The temptation to make local governments independent finally became irresistible during the failed transition program of the Babangida administration. Their number was doubled in one instant, contrary to his earlier promise, and they were directly connected to the federal government. The reason behind this could easily be discerned from the fact that Babangida belonged to a different party – the military – and the governors were civilians; opening a direct line of communication with the center was meant to give him direct control of grassroots politics, which was necessary for manipulating the transition program. This was the period when corruption in local government, like in the federal, reached its peak. Local governments got the liberty they never dreamt of. In fact, they were encouraged by the federal government to look at state governments with disdain. The supervisory roles of state governments were returned to state governments under the Abacha regime, and some sanity prevailed for a while.
With return to democracy in 1999, massive corruption returned. Local governments also became ponds in the game of political manipulation. Many new ones were created, as during the Second Republic, which were not be recognized by the constitution. The inability of the Obasanjo administration to compile voters’ register was used as a pretext for the dissolution of their councils and misappropriation of their status by state governments.
Under this condition, the federal government is contemplating to reinstate the hold of traditional aristocracy over the affairs of local government, a move supported by a nostalgia for a past. I find it funny when people, for lack of good recollection, regard the era when local governments were under aristocratic control as golden. It was far from it. Let us, for example, hesitate here and recall something that happened in the defunct Northern House of Assembly in August 1950. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in what is considered as his most remarkable speech, cited bribery and corruption among the reasons for his call for native authority reforms. He said: “One feature of native administrations above all demands the attention of the commission. It is, as all of you are well aware, the twin curses of bribery and corruption which pervade every rank and department… I cannot over emphasize the importance of eradicating this ungodly evil… Unless the commission fully realize the gravity of this problem and tackle it with courage, any recommendations they make for superficial reforms are bound to fail. It is a most disturbing fact that few officials can afford to be honest.”
Obasanjo may therefore need to know that he is faced with an “ungodly evil” that is possibly as old as himself. The committee he constituted would hence need to study the situation carefully and dispassionately. There are many reasons why the committee may not be finding its task easy. One, the issue of corruption is not limited to local governments. It will thus be difficult to envisage a prudent local system working under the supervision or control of corrupt state and federal governments.
Two, in countries ridden with corruption, democracy seems to guarantee poor governance. This arises from the fact that popular participation under such circumstances promotes only mediocre personalities in contempt for the honest. In addition, in a democratic rule, leadership is farther weakened by enormous pressure from the people and the ruling party seeking patronage, the refusal of which means losing the chance for a second tenure. Finally, decision-making is tedious, bringing in more contention and, thus, taking longer time to arrive at.
Three, there is lack of competent aspirants for the positions of chairman and councilor in most local governments in the country, a situation exacerbated by declining standard of education. To worsen the situation, the existing rules discourage civil servants from filling the gap.
Four, a lot of the corruption is forced on local governments by state government from above. Governors and public servants at local government service commission and ministry of local governments use their supervisory role to misappropriate local government funds. Many times, governors dip their ten fingers deep into their treasuries in the name of loans while the commission and the ministry become accomplices to corrupt practices perpetrated by the local government councils.
Five, this nation has long abdicated from the principle of reward and punishment. Where crime is not punished, deterrence is lost and the treasury becomes the treasure of anybody entrusted with it. Local governments are poorly audited, as does many state governments. The irony is that Obasanjo, the reformist, has sacked the auditor-general of the federation less than a year ago for simply carrying out the constitutional duty of publishing his annual report.
Notwithstanding the above impediments, the committee may find the following suggestions useful. One, to improve the quality of participation, the law preventing civil servants from contesting elections should be removed in case of local government election, as an exemption. The risk should be lessened, such that civil servants can return to their jobs if they fail to secure the ticket of their party or win the seat they vied for. Also, the term they would serve as councilors or chairmen of their local governments should be added to their years of service. These will help us get rid of illiterates becoming our local government chairmen.
Two, I have earlier expressed the need to raise the educational qualification for eligibility to contest local government seats. Leaving the affairs of between 100,000 and 250,000 people in the hands of a secondary school failure is sheer imprudence. A recognized diploma for the post of a councilor is necessary, while a degree or its equivalent is needed for the post of local government chairman, both with at least 10 years experience.
Three, I would like the constitution to set conditions for creation of new local governments, especially conditions relating to population and viability. It appears, as it was first envisaged in 1976, that there would be no end to the demand for creation of new local governments. Given the enormous overheads required to run them, creation of new local governments simply depletes the little resources that would have been used to serve the people; the whole subvention may go to paying staff salaries and allowances of elected officials. That is the situation in many local governments now.
Four, conduct of local government election need to return to INEC. State electoral commissions can never be fair in their conduct. By implication, the governor is given a free hand to determine the winner of the local elections. With the expected increase in perfection and improved efficiency of the electoral process, I have no doubt that the future will find this suggestion useful.
Five, it is necessary to harmonize local government elections with those of state and federal offices. All elections should hold at the same time, and the tenures should be the same. This will prevent the recurrence of our present predicament.
Six, since there is no way local governments could be allowed to be independent of state governments under a federal arrangement, there is the dire need for a constitutional provision that will prevent any governor from using local government funds in any way, not even with the consent of the local government chairman or council.
Seven, it would not be a bad idea if the presidential system is reviewed at the local government level. Here the debate of the 1979 constitution drafting committee will be found very useful.
Eight, the roles of traditional rulers in local government administration should be left to individual state houses of assembly to determine. There is still a big disparity in the social relevance of their royal highnesses across the country. They are undoubtedly playing the most important stabilizing role presently, but defining their responsibility in governance under a democratic dispensation is a bit scary and difficult.
Nine and finally, staffing local governments need to be upgraded; the power of any computer depends on the size of its memory and the speed of its processor. Rather than keeping staff of 1950 standards, we need more graduates and professionals, similar to those in the services of states and federal governments.
In the end, Nigeria must maintain local governments for the purpose of addressing local matters of communities, in spite of their shortcomings. What it requires is purposeful leadership, which, unfortunately, our selfishness and the contradiction in our composition have denied us so far. As the members of the technical committee sit down to write their recommendations, I am sure one fact will not fail to strike their minds: Corruption is not in the system; it is in the mind. That is the monster that Obasanjo should give a real fight. So far, he has not gone beyond mere rhetoric.