STATE GOVERNORS VERSUS LOCAL GOVERNMENT AUTONOMY

BY DONS EZE

Two recent Supreme Court judgements nullifying the dissolution of local government councils and sacking of elected council chairmen and councillors by the Governors of Katsina and Oyo States, have led us into reexamining the relationship between the state governments and the local government administration in Nigeria.

Before the introduction of the unified local government system by the Obasanjo military administration in 1976, different regions had operated different local government systems that flowed from divergent political orientations of political parties in power in each of the existing four regions in the First Republic.

For the ruling political parties in these regions, it became politically inexpedient to allow the evolution of the local government system as an autonomous power centre, with all its implications for the constant power struggle between the regions and the central government.

As such, the ruling party in each of these regions designed its own local government system the way it would suit them, and which would be instrument they could manipulate to achieve their desired ends. This greatly eroded confidence of many Nigerians in the local government administration.

In the 1976 restructuring exercise, a model statutory instrument with general guidelines, such as population, cultural affinity and administrative viability, were applied for creating new local government councils, which resulted to the creation of 301 local governments nationwide.

The initiators of the local government reforms, had aimed at elevating the local governments to a third-tier government, with the federal and state governments, as first and second tiers respectively. The major fundings for these newly created local governments, were five percent statutory federal government allocation, and ten percent allocation by their respective state governments, in addition to the internally generated revenues of each of the local governments.

The areas of operations between the local government councils and their respective state administrations were clearly delineated, while the local governments enjoyed relative autonomy. The general guidelines for the operation of this third tier government was subsequently incorporated into the various constitutions of the country.

But as soon as the politicians came on board and began to operate the constitution, they turned everything upside down: they began to encroach on the autonomy and responsibilities of the local governments to the extent that most local government councils exist only in name, or were reduced to mere departments of state government administration.

The governors dissolve, constitute and reconstitute local government councils at will, decree who should be their chairmen and councillors, set up caretaker committees to run the councils; sack elected chairmen and councillors they do not like their faces; appropriate local government funds; and in many cases, usurp their functions.

It now appears that the Supreme Court of Nigeria has come to the rescue of the local governments, when it faulted the dissolution and sacking of elected local government chairmen and councillors in Katsina and Oyo States by their respective governors by declaring them, “illegal, unconstitutional, null and void”.

Katsina State Governor, Bello Masari, six years ago, in 2015, sacked 34 duly elected PDP chairmen as well as councillors on allegation of financial misappropriation of council’s funds, while Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, in 2019, also sacked 68 chairmen and councillors elected on the platform of the APC, and replaced them with caretaker committees.

But the apex court has nullified these sackings, and gave consequential orders for both Governors Masari and Makinde to pay the sacked chairmen and councillors all their entitlements from the date of their illegal dissolution, to the date they were due to vacate office. That was Daniel came to judgement.

The implication of the Supreme Court’s decision therefore, is that no state governor will from henceforth, wake up in the morning and begin to dissolve local government councils or sack elected local government chairmen and councillors. We even think that refusing to conduct local government elections and setting up caretaker committees to run the local government councils, which some state governors always do, is also illegal and unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has by that landmark judgement, brought relief to operators of local government system in the country, and thus freed them from the apron strings of the state chief executives.

Our worry, however, is that it took a very long time for our courts to reach such decision: six years in the case of Katsina State, and three years in the case of Oyo state. We cannot say with certainty that all the litigants that started the struggle to reclaim their rights are are still around to hear the Supreme Court verdict, or to physically receive their entitlements, whenever they would be paid. Many of them might have fallen by the way side, died out of frustrations, their families rendered hopeless or destroyed, due to long delays by the courts in delivering the judgements.

“Justice delayed”, they say, “is justice denied”, and that is what is obtainable in Nigeria today. Injustices thrive in our society because our courts is abetting them by frequent adjournments. The Nigerian judicial system is frustratingly very slow, which is why many aggrieved people hardly go to court to seek redress.

During our various elections, we used to hear some of our politicians say that their ultimate aim would be to get INEC to declare them winner, and let their opponents go to court. This is because they know the weaknesses of our judicial system. We pray that our judiciary will wake up from slumber.

Dr. Dons Eze, KSJI

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