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Without reform, Nigeria may be headed for a break-up

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AS violence, state capture and separatist agitation threaten to spiral out of control, influential voices are warning afresh that unless immediate steps are taken, Nigeria could break up with unforeseen consequences. In a perceptive analysis of the precarious state of the union and its unravelling, a pressure group, Voice of Reason, deplored the descent into state failure, while in his latest intervention to the national discourse, a Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, declared that unless power is urgently decentralised, Nigeria had no chance of remaining a single entity. Today, the future of the union is so uncertain.
In an advertorial, VOR, a group of concerned professionals, recalled the commitment of Nigeria’s founding fathers to federalism, where the self-governing federating units managed the country’s diversities in an inclusive, self-reliant federation. Indeed, Nigeria’s amalgamated units prospered mightily before the 1966 military intervention. In the run-up to independence in 1960 and up till 1966, the three (later four) regions delivered rapid development in all spheres such as sub-Saharan Africa’s first free primary schooling scheme in the West, the fastest roll-out of road networks in the East and effective exploitation of agriculture in the North.
But centralising forces have since created a monstrous unitary contraption, facilitating, as the VOR argues, “the surreptitious, premeditated and relentless pursuit of dominance over all other Nigerians by a small group of oligarchs.”
A natural federation of over 250 major ethnic groups and sharp diversities in cultures is run like a mono-cultural, single ethnic polity. The military-imposed 1999 Constitution perversely has 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List and only 30 on the Concurrent Legislative List. Thus stripped of resource autonomy, the 36 states are beggarly appendages of an all-powerful central government, relying on funding allocations from federally collected revenue for survival. It cannot work.
Disastrous outcomes have followed. Politically, national cohesion has broken down while economic growth has been crippled. The concentration of power in the centre allows a tiny elite to acquire overwhelming advantages to advance narrow, sectional, sectarian, and private interests. This has grown into insufferable impunity.
Now, centrifugal forces, once restrained, have broken out in fearsome force; alienated ethnic nationalities, angered by prevailing pervasive injustice and marginalisation, are campaigning for self-determination. The state is fast losing its legitimacy and its monopoly of the means of coercion.
Though the incumbent regime led by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), inherited the quagmire, he has worsened it. Buhari exacerbates the divisions, mismanages the diversity, and stands resolutely against reforming the crumbling edifice into a sustainable polity. Epitomising the elevation of mediocrity over merit, marginalisation and ‘state capture,’ the Buhari regime has, by its skewed appointments, blatant exclusion, religious extremism, and selective law enforcement, reawakened other ethnic nationalities into questioning the continued relevance of the union.
On Buhari’s watch, sectionalism and religion override rational decision-making, and national consensus, even in the face of existential threats, can no longer be achieved.
Insecurity is unprecedented. In Buhari’s Nigeria, safety has taken flight. Boko Haram/ISWAP Islamic insurgents in the North-East and heavily armed bandits in the North-West, control ungoverned territories, forcing a weakened state to negotiate with criminals. An insurrection is taking shape in the South-East, and leaders and militants in the South-South region have given notice of possible resumption of an insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta as new laws entrenching federal appropriation of resources extracted in the regions are being enacted by the centre.
The central law enforcement system has broken down beyond repair. Denied policing powers by the constitution, the states are at the mercy of criminals, unable to design and fund security systems suitable to their peculiarities. Worse still, the Nigeria Police Force is not only understaffed, under-funded and under-equipped, it is also highly politicised and sectional. About 70 per cent of its 371,800 sworn officers, including the best trained, are attached to VIPs, from the President down to some top transport union officials; many areas in the country remain ungoverned. The Abuja-based Beacon Consulting said 1,031 persons were killed across the country in June and 390 were abducted. Boko Haram/ISWAP, Fulani herdsmen/killers and bandits are reckoned among the world’s five deadliest terror groups.
Economically, the country has retarded. Nothing works again. While the centre is stuck in a medieval economic model, the states are uncompetitive, unable to act as drivers of economic production, investment, and job creation. Altogether, both levels of government continue to deliver monumental poverty, unemployment, and insecurity as “dividends of democracy” to a docile society.
State collapse, therefore, becomes inevitable. Nigeria was ranked 12th most fragile out of 179 countries in the Fragile States Index 2021. Displacing India, the country has since 2018 retained the disgraceful title of World Poverty Capital with over 90 million persons living in extreme poverty. Some 13.2 million children lack schooling, the world’s highest, and the Norwegian Refugee Council lists Nigeria as having the world’s seventh-highest number of IDPs.
The country is clearly at a tipping point. Militant separatists and once moderate voices are aggressively bent on self-determination. A mood is running across great swaths of the country for minorities to assert their identities, to claim perceived rights. As Soyinka said, the signs are visible; “unless the government is decentralised, Nigeria cannot continue to survive as a single country.” The VOR adds that since the military-imposed constitution had subordinated the rights and aspirations of most sections of the polity, there is no alternative to restructuring and self-government by the ethnic nationalities and regions.
They are right. Sitting on the fence is no longer feasible; indeed, it is dangerous. And the Buhari regime’s strong-arm tactics is like postponing the evil day. It appears that there is still a broad window for talks as many patriotic voices have advised. Abubakar Umar, a former military governor of old Kaduna State, noting the futility of the government’s ferocious assault on self-determination activists, declared that “justice, fairness and equity are the best means of building a united and virile nation, particularly one as diverse and fragile as Nigeria.” But those opposing peaceful resolution of the national crisis through unfettered negotiation are making separation inevitable. It is a matter of survival; alienated, and with the state unable or unwilling to protect them from terrorists and criminals, recourse to the exit door is natural.
What is next? The starting point is for all stakeholders to admit that Nigerians are not all the same. The various ethnic nationality groups have their history, institutions, cultures, languages, interests, cleavages, and worldviews. Some look eastward, others westward; some are secular, others put religious considerations above all else. This diversity cannot be accommodated in a centralised system. It requires a substantial devolution of power to the constituent units.
There should be no let-up in the drive for restructuring to save the lives, property, and destiny of all 206 million Nigerians. A truly federal polity is a win-win for everyone as it has been for the 24 other federal countries in the world listed by the Forum of Federations, which include some of the largest and most sophisticated democracies, among them, the USA, Brazil, India, Germany, and Mexico.
Even separation is never a taboo in the resolution of national crises. Every nation has the right to choose an independent future. We have consistently and fervently argued that the only viable way out of an imminent disintegration is the fashioning of a political structure that will push more powers out and down from the centre to the constituent units. Singapore was a backwater until it separated from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Between 1991 and 1995, two multinational states fell apart: Yugoslavia broke up in a civil war that killed 150,000, while Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully following referendums in both of its constituent parts. The Czech Republic, detached from old Czechoslovakia in 1993, has become a high-income economy, boasts the lowest poverty rate in the European Union and is ranked the 11th safest and most peaceful country on the Global Peace Index; Nigeria is ranked 146th out of 163.
The fanciful belief that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable should give way to an empirical reality that no country on earth is sacrosanct. Nigeria is one of the many post-imperial constructions that emerged from the ashes of British colonial rule. Today, even the same United Kingdom’s four-nation union faces a breakup. Financial Times argues that for a variety of reasons, the break-up of the UK is now a possibility.
Unless Nigeria can find a meeting point to regain the loyalty and trust of self-determination movements, a breakup, either peacefully or forcefully, will be hard to stop. Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.
Source: PunchNG

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