Governance and policy relevance of the Nigerian 40-year grassroots revolution: 1976–2016

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Review of
Governance and policy
relevance of the Nigerian
40-year grassroots
revolution: 1976–2016
Dele Olowu
African Studies Center, Leiden University, The Netherlands
This article assesses the 40-year-old program of building a third level of governance in
Nigeria to improve the democratic and developmental aspirations of Africa’s largest
democracy, one of only two federally governed countries on the continent. The assess-
ment relies on secondary and primary sources. The article finds that even though the
reform was sustained over the years in terms of structural, financial and human
resources capacity infusion and a raft of changes to democratize the institution, the
program was only successful in the first four years while the military was in power. The
article proposes measures to make this institution adapt to civilian governance through
enhancing accountability arrangements at all the three levels of governance and an
asymmetric approach to financing infrastructures in the cities and rural areas. These
would enable the local government institutions to actually function as grassroots struc-
tures for building and sustaining democracy and development from below complement-
ing the export-led strategy of the present government.
Points for practitioners
The current Nigerian government is pursuing an export-led strategy comprising three
main elements that several industrializing countries have used successfully. Only the first
two elements – macro-economic stability, economic freedom for farmers and small-
scale entrepreneurs – are in place. These need to be complemented by boosting rural
infrastructures which a robust political and administrative system, underpinned by
strong grassroots local government system as articulated in this article, makes possible.
International Review of
Administrative Sciences
2019, Vol. 85(4) 726–742
!The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0020852317712818
Corresponding author:
Dele Olowu, Africa Europe Foundation, Suze Groenweg Erf 357, Dordrecht, 3315XK, The Netherlands.
administration and democracy, developing countries, good governance, intergovern-
mental relations, multi-level government, policy-making, service delivery
Forty years ago, Nigeria, Africa’s largest federally governed country, embarked
upon a major reorganization and restructuring of its basic institutions of govern-
ance, the local government system, referred to in this article as a grassroots revo-
lution. It was an African f‌irst, aimed at bringing an end to poverty, disease and
ignorance regarded by the continent’s leaders as the three recurrent scourges since
independence in 1960 (Mkandawire, 2005). The ‘revolution’ came out of national
discourses after ten years of military rule (1966–76) and a civil war from 1966 to
1970 in which an estimated 1 million people died (Oyediran, 1979). It led to the
creation of a third tier of government below the federal and state governments.
Abundant human, f‌inancial and other institutional capacities and resources were
infused by the federal government into these new structures to ensure that they
could build and sustain all the basic infrastructures needed for meaningful social
and economic life in every city or village of Africa’s largest country of 184 million
population, the world’s seventh largest (Wikipedia, 2017). The reform also led to a
major reorganization of the Nigerian political and public administration structures,
and other African countries followed in subsequent years.
This bold and impressive program of institutional reform is assessed relying on
secondary and primary sources. Secondary sources include books, articles and
documents, while the primary sources include interviews with some of the key
actors involved in the reform process as policy-makers or reviewers, researchers
and trainers.
The public sector’s role in the Nigerian economy increased from 62 percent to 86
percent of GDP between 1970 and 1981. This was due mainly to the increasing role
of oil in the economy, responsible for 85–90 percent of the total public revenues.
The lopsided investment of most of these public resources in the three main regio-
nal metropolitan hubs of Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano was widely regarded in
academic and policy circles as fueling massive rural–urban migration, poor funding
of rural infrastructures and the rising tides of ethnicity and unrest that ultimately
resulted in the civil war, military coups and counter coups, and the politicization
and deterioration of the military’s esprit des corps (Phillips, 1991).
The reform recorded early successes (Adamolekun, 1984; Barkan et al., 2001;
Gboyega, 1991; Olowu, 1986). Unfortunately, once the military governments that
introduced the reforms left of‌f‌ice, their civilian successors have not been able to
sustain this initial f‌lourish of success even though the basic structures remained,
resources were made available and the reform provisions were protected by the new
constitutions that the nation adopted in 1979 and 1999 (Barkan et al., 2001).
From governance and policy perspectives, we conclude that the conditions today
are ideal for revisiting and resuscitating this grassroots revolution. We must,
Olowu 727

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