Nigeria is a rural country, with more than eighty percent (80%) of its population in the rural areas. Yet this greater percentage of the Nigerian people has been marginalised, ignored and abandoned in the scheme of things over the years. The first meaningful step to open up, develop and integrate the rural areas has been taken during the Babangida era. The regime set up a Directorate to accelerate the production of food, the construction of roads and rural infrastructures, and a program to promote better life for women who live mostly in the rural areas. It has also engineered grassroots democracy by making local government the foundation of a new social and political order.

Basic to any developmental process is man’s desire for a better life and better environment. But development, as stated in the 4th National Development Plan, ‘does not start with goods and things; it starts with people: their orientation, organisation and discipline. When a society is properly oriented, organised and disciplined, it can be prosperous on the scantiest basis of natural wealth’.

During the 1970s, particularly between 1972 and 1976 when there was the oil boom, Nigerians neglected the rural areas and fled the urban centres, neglected agriculture and developed greater interest in white-collar jobs. Nigerians also abandoned productive activities, shunned locally produced materials and became foreign manufacturers’ representatives. There was widespread development of special taste for imported materials and, soon, the country became a nation of contractors with a generation of nouveau riche. This could not last for too long. The period gave Nigerians false hopes about their country’s industrial production capacity and agricultural output. And then the bubble burst and the country was caught with all hands down. ‘The party was over’. Hopes were dashed to smithereens. The national dream was shattered and the basis of existence as a nation became threatened.

Thus, by 1977, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the Head of the Federal Military Government, had to launch the Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) aimed at re-orientating the nation and focusing attention on agriculture. But the implementation was soon faulted and the objectives could not be realised. When the civilians took over power in 1979, massive importation of food was resumed beyond the country’s foreign exchange capacity, with the attendant consequence of increasing neglect of agricultural production and the rural economy. This neglect had reached lamentable proportions by the time the Babangida Administration assumed national leadership in 1985.

In spite of the oil boom, the condition of the rural people never changed. They had few good roads, lacked potable water, and were exposed to various types of diseases. This greatly reduced the average Nigerian’s morale and capacity for hard work. Although demoralised, he nevertheless accepted the predicament of the times with stoic equanimity. It is in recognition of the failure of such Programs as the OFN and the ‘Green Revolution’ launched by the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari that the Babangida Administration, in February 1986, established the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) through the promulgation of Decree No. 4 of 1987. DFRRI was charged with the responsibility of gearing all its efforts towards ‘the development of the entire rural areas of Nigeria in order to improve the quality of life of the rural dwellers’.

In order to achieve this goal, the Directorate was specifically directed to:

(a) Encourage and organise increased agricultural and any other activities towards an increased earning power of the rural dwellers;

(b) Encourage increased agricultural and any other activities in the rural areas to provide agricultural and industrial raw materials;

(c) Undertake the construction and repair of roads to facilitate communication and distribution of agricultural products;

(d) Liaise with the appropriate Federal, State and Local Government Councils for the provision of water, health facilities, electricity, means of communication and such other things as the Directorate may determine within the rural economy; and

(e)  Enlighten the rural communities in order to give them a sense of belonging to the country.

As perceived by the Directorate, the objectives of rural development are as follows:

(a) To improve the quality of life and standard of living of the majority of the people in the rural areas by:

(i)  Improving the quality of life;

(ii) Improving the quality, value and nutritional balance of food intake;

(iii) Raising the quality of rural housing;

(iv)  Improving the health conditions of the rural population;

(v)   Creating greater opportunity for employment and human development;

(vi)  Making it possible to have a progressively higher range and variety of goods and services to be produced and consumed by the rural people themselves as well as for exchange;

(b)  To use the enormous resources of the rural areas to lay a solid foundation for the society, socio-cultural, and political and economic growth and development of the nation;

(c)   To make rural areas more productive and less vulnerable to natural hazards, poverty and exploitation and to give the people a mutually beneficial linkage with other parts of the national economy;

(d)  To ensure a deep rooted self-sustaining development process based on effectively mobilised mass participation.

To achieve these set goals and objectives, DFRRI identified, as its main Programs, agricultural and rural infrastructures. In this regard, agriculture involves horticulture, livestock, seed multiplication, aquaculture, etc., while rural infrastructures entail the building of bridges and culverts, opening up of feeder roads, provision of water and electricity, provision of cheap housing schemes and the improvement of the health and sanitation habits of the people.

Since its inception, DFRRI has constructed thousands of kilometres of roads in all parts of the country to open up the rural areas. It has sunk wells and boreholes in the villages to provide water, and has also started rural electrification schemes in many villages. To solve the problem of housing in the rural areas, DFRRI has designed cheaper building materials for houses. The Directorate has also gone into direct production of food by establishing demonstration farms, constructing fish ponds, and distribution of seedlings to farmers all over the federation. Through the RUWATSAN program, it has made available, hundreds of water-points to hundreds of communities throughout the various states of the federation while the feeder roads constructed cover thousands of kilometres.

In brief, through the Programs of DFRRI, the early morning trek to the village stream for water has been substantially done away with. Diseases brought about by bad water are therefore also becoming things of the past in various parts of the country. The poverty and squalor of the village is gradually being tackled and replaced by local economic activities, access to modern amenities and greater integration with the urban economies. With the full backing of the First Lady, the President’s wife, Mrs. Maryam Babangida, DFRRI has also been able to promote the ‘Better Life for. Rural Women’ program meant for raising the standard of living of women throughout the country. With sustained funding, machinery and equipment, it should be possible for DFRRI to transform the productive base and general welfare of Nigeria’s rural society.

The Better Life Program

Historically, women have been very influential in the socio-political development of Nigeria. Great Nigerian women since the 14th and 15th centuries such as Moremi of Ife, Emotan of Benin, Queens Amina and Daura, Madams Tinubu and Ojojo, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, etc., have played active parts in the development of the nation, at times of crisis to preserve the dignity and pride of the Nigerian peoples. These towers of strength of women, and also menfolk did not prevent the latter day Nigerian women from being shoved aside and restricted to the confines of the home! Their active participation in social, agricultural and political activities receded to the background even in primary activities such as farming where they had traditionally been very influential and formidable.

On the national scene, the post-independence Nigerian women were only given token appointment in public places, in spite of the fact that they competed fairly well with their men counterparts. It was during the first International Year for women in 1975 that Nigeria began to make deliberate efforts to reckon with women in public affairs and national planning. It was against this background that, in September 1987, the Better Life for Rural Women was initiated by the First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Babangida to harness the creative energies of women for concrete and achievable goals as a group. The present Administration’s rural development program (DFRRI), Women Education Campaign, Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI) and the intensive Awareness Program of the Directorate for Social Mobilisation (MAMSER) present the women with good launching pads for their activities. The aims and objectives of the Better Life for Rural Women (BLRW) can be summarised as follows:

(a) Raising the social consciousness of women about their rights, and social, political and economic responsibilities;

(b) Bringing women together and closer to themselves for better understanding of their problems;

(c) Mobilising them for concrete steps to achieve specific objectives, including seeking leadership roles in all spheres of national life;

(d) Stimulating and motivating women in rural areas towards achieving a better level of life as well as to sensitise the general populace to the plight of these women.

At the first workshop held in Abuja in 1987, women from all the local Government Areas of Nigeria assembled together to brainstorm on the conditions, prospects and problems of Nigerian women in development. During the period, various aspects of life such as health, education, farming, social and political affairs were subjected to critical analysis. At the end of this forum, what emerged was a resolute and purposeful program of women-oriented activities for economic recovery and self-reliance. Under the auspices of the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructures, the various women’s groups such as the National Council for Women Societies (NCWS), Women in Nigeria (WIN), Country Women Association (COWAN), and several others, converged and agreed to work as a group to achieve the goals of the Better Life Program.

In less than a year, the wind of change had started blowing across the nation as the First Lady’s initiative blossomed to a full-fledged organisation that immediately put a stamp of authority on all matters concerning Nigerian Women. The wives of Military Governors in all the States took up the challenge and made the rural areas in their respective states their ‘offices’. Day after day, and for months, they took on the road, talked with the women to find out their needs and tried to help them in solving the identified problems. In Anambra State, for example, the Chairperson of Better Life for Rural Women, in less than a year of the program’s commencement, succeeded in providing for three groups of women small gari making machines and a couple of other small scale industrial tools. Other Chairpersons of BLRW Programs in other states are equally active in mobilising the women for access to bank credits, government facilities, land and other factor of production. The BLRW Chairperson in Ondo State has also succeeded in organising some women in a Local Government Area to produce bags, and other implements, with local raw materials which they export to the United States of America. The problem now is how to improve the finishing of such products and also cope with the increasing commercial demand for the products. In Lagos State, the BLRW Chairperson has started a market that would be an excellent example of non-exploitative marketing. Perhaps this would offer Lagosians some respite and may be a counterweight to activities in the other markets.

The specific Programs which the Better Life program is actively involved in include agriculture, health, women in cooperatives, and the strengthening of women organisations.

In the area if agriculture, the BLRW has intensified its activities by encouraging more women to go into farming for the production of food and raw materials. The ready support of the Chairperson of the United Bank of Africa (UBA), Chief (Mrs) Kuforiji-Olubi, in securing bank loans for various groups of women have been very encouraging. Recently, too, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) took its extension service to Moniya village in Ibadan where nine cottage gari making industries that would engage about 50 women all year-around were opened. It has also been planned that the improved, easily adaptable technology of planting, harvesting, fermenting, frying, storage and sale of gari would be taught to rural women in all gari producing areas of Nigeria.

As a result of the very close relationship with rural women and because of the dire need for better medical services, the Better Life program continues to promote and support all government health Programs directed towards improving the health conditions of women and children. These include the Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI), Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) and other preventive medical Programs for family health, child delivery system and maternity care. The Better Life program is also very active in fighting drug abuse in our society. To this end, several radio and television jingles have been sponsored by women associations and a seminar was held for the same purpose. This is because the health and good life of the youths are very important and they must be prevented from indulging themselves in taking dangerous drugs.

The Better Life Program marked its first year anniversary with a Better Life Fair at the Tafawa Balewa Square Lagos in September, 1988 for one week. At the fair, several goods and trades that promote self-reliance were exhibited. This time, it was not only the rural women that were in attendance but men and youths who constitute a large proportion of the people in the rural areas. One remarkable discovery of talents at the fair was a young man from Iseyin, Oyo State, who fabricated an efficient and cost-saving Manual Duplicating Machine that costs a little less than a thousand naira. Each state had its pavilion for exhibiting the goods and cultural identities of the respective states. The Better Life Fair also featured the sale of locally produced foodstuffs such as yams, guinea corn, maize, melon, soya beans, fish and the varieties of food that can be prepared for human consumption. Also, each state brought the locally made goods such as handwoven `aso-oke’, ‘batik’, `adire’, and pottery goods of various sizes and shapes. A post-fair evaluation exercise was undertaken at the National Assembly Complex to take stock of the achievements, problems and prospects of the program so that future fairs can benefit from the experience.

Apart from the states that are being effectively covered by the governors’ wives, the various officers’ wives associations of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police are covering the barracks effectively through their counselling to the wives of all officers and other ranks on how to engage in productive lives in and out of the barracks. And until the dissolution of elected Local Government Councils in July, 1989, wives of Local Government Council chairmen constituted the grassroots units for mobilising women for development. Added to this is the charity work of BLWR to help the victims of social crises.

While one may not be able to fully quantify, at this time, the contributions of these ladies of vision, their impact and influence have gone beyond Nigeria’s shores and one only hopes that in no time, the entire African continent would be a big mobilisation arena for our women. Happily the approach to the program is multi-dimensional as the plan is to sensitise and arouse women’s interest in all aspects of human endeavour. The women, being active agents of progress and given their determination and ability to perform, sometimes operate under conditions that are not too favourable. With their doggedness, it would not be a surprise if some of them find their way to topmost political appointments in the near future. For now, the Better Life program has turned out to be the women’s answer to the problem of development in Nigeria within the context of the efforts now being made to make Nigeria more self-reliant and prosperous in the face of world economic recession.

Local Government as Foundation for a New Democratic Order

One special area which demonstrates the present Administration’s fascination with the grassroots is the political process. When Nigeria attained independence in 1960, hopes and aspirations were very high. The air of definite optimism was for a nation born to progress and democratic rule. Not long thereafter, these hopes and aspirations flopped.

With the collapse of the First Republic in 1966, attempts were made some years later at ensuring mass participation by local government bodies in the decision-making process and nation-building. This, perhaps, led to the local government reforms of 1976. Commenting on the structure he inherited, however, General Ibrahim Babangida had to stress in his National Day Broadcast of 1988 that:

Local Governments are not there just to pay salaries. They are there to ensure collective participation in government, motivate physical and economic development, create the conditions for employment opportunities and provide social services which can improve the well-being of our people’. The Administration’s interest in, and concern for, the local government system as the foundation of a new social order has been demonstrated in many ways – ranging from increased funding to expansion of the scope of authority and power.

In line with the foregoing, the first step to the Third Republic began in December 1987 with the election of, on non-party basis, local government chairmen and councilors. The 1987 election was a test of the willingness of Nigerians to massively participate in the budding democratic process. Local governments, being the nearest to the masses, could therefore only but be the beginning of the new experiment for establishing a new culture. The logic is that if the local government elections could be properly conducted, other elections in the country would be properly conducted. If the local government elections are manipulated, the popular wishes of our people would have been betrayed.

For the first time since 1976, popular elections were held at the local level across the federation in December, 1987 and March 1988 in Lagos State. This is a constitutional right denied the electorates by the politicians of the Second Republic who all swore to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the Constitution. The newly constituted Local Government Councils, with Chairmen and Councilors elected on personal merit, were inaugurated on January 4th, 1988. The felt need to improve the calibre of manpower available to local governments, enhance their morale and enable local governments to attract and retain the high calibre personnel needed to efficiently prosecute their projects persuaded the Federal Government to accept the recommendation of the Dasuki Committee. It suggested the appointment of a Committee to draw up a credible career structure for local government employees with what obtains in civil services of the federation, both at the state and federal levels. Arising from the work of this committee, an Approved Scheme of Service for Local Government Employees in Nigeria was, for the first time in the country’s history, adopted by the Federal Government and launched on March 8, 1988. With proper implementation, it would enhance professionalism at the local level and bring about improved service delivery at that vital tier of government.

Also in 1988, President Babangida directed that political and constitutional autonomy be fully restored to local governments. Accordingly, the state governments were required to hand-off all the functions listed in Section I of the fourth Schedule of the 1979 Constitution. To assure local governments of an adequate and regular source of revenue, and to prevent state governments from tampering with local governments funds the Federal Government decided, in 1988, to forward the local government share of the Federation Account directly to local governments. In addition, the states are required to compulsorily contribute 10% of their internally generated revenue into the coffers of local governments, failing which the money would be deducted at source from state allocations. This policy was put into practice in July, 1988.

Furthermore, to release local government from the suffocating controls being exerted on them by the State Ministries of Local Government, thereby guaranteeing their autonomy and allowing them more freedom of action, State Ministries of Local Government were abolished in October, 1988. State governments were then required to establish Departments of Local Governments in the state Governor’s Offices to assist, advise and guide but not control, local governments in the performance of their constitutional functions.

Perhaps the best thing that has happened to local government so far is the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Promulgation) Decree (No. 12) 1989. Whereas the 1979 Constitution made only a little more than passing reference to local government, the issue has been fully treated in Sections 7, 9(3)(4) and 283 — 310 of the 1989 Constitution. In summary, the creation of local government is no longer the function of state governments but that of the National Assembly. Thus, it will no longer be possible for state government to tamper whimsically with the structure of local governments. Functions virtually identical with those contained in the 1979 Constitution have been prescribed for local governments in Part I of the Forth Schedule of the 1989 Constitution.

With the benefit of hindsight provided by past transitional arrangements, the current efforts at transition to civil rule have been made deliberately gradual and incremental such that there would be sufficient time to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the political institutions being put in place with a view to effecting suitable amendments, where necessary, before the military finally quits the stage in 1992. The December, 1987 local government elections undoubtedly provided the National Electoral Commission (NEC) with a useful insight and experiment as to how to handle future elections. In addition, security personnel and law-enforcement agents got more useful experience about how to maintain law and order during the elections. Similarly, the 1989 local government elections, which are the first in the series to be organised on party basis, will test the electoral laws for workability and expose possible electoral loopholes for suitable rectification. The state of preparedness for the 1990 elections into the state legislatures and gubernatorial offices will thereby be fully assessed. There will also be sufficient time to test, for workability, some of the new constitutional provisions particularly those relating to the recall of local government chairman and councilors by the electorate and the removal of the chairman and vice-chairman by the councils. It may well be that, arising from the experience gained in the implementation of those provisions, necessary adjustments as well as checks and balances, consistent with the constitutional objectives of democracy and social justice, may have to be installed to prevent possible future abuse, unnecessary conflicts, frivolous actions and attendant political instability.

With the foregoing initiatives of the Babangida Administration, local government will also provide the opportunity to smoothen the rough edges in state-local relations. No less important is the capacity of local government to serve as an effective breeding ground for future political leadership at higher levels of government. This is the modality in those stable democracies which we so much envy, and there is no reason why Nigeria should not gradually cultivate such fine culture in the nation’s political system.

On a concluding note, one is aware that anxiety has been expressed from certain well-meaning quarters as to the direction which the current local government reforms and rural development will take during the civilian era. This concern is appreciated but it appears premature. The Babangida regime is still around to watch the situation at the federal level for two years after the installation of limited civilian democratic rule at the state level and make corrections, adjustments and amendments in order to fine-tune the system, where necessary. This is the essence of the learning process contained in the transition program. Notwithstanding, everybody must contribute maximally to make a success of this attempt at democratic self-governance by taking advantage of the opportunities provided for mass participation for development at the grassroots level.