BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN
“I predict that every multi-lingual or multi-national country with a unitary constitution must either eventually have a federal constitution based on the principles which I have enunciated, or disintegrate, or be perennially afflicted with disharmony and instability” – Obafemi Awolowo
The fundamental political argument of Nigeria today boils down to the contention between the political leadership perspective and the constitutional structure perspective of governance. The latter will argue, for instance, that the presidency of Major General Muhammadu Buhari is more a symptom rather than the cause of Nigeria’s governance crisis and dysfunction; and the former takes the position that leadership, more than any other factor is the decisive prerequisite for a functional Nigerian governance. Inherent in this leadership perspective is the presumption that good or bad leadership is not random and that good leadership can be summoned whenever the need for such is acute -let the constitutional form be damned. After all there is the quotable insight of Alexander Pope that ‘let fools contend, what is best administered is best’. But because ‘what is best administered’ can be dangerously elusive, the uncertainty and potential waiting-in-vain can be mitigated by an anticipatory constitutional form and structure.
The view that governance success or failure is all about leadership becomes quite problematic given that democracy cannot and does not guarantee the election of good leadership. Further and with particular relevance to Nigeria, is the observation that ‘Democracy and democratic elections usually work better within populations that have shared traditional values and value the same national myths and legends…that when people share the same values, its easier for them to use democracy or democratic elections as a method to settle disagreements between themselves because they already agree on the basics.” Taken together, the need to edge leadership uncertainty with structural ramparts, is the theory behind the prioritisation of the constitutional structure over the role of leadership. It assumes the foolproof (worst case) scenario that there will be a prevalence of bad leadership necessitating a responsive instrument to mitigate the damage it can wreak. In young pseudo democracies like Nigeria the potential for good leadership is also compromised by the lack of sustained mechanism for political leadership production and recruitment.
The basis for the expectation and hope of utilitarian leadership is predicated on a regular and routinised institutional leadership succession and recruitment. It assumes the durability of civil democratic rule and the instrumentality of the political party system as the mechanism through which political leadership recruitment is effected. In the specific experience of post-independent Nigeria, this channel has been substantially fractured and disrupted by the protracted intervention of military rule and a consequent abrogation of party politics. Nonetheless, were all other things equal and civil democratic rule to be spared this disruption, it is still not a sufficient condition and guarantee for the preclusion of bad and dysfunctional leadership. The election of Donald Trump as American president is proof positive of this conclusion.
If the structural and institutional guardrails of federalism and the principle of separation of powers were not extant, it is a moot point what magnitude of damage the unrestrained leadership of Trump would have inflicted on America. Fareed Zachariah of the Cable News Network (CNN) has been proven right in the foresight he proffered in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that former American president Donald Trump constitutes a cancer on American democracy. Sadly he was proven wrong that Trump had no chance of winning the election. By near universal consensus, Trump is the antithesis of good leadership yet he was elected president and presently towers over any other republican leader in a potential race for the party’s presidential nominee in the 2024 election cycle. Trump had attained to this pedestal on account of a unique ability to cultivate and promote the human potential for hate, divisiveness and prejudice.
Increasingly, Buhari has proven himself to be a Nigerian version of Donald Trump. Within a few days of his state visit to Lagos, he embarked on a similar visit to Maiduguri and the two visits were a study in contrast. While Lagos has been relatively spared of the more pernicious impact of Buhari’s governance, Maiduguri is the worst manifestation of the Buhari misgovernance syndrome. Expectedly, he was received with cold indifference in Lagos while he, ostensibly, enjoyed a tumult welcome in Maiduguri. To dissuade me from writing off the attitude of the Boko Haram beleaguered city as a peculiar case of masochism, I was assured by those in a position to know that the aso ebi (ceremonial uniform clothing) decked Maiduguri multitude was a rent-a-crowd political stunt. Either way, it is an indication of the polarisation and divisiveness of Nigerians that the president has cultivated as article of faith. Haven made nonsense of the guardrail of federalism and institutional checks and balances, the consequences of this breach are clear enough in the sorry state of contemporary Nigeria. The paradox of the Buhari experimentation is that whilst he was projected to prove the messianic leadership perspective he ended up proving the contrary.
In the election and expectations of him, Nigeria failed to heed the admonition of former American president, Barack Obama, that what Africa needs is not the rule of strong men but the reign of strong institutions. What Obama was saying amounted to the prioritisation of constitutional form and structure over the leadership utility perspective. No one could have anticipated the magnitude of the Nigerian President’s failure but his disappointment underscores the salience of Obama’s wise counsel. In a series of revealing outbursts especially the television interview he granted the Arise TV, Buhari was in his (base reactionary and parochial) elements.
An expert at galvanising and promoting wedge issues (to consolidate his political base and poke the middle finger at the rest of us) he went to town on the rationalisation of his lopsided public appointments as merit determined. This mind bending posturing raises the question of how a government of meritocracy can become the embodiment of governance failure and incompetence. It is the penchant for this kind of willful distortion of reality that has done the most damage to the public perception of his government. Could Nigerians have, so soon, forgotten the history and logic behind the insertion of the federal character clause in the Nigerian constitution? Was it not motivated by the national integration imperative of accommodating the ‘merit disadvantaged’ North which would otherwise have resulted in poor representation of the region in a competitive federal bureaucracy and public service? Is it not confounding that this rationale can be blatantly stood on its head with the argument that the South is now the region in need of the affirmative principle.
A damaging hallmark of the Buhari dispensation is this proclivity for provoking unflattering comparison and division among segments of Nigerian population especially along the North/South divide-prompting the poser that why does this president persist in abdicating the responsibility of playing the adult in the room? Could it be a deliberate regime survival ploy of fomenting fractiousness and divisiveness to forestall an emergent national consensus on his failed stewardship? Today he is celebrating his Fulani ties with the Niger Republic and tomorrow becomes the turn of enraptured reminiscences on his Hausa/Kanuri maternal linage whilst the mere mention of Igbo instantly elicits a vituperative outburst. From the abundance of the heart does the mouth speaketh. A friend (Fulani, by the way) recalled an argument he lately had with a Buhari apologist where the latter rationalised Buhari’s clannishness as nothing more objectionable than following the precedent of former President Goodluck Jonathan. To highlight the failure of the president- even with the bar set so low, he asked, where is the correlate of Hassan Tukur or Nasir El Rufai (of Jonathan’s and Obasanjo’s presidency respectively) in Buhari’s presidency? Both Tukur and El Rufai constitute a pair of the most powerful insiders in the presidency they served under regardless of their different regional identity from that of their principals.
Hence the question, can Nigeria afford another president of Buhari’s description? If it cannot, is Nigeria in a position to prevent a recurrence? If it cannot, how then does the country insure itself against a similar lapse, going forward? This is the essential argument for a constitutional reform that limits the capacity of the central government to undermine governance delivery both nationally and at the local/ state/ regional level. To cement his legacy, the president then escalated his opposition to restructuring with an incendiary attack at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), “And again those who are discussing restructuring, my question is, what are you going to restructure? If you ask many Nigerians what they are going to restructure, you will find out that they have nothing to talk about.
“Some of them have not even studied the 1999 Constitution. The 1999 Constitution is almost 70 to 80 per cent 1979 Constitution… So those calling for whether separation or restructuring, some of them I will say they are very naive or even mischievously dangerous”. Understood as restoration of federalism (as enunciated in the 1960 Independence Constitution and 1963 counterpart), those Buhari slandered as dangerous and naive are in the good company of the founding fathers of Nigeria including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo and the colonial patriarch. Unlike most of their ill educated successors, they found reasoned commonality in the prescription of federalism as the optimal constitutional structure for Nigeria. Another irony of the Nigerian situation is that the most vantageously positioned president to move the restructuring agenda towards a consensus resolution is a president of Northern origin-to confront its demonisation as a southern imposition by unscrupulous demagogues.
This, of course, is an impossible expectation of the incumbent president who has made it clear he would rather war war than jaw jaw on the spiralling Nigerian crisis. I end today’s offering by quoting myself ‘In Nigeria, the constraint of federalism would potentially mitigate the damage and division a dangerously nepotic and parochial President can unleash. With decentralisation and devolution of powers, the need would hardly arise for the destructive mad ambition to capture power in Abuja. Restructuring would free up space and power for comprising regions to pursue their legitimate priorities without let or hindrance from the federal government. He would be denied the unaccountable powers and resources that enable him to contemplate building railways all the way to Maradi in Niger Republic with resources realised from the Niger Delta’.
The Hero of Maiduguri
BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN