It is no longer news that the local government tier of government in Nigeria has been subjected to abuse by the governments of the federating states that make up Nigeria. It is doubtful if the framers of the Nigerian constitution would have conferred the power of administration of the local government councils upon the governments of the Nigerian federating states, had it been they had the inkling that the state governments will subject the exercise of that power to abuse. The unbecoming manner in which state governments interfere with the administration of the local government system, include: interfering with the funds meant for the administration of local government councils; the conduct of elections, subtly manipulated through the help of state electoral commissions; the suspension of elected local government council officials by state governors without following due process; as well as the outright refusal to conduct local government elections, without cogent reasons, among others.
Interestingly, there is an emerging development in the local government system of government, which needs to be nipped in the bud on time, lest it destroys the democratic culture which we are fighting hard to nurture as a people. The alarm being raised has to do with the demand of money from contestants taking part in local government council elections, by the state electoral bodies. Admittedly, the Nigerian Constitution empowers the state governments to make laws for the administration of the local government councils, and the power so conferred under section 7 of the Nigerian Constitution, has served as a justification for many state Houses of Assembly to embark on the journey of legislative impropriety, by compelling contestants in local government elections to pay money, before they can participate in such elections. The strange development, that is gradually becoming the norm, exists within the domain of both the ruling and opposition parties. In Enugu State for instance, section 152 (1) (f) and (g) of the Enugu State Local Government Law of 2004, empowers the Enugu State Independent Electoral Commission (ENSIEC), to collect non refundable deposits it deems fit from contestants into local government elections. Likewise, the Peoples’ Democratic Party has instituted legal action against the Edo State Independent Electoral Commission (EDSIEC), over the money collected from candidates that are participating in the local government election, scheduled to hold on 20 April, 2013.
One should sit back and appraise the harm capable of being done to our democratic culture, for the parliament to enact a law that demands money from those who are supposedly meant to serve the public. The enactment of those laws requiring that contestants in local government elections should pay money before participating in such election, is an implied admittance that politics has become a business venture in Nigeria, where people make deposits before vying for elections, only to ensure they recoup the loss incurred during electioneering period, upon assumption of office. In the case of Enugu State, contestants for chairmanship positions were asked to pay N200,000 during the 2011 local government elections, whereas the councillorship candidates were asked to pay N50, 000 as non refundable deposits. The consequences of the strange policy was well felt during the concerned election, as many people who would have participated in the election, boycotted same, because of the outrageous sums charged. The same scenario played out in the Plateau State local government election that took place in 2002. The demand of deposits from prospective contestants into the concerned local government election, based on the provision of Sections 8 and 9 of the Plateau State Local Government Electoral Law of 2002, gave rise to the case of Alliance for Democracy v. Plateau State Independent Electoral Commission (  10 NWLR (Pt. 880), wherein the opposition appellant party challenged the action of the respondent, as being unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal could not be of much help to the appellant in the suit, as the court held that the Nigerian Constitution empowers the state House of Assembly to make laws for the administration of local government, and that the Plateau State House of Assembly, by a law made in that regard, authorized the collection of deposits from contestants participating in local government council elections, which conferred the actions of the respondent with legality.
The decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Alliance for Democracy earlier cited should be revisited when opportunity calls. In the Indian case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (AIR 1978 SC 597), the Supreme Court of India, while deciding a case that had to do with the violation of the right to life and liberty of the petitioner, as provided under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, held that any law made by the parliament must be reasonable, fair and just before same could be deemed to be a valid law. In other words, the Supreme Court of India refused to be persuaded by the argument canvassed by the government, that the travel passport of the petitioner was seized, based on the provision of a law, authorizing the seizure. The concerned impugned law empowered the government to confiscate the travel passport of any citizen of India, if it is in the interest of the public that same should be seized. Toeing the same line of judicial reasoning as did the Supreme Court of India in Maneka Gandhi’s case, one should inquire if a law that authorizes the electoral body to collect money from those willing to serve the public will be deemed to be a reasonable law. The fact that the Nigerian Constitution authorizes the state government to make laws for the administration of local government councils, does not mean that members of a House of Assembly are free to make any law they deem fit, irrespective of how unjust that law might be.
A look at the provision of Article 13 (1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, will make one appreciate the fact that Nigerian citizens are empowered to participate freely in the act of governance, in accordance with the provisions of the law, and same is an enforceable fundamental right. One might argue that the concerned provision requires that the free exercise of the concerned right must be done in accordance with the provision of the law. However, one should know why the law requires that the right created under Article 13 (1) of the African Charter is to be exercised freely (emphasis added), especially when we appreciate the fact that the concerned provision of the African Charter will still be logical, if the word freely is removed from the concerned provision.
The reason the judiciary has to salvage the local government tier of government from the abuse it is being subjected to, is because those who the status quo favours, will never wish to have the concerned obnoxious provisions removed from the statute books. Moreover, if nothing is done to nip this strange development in the bud, it will not be long, and the same scenario will begin to play itself out in the course of conduct of federal elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission. There is no moral or legal justification for the demand of money from contestants participating in local government council elections, as there is budgetary allocation made for the conduct of such elections. The unjust development is only used as a tool to bully members of the opposition out of local government elections. The only effective means of checkmating the excesses going on in the local government system of government, is to get people participate effectively in local government elections. This dream of bringing governance to the grassroots cannot be achieved, when people of modest means are prevented from participating in such elections, due to laws which have turned such contests into business ventures, where deposits are made with the hope of making profit.
•Ogbe wrote from Lagos. E-mail: [email protected]