Newspaper article International New York Times

In Nigeria, Politics Isn't Local

Newspaper article International New York Times

In Nigeria, Politics Isn't Local

Article excerpt

Community finances are held in the grip of the states, which are controlled by the federal government.

It's famously difficult to know what local governments actually do in Nigeria, but I thought, in a triumph of hope over experience, that I would take another stab at finding out. So I traveled recently to this quiet, peaceful city, the capital of Ogun State and home to half a million people, a good number of them civil servants.

But getting ahold of the local council chairman proved impossible: Mobile phones went unanswered, and when I did get through to one of the many personal assistants the answer was, "He's in a meeting." In the end, I had to settle for two former chairmen. They proved a study in contrasts.

The first, Azeez Adewale Ajayi, a lawyer, met with me alone in his well-appointed chambers, and spoke proudly, if without specifics, about what he had achieved, principally refurbishing primary schools and building new ones. I met the second, Nurudeen Olaleye, a political jobber or fixer, in his sparsely furnished office -- no computer even. The mood was convivial all the same. He spent the interview lauding the state governor he had served under, as associates came and went, conveying requests for favors or political services rendered. One supplicant wanted help in buying a motorcycle; another for a daughter who was getting married. But the "chairman" -- as this master of bonhomie and the political art of saying nothing is known -- managed to say very little about his actual achievements.

Not that you can really blame either of them. Abeokuta is a typical example of how towns and cities throughout Nigeria are run. Inefficiency and corruption in local government is systemic, embedded in Nigeria's Constitution by an unwieldy, lopsided arrangement in which local community finances are held in the suffocating grip of the states, which are in turn controlled by the federal government.

The Constitution, which ushered in the Fourth Republic in 1999 after more than three decades of almost continuous military rule, states: "The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed." It then lists the councils' many responsibilities, which include primary education, primary health care, libraries, street lighting and other municipal services. However, these responsibilities are breached in myriad ways.

All the country's revenue accrues to the central government, which then disburses it on a monthly basis to the states, which in turn pay the local governments. In theory, this is done according to a fixed percentage; in practice, it doesn't work out that way.

Take primary education. Teachers in Abeokuta and elsewhere are supposed to be paid by the local government. But because their salaries are a substantial chunk of the local allocation of federal funds, money is often diverted. In Ogun State, teachers' paychecks were being delayed by as long as six months. But educators are an articulate lot who know how to organize. They went on strike until the state agreed to pay them directly, deducting the money from the local government allocation.

Another example relates to the first: the persistent complaints by local chairmen that the state governments' sticky fingers leave them just enough to pay staff salaries. …

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