Back to Basics


Conversations around the socio-political development of Nigeria in general and the restructuring debate in particular have been impoverished by two important deficiencies of the literate Nigerian public. First is lack of historical awareness, consciousness and working knowledge of Nigeria’s history. Second and allied to the first is the characteristic disability of short attention span-fuelled in the main by the dysfunction of consumerism (that was fostered by the oil boom). ‘Consumerism is people purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs..

In the effort to get the general public better engaged in contemporary debates, this hindrance (relative ignorance, short attention span and instant gratification syndrome} is a prior and fundamental challenge. Most Nigerians would probably fail the Nigerian version of the citizenship test that America routinely administers to those seeking American citizenship. For instance how many Nigerians can readily and correctly answer the following questions-how many members comprise the House of Representatives? On what date did the civil war end? When did Nigeria become a republic?

To advance the cause and quality of public debate and enlightenment in Nigeria it is required that people understand the linkage between bad governance and poor development results on one hand and a deficient constitutional structure of the country on the other hand; and how the latter precipitates and feeds the former. This education is very important to the long term political stability and unity of the country. It is important for the clarification of the choices available to Nigerians and preclusion from the resort to the seductive beckoning of the extreme but simple to understand and motivate message of secession. A substantial degree of the success of Nnamidi kanu and his Biafran agenda owes to the simplicity and clarity and hence the mass accessibility of his message.

Comparatively, getting across the message of restructuring is far more complex and complicated than a simple clarion call of ‘to your tents o Israel’, or ‘to your tents o Oduduwa republic’. It is a lot less likely that the masses of the Igbo people would be receptive to secessionist blandishment if they were better educated about Nigeria and the availability of less expensive options. We can go further to speculate on the Biafra appeal-that next to the lack of education (and the reflective inhibition it engenders) is the enabling factor that majority of the population of those clamouring for Biafra were a post-civil war generation who were spared the direct traumatic experience of the civil war. This is a double jeopardy formulation where both attributes negatively reinforce one another as against the mitigation of education and historical knowledge alleviating the lack of direct experience and exposure. This is a fertile ground for the triumph of demagoguery, an attribute which kanu seems to possess in generous proportions.

In the observation that the preponderant swathe of the Nigerian populace (especially the younger generation) dwells in blissful ignorance, Nigeria is Biafra writ large. They are witnesses and victims of the developmental failure of Nigeria yet they are unable to understand and grapple with the problem let alone meaningful articulate viable responses beyond the fiasco of a mythical Mohammadu Buhari waging a seemingly unwinnable war against corruption, Niger Delta militancy and Biafra. A man who does not know where he is coming from is unlikely to know where he is headed argues the historical perspective-this squares with the scientific perspective of grounding validity of knowledge on its explanatory value and predictability. Why is Buhari unable to effectively fight corruption? Wither the wherewithal of Niger Delta insurgency and Biafra? How did we come by 36 states? What is the first, second, third and fourth republic? A child born in 1999 is a post military dictatorship era adult of 18years, so what is the story of the protracted military dictatorship era in Nigeria? What is the constitutional development history of Nigeria-encompassing the foundational Independence constitution and the 1979, 1990, 1999 mutants?

As a general response to all questions that border on the good governance of Nigeria there isn’t a better teachable departure point than the universally applicable teaser of Aristotle ‘let fools contend, whatever is best administered is best’. In other words, so long as we have governance that delivers the goods, what does it matter which constitutional model or form of government Nigeria is practising? Since 1960, however, we have experimented with both civil democratic rule and military dictatorship in all its governance and constitutional structure variations. Be it federalism as wholesomely applied in the first republic and as progressively mutilated in the subsequent constitutions of the second, third and the fourth republics.

Following Aristotle, there would have been no need to hanker after any particular form of government, be it unitary or federal if all or any of these historical phases have succeeded regardless of its constitutional content. On the contrary and on the evidence of direct and empirical observation, the most successful phase, the first republic spanning 1960-66, succeeded on account of the competitive development spirit fostered by the wholesome application of federalism. Thus in the historical experience of Nigeria, the theory and practise of federalism has validated the recommendation of federalism as the optimal constitutional arrangement.

The theory and practise of federalism in Nigeria is best exemplified in the career of the first Premier of the Western region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. No Nigerian leader is better grounded in the theory of federalism and no Nigerian government is more successful in manifesting the utility of federalism in governance than the premiership of Awolowo in the Western region. It was on this pedestal that he stood to pontificate as follows in ‘Thoughts on Nigerian constitution’

‘‘From our study of the constitutional evolution of all the countries of the world, two things stand out clearly and prominently. First in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality- particularly of language- a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangement must disappear. Secondly, a federal constitution is usually a more or less dead letter in any country which lacks any of the factors conducive to federalism.’’

As practised in Nigeria in the first republic, federalism was encapsulated in the elements identified in the following account ‘At independence largely autonomous regions possessed the residual powers in the federation and functioned almost independently. The regions had independent revenue bases; separate constitutions, foreign missions, and the primary and secondary education were under the residual list while the university education was under the concurrent list’. The independence constitution remains the prototype federalist constitution for Nigeria and which in practise, worked best for the country. It is logical and borne of our practical experience that the further we stray away from this model, the less successful the administration of Nigeria.

In the effort to get productively engaged on the debate on restructuring there has to be a prior working knowledge of federalism and its understanding as a structure of power relations between the central government and the component sub national governments (regions or states). Nigeria presently operates a constitution in which this structure of power relations is specified. The contention is that this structure has deviated substantially from the prototype of 1960 and we have learnt that it is not working and that the degree of governance failure corresponds to the extent of this deviation. It is this precipitously failing structure, which had proven largely unworkable, that is prompting the call for restructuring-that is a restructuring of power relations and distribution between the first tier central government and the second tier component governments.

The power relations we earlier made reference consist of the ‘exclusive’, ‘concurrent’ and the ‘residual’. The exclusive list refers to those that are exclusive to the central government such as defence, consular, customs and immigration and foreign affairs; the concurrent comprises those on which both the central and the component unit governments can act upon-for instance education; the residual powers are those which are neither specified in the exclusive or concurrent list. The existence of the latter (residual) and its domiciliation in the second tier government unit is what distinguishes a federal constitution from a unitary one. Over the years what has degraded the workability of federalism is the expropriation and aggrandisement of powers from the residual and the concurrent powers category by the central government.

The more problematic aspect of restructuring borders on the prescription of merger of states attendant on the obvious non sustainability and unviability of the thirty six states structure. Under constitutional federalism, creation of any state must fulfil one basic condition and that is possession of independent revenue base capable of sustaining the financial independence of the state. A cursory glance at the thirty six states readily reveals the conspicuous inability of the overwhelming number of them to pass this stress test. Failure to meet this criteria and the consequent dependence on the central government for survival, ab-initio, nullifies them as viable pillars of development oriented federalism.

Some observers have taken issues with my advocacy of restructuring and raised salient points. Because of the utility of those observations to illuminate and elaborate on the understanding of restructuring I have decided to take them up in subsequent columns. Hereunder I present two samples of those rejoinders

‘I define restructuring differently – because I have a different diagnosis of the Nigerian problem. I fundamentally believe that the problem is us, not the law or the 36-state structure. Under the same laws and structures, let the Arabs or Germans come and take over Nigeria and you will see a different outcome. Take Nigerians to go and populate Germany and Germany will never be the same again. I operate from that angle’.

‘There is no iron-cast definition of federalism, contrary to a common belief in Nigeria. It is basically the sharing of power between national and subnational governments. The extent is determined in each country. Indonesia shares revenue the same way we do it in Nigeria. It is still federalism. Mexico the same’