Ken Saro-Wiwa was the pipe-smoking Ogoni writer and rights activist. He had a small physical carriage. But each time he sneezed, Nigeria, the behemoth, caught cold. So when asked why the small ‘unarmed’ man from a minority stock would discomfit a giant, he would fire back aggressively: “What do you mean? What has size got to do with it? Size has little to do with it!”
Indeed size has nothing to do with acumen. Otherwise small Cuba wouldn’t outstrip mighty United States of America in healthcare on a doctor-population basis. Nor would little South Korea be rated the most industrialised globally on account of industry spread. And tiny Israel wouldn’t be the home of military drone technology, a feat denied most far more celebrated and wealthier nations.
It is the reason Nigeria must wake up and put aside this song and dance about our ‘giantness’ and learn from little Benin Republic nearby. Its dot-like size hasn’t prevented it from seeking to lay the basis for lasting change and enduring development of its citizens by restructuring the polity. In this Francophone country, the real change is taking place under their own leader called Patrice Talon. Let’s see what this man, popularly called the Cotton King, is doing.
Like our own President Muhammadu Buhari, the Beninois leader has the following as his agenda: Combat corruption, improve the economy and fight terrorism through the instrumentality of diplomacy. He adds: “My mandate will be a mandate of rupture, transition and reforms.” Asked what would come first and remain the compass of his five-year term, Talon declared: “I will first and foremost tackle constitutional reform,” insisting he would work towards a one-off presidential tenure for himself and those coming after him.
In other words there would be no question of a second term for him and subsequent Benin presidents. It was a promise Talon made when he campaigned for office. He reinforced that solemn pact when he was sworn in in April 2016 at the Charles de Gaulle Stadium in Porto Novo. Under the constitution Talon is allowed to seek a second five year term as did his predecessor, Thomas Boni Yayi, who served for 10 years. Now the new president says two terms – successive or staggered – give way to what he calls “presidential complacency.”
But let him come to Nigeria; we shall give him free but enriching tutorials on how we have suffered at the hands of politicians who are glued to the romanticism of a presidential system in need of the knife. We shall tell him how the breed here are not OK with two terms; they would scheme for a third, a fourth, a proxy, nay an unending term even when the constitution says all these are an anathema. We shall lead Talon into the world of a man who argued that politics is nothing but a game of death. We shall show him how because we have failed to restructure and go for fundamental changes in our federal set-up since the Britons left us, we have had a civil war, upheavals that have landed us on the verge of anarchy, communal clashes, economic dislocations, poverty in the midst of plenty and agony of living with potentially rich states that must depend on the centre for sustenance.
Nigeria needs to learn from Benin and “first and foremost tackle constitutional reform,” aka restructuring. Our problems are a flow from the poorly sculpted structure we are operating. We must work on it to reduce the power of the central government so that the resulting centrifugal arrangement would allow the outposts of governance and their citizens to engage in creative economic enterprise for wealth generation, growth and development. Under that order, a governor controls his or her own police rather than looking for clearance for action from a distant authority when unruly gangs of herdsmen invade his or her territory on a killing spree.
If we rejig the constitution to limit the president’s mandate to a one-off five-year term as President Talon is doing in Benin, it would sink the do-or-die inclination and orientation of our politicians and other citizens lured into office by the prospects of nearly a decade of pomp, power and opulence. At the lower levels of governance, the governors also would be made to have a single tenure. What would you be giving to the society that you couldn’t offer in four or five years? Listlessness and declining productivity set in after the first round. That has been our experience in Nigeria. It is what Benin’s new leader is calling “presidential complacency”.
How about the 36-state shape of Nigeria? It should be abolished. Let the states be boxed back into the old regional outlook or be re-organised along the current geopolitical zones. As they are, the states are a little higher than local governments. The central government in Abuja has enervated them the same way Nigeria has denuded its youth, men and women to the point that these critical segments of the society have also resigned themselves to fatal idleness and worthlessness.
The reform we desire should also address the question of our bicameral National Assembly. If we must have the two chambers, then we would have to reduce their numbers to a third of what we have. What are we doing with 109 senators and 360 representatives? Each takes home ginormous emoluments in a country with tens of millions of hungry and angry people who wake up working out schemes to be like these politicians or devising means of swindling the state or their fellow citizens. A new order must emerge to displace what we have now.
I think Buhari should follow in the footsteps of the man next door. He should “first and foremost tackle constitutional reform,” that is, restructure Nigeria. He will discover to his joy that if we take up this task of tackling the demons responsible for the malaise and tremors in the society and its politics and economy, those distortions would also recede.
The Republic of Benin posts the same dismal indices of arrested development as Nigeria: unemployment, poverty, corruption, and leadership succession challenges. In fact, recently on the question of corruption, a European nation suspended aid to Benin when millions of dollars meant for a project went missing. It was a major scandal that cost a cabinet minister his job. As in Nigeria, its leaders are often trapped in the sit-tight snare. So Nigeria and Benin experience some pangs of nation building arising from a structural paradigm defect.
But while battling corruption, the Beninois authorities have discovered that this social disease is only a symptom of a deep-seated problem traceable to the structure of the society.
President Buhari will leave behind a lasting legacy if he restructures the country constitutionally. It’s the only way to outlaw the conditions that throw up corruption, graveyard states, poverty, politics of self-interest, mass unemployment, insecurity and a massive population unindexed with patriotism and spirit of enterprise and adventure to rejuvenate the society.
Yes, Nigeria needs to fight corruption. But like Benin Republic, we need to push simultaneously for a fundamental change from the present system which is the mother of all our woes. Those before Buhari failed because they failed to drop this cursed system.
–– Ojewale, a writer and journalist, writes from Ota, Ogun State.