Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
Former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, has said unless the country is restructured appropriately, no economic magic can take us out of the current travails.
He said as far he is concerned there was no basis for anyone insisting that the country’s unity is not negotiable or to equate every demand for restructuring with attempts to break up the country.
Speaking during the launch of a book titled: ‘Nigerian Federalism: Continuing Quest for Stability and Nation-building,’ the former vice president lamented that the current harsh economic realities have turned most states into dependent provinces of the government at the centre.
“Those who see restructuring only in terms of so-called resource control, that is the control of resources by the states from where they are derived. Currently the loudest are from the Niger Delta where oil revenues, which our government depends on, largely come from.
According to Atiku, there are those who argue that federal systems are varied, evolving and have their specific national and historic characteristics and that what is needed is continued improvement of our federal system.
In addition, “he said there are those who also think that the current structure is not the problem but just the managers.”
However, in x-raying the various forms of agitation over the faulty nature of the present federal structure, Atiku said it is necessary that the country listen to those who are demanding for true federalism.”
“We are all witnesses to the agitations and complaints by different sections of the country at different times about being marginalised or shortchanged in fiscal allocation and the distribution of such other public resources such political positions, jobs, school admissions, provision of infrastructure, and even social honour.
“In response, many Nigerians have been calling for some form of restructuring of our federal system, while some small fringe groups insist on their part of the country separating from the federation all together.
“These are all legitimate positions to take in a democracy. What I find odd and somewhat unhelpful is the argument of those who say that we cannot renegotiate our union and who proceed from there to equate every demand for restructuring with attempts to break up the country.
“I believe that every form of human relationships is negotiable. Every political relationship is open for negotiations, without pre-set outcomes. As a democrat and businessman I do not fear negotiations.
“That is what reasonable human beings do. This is even more important if a stubborn resistance against negotiations can lead to unsavoury outcomes,” he said.
While buttressing his point on the need to embark on restructuring of the country, Atiku said it must also be acknowledged that federalisms are works in progress and that there is no ideal federal system or so-called true federalism.
According to him, each nation has to work out the best federal system suited for it, adding that no section of this country can claim correctly that its people are better served by the current structure of our federation.
He said the country was faring better when the people were not dependent on oil revenues and when the federating units had greater autonomy of action and were largely responsible for their affairs.
“National unity does not mean the absence of disagreement or agitations. In fact, disagreements and peaceful agitations indicate vibrant and living relationships. The key to making national progress is to manage those disagreements in peaceful and mature ways.
“Political and civic leaders from across the country must come together, discuss, negotiate and make the necessary compromises and sacrifices needed to restructure our federation to make us a stronger, more united, productive, and competitive country
“They, that is our regional governments, did not owe workers their salaries for several months. They did not shut down schools and universities for several months because of teacher strikes and inadequate funding.
“In Nigeria’s case we must acknowledge that it is disingenuous if not outright dishonest to say that the system is not the problem. If the problem is just the operators how come we have failed for 50 years to produce the right people? Should we import them from outer space.
“We must acknowledge that what got us to our current over-centralised, and centre-dominated federal system is political expediency and fear, and bolstered by the command and control character of military regimes.
“But after 50 years of “unitary federalism” we are now in a position to clearly see that it has not worked well. The federating units in the First Republic had their disagreements but none claimed to lack autonomy of action, and none waited for federal fiscal allocations before it could implement its programmes and pay salaries.
“The current structure may be working for some elites but it has clearly not worked well for any section of this country and the country as a whole. We should take deliberate steps to change this structure to serve us better. And we should not dither for too long that we let fear and expediency stampede us into another disastrous policy shift that may not serve us well either,” he said.
Atiku also criticised the present tax administration especially the method of handling the Value Added Tax (VAT) in the country which he said lacks fairness.
He said that there is no reason for the states which are opposed to consumption of certain items be allowed to turn around to share from revenue earned from taxes on those goods. According to him this amounts to injustice and lack of fairness.
Earlier the Book reviewer, Dr. Tunji Olaopa said the quest for a viable federal structure that will guarantee stability of the country will continue to fuel debates such as the ones encapsulated in the new book.
He described the book jointly authored by many scholars and edited by Okechukwu Ibeanu as an incredibly deep work of scholarship.
Similarly, the Chairman of the event, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), said the book is extremely important at this stage of the country’s development.
Uche, who described Atiku as the best president Nigeria is yet to have, also expressed worry that separation of powers and the rule of law was gradually being eroded in today’s Nigeria.