Reforms to Improve Local Accountability in Nigeria

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, appears to have placed good governance at the forefront of his political agenda. He is considering a constitutional amendment that would limit governors and presidents to a single longer term in office. This proposal is aimed at reducing the violence and political jockeying associated with elections in Nigeria by ensuring a candidate only stands for one election with a longer ‘breathing space’ between elections. President Jonathan is said to be considering an additional set of reforms, the most effective of which is to do away with the State-Local Council joint accounts and to grant Nigeria’s 774 local governments financial autonomy. Local councils in Nigeria represent the third layer of government after the federal government and state governments. Federal and state government allocations to local councils are deposited into special “State Joint Local Government Accounts.” Through these accounts, local governments are supposed to finance primary, adult and vocational education; agriculture and natural resource development, as well as health services.

Unfortunately, the existing joint account framework has been particularly vulnerable to abuse. Local council chairmen are typically nominated by political party “kingmakers” who help to finance their election campaigns. Because politicking in the country is quite expensive, federal allocations to local councils have become the means of paying back “kingmakers” for supporting their election campaigns. Keeping the political party happy is often at the forefront of councilmen’s agenda and addressing the needs of the local constituents – who have very little say in who stands for election – comes second.  By the time the political party elites receive their share of the funds and the council chairmen remove their “entitlement,” there is very little left for local council development programs. Local council leaders are beholden to the entrenched interests of their political parties and those who refuse to “share” federal government allocations are often not nominated for re-election. Some devastating consequences of this misuse are demonstrated in the country’s high infant mortality and low literacy rates: Nigeria is ranked among the top 10 countries with the highest infant mortality rate in the world (91.54 deaths/1,000 live births) and it has an adult literacy rate of only 61 percent. These outcomes are likely to improve if local governments are given greater financial autonomy.

Granting local government’s financial autonomy is necessary to facilitate local development by creating the space for local leaders to invest in their constituents and to limit the opportunities for abuse by political parties. Critics of the proposal to eliminate State-Local Council joint accounts point to a few instances of success as justification for maintaining the status quo. The most commonly cited “success” case is in Lagos State, where Governor Babatunde Fashola has facilitated significant local development by managing resources prudently. However, Mr. Fashola particularly stands out because he is an anomaly; very few governors have managed their state’s resources as prudently Mr. Fashola. Local development should not only be possible when “accidental altruists” become state governors because, frankly, such leaders are rare.

The World Bank’s Quantitative Service Delivery Survey (QSDS) of Nigeria’s health care sector found evidence of widespread leakage in public resources in the delivery of primary health services by local governments. In one state, 42 percent of health staff had not been paid for 6 months due to public resource leakages. One key recommendation from that study is to provide Nigerians with greater information about the resources and responsibilities of their local representatives so that the public can hold leaders accountable.

There is a valid concern that financial autonomy for local governments will not necessarily reduce theft or mismanagement. Evidence suggests that councilmen’s fortunes change dramatically within months of assuming office in ways that their salaries and allowances cannot support. Nigeria needs strong institutions that impose constraints on leaders so that outcomes are not dependent on the characteristics of leaders, but rather on the institutions themselves. In order to institute good governance in the country, President Jonathan must find ways to ensure council financial autonomy is accompanied by credible instruments that make the council chairmen answerable to local constituents.

Historically, one of the most common accountability mechanisms was for people to “vote with their feet” in protest of poor or corrupt leadership. Constituents would simply move elsewhere to escape bad leadership.   This is not realistic in modern states with fixed borders. In advanced democracies, local councils have functioned well because of effective checks that balance political party objectives and local constituency interests. However, these checks are weak or non-existent in Nigeria. Elsewhere in West Africa and particularly in Ghana, political parties are, by law, not involved in local elections. Local constituents vote for candidates not based on party affiliation but on visible credentials. Barring political parties from participation in local government elections would remove the stronghold political parties have on local councilmen. While a plan to adopt this system is unlikely to receive high-level support, it is certainly worth consideration.

In addition to providing more information about local government budget allocation and use, we recommend the Nigerian constitution be amended to allow the people to recall non-performing elected local government officials. It is not enough to simply provide more information to the public, there needs to be mechanisms for citizens to act on that information. The power to recall officials will ensure elected officials prioritize the needs of their local constituents and deliver promised goods and services.

Ultimately, average Nigerians do not care about how long the president or governor is in office, they care about a system that can effectively deliver the necessary goods and services, needed for their wellbeing. Strategies to improve governance in Nigeria should be centered on how to design a system that is more accountable to people at this level.