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Local governments are not sovereign unlike independent nation-states. It is a subordinate government, which derives its existence and power from law enacted by a superior government. The nature and structure of transactions or interactions between the three tiers of government determine the degree of autonomy. Local government in Nigeria is rooted on historical antecedents of reforms. The objective of the study is to show that the unwillingness of most state governments to adhere to the constitutional provisions on establishing democratically elected, freestanding councils is a fundamental problem about defining Nigeria’s federalism. This study examines the contradictions in local government system and suggests that the sustainability of local government autonomy should anchor on improved revenue base adherence to constitutional provisions, political stability, accountability and transparency in governance. Materials for this study have been drawn mainly from secondary sources found in libraries and archives in Nigeria; academic and other resources available in the internet, local and international publications (books and learned journals). The strategy of content analysis was used to systematically analyses secondary data in view of the historical cum contemporary nature of the study. It then concludes with suggestions for possible solution.





1.1 Background to the Study

Federalism, according to Wheare (1963), is the method of dividing powers so that the central and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent. He said that the characteristics of this Federal Principle are the division of powers among levels of government, a written constitution showing this division of powers and co-ordinate, not sub-ordinate supremacy of the two levels of government with respect to their functions (Wheare, 1953:10). The practice of federalism in Nigeria is one of the legacies the British colonial masters bequeathed to Nigeria. Local government is born out of federalism because federalism has to do with the division of power between the central and the component units, thus local government is a component in a federal system, it is recognized as a third tier of government which is charged with the responsibility at the grass root. The local government performs certain functions assigned to it by the constitution and the local government is to be autonomous on its own to carry out all its responsibilities without interference from the central government. The local government should do precisely the word government in its own sphere. The evolution of local government in Nigeria has undergone a lot of changes and all these are geared towards making the local government a system that could serve the purpose for its creation. But specifically in 1976, under General Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, introduced the 1976 local government reform. The reform recognized the local government as the third tier of government in the nation and it was expected to do precisely what the word local government implies that is, governing at the local level. The reforms also intend to stimulate democratic self government, encourage initiative and leadership potential and entrain the principle of this reform for the local government to be autonomous; having the freedom to recruit and manage its own staff, raise and manage its own finances, make policies, laws and provide services within the limits of its resources and functions without interference, the local government system in Nigeria still have some constraints that have impeded it’s autonomy (Okoli, 2005: 107).

Arguably, the scholarly discourse and investigation in constitutional studies and federalism, particularly in respect of local government autonomy, is engendered mainly by the overbearing powers of the state and sometimes lack of elected executive chairmen at the grassroots. State encroachment into local government affairs and their total control of the local councils by appointed committees who are loyalist to the State Governors has thus triggered research works aimed at reversing such encroachment given the immense role that can be played in grassroots politics by the local government. In Nigeria, reforms have been articulated and executed in a bid to correct certain perceived excessive state encroachment, abuse of powers and the use of undemocratic leaders and caretaker committee to run the local governments by the state governments in Nigeria. Of all government reforms deliberately put in place to address this problem, the 1976 local government reform which for the first time recognized local government as a third tier, accords autonomous powers to the local councils and reduced excessive politicking of state over local government and occupies an enviable place in Nigeria’s political system.

More so, the 1999 constitution of Nigeria provides what may be regarded as basic and rather comprehensive legal framework for true federalism. This constitution has improved on the 1979 constitution of Nigeria in seeking to promote federalism both in its classical formulation and as a tool for achieving the much needed unity in diversity. The features include, amongst others, a supreme written constitution, a pre-determined distribution of authority between Federal and State governments, a provision for an amending process with the active participation of both levels of government, some measure of financial autonomy for States and the judiciary exercising powers of judicial review. While providing for the vertical separation of powers among the three arms of government – the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, the constitution also provides for the vertical division of powers between the Federal, State and, to a lesser extent, the Local government. The constitution thus provides for three tiers of government with fairly well-defined functions and powers although in some cases, this may be seen to be lopsided.

Unfortunately too, it would appear that the constitutional provisions on local government system is less copious and have given rise to conflicts, confusion and questions as to the relationship of local government with the state and federal governments. Irrespective of the nature and extent of flaws that may characterize local government autonomy in principle and practice in Nigeria, it has, for some time, become an important issue for considerations at the National Assembly. Not surprisingly, it has been subjected to various critical assessments. The foregoing nevertheless, not much intellectual efforts have been deployed in examining the local government autonomy as a vehicle for redressing inordinate usurpation of powers of local governments by state governments in grassroots politics in the country. The argument is that, the notion of true federalism is predicated upon the autonomy of all the component units within a federating state. This study is intended to take an excursion into the recent past history of the local government system in Nigeria as a foundation for our interpretation of the provisions of the constitution on this subject. Against this background, this work examines Federal Principle and Local Government Autonomy in Nigeria to find out what has went wrong.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

An American Scholar Wheare (1963) defined federalism as an arrangement where there are two levels of government, the central and the regional, both working directly on the people. These two levels of government are independent and co-ordinate in its sphere. In the distribution of powers between them, issues of national concern are assigned to the central government while issues of local interest are left to the states. In general, the characteristics of the federal government are inter alia the separateness and independence of each level of government, mutual non-interference in the distribution of power. The 1976 local government reform in Nigeria made local government as a third tier of government. Section 7 (9) of 1997 constitution provides that legislative powers of local government shall be vested in the local government council. This means that local government has legislative powers just like the federal and state governments (Nwabueze, 1983).

All over the world, the modern trend in the attainment of good governance and delivery of the dividends of democracy is to decentralize. Decentralization and autonomy bring about sound, efficiency and effective public administration. The International Journal of Advanced Legal Studies and Governance has observed that “autonomy is preferred in most nation-states in order to promote rapid development of the country; this manifests itself in the establishment of local governments.

Available evidence shows that local government as the closest government to the people is not totally autonomous. Its autonomy in relation to other tiers of government has been quite complex and sometimes controversial. There have been concerted and sustained arguments that the 774 local government areas in Nigeria are contributing too little to national development. Overtime, many of our local councils seem not to bother about the statutory responsibilities as contained in the fourth schedule of the (1999 constitution). Although, this is contrary to what happens in the developed countries like United States of America where they build and maintain roads, creates jobs and bring government closer to the people. The Nigerian local government system has changed from being an organ of bringing government and dividends of democracy closer to the people to an organ for compensating political acolytes of the ruling parties in the states. This has created serious problem and has continually hampered development at the grassroots level.

For any responsive and dependable political system, the development of the rural areas must be its major concern. Development will be insignificant in such a political system if the government does not positively affect the life of the people of the grassroots or if development eludes the grassroots dwellers. Therefore, the problem of governance, particularly at the local level, has been in a doldrums in the political history of Nigeria. These problems have been documented and they include corruption and mismanagement, lack of adequate manpower, lack of autonomy, inadequate planning, inadequate revenue, poor implementation of policies, lack of participation by the people and intergovernmental conflict.

The major problem is the existence of control of one level of government by another in any aspect (Abonyi, 2005).  Local government is dominated by the Federal and State governments.  They do not have their own autonomy making them too dependent on the other levels of governments.  Mention must be made of the problem of finding the best method of channeling revenue from one level of government to another especially from the Federal to the Local Government (Ugwu, 1998:90). To appreciate the depth of crisis in the Federal system in Nigeria, one has to follow the recent trend of the raging controversy between the Federal and State Governments over the exercise of power or control of revenue resources of local government on how not to have assumed the undue prominence given to it as a constitutional question if Nigerian leaders, particularly the Federal level had adhered strictly to the norms of federalism and followed the precedents established by the past democratic governments in Nigerian federation.

In Nigeria, the issue of sharing resources among the three levels of government has remained controversial due to lack of acceptable formula.  It generates tension and bad blood among the three tiers of government.  This has resulted in setting up of different committees or commissions to prescribe the formula to be used.  Also there exists a conflict between the Federal, State and Local government over acceptable formula for sharing revenue.  For instance, the conflict is usually whether the principle of derivation, need, natural interest or landmass should be used as a basis for the purpose.  Even when these principles may be generally accepted as the main basis for working out revenue allocation formula, conflict might arise following as to which of the principles takes precedence over others as the main criteria for sharing the revenue. This is the problem of tax jurisdiction, which refers to the problem of which aspect of government should collect what revenue over a particular area.  These have been serious problems between the Federal, State and Local Governments.  Their share of tax revenue seriously affects local governments.  They are the lowest level of government. Likewise they collect the least amount of tax revenue, which makes them still stagnant.

The aim of this work, therefore, is to strengthen the discourse for local government autonomy which will put the country on the pedestal of a true federation away from the present charade and political rhetoric. In essence, the local government system in Nigeria is problematic. The problem expresses itself in the law establishing local government, its structure and the kind of autonomy both the federal and state governments’ devolve to the local government as the third tier of government.

1.3 Research Questions

Therefore, the study will seek to provide verifiable answers to the problems highlighted above based on the following questions:

  1. Does Federalism guarantee local government autonomy?
  2. Does Nigeria local government system lack autonomy?
  3. Are there impediments to local government autonomy in Nigeria?

1.4 Objectives of the Study

Every research work encapsulates and embodies diverse objectives to be achieved at the end of the research. Thus, the broad objective of this research work is to assess “Federal principle and local government autonomy in Nigeria”. Specifically however, the study attempts to:

  1. To ascertain if federalism guarantees local government autonomy.
  2. To investigate if Nigeria local government system is fully autonomous.
  • To x-ray impediments to local government autonomy in Nigeria.

1.5 Significance of the Study

The significance of this study is divided into two viz: Theoretical and practical.

At the theoretical level, it will add to the frontier of knowledge of Nigerian Federalism and local government autonomy. This research will serve as a resource basis to other scholars and researchers interested in carrying out further research in this field, subsequently if applied will go to an extent to provide new explanation to the topic.

At the practical level, the study will help our policy makers and those in power to see the negative effect of lack of local government autonomy, and in a way make the leaders see reasons or how effective the government at the grass root (local government) will become if given full autonomy.

1.6 Research Hypotheses

This research work is anchored on the following assumptions:

  1. That federalism seems to guarantee local government autonomy.
  2. That Nigeria local government system lacks autonomy.
  3. That there are impediments to local government autonomy in Nigeria.

1.7 Method of Data Collection

Just as a builder relies on a building plan and a voyager uses a compass to guide his voyage. In this study, we adopted the use of secondary source of data collection. The secondary source of data collection is also justified due to its reliable and scientific facts and ideas must be supplemented with empiricism.

The secondary source of data includes materials like; text books, newspapers, magazines, government publications research papers, journals handbooks, internet etc. Moreover, we shall adopt content analysis as our method of investigation. This involves reading meaning into materials that are collected for the purpose of achieving reliable and verifiable conclusion.

1.8 Limitations of the Study

The researcher met with some problem in undertaking this study, notably in some areas of data collecting.  The problems are as follows:

Time was a problem as the time allowed for the study was grossly inadequate. The researcher has to use the time allowed for lectures for research.

Resources was another constraint as the researcher was unable to execute the work more effectively due to insufficient financial resources because of this, the researcher has to make use of the little information he could get.



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