1.1 Background of the Study

The history of local government system in Nigeria dates back to the colonial days. Although contact with Europeans dates back to the fifteenth century, it was not until 1861 before the first steps were taken to establish an administration by Britain. The colonial administration that was established was based on indirect rule. This requires that the administration should be carried out through traditional rulers and institutions. This led to the establishment of native authorities in their most rudimentary forms from the 1980s to the 1930s. The main function of the native authorities was to maintain law and order.

The first native authority ordinance recognized traditional rulers as native authorities. This was early done in Northern Nigeria but there was a problem in identifying who those authorities were in southern Nigeria. This necessitated the first reforms in the 1930s and the 1940s culminating in the establishment of chiefs-in-council and chiefs-and-council in place of sole native authorities. The chief-in-council is made up of the chief and members of council. The chief presides at all meetings and acts in accordance with the majority of opinion in the council. But if he disagrees with the council, he would take whatever action he thought beat and inform the governor of the region. Contrarily, in the chief-and-council, the chief has no power to act against the decision or advice of the council. Under this arrangement, people particularly representatives of missionaries and British trading interest were appointed into the native authorities. The process of appointment of nominated members by the colonial government meant that nationalists were not appointed to serve on the councils. This led to further agitation for reforms in the native authorities.

In the years 1950-55, the first largely elected local government council based on the British Westminster model emerged in Lagos and the former Eastern and Western regions. Traditional rulers constituted not more than 25 percent of most councils in the then Western regions and Lagos. However, in Northern Nigeria, the changes were more gradual. The legal framework for local government at this period was provided by the Eastern region local government ordinance of 1950, the Western region local government law of 1952 and the 1954 native authority law in Northern Nigeria. By this time, the councils were given a under range of functions including primary education, health, police, judiciary etc. This is in line with the implementation of the colonial government’s ten-year welfare and development plan (1946-1956). The councils also enjoyed a great measure of autonomy in financial, personnel and general administrative matters. It can therefore be said that the 1950s was the era of pupilage for councils in modern local government throughout Nigeria.

Between  1960-1966, there was a decline in the prestige and responsibilities of local authorities. In the former western region, the local government (Amendment) law 1960 abolished the powers of councils to levy education and general rates on the basis of need. In Lagos, there was a high rate of default in the payment of property rates including government institutions, which reduced the revenue of the local councils. The situation in eastern Nigeria was similar to the west before the outbreak of the civil was in 1967. In northern Nigeria, there were gradual changes in the structure of the councils with increasing numbers of elected or appointed non-traditional office holders becoming members of local authorities. The result was that the local authorities had a stable administration, which enabled them to assume responsibility, with some degree of success for more complex services like primary education. Between 1969-1971, some state government introduced some changes in the structure of their councils.

For the first time in the history of local government in Nigeria, a uniform system was developed for the whole country. According to the then chief of staff  Brigadier Shehu. M. Yar Adu’a in his forward to the guidelines for local government reform (1976), in embarking on these reforms, the federal military government was essentially motivated by the necessity to stabilized and rationalize government at the local level. This must of necessity entail the decentralization of some significant functions of state governments to local levels in order to harness local resources for rapid development.

Undoubtly, the  1976 reforms conceptualized local government as the third tier of government operating within a common institutional framework with defined functions and responsibilities. To strengthen the philosophy of the government, it went further to guarantee the statutory nature of local government by embodying it in the 1979 constitution section 7 (1) of the said constitution stated:

The system of democratically elected local government council is under this constitution guaranteed


As the third tier of government, the local government gets statutory grants from federal and state governments, and is expected to serve as agent of development especially in rural areas. According to the 1976 reform 75 percent of members of the council are to be elected through the secret ballot on a no-party basis under the direct and indirect systems of election. The remaining 25 percent are to be nominated by the state government. Following the reform the federal government in 1977, allocated 5 percent of federally collected revenue to local government.

Unfortunately during the Alhaji Shehu Shagari regime (1979 – 1983) the constitutional provisions of section seven of the 1979 constitution were neglected. No elections were held and sole administrators were appointed. The Mohammadu Buhari regime (1983 – 1984) continued with the system of sole administrators. During Babangida regime (1984-1992) there were certain measures aimed at ensuring local government autonomy. These include the abolition of the ministry of local government; establishment of executive and legislative arms in local councils; and direct allocation to local government without passing through state government. The regime also increased local government statutory allocation from 15 percent to 20 percent with effect from 1992. It is important to point out that the intergovernmental relations between the federal, state and local government has been characterized by both co-operation and conflict, but it is conflict that has predominated state-local government relations. Some state governments have been known to have hijacked and diverted federal government’s allocation to local governments. This is why one of the features of the reform during Ibrahim Babangida’s regime was to make allocations directly to local governments without going through state.

Invariably, the above cited provisions in the constitution would portend intractable inter-governmental problems in which the local government is obvious the “whipping child”. All these constitutional provisions are tantamount, in so far as local governments’ functional autonomy is concerned, to giving something with the right-hand and taking it back with the left hand. Thus our values, sentiments and prejudices could not escape intruding as we make the premise as well as suggest measures for transforming Nigerian local government system.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

In the last few years there has been so much avoidable controversy and confusion about the local government system in Nigeria. Quite a number of challenges have confronted local governments in Nigeria, in their bid to utilize their autonomy in the task of developing the localities. These include structural, operational, financial, patron/godfather pressure, unstable democracy, constitutional provisions and corruption. However, this could be as a result of Nigeria’s socio-political context, with multiplicity of culture, diversity of languages and differentiated needs and means, the importance of local government in fostering the needed national consciousness, unity and relative uniformity as well as preservation of peculiar diversities cannot be over-emphasized. Central to the creation of local government, however, is its ability to facilitate an avenue through which government and the people intermix, relate and more quickly than any other means resolve or dissolve issues that may have heated the system. Local government has been perceived as a panacea for the diverse problems of the diverse people with diverse culture. The importance of local government in enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery no doubt contributed to the rapid creation of many local governments following the adoption of 1979 constitution. Even today, there are still  agitations for the creation of additional local governments

One of the constraints of local government autonomy is in the area of authority relationship. According to Okoli (1995) authority relationship is the pattern of relationship that will determine whether what obtains is local government or local administration in the first place. Decree No. 15 clearly specifies the constitutional and legal status of local government. Without prejudice to section 10 of the Decree, section 1 (3,4,5 and 6) make the state government a watch-dog of the activities of the local government. For instance, section 1 (3) provides as follows.

the local government are shall be the only unit in respect of which the government of a state is empowered to establish an authority for the purpose of local government.


Section (14) states that without prejudice to the provisions of subsection (3) of this section, the government of a state may, by Edict or law, create for any local government area in its state up to a maximum of 7 development areas having regard to such factors as common historical and traditional ties, geographical contiguity and administrative expedience. Section 1(5) stated; subject to subsection (2) of this section, the person authorized by law to prescribe the area over which a local government may exercise authority shall define such area as clearly as practicable and in conformity with the provision of schedule 1 to this Decree. Thus, in spite of the legal and constitutional provisions, local governments vis-à-vis the federal and state governments, in spite of constitutional provisions, is a reality of disturbing importance. These belittling attitudinal relationships of the higher level governments to the local governments actually, to a degree erode local governments’ autonomy. Interactions are bound to be skewed against the local governments.

In addition, the financial relationship of local government appear to be more of their making as well as those of the state governments. Section 1 (8, 9 and 10) of the decree subordinates the financial fortunes of the local government to the full glare and sometimes, scrutiny of the state government. Even though the statutory allocations due to the local government councils are paid directly to them, the mere fact that both the national and states assemblies shall, in accordance with provisions of section 1 (9) and (b), make provisions for statutory allocations of public revenue to the local governments within the state is a limiting factor.

Another factor responsible for lack of  local government autonomy is the personnel relationship. Local governments in Nigeria face a number of personnel problems which militate against the effective performance of their functions. According to Ezeani (2004) one such problems is the politicization of recruitment, selection and placement. This problem has been noted by Onah (1995) for instance, since the inception of democratic local government system in the former eastern region of Nigeria in 1950, early recruitment into the local government service were mainly “sons of the soil”, party stalwarts, or relations of counselors. As Orewa and Adewunmi (1983) rightly stated, recruitment practices based on patronage, have created problems of redundancy in local government where stern measures like termination of appointments and suspension of staff are rarely contemplated.

The decree recognizes the importance of personnel in any discussions on autonomy. In section 29, 30, 31, 32 and 33, it provides for the existence and functions of the local government service commission. The main function of a local government service commission shall include the following:

  1. to set up general and uniform guidelines for appointments, promotions, and discipline,
  2. to monitor the activities of each local government to ensure that the guidelines are strictly and uniformly adhered to; and
  3. to serve as a review body for all petitions from local governments in respect of appointments, promotions and discipline.

In the view of Okoli (1995) there is no doubt that; in reality, state governors, through the appointment of the members of the members of the local government service commission as earlier indicated, indirectly control certain categories of the local government staff. Under such conditions the loyalties of such staff are a suspect, after all he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

Another factor to consider is the political and ecological relationship of local government. Decree No 15 makes provisions for this element of autonomy in its specification of the functions of local government councils. The sources of local government revenue as contained in section 27 of the decree. Of course, the actualization of the sources of revenue depends on the capability of the local government council. And this capability is mediated by the political and ecological relationships. However, the continued cries by the various local governments in all spheres of their operations show that all is not well with their autonomy.

Also, the draft constitution of 1995 further contradicted the autonomy of the local government as a meaningful tier of government. By the term “tier” as used in this context means a set of local governments with their own identify, powers and sources of revenue established under state legislation, and with functions for which they are responsible to the state. It is contained in section 7; subsection 10 of the draft constitution of 1995 which state as follows;

subject to the provision of this constitution, the executive power of a local government shall be invested in the chairman of that local government council, and may subject as a fore-said, to the provisions of any law made by the house of assembly of the state within whose boundaries thee local government area is situated and bye-law made by the local government council, be exercised by either directly or through the vice-chairman of supervisory or officials in the service of the local government.


Onyishi and Obi (2004) are of the view that the above cited provision of the constitution would portend intractable intergovernmental problems in which the local government is obviously the victim.

This study examines local government autonomy in Nigeria with particular reference to Imo state. In the light of the above, this work is set to address the following questions;

  1. To what extent does the operation of the state-local government joint account promote autonomy of local government in Imo State?
  2. To what extent has the nature of personnel relationship promoted the autonomy of local governments ?
  3. What measures can be adopted to ensure local government autonomy in  Nigeria?

Chapter One: Introduction

1.1 Background of the Study

1.2. Statement of the Problem

1.3. Research Questions

1.4 Research Objectives

1.5. Research Assumptions

1.6. Research Methodology

1.7. Research Design

1.8. Significance of the Study

1.9. Scope of Study

1.10. Theoretical Framework

1.11. Definition of Key Terms

1.12. Organization of the Study

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