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Too often viewed as a monolithic state, Nigeria has complex subnational governance systems that can have outsized impacts on its trajectory. The state is covered with a vibrant but frayed political quilt, consisting of three layers: the federal government in Abuja, thirty-six state governments, and 774 local governments.
Frequently overlooked, Nigeria’s local governments are disproportionately important; if they functioned well, they would be best positioned to meet people’s basic needs and to build their resilience to cope with everyday challenges.
In reality, however, “no local government [in Nigeria] works for the people.”1 Instead, “every household is its own local government,” sourcing its basic needs—water, electricity, education, and healthcare—however it can.2 Exhausted by local government kleptocracy—a system in which those who govern steal from the governed—Nigerians understand that they must fend for themselves.
While local government corruption is a global problem not unique to Nigeria, it is nevertheless crucial to address. It fuels democratic backsliding, communal conflict, and poverty. By hurting governance outcomes at the subnational level, local government corruption is quietly hobbling Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
Too often viewed as a monolithic state, Nigeria has complex subnational governance systems that can have outsized impacts on its trajectory. The state is covered with a vibrant but frayed political quilt, consisting of three layers: the federal government in Abuja, thirty-six state governments, and 774 local governments.
Frequently overlooked, the local (third) tier of government is nevertheless the most important—at least in theory—because it should be the most accessible and the most responsive to the basic needs of hardworking Nigerians. It should help communities build resilience, resolve disputes, and cope with everyday socioeconomic challenges.
In reality, however, local government serves none of these purposes. Instead, as a common Nigerian saying goes, “every household is its own local government,” sourcing its basic needs—water, electricity, education, and healthcare—however it can.4 Exhausted by local government kleptocracy—a system in which those who govern steal from the governed—Nigeria’s pragmatic citizens understand that they must fend for themselves. In cities, towns, and villages across the country, they have reluctantly given up on a system that promised representation and development but was instead manipulated and exploited by elites.
Kleptocracy in Nigeria causes democratic backsliding, fuels communal conflict, and weighs down development indicators across the country. Moreover, it renders thousands of local communities less able to cope with rising poverty, worsening insecurity, and creeping climate change. By hurting governance outcomes at the subnational level, local government corruption is quietly hobbling Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
Although local government corruption is a global problem, in Nigeria it deserves special attention due to its scope and scale. Local governments pay their workers very little (see Figure 5), and a significant proportion of the $7 billion local governments collectively receive in the average year (see Figure 4) is pocketed by corrupt officials. State governors, meanwhile, brazenly rig local elections or appoint illegal caretaker chairpersons to ensure their chosen cronies sit astride these easy-to-pilfer cash flows.
Endemic and often unconcealed, local government corruption persists largely unchecked amid finger-pointing by its beneficiaries. Instead of championing reform, national leaders readily blame governors for treating local councils as “mere appendages.”5 State officials—unwilling to acknowledge their complicity—instead criticize the greed and incompetence of local bureaucrats. These bureaucrats, in turn, accuse state officials of masterminding corruption at the grassroots level. In the words of one former local leader, “It is corruption at the state level that worsens corruption at the local level. If we have a good state government . . . there will be no corruption in the local government.”6
Scholars and commentators routinely criticize local government, describing it as a “vineyard of corruption,” a “citadel of political brigandage,” and a “place where the chairman and other key officials meet to share monthly.”7 In a 2010 poll, 73 percent of Nigerians perceived local councils to be corrupt and unable to deliver basic services.8 And according to a 2017 Afrobarometer survey, 55 percent of Nigerians view local government councilors to be the third-most corrupt type of public officials, ranking only slightly better than federal legislators (60 percent) and the police (69 percent).9
National leaders have also bluntly criticized local government as corrupt and ineffective. As early as 1950, prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa decried “the twin causes of bribery and corruption which pervade every rank and department” of local administration, lamenting that “few officials can afford to be honest.”10 In 2007, Nuhu Ribadu—the founding father of Nigerian anticorruption law enforcement—described local government officials as “lootocrats” who engaged in “gangsterism” and “organized crime.”11 In 2016, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo likewise described local government as “inefficient, corrupt, and undisciplined.”12
Despite their hard-hitting rhetoric, however, Nigeria’s political leaders have done little to rein in local government corruption and the governance failures it causes. And because local government in Nigeria is in many ways corrupt by design, officials’ tough talk has more to do with shifting blame than advancing real reforms. Even local government officials themselves have decried the “systematic decay and destruction of the local government system” without taking responsibility for how their corrupt practices and missteps drive its failings.13
Though grassroots misgovernance often goes unnoticed, overshadowed by federal- and state-level failures, Nigerian scholars have written extensively about its causes, making frequent mentions of corruption. In Nigeria, local government studies is a distinct academic field: three major universities have departments dedicated to it.14 But, notably, recent analyses of the topic resemble those written up to four decades ago, highlighting many of the same challenges and making the same arguments for reform. The research presented in this paper draws upon this scholarship, but in recognizing these studies’ limitations and gaps, it seeks to deepen public understanding of the kleptocratic capture of local government in Nigeria and to articulate feasible policy options to address it.
This paper consists of five sections. After providing a brief primer on local government in Nigeria and several key terms, the paper describes how, in the Nigerian context, corruption underpins the main causes of local government failure. It then sets out a conceptual framework—or taxonomy—for understanding local government corruption before outlining the socioeconomic, democracy and governance, security, and environmental implications. It concludes with a key recommendation that, while not ideal, the elimination of local government is the only feasible way to rein in grassroots-level corruption in Nigeria and the failures it causes.
Nigeria’s third tier of government consists of 774 units—768 local government areas (LGAs) located across the thirty-six states and six area councils located in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).15 The number of LGAs in a particular state depends on its geographic size and population. Kano State has the most LGAs (forty-four), while Bayelsa State has the fewest (eight). The numbers and names of Nigeria’s LGAs are stipulated in the constitution.16 Each LGA has delineated boundaries and a designated headquarters where its main administrative building (secretariat) is located.
Each local government should be governed by an elected local government council, consisting of a chairperson, vice chairperson (executive arm), and several councilors (legislative arm) representing each ward (subdistricts).17 Even though it is unconstitutional, state governors sometimes appoint caretaker chairpersons or put senior civil servants in charge until elections can be held. Each local government has several administrative departments that oversee hundreds—or even a few thousand—employees. These are led by heads of department (civil servants) overseen by supervisors (political appointees).
Local government officials and civil servants are bound by Nigeria’s Code of Conduct and are obliged to submit asset declarations to the federal Code of Conduct Bureau on a prescribed basis, though few actually do.18 Nigeria’s other anticorruption agencies—the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission—primarily focus on federal- and state-level corruption. While they sometimes prosecute local officials, they generally lack the bandwidth and incentives to do so.
Local governments are almost entirely funded via monthly allocations (shares) of national income (derived mostly from petroleum revenues).19 State governments are supposed to provide a portion of these allocations—10 percent according to a still-extant 1982 federal law—to local governments, though few actually do.20 Until an anti–money laundering notice was issued in 2019, these allocations were deposited into each state’s State Joint Local Government Account (SJLGA).21 Now, most local governments should receive their allocations directly and pay all their own expenses, though states still demand hefty deductions (charges), some legitimate and some questionable. Local governments also use certain taxes and fees to raise small amounts of internally generated revenue (IGR).
Nigeria’s constitution dictates that local government functions include these tasks, among lesser ones: building and maintaining roads, street lights, drains, parks, public toilets, and cemeteries; providing sanitation and sewage; maintaining and regulating markets, motor parks, and abattoirs; naming and numbering streets; registering births, deaths, and marriages; regulating shops, restaurants, and the sale of alcohol; collecting certain kinds of rates (taxes) and license fees; licensing certain types of vehicles; and making local economic planning and development recommendations to the state government.22 Many of these functions overlap with those of state government, however.23 Local governments are also jointly responsible with the state government for developing agricultural and natural resources and providing basic healthcare and primary education.24
The constitution gives state legislatures—state houses of assembly—significant control over many aspects of local government, thereby limiting its autonomy.25 Legislators instrumentalize this control by amending their state’s local government law every few years.26 In Rivers State, for example, this law was amended ten times between 1999 and 2018.27
Each state government oversees local government elections via their State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC), a body led by political appointees (see “Democratic Erosion” below). Local polls are never held on the same dates as federal or state elections. Chairpersons, vice chairpersons, and councilors serve two- or three-year terms, depending on the state. To avoid a runoff and win outright, a candidate running for chairperson must obtain both one-quarter of the votes cast in two-thirds of the wards and a majority of all votes in the LGA.28
LGA creation is possible but highly contentious. Nigeria has created no new LGAs since 1996. This is largely due to lingering political and financial disputes over the process, which—under the constitution—effectively requires state and federal lawmakers to reach a consensus before creating new LGAs.29 Some states, including Lagos, have circumvented this dispute by creating unrecognized local government subunits known as local community development areas.
This means local government structures have not adapted to twenty-five years of population growth, urbanization, or internal displacement caused by conflict or climate change.30 Indeed, according to 2019 estimates, the populations of several LGAs now exceed the total populations of some states (see Figure 1), while the populations of LGAs in parts of rural Borno State are significantly lower due to internal displacement caused by the Boko Haram insurgency.31
If viewed region by region, the disconnect between population and local government distribution is clear. The South South, South East, and North Central zones, for example, all have proportionally more LGAs than they do population, while the situation is reversed in zones such as North West and South West (see Figure 3).
Internalizing these details—key terms, structures, purported functions, legal frameworks, and demographic aspects—is necessary because they all factor into how corruption and other related challenges cause local government in Nigeria to fail.
Corruption is the primary challenge facing effective local government in Nigeria because it is doubly damaging. In addition to the direct damage it causes, it also indirectly fuels many other problems hampering good grassroots governance and basic service delivery. These many secondary challenges can be broadly grouped into five overlapping categories: over-centralization; democratic erosion; outside interference; inadequate resources; and mismanagement, unaccountability, and waste.
From a strategic perspective, local government in Nigeria is flawed and corruption-prone by design. Starting in the colonial period, successive administrations—whether military or civilian-led—centralized their control over local government for both political and pecuniary reasons.32 With few exceptions, successive efforts to expand, restructure, and ostensibly reform local government have been driven by elites’ desire to centralize their control over grassroots governance and reap the financial and political benefits at the expense of local agency and development.33
As early as the 1950s, Nigeria’s top leaders saw the centralization of control over local administration as an important instrument of power and prebendalism (kleptocracy).34 Between 1966 and 1979, the country’s uniformed masters used local government to expand their control and co-opt civilian leaders who might agitate against military rule. This effort culminated in 1976 with a sweeping set of reforms that standardized the powers of and gave formal legal status to local government.35
During the short-lived Second Republic (1979–1983), president Shehu Shagari’s administration embraced this centralizing trend and even appointed crony caretakers to run local governments instead of holding local elections to expand democratic participation at the grassroots level.36 Thus, when the military reassumed power in 1984, local government was just as corrupt and ineffective as before. Successive military governments went on to reassert their control over grassroots governance by creating more local government units—thereby reducing their viability and administrative capacity—and promulgating several big-budget, top-down federal programs aimed at spurring local development. Although these schemes failed due to corruption and a lack of community buy-in, they have served as a template for federal interventions since Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule.37
Since that time, the over-centralization of local government functions has persisted, enabling federal and state elites to control grassroots decisionmaking and siphon away a significant share of revenues local governments are supposed to receive under Nigeria’s three-tier funding formula (fiscal federalism). State officials often dismiss their local counterparts as bothersome, corrupt, and incompetent.38 This perception has a strong basis: few can perform their basic functions unassisted.39 Nigeria’s constitution, meanwhile, gives state legislatures—and thus the governors who control them—wide powers over local government spending and policy decisions.40 While these powers should be used to conduct constructive oversight of local government, they have instead been instrumentalized to maintain a kleptocracy.
The current state of affairs is little different than it was decades ago, when the guidelines for the 1976 local government reforms described the prevailing situation as follows:
Local governments have, over the years, suffered from the continuous whittling down of their powers. The state governments have continued to encroach upon what would normally have been the exclusive preserves of local government. Lack of adequate funds and appropriate institutions had continued to make local government ineffective and ineffectual. Moreover the staffing arrangements to ensure a virile local government system had been inadequate. Excessive politicking had made even modest progress impossible. Consequently, there has been a divorce between: the people and government institutions at most basic levels.41
Forty-six years later, this divorce persists. Moreover, it will continue to do so until local government is replaced with a system that is not corrupt by design and instead creates the political space grassroots democracy and good governance need to thrive.
Political interference by domineering governors and kleptocratic state officials has also undercut democracy, transparency, and accountability in local government. By stifling citizen participation in grassroots decisionmaking and holding sham elections—or no polls at all—they have cultivated political environments in which corruption thrives and local governance failures multiply.42 State governors commonly use two tactics—both illegal and unconstitutional—to undermine grassroots democracy and maximize their control over local government structures: election rigging and the appointment of caretaker chairpersons.
In every single Nigerian state, local government polls have become a pro forma exercise in which the governor’s party almost always wins by a landslide. This is largely facilitated by governors’ control over their state’s electoral management body, the SIEC.43 Unlike federal and state elections, local government elections have been the responsibility of each state’s SIEC since 2004. Empowered to name top SIEC officials, governors invariably place trusted loyalists in charge.44 Through their influence over state legislators, governors can also manipulate the timing and funding of local government elections to their own political benefit.45 In addition, governors exercise strong informal control over their state’s judiciary, including which staffs tribunals that preside over local election disputes.46
By leveraging these unfair advantages and other forms of electoral corruption, governors can dictate local election outcomes and even discourage capable opponents from challenging them.47 Indeed, their ability to do so is seen as a measure of their political strength, putting their power on display.48 Governors are largely free to rig local elections from the top down (in other words, disqualifying candidates, withholding voting materials from opposition strongholds, and altering results) but also from the bottom up (in other words, deploying security agents to suppress turnout, hiring thugs to intimidate voters, and stuffing ballot boxes).49 As a result, few, if any, local elections in Nigeria meet basic democratic criteria in terms of competition, participation, and legitimacy.50 In the view of one senior federal electoral official, local elections are “nothing but organised crime.”51 According to the leader of a local government workers’ union, the elections also constitute “a coronation, appointment, and promotion of political jobbers and political cronies . . . thereby creating an avenue to siphon local government resources.”52
Most SIECs operate opaquely, disclosing few details on their budget, expenditures, or operations.53 Astonishingly, few SIECs publish even a basic rundown of election results—never mind the kind of detailed voting data needed to ensure elections are minimally credible.54 They often discourage opposition participation by charging high, nonrefundable registration fees—amounts that only ruling party candidates can afford—or by scheduling or postponing election dates at short notice.55 In some instances, SIECs have scheduled local elections to help outgoing governors hobble their successor; Rivers State, for example, conducted local elections in May 2015, six days before the outgoing governor’s political rival was sworn in.56
Since 2004, local elections have become a form of political performance art in which governors orchestrate sweeping victories to demonstrate political strength and demoralize their opponents.57 Destined to lose no matter how hard they campaign, opposition parties have described recent polls as “political armed robbery,” “a complete sham,” and a “rubbishing of every tenet of free, fair and credible elections.”58 Out of the 202 local government elections held since December 1998, 142 (70 percent) were clean sweeps in which the party in power at the state level won all the local government chairperson seats.59 Out of the sixty elections in which opposition parties won chairperson seats, forty-three were conducted by the federal Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC): thirty-six in December 1998 plus seven in the FCT between 1998 and 2022.60 Out of the remaining seventeen conducted by the SIEC, the ruling party won by a landslide (winning over 90 percent of the chairperson seats) in all but five elections in just three states (Kaduna in 2004, 2018, and 2021; Nasarawa in 2014; and Kano in 2004).61
Even when guaranteed to win in a landslide, many governors sidestep elections altogether. For a mix of political or financial reasons, they make the decision—endorsed by pliant state legislators—to appoint caretaker local government chairpersons instead.62 Unelected and beholden to the governor, caretaker chairpersons run local government councils until substantive chairpersons and councilors can be elected.63 While the typical caretaker chairperson is a party loyalist being groomed for higher office, some are chosen for their coercive skills. In 2016, for example, Bayelsa’s governor named former militant leader Joshua MacIver as caretaker chairperson of the state’s largest local government.64
Regardless of who holds them, caretaker chairpersons are unnecessary and undemocratic and fuel corruption by short-circuiting an important accountability mechanism: elections. Numerous court judgments have declared these arrangements illegal and unconstitutional, including a 2019 Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Ekiti State.65 In 2020, Nigeria’s attorney general issued a warning that states must abide by the ruling, but it was largely ignored, with one state dismissing it as “meddling.”66 As of March 2022, caretaker arrangements still operate in seven states (Anambra, Katsina, Kwara, Osun, Zamfara, and a few areas of Kaduna and Plateau States).67 Though caretaker chairpersons are less prevalent than a decade ago when they operated in twenty-five states, this is not a sign of democratization or federal enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling but rather governors’ growing confidence of winning local elections by a landslide (see Appendix 2).68
Opposition parties, civil society, and citizens themselves have few incentives and fewer legal and political means to prevent governors from postponing local government elections and appointing crony caretakers. If sued over the timing of elections or some other administrative malfeasance, state governments use the legal dispute as a justification for delaying elections further.69 They also frequently cite a range of other—often dubious—reasons for delaying local elections, including insecurity; poor economic conditions or a lack of available funds; SIEC leadership turnover or unpreparedness; the need to undertake personnel reviews, conduct financial audits, or to pay off local government debts; and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 #EndSARS protests.70 Some state officials even argue that unelected chairpersons perform better than elected ones.71
Looking beyond these excuses, however, the real reason state governors delay or rig local elections is that they want to maximize the political and financial gains they derive from exerting personal control over local government structures.72 When run by loyal lieutenants, these structures become potent mobilization, patronage distribution, and election rigging mechanisms capable of propelling governors, senators, and even presidents to power.73 As political networks, they especially help governorship candidates win elections, since candidates must win both a majority and at least 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of their state’s LGAs. The networks also indirectly help presidential candidates, who rely heavily on state-level allies to deliver them votes en masse.74 This explains why local government has become, in the words of two scholars, a “center for party politics” where top-down interference is the norm.75
External bureaucratic and financial interference also causes governance failures, fuels corruption, and perpetuates the problematic over-centralization of local government functions in the hands of grasping state elites.76 Primarily responsible for this interference, state governors use a variety of official and unofficial mechanisms—many of which are entirely legal and constitutional—to short-circuit local political and financial autonomy.77 Some have even placed political appointees in each local government in their state to increase their informal control over local government decisionmaking.78
For the first two decades after Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule, governors captured local government finances through their de facto control of the SJLGA. Enshrined in the country’s constitution, the SJLGA was set up as a holding account for the federal government to deposit a monthly share of national revenues (collectively 20.6 percent as of 2022) due to each state’s local governments.79 Theoretically, this was done to ensure that local government funds would be equitably distributed and not hijacked. But, instead, the SJLGA became a mechanism for waylaying, misspending, and embezzling funds meant to be used to meet the needs of local communities.80
In its heyday, the SJLGA system became synonymous with subnational kleptocracy, putting state governors in effective control of 48 percent of all national revenues, while leaving local governments perpetually starved for funds.81 It became, in the words of the head of the Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), a “conduit pipe through which local government funds are . . . pilfered, diverted and stolen.”82 In 2016, one sitting governor described it as “an avenue for corruption.”83
This system nevertheless suffered a major blow when, in 2019, the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU)—the Central Bank’s little-known anti–money laundering watchdog—issued a directive barring states from making deductions directly from the SJLGA and prohibiting large cash withdrawals from local government accounts.84 Noting that these transactions posed the “biggest corruption, money laundering and security threats [sic] at the grassroots,” the NFIU instructed local governments to pay their expenses—including all staff salaries and state-mandated deductions—from their own accounts.85
Predictably, Nigeria’s state governors collectively opposed the new rules, mounting legal challenges to them on the grounds that they were unconstitutional and that the NFIU had overstepped its mandate.86 To its credit, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government backed the NFIU, despite the political costs of pushing back against the country’s governors. The government nevertheless failed to capitalize on the impromptu reform by institutionalizing and expanding on it in the form of a constitutional amendment that clarifies the modalities of local government financial autonomy. This oversight leaves Buhari’s successors free to backpedal and restore governors’ direct control over local government allocations via the SJLGA.
Governors’ reflexive opposition to the NFIU directive could be interpreted as proof that it will weaken their hold over local government funds. However, its real impact is more complicated and varies by state. In some states (for example, Adamawa, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Enugu, Kebbi, and Ogun), officials appear to be respecting the NFIU guidelines; local governments now pay expenses directly from their own accounts.87 In other states, governors reportedly have gone through the motions of implementing the guidelines but still circumvent them in practice.88 Several states, meanwhile, have refused—or been slow—to implement the new rules and still openly interfere with local government funds.89 Looking ahead, greater local government financial autonomy will hinge on whether successive governments actually enforce the NFIU rules and whether state governors have incentives to abide by them.
Whether or not they do have incentives, governors will continue to exercise significant informal control over local government finances. Thus, while they may appear more financially independent, local governments may in fact be just as politically and bureaucratically beholden to state governors.90 In almost every state, local government chairpersons must seek permission from the commissioner for local government affairs—typically one of the most loyal and trusted members of the governor’s cabinet—before budgeting or spending funds.91 While this could be viewed as a safeguard against local government corruption, some commissioners have allegedly used their position to embezzle or demand kickbacks in exchange for approving spending requests that are both legitimate and suspect (see “Mismanagement, Unaccountability, and Waste” below).92
This de facto fiscal control, combined with the centralization of many local government functions in state hands, means that governors are still free to make sizable deductions (some valid and some highly questionable) from local governments’ monthly allocations.93 The state uses the bulk of these deductions to pay local government employees, primary school teachers, and local healthcare workers—a function most states have removed from local government control.94 While state officials sometimes embezzle from these funds, most are disbursed properly.
Other deductions—now better described as state charges to local governments—ostensibly cover states’ administrative costs, pay for joint projects, or repay local government debts.95 These deductions vary by state but usually cover pension contributions (±15 percent of a local government’s monthly allocation), contributions to a budget stabilization (rainy day) fund (±5 percent), stipends for traditional rulers such as emirs and chiefs (±4 percent), primary healthcare administration (±3 percent), local government training (±1 percent), audit fees (±1 percent), and Ministry of Local Government overheads (±1 percent).96 State legislators periodically pass laws specifying the scope and scale of these charges but exercise weak oversight over how they are spent.97 Just like council chairpersons and state officials, state legislators are compromised by their own involvement in local government corruption and political dependence on powerful governors who need funds to lubricate their expansive patronage networks.98
In addition to these questionable overheads, states also levy many spurious “non-mandatory” charges on local governments.99 States have allegedly charged and diverted funds to pay for the upkeep of Damaturu Central Mosque (Yobe State), grants to ruling party leaders (Lagos State), state radio and television stations (Katsina State), state-managed water pumping stations (Jigawa State), and subsidies for security personnel (Borno State).100 In addition to being improper, these levies can fluctuate wildly, making local government planning and budgeting difficult.101 Pliant local government chairpersons rarely object to these deductions, because they face the threat of removal if they do.102 Combined with salary payments, these charges often exceed 80 percent of local governments’ monthly allocations, leaving them little leeway to implement projects or programs.103 In some cases, the charges can exceed 100 percent, forcing local governments to borrow or withhold staff salaries.104 By withholding funds, state officials also consolidate their control over corruption opportunities. An official in Yobe State, for example, revealed that the state government’s financial stranglehold over local government gave council officials little room to embezzle.105
These state-induced fiscal pressures—compounded by mismanagement, unaccountability, and waste (see next section)—have left Nigeria’s local governments without the resources they need to fulfill their statutory functions.106 Few local governments possess the human and financial capacity to provide adequate public services, let alone address communities’ basic infrastructure or development needs.107 Like over-centralization, challenges such as the erosion of local democracy, top-down interference, and resource shortages stem from and help perpetuate the kleptocratic capture of local government structures. One Nigerian scholar as far back as 1972 described this self-reinforcing situation as the “vicious circle of local government poverty.”108
Yet any explanation of this deadening impoverishment of local government must center around corruption given that the significance of the situation is difficult to explain without reference to it. On paper, Nigeria’s 774 local governments supposedly shared amounts ranging between N1.0 and N1.8 trillion ($4 to $11 billion, depending on the exchange rate) annually in recent years (see Figure 4). Between 2011 and 2021, local governments collectively received over N16.4 trillion ($76.3 billion)—an average of $99 million each. This total amount exceeds Nigeria’s N13.6 trillion 2021 budget (and more than doubles it in dollar terms).109 It is also a fact that local government spending increased following the end of military rule; it was almost four times higher in 2005 (in real terms) than in 1999, according to the World Bank.110
Though sizable, these allocations are not local governments’ only source of funding. They are also meant to receive an additional 0.6 percent of national revenues in the form of disbursements from two special funds (the Derivation and Ecological Funds).111 Under federal law, states are obliged to share 10 percent of their IGR with local government councils.112 Nevertheless, states frequently reduce or withhold these payments—sometimes for years at a time—without being held accountable.113 Local governments are also empowered to generate their own revenue via scores of different taxes and fees.114 Due to corruption and mismanagement (see next section), most struggle to generate more than a token amount of revenue this way.115 Financial malfeasance perpetrated by state and local officials, whether unilaterally or in cahoots with one another, is also the only way to explain why they do so little with so much.
In addition to being cash-strapped, local governments also suffer from a lack of human capital caused by years of mismanagement, political interference, and corruption.116 Failing to meet their grassroots governance potential, local councils have become public employment schemes whose bloated payrolls include politicians’ friends and family, party supporters, and even political thugs.117 Council chairpersons have wide leeway to appoint more junior, unskilled staff. Through a mechanism known as the Local Government Service Commission, state officials control and sometimes manipulate appointments and promotions to senior local government positions.118 These can be lucrative jobs: in Nasarawa State, a state audit alleged that accounting officers in several local governments had embezzled N6.4 billion ($20.8 million).119 In some states, the Local Government Service Commission is a nexus of politicking and bribery to which senior local government employees are expected to remit kickbacks to show “gratitude” and protect their positions.120
Over time, such malfeasance has served to deprofessionalize tens of thousands of local government workers.121 In the opinion of one civil society representative, most of these workers “have no goals, no objectives, nothing they want to accomplish . . . [and] think of local government as nothing more than an opportunity to get paid to do nothing.”122 Low wages (see Figure 5), poor leadership, and terrible working conditions have prompted more skilled and capable staff to take state or federal jobs or leave for the private sector.123 In 2021 alone, local government workers in Edo, Kogi, Niger, and several other states were paid late or only partially, thereby damaging morale, threatening livelihoods, and sparking absenteeism.124 Unfortunately, such human resource challenges cannot be fixed quickly but will instead require years of sustained reform and investment.
In addition to over-centralization, democratic erosion, outside interference, and inadequate resources, three other ubiquitous challenges—mismanagement, unaccountability, and waste—drive local governance failures in Nigeria. Closely linked and mutually reinforcing, each enable kleptocracy and exacerbate local government funding shortages.
Unaccountability, whether it stems from weak oversight or a lack of transparency, allows corruption-fueled local governance challenges to persist or worsen without any prospect for improvement.125 In most states, local government spending and contracting processes lack basic transparency, with officials brazenly claiming such information is secret.126 Local government chairpersons often evade the most basic type of social accountability that comes from living among and interacting with their constituents.127 Few consult community members or local civil society groups before making decisions.128 Local traditional leaders, meanwhile, rarely call out state and local government malfeasance because their palaces and entourages are bankrolled by public funds and they owe their appointments to state governors.129 Many chairpersons reside outside, or spend extended periods away from, their local government areas, returning only to preside over the distribution of their councils’ monthly allocations.130 In one state, absenteeism became so common that the governor warned local government chairpersons against administering their councils from hotel rooms in the state capital.131
State government oversight of local government spending and decisionmaking may seem rigorous—even domineering—but is in reality secretive, ineffective, and often self-serving.132 Unfortunately, the symbiotic relationship between local government chairpersons and their political patrons (for example, governors, state legislators, and commissioners for local government affairs) makes effective state oversight illusory.133 Some state legislators even solicit kickbacks from local government chairpersons in exchange for shielding them from oversight.134 For their part, local government councilors typically lack the political clout needed to challenge a chairperson’s unilateral control over what is meant to be a collective budgeting and decisionmaking process.135
Each state’s Ministry of Local Government Affairs and Auditor-General for Local Government are also supposed to monitor local government spending and alert state legislators, who, if they detect irregularities, are empowered to remove chairpersons for gross misconduct.136 The effectiveness of these audits is often undermined, however, because the audits are based on incomplete or manufactured records, they are conducted too infrequently, their findings are not published, or they are not acted upon by state legislators.137 In one extreme example, Plateau State officials announced in 2012 that the financial transactions of the state’s seventeen local governments had not been audited for ten years.138
Like the federal and state governments, local governments have also earned a reputation for mismanagement and wasteful spending due to weak oversight and opacity.139 Too often, local government chairpersons emulate state governors by hiring retinues of aides and using public funds to bankroll lavish lifestyles for them, their “first ladies” (wives), families, and prominent supporters (see “Legalized Corruption” below).140 Some local government chairpersons spend huge sums on vanity projects, such as the building of expensive new local government council offices, hotels, or shopping centers, instead of on much-needed public services.141 Poor planning and implementation failures are also a problem; when local governments actually manage to complete projects, the buildings often deteriorate due to a lack of basic maintenance.142 In many cases, projects are chosen based on their capacity to convey patronage to party loyalists rather than community needs.143
Mismanagement, unaccountability, and waste—along with the other challenges discussed in this section—stem from and perpetuate the kleptocratic capture of local government. Far from being a parochial problem that can be ignored, local government corruption is strategically important because its corrosive effects—conflict, predatory governance, and underdevelopment—threaten Nigeria’s long-term stability and its citizens’ day-to-day well-being. Mitigating this threat will demand innovative remedies that account for the many different forms of local government corruption.
Local government corruption occurs in a multitude of deeply entrenched forms that both local and state government officials engage in, sometimes independently of each other and competitively but most often in conjunction. This section critically evaluates the most salient forms of local government corruption: embezzlement, legalized corruption, security votes, contract fraud, ghost workers and bloated staff rosters, nepotism and favoritism, bureaucratic bribery and toll-taking, and reputation laundering. In doing so, it further underscores the kleptocratic capture of local government. From this evaluation, it is evident that local government is largely just a political tool that facilitates the corrupt practices of state and local government officials.
Embezzlement, meaning the straightforward theft and misappropriation of funds, is rife in government in Nigeria.144 Local government chairpersons allegedly team up often with the council treasurer, accountant, and cashier to make unauthorized withdrawals.145 Political party leaders in local governments routinely receive illicit funds from local government councils.146 Furthermore, local government officials, often in collaboration with state governors, divert excess crude funds for personal use.147 Specific forms of embezzlement include the following:
The term “legalized corruption” refers to practices that Nigerians widely view as corrupt but that are not necessarily illegal or prohibited by law.168 Prominent examples are excessive allowances, expense claims, and salaries that local government officials use to fund ostentatious lifestyles.169 For example, local government chairpersons receive sizable allowances, including for vehicle fueling and maintenance; staff (such as a special assistant, a personal assistant, and domestic staff); entertainment; utilities; constituency needs; newspapers and periodicals; accommodation; furniture; travel per diem (“estacode”); medical needs; severance gratuity; and paid leave.170
These payments add up. In 2005, for example, one local government chairperson in Rivers State was allocated salary and allowances worth $376,000, nearly half the total amount budgeted for paying the local government’s 325 health workers’ salaries.171 In another local government, more than 30 percent of the council’s total budget was allocated to pay salaries and allowances for its chairperson and councilors.172 In Lagos State, meanwhile, new local government chairpersons reportedly use council funds to buy three official vehicles each, while all local government political appointees receive a new car each.173 Likewise, in 2020, Cross River State’s governor bought local government chairpersons new sport utility vehicles (SUVs), using funds deducted from their monthly allocation.174 Since then, the governors of Gombe and Ondo States have followed suit.175
The term “security vote” refers to the monthly allowance allocated to government officials ostensibly to pay for security-related contingencies. Security votes run billions of naira and vary based on security conditions in each state. Considering Nigeria’s many security challenges, this allowance could be seen as a necessity. It has, however, become a thinly disguised avenue for corruption.
Local government chairpersons nationwide collectively receive an estimated N12.8 billion ($33.5 million) in corruption-prone security votes each year (see Figure 6), though the exact amount is a closely guarded secret. While some may spend a portion of these funds on security, they also channel them into their political activities or embezzle them outright.176 Security vote funds are often provided to council chairpersons in cash, and because they are not subject to legislative oversight or independent audit, they are spent as officials see fit.177
Many local government chairpersons have been accused of misappropriating council funds under the pretext of security votes. Most council chairpersons start their period in office with the purchase of SUVs. They travel in a convoy of these SUVs, with the full complement of bodyguards and police orderlies.190 Chairpersons also use security vote money to sponsor political violence on their behalf. The head of the Port Harcourt office of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission stated that many local government chairs “will give half of the [security vote] money in the name of ‘empowerment’ to youth they use as thugs and the rest goes into their own bank accounts.”191
Multiple kinds of contract fraud enable corruption at the local government level. They include, but are not limited to, contract inflation (both projects and purchases), misinvoicing, “air supply” (paying for goods and services that are not delivered), and the awarding of contracts for infrastructure projects that are started and abandoned or never built.192 This last scheme is age-old: research in the late 1990s revealed that only about 38 percent of projects initiated by local government councils were even partially executed, while roughly half were completely abandoned.193
Local government chairpersons and their subordinates also solicit kickbacks from contractors or award contracts without competition to their political godfathers, friends, relatives, or companies they control.194 Though often tendered for modest purchases and projects—for example, minor repairs, drainage construction, renovation of primary school classrooms, and the supplying of medicines to primary healthcare centers—these inflated or unfulfilled contracts add up over time.195 In one local government area in Lagos State, for instance, a chairperson recently awarded a contract to build and manage a shopping complex to a company he controls.196
Significant numbers of ghost workers, meaning employees who exist only on paper, clog the payrolls of local government councils across Nigeria.197 After creating phantom workers by adding fictitious names to councils’ payrolls, local officials then collect their wages. In some cases, these ghost workers are real people—friends, family members, university students, and supporters of local officials—who collect wages despite not showing up for work.198
Ghost workers have been found in numerous states.199 In 2020, Borno State officials revealed that nineteen local government councils alone may have taken about N18 billion ($58.6 million, at the time) as payment for ghost workers over the preceding ten years.200 Similarly, a 2013 staff audit revealed that out of 26,017 local government staff in the FCT (Abuja), up to 6,000 were fake.201 In 2021, a Bayelsa State audit found that roughly 8 percent of local government primary school staff were ghost workers.202 And in 2019, the governor of Kaduna State accused local council chairpersons of padding the payroll with the names of their family members, before trimming about 4,000 local government staff statewide.203 Meanwhile, another personnel audit, in Abia State, revealed that many council officials had put their children on the payroll, some of whom were still in primary school.204
The problem of ghost workers is not the only reason why local government payrolls have grown uncontrollably. Most councils are overstaffed, leaving many of them unable to pay their workers on time and in full.205 Council cabinets are enormous, and like state governors, every local government chairperson hires large retinues, including numerous supervisory councilors, special advisers, special assistants, and personal assistants. Councils’ disproportionate spending on personnel has fueled calls for the councils to be downsized to free up funds for projects and services.206
Local government employment is largely based on favoritism, nepotism, parochial ethno-politics, and other informal considerations unrelated to competence, qualification, experience, and performance.207 More junior local government workers usually enter their jobs at the behest of local government chairpersons, who use recruitment as a compensatory and patronage tool to satisfy both patrons and clients.208 Local government functions, to the extent they exist, are dictated by the reciprocal demands of these neopatrimonial relationships. Council chairpersons often use public funds—in the form of contracts to drill wells or make road repairs, for example—to reward local personal or party loyalists.209 Nepotism and favoritism also shape how contracts are awarded. An official in Borno State observed that local officials frequently give contracts to family and friends, while an official in Katsina State noted how they are also provided to state legislators.210
There is a prominent licensing culture in Nigeria, whereby the issuance of various licenses and permits is monopolized by particular official gatekeepers. These authorizations are frequently major sources of bureaucratic corruption, as government officials demand (or expect) bribes from those who need the licenses and permits.211 Bribery aside, local governments have a free hand to set the amount they charge for these certificates and permits. When public demand for certain local bureaucratic services increases, officials will often jack up the fees to earn more revenue for the council.212
Local officials responsible for issuing certificates of indigeneity—attesting to the fact that a Nigerian citizen is officially an indigene (native) of a particular local government area—often toll-take (demand illicit payments from applicants).213 The practice is also very common in marriage registrations; as of 2021, retail corruption was endemic at the federal marriage registry in Ikoyi, Lagos, suggesting it also haunts local government registries.214 According to one senior official from Ondo State, the head of the local government marriage registry has “embezzled to the point of owning a private school, driving the latest cars in town, building a hostel around [the university], and no one could question him.”215
Fake awards, a key tool for reputation laundering, are commonly used by pro-government entities to ingratiate themselves with prestige-hungry officials or, in some cases, help scandal-ridden individuals launder their reputations.216 Reputation laundering elevates the status of relatively obscure government officials by artificially popularizing them. There are instances of little-known media platforms, political groups, and fake nongovernmental organizations giving “best chairman” awards, perhaps to gain publicity or curry favor with rising political stars. In 2021 alone, several such entities handed out “Local Government Chairman of the Year” awards with great fanfare.217
Positive Steps: Are Local Governments Doing Anything About It?
Despite the generalized failure and kleptocratic capture of local government in Nigeria, several states appear to have taken small, positive steps toward addressing the problem. Note, however, that these steps are largely only discernable in press reports; interviews of local government officials in eight states—conducted by the authors of this paper—revealed scant evidence of tangible improvements.218 Examples of these positive steps include the following:
Despite the fact that Nigerians and outside observers have become desensitized to the extent and severity of local government corruption, the problem is having two very significant impacts. First, as explained in the previous section, corruption is closely linked to other oft-cited explanations for grassroot governance failures. Second, it is a key driver—both directly and indirectly—of the socioeconomic, democracy and governance, security, and environmental challenges that pose a strategic threat to Nigeria’s future stability and the well-being and prosperity of its citizens.
Combined with the other problems it exacerbates, corruption prevents Nigeria’s 774 local government councils from providing even the most rudimentary public goods and services to their needy constituents.234 Instead of compensating for federal and state government failures, Nigeria’s third tier of government has been hollowed out and corrupted to such an extent that it cannot fulfill its basic functions. Despite its enormous potential, it is especially ill-equipped to effectively govern, manage, and provide services to the country’s rapidly expanding urban areas.235 Communities all across Nigeria lack adequate primary schools, basic healthcare, clean drinking water, sanitation, drainage, lighting, and other basic amenities as a result.236 The outcome: Nigeria’s national health, education, and development indicators have worsened so much that, alongside India, it has the most people living in extreme poverty.237
This assessment is not new or controversial. In 2003, then president Olusegun Obasanjo lamented “the abysmal failure of the local government system,” and assessed that “rapid and sustained development has been a mirage as successive councils have grossly under-performed in . . . almost all the areas of their mandate.”238 Evidence from individual states supports these generalizations. One recent study of six local governments in Anambra State revealed widespread failures to provide basic services.239 Another study of Cross River State assessed that “the concept of local governance when compared with the reality on ground . . . is a farce and fallacy.”240
Though problematic in so many respects, local government failures have one small upside: they have prompted many hardworking Nigerians to band together to develop community-based solutions to everyday challenges. Where they function well, these workarounds and cooperative strategies have in some respects strengthened the resilience of the communities. Some settlements in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, for example, have responded to government neglect by reviving pre-colonial traditions of collective action and self-governance, thereby succeeding in providing some basic public goods and social services themselves.241 In southeastern Nigeria, town development unions serve as a venue for grassroots democratic decisionmaking, conflict resolution, and cooperative infrastructure development, but notably, they can falter if state and local officials politicize them.242 Because they are widely participatory, such community-based organizations typically operate with more transparency and accountability than local government councils.243 In this respect, citizen-driven groups arguably enjoy greater legitimacy than local officials who subvert democracy and govern poorly.
The kleptocratic capture of local government continues to hurt democracy and governance in Nigeria where it matters most: at the grassroots. In the words of one scholar, “Nowhere in the country has the local government system been an instrument either of good governance or for participatory democracy of for [sic] economic progress.”244 Such de-democratization has not only had untold socioeconomic costs, but also has stunted many Nigerians’ trust in—and expectations of—local government.245 It has also left citizens without the mechanisms needed to hold local decisionmakers accountable for their performance.246 Moreover, state and local politicians’ successful capture of local government elections is perniciously self-reinforcing, insofar as it heightens voter apathy and drives down turnout, making election manipulation even easier.247 One ruling party member speaking about his state’s recent local elections said, “Why would I bother voting, when we have won already?”248
The kleptocratic capture of grassroots governance and local elections also has outsized impacts on the quality and profile of Nigeria’s overall political hierarchy. This is because, as in any country, local government is an incubator and training ground for state and national political leaders. As local politicians climb the greasy pole, their lack of integrity and disregard for democratic values inevitably shapes national political values.249 The sustained exclusion of women from local politics is a good example: because male governors tend to appoint or engineer the election of their male political godchildren, the underrepresentation of women in Nigerian politics is at least partially driven by local-level democratic decay.250
The ongoing subversion of local democracy is not an isolated phenomenon: it has trickle-up effects on strategic governance and political outcomes. Local government chairpersons play a key mobilization role by managing the ground game of national and state elites. Indeed, when these elites and local political structures are aligned, elections are generally uncompetitive, with the outcome decided well in advance.251 As one local government chairperson noted, his position depends on his ability to “deliver the needed number of votes for national positions.”252 Through such efforts, localized election rigging has become a practiced routine. It is highly effective in not just delivering votes but also hurting opposition morale and driving down turnout in the long term.253
This short-circuiting of local democracy and the governance failures it causes also picks away at the already-frayed social contract between Nigerians and their leaders. Embezzlement by local officials alienates their constituents, resulting in communities’ widespread unwillingness to pay taxes and fees that could, if used judiciously, fund much-needed public services.254 Rather than combat tax evasion, some chairpersons embrace it as a means of taking away citizens’ right to scrutinize how local government funds are spent.255 Many chairpersons also convert taxes and fees into political patronage by putting ruling party supporters—or even local thugs—in charge of revenue collection activities (see “Diverting internally generated revenue” above).256 This practice not only minimizes the amount of revenue deposited into local government coffers, it also alienates local people who are often subjected to extortionate or arbitrary revenue collection practices.257
The kleptocratic capture of local government in Nigeria fuels insecurity by exacerbating drivers of communal conflict.258 It also diminishes communities’ capacity to weather outbreaks of violence and bounce back after they occur. Some of these conflicts are rooted in colonial and military-era decisions to create new local government units and delineate their boundaries in ways that benefited some ethnic groups and disadvantaged others. Other origins of conflict are more recent.259 Local government corruption also sparks political violence as state and local elites use thugs to intimidate rivals and defend their hold over grassroots political structures.260 Even Nigerian elites recognize the link between local government failures, crime, and conflict: in May 2021, Nigeria’s Senate president blamed growing insecurity on “the absence of a functional local government system.”261
In Delta State, a decades-long simmering conflict between communities near the city of Warri has been partly fueled by ethnic bias in local government leadership and hiring as well as an abortive attempt to move a local government headquarters.262 During flare-ups, this communal conflict has left hundreds dead and displaced thousands more.263 In Kogi State, in 2002, the governor’s attempt to create new LGAs that favored his own ethnic group sparked communal violence that left several people dead.264 In Plateau State, ruling party attempts to rig the 2008 local government elections ignited destructive riots that left over 700 dead.265 Interethnic tensions festered, leading to a further wave of violence in 2010 that killed up to 1,000 people.266 An official enquiry blamed, among other factors, a “lack of neutrality and transparency on the part of State’s Independent Electoral Commissions” for sparking the crises.267
Beyond inciting specific ethnic-based conflict, local government corruption also aggravates a broader spectrum of land tenure and resource disputes.268 Conflict between pastoralists and farmers, especially in the Middle Belt and northeast regions, is in part driven by local governments’ inability and unwillingness to proactively resolve local arguments over land use as well as state and local government elites’ misappropriation of land previously set aside for grazing.269 Local officials’ theft and misuse of security votes (see above)—funds that could be used to sponsor peace building and conflict resolution activities—makes it more difficult for communities to deescalate simmering tensions.
The kleptocratic capture of local governance also reduces Nigerian communities’ capacity to cope with climate change and fuels environmental crimes like timber trafficking. For example, as of early 2022, illicit harvesting of exotic timber across the Nigeria-Cameroon border is allegedly being facilitated by corrupt local government officials.270 According to one trafficker, “It is workers of the Local Government of Maiha [Adamawa State] who give us the papers certifying that we have paid taxes before we go to Lagos, because without your papers, you can sometimes be arrested.”271
Similarly, until recently, a local government chairperson in Bauchi State was allegedly involved in facilitating illegal logging operations in environmentally sensitive areas.272 According to a local environmental activist, “The scandalous sale and allocation of the historic Lame-Burra Game Reserve and Burra-Tamba Grazing Reserve by a group secretly formed by local government officials and local politicians is the heaviest blow we have ever suffered as a community.”273 The state has since revoked the chairperson’s controversial land grants; further, he has been suspended pending a state-led inquiry, after which he could be impeached by state legislators.274 By no means isolated to these two states, the environmental impact of local government corruption is significant and demands greater scrutiny.
There is a stark but feasible and effective solution to the kleptocratic capture and systematic failure of local government in Nigeria: its elimination. The solution stands in contrast to a set of stale policy recommendations that have gained no traction since the country’s 1999 return to civilian rule. Detailed below, these reformist mantras are attractive but ultimately unrealistic because they require local, state, and national elites to forgo their political and financial interests.
Led by Nigeria’s powerful state governors, these elites have strong incentives to oppose even modest reforms. In 2019, for example, every governor joined a legal challenge to anti–money laundering guidelines (see above) that loosened their hold over local government funds.275 The feasibility of any solution that does not dovetail with their priorities should—through the lens of political settlements analysis—be questioned.276 More effective approaches will recognize elites’ vested interests and informal veto powers rather than naively appeal to elites to fix a system that, for their political and pecuniary purposes, works well.
Many scholars and commentators have, in this vein, argued that Nigeria should amend its constitution to give local governments real financial and political autonomy; to clarify their status, powers, and responsibilities; and to make INEC responsible for local elections.277 Their pleas, however, ignore the fact that the federal and state legislators empowered to make such changes are beholden to state governors and also personally benefit from the status quo. The fate of one such constitutional amendment—passed by the National Assembly in March 2022 and meant to increase local government financial autonomy—will likely not be ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the country’s thirty-six state legislatures, many of which will be reflexively opposed to it.278 Proponents of reform also overlook the fact that, since independence, numerous attempts to revamp local government have repeatedly failed to address its greatest challenges or have made them worse (see Appendix 1).
Moreover, the notion that greater local government autonomy begets better governance and reduces corruption has been challenged by scholars and practitioners who have found little evidence that decentralization increases accountability.279 Bluntly put by one Nigerian academic, “Most rural people do not expect that decentralisation will generate more accountable local government and better services; they find that a donor driven and funded dream rather a joke.”280 In Nigeria, decentralization has weakened, not strengthened, grassroots governance.
Many other commonly mentioned solutions—better safeguards, stronger management controls, tighter oversight, greater accountability, enlightenment campaigns, increased community involvement—are both predicated on elite cooperation and too vague to be useful.281 Other more detailed remedies—the deployment of anticorruption agents to each local government, better training and education, better pay, the strengthening of whistleblowing mechanisms, and higher minimum qualifications for local government chairpersons—are more specific but do not necessarily address the underlying drivers of local government corruption.282 Calls to increase the share of national revenue allocated to local governments also ignores the reasons why they experience fiscal challenges, namely corruption, mismanagement, and waste.283
Likewise, specific reforms targeted at increasing transparency (for example, mandating that local governments publish all revenue, expenditure, and contract details) would need to be accompanied by robust accountability measures to be effective.284 Anticorruption gains from recent campaigns to increase financial transparency at the federal and state levels are difficult to discern for this reason. Instead of being concealed, data showing corrupt and wasteful spending now languishes in plain sight, either because it is difficult to access and interpret or, when publicized, is shrugged off by desensitized and disempowered citizens.285 Civil society organizations, meanwhile, are met with pushback and even threats if they try to dig deeper.286 Thus, any incremental or partial fix, while laudable, would do little to reduce the institutionalized corruption that has hollowed out local government in Nigeria.
The elimination of local government is therefore a more viable—albeit imperfect—way to address kleptocracy and, more importantly, the failure to provide Nigerians even basic services. Five core reasons make elimination the best option:
Moreover, eliminating local government would reduce the scope for multiple taxation and criminalized revenue collection that currently bedevils many micro-, small-, and medium-sized businesses in Nigeria. In terms of human resources, state governments would not need to lay off local government workers en masse but instead redeploy and retrain them, and, over time, reduce bloated personnel rosters through natural attrition. Thus, eliminating local government would not necessarily result in high unemployment; it could provide the impetus for state-level civil service professionalization.
These same elites are also well-positioned to negotiate with and make concessions to two entities that almost certainly will oppose elimination: NULGE and the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), the body representing local government chairpersons. NULGE has already threatened strikes and labeled proponents of elimination “enemies of Nigerians and democracy.”288 In March 2022, the union stridently criticized the governors of Ekiti and Ondo States for their purported opposition to local government autonomy and praised the governors of Rivers and Jigawa States for their ostensible support for it.289
Although eliminating local government would obviously render NULGE obsolete, it would also create an opportunity for it to merge with the Nigeria Civil Service Union, thus creating a new, more influential voice for government employees nationwide.290 ALGON—which NULGE has called a “toothless bulldog”—is, in contrast, more likely to bend to the wishes of state governors, to whom they are politically and financially beholden and who are well-positioned to provide soft landings to its members.291
If internalized, these five reasons could helpfully reorient the narrative that international policymakers and their civil society partners use when talking about local government in Nigeria. Rather than focusing their engagement and support on quixotic attempts to reform local government structures, they should push for their dissolution and deepen relationships with community-based organizations that serve as surrogate local governance structures in city neighborhoods, towns, and villages all across the country.
The question remains: would the elimination of Nigeria’s local governments leave behind a harmful power vacuum? This is unlikely, given that state governments often already operate in their stead and federal police and other security agencies would continue to operate at the local level as they do now. While also kleptocratic, state governments nevertheless have a clear and inviolate constitutional mandate. Unlike local governments, states represent the core building blocks of Nigeria’s federal system and are essential to subnational governance and administration.
While deeply flawed, state governments possess some capacity to provide public goods and services. Already missing in action, Nigeria’s local governments would not be missed. Their elimination is not a panacea but appears to be the only viable, constructive course of action given prevailing elite political settlements and Nigeria’s perennial democratic shortcomings. One caveat, however: it is difficult to anticipate possible second- and third-order effects of the elimination of local government because there are no comparative case studies of other developing states that have done so. While there are several examples of local government consolidation and reform in developed democracies, they do not resonate in the Nigerian context.
For their part, international policymakers could be doing much more to reduce incentives for official corruption. They could, for example, predicate future defense cooperation on the passage of federal legislation banning the use of security votes. In support of grassroots democracy, they could levy travel sanctions on illegal caretaker chairpersons and the governors and state legislators who appoint them. More international support could also enable the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission to conduct corruption risk assessments of some of Nigeria’s most populous local governments.298
International partners could also ramp up financial and technical support to grassroots-driven, locally focused accountability efforts spearheaded by organizations like Tracka, Udeme, Follow The Money, and ENetSuD.299 Lessons learned from Indonesia, for example, indicate that local-level nongovernmental organizations and community groups serve as a powerful “pool of resistance” to local government corruption.300 Armed with legal, regulatory, budgetary, and media expertise, these groups can be highly effective anticorruption actors.301
Feasible and long overdue, this kind of support would show Nigerians that Western policymakers understand what they have known for a long time: that local government is irreparably broken and has been fully captured by kleptocratic elites.
This addendum summarizes the historical development of grassroots governance in Nigeria, focusing on how local government corruption became so detrimental and widespread. The summary starts with the late colonial period, when Nigeria’s current local government system began to take shape, and concludes with 2004, the last year when (almost all) of Nigeria’s states held local government elections in tandem.
In 1916, British colonial rulers promulgated the Native Authority Ordinance, replacing three regional traditionally based administrative structures with a nationwide system of indirect rule.302 Three decades later, the British enacted the Richard Constitution, introducing three regional assemblies.303 Breaking with indirect rule, the Eastern regional government passed the 1950 Local Government Ordinance, asserting direct control over its local government structures.304 The following year, the MacPherson Constitution permitted the colony’s three regional assemblies to determine their own local government policies, thereby diminishing colonial administrators’ influence over them and reversing earlier efforts to create a uniform local government structure nationwide.305 In 1952, the Western region passed its own local government law that effectively ended the colonial practice of indirect rule.306
In 1960, Nigeria won its independence. The Eastern and Western regions immediately enacted their own laws that strengthened and democratized local government structures.307 Northern leaders, meanwhile, chose to keep the colonial-era native authority system in place even though it gave traditional leaders (emirs and district heads) a disproportionate amount of power over local affairs.308 In 1962, the Northern regional government created a layer of political appointees (provincial commissioners) to increase their oversight over these local rulers.309 Otherwise, it largely resisted calls for local government reform up until it and the rest of Nigeria’s civilian-led government was overthrown during a bloody military coup in January 1966.310
After seizing power, Nigeria’s military rulers took control of the Native Authority structures in the Northern region and dissolved the elected local government structures in the Western and Eastern regions.311 They then installed local government councilors, some of whom were nominated by military governors and some by traditional rulers.312 By the time civil war broke out the following year, the military had replaced these appointed structures with sole civil servant administrators.313
Over the next fifteen years—three of which saw the country upended by a catastrophic civil war—Nigeria’s local government system underwent several reforms but nevertheless atrophied due to corruption and a lack of funding.314 In 1968, many of the country’s twelve newly created state governments began to assert control over their local government structures. That year, for example, the military governor of Benue-Plateau State promised that local councils would eventually be elected.315 His counterpart in North-Eastern State (modern day Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe States) went further and established a panel that put together a range of reforms adopted in 1970.316
Several other Northern states followed suit and instituted reforms, such as the elimination of the colonial term “native authority,” the subdivision of local government units that were too large, the reduction in the power of traditional leaders, the election of a majority of local council members, and the creation of a two-tier system of local government.317 Southern states took different approaches to reform between 1969 and 1974; several states created a system of local development administrations, while Western State (modern day Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo States) operated an American-style system.318
In 1976, then military head of state Obasanjo introduced significant nationwide reforms meant to empower local government, remedy its defects, and firmly establish its statutory functions and funding sources.319 According to the government’s reform guidelines, local government was to be “established by law to exercise specific powers within defined area (and) to initiate and direct the provision of services and to determine and implement projects so as to complement the activities of the state and federal government in their areas, and to ensure that local initiative and response [sic] to local needs and conditions are maximized.”320
A committee led by Ibrahim Dasuki, who later became Sultan of Sokoto, formulated these reforms. The reforms included creating 301 local government areas on the basis of viability and administrative efficiency; providing for elected local government councils; transferring federal and state revenue to local governments via statutory financial allocations paid into an SJLGA (see above); permitting local governments to raise revenue through prescribed taxes and fees; tasking state ministries with guiding and advising—rather than controlling—local governments; relegating traditional leaders to advisory roles; creating traditional councils to deal with chieftaincy and cultural matters; stationing a police unit and setting up a community policing committee in each local government area; and empowering local governments to create subordinate council units as necessary.321
The 1976 reforms were galvanized by a significant increase in local government funding: N928 million ($517 million) between 1976 and 1980.322 This injection of funding enabled many local governments to build a variety of small infrastructure and social projects.323 Shortly after announcing the reforms, the military government held local government elections on a nonparty basis in December 1976.324 Before handing over power to civilian leaders in 1979, the Obasanjo military government largely incorporated the 1976 reforms into the country’s new constitution. These reforms were subsequently replicated, shaping the role and structure of local government in Nigeria to this day.
Counterintuitively, the 1979 presidential election and resultant restoration of civilian rule led to democratic backsliding at the local government level. The successor government of president Shehu Shagari refused to hold local elections, allowing civilian governors to put caretaker committees in charge of local governments in their states.325 Governors also hijacked funds deposited into the SJLGA, diverting them for other purposes. Many also viewed local councils as extensions of their reelection campaigns and used to them to dole out jobs to their political supporters, causing council payrolls to spiral out of control.326 Corruption also thrived, handicapping local government finances at a time when they were also struggling to generate revenue.327 The Shagari government compounded these fiscal challenges by reducing the local government allocation from 10 to 8 percent of national revenues.328
In December 1983, the military toppled the Shagari government during a coup. It sacked the country’s caretaker local government councils and installed sole administrators in their place.329 In May 1984, Buhari’s military government set up a committee, also led by Dasuki, to review the local government administration that had largely unraveled under civilian rule. The eponymous “Dasuki Report” painted a stark picture of local government corruption and failure. It noted the widespread diversion of its statutory allocations, states’ failure to contribute to local government funds, their transfer of unfunded mandates (for example, primary education) to local governments, widespread appointment of unqualified staff, and the undue interference of state ministries in local government affairs.330 Primarily a postmortem account, the report stated that the cause of local government failure was more operational than structural.331 Its findings were overshadowed by events, however, when in August 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Buhari.
In January 1986, Babangida inaugurated a Political Bureau to revisit, among other weighty topics, local government reform.332 The bureau largely endorsed the findings of the Dasuki committee but also recommended a few other changes, including replacing the Buhari-era sole administrator system with an executive chairperson/legislative council structure and paying allocations directly to local governments through the SJLGA—a change that came into effect by 1989.333 As part of its promised transition back toward civilian rule, Nigeria’s military junta held local government elections in 1987. Though flawed, the elections involved roughly 15,000 candidates and recorded high voter turnout.334
In 1988, Babangida made additional changes to local government as part of a broader array of civil service reforms.335 Aiming to professionalize local government, the reforms formalized the roles of chairperson, vice chairperson, councilor, council secretary (appointed administrative adviser), and auditor, as well as state local government service commissions.336 The responsibility for primary healthcare and education was also transferred back to local government.337 Further, the reforms replaced the state ministries of local government with less powerful state bureaus tasked with providing advice and technical assistance to local officials.338 Babangida also expanded the scope and scale of local government by creating new LGAs in 1987, 1990, and 1991, increasing the total from 301 to 593 during his tenure.339 LGA creation served as a powerful patronage tool, helping Babangida shore up his support among state and local elites.340
Following the 1988 reforms, Babangida continued to tinker with local government. In 1990, he empowered local councils to approve their own budgets, cutting states out of the process. He also increased local government allocations from 10 to 15 percent of national revenues; in 1992, he upped them to 20 percent.341 Also in 1990, Babangida held a second set of local elections as a prelude to legislative and governorship elections that ushered in a brief period of hybrid civilian (state and local) and military (federal) rule. Because of this, local elections took on an outsized political significance, attracting the attention of Nigeria’s political heavyweights.342 The chairperson of one of Nigeria’s two political parties—the National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP)—noted at the time that politicians should be able to deliver local victories for their party if they want to be taken seriously as candidates for state or national office.343 Those who could not might, in the words of one scholar, have “their dreams sealed.”344 Despite being held under military supervision, the 1990 local elections were highly competitive, with both parties winning a substantial number of seats in every state (see Figure 8).
In June 1993, the shock annulment of the presidential election—the final milestone in Babangida’s abortive democratic transition—set the scene for a coup for that brought General Sani Abacha to power. Unlike his predecessor, Abacha had little interest in reforming local government. After briefly handing over local government administration to each council’s secretary, in April 1994, he reinstituted the system by which military governors appointed a chairperson and four supervisors (assistants) to oversee each local government.345 In March 1996, Abacha held local elections on a nonparty basis, using an open balloting system widely criticized as undemocratic.346 He also created more local governments, bringing the total number to 774.347
In March 1997, Abacha held another round of local elections, in which five state-sanctioned political parties (described by one critic as “five fingers of a leprous hand”) competed.348 Election observers cast doubt on the process, noting widespread irregularities, voter registration problems, improper candidate screening, and corrupt practices by local election tribunals.349 The new councils operated until June 1998, when Abacha’s sudden death paved the way for Nigeria’s transition back to civilian rule.
After dissolving his pet councils, Abacha’s temporary successor General Abdulsalami Abubakar reinstituted a caretaker system in which civil servants managed local government affairs as sole administrators.350 In December 1998, Nigeria held local elections yet again—its third set in the space of thirty-three months—against the backdrop of voter fatigue.351 The first act in another promised transition, the 1998 local elections—like those held in 1990—took on an outsized political significance because the military decided that the results would determine which three of the nine provisionally registered political associations would win enough votes to be allowed to field candidates in the forthcoming legislative, governorship, and presidential polls.352
This ensured that, in the words of one scholar, “by design or by default, the political space was literally left up for grabs, with money politics having a field day.”353 Obasanjo—who would go on to win the 1999 presidential election—reportedly plowed N130 million ($1.5 million at the time) of unexplained provenance into the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) local election campaign.354 And while the United States lauded local elections as peaceful and professional, other observers described them as a “cash and carry election” marred by electoral malpractices, violence, and technical and logistical failures.355 Having vastly outspent its rivals, the PDP went on to win 460 (of 774) chairperson seats and 4,787 out of 8,811 councilor seats, putting it in firm control of most of Nigeria’s grassroots political structures ahead of the 1999 state and federal elections.356
Following Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule, its modern local government system rapidly came into focus. The country’s new constitution reauthorized the SJLGA system; within a year, virtually all state governors had reintroduced it and stopped local government chairpersons from collecting their allocation directly from federal pay offices as they had done previously.357 Governors wasted no time in exerting their control over local government finances and using them to reward supporters and fund their reelection campaigns. For their part, many Nigerians appeared, in the words of the U.S. ambassador at the time, “cynical about what they consider[ed] to be an ineffective and rapacious Fourth Republic federal government, as well as equally incompetent local government authorities.”358
Three other developments in Obasanjo’s first term shaped the development of local government in Nigeria. First, in 2001, Obasanjo assented to a new electoral law, passed by the PDP-controlled national assembly, that controversially rescheduled local elections from April 2002 to 2003, thereby extending the tenure of local government officials. In March 2002, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, ruling that the authority to schedule elections and amend local government tenures rests with state legislatures.359 The ruling effectively cleared the way for state governors to appoint their cronies as caretaker chairpersons in May 2002, thereby boosting their own 2003 reelection campaigns.360 Second, in 2003, Obasanjo emulated his predecessors by setting up a technical committee—led first by Etsu Nupe, a traditional leader, and then by Liman Ciroma, a retired senior servant—to propose possible local government reforms.361 In the end, its only notable suggestion was to put in place a parliamentary system at the local level.362 Third, Obasanjo’s government began aggressively opposing attempts by some states (for example, Ebonyi, Kogi, Lagos, and Niger) to create new local government areas.363 This schism culminated in Obasanjo’s decision to cut off federal allocations to Lagos’ local governments over the state’s decision to create thirty-seven additional council areas.364 In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered Obasanjo to resume the payments, but he refused to do so through the end of his tenure.365
After a series of politically motivated delays, states’ newly created State Independent Electoral Commissions began holding local elections in 2004.366 Niger State and Sokoto State held their elections first in January, while all but three states (Adamawa, Jigawa, and Nasarawa) held them in March. According to observers, the elections were marred by massive fraud, logistical failures, low observed turnout, and violence that left about fifty people dead.367 As expected, the ruling party in each state won in a landslide; in some states, opposition parties won no seats at all.368 In the FCT, where the INEC conducted the local election, the result was fairer, with the ruling and main opposition winning three councils each.369
Though by no means the lowest point in Nigeria’s democratic development, the 2004 council elections nevertheless set a low standard that subsequent local polls have yet to improve upon. Since 2004, local elections have become stage-managed electoral events in which each state’s ruling party engineers a landslide win (see Appendix 2). In some respects, the low point also represents a terminus of local government development in Nigeria: since that time, the kleptocratic capture of local government has only intensified.
ALGON Association of Local Governments of Nigeria
FCT Federal Capital Territory
IGR internally generated revenue
INEC Independent National Electoral Commission
LG local government
LGA local government area
NFIU Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit
NRC National Republican Convention
NULGE Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees
PDP People’s Democratic Party
SDP Social Democratic Party
SIEC State Independent Electoral Commission
SJLGA State Joint Local Government Account
SUV sport utility vehicle
The program thanks Uadamen Ilevbaoje for his superb research assistance. Thanks also to the many serving and former local government officials whose insights and experiences helped shape this paper.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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