Beijing Law Review, 2012, 3, 42-50 Published Online June 2012 (
The Constitutionalization of Local Government in
Developing Countries—Analysis of African Experiences
in Global Perspective
Dele Olowu
Africa-Europe Foundation, The Hague, Netherlands.
Received April 22nd, 2012; revised May 20th, 2012; accepted May 28th, 2012
The constitutionalization of local government is a distin ctive contribution of developing countries to govern ance reform
and the policy and practice of modern public administratio n. Local governments in most western and industrialized so-
cieties are creatures of the national government and are essentially statutory bodies-created, modified and suspended or
eliminated at will by the state statutes. In fact, in the Anglo Saxon tradition, these institutions are referred to as local
authorities and never local government. In seeking to enhance the capacity of sub-national entities against overbearing
central authorities countries as disparate as Brazil, India, Philippines, Bolivia, Co lombia, South Korea to mention only a
few constitutionalized their local governments. This boosted the status and role of these entities in terms of the policy
processes for local level development, services delivery and citizen participation. There have also been a number of
challenges—local elite capture or corruption, capacity, coordination, equity and stability issues. However, a consistent
overall consequence wh en prop erly implemented has been a po sitive impact o n service deliv ery and the enh an cement of
the interface between local government and local governance as well as the strengthening of intergovernmental relations.
A number of African countries have followed this global good governance practice but the results have been mixed.
This paper reviews the experiences of Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Ghana that have all constitutionalized local
governments and seek to explain the differential outcomes in each country context. This is an important issue as a
number of other countries that have recently initiated fundamental governance changes have incorporated local gov-
ernment reform as a part of the constitutional reform process. These countries include Kenya while a number of other
countries in eastern, southern and especially northern parts of the continent are likely to follow this example as they
engage the constitutional reform process.
Keywords: Costitutionalization; Local Government; Africa
1. Introduction
Most African countries built their political systems on
the traditions they received from their colonial masters.
These structures have remained intact several years even
after political Independence for various reasons. One
area that has changed radically is in respect of the con-
stitutionalization of local authorities.
According to the received tradition, local authorities
are creatures of the national statute. If it wills, the state
can modify, regulate or totally erase its creature, the local
authority. Many developing countries have however de-
parted from this tradition for a variety of reasons th at we
shall examine in this paper. We shall also assess whether
this policy innovation has delivered on expectations of
the policy makers in these countries.
We start with a discussion of the received tradition and
then the reasons why countries departed from this tradi-
tion. The experiences of different countries are reviewed
and a conclusion is then made.
2. Patterns of Local Government in
Developed Countries
The governance of local communities has attracted re-
newed interest in recent years for a variety of reasons—
political, social and economic. Bo th the World Bank and
the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have
devoted considerable attention to the subject as a part of
their development promotion mandate [1-3]. Of the dif-
ferent patterns of local government, three have been par-
ticularly dominant, helped as they were by colonial ad-
ventures. These are the continental tradition, the Anglo-
Saxon and the socialist patterns (Table 1). There are
variants of these basic patterns, resulting in several pos-
sible combinations of the basic three [4].
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective 43
Table 1. Patterns of local government.
Responsibilities Financial Resources Legal Status
Anglo-Saxon Property-related—wide, Human ser-
mainly social services;
Narrow—property tax related/few
state grants Dillon’s rule/Ultra vires
Local authority creature of state
Continental Property-related—wide
Human services—medium Property and income revenues—wide
State transfers—wide Local authority small and dependent on
Socialist Property-related—wide,
Human & Economic services—wide Broad–but tied to the state: transfers
from local to national
Complete subordination of local
authority to national body—although
separate structures exist
In essence, these different forms treat local govern-
ments as creatures of the national government and are not
a part of the national constitution. In federal systems,
local governments are incorporated in the state constitu-
tions or created by national or state legislatures or are
based on executive pronouncements as in China. In the
United States, local governments are governed by what
the judiciary has referred to as the “Dillon’s rule”, by
which local authorities can only carry out what has been
specifically assigned to them by the state legislature. This
is their own variant of the doctrine of ultra vires, inher-
ited from the British tradition, that requires lo cal authori-
ties to stay within the confines established by strict legal
provisions of the national/state g overnment. Nevertheless,
local authorities have access to specified—though lim-
ited—responsibilities and financial and human resources.
Generally, the continental pattern provides for much
clearer subjugation of semi-autonomous local authorities
to the national government through financial and admin-
istrative arrangements. They are who lly dependent on the
state for their responsibilities and financial resources,
even for revenues they collect. In addition, local authori-
ties are governed by state personnel through either the
full or partial prefect who coordinates the work of all
agencies of the government at the local level. Essentially,
there exists no separation between central and local au-
thority administrative personnel and even national po-
litical officials serve as representatives at the local level
just as the local authority elected representatives also
serve at national levels.
The socialist model, represented most strongly by the
Chinese model is at once the most integrated into the
national system but also the most comprehensive in
terms of its provisions of local government responsibili-
ties. For all practical purposes, local governments in this
system are part and parcel of “the government” and are
responsible for a wide range of economic and social ser-
vices. These local governments are the local expression
of the national government and in fact collect revenues
on behalf of all other levels.
Generally, patterns in which local autonomy are em-
phasised also constrain the areas of competence of local
authorities into property related services—e.g. town
planning, roads, water, etc, but limited hu man services—
education, health and water and sanitation, etc.
The financing of local authorities is also heavily de-
pendent on n a tional authority transfers and property taxes.
Those countries that treat local authorities as delegated
organs grant them more responsibilities (both property-
related, human services-related and even economic and
security concerns) but also provide them with extensive
resource bases—e.g. own income based resources be-
sides the property taxes, etc. This is the pattern found in
China and strong social welfare states like those in Scan-
dinavian countries.
None of these systems however constitutionalizes lo-
cal authorities. The only country that has had local gov-
ernment constitutions for a long time before relatively
recent times is Switzerland.
In spite of these variations, one is struck by the fact
that a review of governance structures in industrialized
countries shows two remarkable features. The first is the
tendency for comparative strength of local authorities
when compared to national and governmental expendi-
tures and employees’ size, reflecting their huge response-
bility for a wide range of social and economic services
(Table 2). The second phenomena is the convergence of
the various systems—this has been further helped by
regionalization, especially the European Union, with a
clear sense of administrative space, a practice that is fol-
lowed by other nations in recent times. These two points
underscore the significance of local authority as the first
and primary level of governance, and one that serves
both as a form of community self-government and agent
of the national state. It is indeed a fail safe mechanism in
that it ensures that the basic services are delivered ire-
spective of the color or quality of the government in
power at the national level at any point in time. In a way
these basic governance institutions provide the basic in-
frastructures for development, the very thing that seems
to hold back several developing countries.
3. Patterns of Local Government in
Developing Countries
Unfortunately, local authority systems in developing
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective
Table 2. Local government as % of total government em-
ployees, 2000—World & Africa.
Australia 88.8 RSA 44.4
Germany 88.5 Nigeria 30
USA 86.5 Botswana 27
Canada 86.9 Ghana 25
Sweden 82.7 Uganda 10
Belgium 65.6 Morocco 4.6
UK 52.4 Tunisia 2.0
France 48.4 Senegal 0.6
Netherlands 25.8 Cote d’Ivoire 0.29
Benin 0.12
China 93.3
Chile 34.3
Malaysia 31.8
Indonesia 29.4
Bolivia 11.3
Source: Kersting, et al. 2009.
countries combined the worst elements of these systems,
partly because their development was closely connected
to colonial history and the excessive centralist orientation
of the first set of post-independence leaders. They lacked
responsibilities, resources and were completely subordi-
nated by law to the national government. It was easy for
state politicians to manipulate local authorities and keep
them weak so they could enjoy the priviledges of abso-
lute control rather tan limited government. Reforms that
were tagged decentralization within this framework only
provided much needed opportunity to further weaken
local authorities and in a few cases to permanently sus-
pend them—as in Tanzania under the Mwalimu (Nyerere)
in the 1970s as a part of the program of ujaamization.
Over time some developing countries began to realize
that their political and economic problems might not be
unconnected with the disarticulation from the rest of the
society and began to review their approaches to devel-
opment and governance with decentralist lenses.
Decentralization became an important element of gov-
ernance and public sector reforms. One close observer
noted that 40% of all public sector reforms in developing
countries in the period between 1980 to 1999 included
decentralization and local government [5]. New reform
governance elements surfaced. One of the most impor-
tant innovations has been the constitutionalization of
local government, a peculiar response from developing
countries. As a part of what has been described as the
“third wave of democratic reform” that swept the world
in the 1970s on, local authorities were given constitu-
tional status—this meant that state legislatures could not
easily suspend them and their responsibilities and re-
sources at will as they used to do. It also meant that they
become important players in economic and political de-
velopment as they controlled substantial national re-
sources and expenditure heads. With more responsibili-
ties and resources, they attracted more significant politi-
cal and administrative players in their respective com-
munities. Effectively, in some of these coun tries the state
was being decentralized. In some cases, the constitution-
alization came as a result of struggle from below—as in
several Latin American countries: Colombia, Bolivia
while in others it was as a result of elite compromises
from the top—Brazil, India, Philippines, etc. Constitu-
tionalization became an important element of decentrali-
zation and local government reforms in developing coun-
Several African countries began to take interest in
these developments as they embarked on governance and
wider constitutional reforms. Nigeria was the first Afri-
can country to embark on such a reform program as a
part of the effort of the military to return to barracks and
return the country to civilian governance. Local govern-
ment was seen by them as a sure way to rebuild democ-
racy that had been undermined by post-independence
developments that had done havoc to the body politic. It
was also an opportunity, according to these rulers, to
ensure that the new found oil wealth would be well dis-
tributed through improved basic infrastructures [6]. Other
countries like Ghana, Republic of South Africa and Uganda
followed suit. We shall review these experiences in the
coming paragraphs.
4. Arguments for Constitutionalization
There are several arguments for constitutionalization. Some
of these are reviewed in this section while much later on
the arguments against and the challenges of constitutiona-
lization would be examined.
4.1. Socio-Economic Development
Development has become more comprehensive in con-
cept and practice and great stress is laid on sustainability
of development. The strongest case for constitutionaliza-
tion is that it empowers communities to be able to coop-
erate as independent actors in relating to the huge im-
pulses for change from the national organs of governance.
The absence of these grassroots institutions has not al-
lowed developing societies to integrate development
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective 45
planning and implementation. It has also not given suffi-
cient weight to the basic infrastructure challenges con-
fronting many societies that are quite basic-rural roads,
community health, elementary schools and rural water
supply and sanitation. Moreover, these local institutions
can also work with the variety of other governance actors
in the community to improve on governance and devel-
opment outcomes.
However, the institutions that can engage and impact
on development outcomes must have certain basic ele-
ments which are all promoted by constitutionalization.
These elements include the following:
Clearly defined boundaries: The boundaries of the
service area and the individuals or households with
rights to use the services are clearly defined;
Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs:
Rules specifying benefits must balance costs or inputs
by the various service users;
Collective choice arrangements: Individuals affected
by operational rules must be able to modify these
Monitoring—the users of the services provided by the
local authority must be able to monitor or audit the
production of the services;
Graduated Sanctions: Users who violate operational
rules are likely to receive graduated sanctions—de-
pending on th e seriousness of the offence;
Conflict Resolution Mechanisms—low cost conflict
resolution mechanisms must exist;
Minimal recognition of rights to organize and devise
own institutions and modifications not challenged by
external governmental agencies;
Nested Enterprises—exist for multiple layers of enter-
prises responsable for differing functions specified
above: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforce-
ment, conflict resolution and governance activities
For these reasons constitutional decentralization un-
derscores the transfer of four key elements from central
to local operators—responsibility, authority, resources
and accountability arrangements [8].
4.2. Responsiveness, Transparency and
A major challenge of governance in developin g socieities
is the tendency for opaque management of resources. The
constitutionalization of local government is expected to
promote transparency and accountability of governments
at the local level as they could no longer pass the buck
concerning the development of peoples at the grassroots.
Proximity is expected to promote ease of the citizens
demanding accountable performance. All of these pro-
mote responsiveness.
4.3. Participation
By raising the profile and calibre of people who partici-
pate in local government, the quality of participation is
revitalized in community governance. There is also a
stream of new political actors who are having their teeth
cut for them at the local level. Constitutionalization not
only creates formal structures of participation for citizens
it can also encourage informal structures of partici-
pation as we shall see when we review the international
evidence below.
Of course constitutionalization also has its challenges
but these we shall examine much later in this article. We
now proceed to review contemporary international ex-
periences before focusing more sharply on the African
5. Analysis of International Experience
Brazil was one of the countries to go for the con stitution-
alization of local governments in the developing world.
Local authorities in that country had been used by politi-
cians as a political pun and in fact presidents used to ap-
point the mayors of the cities and states, as in most Latin
American countries. In 1946 Brazil undertook a major
reform of her local government system which had some
key elements. It defined a municipality, municipio in
Portuguese or (local government) in terms of population
and area size. It assigned them with responsibilities and
autonomous financial and human resources and codified
all of these in the constitution. Finally, local governments
were accorded a third tier status, to complement federal
and state governments. Several other countries followed
this lead many years later. In October 1988, Brazil fur-
ther deepened her commitment to constitutional decen-
tralization when the constituent assembly drafted and
passed a new constitution that granted more robust auton-
omy to states and municipalities (local governments).
This became the basis for redemocratization after 20
years of military rule. Article 18 of this constitution des-
ignated municipal government as the third tier of gov-
ernment of the Brazilian federation and share the same
status as state governments. These municipalities enjoy
autonomy in terms of their elite recruitment—they hold
direct elections for the municipal mayor as well as the
council. Moreover, they enjoy broad autonomy in levy-
ing taxes nd other forms of incomes, approving expendi-
tures and hiring employees and even contracting debts.
Total revenue for municipal governments was 7.4% of
GDP and expenditures was 15% of total national expen-
ditures in 2004 because they are also beneficiaries of
substantial transfers from national and state governments.
Since most of these monies are spent on primary or basic
education (24%) and health (22%), general public ser-
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective
vices (19%) and urban and community services (12%)
the impact on service delivery has been considerable.
This has also stimulated participation of the masses of
the citizens although the constitution also made deliber-
ate provision for greater citizensh ip participation thro ugh
community councils and participatory budgeting.
Other countries have also undertaken some form of
constitutionalization of their municipal level government
but none has been as comprehensive nor impactive as th e
Brazilian case. For instance, in another Latin American
country, Chile, local governments were recognized in the
national constitution and were assigned specific func-
tions and finance but they are still subject to the gover-
nor’s (or state’s) discretion. Similarly, in another Latin
American federation, Argentina, a new constitution of
1994 established municipal autonomy but on the terms of
the provincial constitutions. Local autonomy is not as
complete as it is in Brazil in any of these two countries
mentioned. Similarly, farther away on the Asian conti-
nent, India undertook a major reform of its local gov-
ernment in 1992 with the passage of the 74th amendment
to the constitution. This amendment gave local govern-
ments constitution al recognition th ey had been denied for
many years and basically codified local government
strucutes, financing and composition. While this pro-
tected the institution it failed to give it clear-cut respon-
sibilities and tax domain [4]. The experiences of many
other developing countries is that these domains are en-
croached upon by intermiedate bodies which is why
con-situtionalization is sou ght in the first instance.
6. African Experiences of
Nigeria, one of Africa’s only two federations (the other is
Ethiopia) and containing a diversified population and
cultures, was one of the first few countries in Africa to
undertake the constitutionalization of her local govern-
ments. In many ways, the Nigerian experience runs so
close to the Brazilian experience—local governments
were used as the instrument for driving redemocratiza-
tion and the reforms articulated in the 1976 reforms were
incorporated into the post-military constitution of 1979
and has been a constant feature of other constitutions
(notably those of 1992 and 1999).
The Nigerian constitution gave elaborate recognition
to local governments in the nation al constitution, design-
nated their exclusive and concurrent functions and em-
powered them to have own personnel, albeit through lo-
cal government service commissions that were controlled
by the state authorities. The premise of the Nigerian re-
form were important. State governments had whittled the
power and resources of local governments and it is im-
portant to restructure and empower so they can be the
basic institutions of democracy and also of development.
Elections are organized to these bodies by State election
bodies. States are also expected, like the national gov-
ernment to make fiscal transfers to local governments
even though the latter were assigned specific tax sources
as well.
Uganda’s corrective government that fought a guerrila
war against the predecessor government which it won in
1992 saw devolution as a critical aspect of its develop-
ment and democratization agenda. To this end, it passed
a new constitution in 1995. This constitution enshrined
local government as an active agent of democratization
and development. A local government act of 1997 futher
clarified the powers of local government. The democratic
legitimacy of local governments and accountability of
local governments have been upheld as councils and
council chairpersons are directly elected through a com-
petitive (though non-partisan) system. There is a mini-
mum quota for women, youth and those with disabilities.
Local governments’ responsibilities are clearly articu-
lated as are the tax handles although they have become
increasingly dependent on discretionary grants from the
national government. Local governments have control
over their personnel—through their district staff coun-
cils—although some re-centralization of these personnel
and financial powers have occured in recent years [9,10].
Republic of South Africa: In moving from an a racially
defined local government system, South Africa went
through three major phases which hung around the de-
tailed provisions on local government in the constituton
of 1994. The South African constitu tion of 1997 took th is
further by dedicating considerable attention to local gov-
ernment. First, the constitution recogn ises and articulates
three spheres of institutional action, thus rendering na-
tional, provincial and local governments as equal, sepa-
rate and autonomous though within the framework of a
unitary arrangement. Second, relationship is cooperative
not hierarchical and thirdly it establishes the principle of
subsidiarity. In addition to the functions of local gov-
ernment—involving public infrastructures—streets, re-
fuse and Street lights—and those requiring user fees such
as electricity, water and sanitation-national and provin-
cial governments were to transfer functions and revenues
to local governments. Local governments have access to
revenues and also manage their own personnel. It is sig-
nificant that like in Brazil and Nigeria—two countries
with extensive decentralist constitutions—fiscal flows
from the South African national government does not go
through the pro vincial governments.
In addition, the South African constitution empowers
organized local government bodies. For instance, it re-
congnises the South African Local Government Associa-
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective 47
tion (SALGA) and their provincial representatives are
nominated to the National Council of Provinces in the
national parliament. SALGA also can nominate 2 mem-
bers of the Financial and Fiscal Commission which ad-
vises the ministry of Finance on Budget issues. There are
also a number of intergovernmental for that help to fa-
cilitate intergovernmental relations. Most of these are
located in the President’s office.
In Ghana, the 1992 constitution simply incorporated
all the key elements of the Military President Rawlings’
PNDC Law 207 of 1988. It transferred authority, func-
tions and finance to the newly created district authorities
and sub-district structures. A separate system of fiscal
decentralization was also articulated that assigned some
tax resources to local authorities as well as a consolidated
district assembly account and even established the per-
centage of the national account (not less than 5%). This
constitution stipulated that: “Parliament shall enact laws
and take steps necessary for further decentralization of
the administrative functions and projects of the central
government but shall not exercise any control over the
Das that is incompatible with their decentralized status.”
While DAs have become important players in the na-
tional life, the laws have been structured in su ch a way to
ensure that these decentralized institutions operate more
as appendages of the national government rather than
agents of local economic development. A number of
statutory enactments have been made to effectively nul-
lify the broad constitutional mandate. They include the
appointment (not election) of the executive heads of the
DA, the continuing control of senior staff by the national
government, leading to mass sackings of local govern-
ment staff when the national government changed hands
from the ruling party to the opposition. Finally, adminis-
trative and fiscal instruments that are controlled by the
national government have been effectively utilized to
undermine the autonomy granted to the DA. For instance,
although the constitution stipulated that 5% of national
revenue must be assigned to local governments, only 3%
- 4% was transferred between 1994 and 2000. In 2000,
when the opposition par ty was voted into office, it prom-
ised to increase the transfers from 5% to 7.5%. This
promise has not been kept six years later [11].
7. Impact of the Reforms—Services Delivery,
Responsiveness and Participation
A review of experience shows that much depends on how
constitutionalization of local government is implemented
by political and administrative officials. In federations,
when constitutional provisions are implemented nation-
ally, the impact has been quite impressive. When the
implementation is carried out at state levels (as in Chile
or India) or by administrative officials’ resistant to devo-
lution (as in Ghana) the results have been minimal.
Table 3 shows the impact of these reforms in terms of
the role of local governments in the national economy
and services delivery. There are five main attributes of
local governments in countries that have pursued codifi-
cation or constitutionalization. These are firstly, strong
constitutional and political status; secondly, higher im-
portance in the economy and services delivery. In fact in
the case of Brazil in recent years, the municipal reforms
gave strong support to President Lula’s program of social
compact with impressive results in terms of social indi-
cators. Thirdly, local governments become independent
actors in the intergovernmental relations scene. As we
saw in RSA but to a limited extent in Uganda, even in
unitary countries, local governments are treated not as
appendages of the state or national government but as
autonomous and key actors in the intergovernmental
scene. Fourthly, local governments constitutionalization
reform also lead to reforms in citizen participation and
governmental responsiveness. In many cases, there has
been a different approach to services delivery and man-
agement as non-governmental organizations are involved
more directly in producing services on behalf of local
governments as providers. Finally, there is a stronger cu l-
ture of contracts and cooperation between the different
levels of government and other institutional actors—
what has led many observers to refer to this as a boosting
for local governance and not just local government.
Even in Ghana, constitutionalization boosted citizen
participation but as the central government controls in-
creased this interest was not sustained either at the local
level, which remained non-partisan as in Uganda, and
also in other informal community based activities. Nev-
ertheless, these new formal channels of communication
are compromised by the large number of nominated
members—chiefs, national assembly members etc.
Table 3. Size of local government in national expenditure
and gross domestic product, 2004/6.
Country LG as % of Nat
Expenditure LG exp as % of
Brazil 20 6.7
RSA 29 6.1
Uganda 28 5.8
Nigeria 12 5
Chile 13.2 4
India 4 0.8
Ghana 8 3
Sources: Shah 2006, Olowu & Wunsch 2004, Kersting, et al. 2009.
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The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective
8. Challenges—Global and African
Constitutiona lization con fro nts challen ges in all countries
that embarked on it. The most serious among these are
the following:
Adjustment difficulties: Once the terms of the con-
stitution are agreed, change that is ocassioned by so-
cial dynamics over time are difficult to effect without
going through constitu tional amendments. Even mod-
est changes are costly to effect.
There are also the traditional arguments agains t devo-
lution. They include capacity issues, elite capture and
most importantly coordination issues between the va-
riety of institutional actors within the same nation
space. The most serious manifestation of the latter is
in respect of stabilization.
Two other issues have also dogged successful consti-
tutionalization. Th e first are equity issues—that much
thought and expertise is required to ensure that verti-
cal and horizontal equity issues are balanced and not
allowed to lead to strong resistance of especi al ly poorl y
endowed parts of the country. The second challenge
is tackling debts by sub-national entities and stabiliz-
ing the economy. The experiences of countries that
have undertaken constitutionalization shows that this
problem would be dealt with through effective inter-
governmental mechanisms such as the Brazilian Fis-
cal Responsibility Law of 2000 which set a general
framework for budgetary planning, execution and re-
porting by all three tiers of government. The law
makes provision for constraining public indebtedness
and sustaining public finance structural adjustment. It
does this with three types of rules—general targets
and limits for selected fiscal indicators; corrective in-
stitutional mechanisms in case o f non-compliance and
institutional sanctions for non-compliance. The scope
covered includes not only finance but also outlays on
personnel by all levels of government.
Countries that go for constitutionalization have dem-
onstrated considerable expertise in tackling the above-
mentioned challenges with highly sophisticated mecha-
nisms to cope with them. For instance, all the successful
cases—Brazil, RSA have sophisticated fiscal mechanisms
and participatory mechanisms. The Brazilian participa-
tory budgets have acquired considerable international at-
tention but much less is known about that country’s Fis-
cal Responsibility Law of 2000, mentioned above. This
placed strict limits on local (and state) government fiscal
debt, regulating it as a ratio of available funds. Similarly,
personnel outlays cannot exceed 60% of net municipal
revenues. Act which was used to rein in local (and state)
governments’ reckless indebtedness and carelessness in
handling fina nce and personnel ma tt e rs.
By contrast, for many sub-saharan African (SSA) coun-
tries these challenges have led to recentralization and de
facto-reassertion of central controls—as has been the
case in Ghana and Uganda. The Nigerian case is given
more attention because compared to others, it is the one
country that seems to have done the most to institutio-
nalise local governments throu gh constitutional action. It
is also one of the earliest examples of constitutionali-
zation in Africa but which has not been able to achieve
some of the benefits associated with this governance im-
provement strate gy . What we nt wr on g?
The principles of devolutionary decentralization were
articulated and introduced as a common system and
structure of local government in 1976. These reforms—
including the transfer of clearly articulated responsibili-
ties, own resources, huge transfers of oil-based central
government transfers to local governments (that grew
rapidly from 3% to 20% of total national revenues), hu-
man resources and accountability structures with local
government wide elections for local government chairs
and council members—were incorporated into the 1979
and other subsequent con stitutions since that time. While
all administrations have committed to the rhetoric of
these principles, since the return to the civilian democ-
racy in 1999, state governments have been able to fully
re-assert their independence of the Nigerian federal gov-
ernment and imposed draconian controls on the local
government system. A two-tier federation of the federal
and state government seems to have replaced the three
–tier federation. State powers have grown compared to
local and federal powers, almost returning to the status-
quo before the reforms of 1976 started. Many fear that if
the present trends continue the pre-1976 situation would
fully return together with the abuses of the local govern-
ment by the state governments.
Salient facts in the Nigerian federal system have fur-
ther aggravat ed matters and they include:
1) The lopsided financing of the local government
system: All governments are dependent on oil rents but it
is particularly aggravating for a system of local gov-
ernment because it does not help the development of a
tradition of fiduciary contract between citizens and the
local government and consequently of democracy, whe-
ther in terms of responsiveness, representativeness or ac-
countability. Furthermore, this excessive dependence on
transfers has facilitated the imposition of state controls
on local governments as the State Joint Local Govern-
ments Accounts Committee (SJLGAC) is chaired and do-
minated by state officials.
2) Weak Capacities of the Federal Governmen t to pro-
tect local governments and the three-tier federation prin-
ciple. The federal government seems to lack the capacity
to influence the state governments to cooperate on local
government matters or even to get the national assembly
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
The Constitutionalization of Local Government in Developing CountriesAnalysis of
African Experiences in Global Perspective 49
to make laws that would enable it to ensure that funds
sent from the federation account are judiciously used by
all segments of government.
Excessive Powers of the State Government: In the face
of weakened federal and local governments, state gov-
ernments emerge in the Nigerian federal system as very
powerful and relatively well-resourced. Unfortunately,
these powers do not translate into capacity to better ma-
nage the intergovernmental relations between state and
local governments in a way that would enable the latter
to exercise their autonomy. Rather, the states have sought
and got direct controls of the local governments through
resources and via their controls over party machinery
levers. This is an important point in that if the states were
willing they possess the ability to help to build and sus-
tain an accountable system of local government. For in-
stance 25 LGAs in Delta state (south west) received a net
allocation of only Naira 1.520 billion or slightly more
than one half (54%) out of a gross allocation of Naira
2.810billion in the month of June 2010.
4) Party System and Nigerian Democracy: Matters
would have been much better if internal democracy ex-
isted within Nigerian parties, if the parties focused ide-
ologies that link them to programs and if elections were
actually fought and won on the basis of performance.
While performance of incumbents does influence party
nominations, the key considerations are ascriptive not
merit. For instance, a person’s state or local government
of origin counts much more than performance so is the
existence or quality of one’s “godfathers”, or political
sponsors. These challenges become particularly critical
because elections, before the massive changes leading to
the last national elections in 2011, were won and lost not
through the ballot box (which are flagrantly rigged by
incumbents) but through party nominations. This might
explain why virtually all LG elective positions are filled
by the ruling party in most states.
5) Weak Citizen Accountability by LGAs. Even though
LGAs are beholden to SGs and are fully accountable, if
not dependent on them, none of these translates to effect-
tive citizen accountability and responsiveness. Most
chairpersons of local government lament their helpless-
ness in delivering on the promises they had made to the
electorate given the structure of incentives they con-
fronted when they got into office at the party and state
government levels [12].
The Nigerian case is sadly not peculiar. The progress
of decentralization as we saw in Ghana and Uganda has
been seriously eroded in recent years in spite of cons titu-
tionalization. It is far worse in other countries that did not
have this insulation for the local government system. In
Kenya and Tanzania, the central government has re-
placed the local governments with non-eleted commis-
sioners, a practice that was rife before democratic decen-
tralization reforms. Even now, only 18 of the 27 coun-
tries on which data exists have powers set their local tax
rates, only 12 have borrowing powers and only 9 can
pick their own contractors—and all of these only with
central government approval. And these in countries that
have devoluti o nary decentralization pol ic i es.
9. Conclusions
When the RSA case is held in contrast to the Nigerian
case, it is clear that much depends on the quality of the
implementation and the commitment of the political
leaders and the wider political community to the consti-
tutional principles. We also see this difference when we
compare the differing international experiences analysed
in this paper—e.g. Brazil comp ared with Chile or India.
First, we may conclude that decentralization is indeed
truly political. Where the pressures for decentralization
comes from pressures from the people (from below)—as
in RSA and the Latin American cases, the process was
likely to be sustained. By contrast, where devolution is a
largesse given by central governments to either appease
donors who play dominant role in the policy and financ-
ing processes or deflect nascent pressures to democracy
—as in several subsharan African countries, the process
has been less sustained.
Second, another important consideration is the exis-
tence of a culture of consitutionalism. Where constitu-
tions are regarded as the fundamental laws that must be
respected by all—those in power as well as those outside
of it—local government constitutionalism has had sig-
nificant impact. Where this is not the case as in most of
SSA and North Africa, such innovations might simply be
regarded as window dressing. In the latter case, it would
mean that the ground norms which the constitution
represents have not been internalised by the people
themselves) [13].
Finally, as we have argued earlier, the implementors of
local government constitutional provisions—either as
senior politicians and administrators—in power play a
critical role in sustaining this innovation.
It is likely that as the pressures for deepening democ-
ratization gathers momentum across Africa, the issue of
local government consitutitio nalization would beco me an
important one. There are rustlings already across the con-
tinent in the north, Eastern, western and southern parts.
This paper suggests how that process can be analysed
and supported.
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African Experiences in Global Perspective
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