The legitimate advocacy for restructuring to correct the distortions of the Nigerian federalism suffers from a major drawback: those making the arguments for restructuring are not playing the politics of it well.
It was a senior advocate of Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoba, who alluded to this fact a few months ago at a distinguished forum organised by some members of the Yoruba elite who belong to a group called Voice of Reason.
One indicator of the faulty politics of restructuring is the seeming dichotomy between the political elite in power and those outside in their approaches to restructuring. For instance, why are regional and ethnic champions not working in synchrony with those representing them in the national and state assemblies? After all, restructuring is ultimately a constitutional exercise, which is within the purview of legislators across the country. This synchrony of purpose should be part of a good restructuring politics.
But, in the clamour for “for true federalism,” those wrongly perceived as “enemies” of restructuring are not spared of insults, prejudicial statements and misrepresentation of positions. In the world of some advocates of restructuring whoever is suspected not to affirm their gospel of “true federalism” is a heretic fit for damnation.
Instead of a constructive dialogue, a segment of the restructuring advocacy is replete with savage attacks on their opponents in the debate while failing largely to respond to the arguments of the other side.
A most unhelpful trait in the argument for restructuring is manifest in the column of Bashorun Akin Osuntokun on this page last Friday. Given the columnist’s well earned reputation for rigour and clarity of purpose demonstrated on this page and elsewhere, his piece entitled “What is Geographical Restructuring?” is very much unlike the essential Osuntokun. For instance how does Osuntokun advance his argument for restructuring by accusing Vice President Yemi Osinbajo of “this persistent proclivity for puerile altercations,”? To be sure, you could be as combative as you wish in criticising Osinbajo without insulting the gentleman. How can you say a professor of law is engaging in “puerile altercations” simply because he does not share your own otherwise legitimate view of restructuring?
For the reader to pass his own verdict on Osinbajo, perhaps it would be necessary to quote the vice president as Osuntokun does in the opening paragraph of his piece: “I rejected the notion that geographical restructuring was a solution to our national problems. Geographical restructuring is either taking us back to regional governments or increasing the number of states that make up the Nigerian federation. As we all may recall, the 2014 National Conference actually recommended the creation of 18 more states. I then argued that what we required now was not geographical restructuring but good governance, honest management of public resources, deeper fiscal federalism, and a clear vision for development.” (Italic is for emphasis)
Pray, how does Osinbajo’s argument for “good governance, honest management of public resources, deeper fiscal federalism, and a clear vision for development” amount to what Osuntokun calls “kangaroo debate deception” and the “antics of those who make a habit of looking for what is not lost”?
Yes, the Nigerian federation will be better with devolution of powers and strengthening the federating units to perform their constitutional functions. Beyond doubt, a number of items now on the exclusive list should not be there for the purpose of a workable federation. For instance, a state government should construct roads within a state while only inter-state highways should be the business of the federal government. The corollary to this would be the generation and distribution of resources.
Now, there is hardly any notable opposition to that position in Nigeria today.
Why then has restructuring not been achieved after years of agitation for the necessary constitutional exercise? Some prominent advocates of restructuring seem not draw some lessons from the history of the agitation. The most elementary lesson is that federalism is squarely a matter of negotiation; that is the negotiation between the centres on the one hand and the federating units on the other as well as the negotiation among the federating units themselves. You don’t negotiate with insults.
In almost 30 years, the agitation has mutated as the National Question, resource control, the restructuring of the federation, state creation, zonal arrangement and other forms. Practically, all the administrations in this period have addressed the issues of federalism in one way or the other. Yet, the solution is yet to be found. But let no one argue as if restructuring is a freshly discovered political formula.
In the 1980s, a group of nationalists including former federal permanent secretary, Chief Phillip Asiodu, advocated the convocation of a national conference. In fact, since after the tragic civil war (in which issues of the Nigerian federalism were at the fore), the first categorical attempt to hold a national conference at the National Theatre in Lagos was in August 1990. Radical lawyer, Alao Aka-Bashorun, was a leading light of the movement. This was four months after the abortive coup against the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida. Prominent among the participants of the coup were officers whose origins could be traced to the northern and southern minority ethnic groups. In fact, in the coup statement Major Gideon Orkar announced that some northern states were “excised” from the country. This was the background to the stoppage of the conference by the Babangida regime.
The atmosphere of the Nigerian federalism was further poisoned by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, which was to conclude the transition programme of the Babangida regime, which included the making of the 1989 Constitution debated by a constitutional conference. Issues of federalism, of course, were thrown up in the struggle for the de-annulment of the election and consequential inauguration of the winner, Bashorun MKO Abiola, as president. So the battle cry became Sovereign National Conference.
The military regime of General Sanni Abacha convened the 1994/95 conference. It was in that conference that former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, proposed the six-zonal structure, which even though not enshrined in the constitution, is now employed frequently by governmental and non-governmental organisations in viewing the Nigerian polity, economy and society.
The 2005 political conference convened by President Olusegun Obasanjo attracted the first elevens from all the zones of the country. The debate on the report of the conference in the national assembly was contaminated by a most unpopular proposition to insert a third term for the president.
Eminent and patriotic Nigerians also converged on Abuja for a serious business at the 2014 conference as the detailed report has shown. It is remarkable that President Goodluck Jonathan who convened the political conference could have put some of the recommendations into effect without legislations. He did not. The restructuring advocates who now sound understandably impatient have been silent on why Jonathan failed to act on the report which the ladies and gentlemen toiled for months to produce in Abuja.
The challenge now before the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is to come up with its own coherent response to the emergent issues of the Nigerian federalism guided the manifesto of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
That is the only way the Buhari administration can explode the myth of “true federalism.” Such a federalism does not exist anywhere as every federation continues perfect its operation constitutionally. The Nigerian federalism will have to evolve based on its own peculiarities. This is without prejudice to positive borrowing of things that work elsewhere. If you restructure the federation today, it does not mean that a ‘true federalism” has been achieved.
Besides, a federation is a living structure. So every generation will have to confront its own issues of federalism. Definitely, with federalism as the topic the tone and tenor of the debate between Osinbajo and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)’s presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, in 2018 could not be identical with the one among Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello in 1951.
The fixation with “true federalism” has, perhaps, unwittingly prevented some political forces not to see the valid point Osinbajo is making about poverty reduction and good governance. Take just a sample. Is it the absence of restructuring that explains the horrible state of primary schools in Ibadan, poor enrolment for basic education in Gusau or the heaps of refuse in Aba? Even within the present distorted federalism states ought to ensure the running of primary schools for basic education. Billions of naira to boost primary education is yet to be accessed in the Central Bank because some states have failed to provide the counterpart funding to access the resources. Ecological funds are made available to states; but the resources are diverted by some of them. Now, Osinbajo is right to attribute this to bad governance and not the distortion of federalism. Good governance will not be achieved by restructuring alone without a corresponding change in political orientation.
Contrary to Osuntokun’s misappropriation of Awolowo, Osinbajo appears more consistent with the Awolowo’s school of politics. Debaters on Nigerian federalism are wont to invoke Awolowo. In 1947, Awolowo wrote the Path to Nigerian Freedom. The most famous quote from the book is this: “Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are “English” or “Welsh” or “French”. The word Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.”
Years later, Awolowo also wrote the People’s Republic and the Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic. The two publications are socio-democratic character, embodying the vision, strategy and policies to develop the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Awolowo was not talking about how only the southwest would be transformed. That is why in 1978, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), which he led, was not only concerned about the faults of the Nigerian federalism. Awolowo was also eminently preoccupied with the development of every part of the federation. The UPN came up with workable policies to ensure education and healthcare of all Nigerians wherever might be their loci in the federal spectrum. Awolowo was also canvassing full employment and rural development for the whole federation.
By focussing on development issues Osinbajo in treading the same path of progress as Awolowo. In other words, the agitation to restructure the federation should be matched with the struggle to end mass poverty plaguing the land.
Osuntokun’s question cannot be rhetorical. There is, of course, geographical restructuring. An example is contained in the communiqué released the other day after the Yoruba summit in Ibadan. Among other things, the summit of a segment of the Yoruba elite suggested the creation of a regional parliament in addition to the national and state assemblies. Such a parliament in the southwest to be based in Ibadan would legislate for the people of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti states. Doubtless, geography underpins such a proposition. Otherwise you would propose a regional arrangement that would group Ekiti with Rivers or Lagos with Kebbi. Now, Osuntokun is the Bashorun (the generalissimo) of Okemesi in Ekiti State. Who tells him that the Okemesi man wants his affairs to be managed at an intermediate level from Ibadan? This is apart from the waste of resources obvious in that proposition. The Ekiti people did not want their affairs to be managed from Akure. Abacha created a state for them and despite the odious things about Abacha; he was a hero in Ekiti land. That is one limitation of geographical restructuring.
For clarity, there should be restructuring, but the argument of those who say making poverty history is as urgent (if not more urgent) as making the Nigerian federalism workable should not be distorted. For the record, this reporter has consistently made the point on this page that the primary problems in Nigeria are those of poverty and social inequality. The problem of Nigeria is not only with the structure of the federation; it is even more fundamentally with the socio-economic make-up of the country. Even when you achieve the vertical restructuring of the federation, the condition of the poor man in Chibok or Odi would not automatically improve without the horizontal restructuring which only poverty eradication can bring about in the society. This is the point to contradict by those who think differently.