Since 2008, the question of whether the 774 local government areas within the Federal Republic of Nigeria should be granted autonomous status like the states or not has been a recurrent decimal during constitutional amendment debates in Nigeria.
Whereas some people who were alarmed by the allegations that some state governors flagrantly abuse the Local Government and States Joint Account system established by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) yearn for further amendments of the constitution to confer autonomous status on local government areas; others who are equally uncomfortable but not emotional about the alleged abuses of the joint account system by some governors think that some other measures to curb the alleged excesses of some state governors as regards the joint account system, and not autonomy for the local government system, will suffice.
At this juncture, I invite us to take more than a cursory look at Nigeria with a view to finding out the practicability or otherwise of an autonomy clause for our local government areas: Section 2 (2) of the 1999 CFRN (as amended) provides that “Nigeria shall be a Federation consisting of states and a Federal Capital Territory.” By this provision, Nigeria falls into the class of states like United States of America and other countries which operate federal constitutions and federal system of government. In fact, the present Nigerian constitution was fashioned after the Federal Constitution of United States of America. Having established that Nigeria is a federation, it is pertinent to ask: What does the word “federation” mean? According to The Black’s law dictionary, federation means “a league or union of states, groups, or peoples arranged with a strong central authority and limited regional sovereignties – though the individual states, groups, or peoples may retain rights of varying degrees” (Garner, A.B. ed, 1999). For the purpose of clarity, it suffices from the foregoing that a federation is formed by federating units like states which often times contains other subordinate groupings which function as components of the federating units and not as components of the federation! Having said that, it is necessary to ask: What are the federating units that make up the federation called Nigeria? The provisions of sections 2(2) and 3(1) of the 1999 CFRN (as amended) provide the correct answer to this all-important question, and because of its relevance to the crux of this discourse, I will set out the provisions verbatim here:
2(2): Nigeria shall be a federation consisting of states and a Federal Capital Territory.
3(1): There shall be thirty six states in Nigeria, that is to say, Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Enugu, Gombe, Imo, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Nassarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers, Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe, and Zamfara.
Nigeria like most federations operates a written constitution which is also rigid and sovereign; and the extant provisions of this sovereign constitution unequivocally states that Nigeria is a federation of states and the Federal Capital Territory. It further mentioned the number and respective names of the federating states. The implication of this explicit enactment is that it is the thirty-six states mentioned in section 3(1) of the 1999 CFRN (as amended) and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) that constitute the federating units of the Nigerian federation, and not the local government areas. The mentions made of their number in section 3(6) and their names in the first schedule, part one, of the 1999 CFRN (as amended) serve just as mere recognition of local government areas as the component parts of the respective federating units (states) and nothing more pretentious. The agitations for autonomy of local government areas in Nigeria no matter how desirable have not succeeded and cannot succeed because Nigeria is a federation; and having two autonomous subsets (states and local government areas) within a federation apart from being tantamount to cordially inviting anarchy and chaos will distort the status of Nigeria as a federation! Our experience during the 1991 experiment on financial autonomy for local government areas when council chairmen openly dared their governors should not be forgotten in a hurry. It is doubtful that anything has changed about us in that regard.
Having made this point, I wish to express my reservations over the activities of some governors who allegedly abuse the states and local governments joint account system. The role of the local government system as the cradle of democracy and good governance cannot be overemphasized, but the greatest impediment to achieving the lofty objectives of the local government system are corruption and undue interference with local government funds by some state governors. To make the local government areas viable and functional within the federation called Nigeria, I suggest that rather than continue to toy with the impracticable idea of autonomy, the constitution should be amended by the appropriate authorities to divest the state governments of the powers to conduct local government elections. This will save state governments’ the huge costs used to run the parallel State Independent Electoral Commissions and strengthen the electoral process so as to truly return power to the people and make local government area officials accountable to the people. In addition, explicit financial regulations should be enacted to ensure that local government shares of the funds in the states and local governments joint accounts are effectively and promptly credited to them by the state governments who shall have the power to monitor and supervise the application of the funds by the council chairmen. The power of oversight and sanction of erring chairmen should be split between the state legislature and the judiciary respectively. I am convinced that these steps will strengthen the local government system for the benefit of the ordinary people in the rural areas and still preserve our federation.