It Was Never Like this

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By Chuks Nwana

Federalism
From the time of the amalgamation of Nigeria, it has always been a central theme of Nigerian constitutions, to protect the minorities and to this extent, several commissions were established to advice on the best possible means of protecting minority interests within the amalgam. Sir Bernard Bourdillion, the then Governor General, introduced the initial precepts of federalism in 1939 when the provinces were abolished, and of very significant note is the Willink Commission which recommended the Federal system of government as a means to adequately protect the interest of the minorities. These efforts were made in the full recognition of the fact that for the whole to remain united, the federating units must remain autonomous in recognition of the diverse geographical, cultural, social and language differences.

Federalism therefore, became the acceptable means of co-existence, soon after the provinces were abolished for administrative convenience. Immediately after the 1953 Constitutional Conference, the Richards Constitution came into effect, and provided for devolution of powers between the central government and regional governments clearly set out in the exclusive and concurrent schedules to the Constitution. Similarly, the Lyletton Constitution retained the essential character of a federal constitution.
This system of government operated well and created competition amongst the various federating units which in very real terms enjoyed almost equal status with the centre and each unit progressed at its own pace and the controlled the bulk of its resources, revenue , taxation and administration.

The Military
This delicate arrangement which managed to hold together different entities under the 3 regions endured until the first military coup of 1966, whereupon the Supreme Military Council decided to apply the chain and command structure of the Nigerian Army by promulgating a unitary structure under Decree No 34 of 1966. The Council felt that the tension that had engulfed the country was due in part, to the federalist structure that created fissures between the federating units and in any event, they felt that the regions had become too powerful as to make effective control by the centre impossible. The story is told of how Sir Ahmadu Bello as leader of the NPC, preferred the premiership of the North to being Prime Minister and while the Balewa government was disposed to having diplomatic relations with Israel, the government of Northern Nigeria would have none of it.
In July of 1966 and thereafter, the Supreme Military Council created more regions and states, as the 3 federating units had become too big for administrative convenience.

Unitary System
This system was to endure for 13 long years until 1979, when another federal constitution of 19 states was promulgated. This system suffered from the deficit that the centre had in the intervening period become too strong and what we had in effect was a unitary system masked as a federation of states. Everything was centralised, and some states were evidently not viable without the centre, especially as resources and revenue were controlled from the centre.

It is safe to say that, long years of Military rule have impacted very negatively on the ideal federal structure.
However, times have changed and Nigeria has now become a federating unit of 36 states and about 774 local governments, and what was then manageable, has become a behemoth that can no longer be managed from the centre. As a consequence of the foregoing, almost all the Governments since Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, have made attempts to address a problem that was inflicted on us by the military. Some of the outcomes ended in the creation of more states, while the more fundamental issues of revenue, administrative control, taxation and security, were cleverly avoided.

Indeed, the matter of revenue was cleverly assigned by Decree to the Revenue Generation and Fiscal Mobilisation Commission, which determined that all the revenues except IGR generated by states, would first have to come into the consolidated account for onward distribution to the federating units, with the Federal Government getting more than half of the revenue at the expense of the federating units which produce the income.
In the intervening period, the population of the country had increased , income accruing to some of these States had become reduced by virtue of state creation, and their obligations had also multiplied in a country where taxation was never a popular means of generating income.

Failure of the Present System
Nigeria is at a cross road, because the experiment of the last 40 years may have had some short term benefits, but is clearly not working in a dynamic age where obligations have outstripped income and the exigencies of a local economy can no longer be amenable to centralised control. It is obvious that, the same prescription cannot cure the ills of 36 persons. The challenges facing a State like Lagos, is nothing compared to that of Adamawa or Abia State, and yet they do not control their resources and have to post revenue and receive pittance in return on a formula in which they have had little or no input.

Deafening Calls for Restructuring
Essentially, it is in the light of the warped federalism or quasi unitary structure, that the calls for restructuring have become deafening. Restructuring represents a good talking point, when the dysfunctional nature of the current system is taken into account, and it is to be emphasised that, people conceive of it in various extremes. One extreme of it is the call for secession or a Confederation where the States are in control of their resources and contribute a percentage to the maintenance of the Federal Government, who will be saddled with defence, foreign policy and economy, which is somewhat close to what obtains under the 1999 Constitution under the exclusive list. However, the exclusive list still covers such areas as security, resources, mining, revenue , transportation , physical planning and environment until the Supreme Court decision in AG LAGOS STATE v AG FEDERATION (2003) LPELR, 620 on the point in favour of the Lagos State Government. The argument is made that, the Constitution be fundamentally altered which will require that the Federal Government get a smaller share of the revenue generated, lesser responsibility in return for the devolution of powers to the States to control security, generate revenue, initiate and execute capital projects within their domain, and more importantly to progress at their own pace without clinging to the centre. It is truly absurd for a State Government to seek the permission of the Federal Government, to rehabilitate federal roads or other decaying infrastructure within its domain.

The story is often told of the contradiction in the Constitution, where State Governors are described as the chief security officers of their respective states , but yet cannot issue operational or administrative instructions to the Police Commissioner within their State without recourse to the Inspector General of Police, an appointee of the President. Indeed, Section 214 of the 1999 Constitution expressly outlaws the creation of State Police. A typical case of a commander without troops, in an era where crime has become sophisticated and the police actually enjoy generous stipends from the States, for their localities to remain crime free.

The Federal Government, has also proven over time that it cannot humanly attend to problems arising in about 36 jurisdictions, without dereliction, and this presents a very powerful argument as to why more and significant powers, should be ceded to the States, so that some dividends can accrue to the people. I am persuaded that everyone seems to understand that this present arrangement cannot endure for a long time, and the opposition to the idea will normally depend on how much of a radical or benign restructuring that is sought.

It is difficult to imagine any modern democracy where there is no significant devolution of powers and generation of income amongst the federating units. All voices have expressed support for some sort of restructuring, and the challenge is to see how this can be implemented, while Nigeria remains a united country. We can actually eat our cake and have it, if everyone commits to the long term goal of a restructured Nigeria where each entity develops at its pace and contributes to the centre.

The extreme version of restructuring, is one that believes that restructuring can only be symbolic and that secession or the threat of it ,is the only way to engender change. This position cannot be historically correct because the largest democracies like India, Indonesia and China with hugely disparate differences, have consciously chosen to harness their differences into huge economies of scale, while at the same time allowing significant powers to the constituent units.

We have the fairly recent example of Scotland, where the referendum on independence was rejected for a united entity, on the understanding that more powers in respect of taxation, expenditure and development, will be devolved to Scotland. It is a system that has worked and explains why people within that jurisdiction, are happy with the union and it is a good example for Nigeria to follow.

A significant followership of the ruling party, have been preaching restructuring for over 3 decades, and this represents a unique opportunity for them to force idealism into reality, particularly, as they presently control about 2/3rd of the states in Nigeria. In other words, we can proceed on a plebiscite, on the basis of a Constitutional Conference or amend the Constitution in a way that ensures that the objectives of a restructured polity are met, without bitterness and rancour. The hen has come home to roost, when distinguished persons who have chaperoned affairs in this country like IBB, now have the Damascus experience and actually say that the whole notion of federal police and federal roads in a federation is totally outdated, and should now be discarded.

In the raging debate about restructuring, it is so easy to be misunderstood if the objective is to have your kinsman in Aso rock. Restructuring is beyond holding office, and must refer to a fundamental objective that creates a just and fair system supported by laws, norms and conventions, that allows for the progress of the units to the greater benefit of the whole.
In matters like this, there are no perfect solutions, but I believe that we can turn this peace of the graveyard to joy at dawn if we become more flexible, avoid cast iron positions and understand that in the long term, the country will be better served if we have a very high degree of affection towards Nigeria .

We must consciously strive to ensure in the state of our union, that centrifugal forces are in the minority, and this can only be when the advantages of remaining together in a devolved manner, is obvious to all and sundry .

In the final analysis, there can be no comfortable restructuring that will not involve a long and tortuous legal process and a Constitution that actually carries the imprimatur of “We, the People of Nigeria” to have any impact in the medium and long term. The challenge is for Nigerians to stay the course, and not fall prey to the roulette of Constitutional Conferences that end up on the shelf!

Chuks Nwana, Legal Practitioner, Lagos