Guest Golumnist: Mohammed Tukur Usman

Americans strive for a more perfect union; Nigerians strive to unbundle a federation some of them view with great disdain. Restructuring is the innocuous term used to describe this endeavour; the effectuation of which, in the form it is presented, will undoubtedly lead to the balkanization of the country. It has been the political talking point this last quarter-century, ever since the late Mr. Alao Aka-Bashorun sought the convocation of a sovereign national conference, in imitation of events taking place in neighbouring Francophone West African countries then seeking the dethronement of dictators.

The annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election provided the fertile ground for the idea to grow, uniting its promoters and the opposition to the late General Sani Abacha dictatorship. NADECO galvanised the opposition to Abacha, while PRONACO took the lead in the emerging campaign for restructuring. It even undertook to provide a draft constitution alongside a new structure that resembled a rabbit warren and was a model example of gerrymandering.

However, the strength of the agitation for restructuring varies with the political climate and how its protagonists fare therein. Advocating restructuring helps rejuvenate ailing political careers, provides oxygen to moribund organisations and keeps political dinosaurs in the public eye. Concepts have been developed to “explain” restructuring and copious literature issued on its two main planks: true federalism and fiscal federalism, with “resource control” the latter’s philosophical underpinning. These are explained through a mix of sophistry, misleading information and false analogies.

First, there is nothing like “true federalism.” There are only variants of the political arrangement described as federalism. As most people are aware, there are currently several countries in the world that answer to the name federation, none of which resembles the other, each the product of the circumstances of its founding, all with varying degrees of central government control over their component parts. For instance, the first federation in the world, the United States began life as a confederation after winning its War of Independence, but soon found it unwieldy and ineffective in uniting the peoples. A new arrangement that has come to be known as federalism was therefore arrived at, together with a system of government that distinguished the country from the Old World.

Nigeria as a post-colonial country has similarities in origin and composition to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, being “multinational, linguistically and culturally diverse,” with its “component ethnic nationalities territoriality separated.” Yet it was not fated to be a federation by these very facts, otherwise Africa would have been a continent of federal states. The British penchant for administering their colonies as much as possible on the cheap caused the Amalgamation of 1914 while Nigeria’s territorial expanse and huge population necessitated local rule by colonial officers acting on behalf of the central government.

The introduction of regional government provided the foundation upon which the founding fathers negotiated the federation that heralded independence and the First Republic, though they did toy with the idea of a confederation at some stage during the constitutional talks. Nigerian federation is therefore a product of serial acts of a central authority, the British colonial government, not of any “federating units” agreeing to come together as it is being repeatedly presented.

The protagonists of restructuring have seized upon both the Independence and the Republican Constitutions as the ideal constitutional arrangement for our country. It is claimed that those constitutions “allowed regions to retain their revenue, remitting agreed portion to the federal government” and “allowing each region to develop at its own pace,” etc. in a false presentation of the past. The Republican constitution had 45 items on the exclusive federal list and 29 on the concurrent list, upon which both federal and regional governments could act.

The fact is that leaders of the First Republic who were visionaries did not view that configuration as constraints. For instance, when the Premier of the Northern Region ventured into foreign affairs by declaring his non-recognition of Israel, the Prime Minister promptly checkmated him and went on to receive the then Israeli Foreign Minister, the late Golda Meir. The exclusive federal list has since expanded to 68 items in the 1999 constitution against 30 in the concurrent list, mainly because of the challenges the country was facing at that material time.

The 1979 Constitution (to which the current one hews closely), especially was drafted by a stellar assembly of politicians and legal luminaries while the military rulers who were the approving authorities did not so tamper with what was presented to them as to void its fundamental thrust. Nevertheless, save for the power to declare war, the shortened concurrent list still grants states enough powers to deliver the required service to their constituencies.
The revenue allocation question is the real reason for the campaign for restructuring, not the preponderance of exclusive federal list. As a former United States’ President famously once declared, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And it is in this area that misleading statements are regularly dished out. There was no time the regional governments controlled their “own resources” let alone remit agreed portion of revenue to the federal government. The fact was that mineral resources, revenues from which are the issues of current contention, were under the federal government; it is useful to remember that before Oloibiri, tin and columbite were the principal export minerals.

The revenue allocation formula in operation in the First Republic was the one based on the Reisman Commission Report (1958). It added to the sole parameter identified by earlier Commissions on the issue – derivation – the factors of minimum responsibility, population and balanced development of the Federation. It also introduced the Distributable Pool Account (DPA) into which specific percentages from the various revenue heads were paid to give effect to the new parameters.

A chapter in the book by F.A.O. Schwarz, “Nigeria: The Tribes, The Nation or The Race” (MIT Press 1965) revealed interesting details about fiscal relations between the federal and regional governments in the First Republic. For instance, the federal government collected most of the taxes for the country, even as it remitted most of the proceeds to the regions as provided for under the revenue allocation formula. Secondly, the revenue so received by the regional governments outstripped internal revenue collection in the fiscal years 1959/1960, 1960/1961 and 1961/1962. Even now that is the case.

A most interesting thing in this section was the observation of the author that as oil revenue, derived from mining rents and royalties (50% of which was remitted to the region of origin), became more prominent in the revenue profile of the Federation, the more the likelihood of “political controversy” arising from its distribution. How prophetic!

The Niger Delta has been racked by militancy and pipeline vandalism these past 20 years, to protest neglect and press for increased revenue/ resource control. A disturbing aspect of the current situation is that both the established leadership elite and the elected public officials have surrendered the initiative to militants who have unleashed economic terrorism on the country, receiving unseemly applause from some media outlets.

What is often ignored is that the plethora of initiatives and institutions brought to bear on the developmental challenges in the Niger Delta has not yielded significant fruits because of non-uniformity in the motivations of the various stakeholders. Otherwise, tangible improvement in the standard of living and the environment could have been recorded in the last 15 years with the unprecedented revenues available for that purpose.

Another issue is the centralised police system now in operation which is seen as antithetical to federalism. It may well be so, but it must be viewed against the country’s experience in the First Republic when the local (N.A.) Police were used to oppress opposition in the regions. Nothing precludes local/state police being similarly used in the current dispensation. It is indeed worth recalling the case where an Assistant Inspector-General of Police (ordinarily under the command of the IGP) connived with some local political godfathers to kidnap a sitting governor in order to force his resignation. For sure, local knowledge and flavour could be injected into the policing system by ensuring that at least 50% of personnel deployed to any state are indigenes. But under the current climate, it is difficult to envision an apolitical state police force which will maintain law and order without interference from state authorities.

Now to the proposed “solution”: Neither the National Political Reform Conference (2005) nor the National Confidence (2014) passes the test of purity of motives. President Olusegun Obasanjo hoped to achieve the removal of presidential term-limit, while President Goodluck Jonathan’s was to galvanise his support base and tempt the South-West politicians who live by the idea of “a Sovereign National Conference.” Besides, most of the recommendations have been in circulation for ages and could be put into effect by administrative action or through constitutional amendment(s).

Like the position of derivation factor in the revenue allocation formula; it is an issue that could be handled via legislative action rather than constitutional amendment. It is a good sign that the House of Representatives will adopt the National Conference Report as a working document in its constitution review. A determined effort on its part would see the National Assembly effect necessary amendments to the Constitution that will reduce areas of dispute.

The geopolitical zonal structure is another step advocated in aid of restructuring. A charitable view of this construct is that it is a reaction to the mindless state-creation exercises of the 1990s. Otherwise, the political class is its only “beneficiaries.” They have used it to build party bureaucracies that would be the envy of Communist Parties of old – BOT, NWC, NEC, etc. The practical effect of the geopolitical zonal structure however will be the creation of ethnic lagers, a situation even its supporters warned against but know will happen. Regional government will just add another layer of administration to a country some would consider over-administered.

It is amazing that in all these discussions about restructuring no thought is given to the issue of good governance, which by some measure is more relevant to our current realities. If the country had witnessed good governance in the last decade and a half, we would have been truly on the way to the El Dorado we all crave. Restructuring is not a substitute for it. Granted that it is a legitimate undertaking for any ethnic group to seek political solutions that could better reflect their aspirations and protect their interests, such a quest should be without inducing mass hysteria or the mass-marketing of hate and prejudices against those who hold contrary views.

Nigeria has been badly served by the various elite groups (from both the North and South). Most of these people have articulated no vision for the country; rather, they work its many fault-lines to satisfy personal ambitions. Yet, a country that consistently receives negative ratings from its own ruling elites cannot hope to survive, let alone prosper. Nigeria is in that unhappy position today.

• M.T. Usman wrote in from Kaduna and can be reached on aboumahmud@yahoo.com