In the Interest of Grassroots Development

The stand-off between the Anambra State Government and councillors of local government councils in the state has gone on too long to attract the attention and concern of the citizens of the state. Not only is the welfare of the councillors involved, but also is the matter of grassroots development which is one of the main reasons for the local government system in Nigeria.

Several recent issues of this newspaper have been reporting this long running stand-off, and I got to know of it from these reports and I am pricked now to research and write about the situation.

The last report, entitled: “Ex-Deputy Chairmen Demand Entitlements from Obiano” (FIDES, Oct 16-22, 2016 Edition) is the latest in the series that I have counted up to three previous reports of such complaints. There surely must be something in these grievances that should have been ameliorated by the state government because as the Igbo proverb says: “Ebe nwata na-ebe akwa na alu aka, nne ya-anoghi ya, nna ya no ya”. Even after the paper published a piece pleading for action, with the title, “The sorrows of Anambra LG Operators” (FIDES, Sept 18-24, 2016 Edition), nothing seemed to have been done.

From the reports, one gleans that the aggrieved parties involved are local government councillors and deputy chairmen who complain of non-payment of statutory entitlements, added to the allegation of withholding funds from the monthly federal allocation received by Anambra State like other states for local government administration and development at the grassroots. It is easy to see why councillors would lose face and image with their constituencies for not being able to provide much development dividend for the people they represent.

And indeed, take for example, the deplorable state of internal roads in many Anambra State communities. Yes, Anambra State can boast of having “the largest network of tarred roads in the country’’. An assessment carried out under the peer review mechanism of the Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF, showed this, as one non-Anambrarian columnist of The Guardian confirmed, (26 July 2016).

But these roads link major towns and sections of the state. I am thinking here of internal roads linking parts of a community. In many communities that I know of, one can drive through such a link road – if at all – with tears, especially during the rainy season. Are they not roads that local government councils can, (at least in partnership with the state government) construct and maintain if they have the funds and apply them honestly for the common good? Such roads used to be called Native Authority roads in the distant past.

What I find difficult to understand is why the transition committee chairmen of local government councils have, allegedly, received their full entitlements whereas the transition councillors and deputy chairmen are left in the lurch. Why this selective fulfilment of an obligation? Or is it the fault of these officials that they were turned into transition members when their elected tenure expired without a new election for their replacement?

It is speculated where the root cause of these problems lies. A frequent writer in FIDES, Oseloka Obaze, writing in AfriHeritage of October 7, 2015, talked of Nigerian state governors treating local governments as “their fiscal fiefdoms”. And this disposition, he says, “finds vigour and draws its impetus from the constitutional ambiguities on the status of the local governments and the attending self-serving argument by most state governors that the local government is not a federating unit. Consequently, development at the grassroots is lacking, and federally allocated funds for local governments are disbursed and used as per the whims of the governors.”

Most recently, a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in his brusque way, made the same point in his widely reported speech during a conference in Ogun State on October 11, 2016. He accused the governors of being “the greatest obstacles” to virile, and functional local governments in the country, stating that they withheld council funds from source. ‘’A handful of them have held local government elections, while most appoint transition committees, comprising their surrogates to oversee the affairs of the councils.’’ (cf PUNCH, October 12, 2016; VANGUARD, October 11, 2016; THE GUARDIAN 12th October 2016).

The 1999 Constitution, section 7 (1)  stipulates: “The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed;” then it goes on to say that state governments shall pass a “Law which provides for the establishment, structure, composition, finance and functions of such councils”. In compliance with this provision, Anambra State did pass “The Anambra State Local Government Law of 1999” to provide for democratically elected local governments, but as one academic research paper claimed, this “fundamental law was…severally amended in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2011 to spuriously give legal backing to the establishment of non-democratically constituted local governments”.

In other words, exploiting what Obaze above called “constitutional ambiguities”, Anambra State “systematically manipulated its basic law at various periods to avoid compliance to the Constitutional provisions at the expediency of the state political leaders”. Since the return to civilian rule in 1999, only twice have there been democratically elected local government councils in Anambra State. The first was the one elected, ironically, under the military in the Transition Programme of 1998/1999.  The other was the one of July 2013 whose tenure’s expiration led to the present elected-turned- transition committee members.

Readers, as the late Chinua Achebe would say, Ebe a ka mmiri bidolu maba anyi” (This is where the rain began to beat us).

It is possible to argue that without democratically elected and financially autonomous local governments, Anambra State under its more recent governors: former Governor Peter Obi and the incumbent Governor Willie Obiano, has made comparatively massive progress reaching down even to the grassroots in areas such as education, health, agriculture, security, commerce, etc. The drive, self-help and entrepreneurial spirit of the people have also helped. However, popular participation in governance and development from the grassroots is a value in itself. If this is fostered through democratically elected, free-standing, financially autonomous local governments administered by competent, responsible and honest people, more can still be done in the area of rural development.

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