Electoral promises and performance in Nigerian local government

27 March 2017

In this blog, the first in a series on Interrogating Decentralisation in Africa, researchers from Nigeria share insights from their recent study on citizens’ perceptions of elected versus ‘selected’ local government officials.

Citizens queue to vote in Nigeria's local elections. Credit: Panos / Jacob Silberberg

In 1999 Nigeria returned to democratic rule after a long spell of military rule. Democracy opened up spaces for political debates and contestations, especially around elections which take place at federal, state and local levels. This, Nigerians thought, was good. An under-performing elected official had only four years before he or she would be replaced. In the mind of the citizens, elections were therefore a tool for good governance.

On the one hand, elections in Nigeria is drudgery. Governments spend tremendous resources to conduct elections. Citizens spend hours queuing in the sun to register as voters, to verify their records afterwards, to be accredited on the day of election, and to vote. Afterwards, they wait for the votes to be counted, and some even police the results from polling to collation centres.

On the other hand, elections are important to democracies: without them, there can be no democracy. Scholars and practitioners alike have continued to stress the importance of elections in Africa despite their imperfections. So, irrespective of the challenges of conducting free and fair elections in Nigeria, it is expected that these elections should be able to produce democratic outcomes.

Local government elections and selections

At a more local level, we imagined that regular local council elections (with elected officials closer to the electorate) would produce cumulative positive democratic outcomes over time, including on accountability and responsiveness. Yet, although there have been regular elections at the national level, not all local governments have elections. In fact, there are two ways of becoming chair of a local government council in Nigeria: you can be elected through universal suffrage in an election supervised by the state government; or simply be appointed by the state governor to head your local council. The constitution law allows the state governor to decide whether to conduct local council elections or select council chairs.

So which ones perform better according to citizens: elected or selected officials?

In a recent study on Nigerian Local Councils and Service Provision we selected two local government areas that were identical economically – both largely rural and agrarian – with populations sharing similar linguistic, cultural and religious traits, and facing similar security situation. They differed in their democratic status since one local government was headed by an elected chair while the other had an appointed chair. We asked citizens to rate the performances of these chairs focusing on the provision of security. To our surprise, the elected local government chair received far worse ratings than the appointed chair which left us wondering why this could be so.

Elected Local Governments

Driven by the urge to impress the electorate, the elected local government chair set up big security projects, recruiting hundreds of citizens and placing them on a monthly salary. Added to this was the need to satisfy the ever-insatiable kingmakers, known as ‘political godfathers’ in Nigeria. As resources dried up gradually and subventions from the federal capital dwindled it became impossible to keep these projects going. Salaries were not paid and a general feeling of discontent erupted among the citizens. The chair was soon dismissed as another deceitful politician.

Selected Local Governments

The appointed local government chair, on the other hand, had only the ‘political godfathers’ (including the governor) to please. He did not set up any projects. Citizens did not elect him and so expected little from him – of course because he did not campaign, he never made any electoral promises. There was thus nothing to hold him accountable to. Whatever little he gave out to support existing security arrangements was received with thanksgiving and praise.

Lessons for democracy in Nigeria and beyond

What is interesting about the Nigerian case is that, at least from a citizen’s viewpoint, being an elected council chair or a selected one does not make any difference in state responsiveness. In fact, an elected chair might perform worse than a selected one in citizen’s eyes. In the existing dispensation in Nigeria, being elected at local government level is thus a disadvantage. What is more, the emerging democratic culture in the country also raises citizens’ expectations for a better life. Making elections work requires setting up a system that frees elected officials from the stranglehold of ‘political godfathers’ and clientelism, enabling them to set realistic targets taking into consideration the resources they can access. Democracy can therefore be appealing and sustainable in Nigeria, if citizens are able to link it with improved service delivery.

Ayobami Ojebode is Professor of Applied Communication in the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan. Ike Ernest Onyishi is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Fatai A. Aremu is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin. All three are instructors on the annual Advanced Training for Multi-Methods and Policy-Oriented Research, offered by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR).

Photo credit: Panos / Jacob Silberberg

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