Needed: Sustainable Local Democracy

Needed: Sustainable Local Democracy

Nigerians pride themselves on being the giants of Africa – a vibrant democracy and the most populous nation on the continent. We also claim that ours is the largest economy.

 With all these seeming positives, yet recent local government elections across multiple states have exposed a deep rot at the grassroots level of the nation’s political system. From Oyo to Gombe, a deeply troubling pattern has emerged – the ruling party at the state level sweeps all local government chairmanship seats in lopsided, non-competitive elections.

 In the considered opinion of this newspaper, these elections are little more than coronations, devoid of true democratic choice.

This crisis strikes at the very heart of local governance and representative democracy in Nigeria.

 Instructively, section 7 of our Constitution explicitly guarantees “the system of local government by democratically elected local government councils.” The letter of the law could not be clearer.

 And yet, state governments have treated this constitutional provision with unbridled contempt through actions that can only be described as outright sabotage of democracy.

In blatant defiance of court rulings, state governors have unilaterally dissolved duly elected local councils, rendering themselves petty emperors over local affairs.

 The sovereign will of the people at the grassroots level has been subjugated to the whims of state executive powers grown draconian and despotic. This is an untenable inconsistency for a democracy to endure.

 The Supreme Court has twice ruled such dissolutions of elected local governments unconstitutional, as in the cases of Oyo and Katsina states . The court rightly defended the sacrosanct principle that local councils, once democratically elected, cannot be arbitrarily overruled by the executive arm of state governments.  Still, even this highest legal affirmation has gone unheeded by power-hungry governors.

 Compounding this crisis, state electoral bodies meant to be impartial arbiters have allowed themselves to become mere pawns of state regimes.

How can democracy be preserved when the very Electoral Commissions mandated to safeguard electoral integrity at the local level have been thoroughly compromised and suborned by ruling parties?

Sham elections where all chairmanship seats go to a single party in a mockery of genuine democratic competition are an indictment of the entire system.

 This mortgaging of local democracy has profound consequences on service delivery to the masses.

 As the Constitution outlines, local governments should be on the frontlines of providing primary education, developing agriculture and natural resources, and maintaining local infrastructure for our rural communities.

 When local governance becomes a rubber stamp annexe of state regimes, these vital responsibilities to the people suffer immensely.

There is also the impact on insecurity currently ravaging our nation. Lack of grassroots investment, lack of faith in local institutions, and lack of checks on state executive overreach create fertile breeding grounds for alienation, grievance, and anti-democratic forces to take root.

 Restoring vibrancy and autonomy to local governments could very well be an underappreciated key to regaining social cohesion at the community level.

 The remedies are clear. First and foremost, we must restore independence and integrity to state Electoral Commissions through legislative reforms insulating them from overt executive interference and political pressures.

Strict enforcement of constitutional term limits for local councils must also be implemented to prevent capricious dissolutions.

However, the boldest solution may be to entirely decouple local governments from the overweening grasp of state regimes. We should explore taking local government administration off the state level and instead place it fully under federal oversight and statute.

This could finally grant local governments the financial autonomy and insularity from state political machinations that they have been  Former President Buhari took initial steps in this direction through Executive Order 10 in 2020, mandating states to respect budgetary allocations to local governments.

 A Federal High Court also ruled in favor of the federal government being able to enforce financial autonomy for local councils. We must build on this legal momentum.

Fully devolving oversight of local government areas to federal jurisdiction, while leaving duties like education and agriculture to local control, could be the radical reformation required to revitalize this crucial tier of governance.

State regimes have repeatedly demonstrated they cannot be entrusted as impartial custodians.

 For too long, Nigeria’s local governments have existed in a precarious, semi-autonomous twilight state subject to the whims of power-hungry state regimes.

 This systemic undermining has stifled true grassroots democracy and forestalled critical investment in our rural communities.

Both our constitution and moral principles demand we rectify this injustice and empower the local governments to serve as resilient foundations of democratic governance and human development.

We can ill afford to continue as a democracy crippled from the local level upward. The choice is clear – revive the sanctity of local elections and governance, or watch the cornerstone of our republic’s vibrancy crumble further.

 For the sake of our people and our place on the world’s stage, the time has come to muster the political will and return local democracy to the people. The future of our nation’s democracy may very well hinge on meeting this challenge.

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