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Local government: Buhari's guided missile

Friday Jun 18, 2021 17:24 pm

Awka,   Governance

Penultimate Thursday, June 10 to be precise, President Muhammadu Buhari granted an interview which was broadcast on Arise TV. Since then, various aspects of the President’s conversation with the Arise TV/ThisDay interview team have been the subject of debates and comments both in the traditional and new/social media.

The president fielded questions on many burning issues, some of which border on insecurity, border closure, state police, open grazing and cattle routes, the issue of IPOB, which he called a dot in a circle, and others.

One question that is interested was about how taxation worked in the First Republic, and why people are now talking of restructuring and devolution of powers. Here is the quote from the transcript:

“Taxation worked during the first republic but they are no longer working now and that is why people are talking about restructuring the federation to make it work. And devolution of powers and restructuring was part of the campaign promises of the APC in 2015. What is your position on devolution of powers?

You have to define what devolution of power means. It is about taking some things in the legislative list to the residual and keeping a few at the concurrency, while we have a strong defence in the centre. If the federal, state and local system were being followed properly we would not have all these problems. But the problem is that the local government has been virtually killed. And that is not good for this country because those that became local chairmen are being compromised. You as a local government are supposed to receive  300 million. A document is given to you to sign that you have received 300m but you are given only 100m.”

Some people must have inwardly screamed at the President. Now, this is really interesting, and captures how the local governments, as the third tier in our presidential system, has progressively nose-dived in terms of service delivery since 1999 when the nation returned to democratic governance.

The President of a country like ours is the highest authority in the land. He also has the highest security clearance in the country, meaning that all kinds of security and intelligence reports are generated for his attention. If our President is saying these about how the local government system’s finances are handled, he must know. He must be speaking the truth.

Local governments weren’t like this before. In the colonial era, grassroot administration was carried out through the district councils, headed by a civil servant called the District Officer, or DO as our people referred to them. I remember a few of them in my neck of the woods — Ogun State — Abeokuta Urban District Council, where my late father worked, and Ilugun-Alaro District Council, where I hail from.

That is today’s Ijebu North-East Local Government, in Atan. The district councils built schools, water works, dispensaries, etc. In a bid to make them more effective, the Murtala/Obasanjo administration empanelled a commission to reform them, headed by the Baraden Sokoto who would later become the 18th Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki. That commission is known in government and academic circles as the Dasuki Commission.

The recommendations of that commission heralded today’s local government structure — a chairman, and supervisory councillors in charge of key areas like health, education, works, etc, all of whom were elected. Local governments (LGs) had their own civil servants that executed the policies of the elected people.

The administration is headed by the SLG (Secretary to Local Government), with specialist civil servants like the Treasurer (who managed the LG’s finances), Technical Officer (in charge of public works), Health Officer, etc. Some of the civil servants that worked in the local government system were some of the nation’s finest, with the Local Government Service Commission in each state managing them. As the nation got ready for elections to herald the Second Republic, things were running smoothly at the local government level.

Between 1976 and 1979, the local governments in Ogun State were strong enough to construct culverts, build water works, embark on vaccination programmes, renovate and build classroom blocks. They also bought earth moving equipment like graders, bulldozers, payloaders which they used to regularly open new roads and maintain existing ones. Don’t forget; local governments were in charge of “Trunk C”roads. Don’t know what that is? They also built staff quarters. I lived at the Local Government staff quarters in Obafemi/Owode Local Government, at Abeokuta Local Government, and at Odeda Local Government.

Given the way things are now, which local government can still do all these?

One very negative result of how local government affairs have been handled since 1999 is that it has robbed the nation of a structured leadership development avenue. If local governments are allowed to live and thrive, competition for excellence in service delivery will come into play, such that the electorate themselves will be pushing which of them should aspire to the governorship.

That should have been the ideal. Instead, what has happened is complete emasculation of the third tier. Hopeful but frustrated, local government chairmen bunched together in an association called ALGON, which, to the best of my knowledge is a body that has not achieved the strategic purpose of its formation, unlike the all-powerful Governors’ Forum.

Back to the President’s allegation, which I consider a very weighty one.  Though he didn’t mention any official, the innuendo was clear. Do the local governments get their allocations, lock, stock, and barrel? The President must know, and after the President, others also know what is going on. Just what is happening? I have not heard anyone say Mr President was being economical with the truth regarding local governments.

The point is, if we clamour for fiscal federalism, devolution of powers, and all the other issues that make us call for restructuring, it must be done with equity. At the state level, power must also devolve to the local governments.

Furthermore, we’re in a federation, meaning we have a constitution that says we’re in a federal republic. If the states are federating units, the local governments are also federating units at the state level. We should let the local governments live and thrive.

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