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Samuel C. Ugoh

Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, Lagos




Absolute poverty has to do with living below whatever is defined as poverty line based on per capita income or consumption of individuals or households in a country. The local government system is set up, at least in part, to help curtail the prevalence of poverty. The paper is aimed at an evaluation of to what extent this objective is being pursued and addressed by Nigerian local governments as units of political administration, known as the third tier of government, next to the state and federal levels in that order. The study identified a whole gamut of factors militating against local governments contributing as they should to the issue of poverty alleviation.


Keywords: Poverty; development; local government; alleviation.




The invaluable role of the local government is anchored on the attendant development it brings nearer to the people. Rural development integrates the people into the plans and policies of government. In Nigeria,the  local government has historically provided services of importance to its citizens both in rural and urban areas. However, the developmental role of local governments in the country is now a subject of public concern as a result of increasing rate of poverty among the rural people.   


In the simplest language, local government means management of the local affairs by the people of a locality. It enjoys an autonomous status, which entitles it to take certain legislative, administrative and financial decisions though under the conditions and within the limits of law.  Agbakoba and Ogbonna (2004) define local government from legal perspective.  They see it as a political administrative unit that is empowered by law to administer a specific locality. The United Nation’s Division of Public Administration also observes that local government is a political sub-unit of a nation (or in a federal system, a state) which is constituted by law and has substantial control of local affairs, including the powers to impose taxes or to exact labour for prescribed purposes.  The governing body of such an entity is elected or otherwise locally selected (cited in Awofeso 2005).  The National Guidelines for a reform of local government in Nigeria in 1976 also define local government as the government at the local level exercised through representative councils established by law to exercise specific power within a defined area. 


Akpan (1967) says local government implies the breaking down of a country into small units or localities for the purpose of administration in which the inhabitants of the different units or localities concerned play a direct and full part through their elected representatives who exercise power to undertake functions under the general authority of the national government.  Local government can best be described as intra-sovereign geographical entities within a sovereign nation.  It is a legal independent unit that has separate legal existence as a corporate body (Campbell 1965).    The most essential attribute of local government is its representative and responsible nature.  It means executive of local administrative powers must be controlled by elected or otherwise locally selected representative who are responsible to the local community.  In essence, as the central and state governments are far away at the capital and engaged in matters that do not directly touch on the local people, the local government should help to mobilize the people to support the local council financially, materially or engage in self help project. In a federal states like U.S.A and Nigeria, the local government is constitutionally recognized as the third tier government while in the unitary state like Britain, local government is an extension of central government.


Concept of Poverty

There is no clear definition of poverty.  This is because it includes different alienations and deprivations.  Adam Smith, a great economist made a statement in 18th century that “poverty is a monster that threatens the survival of mankind, no society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the member are poor and miserable”.  According to Oladunni (1999) poverty means not having enough to eat, poor drinking water, poor sanitation, low nutrition, high infant mortality rate, low educational opportunities and many others.  However, there are three approaches to poverty- absolute poverty, relative poverty and Human Development Index (HDI). 


The absolute poverty has been described as the theory of poverty line based on per capital income or consumption of individuals or household in a country.  This is define as the cut off living standard level below which a person is classified as poor, i.e. counting the people whose income is below the line.  A condition of poverty therefore can be described as absolute if the consumption of an individual or household is below an acceptable minimum fixed overtime as a global standard for meaningful human existence.


The relative poverty stresses social exclusion from normal pattern of life in a society through lack of income.  It is measured in three ways - first, through the low income family statistics; second, through income, and third, through disposable income.  Measurement of poverty through low income family statistics is to first take the government’s own level of income support, plus an allowance for housing etc., as a guide.  The reason behind this is that income support reflect the minimum level of income the government believes is reasonably possible to live on.  The income measurement here is done by drawing a line at a certain percentage below which people are said to be poor.  The line may be at 50 percent or 80 percent of an average income.  The United Nations in 1999 introduced another approach to the study and measurement of poverty called Human Development Index (HDI).  It is to measure a country’s socio-economic condition such as life expectancy, access to education, shelter, electricity, portable water, etc.  This approach is a simple average of three deprivation indices: longetivity represented by life expectancy; knowledge based on weighed average of literacy rate and income which is computed using per capita income data (United Nations Human Development Report 2002).


Theoretical Framework

The study adopts the functional approach to justify or advance its arguments.  The approach is necessary because local government exists to promote democratic ideals which involve giving fair consideration to minority views thus allowing majority views to prevail.  Also, it gives the citizens the opportunity to fully participate in the affairs of the local council.


Most theoretical debates on local government administration have been in the area of development.    According to Gboyega (1987:14), there are two basic classes of local government; the first class attempts to justify the existence or need for local government on the basic of its being essential to a democratic regime or for practical administrative purpose like responsiveness, accountability and control.  The other class of theory sees local government system as contradicting the purpose of democratic regime.  Further, he argues that local government institutions are neither democratic in their internal operations nor admit of responsiveness, accountability and control. 


Mill (1975) justifies the establishment of local governments on three grounds.  First, he maintains that certain functions of government are characteristically local and as such should be locally administered and controlled.  Second, he believes that local government gives a valuable opportunity for democratic grassroots decision-making.  Lastly, Mill argues that local councils are more easily held accountable to the local groups than central government and its agencies.  He therefore claimed that the very object of having local representation is in order that those who have an interest in common which they do not share with the general body of their country men may manage that joint interests by themselves. Thus, the local government is an effective weapon for channeling local pressures, anticipating and aggregation of local interest, which may not necessarily, coincide with the ideas of the central government.  In this regard, Ola (1977) argues that local governments in developing nations should direct a good proportion of their contributions towards national integration, national evolution, national consciousness and ultimately development.  No doubt, the activities of this tier of government are expected to promote a social process by which the local people can define, solve and actually work-out the problems faced as a community.  In support, Michael and Jonny (1992) believe that the rural community presents an ideal situation in which community development can foster social changes.


 Kreit et al (1960) observes that participation remains the catalyst by which human effort generate the ultimate development of the society.  Community development is primarily local in character and conforms naturally with the operations of the local government.  Nwizu (1998) affirms that community development emphasizes the need for communities of people to identify their own needs and to work cooperatively at satisfying them.    Akpavire (1989) opines that the local government uses community development as a device to help the state and national governments to reach out to the local people and to help them become more active participants in the life of the nation.  The local government encourages its citizens to recognize local initiative as a virtue and to organize themselves for planning action.  According to Mbiti (1975), the local government has a direct role to play in the induction of social change in its area.  In Nigeria for example, the local government councils have had long connections with the provision of support services such as roads, pipe-borne water, health institutions and educational and agricultural activities.  Such tolerable good road networks have in no small measure succeeded in breaking the isolation of many communities from the wider society through affording accessibility both to markets and farmlands. 


The real need for rural development in the case of Nigeria is to enable the people achieve desirable socio-economic and political changes without disrupting their culture.  In physical terms, the rural areas are poorly developed. Even though the food resources that support the urban centres are from rural areas yet the relation between the two centers of population has been exploitative in nature.

Local Government Administration in Nigeria an Overview 

Local government administration in Nigeria dated back to the pre-colonial era.  Since there was no country called Nigeria then, it is important to examine the pre-colonial administration as evolved by different communities.  The existence then was influenced by the prevalent social forces aimed at regulating the social order in the different settlements.  During the period, each society had its own norms, values and tradition that guided its political relations with its people.  Thus, the structure took two different forms namely: the centralized and decentralized.  The centralized system which embraced the Yoruba in the West and Hausa-Fulani in the North, was a well-organized structure while the Ibos in the East adopted the decentralized system.


In the North, powers, functions and authorities centered on the Emirs and each emirate operated a highly authoritarian political system.  The Emir was regarded as the chief executive and his decision-making power was absolute.  He performed the religious, legislative, executive and judicial functions.  As Ola (1984:22) puts it, the emirate structure or Hausa-Fulani’s has a well organized fiscal system, a code of land tenure, regular scheme of local rule through appointed district and village heads, as well as trained judiciary which administered the Islamic law.  The law guarding the emirate was based on Islamic teachings called Sharia laws with Emir as the supreme judge of the state.  He passed the final judgement on important cases with the advice of the chief Alkali and his jury of legal experts in Islamic laws.  The Alkali Sharia courts entertained and regulated matters such as divorce, marriage and criminal offences.  Taxation was, in form of tribute in local products and other taxes such as tax income, tax on livestock, land tax, etc.  Administratively, each emirate was divided into district.  The districts were further divided into villages headed by village heads.  Their major function was to collect taxes for the emirs.


Another centralized kingdom existed western Nigeria dominated by the Yoruba ethnic group.  It was centralized because the local rule developed around the local ruler, i.e. the Oba.  The Oba was not autocratic unlike the Emir in the North.  The Oba in council had legal advisers, though he was not obliged to adhere to their advise.  The administration had the doctrine of checks and balances which took the form of senior chiefs advising and monitoring the Oba’s activities.  The senior chiefs could instigate their subjects against the Oba or even stop them from paying taxes and royalties to Oba.  According to Oyediran (1988:30), culturally the Yoruba varied widely but the system of administration was similar.  The Oba therefore exercised caution with his chiefs.  In this situation, bribery and corruption could not be ruled out.  By this act, the Oba was assured of enhanced tax and royalty from the subjects.  Below the senior chiefs were the Baales who were in charge of sub-district.  They administered the sub-districts on behalf of and collect tribute for the Oba (Okoli 2005:22). Administratively, both the senior chiefs and baales were part of the legislative, Executive and Judiciary functions and within the centralized kingdom. 


In the Ibo speaking area, it was highly decentralized and democratic.  The political organization was without a central government.  The decision-making powers were invested in a number of bodies, which included council of elders, village council, age grades among others.  The village government was carried out through the council of elders who were made up of heads of families.  The oldest in a linage was regarded as the head hence the word council of elders.  The different linage heads formed the village council and the most senior linage became the chairman of the council.  The different villages formed the village assembly which was the highest decision making body.  According to Oyediran (1988:32), this pluralistic organization has the tendency to balance two halves against each other rather than unify them into a whole.  In other words, the village authority is dispersed among groups rather than centralized in any one individual or body.  Thus, matters regarding traditional custom and ritual were referred to the council of elders while important matters of policy affecting the lives of the villagers were decided by the village assembly.  However, decisions likely to produce disputes were taken to ‘Ama-ala’ means general assembly.  At the assembly, the elders tendered issues before the people and usually decisions must be taken unanimously.


Local Government Administration and Poverty Alleviation

Poverty is a global phenomenon.  Although, the developed countries have their fair share of the problem,  in the developing countries, poverty level has been on the increase.  According to the World Bank, out of the world six billion people, 2.8 billion live on less than $1 a day, and 1.2 billion live on $1 a day with South Asia and Africa constituting the highest percentage (World Bank 2001:6).  In Nigeria, about 70 percent of its people exist in abject poverty.  It is both present in urban and rural areas.  But, it is more pervasive in rural areas because of its characteristics.  In fact, the poverty level in the rural area can be best described as ‘inflammable’.  Sequel to this, there is no other development issue that poses a fundamental challenge to policy makers in Nigeria today as endemic as poverty.  This negative phenomenon has spread its tentacles across the length and breath of Nigeria claiming an over-whelming number of its citizens as helpless victims.


Virtually, majority of Nigerians live in the rural areas and to transform their lives would certainly entail the provision of basic infrastructure and appropriate technology of production.  The services expected from this would mean a fundamental re-structuring of rural economy to make it a modern agro-industrial economy capable of sustaining the quality of life in the rural area.  The provision of basic activities such as roads, education, health, water, housing, electricity services, etc.  dictate the condition of lives in the rural area.  Thus, the emphasis should be on development programmes deeply rooted in indigenous resources.  According to Gboyega (1987) development does not start with goods and things.  It starts with people – their reorientation, organization and discipline. As Egwuatus (2002) remarks, poverty is the inability of people to meet the economic, social, and other standards of well-being.


Obstacles in Tackling the Rural Poverty

The following have been identified as obstacles in tackling the problems of rural poverty.


1.         Poor Finance

The sources of revenue are grossly inadequate.  It is a situation where local government is saddled with the responsibility of developing the rural area without the corresponding sources of revenue.  Also, the federal and state governments grants are inadequate.  On occasions, the grants have been used as instrument of controlling the local government as any which refused to obey the dictates of these governments would be starved of fund.

2.         Shortage of Manpower


The shortage of qualified and trained staff hinders local government performance.  It is a situation where a wide variety of activities and functions are given to local government without trained staff. 

Such functions that ensure economic development at local level required highly skilled, professional, trained and technically competent staff.

3.         Federal-State Governments Interferences

Another area that bedevils local government in its quest for effective service delivery is interference by the federal and state governments.  The local government is not given free hand to make its service relevant to the people.  In actual fact, the local government representatives are meant to work for the benefit of the rural people.   But these representatives work for the satisfaction of the federal and state governments thereby jeopardizing the interest of the people. 

4.         Ambiguous Constitutional Provisions

The constitutional provision for local government administration is not clear. It defines local government as third-tier of government but gives the state power to create or dissolve the institution at will.  This has seriously affected the service delivery system of the local government by becoming an administrative unit of the state.


5.         Bribery and Corruption

The personnel of local governments  are affected by corrupt practices.  Misappropriation of funds is very rampant at local level.  The local government staff generally exploits every opportunity in the name of official functions to embezzle government funds. In addition, the way in which revenues are collected from the people is very prone to corruption..


6.         Lack of Political Education

The electorates are not politically educated enough to enable them pressurize the officials of the local government to do the right thing.  As a result, the officials have been getting away with some of their vices.



7.         Size of Local Government

Most of the local governments are so small in size that they find it very difficult to mobilize enough resources both human and material for proper functioning.  At the same time, there are those that are too big in size but the population has a very low per capita income.


Indeed, these identified obstacles have kept the local government from effectively performing its role in the socio-economic improvement of the rural and urban people.  As a result, the 1976 local government reforms aimed at correcting the situation and placing the local government in a position to fulfil its socio-economic and political roles.


The paper has tried to analyse the role of local government in poverty alleviation through developmental programmes. There is every evidence that political interference, corruption, poor finance, ambiguous constitutional provisions among others have hindered progress.  Evidence further shows that the inability of local governments to perform their roles in the socio-economic improvement of the rural people has attracted underdevelopment and poverty. 


Given the ramifications of poverty and the limited job opportunities in the rural area, it is important that the federal and state governments should allocate enough resources to the local government.  Health care, supported living services, food programmes and programmes that will supplement earnings as well as others are critical to the well-being of many rural homes.  In a country where 70 percent of the citizens exist in abject poverty with hordes of young people left to virtually scavenge refuse dumps, it is necessary to formulate policies guided by the constitution to counter poverty through meaningful development of the rural area.



a.         Local Government Staff Re-structure

The high incidence of corruption, fraud and embezzlement among most officials could be minimized by contracting out revenue collection. There should be a specified monthly return to the local government council and the revenue department geared towards this viable option.


b.         Eradication of Corruption

There is need to eradicate corruption by local government workers.  The method and manner of awarding contracts should be transparent, i.e., it should follow the due process.  This will help the local government to succeed in any investment it may venture into.


c.         Interference by other tiers of Government

The local government should be allowed to be autonomous. Interferences from other quarters should be avoided so as to allow the third-tier of government deliver services to the rural people. 

The constitution therefore should be amended to reduce or eliminate high interferences which makes the chairman of the local government to dance to the tune of the state governor.


d.         Party Politics

There is need to eliminate party politics which has forced local governments to abandon their cardinal objective while committing to party programmes. Party politics has brought in rancour, acrimony, disunity etc. within in the local government system.  Elimination of these vices will bring effective mobilization of the communities for rural development project.


e.         Appointment of Internal Auditors

Internal auditors should be appointed as stipulated by the guidelines.  The internal auditors would act as a control mechanism for the local government finance.  They would audit the local government account periodically and issue audit querries to any defaulting local government.



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