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Nigeria's Supreme Court Ends Stand-Off Between States and Federal Government - 2002-03-29

Nigeria’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the National Assembly can not pass laws affecting local governments. The ruling ends a controversy over the tenure of local council chairmen – and helps delineate the separation of powers between the federal and state governments.

The governors of Nigeria’s 36 states filed a grievance before the Supreme Court last year over what they perceived to be the encroachment of federal lawmakers on their political turf. The legislators -- in a controversial electoral bill -- extended the tenure of local council bosses to four years. Under the current military-backed constitution, they serve only three years.

But in Thursday’s unanimous ruling in Abuja, the Supreme Court said it is the state legislature -- and not the National Assembly -- that has the power to make laws affecting local governments. State governors are applauding the ruling, calling it a vindication of their position. The governor of commercial capital Lagos, Bola Tinubu, says it is a victory for democracy and the rule of law.

When the lawmakers passed the bill last year, many state governors threatened to ignore it. Some even pressed ahead with preparations for council elections later this year. Political observers had expressed concern that the confusion was potentially explosive. They said it could threaten the survival of democratic rule ahead of general elections scheduled for next year.

The forthcoming polls are seen to be crucial for the survival of democracy in Nigeria. This is because they will be the first to be conducted by civilians after decades of military rule ending in 1999. Previous polls under civilian rule were marred by chaos and eventual military intervention.

Critics blame National Assembly legislators for the tensions between state and federal officials. Many are accused of planning to run for election as state governors in 2003. Analysts say that’s why the legislators wanted to shift the local council polls from this year to 2003: the move could likely weaken the incumbent governor’s attempt to fight off a new challenger.

That’s because many of the local governments and state governors come from the same party. According to analysts, if the local council bosses are not running for election, they’re better able to help turn out the vote for the incumbent state governor. That task would be more difficult if local councilors are busy running for office themselves.

Now, with the Supreme Court ruling allowing local elections this year, some federal legislators may decide that a career change to the state house is beyond their reach.