Friday, January 23, 2009

Local Government Reform and Constitutional Review in Nigeria

Local Government Reform and Constitutional Review in Nigeria
culled from


Otive Igbuzor

Programme Co-ordinator Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)


The problem of governance particularly at the local level has been a recurring decimal in the political history of Nigeria. Local government in Nigeria started during the colonial era when it was vested in traditional rulers and it operated in a very undemocratic manner. Over the years, efforts have been made to democratize local government and make it more responsive to developmental needs. The problems of local government in Nigeria have been documented and they include among other things, inadequate planning, poor implementation of policies, inadequate revenue, corruption and mismanagement, lack of adequate manpower, lack of autonomy, lack of participation by the people and intergovernmental conflict.[i] In this paper, we examine the evolution of local government system in Nigeria against the background of recent moves by the federal government to reform the local government system in the country. We argue that present the present effort is an attempt to reverse the gains that have been made over the years to make local government more democratic. While there are problems with the running of local government (just like the other tiers of government) we posit that what is needed is expansion of democratic space, entrenchment of democratic culture and the promotion of good governance, transparency and accountability. The remaining part of this paper is divided into six parts. The first part attempts to describe what local government is and the desirability of local government. The second part gives the history of local government in Nigeria situating within that history the major reforms that have been carried out from the colonial era till date. The third part highlights the dominant role the military has played in local governance. We argue that the military laid the basis for the undemocratic nature of the local government and the erosion of local government autonomy. The fourth part highlights the problems of local government in the fourth republic particularly in terms of tenure and succession. The fifth part addresses the issue of local government and constitutional review in Nigeria while the final part is the concluding section with recommendations.

Local government, which can be simply described as government at the local level has been defined by various scholars in different ways. The United Nations Office for Public Administration defines local government as:

a political subdivision of a nation or (in a federal system) State, which is constituted by law and has substantial control of local affairs including the powers to impose taxes or to exact labour for prescribed purposes. The governing body of such an entity is elected…[ii]

The 1976 local government reform defines local government as:

government at local level exercised through representative council established by law to exercise specific powers within defined areas. These powers should give the council substantial control over local affairs as well as the staff and institutional and financial powers to initiate and direct the provision of services and to determine and implement projects so as to complement the activities of the State and federal governments in their areas, and to ensure, through devolution of these functions to these councils and through the active participation of the people and their traditional institutions, that local initiative and response to local needs and conditions are maximized.[iii]

The definitions above bring out four key characteristics of local government. First, local government officials are elected. Regular elections at specified period of time is a feature of local government. In fact, the main distinguishing characteristic that differentiates a local government from a local administration is the fact that while the officials of the former are elected those of the later are appointees of the center to implement policies of the center. Second, the local government unit must have a legal personality distinct from the State and Federal Governments. Thirdly, the local government must have specified powers to perform a range of functions and finally, it must enjoy substantial autonomy. Local government autonomy means that the local government is elected at the local level and operate independently of the State and Federal Government. The local government is no longer an appendage or field office of the State government. The characteristics of local government autonomy include among other things ability to make its own laws, rules and regulations; formulate, execute and evaluate its own plans and the right to recruit, promote, develop and discipline its own staff.

Scholars and practitioners of local government over the years have been confronted with the question of the desirability or otherwise of local government. Various arguments have been advanced for the need for local government. It has been argued that local people will understand the problems confronting them more than other people and will be in better position to address the problems.[iv] In addition, it is well established that people are prone to resisting impositions from above. Local government therefore provides opportunity for people to determine who should govern them at the local level. Finally, local government promotes personal liberty and participation of the people in governance. This is particularly important as it has been documented that participation by citizens is not only crucial for democracy and development but also that when citizens participate in the planning, execution, utilization and assessment of social amenities of facilities designed to improve their welfare, success of those efforts are assured[v] Closely related to the above is the need to train people in the act of governance. It has been argued that local government serves as training ground for leaders who will subsequently move to State and federal levels. This is why local government has been described as “nurseries of democracy”. This is particularly important in developing countries like Nigeria, which have been under long years of colonial and military rule with very limited experience in democratic governance.

The history of local government system in Nigeria dates back to the colonial days. Although contact with Europeans dates back to the fifteenth century, it was not until 1861 before the first steps were taken to establish an administration by Britain. The colonial administration that was established was based on indirect rule. This requires that the administration should be carried out through traditional rulers and institutions. This led to the establishment of native authorities in their most rudimentary forms from the 1890s to the 1930s. The main function of the native authorities was to maintain law and order.

The first native authority ordinance recognized traditional rulers as native authorities. This was easily done in Northern Nigeria but there was a problem in identifying who those authorities were in Southern Nigeria. This necessitated the first reforms in the 1930s and the 1940s culminating in the establishment of chiefs-in-council and chiefs-and-council in place of sole native authorities. The Chief-in-Council is made up of the chief and members of council. The chief presides at all meetings and acts in accordance with the majority of opinion in the council. But if he disagrees with the council, he would take whatever action he thought best and inform the Governor of the region. Contrarily, in the Chief-and-Council, the chief has no power to act against the decision or advice of the council. Under this arrangement, people particularly representatives of missionaries and British trading interest were appointed into the native authorities. The process of appointment of nominated members by the colonial government meant that nationalists were not appointed to serve on the councils. This led to further agitation for reforms in the native authorities.

In the years 1950-55, the first largely elected local government council based on the British Whitehall model emerged in Lagos and the former Eastern and Western regions. Traditional rulers constituted not more than 25 percent of most councils in the then Western region and Lagos. However, in Northern Nigeria, the changes were more gradual. The legal framework for local government at this period was provided by the Eastern region local government ordinance of 1950, the Western region local government law of 1952 and the 1954 Native Authority law in Northern Nigeria. By this time, the councils were given a wider range of functions including primary education, health, police, judiciary e.t.c. This is in line with the implementation of the colonial government’s ten-year welfare and development plan (1946-1956). The councils also enjoyed a great measure of autonomy in financial, personnel and general administrative matters. It can therefore be said that the 1950s was the era of pupilage for councils in modern local government throughout Nigeria.

Between 1960-1966, there was a decline in the prestige and responsibilities of local authorities. In the former Western region, the local government (Amendment) law 1960 abolished the powers of councils to levy education and general rates on the basis of need. In Lagos, there was a high rate of default in the payment of property rates including government institutions, which reduced the revenue of the local councils. The situation in Eastern Nigeria was similar to the West before the outbreak of the civil war in 1967. In Northern Nigeria, there were gradual changes in the structure of the councils with increasing numbers of elected or appointed non-traditional office holders becoming members of local authorities. The result was that the local authorities had a stable administration, which enabled them to assume responsibility, with some degree of success for more complex services like primary education. Between 1969/71, some state government introduced some changes in the structure of their councils.

In 1976, the Federal Government in collaboration with the state government embarked on extensive reforms of local government. The objectives of the reform was outlined as follows:

§ To make appropriate services and development activities responsive to local wishes and initiatives by devolving or delegating them to local representative bodies.

§ To facilitate the exercise of democratic self-government close to the grass roots of our society and to encourage initiative and leadership potential.

§ Mobilisation of human material resources through the involvement of members of the public in their local development, and

§ To provide a two-way channel of communication between local communities and government (both State and Federal)

For the first time in the history of local government in Nigeria, a uniform system was developed for the whole country. According to the then Chief of staff Brigadier Shehu M. Yar Adu’a in his forward to the Guidelines for Local Government Reform (1976):

In embarking on these reforms, the Federal Military Government was essentially motivated by the necessity to stabilize and rationalize Government at the local level. This must of necessity entail the decentralization of some significant functions of state governments to local levels in order to harness local resources for rapid development.[vi]

Unlike previous reform measures, which were highly restricted in scope and range, the 1976 reforms conceptualized local government as the third tier of government operating within a common institutional framework with defined functions and responsibilities. As the third tier of government, the local government gets statutory grants from Federal and state governments, and is expected to serve as agent of development especially in rural areas. According to the 1976 reform, 75 percent of members of the council are to be elected through the secret ballot on a no-party basis under the direct and indirect systems of election. The remaining 25 percent are to be nominated by the State government. Following the reform, the Federal Government in 1977, allocated 5 percent of federally collected revenue to local government.

The intentions of the 1976 reform were debated by the constitution drafting Committee and the Constituent assembly in 1978. The result is that the 1979 constitution reaffirmed the development function as provide for in section 7, subsection 3.

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.[vii]

In addition, section seven of the 1979 Constitution provided for a democratically elected local government councils for the country. Unfortunately, during the Alhaji Shehu Shagari regime (1979-1983), the constitutional provisions were neglected. No elections were held and sole administrators were appointed. The Mohammadu Buhari regime (1983-1984) continued with the system of sole administrators. During Babangida regime (1984-1992) there were certain reforms aimed at ensuring local government autonomy. These included the abolition of the Ministry of Local Government; establishment of executive and legislative arms in local councils; and direct allocation to local government without passing through State government. The regime also increased local government statutory allocation from 15 percent to 20 percent with effect from 1992. It is important to point out that the intergovernmental relations between the Federal, state and local government has been characterized by both co-operation and conflict; but it is conflict that has predominated State-local Government relations[viii]. Some state governments have been known to have hijacked and diverted Federal government’s allocation to local governments. This is why one of the features of the reform during Ibrahim Babangida’s regime was to make allocations directly to local governments without going through state government.

The military has played a dominant role in the history, politics and constitutional development of Nigeria. There is hardly any analysis on any socio-economic, historical and political issue in Nigeria that can be done without looking at the impact of the military. Out of the 43 years of post independence Nigeria, the military has ruled the country for 29 years. The military no doubt has become a major force in determining and shaping socio-political relations.[ix] The Nigerian regiment of the West African frontier Force set up in 1897 metamorphosed into the Nigerian army in 1958, two years to independence. The army was set up to defend the country from external forces and help in the maintenance of law and order within the country. But the army went beyond its mandate to intervene in the Nigerian political scene. The first military coup took place in Nigeria in 1966 and all local government councils were abolished and sole administrators were appointed. The concept of sole administratorship is autocratic and undemocratic. It does not allow for participation by the people. Consultation and the building of consensus were jettisoned and local government autonomy was destroyed. The major reform of the local government system in Nigeria was carried out under a military regime in 1976 and it carried with it the undemocratic character of the military. For instance, according to the guidelines of the reform, 25 percent of members of the council are to be nominated by a State Military Governor. In addition, the election of the chairman of the council is subject to ratification by the State Governor. This laid the basis of the interference in the conduct of the affairs of local government by military and civilian Governors till date.

Nigerian political history has been divided into four republics of civilian regime: 1960-66(first republic), 1979-83(Second Republic), 1990-92(Third Republic) and 1999-date (fourth republic). In preparation for the fourth republic, local government election was held on 5 December 1998. They did not assume office until six months later in May. 1999. The electoral law under which the official of the local government were elected (the Basic Constitutional and Transitional Provisions Decree No. 36 of 1998) provided for tenure of 3 years. This means that their tenure was supposed to end by May, 2002. But the local government officials desired to have their tenure extended by one year to be at par with all other political leaders in other tiers of government. They found ready support in the National Assembly where many of the leading officials are engaged in struggle for political power with the State Governors. The National Assembly then extended the tenure of local government officials by legislation. In any case the matter was settled by the Supreme Court, which held that “no law by the National Assembly can increase or alter the tenure of elected officers of local government.” Meanwhile, although elections into local government was to be conducted by State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC), the Independent National Electoral commission had the responsibility of updating the voters register and making same available to SIECs. The SIECs fixed May 18, 2002 for elections into the local government councils but INEC failed to produce and make a voters register available to the SIECs. The governors then appointed caretaker committees to serve for 3 months. A new date for the lection was chosen to be August 10, 2002. Three new political parties were then registered and postponement of the elections was canvassed to give the new parties time to prepare. A new date of December was agreed upon. By December 2002, INEC registered 24 additional political parties making the number of political parties in the country to be thirty. Attention was now shifted to the national elections, which were held in April/May, 2003. After the elections into the National Assembly, Presidential/Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly elections, the Forum of State Independent Electoral Commissions (FOSIECOM) agreed on 21 June, 2003 as the date to conduct the local government elections. On 17 June 2003, the forum of the 36 Governors met and resolved to push for constitutional amendment to empower State Governors to appoint council chairmen and councilors.[x] A day later the Governors met with the President at the council of State meeting where they decided to set up a Technical committee on the Review of the Structure of Local government Councils in Nigeria with the following members:

a. Alh. Umaru Sanda Ndayako(Etsu Nupe)- Chairman

b. Alh. Liman Chiroma(representing North East)

c. Barrister John Ochoga(representing North central)

d. Prof. Godwin Odenigwe(representing South East)

e. Mr. Augustine Udoh-Ekong(representing South South)

f. Prof. Akin Mabogunje (representing South west)

g. Senator Tunde Ogbeha( Senate)

h. Hon Austin Okpara (House of Representatives)

i. Mrs Abieyuwa Garba (representing Women)

j. Mr. Venatius Ikem (representing Youth)

h. Alh. I.B. Sali (Secretary)

The terms of reference of the committee are as follows:

(i) Examine the problem of inefficiency and high cost of governance with a view to reducing the costs and wastages at the three tiers of government;

(ii) Review the performance of local governments within the last four years and consider the desirability or otherwise of retaining the local government as the third tier of government. In that regard consider, among other options, the adoption of a modified version of the pre-1976 local government system of government.

(iii) Examine the high cost of electioneering campaign in the country and consider among other options, the desirability of whether political parties, rather than individual office seekers, should canvass for votes in elections, and

(iv) Consider any other matter, which in the opinion of the technical committee are germane to the goal of efficient structure of governance in Nigeria.

The reasons given for setting up the committee include the non-performance or gross under-performance of the local governments; the high cost of governments and near prohibitive costs of electioneering campaigns to individual political contestants in Nigeria and atomization and continual fragmentation of local government councils including impractical division of towns and cities into unworkable mini-local governments. An analysis of the above problems will show clearly that the problems are not unique to local government. On the charge of non-performance, many Nigerians would argue that most states of the federation and even the Federal Government are guilty of the same charge. In addition, there is a general misconception that the local government is the most corrupt tier of government. Nobody has carried out any empirical study to compare the levels of corruption among the three tiers of government. In 1999, immediately after President Obasanjo assumed office, it was reported that a permanent secretary in the Federal civil service stole the sum of four hundred million naira in one single transaction. One just wonders whether that level of fraud is possible in a local government. It is my considered view that because many of the officials in local government are relatively poor before going into office, their transformation from embezzlement of public fund is more glaring. There is corruption in all tiers of government. What is required is a comprehensive, well focused and concerted effort to fight corruption in Nigeria. Furthermore, the reason of the prohibitive cost of electioneering as the reason to single out local government for reform is laughable. Any person resident in Nigeria will know that contestants to local government as councilors spend the least amount of money. The ‘high spenders’ are the contestants for the offices of Governor and President. Reform is needed in Nigeria about party financing and campaign financing but local government is obviously not the most problematic.

There are three curious issues regarding the membership and terms of reference of the Technical committee on the Review of the Structure of Local Government Councils in Nigeria. First, all over the world, participation of ordinary people in governance is being promoted. This recognizes the fact that governance issues are not necessarily technical issues that people with relevant experience cannot handle. The fixation for technical committees in Nigeria is the difficulty of overcoming elitist approach and arrogance. Secondly, a traditional ruler, the Etsu Nupe, heads the committee. As shown earlier, the reforms that have been made in local government system over the years consistently decreased the role and importance of traditional rulers and increased the participation of the people. It will be interesting to know whether this is not a ploy to create role for traditional rulers. Thirdly, the terms of reference clearly states that the committee should consider, among other options, the adoption of a modified version of the pre-1976 local government system of government. There are two main features of pre-1976 local government system that is relevant here. First, there is dominance and unrestrained powers of traditional rulers. Second, the State Governor appoints the officials of the local government. Meanwhile, even before the committee was formed, the chairman of the Governors forum, Alh. Abdullahi Adamu told a press conference that the Governors are calling for an amendment of the councils to allow Governors to appoint leaders of local government councils.

The 1999 Constitution provided for a democratically elected local government council in section 7 of the constitution.[xi] But while the constitution made provisions for the tenure of federal and state political office holders to be four years, it did not make provisions for the tenure of local government office holders. However, the constitution in the concurrent legislative list gave the National Assembly the power to make laws “with respect to the registration of voters and the procedure regulating elections to a local government council.” The same constitution gave the powers to the State Houses of Assembly to make “laws with respect to election to a local government council…” The confusion created by the constitution later became a source of controversy between the National Assembly and State Governors, which subsequently became a subject of litigation at the Supreme Court as mention earlier. The confusion caused by the provisions of the 1999 Constitution on local government is just one of the many problems of the 1999 Constitution. It has been documented that there are problems in the 1999 Constitution with regard to the structure of all tiers of government, women, independent commission, revenue allocation and the security sector just to mention a few.[xii] It is recognition of this that the federal government set up a Presidential Technical Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution in October 1999. The Committee submitted its report to the President in February 2001. That process appears to be stalled. It will be recalled that the Federal Government had also set up two other committees (the presidential Committee on the provisions for and Practice of Citizenship and Rights in Nigeria and the Presidential Committee on National Security in Nigeria) whose terms of reference involves review of sections of the constitution. It is quite obvious that what is needed is a comprehensive review of the constitution. The move by the Federal Government to single out the local government is therefore diversionary, retrogressive and a democratic reversal on the gains that have been made over the years on local governance.

The history of local government in Nigeria shows that there are problems of governance issues. Over the years, efforts have been made to reform the local government system and increase the participation of the people. Despite these reforms, there are problems with the local government system. However, these problems are not unique to the local government. They are also prevalent at the State and Federal levels. The present effort to single out the local government for reform with pre-determined terms of reference smacks of military hangover and may actually lead to democratic reversal in local governance. In order to consolidate the gains made in local governance over the years and reposition local government for greater performance, there is the need to reform local government along certain lines. First, local government as a third tier of government should not be scrapped or changed to local administration. Rather, it should be strengthened and democratized. Officials of the local government should always be elected and not appointed. Second, there is the need to put mechanism in place to promote transparency and accountability at all level of governance. In this regard, it will, be crucial to strengthen institutions of horizontal accountability and anti-corruption bodies. In addition, civil society organizations particularly at the local level should be reoriented and empowered to hold elected officials accountable. Moreover, there is a great need to reform the structure of government at all levels (Federal, State and local government). All these will require a comprehensive review of the 1999 Constitution. The Executive and legislature should display the political will and commitment to reform the 1999 Constitution that has been criticized by all strands of society. The reform of the constitution will address other issues that are germane to good governance such as party financing, campaign financing and proper electoral system to mention but a few. Finally, government should place premium on the participation of the people in all governance and development issues. If all these recommendations are implemented, not only the local government system but also other tiers of government will be in a better footing to deliver what Nigerians have termed dividends of democracy.



Abubakar, A.Y.(1980), The Role of Local Government in Social, Political and Economic Development in Nigeria(1976-1979). Zaria, Department of Local Government Studies, Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University, zaria.

Adamolekun, L. (1983), Public Administration: A Nigerian and Comparative Perspective. NewYork, Longman Inc.

Aliyu, A. Y. and Kohen, P. H. (1982), Local autonomy and Inter-Governmental Relations in Nigeria. Zaria, Department of Local Government studies, Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University.

Igbuzor, O (2002), “Making Democracy Work in Nigeria: The Civil Society and Constitutional Reform” in Bujra, A and Adejumobi, S (Eds), Breaking Barriers, Creating New Hopes: Democracy, Civil Society and Good Governance in Africa. Trenton, NJ, USA, Africa World Press, Inc.

Ola, F. R.(1984), Local administration in Nigeria. London, Kegan Paul International Plc

Onibokun, A.G and Faniran, A (1995), Community Based Organisations in Nigerian Urban Centres: A Critical Evaluation of their Achievements and Potentials as Agents of Development. Ibadan, Centre for African Settlement Studies and Development. Monograph Series 7

Orewa, G. O. (1991), Principles of Locxal Government. Lagos, Administrative Staff College of Nigeria.

Orewa, G. O. and Adewumi, J. B. (1983), Local Government in Nigeria: the Changing Scene. Benin City, ethipoe Publishing Corporation.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.


[i] Ademolakun, 1983, Abubakar, 1980 and Orewa, 1991

[ii] Quoted in Ola, F. R.(1984), Local Administration in Nigeria. London, Kegan Paul International Plc

[iii] Guidelines for Local Government Reforms, 1976

[iv] Ola, F. R.(1984), Ibid

[v] Onibokun, A.G and Faniran, A (1995), Community Based Organisations in Nigerian Urban Centres: A Critical Evaluation of their Achievements and Potentials as Agents of Development. Ibadan, Centre for African Settlement Studies and Development. Monograph Series 7

[vi] Guidelines for Local Government Reform Ibid

[vii] The Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria 1979

[viii] Adamolekun, L.1993

[ix] Military

[x] This Day June 18 2003

[xi] The Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, 1999

[xii] Igbuzor, O (2002), “Making Democracy Work in Nigeria: The Civil Society and Constitutional Reform” in Bujra, A and Adejumobi, S (Eds), Breaking Barriers, Creating New Hopes: Democracy, Civil Society and Good Governance in Africa. Trenton, NJ, USA, Africa World Press, Inc.

Otive Igbuzor

Programme Co-ordinator

Centre for Democracy and Development(CDD)

2, Olabode Close, Ilupeju Estate, Lagos.

Tel: 234 1 8043221, 4730705, 08033039797


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