In less than three years, development experts around the world will be evaluating the Millennium Development Goal agenda (MDG) which was strongly centered on halving global poverty by 2015.Other MDG goals such as curbing hunger, access to clean water and primary education, reducing mortality rate, gender equality are all significantly tied to reducing poverty.
The term decentralization connotes disassembling of political power in order to effectively respond to the needs of the poor. It imputes transitioning political power and responsibility from the center to the local level attempting to bring the people closer to their government in order to better address their needs. (Faquet, 1997, Shackleton et al., 2002). Taking it further Mamdani’s definition (1996) emphasizes the need for effective administration and national cohesion. Attempting to bring the government closers to the needs of the people has made decentralization become popular with the pro-poor policy (Faguest, 2004). This process often involves administrative, fiscal, market based, political and or a combination of these.
It has become a vital aspect of donor discourse and poverty interventions strategy, however, advocating decentralization as a suitable approach to pro-poor policy is not a technical process that is straightforward and without challenges and has so far proved disputable thus constrict impact has been experienced so far.(Thomas, S., 1999, p. 27-51).Many pro-poor strategies have been adopted in third world countries, in an attempt to reduce poverty rate and decentralization is one of such rescue policies. The question, whether or not decentralization is an appropriate approach to pro-poor policy is an essential question.
Hypercritically, the role of actors involved in facilitating the processes of decentralization brings to notice the challenges that accompany balancing the role of the central government, accountability, transparency, and synchronizing the political system at the local level to achieve a common goal; pro-poor policy. There is no clear or straightforward answer to whether or not decentralization is a suitable approach for pro-poor policy.
Up until the mid 1980s, there was no definite clarity between the role of the state and political structures in most African states. The dissatisfaction of public services brought to notice the weakness of centralized government. In most case as distribution of public funds was urban bias to the detriment of the rural areas which were and in most cases still lacking of basic amenities and support, (Adamolekun et at., 1988).Since the mid 1980s decentralization has shaped government structures in Africa as most of the states have transformed power, resources and responsibilities to authorities on their sub-national level and it has aided a more equitable distribution of public services and increased citizen’s participation. Impact analysis in Ghana proved that decentralization had a positive impact in strengthening local government (Owusu et al., 2005) although limitations were experienced as a result of a lack of capacity in terms of technical expertise and good infrastructure. Furthermore, because the power to make decision is shared among the sub-national government, where such rights is assigned to a particular tier of government, it becomes unclear and difficult to compare or measure impact in order to arrive at a composite measure of decentralization. Citing Bird (2000)Triesman proposed that the central question in the political process of decentralization process remains; “who should decide” as in the case of Ghana and Nigeria the local government still relies on the government at the federal level for budgetary funds.
In Nigeria, decentralization dates back to the early 1960s, in 1999 the federation which constitutes of thirty-six states and seven hundred and seventy-four local governments. The central government allocates 24% and 20% as gross revenue respectively to state and local government, regardless of power distribution among federal, state and the local government. However, the federal government still remains a dominant force in the decision making process for the budgetary institutional and operational arrangement for the state and local government. Thus, project planning and implementation decisions are made at the federal level without significant imputes from the grassroots government which would better reflect the community needs. Deduced from the above scenario is the case where authorities and responsibilities overlap, local government exercise minimal authority. Typically, this could create conflict, duplicate efforts and waste resources making poverty alleviation inefficiency.
Nigeria like many other developing nations has embraced the process of decentralizing significant functions to local governments. Here we understand decentralization to mean the transfer of authority and responsibility from the central government to subordinate or quasi-independent government organizations or the private sector. Because decentralization is a hydra-headed creature, it is important to distinguish among the various types of decentralization. This is necessary because they have different characteristics, policy implications, and conditions for success.
According to the 1999 constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria, the Federal Government has autonomous constitutional responsibility for functional subjects under the ‘exclusive legislative list’ while both the federal and state governments have control over the ‘concurrent legislative list’ of functional subjects as per part II, Section 4 of the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. The Fouth Schedule of the same constitution, Section 7, outlined the functions that should be performed solely by the Local Government Council or in conjunction with the State Government in which primary education is one of such responsibilities.
Furthermore, it is essential to note that the structure of the functions outlined here for the respective levels of government have remained the same throughout the constitutional changes since 1979 constitution. It is also vital to note that the components of functions included in the specific legislative lists, and in the fourth schedule (for local government) include both expenditure functions (functions which involve incurring expenses) and revenue functions (functions which involve the raising of revenue). The allocation of tax-raising powers or determining fiscal jurisdiction is essentially a legislative function. Indeed, even during the years of military rule in Nigeria, the allocation of tax-raising powers was issued through the instrument of a decree. An important point to note about the allocation of tax-raising powers in Nigeria is the relative long-term stability of the system as there has been no major change in this structure over the last three decades (Onwe, 2011)
Similarly, the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has outlined the procedure for disbursing the ‘Distributable Pool Account to the three levels of government as per section 162, subsection 1 and 2. Such outlined procedure is theoretically expected to provide adequate financial resources for the different tiers of government to meet their constitutionally assigned functions and responsibilities. Unfortunately though, regardless of this constitutional act in practice, the dynamics of federalism have unconsciously or consciously bred a dependency theory between the local governments and the centre without much room for accountability from the central government. This is commonly referred to as the non-correspondence problem which usually arises from the fiscal imbalance occasioned by the divergence/incongruence between constitutional functions and responsibilities and fiscal resources. According to Bello-Iman and Agba (2004), non-correspondence usually leads to the inability of some levels of government to effectively fulfill their functions and responsibilities.
Akindele (2009) suggested that in Nigeria, local government expenditure has constantly surpassed the potential for revenue sources owing to the great gulf between their needs and their fiscal capacity leading me to ask; is the local government equipped with the capacity and resource to administrate the most important level of education in my view (primary education) and construction and maintenance of roads?. This has largely been caused by the confusing nature of our revenue rights and fiscal jurisdiction with the duties and functions constitutionally allocated to them. In other words, the nature and scope of Nigerian fiscal with reference to tax jurisdiction and revenue allocation are progenies of the constitutional and political developments of the country per se. why is the centre government able to allocate responsibilities to the state and local government and yet not able to hold them accountable? I will leave this for another entry.
In a slight diversion, how can the central government in Abuja be responsible for certain things like major roads in states and why is the federal government in charge of the third mainland bridge in Lagos? How can the central governments provide water for a local community from the federal capital?
Challenges and Opportunities in Nigeria
Decentralization creates both challenges and opportunities. I limit myself here to very few points:
The Lack of Political Will: Despite pronouncements to the contrary, central governments often do not want to devolve power to the local level. National political leaders and civil servants may resist decentralization for any number of reasons, from the narrow, parochial interest of retaining power to the broader concern of maintaining national oversight in the interest of uniformity.
The Management Challenge: As the process of decentralization, it will not take that long for reality to sink in that many local governments have limited financial and human resources and inadequate governance capacity to fulfill the mandate thrust upon them. Many of our municipal governments lack the necessary institutional capacity to manage their rapidly growing populations. As central administration shifts to untested local governments responsibility for, say, public health, education, shelter, waste management, and so on, few of them are equipped with the technical and managerial expertise needed to take on these new responsibilities.
Effective decentralization can be deterred by weak administration and lack of or insufficient capacity at the local level which could impair or delay service delivery. Administrative responsibilities could be assigned to authorities at the local level without sufficient funds and technical expertise thus making service delivery challenging at the local level (Owusu, 2005). Citing Razin and Obiri as quoted by Owusu (2005) service delivery at local level is substandard as budget allocation tends not to favor local government. Meaning that although decentralization has improved governance, funds allocation which tends to be rigid and delayed, deters service delivery thus growth insignificant (Owusu, 2005). Simultaneously, government at the local level is usually not in the best position to comprehend the true scenario of the position of things from the national standpoints which could bred conflicting priorities between the central and local government. Also, the lack of reliable data could mean that government at the local level would make decisions without a clear picture of the effects of such decisions to the national government.
Furthermore, dismantling of political powers to local authority could make harmonizing national policies challenging as individual localities would have different opinions and priorities based on their individual analyses. Likewise, supporting the argument by Crook and Sverrisson (2001) decentralization in most cases could be used as a means to promote the interest of local elites as a result of the rigging and lack of transparency in the way elections are conducted and won in Nigeria. This could mean that the decisions in most cases fail to reflect the needs of the poor as it seeks to satisfy the elites coupled with the lack of proper checks and balances from the top-down therefore, cannot create tangible impact for the poor.
Finally, the central government could be predisposed to preserving as much political authority as possible, sometimes while assigning major responsibilities to the local authorities in an attempt to promote a decentralized administration; it is often without adequate resources required to providing such service. For example I believe the reason why primary education which is under the local governments is substandard is that the local government is incapable of handling such responsibility and this could be as a result of inadequate resources allocated, corruption, and lack of technical expertise required.
But these opportunities can only be exploited only when the necessary conditions for creating more transparent, accountable, responsive and effective local governments are in place. That is:
An appropriate legal and regulatory framework, especially one that supports market-oriented municipal finance. Allows access to private sector borrowing facilities becomes necessary when public sector resources are insufficient to meet all infrastructure investment needs; A strong civil society, and increased opportunities for participation in the governance process, creating capacity for Local governments to manage, finance and deliver services. At the end of the day, what matters most is that the local government is able to deliver services to its residents and that citizens have recourse through democratic means should their local government be unwilling or unable to deliver those services.
In conclusion, it is obvious our constitution needs amendment and the role of the federal government is crucial in decentralization processes.