Nigeria, which once tasted the beauty of localism in the shape of effective local governments, states and municipalities, seems to have lost it with the emergence of an overwhelming but ineffective centre that has held sway for many years. Many will remember that before and after independence, local governments, cities, provinces and states exercised more power than the central government which was reduced to an appendage of the more powerful sub-national governments. For example, the Lagos Island Local Government in the early years of the republic held tremendous powers and, of course, resources, to the point where it delivered important governance services.
No more, beginning with military rule in its several authoritarian varieties, the local governments barely now exist, municipalities are a shadow of their former selves while a centripetal mien with a vertical geography of power has long taken over the once impressive outlook of state governments. Under our ‘feeding bottle’ federalism, the states approach the centre with begging bows and as everyone knows the more states are created, the more they resemble subalterns rather than colleagues coequal with the Federal Government. That is perhaps why there has been far more excitement and hoopla about the election at the centre with respect to 2023 than there had been about the state governments that should undergird that centre.
Unknown to us is the fact that strong states and productive sub-nations can do a lot to ameliorate a woefully inefficient centre which has been the undoing of successive governments in the current republic. The trajectory of a state like Lagos in which the Etí Osa Local Government, to illustrate the issue, is almost as rich as some states, constitutes the model of a developmental state within a barely productive and sometimes regressive centre that we have had in several seasons of blight and plight. To be sure, Lagos has not fully expressed the potential of its comparatively humongous resources, but it outclasses several other states in terms of visionary governance, élan and the rush to belong to the 21st century than many other lethargic political entities. Not forgetting, to be sure, that it has had the privilege of being governed in succession by enlightened politicians and technocrats sitting at the cutting-edge of civilising missions.
Recently, the World Bank noted with excitement that a couple of states in Nigeria were beginning to shed the toga of retardation to make forays in several areas of development. This buttresses the saying credited to a former United Nations Secretary-General that if all politics is local, all development is also, if not more, local. So, rather than sit back and continuously lament the failure of the centre, it is time to examine the possibilities of making states and sub-national governments more productive, more welfare-oriented, countervailing thereby the collective misfortunes of Nigerians in successive central governments.
Look around the world and see what other democracies have done with the power of localism. The municipalities and provinces of Canada, even the councils of Great Britain, the specific example of which are the council flats; and the administration and international outlook of the city of London, the security architecture of several European countries in which the police at sub-national levels are well equipped and tremendously fortified to deal with emerging and soaring crime rates, among others. Of course Nigeria could do much better if it obliged those who have insistently canvassed a more decentralised format and governance structure, rather than the antediluvian and rigidly obscure one in which states and other sub-national governments are desperately relegated and count for very little.
One significant reason for paying more attention to the forthcoming elections in the states is the fact that some of our states have populations that exceed those of several European countries which, nonetheless, are winners in the development race. In point of fact, one reason Nigeria lags is because it has not explored the power of the local, containing the expression “small is beautiful”. In terms of quality of life, low corruption, neo-welfare orientation, the Scandinavian countries sit at the top of many global league tables, making them some of the best countries to live in, grow up and rear children. This is not to say that large countries are shut out from the habitat of greatness as China, India have both demonstrated. However, the catch is that they got their structure and leadership right, and have also imbibed the wisdom of decentralisation to the point where locales in democratic India are sometimes ruled by parties which do not control the central governments, but nonetheless, very effective.
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The point of this narrative is for Nigerians as a whole to show far more interest, in electoral terms, in the manner and type of personnel through which state governments are governed in order to bring about redemptive models, especially in cases where central governments are dominated by leadership resembling what in popular parlance is called ‘one-chance’. This is another way of saying that we can unleash the power of locale, habitat and ecology to bring about modernising influences and consequences especially if that power is combined with unity across several states. Even the powers of states in Nigeria have been limited by a retrograde type of statism where neighbours of logical, historical and geographical combinations wither that power by competition, boundary disputes and inter-state rivalries.
It is time, therefore, beginning from next year’s elections, to step back, look around us and invest more in the promise of the sub-national with a view to electing good, decent and visionary leadership which will not perennially wait for the trickle-down resources from the centre but will think outside the box to innovate and save their states from imminent peril. In this perspective, local governments are worthy of notice, except that just as the centre has displaced the states in terms of resource allocation, access to power, and with a constitution pretending to be federalist but which is actually unitary, the states have done pretty much the same things to local governments. Hopefully, if Nigeria ever gets a reformed constitution, not minding the current jamboree and pretenses to reform, the local governments will also get their place in the scheme of things.
No one needs to tell us about the beauty of effective local governments, precisely because they are closer to the people and potentially more responsible to the people they are supposed to look after. One reason the local governments are moribund and disconnected from their communities is that they have been sucked up into party bureaucracies and leadership styles that usurp their functions, do not hold regular elections and are reduced to the follow-follow mentality that robs them of real power and impact.
Nigeria does not need to live perpetually in regret with her young ones scampering out of the country because they do not see a future for them.
One way of remedying the misfortune of misgovernance is to return to the sub-national setting and unleash the power of leadership, making a difference. In this perspective, rather than spend all the time bidding for the centre with its ever more elusive dividends of democracy, groups and non-governmental organisations should show more interest and more activism around the aphorism that all development is local.
Professor Ayo Olukotun is a director at the Oba (Dr.) S. K. Adetona Institute for Governance Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye.
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