I must confess that I have been following with keen interest the raging national debate on the issue of restructuring the Nigerian federation. For those who are conversant with the political history of this country, the on-going discourse is nothing new or novel.
All the constitutional conferences that were held in London and Ibadan in the 1950s in the run-up to independence in 1960 were meant to work out an acceptable political structure for the emergent nation. At the end of it all, the nationalist leaders including Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo settled for a federal system of government.
It is not by sheer happenstance that these leaders agreed on a federal structure for the country. In the light of reason and experience arising from successful experiments elsewhere like the United States, Canada, India, Switzerland, Malaysia, Brazil etc. it was agreed that federalism was best suited for a diverse, heterogeneous, disaggregated and complex society like Nigeria.
The federalist principle was adopted by our founding fathers not because it was a perfect model of governance. Rather, the choice was dictated by the need to promote unity in diversity. It is a system of governance that permits a plural society to forge a nation from its diversity without stifling or muzzling the interests of the co-habiting groups in the federation. Under this model, the federating units have the powers to chart their independent paths of development, moving at their own pace while subscribing to a common central authority.
The system encourages healthy rivalries and competitive development amongst the component units of the federation. This was evident in the First Republic when the Northern, Western and Eastern Regions engaged each other in a healthy competition for infrastructural provisions.
Federalism as it is known in the classical political science parlance is the system of governance that ensures that power is shared among the component units of a federation in a manner that guarantees the units autonomy to pursue their political, economic and social aspirations at their own pace. Under this arrangement, it is the federating units that sustain the center from the resources generated from within their territories.
The agreed fiscal contributions to the centre are mainly to maintain common services like national defence and security, foreign affairs, immigration, customs, census, citizenship, currency etc. which are under the exclusive control of the central government.
A former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and respected historian, Professor Tekena Tamuno, in his work, Nigerian Federalism in Historical Perspective, defined federalism as “that form of government where the component units of a political organization participate in sharing powers and functions in a cooperative manner though the combined forces of ethnic pluralism and cultural diversity, among others, tend to pull their people apart”.
The incursion of the military into the political arena in 1966 and their subsequent prolonged domination of power led to a huge distortion of the federal structure that was delicately woven by the nationalist leaders. The command and control system of the military which they transposed to the political arena effectively ensured the stifling of the federating units; to the effect that they were turned into almost vassal states and conquered territories.
The resources belonging to the Regions were forcefully hijacked by the military with scant regard to the feelings of the people in whose domains these resources reside. Within this period, States and Local Government Areas (LGAs) were arbitrarily created with more in the North than in the South, thereby creating and deepening the structural imbalance in the federation.
The Regions which were supposed to hold the balance in the federation became politically and fiscally emasculated to the extent that they were no more than mere appendages of the centre with no powers and control whatsoever over their God-given resources. This has led to a situation where the federating units go to Abuja every month end with a begging bowl to collect financial allocation. Nigeria appears to be the only known federation in the whole universe where this kind of strange fiscal arrangement takes place.
This situation is further compounded by the fact that the Federal Government overloads itself with too many responsibilities as evident in the items contained in the Exclusive Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The list contains 68 items, many of which have no business being under the control of the centre. For instance, we have the following items like labour relations, drugs, mineral resources, insurance, meteorology, railways, stamp duties, museums and monuments, marriages, weights and measures etc. in the Exclusive Legislative List.
It is such tinkering by the military that has turned Nigeria into a unitary system in reality. These actions, however, never went unchallenged. Strong criticisms and pressures have always been mounted by some sections of the populace who saw in all the actions of the military a wilful subversion of the visions of the founding fathers of the Nigerian federation. In response to these pressures, some half-hearted attempts were made by the military through the engineering of constituent assemblies and constitutional conferences which did little or nothing to return Nigeria to the path of true federalism.
With the return to civil democratic rule in 1999, there were heightened expectations among the populace that things might get better. But this was a misplaced optimism as nothing has changed from the lopsided and inequitable federal structure inherited from the military. The ensuing crisis of expectations has resulted into social frustrations, mounting agitations and complaints of ethnic marginalization.
It is against this background that the current national clamour for restructuring and separatist campaigns can be understood and greatly appreciated. Such agitations are not out of place in a federal arrangement like ours. And as Kunle Amuwo and Georges Herault noted in their work, Federalism and Political Restructuring in Nigeria, “political restructuring is intended to lay an institutional foundation for a more just and a more equitable sharing of the political space by multi-national groups cohabiting in a federal polity”.
Since the renewed national conversation on the restructuring of the polity commenced a few months ago, a lot of people, groups and civil society organizations have continued to make their interventions. The views being canvassed on the matter are as divergent as they can be depending on where the propagators stand on the nation`s geo-political prism.
One thing that is clear, however, is the existence of near unanimous national consensus on the need for the restructuring of the federation to ensure political balance and fiscal equity.
As at the last count, four of the geo-political zones in Nigeria, namely South East, South West, South South and Middle Belt have affirmed support for restructuring. The streaks of opposition so far are coming from some elements and groups in the North West and North East. This is understandable!
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that someone like Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State is leading the opposition to restructuring, and labeling the protagonists as opportunistic and irresponsible. With such uncharitable and unguarded outbursts from the diminutive governor, I think he deserves nothing but pity.
The truth of the matter is that the Nigerian federation as presently structured is not working. What is in place is the over centralization of governance and abdication of government in its responsibilities to the people. A phenomenon which Professor Sam Oyovbaire described as the “retrenchment of the Nigerian State”.
To avoid any impending implosion, deliberate efforts must be taken now to work out amongst the various nationalities in Nigeria an acceptable federal structure that will guarantee greater fiscal freedom and regional autonomy to the federating units. Such divisive policies like quota system, federal character and indigene-settler dichotomy which for years have blighted our federal practice should be discarded in favour meritocracy.
Going forward, it behoves on the Buhari administration to set up a Commission of Eminent Persons including constitutional and legal experts and other professionals drawn from the six geo-political zones of the country to study the reports and recommendations of previous constitutional conferences with a view to coming up with a new draft constitution for the consideration of an elected Peoples Assembly, equipped with constituent powers.
The reports to be considered should include but not limited to the Willinks Commission on the Fears of the Minorities of 1957, Aburi conference of 1967, Abacha`s 1994/95 National Conference, Clement David Ebri Constitutional Reports of 2002, Obasanjo`s Political Reform Conference of 2005 and the 2014 National Confab of President Jonathan. These reports contain far-reaching recommendations that can give us a balanced and equitable federation.
The work of the Commission is to synthesize these reports and work out a draft constitution which will be considered and approved by a Constituent Assembly and finally subjected to a national referendum. It is believed that if these measures are taken, the ghost of restructuring and episodic eruptions of separatist agitations would be finally laid to rest.
The time to act is now.
Nwosu is former Political Editor of the Daily Times