Constitutionally Local Government Areas (LGAs) are considered as the third tier of government with specific powers and functions to facilitate good governance and ensure that all Nigerians especially the masses at the grass root level enjoy the full benefits of the Social Contract.
Section 7(1) of the 1999 constitution (as amended) guarantees for a democratically elected Local Government council and the establishment, structure, finance and composition of such councils by respective State Governments.
The Nigerian constitution recognises how strategic the Local Government councils are to grass root and national development which is why there is a “Residual List” which contains the schedule of policies that the Local Government councils have Constitutional jurisprudence and can make binding policies over.
In addition to the substantial authority over local affairs conferred on the Local Government system by the Nigerian Constitution, financial autonomy to initiate, drive and implement the provision of services and relevant projects that will complement the development activities of the State and Federal Government were also provided for.
Unfortunately the skewed type of fiscal federalism being practiced in Nigeria has succeeded in denying the Local Government system the funds meant for them, effectively making Local Government Councils mere appendages of the various State government.
Despite the NFIU regulation of 2018 that barred State Governors from tempering with statutory allocation accruing to Local Government councils, State Governments have continued to emasculate the 774 local government councils in Nigeria by controlling the disbursement of Statutory funds to Local Government Councils through the State Joint Local Government Account.
Granting the Local Government tier fiscal autonomy and expenditure discretion alongside necessary reforms to the budget governance in the area council to ensure accountability and transparency will definitely resolve majority of the good governance deficit marring the country’s administration.
Public service delivery at the grassroots level including the construction and maintenance of roads, streets, health centers and other critical public facilities are being stagnated as a result of non-implementation of financial autonomy for Local Governments.
The Local Government tier is strategically positioned by reason of nearness to rural communities to adequately ensure provision of health services, educational institution and other public services in grass root rural areas, however because of the financial dependence of Local Government authorities most rural and peri- urban areas have become “marginalized” in terms of access to public service delivery.
The spate of open defecation currently bedevilling the country (Nigeria is the country with the highest number of persons who engage in open defecation; about 47 million Nigeria engage in the act daily) can be tackled if the Local Government tier is financially autonomous to pursue a robust open defecation free programme in rural and urban slums which houses 53% of Nigerian households with less than two-thirds of households having good, hygienic and sanitary toilets.
Utilising the Local Government tier to solve local issues with national dimension such as out of school children, open defecation, insecurity, environmental degradation etc was exactly how India solved her open defecation problem. The Indian Government collaborated with the Local Government structure to create local monitoring committees for the construction of 110 million toilets for about 620 million Indians who defecated in the open mostly in rural areas where open defecation is pervasive.
If Nigeria is to replicate the success of India in deploying the Local Government councils in tackling development and governance issues, financial autonomy for the 774 local government areas in Nigeria is non- negotiable.
The concept of grass root governance, fiscal federalism, restructuring, the provision of the dividends of good governance and true federalism for citizens in rural areas and indeed all Nigerians will only become a reality in the presence of full autonomy across board for Local Governments in Nigeria. Per the on-going Constitutional review, it is imperative to push that Section 162 (6) which provides that “each State shall maintain a special account to be called the State Joint Local Government Account into which should be paid all allocations made to Local Government Council from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State” be scraped and a new Account to be managed and maintained solely by the Local Government Councils into which should be paid all statutory allocations made to Local Government Council from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State.
The current provisions of Section 162 (6) reinforces the fiscal dependence of Local Governments to State authorities, the continual operation of the State Joint Local Government Account will only mean that State Governments will continue to dictate the inflow and disbursement of all statutory funds paid into that account.
There have been growing concerns and calls for true fiscal federalism and restructuring so as to unburden the over concentration of power at the Federal level and increase government productivity at all levels. The over-arching insecurity challenges, unemployment rate, governance deficit and economic down turn has refocused the attention on Local governments as a branch of Government that can bring the dividends of good governance closer to the grassroots, propel development and secure life and properties of citizens.
However even as advocacy mounts for financial independence to enhance the ability of Local Governments to achieve these goals, a fiscal accountability and transparency framework should be put in place to check mate the budgetary and expenditure process of Local Governments so as to stem Local Government corruption and engender fiscal responsibility across all tiers of Government.