Conducting successful local government election in Nigeria can no longer be taken for granted. Even though election of local government officials is a constitutional requirement, this has been breached over and over again in this country. Section 7(1) of the 1999 constitution clearly states 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 law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such councils.” But as simple and straightforward as this provision is, many state governments all over the country would rather set up caretaker committees to oversee the affairs of local governments than allow the provision of the constitution to prevail.
This anomaly has so much gained wide acceptability that even the citizenry, who are expected to be beneficiaries of well-run and structured local government system, are seldom worried about local governments elections not holding as at when due. That is the level of apathy of Nigerians towards local governments. While it is easy to conclude that this is happening because of lack of political awareness, the reaction of the electorate to other political matters will make such conclusions simplistic. For instance, is it possible for Nigerians to accept caretaker committees to oversee the affairs of the state government or the federal government when the terms of either the governor or the president elapses without any form of public outcry? But this is what obtains all over the country in the case of local government elections. When the tenure of local government chairmen ends, there are usually different excuses why election of new officers could not be possible. Nigerians are used to the usual songs of lack of money; need to update existing voter’s register and many other excuses that are cited for lack of election into local governments. Unfortunately, these are excuses no one dare give to elongate the tenure of any governor or president. Agreed that Nigerians are docile and because of this, take many rubbish from their leaders, but be that as it may, it is doubtful if they would allow caretaker committees to administer their states or the entire country under any guise in a supposedly democratic dispensation.
This forms the background to the importance attached to the just concluded local government election in Akwa Ibom State. For many years, the people of the state like many others in Nigeria have been ruled at the local government level by caretaker committees. No wonder their joy knew no bounds as they trooped out to cast their votes in the last council election. The massive turnout of the electorate suggests that the people are politically enlightened and would like to take their destiny into their hands if allowed to do so. Last Saturday offered the people of Akwa Ibom the privilege of electing their own local government chairmen and councilors – something that has become rare these days. Twelve political parties were said to have participated in the election into 31 local governments and 329 wards in the state. The Peoples Democratic Party won in all the local governments in the state. Of course, the main opposition party has kicked against the result of the poll but independent observers that monitored the election said the election was generally peaceful. For instance, the Inter Party Advisory Council in a statement after the election said the elections were peaceful, free and met credible standards of democratic tenets. While congratulating winners, it implored them to see their victory as victory for the people of the state. It equally commended the governor, Udom Emmanuel, for his commitment to participatory democracy at the grass roots, which it said, has placed Akwa Ibom among the few states in Nigeria that have successfully conducted local government election.
Indeed, the governor, many believe, truly deserves some commendation, for being able to pull this through, especially in less than three years into his tenure. The governor too was equally elated that the election was hitch free as reflected in his speech after casting his vote. He had said the election was exceptionally peaceful. “The massive turn out of voters in the exercise has confirmed the desire of the people to put in place a democratically elected government at the grass root and we are optimistic that election being a contest of numbers would see the best candidates emerge victorious.”
Perhaps in response to complaints of few hitches here and there, he had said it was very rare to have a hitch free election anywhere in the world. For him, conducting local government elections without experiencing a spill of blood could only be a divine blessing. Truly, that may not be an exaggeration. Elections in Nigeria especially at that local level can be bloody. Politicians bring in all their arsenals to dislodge the opposition. In one of the states where local government election was conducted recently, the daughter of one of the aspirants was kidnapped to force the father to pull out of contesting in the election.
Local governments are part and parcel of democratic organs in Nigeria’s constitution and we must as a nation work towards preserving the rule of law at all times. This is what makes for development in every civilised part of the world. It is important to harp on the need for our leaders to strictly adhere to constitutional provisions on local government election. And that is why governors like Udom Emmanuel should be applauded for taking the bull by the horn and doing what is right in spite of daunting financial challenges bedevilling the state.
In many civilized parts of the world, local governments, called by different names, foster developments and bring governance closer to the people. Here, we don’t even know the functions of local governments. Some have alleged that local governments don’t do more than share federal allocations every month and that they are pocketed by the states because the executives want to have free access to the money from the federation account. We need to change this mindset and return our local governments to the original reasons for creating them. Counties are responsible for many road construction projects in countries like the United States of America. If the local governments function as they ought to, the pressure on the state and the federal government will drastically reduce. Why should it be the business of any state to construct inner roads when we have functional local governments? That is an anomaly.
- Aniekan writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.