Peoples’ right to local government
By Theo Adebowale
There was a signpost strategically located in Alagbaka during the last regime. It was to securitise the people and it read. It is your right to pay tax. Each time I passed by it, I felt like making an issue out of it. Unfortunately because I am a public servant, I pay tax as I earn. Otherwise , I would have wanted to waive my right, the right to pay tax. But we must all know that paying tax is a duty.
A Professor once said that someone wanted to rig an election. It is a common parlance this way. All over Nigeria, politicians claim that the party other than theirs would rig an election. But in Ondo State, many people emphatically want to tell you, about plans to ring an election. Last week the Supreme Court pronounced that state governors’ cannot sack a democratically elected local government council. The news went viral; on the social media. As many people including a cerebral politician joined them to broadcast that the Supreme Court nullified the ‘right’ of Governors to sack councils. Truth is that no Governor or President has the right to sack another government. You may search the constitution to confirm this. But what is a right? A right is a legal claim. There are fundamental human rights to life, association, assembly, fair hearing, movement etc. I am sure that Governors know there is no right to dissolve another tier of government.
However, because in a federal constitution, there are three tiers of government of which only two are superior, while the third tier, local council is subordinate to the state, Governors arrogated to themselves authority to determine personnel and workings of councils. The 1999 constitution in a way reorganizes the local government. There are 774 local councils and even when Bakassi Pennisula had been ceded to neighbouring Cameroun, there are still 774 of them, which explain why states cannot create new councils, which also surprises how politicians scramble for relevance each time, state governments set up committees to create local councils or local council development areas. The Supreme Court judgement which stops dissolution of local government by state governors is essentially a demonstration that the constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria has unequivocally confirmed recognition of the local council tier as government.
One would be justifiably disturbed by the attitude of state governors and politicians generally towards creation of local councils. Whereas there are many issues within their competence, crying for attention, they would rather chase the shadow of creating local councils, controlling rather than supervising local councils, to the point that it is believed that they have a right to the funds of local government. On the contrary, it is the people that have a right to the resources including funds of the council area. In a democracy, this right is conferred on them through popular participation in governance. Over the years, it has been demonstrated that local government is government closest to the people. It is supposed to be more representative than the other tiers. The people are expected to constitute it from a position of knowledge, meritocracy, trust and accountability. Local government in Nigeria has evolved from the autochthonous political system or the extant political institution as in the Emirate system of the Islamic North. Lord Lugard employed the Emirate System to implement policies that were doled out by the Colonial Office. It was easy for the Emirs to collect taxes and levies because of the theocratic nature of their authority. There is no doubt the system endored because of inherent legitimacy. Authority was derived from Allah who made the ruler and the ruled, but it is sustained by the ruler who provides security to lives and property and ensures an enabling atmosphere for socio-economic transactions. Yoruba Monarchs also availed the colonial officers with services of their chiefs who persuaded families and households to support the new government. In return they were able to enjoy a unified system for maintaining law and order. The stateless societies of the East bought into the colonial system through innovation and expansion of the existing informal organizations which have always provided essential services beyond the ability and capacity of individuals and groups. Local government is not only a necessary system but essentially a service provider better equipped than the federal and state for the citizen to realise and to actualise their rights to consume its funds in form of markets, cemeteries, street lights, primary health centres, primary schools, historical and cultural monuments and festivals. This also implies that activities of local council are approved to be conducted more transparently and officials more accountable as they are accommodated in the midst of consumers of their services, those who have authority over their revenue; it is imperative for them to be accountable so that the constituents, their employers, would provide them the necessary support. It is in being transparent that they would justify revenue collection and or the need for more revenue. The electorate reserves the right to retain or sack the local government at the next election.
In the evolution of local government, we can see that the Colonial Office provided a security architecture superior to the autochthonous which justified its acceptance and legitimacy following. In the modern society there is need for some level of uniformity, coordination and cooperation that would be manageable and tolerable within a cultural and geographical unit, hence the Governor has authority bestowed by the Constitution to oversee the activities of local councils. It is power deriving from the constitution to ensure good governance and not to replace or prevent democratic government. If anything, the Governor is expected to use it to reinforce democracy by ensuring periodic elections to be conducted by an independent electoral body in a conducive atmosphere. The Governor will be expected to ensure that the various communities regularly communicate project preferences with local council officials to bring about development. When it becomes imperative, the Governor is expected to compel the council to only meet the aspirations of residents of the council area. Assuming or pretending that the State Executive had right over the revenue of the council to collect, appropriate or expend is not only an aberration, but also a criminal assumption. As to authority of the executive Governor, there is no controversy. The scope and limit of such authority is what the Supreme Court has made pronouncement on.
This is also an appropriate time to emphasise that the council exists to ensure that the people would be able to express and enjoy their inalienable rights. To this effect, the local government will be expected to deliver to the people those services that an individual or group cannot on their own provide. Whereas certain members of community can hire security men to prevent burglary and house breaking, the local government should be able to regulate activities of herdsmen to prevent destruction of farm crops and human lives by effectively collaborating with security agencies. Men and materials should be adequately deployed to manage primary institutions of health and education. Local government should also begin to bring order to their council areas buy ensuring that town planning rules and regularizes are kept, that mining and timber/sawmilling are done lawfully. We need to encourage local governments to think of what to do differently to win the confidence of the people rather than expecting to tax them any further.
It would be a good idea for instance if a council can map out plots of land for local investors to build public toilets for people’s convenience. This would further assist the effort of state government to end careless and arbitrary defecation. Simultaneously it would provide employment and income to people in such areas. Again, there is much for the council to do in the area of agriculture. The council should in conjunction with families allocate land as settlements to various agricultural specializations and similarly industrial estates should be provided. Economy of scale can thereby begin to play up while modern amenities are attracted to rural areas. The people will have a right to revenue accruing to their council authority to appropriate would be judiciously employed by their officials while state Governors can spare more time to exercise authority over state funds more efficiently.