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In Defence Of Local Government Autonomy, By Femi Aborisade

November 29, 2022

In recent time, politicians have contracted prominent lawyers to denounce, in strong terms, the agitation for local government autonomy being championed mainly by the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE). 

It is argued by the forces against local government autonomy that:

those who advocate local government autonomy lack a proper understanding of the concept of “true federalism”.

In a “true Federal system”, there are only two tiers of government – the national or central government and the States.

The local government is not a tier of government, and

Calling for local government autonomy and challenging governors for not giving local governments a free hand to operate depict ignorance of the state of the law.


In this paper, we set out to examine the key arguments of the antagonists of local government autonomy with a view to furthering the cause of local government autonomy.


The first issue to deal with is the claim of “true federalism”. The question is: is there anything called “true federalism”?

My direct response is that it is delusional to argue that there is “true federalism” anywhere in the world. An avalanche of studies exists to dispel the illusion of the existence of “true federalism”. In reality, there is no ideal or true federalism just as there is no false or fake federalism. The theoretical conceptualization and practice of federalism vary across the world on account of historical, political, economic, socio-cultural and legal contexts. 

It has been posited that the core value of federalism is the management of conflicts over who gets what powers, where, when and how, with a view to promoting inclusiveness and preventing exclusiveness and arbitrariness in order to deepen democratic management of society. Within this core concern, societies should interrogate the governance system with a view to deepening democratic practices. 


The antagonists of local government autonomy argue that only the Federal and State Governments are the tiers of government in a Federal system. 

I humbly submit that it is false to say that there are only two tiers of government in a “true federal system” of government. First, we have argued that there is no “ideal” federal system. Conceptually, some scholars have defined “federalism” as a political system where there are at least two levels of government, the central or federal government and other territorial, sub unit governments, which may be variously called, as states, regions, province, republics, unions, etc. See for example, (accessed on 29/11/22). We therefore submit that a federal system of government may have more than two tiers of government, and that does not make Nigeria’s Federalism fake where there exist more than two tiers of government. In the case of Nigeria, there are three tiers of Government, and this is by constitutional provision.


Again, we need to reiterate that there is no “standard” established anywhere with which to measure the structure of a federal system. In the history of Nigeria, for example, the making of Nigeria was not a product of any “federating units”. Nigeria is a product of foreign military powers merging “protectorates” together. Regions, States, local council authorities, by appointment and later through some level of election, followed by local governments/Councils/Areas, and the Constitution of Nigeria are products of proclamations by military Decrees. So, how valid or sustainable is the argument that “in a true federalism, the local government is not a tier of government”? Indeed, the formation of the Nigerian state has not followed any “true” state formation pattern. The emergence of the Nigerian state is peculiar to Nigeria, even though it may share certain similarities with some other nations. 

However, within the context of the Constitution of Nigeria and the interpretation of the same Constitution by appellate Courts, including the apex Court of the land, the local government is recognized as a tier of government.

In AG ABIA STATE & ORS V. AG FEDERATION (2003) LPELR-610(SC), the Supreme Court held as follows:

“I think one thing that stands clear from our decision in ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION v. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF ABIA STATE & 35 ORS (supra) [i.e (2002) 6 NWLR (Pt. 764) 542 delivered on Friday 5th April, 2002] is that, if any of the three tiers of Government decides to form, create or constitute new bodies, or things whatsoever, the tier and that tier of Government alone, must be prepared to fund such things or bodies from its own share of allocation and not any more directly from the Federation Account." Per KUTIGI, JSC (Pp. 39-40, paras. E-A)

Similarly, in TABWASA & ORS V. ADAMAWA STATE GOVT & ORS (2019) LPELR-47326(CA), the Court of Appeal held: 

“The system of democratically elected government gained prominence with the coming into force of a constitutional democracy founded on the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). By this, all tiers of government starting from Federal, through the States to the Local Government Council/Areas, are from the date of commencement of the 1999 Constitution, are to be managed, governed, and administered by persons or officials who are/were democratically elected by the people hence Section 7(1) of the Constitution (as amended) is the guiding constitutional provision for the structure of governance at Local Government levels. In other words, the Constitution, under Section 7(1) guarantees the existence of a democratically elected government at that local level.”


In GOVERNOR EKITI STATE v. OLUBUNMI (2017) NWLR (Pt. 1551) 1, 35, the apex Court held: ".... any action of the governor which has the capacity of undermining the Constitution (as in the instant case where the 1st Appellant purportedly ended the tenure of the Respondents Councils, dissolve them and replace them with Caretaker Committees) is tantamount to executive recklessness which will not be condoned..." 

Therefore, any suggestion that the local government is not a tier of government within the context of Nigeria’s fons et origo, the fundamental law of the land, is a suggestion that undermines the Constitutional democratic arrangement of Nigeria.


Conceptually and legally speaking, where Nigeria’s Federal system is constitutionally donated, it amounts to arbitrariness and executive rascality for State Governors to seek to curtail the freedom of local governments to operate, as held in GOVERNOR EKITI STATE v. OLUBUNMI (supra) by the Supreme Court. 

In the literature, two types of federalism have been identified – the asymmetric and symmetric. Though, in reality, a combination of elements of the two tends to operate. Under the symmetric federalism, power sharing between the federating units is as defined in the Constitution without any unit attempting to unduly infringe on the powers of the other units. In an asymmetric federalism, while federating units enjoy equal constitutional status, some enjoy greater levels of autonomy more than others. This suggests that it is legitimate for those units enjoying less autonomy to seek to deepen the degree of their autonomous existence.

The major problem of a typical Governor is the perception that the local governments and their funds are the direct personal property of the Governor. It is the desire to have absolute, unrestrained control over the funds of the local government that the Governors tend to assault the provisions of Section 7(1) of the Constitution that guarantees the existence of a “democratically elected local government” by dissolution of councils and appointment of caretaker committees and/or rigging elections into the Councils.

One recent event would demonstrate the main reason why State Governors seek to dominate and control local governments. This is the suit instituted by the Governors through the Governors’ Forum and the Attorneys-General of the States against the guidelines issued by the NIGERIAN FINANCIAL INTELLIGENCE UNIT (NFIU) on cash withdrawal from local government accounts. The NFIU’s guideline was entitled “Enforcement, Guidelines and Policies for Mitigation of Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Proliferation of Weapons: NFIU Enforcement and Guidelines to reduce crime vulnerabilities created by cash withdrawal from local government funds throughout Nigeria, effective 1st June, 2019”. The gravamen of the NFIU’s Guidelines is that local government councils should not make cash withdrawal in excess of N500,000 (five hundred thousand Naira) per day. That any withdrawal in excess of N500,000 per day can be made by electronic means or by cheque to facilitate monitoring in the interest of combating money laundering, terrorism financing, proliferation of arms and other forms of corruption and abuse of power. The Governors were not happy at the Guidelines. The Local Governments did not complain against the Guidelines. It was the Governors that were aggrieved because they know the Guidelines would not allow them to direct the local government officials to arbitrarily make withdrawals to satisfy their whims and caprices.

The Suit instituted against the guideline was marked SUIT NO. FHC/ABJ/CS/563/2019: AG ABIA STATE & 36 ORS V. AG FEDERATION & 2 ORS, including NULGE, at Court 5, FHC, ABUJA, 

First, based on a Preliminary Objection raised, the name of the Governors’ Forum (i.e. the 37th Defendant - INCORPORATED TRUSTEES OF NIGERIA GOVERNORS FORUM) was struck out on the ground that it was not incorporated to be a public interest litigant capable of challenging government policies.

The Federal High Court, per Hon. Justice Ekwo, held that the Claimants did not convince the Court that the NFIU’s Guidelines either contradicted the NFIU Act or are unconstitutional.

Anyone who knows the danger a typical Governor constitutes to the wellbeing of local governments would support the call by NULGE for Local Government Autonomy. In moving the Court to join NULGE as defendant in the Suit by the Governors to defend and/or support the NFIU’s Guidelines, as the counsel representing NULGE in the case, we cited bitter and painful experiences of the looting of local government funds by a typical Governor across Nigeria. The members of NULGE, NULGE itself and the constituents in the local governments suffer the negative consequences of the control of local governments by the Governors. Some of the facts of deprivations (supported with documentary evidence in exhibits) which are consequences of unconscionable powers exercised by the Governors, as at the pendency of the case, over local government funds, included the following:

In Oyo State as at August 2017, virtually all Local Governments in the State owed arrears of salaries and Pensions ranging from One (1) to Eleven (11) months.  

Similarly, in several states of the Federation, salaries of local government workers were paid in arrears, notwithstanding the fact that allocations were promptly paid by the Federal Government as and when due.


In Kano State, it was in the public space that there was a pending case of alleged Money Laundering involving over N3,000,000,000 (Three Billion Naira) against a former Governor who allegedly directed that 44 Local Governments should donate N70, 000, 000 (Seventy Million Naira) each towards his presidential ambition in 2015.


In Ogun State, Contributory pensions for over one hundred months were unremitted, as at the pendency of the Suit.


In Zamfara State, Local Government workers were being paid salaries based on N6, 500 (Six Thousand, Five Hundred Naira) minimum wage as against the then N18, 000 (Eighteen Thousand Naira) statutory minimum wage.


In several States including Borno, Kogi and Kwara States, among others, local government workers were being paid on percentage basis, ranging between 25% and 80% of their monthly salaries.


In several States, including Ekiti State, under the tenure of a former Governor, several illegal deductions were being made from local government funds. These deductions, included: Social Security Fund; Ministry of Local Government Affairs; Local Government Security Fund; Social Security Fund; Office of Accountant General (JAAC Office), Office of the Auditor General for Local Government; Stomach Infrastructure; Furniture; Armed Forces Remembrance Day; Xmas Gifts (Children); Xmas Gifts (General), Christmas Decoration (16 LGs); Health Program; International Women’s Day; Bursary and Security. The values of these deductions ranged on a monthly basis between N12, 788, 688.70 (i.e. about twelve million Naira) and N878, 500,924. 75 (i.e. about eight hundred and seventy nine million Naira).


On a National Scale, as at 30/4/2019, Local Government workers were being owed between One (1) and Twenty-Three (23) months’ arrears of salaries whilst Union check off dues were unremitted for periods ranging from one to twenty-three months. Moreover, cooperative deductions made from workers’ salaries remained unpaid to the cooperative societies. 

In the context of the foregoing, there is a good context for the advocacy for local government autonomy being championed by NULGE.

The scope and character of local government autonomy envisioned by NULGE are captured in the provisions of the Bill on local government autonomy, by way of an amendment of the Constitution. Though the Bill had been passed by the Senate, it suffered a setback on the long run. The Bill, as passed by the Senate, had two key components. These are: 

to alter the Constitution of the FRN, 1999 to abrogate State Joint LG Acct & provide for a special account into which shall be paid all allocations due to LG Councils from the Federation Account & from the Government of the State, and 

to establish Local Government Councils as tier of government and guarantee their democratic existence, tenure; and for related matters.

Thus, we may conclude that the call for local government autonomy is rooted in the life experiences of the reckless disposition of the typical Governor to the funds of local governments and the deprivation of meaningful development at that level of governance. The call is thus a way of deepening democracy and the wellbeing of ordinary people at the grassroots level. This does not mean that the local governments are corruption-free. However, other democratic measures that promote transparency and accountability may be put in place along with measures to realize increased constitutionally-backed local government autonomy.

Femi Aborisade, Esq.