Every time I go by a local government office, I wonder how we (as a people) will ever get past the curse of inertia and redundancy that has eaten into such places like an invincible virus.
Oftentimes, the most prominent fixtures at such structures are banners and posters of some persons contesting to be local government chairmen and councillors of the local government which may not be a bad thing in itself.
What is worrisome is that beyond those posters and billboards, one hardly ever gets to hear about or know who is in charge of such places until perhaps another moment comes for elections.
Elections come and go and while you keep wondering who the chairman of your local government is, you also have to wonder what exactly the person has been doing in office because virtually every corner of your town remains the same throughout their tenure. In that period however, federal allocations are disbursed, received and spent without visible traces of impact on the grassroots – the very reason local government councils were set up in the first place.
When the constitution placed a duty on local government councils to actively participate in economic planning and the development of the areas they superintend, the drafters probably envisaged the occupants of the office would possess some intellectual finesse and vision. The reality appears different today.
The constitution also implores the various state houses of assembly to enact laws establishing economic planning boards into which leaders of the local government council are incorporated to coordinate planning for the economic development of their areas. However, their impact in this regard remains doubtful.
Local government councils are assigned some other responsibilities in the fourth schedule of the 1999 constitution and whether or not they have been carrying out those tasks raises many questions. They are for instance granted the powers to collect rates for radio and television licences; establish and maintain cemeteries, license bicycles and trucks; and to establish and regulate slaughter slabs, markets and public conveniences.
The Law also empowers them to construct and maintain roads, street lights, drains and gardens; register births, deaths and marriages; control and regulate out-door advertising, movement of pets, shops, kiosks, restaurants, bakeries, laundries and outlets for the sale of liquor.
Many can probably associate the councils with performing those tasks to do with collecting revenue, sometimes forcefully, from stalls they did not build or make any effort to maintain. Regulation, for them, however hardly goes beyond handing reflective jackets to a few untrained individuals to waylay motorcyclists and visit business premises to retrieve tenements, rates and licence fees for all sorts of things within and beyond their scope.
The councils carefully avoid portions of their duties to do with construction and maintenance of roads for instance. Every time rain falls one is reminded of the absence of governance at that level as potholes and street gutters become near-impassable. Patching and grading roads have seemingly acquired the status of rocket science and are now also left for the state government – which action of course depends on when it pleases the fancy of the governor.
An additional responsibility for local government councils, under the Fourth Schedule of the constitution, is their expected participation in the following matters: provision and maintenance of primary, adult and vocational education; development of agriculture and natural resources; and the provision and maintenance of health services.
If the councils were doing those duties, new primary schools ought to be springing up at many corners, but when one considers that the councils do not even deem it fit to provide furniture for existing schools within their vicinity, asking them to build schools must be a tall order.
The story is same with providing agricultural extension support or equipping primary health care centres. One area you may however likely find them making some effort is in providing vocational education which often only translates as teaching selected youths to make soaps and clothes, for a few weeks – long enough to get some media attention and then disappear into oblivion.
State governors have some blame, possibly a lot of it, with respect to the absence of governance at the grassroots. Many governors literally handpick council chairmen and illegally dissolve the councils at will. They also divert sums allocated to the councils from the joint accounts to fund personal ambitions. That clearly needs to change going forward.
A lot needs to be done to get our local government councils to be as productive as they should be. State governors need to respect the autonomy granted the councils by the constitution while also supervising to ensure sums disbursed to that level of government are being efficiently utilised.
Collaborating with the councils on basic infrastructure projects may be one way of spurring them to action aside establishing mechanisms for assessing transparency.
Every qualified Nigerian is free to contest for election into a local government council but the public will do better at electing more enlightened individuals. Here is hoping that such aspirants exist and will readily take up the task.
Civil society groups also have a lot to do to keep the pressure on persons elected into local government councils to perform the tasks for which they have been elected while also promoting awareness among the citizenry to also demand accountability.