Federalism: Power Opportunism as Obstacle

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DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA BY AKIN OSUNTOKUN 

The revolutionaries of today are the reactionaries of tomorrow!-proclaims the founder and unifier of China, Mao Tse Tung, and the inversion is true as well-the reactionaries of today may equally end up the revolutionaries of tomorrow-especially with respect to the last memorable outing of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

Among the more remarkable insights he dispensed at the book launching ceremony is the following, “I have for a long time advocated the need to restructure our federation. Our current structure and the practices it has encouraged have been a major impediment to the economic and political development of our country. In short it has not served Nigeria well, and at the risk of reproach it has not served my part of the country, the North, well”.

To the effect that he has published one or two commentaries on the restructuring of Nigeria as a desirable agenda, (in recent memory), he is right to stake a claim as a proponent of federalism. Yet it has to be recalled that the former Vice President has an abiding ambition, bordering on obsession, to become the President of Nigeria and that his habit of platform shopping from one political party to another does not portray him as strong on principles. But I’m anxious not to be perceived as antagonising Abubakar not the least on a position that squares entirely with my personal political conviction.

Indeed, within the boundaries of decency and permissible latitude, the most honest and consistent politician is entitled to flexibility and a minimal liability of opportunism. In politics, it is oftentimes the case for a desirable end to justify the means and to be self-justificatory. The practical purpose of politics is the attainment of power argues the most utilitarian politician Nigeria ever produced, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. This foremost promoter of federalism and first Premier of the defunct Western region was the first to exemplify the observation that nothing seems to have impoverished the campaign for a dutiful return to federalism than the proclivity of its principal protagonists to subordinate this mission to the allure of individual political opportunities and advantage.

The paramount political ambition of Awolowo was to govern Nigeria, in the pursuit of which ambition he got ensnared in a controversy that ultimately landed him in prison in 1962.

The silver lining at the end of this dark tunnel was the martyrdom dimensions of his imprisonment; the larger than life role he played in fighting against the disintegration of Nigeria (upon his release from prison in 1966); and a rampart on which the post-civil war stability of the nation was constructed. Providentially it was a role that was rife with the potential of taking him a notch further towards the realisation of his aspiration to become the President of Nigeria. In the culmination of circumstances, it was a road that ended up in the stone wall of a cul-de-sac.

More importantly it was also a journey that distracted and blindsided him to the prospects of the reconstruction of federalism in Nigeria. Going forward from the end of the civil war in 1970, the watered down version of the Aburi Accord that was acceptable to General Yakubu Gowon could have formed the basis of renegotiating the constitutional structure of Nigeria rather than cede initiative to the status quo ante of the unitary culture orientation of military rule. Just as his role was critical in shaping the outcome of the civil war; (with the Yoruba behind him), Awolowo could have proven decisive in reinventing a more balanced and effective federalism and defy the predilection of military dictatorship to abbreviate same. In the end, he made the poor choice of subordinating any thoughts in this direction to his ultimately futile ambition of ruling Nigeria.

This precedence subsequently re-echoed in the military disengagement programme of 1998/99. The internal argument within the Yoruba political establishment (as it crystallised in the Alliance for Democracy, AD) unfolded between two camps. One was to insist on the restructuring of Nigeria as condition precedent to participation in the general elections and the other was to accept the invitation to seek power without any condition. To the detriment of seizing the day to pose restructuring as of overriding imperative, the latter option prevailed. But as fate would have it, the main beneficiary of the compensatory concession of the Presidency to the Yoruba was a personality (former President Olusegun Obasanjo) whose career and disposition conditioned him to an antithetical and dismissive attitude towards a meaningful rehabilitation of Nigerian federalism.

Cast into the role of opposition, the dominant AD faction of the Yoruba political oligarchy reverted to the pre-1999 mode of championing the restructuring of Nigeria into the mould of authentic federalism. It is in the career of this faction that it became clarified-that fighting the cause of federalism is limited to the role of opposition-to be relegated to the back burner once the opposition becomes the government. I only needed to read the body language of its leading lights, (including, pointedly, those who had hitherto made a virtue of the guardian angel role of federalism in their prior career) to realise that power and the appropriation of the spoils of war have crowded federalism out of their minds.

Incidentally the number one priority of APC as stated in their manifesto is “initiate action to amend our Constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit”; yet no public figure of high standing has been more dismissive of federalism as President Mohammadu Buhari. The supreme irony here is that as Presidential candidate of the APC, it was him who led the campaign and the marketing of his Party’s manifesto in which the restructuring agenda topped their priority list. In the realm of public morality and accountability, what this behaviour portends is that the President spearheaded a campaign of deceit, manipulation and opportunism- in which our leaders say one thing and do another. Arrayed against his vaunted reputation for honesty and straight talk, this deliberate omission in conduct and practise is a tragic and conspicuous flaw.

Similarly, we would not know whether the intellectual activism, mostly in aid of federalism, of Professor Itse Sagay, was the virtue that recommended him for the task of leading the nation in fashioning a comprehensive and effective response to the challenge of corruption in Nigeria. What we do know is that prior to his appointment as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Panel, he was out, front and centre, in formulating the prescription of federalism as antidote to the ills plaguing Nigeria especially corruption. A relentless pundit on federalism, he reasoned that:

“We have clearly seen that the future of this country lies in only one direction – true federalism, together with fiscal federalism and resource control by the owners of the resources. Until these structural imbalances of representation are corrected or a new basis is created for representation and other unfair but in pro-Northern factors redressed, Nigerian nations cannot enjoy a harmonious relationship with each other. He went on to quote Wole Soyinka with relish “As Soyinka has accurately observed: “Centralisation, in short, has been the bane of the nation – on any level you choose – and nothing will answer the necessity of a harmonious relationship and development of its parts other than a severe curtailment of the control of the Centre over the functioning of its parts.

It is possible that in the tradition of the no go areas, their (the advisory panel) terms of reference tragically forbids any critical observation on Nigeria’s constitutional structure. It is equally plausible that the Panel has adopted a short, medium and long term perspective in grappling with its mission but since his appointment the respected Professor of Law is not known to have made any mention of addressing the anti-corruption challenge from the standpoint of his policy prescription of federalism.

The contemporary utility of federalism for Nigeria cannot be better than the editorial by the Punch newspaper “A fresh crusade to restructure Nigeria based on the 2014 National Conference is gaining momentum. However, the President is not yet persuaded, going by his dismissal of the report during the first anniversary of his government. The advocacy of these groups is noble, and the President should not shut out the implementation of the report”.

“Sadly, Nigeria has missed several opportunities to reform its fatally flawed federalism after the Civil War (1967 to 1970). One such opportunity was offered by the June 12, 1993 presidential election annulment crisis. Yet, 23 years after, several nationalities in the country still feel aggrieved because of the way they are being unjustly treated. Take the case of Fulani herdsmen, who are destroying farms and killing people with impunity in the North-Central and Southern states. This year alone, they have massacred hundreds in Agatu, Benue State; Ukpabi-Nimbo, Enugu State; Oke-Ako, Ekiti State; and Oke Ogun, Oyo State without any penalty. The Niger Delta, which produces oil, Nigeria’s major revenue earner, is environmentally degraded”.

“But, to Buhari, the conference, convoked by the Goodluck Jonathan Presidency to discuss Nigeria’s skewed federalism, was “nothing more than a waste of N9 billion”…. Although it is not a perfect document, there are over 600 suggestions there to pore over and choose the ones to implement. In reality, the socio-political problems assailing the country should convince Buhari to reconsider his position. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nigeria needs not descend into internecine war like the former Yugoslavia, Sudan and Somalia, which disintegrated violently”.

“In spite of 55 years of independence marked by huge oil revenues, Nigeria is still not a nation. The reason is obvious: our twisted political system, which has entrenched mediocrity over merit, “federal character” over efficiency, ethnicity over patriotism, and religion over hard work….The truth is, Nigeria’s political structure is collapsing. The agitations in different parts of the country are a sign that there is a need to quickly tackle the issues at stake. Before the opportunity fades away, and jeopardises the chance to re-work Nigeria into a true, united and economically viable nation, Buhari should act on the report, now”.