by Adedayo Ademuwagun
One councillor reportedly won a visa lottery some time ago and left the country, but still continued to get paid and hold the position of councillor. It typifies the way local governments operate in Nigeria.
The local government was set up to give government more of an impact, and make it more accessible to the people at the grass roots level. However, the structures in place haven’t significantly been effective for this purpose.
Aminat lives in Lagos. She says, “I don’t see what the councillor administering my community ever does. I don’t even know who he is. It doesn’t feel like we have any councillor or local government in the area where I live. There are bad roads here and there and many other problems, but we’ve learned to live with the problems or solve them ourselves wherever possible.”
Like Aminat, most people are apathetic to local government. They’ve never heard of the councillor of the ward they live in, and they don’t see any signs that the councillor is working. So they don’t take part in local government elections or have any contacts with them.
To make up for the inadequacy of the councillor system, communities have development association made up of landlords and other prominent people in the community. These CDAs meet regularly about issues within their respective communities and how to address them. They also represent the community before the government. So if the community needs the government to look into something, the CDA can write to the local government or whichever government agency is concerned in the matter on behalf of the community.
They also function more as the grass roots administration. For instance, they organise vigilantes to ramp up security in the neighbourhoods. Also, if a road becomes really bad or the transformer blows and the government is slow to respond, the CDA mobilises money within the community to fix the problem.
Councillors are mostly anonymous in the local government areas that they serve. They’re scarcely actually on the ground to help when there’s a problem or to respond to the needs of the people. So their performance is often very intangible in the eyes of the people.
Folarin Oluyinka was recently a councillor in Lagos and is currently a local government administrator in the state. He says, “A lot of people have so high expectations of the councillors because they don’t know the roles of these people. The role of the councillor is a legislative one. Their role is to make laws for the local government area, similar to what the House of Assembly members do at the state level and what the National Assembly members do at the federal level. Councillors represent their ward at the legislative arm of their local government. It’s not the job of the councillor to tar roads, provide transformers, and all that. Some people think that’s what the councillor is there for. Some people even think the councillor is supposed to build an airport for them. It doesn’t work like that.”
Councillors aren’t obliged to do so much, some say, since no one from the local government goes over to check what the councillors are doing in their ward and the people in their ward don’t even care about if they’re doing anything. Some residents report that the council people only become visible when the next election is coming.
A councillor governs one ward, and normally a ward should be moderate in size and should comprise a small number of streets and people so that the councillor in charge of the ward can focus. But that’s not usually the way it is.
“Wards are really large around here,” says Oluyinka. “In Lagos for example, a ward comprises dozens of communities, so how would the councillor keep up and be visible in all the communities?
“Sometimes the people in the community I live in would accuse me of not serving them well and dealing with the needs that they have. But I try to let them understand that I have over 20 communities under my charge, and all of these communities have their own needs too. There’s a lot of pressure on councillors, but people don’t understand.”
Councillors are frequently accused of embezzling money and living beyond their pay as councillors.
“Our councillor lives opulently unlike he used to do before he got to the position,” says Bello. “He doles out money and feeds people, yes, but he doesn’t actually contribute to the development of the community.”
But Oluyinka says in reply, “Some people think that whenever the councillor goes to the council, he comes back with a ‘Ghana must go’ with plenty cash to share to everyone. But they don’t get that the councillor is on a salary.
“I get calls everyday from people who need money and want me to help them. Every councillor will tell you they experience the same thing. But I don’t like the idea of giving people fish. I prefer to teach them how to catch fish, and on that line I did some empowerment programmes to help people start a small business so they can make money for themselves.
“Besides, it costs a huge sum to construct roads and things like that, and the local government simply doesn’t make enough IGR nor get enough federal allocation to finance such projects. They need assistance from the state government, but then those ones too have their own projects. It’s not something that just happens easily. It’s a lot of work.”
As Aminat sits in her shop and stares at the muddy road, it’s clear with the way she shrugs that she’s not thinking about the road. “If the government wants to do this road, good. But if they’re not ready, it’s okay. In the meantime, I have a business to run,” she says.