The local government system in Bayelsa State was until recently a channel for the empowerment of the political class. The Seriake Dickson administration is promising to alter the structure and system, but it seems to be a difficult task!
Though the third tier of government as the name implies ought to have been an instrument for grassroots development but the reverse is the case in the predominantly riverine Bayelsa State where the local government councils over the years have turned out to be a platform for revenue sharing.
The third tier of government has not been truly felt in the rural enclaves of the state where the locals still look up to the oil companies operating in their domains and the state government for social amenities.
Elected representatives, especially the chairmen hardly stay in their respective councils with many operating from Yenagoa only to return to the council headquarters when their monthly federal allocation is ready for sharing.
It was to prevent this type of scenario that the first Bayelsa State House of Assembly passed the Bayelsa State Local Government Law 2000. The law aimed at checking the excesses of the powerful chairmen inevitably marked the beginning of the complete loss of independence at the third tier.
Aside the first set of council chairmen in the eight local government areas and councillors in the one hundred and five wards of the state elected in 1998, all succeeding council officials were foisted on the people by the incumbent governors.
Unlike the present scenario where the ruling party grabs all positions in every election leaving the opposition parties in the cold, the December 1998 election into the councils was keenly contested and healthy rivalry displayed by the parties.
The then All Peoples Party, APP, indeed won the Kolokuma-Opokuma local government council and also won councillorship seats in some of the council areas.
But the scenario, changed when the state government through the Peoples Democratic Party controlled state House of Assembly established the Bayelsa State Independent Electoral Commission in 2004.
The creation of the commission and the composition of its members was vehemently opposed by the opposition parties which described it as an extension of the ruling PDP.
They argued that since the officials of the commission were PDP card carrying members there was no way the electoral body could conduct a free and fair election. True to the fears of the opposition parties, the election into the council conducted by the newly established Bayelsa Independent Electoral Commission saw the ruling party sweeping all positions.
The pattern continued under the Timipre Sylva administration where he not only appointed caretaker chairmen for the councils, but also ensured their metamorphosis into executive chairmen through council polls that were widely denounced by many stakeholders, including many from the ruling PDP.
This was the scenario when the Seriake Dickson administration came on board last year prompting the governor to approve the removal of the chairmen of Brass, Southern Ijaw, Sagbama, Ogbia and Ekeremor councils.
The governor, a trained lawyer and former member of the House of Representatives has defended his action insisting that he only acted on the recommendations of the state House of Assembly, which had earlier probed the financial transactions of the eight local government councils, following petitions of alleged financial misappropriation and maladministration of the councils.
For three weeks the chairmen were grilled by the legislators and some of them could not defend the expenditures they claimed to have made while others were unable to tender valid council documents requested by the legislators.
Some of the local government councils were also locked in crises involving the chairmen, vice chairmen and councillors over what an insider blamed on displeasure over sharing of councils’ monthly federal allocations.
Indications that Dickson would beam his searchlight on the councils emerged shortly his inauguration in February. Although he had consistently denied he was not behind the Assembly’s investigation of the chairmen, Dickson has never hidden his disapproval for the apparent rot in the local government system of the state.
Speaking few days before he implemented the findings and recommendations of the Assembly, Dickson had at the swearing-in of a commissioner, chairmen and members of statutory bodies, declared, “We are committed to a comprehensive reform of the local government system, a comprehensive reform of all sectors of our state.”
Lamenting the rot in the councils he said, “the local government system is nothing to write home about in this state, and we don’t need to make any pretence about it. As you know, the state House of Assembly, as a result of the problem in the local government system, has undertaken a comprehensive examination of all those who are entrusted with responsibility at that critical level.
At the swearing-in of the vice chairmen of the five suspended chairmen as the new helmsmen, the governor explained that the five former chairmen were removed from office “on account of gross misconduct in accordance with section 24 (6) of the Bayelsa State Local Government Law 2000 as amended.”
The governor charged the new council bosses to execute projects that would develop and impact positively on the lives of the people in their respective councils.
He urged them not to abuse the opportunity given to them, but serve the people effectively and turn around the fortunes of the councils just as he reminded them that a lot were expected from them as according to him the restoration agenda of his administration was aimed at ensuring that the people at the grassroots savoured the dividends of democracy.
Dickson reiterated that he did not arm-twist the lawmakers to investigate the financial and administrative activities of the local councils nor recommend the sack of the five chairmen because of their loyalty to former Governor Sylva.
Meanwhile, expectations are again high in the councils following the election of new chairmen and councilors to pilot the affairs of the council.