One of the first things any Nigerian relocating to Europe or North America will realize — if you’re paying any attention — is the extent to which the quality of daily life depends on local / municipal governments: local transport systems (bus networks for example), waste management, emergency services, neighbourhood roads, neighbourhood recreation, availability of housing, even.
Strong and functioning county/council/canton systems make a lot of the difference that we envy and aspire to in developed countries.
That buses show up on time, or that your garbage is cleared like clockwork, or that your kids can find a good school in the neighbourhood to attend, has much more to do with local officials than with the President/Prime Minister.
Abuja is important, no doubt, and I’m not here to say it isn’t, neither am I here to deflect attention or responsibility from it. It is very important, like all Federal Governments everywhere in the world.
But I’m not sure there’s anywhere in the world where Federal Governments are directly responsible for the functioning of such life-impacting services as local transport or even education.
It is never enough to simply diagnose the dysfunctions of Nigeria, we must go past the diagnosis to think hard and deep about the ways in which the systems we admire are actually different from ours, and become interested in plotting how we can move from where we are towards where we want to be.
Nigeria will not develop to the levels we want without fundamental shifts in local governance, and especially in the attitudes of Nigerians to local governance. I think it is clear that we need to direct a lot more activism in this direction.
Right now it feels like most of the activism in the country is directed at the tier of government that is by its very nature the most distant from the people, while everyone ignores the closest tier(s) and assumes that this is a sensible thing to do. It is not.
It is important to keep the pressure on Abuja, of course, but even importanter, in my view, to pile it on local governments and the State Governors who currently control them.
If Nigeria will work as we want it to, ‘local’ government must work, providing progressively better services in education, healthcare, transportation, recreation, waste management, security even.
Working local governments mean neighbourhoods that are illuminated at night, drainage systems that are not blocked by waste, and that are properly sealed, clean markets and neighbourhoods, the availability of community parks and sports facilities, etc.
These are among the simple things that define life in a developed country. Nigeria will have to take definite steps in that direction, and it starts with functioning local governance.
It will of course not be by copy-pasting directly from abroad, but those models can provide the inspiration to innovate in our own context-specific ways: local content for local contexts.
Right now, it seems that estate and residents’ associations have stepped in to fill the yawning gap created by the absence of local government, but that is not and will never be ideal.
Amongst the long list of proposed constitutional amendments currently making their way through the long amendment process, is financial autonomy for local governments — which means freeing them — to some degree — from the overbearing control of State Governors.
I very much hope that amendment sails through, and that, even more importantly, it achieves what it is intended to achieve.
- Tolu Ogunlesi