The Nigerian federation system is based on a three-tier system made up of the Federal Government, 36 state governments and 774 local governments. The 1999 Federal Constitution of Nigeria, Section 77(1) stipulates that: the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this constitution guaranteed; and accordingly, the government of every state shall, subject to Section 8 of this constitution, ensure their existence under a law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such councils. These provisions of the law have been abused, betrayed and trampled upon. The local government system has not lived up to the desired expectations and goals stipulated in the provisions of the Nigerian constitution.
Besides the corruption that is perpetrated within the system, local elections have become embroiled in democratic polemics and moving dangerously to the path of anarchy. The current system lay the foundation for the abridgement of citizens’ rights and civic obligations. Its outcome is presented to Nigerians at the local districts as a fait accompli. I use this powerful metaphor – of kidnapping which I borrowed from Feenstra Romanos, a Professor of Sociology, University of Madrid, Spain. Feenstra offers an innovative approach and a systematic dissection of the metaphor that democracy has been kidnapped. On provocative reflection, I have come to associate Feenstra novel insights of kidnapped representative democracy to Nigerian local government democratic system, which is neither representative nor democratic today, and no longer belongs to the people but the powerful state governors and their political allies. Going by the current trend nationwide, there is the dearth of local elections or rather kidnapped local government representative democracy.
Across all democratic nations of the world, local government elections allow local people to vote and choose people to represent them at the ward, district or local council. Election of local representatives helps to establish, nurture and sustain democracy and democratic culture. Elected councillors, chairmen/women or mayors as the case might be to decide on some important policies and projects in the local communities including; roads, bridges, transport, recycling/waste management, planning, local welfare, cultural, chieftaincy matters and local council facilities (such as sports centres, libraries etc). The local council system gives the people the opportunity to vote for candidates who have a popular/shared vision for the future of their districts and communities.
Kidnapping is a very strong metaphor to understand the local democratic deficits of Nigeria. Historically, local elections in Nigeria started on a non-party basis from 1987 to 1998. The first election was held in 1987 during the General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida regime that ruled the country from 1985 until his resignation (or rather the famously step aside) in 1993. The local election in 1987 was when Babangida started making plans for the transition to the third democratic Republic. That era saw the birth of a two-party political system – Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) formed by presidential decree on October 7, 1989. On December 8, 1990, local elections were held for the first time since the military coup of 1983. The elections took place peacefully across the country. Both the SDP and the NRC used the local elections to test their popularity. This was the first-time local government chairmen were elected through universal adult suffrage. The SDP won a majority in 232 of the 438 local councils.
Although human kidnapping is opposed at all levels of the society and institutions, this is not the case with that of democratic kidnapping. Political analysts often argue that election in a political discourse must link election to party politics which permits political parties to offer their manifestos and candidates to voters to decide who to vote in an election. The opposite is the case in the local government democratic system. The elections are always marred by violence, fraud and rigging since the return to civil democracy in 1999. Local government elections have become a tool for most of the state governors to extend their grip of power and authority in their states. They manipulate it as they deem fit due to fear of playing into the hands of political rivals. Rather than resist this dangerous manoeuvre, political gladiators just sing praises and eulogise the governors.
In several instances, some governors go as far as appointing caretaker committees who govern the local councils as long as the state governors desired. In a recent study by three Nigerian scholars –Ayobami Ojebode, Ike Ernest Onyishi and Fatai Aremu, they revealed that among the 774 local government chairpersons in Nigeria, only 202 (26%) are elected while 572 (74%) were appointed. The authors note that although local councils are the closest tier of government to the people, in three-quarters of these, citizens have had no input in deciding who leads them at this level. In states where elections were allowed to take place, the ruling and governors party always win 100 per cent of the election. No democratic system offers 100 per cent success except the ones with indicators of anarchy, despotism, nepotism, tyranny, autocracy, communism and dictatorship.
The 1999 Federal Constitution Section 7(3) states that it shall be the duty of a local government council within the State to participate in economic planning and development of the area referred to in subsection (2) of this section and to this end, an economic planning board shall be established by a Law enacted by the House of Assembly of the State.State Independent Electoral Commission conduct local government elections. However, political gladiators and pundits advocate that the Independent National Electoral Commission should take over the conduct of local government elections in addition to its responsibility of conducting national and state elections. Many believe that the State Independent Electoral Commissions have proven to be unwilling and incapable of conducting free, fair and credible elections and support INEC taking over the process from the states. It will also improve the achievement of economic progress and development of the local areas.
The relevance of strengthening the local government elections system cannot be underestimated. Local council’s democratic status influences citizens’ perception of democracy,transparency and civic orientations. Ignoring the advancement of local government system lay the foundation for the abridgement of citizens’ civic education, human rights and perpetuation of underdevelopment, corruption, economic recklessness and poverty. The current local democratic system intoxicates as it is the elixir that makes the elite class wants to perpetuate themselves in it. All the major political parties in Nigeria are guilt of the current failure of the local government system. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime, well-meaning Nigerians, elder statesmen and women, civil rights campaigners and the 9th National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria must intervene to rescue Nigerian democracy at the grassroots. Electoral reform must include local government system. INEC should take over the election process from the states to boost the credibility of elections. Another option could be to scrap the current state independent lectoral commission and establish Regional Electoral Commission across the six geopolitical regions to supervise and conduct local government elections. If the foundation of democracy is not protected and defended, Nigeria could be moving dangerously to the path of anarchy.