With the agitation around restructuring the federation taking on a renewed urgency in Nigeria today, this is possibly the best time to take on the issues and concerns involved more decisively. Full discussion of the subject matter affords the Buhari Administration the crucial opportunity to put to action its proclaimed mantra of enthroning a dispensation of ‘Change’, beyond its more recent tepid call for values orientation unfairly shifting the burden of change to the citizenry. This is without the concomitant commitment of government to more fundamental change, in terms of its structure and institutions, having more beneficial impact on citizens, particularly in a milieu of widespread disenchantment with governance and the national economy.
Through the years, almost, if not, all the regions, nationalities and groups comprising the state have felt the nature of the Nigerian union has not served them well enough by taking their welfare and need for progress into account, leading to attitudes of alienation from and rebellion against the Nigerian state. The ensuing feeling of marginalisation – which many have equally seen as evolving from the class character of the state – has ensured that calls for a renegotiated union have attained strident dimensions.
We believe the Buhari Administration will do well to give more than a cursory attention to these resurgent demands and agitations traversing the country, from the South-East to the South-South, the North-Central, South-West, etc., and by prominent personalities. The failure of the attempts represented in our numerous national constitutional reform processes, and the more recent abandonment of some of the more progressive features of the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, makes this call highly expedient. The government will need real will to rise up to assuaging crosscutting national discontent.
The peculiar volatility of the times, especially with an economy in free-fall and Nigerians bearing more hardship, has seen the resurgence of several groups championing narratives of exclusion from the commonwealth, and the economic and political processes of the state. Instances of these separatist calls have resulted in arms being taken up against the state, in the activities of groups in the South-East and South-South regions.
Characteristically, the Nigerian state has responded to these through police and military actions, the limits of which are clear in the many stalemates that have contributed to the rapid deceleration of the country’s economy through acts of sabotage to the gas and oil infrastructure.
We are convinced that these new conversations demand newer multi-level approaches, the most enduring of which would be a more purposeful and genuine return to the constitutional review table for the long haul.
The calls for the restructuring of Nigeria, up to and including the right of the contributing units to secession, is certainly not a new affair, with groups advocating permanent territorial separation – as done by Biafran agitators through a number of decades and more recently in the Niger Delta – and others simply clamouring for the renegotiation of the basis of our social compact as a country.
In the century since its creation, Nigeria has experienced one form of reconstitution or the other, from the 1938 restructuring of the South into the two regions of West and East, to the demands for a more representative federation beyond a tripartite configuration corresponding to the major nationalities, and the creation of 12 states by the Gowon administration in 1967 to quell the civil war. A further 19 state structure was created in 1976 by the Murtala administration; then 21 and 30 states in 1987 and 1991 by the Babangida regime; and a 36 state federation by General Abacha.
Historically, the fears of the domination of one group over the others, and concerns with managing our diversity and differences – essential aspects of which have been framed as the National Question in Nigeria – have resulted in agitations for restructuring. This had initially made politicians settle for a federal structure of government, but the successive state creation exercises of the military resolved into a ‘quasi-unitary Jacobin state’. The Federal Government became overly strengthened and centralised at the expense of the state and local tiers of government.
The increased pressure on the Nigerian state to restructure draws from the history of how the federal system inherited at independence had operated, with regions allowed the autonomy of raising and retaining their revenues – while paying taxes to the centre, developing at their own paces and engaging in healthy rivalries among themselves.
The erosion of this autonomy and the multiple poles of power by the unitarist instincts and systems of the military, perfected in decades of rule and numerous state creations, witnessed the evolution of tension among numerous groups. This came in tandem with the attendant contest among the groups for exclusive access to power and the resources of state, and took on ethno-regional and religious hues, exacerbated by the absence of mechanisms for peaceful negotiations and compromise making.
The agitations for a restructuring of the federation had made the Babangida regime carry out a decentralisation policy between 1987 and 1991, having the declared aim of increasing autonomy among groups, democratisation, improving the finances and strengthening the political and administrative capacities of local governments. From this, the number of local governments in the country was increased from 301 to 449 in 1989; to 589 in 1991; and 774 in 1996.
While decades of military rule have spawned imbalances that make government in Nigeria very top heavy, there have also been different levels of clawing at the structure, informing certain forms of restructuring in the country, with some occurring rather inversely. For instance, governors have been using the instrument of law to reduce the constitutional three-tier structure of government into two, wherein they can then appoint local council chairmen as and when it suits them, while also commanding the allocations of the councils from the federal purse. Equally, state governments now generally control physical planning, land use, the collection of hotel and hospitality taxes etc., in their domains, whilst engaging in the building and operating of airports, constructing railways and harnessing waterways, and funding the federal police, which were all exclusive functions of the Federal Government until recent.
We consider it pertinent for the Buhari Administration to rise up to the challenge of fulfilling its Change promise to Nigerians by embarking on a process of economic and political restructuring of the federation in the interest of the survival of Nigeria, and its people. There is no doubt that there have been persistent deficiencies and problems with the structure the Nigerian federation has taken since independence.
This is the time for a genuine constitutional reform process to reset the grundnorm of Nigeria’s social compact, in a way that fundamentally renegotiates the relationship between the different nationalities and groups, and determines their preferred structures of coexistence and governance.
Whatever arrangement is subscribed to will have to be one that transfers more power to the people. Certainly, this would necessitate some form of structural realignment and devolution of important powers from the federal to the other levels of government, freeing up the centre, and making it less attractive to the desperation of political capture. The restructuring of Nigeria needs to be one carried out for greater clarity in the powers and functions of the various levels and tiers of government, in a manner that effectively deals with the concerns of various people and groups.
As presently constituted, there is the need to reduce the size of government, serving as one of the greatest drag downs to Nigeria, with government and its structures taking up a greater chunk of yearly budgets which go into financing recurrent spend. While the central administration should hold on to powers including those of taxation, issuance of currency, defence and national security, etc., other levels, including states and local councils should be able to determine their own development needs, and be able to cater for issues pertaining to education, health, wage structure, power generation and distribution, security (police), etc.
The restructuring envisaged would be one that empowers people at different levels to develop according to their human and material resources and at their own pace. This will very likely unleash the energies and creativity of the people in giving expression to requirements for truer diversification of the national economy.
A newer and more holistic sense of restructuring, while mainstreaming issues of residency rights over indigeneity, should equally take up the welfare of Nigerians as the essential purpose of government, as presently enshrined in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, which should be made justiciable.