Nigeria is Africa’s largest country and its size comes with huge management issues that have plagued its people since the country was formed in 1914. Several of Nigeria’s leaders have experimented with different administrative strategies over the past century. Now, there’s a growing call to restructure the country again to fit its current realities. What lessons can be drawn from the past?
With the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all modern African states are vestiges of the continent’s European colonisation in the twentieth century. The British dominion of Nigeria started with indirect rule ― a system in which traditional power brokers derived their authority from the representative of the Crown. At independence in 1914, Nigeria’s newly minted politicians adopted London’s parliamentary system, but military rule soon interrupted the first republic. Upon restoring democratic rule in 1979, the unsuitability of the parliamentary system led for a call to switch to America’s version of sovereignty: the presidential system.
For a country with hundreds of tribes and tongues, this new model seemed the perfect solution until the military intervened once again in 1983, led by Muhammadu Buhari, a military general who was returned to power in 2015 as a democratically-elected head of state. One of the most vocal critics of Buhari’s policies is Ayo Sogunro, a human rights lawyer and the author of the book, ‘Everything in Nigeria Is Going to Kill You.’ He is the first to speak to fairplanet on the 57th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence as part of a three-part series.
fairplanet: Are national gatherings such as constitutional conferences the only way to forge a common purpose for Nigeria? Why do you think the previous gatherings have not been able to address Nigeria’s national question? And why did they not meet the expectations of Nigerians?
Ayo Sogunro: The only way to forge ‘a common purpose’ for any nation is through dialogue by the individuals who will become citizens of that nation. This ‘dialogue’ may take the shape of referendums or conferences. Any other ‘common purpose’ outside such dialogue is contradictory: it cannot be ‘common’ if an external authority or internal autocracy imposes it on the rest of the population. The previous so-called constitutional conferences Nigeria has conducted, particularly under the Obasanjo and Jonathan administrations failed for this very reason: they were imposed by the executive government, not just in terms of the process, but also in respect of the substantive issues to be discussed. When one man decides what can be discussed and what cannot at a supposed ‘constitutional conference’, then such a conference no longer serves a ‘common purpose’, instead, such a conference simply serves that man’s purpose. A ‘constitutional’ conference forms the basis for ‘constituting’ the nation: where that conference does not involve the people as much as possible, then it merely becomes political drama. Citizens may follow the drama, but they are distant from its substance. The decisions of such a conference will remain as alien to the people as though it had been conducted in a foreign country.
Resource control, particularly crude oil revenues is central to the restructuring debate, but some parts of the country stand to benefit more from such a reality than others. How do you suppose a poor state like Kebbi would survive without federal subventions?
The first essential question is: Why do poor states exist in Nigeria? Poor states exist in the country either because they are merely artificial entities with no organic support except their federal allocations or because they have been deprived of the opportunity or motivation to rely on their organic communal resources. In the first case, such a state should cease existing: a federating unit in future Nigeria has to reflect a natural community of people with a sustainable way of life, involving local means of communal sustenance, and not just artificial boundaries arbitrarily drawn by military officers. In the second case, resource control ought to motivate the state to fix its poverty. The second essential appropriate question is: Does a wealth of resources prevent poverty? Considering that Nigeria is objectively wealthier in resources than the Republic of Benin or Ghana, the political systems of these other countries guarantee a better standard of living for the citizens, at least, in terms of public infrastructure and utilities. Poverty in the federating units of the future will not be removed simply because resources are available to the community; that is merely a first step. Instead, the standard of living will be dependent on the internal ordering of the political system. This will involve: the extent to which socio-economic rights are protected by law, how policy decisions are made and implemented, how accountability is guaranteed under law, and the extent to which direct democracy is permitted among other relevant issues.
What are your thoughts on the security apparatus called the Nigeria Police? Are we ready for local/state policing? What risks and opportunities are likely to emerge if we take control away from the federal government?
The Nigerian police originated as a tool of the Royal Niger Company (later, the British colonial government) to repress hostile ‘natives’ from being too restless against the European settlers. Although the actors have changed and the colonial government is now the Federal Government of Nigeria, the philosophy behind the creation of the police is yet to change. If anything, the army (ordinarily useful as defense against external aggression) has been degraded to take on this policing role. The fundamental problem is, therefore, the autocratic philosophy behind the police command, the understanding that the police is a tool of government rather than a public service. This mentality was in place during colonial and military settings, but it is antithetical to a democracy. Merely reproducing a police system with this same ideology into 36 states will only create more foundations of oppression, not freedom. Instead, what needs to change is both the philosophy and the centralisation of the police. The federal police has to be drawn from the best and most intelligent citizens across the country, it should be independent of direct presidential authority with only legislative and judicial oversight. On the other hand, there should be community (not ‘state’) police units drawn from proven residents of their communities and supported by community resources, answering to: the (restructured) local government, and community assemblies under a form of direct democracy.
People have mentioned in the past that there’s a problem with our 36-state sub-national structure, favouring a return to the regional system that was in use in the 60s. Do you think this might work today? What other alternatives are politically viable?
The 36 states are arbitrarily designed branches of the federal government. They were created for political expediency. A sort of internal partition of Africa. For example, nobody is from ‘Ogun State’ because no such entity exists in organic reality. What is called Ogun State today can be carved by the government and renamed as ‘Yemoja State.’ Instead, people are from Abeokuta or Ota ― which are organic entities with their own identity, a history, culture, people, and maybe even genetics. So, no, a restructured Nigeria cannot continue to rely on 36 imaginary federating units. What I have previously suggested is the development of self-governing units around the notion of ‘Townships’, real, organic towns and their surrounding villages governed under both direct and indirect democracy. As such:
‘Townships can be micro-managed through districts. Each Township would be responsible for its utilities and infrastructure — electricity, fuel, health care, education, roads, and internal security — whether generated or contracted. There would be a loose regional government of some hundred Townships, and a limited federal government of regional representatives. These regional and federal governments would legislate on strictly national affairs, particularly federal courts, the federal bank, inter-Township transport, national borders, and international diplomacy.’ [Excerpt from THE MYTH OF CHANGE AND THE REALITY OF THE SYSTEM]
Advocates of civil liberties say that Abuja is too powerful and they say this against the backdrop of the almighty Presidency domiciled in the Aso Rock Villa. But what about the National Assembly?
The National Assembly is an aspect of our copy and paste attempt at American style-democracy. Yet, it has never really quite added any efficiency to our democratic system: it does not represent the people in any true sense of the word ‘represent’. It does not make laws to make governance more available to the ordinary masses or make life easier for Nigerians. Generally, the National Assembly is inaccessible to Nigerians in general and yet expensive to maintain. The current iteration of the National Assembly has become even more oppressive with its legislative power: it has denied a Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, attempted to pass a law to gag social media, passed constitutional amendments, including conferring immunity on its members, without consulting the citizens, and now seeks to gag civil society through a bill to regulate Non-Governmental Organisations.
Consider this NGO bill: although it has been set in motion by the National Assembly, it is essentially conferring more powers on the executive arm of the government, further enlarging the federal bureaucracy and giving more control to an entity that already has too much control and too little efficiency. Thus, the powers wielded by the federal government are a consequence of the actions (and inactions) of the National Assembly. A restructured Nigeria needs to consider other legislative possibilities, for example: a mostly decentralised legislature with the federal legislature having oversight over only the inherently ‘national’ issues, or a system where federal legislators are funded exclusively from their constituencies, rather than a central treasury.
If you were given the task of restructuring Nigeria how would you go about it?
a. We need a constitutional amendment to: (i) allow the electoral commission to conduct referendums when called upon by the President to do so, or when called on by a majority of the National Assembly or a percentage of the state Houses of Assembly; and (ii) allow the National Assembly to start a constitutional conference process following the results of a referendum to that effect.
(I suggest that this amendment should be introduced through an executive bill from the presidency to encourage public support and prevent accusations of ‘attempts to destabilize the polity, etc.’ that any other sponsoring group will generate.)
b. When called on to do so, the electoral commission holds a ‘Yes or No’ referendum on whether or not the National Assembly should trigger the constitutional conference process. This is the point where advocates of restructuring have to start campaigning nationwide on the benefits of a constitutional review.
c. If the Yes votes win, then the National Assembly should draw up a Transition Framework bill. (If the No votes win, then we have to respect the majority decision and, maybe, campaign harder next time.) The Transition Framework bill should outline a transition programme, constitutional conference selection process, transition timeframe, constitutional conference procedure and other terms of reference. The Transition Framework bill may either be submitted to the people through another referendum, or to state assemblies for adoption. (In view of the logistics, the second option may be preferred.)
d. If the Transition Framework bill is passed by into law, then: (i) a transition government is triggered under the transition program; and (ii) a constitutional conference takes place. The conference should not ‘sit’ in Abuja. It should, as much as possible, be a travelling conference. Taking submissions and holding public hearings across the country, from rural and urban areas, directly and through agents. We have voter registration and census systems that can be utilised for the work of the conference.
e. The conference collates the results of its consultations and deliberations and submits both a Report on its findings and an annotated Draft Constitution to the National Assembly for consideration.
f. The National Assembly ceremonially adopts the Report and transmits the Draft Constitution to the Chief Justice of Nigeria for judicial certification. The Transition Framework Act should cover these details: for example, selected constitutional law judges and experts should undertake certification. This certification is to ensure that the Draft Constitution complies with principles of international law, human rights, rule of law, and constitutional democracy. The judiciary should not revise the Draft Constitution, but only make notes on what aspects of it are problematic. Ideally, the judiciary’s position on the draft should be made publicly available in ‘user-friendly’ language.
g. The National Assembly works on the judiciary’s review, if necessary, and sends it back for a second certification. If the judiciary is satisfied, it issues a certification judgment on the Draft Constitution.
h. The certified Draft Constitution is presented to the voting population for a final referendum. This may involve Yes, Yes with conditions, or No votes. The effect of each outcome should be pre-determined in the Transition Framework Act.
Describe briefly why your work as a human rights lawyer matters for the development of civil society in Nigeria.
The successful modern society ― successful not just for the state, but also for the majority of the citizenry ― is built on a foundation of human rights. Human rights pervade every aspect of social ordering: from doing business to voting in elections, from getting adequate drinking water to walking on the street without fear of violence. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we still have a very low understanding of our rights as humans and as citizens, making it difficult for us to expect much from our fellow citizens and our government.
A major focus of my work is awakening the Nigerian public to a deeper understanding of governance and civics. This, in turn, is to help galvanise public discontent into civil society movements and, therefore, retake power from the political elite and return it to the society as a whole.