National Conference: Early warning signs
It is easily recalled that even before its advent, there were mixed feelings about the ongoing National Conference, over the prospects of a new deal emerging from it to move the nation forward. Concerns had been over several aspects of its conduct, including its agenda, composition, operational modalities and even the utility of its outcome. But thanks to the appeal of dialogue which offers the framework for reconciling divergent positions in any social setting, the conference is underway, and proving a roaring success.
However that is not to say that Nigerians should not be on alert to identify any early sign of untoward development, in order to keep the Conference on course. After all the forum is intended to harness as much as possible the main stream of divergent views, that define the matrix of our interactions as a nation with many tongues but one destiny.
That is why one of the reported recommendations by the Committee on Devolution of Power and Structure of Government in the Conference, with respect to the country’s political future qualifies for a rethink. Among its recommendations is that the local government system be expunged from the Constitution as a separate tier of governance, and be formally assigned to control by respective state governments. This must be based on the assumption that state governments as we have in Nigeria today can be trusted to perform the role which local governments are expected to handle.
But for the fear of sounding pejorative to the respected members of the Committee, it would have been more appropriate to call that recommendation a throwback from a better forgotten era in the nation’s history. Put graphically, the Committee’s position constitutes a reversal with respect to efforts at improving the fortunes of the nation’s local government system. It is not for nothing that the Constitution framers saw the need to protect the local government system hence it was enshrined in the instrument. So why the new development?
In fairness to the Committee however, its position may have been premised on a traditional frustration with the pallid state of local government administration in the country, which it shares with many observers. Like many concerned Nigerians, members of the Committee must have been troubled at what is generally seen as the intractability of the present condition of the system, especially with respect to isolating it from the incubus of domination and interference by state governments. Due to several factors including the suffocating control by state governments, the system in the country remains a caricature of its intended status. Its most distinct features are operational inefficiency, insensitivity of its officials, wide spread greed and avarice with attendant massive looting of public funds, to name a few.
However, organized opposition to that recommendation has been building up, with the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) taking the lead. The union’s position is based on what it identified as arbitrariness in the Committee’s stand. According to the NULGE Chairman Comrade Ibrahim Khaleel, “calls that local government councils should be expunged from the constitution” are “arbitrary and do not take into consideration the feelings of Nigerians and recommendations of previous panels, committees and the National Assembly”. He then advised that it would be “wise and logical” for the Conference to base its position on the several reports done after collating and analysing memoranda from the public on the issue.
To buttress Khaleel’s position, the National Conference in plenary only agreed to invite memoranda (local government matters inclusive), from the public on Wednesday March 26th 2014, after a heated debate on the issue. It is hardly tenable that between then and the time of the Committee’s recommendation, it had received inputs that span the wide spectrum of views on the matter, to justify a widespread representativeness of its position on local government system in Nigeria. If that be the case, would it not have been wiser for the Committee to wait, receive and analyse inputs independently from the public, before making its recommendations?
For not toeing that path and rather adopting an indisputably hasty approach to the issue, the Committee has attracted to itself (even if unjustifiably) the avoidable insinuation of acting as a the enemies of autonomy for the local government system, with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), being in the forefront, given the historical campaign it has been waging against the third tier of government. In fact there is a growing suspicion in the public domain that due to the situation whereby a substantial portion of the delegates were sponsored by state governors, they may be playing the script of their sponsors at the Conference. Can that be true?
It is in the context of the fore going that many observers are uneasy with expunging the local government system from the Constitution and handing same to the states to manage; seeing the move as a booby trap that will do the country no good. As is common knowledge, even with the statutory provisions of the Constitution in respect of local governments they can be so handicapped, what happens when they are stripped of formal Constitutional protection?
The justification, role and challenges of the local government system in Nigeria are issues that enjoy copious documentation and elaborate elucidation. From the countless studies of the system it has been established that local government administration in Nigeria has been largely dysfunctional due to systemic factors that border on the reluctance of the principal actors to make it work. Its incontinences have been due less to issues associated with irrelevance, than the contradictions in its operations. Little wonder that defending the system is not always a popular enterprise.