Senate Votes on Devolution of Powers Mirror Nigeria’s Faultlines

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Yusuph Olaniyonu

It is interesting reading the commentaries in some newspaper columns and opinion pages over the failure of the proposal for the devolution of powers to scale through during the constitution amendment process in the federal legislature. The commentaries gave me an idea that if I were to be in the department of mass communication or political science of a university either as a student or lecturer, one research I would love to invest my time on now is how these newspaper columns and opinions reflect the geo-political divisions in today’s Nigeria.

Using content analysis as a research tool, it would have been easy to see which commentator wrote what and in what newspaper. One would have also discovered the role location, ownership and the political interests of the newspaper owners played in shaping the position of editorial opinions, columnists and also, the choice of articles that get published in newspapers on the subject at hand. Also, the research would have explained why some newspapers prefer to interview certain individuals or representatives of some groups or organisations to get their viewpoint on the issue of devolution of powers to states.

The objective of the research would be to show the division over the issue across geo-political zones in the country and how they are reflected even in the newspapers. The research would also show the relationship between the position of the columnist or newspaper and the ownership cum location of the newspaper.

Unfortunately, I am neither a student or a researcher. Even my job would not give the luxury of the objectivity or neutrality that such an endeavor requires for the result to enjoy fidelity, credibility and acceptability.

However, without the proper research, I have tried to read critically the opinions, corporate and personal, as expressed in the published articles and editorials and to take cognizance of the facts of location, ownership and geo-political origin of the authors. My conclusion is that just as the campaign for restructuring remains a Southern affair, the knocks the National Assembly has received on the failure to pass the devolution of powers to states are from Southerners and southern-based media. While the vitriolic attacks on the federal legislators have been very loud and ceaseless, prominent columnists from the North and media organisations based in the North have largely ignored the issue of devolution of powers while commenting on other aspects of the constitution amendment.

Similarly, while prominent groups in the South and their leaders have been loud in condemning the National Assembly for the votes that led to the defeat of the bill on devolution of powers, their counterparts in the Northern part of the country have expressed contrary opinion or kept mute.

For those who observed the votes in both chambers of the National Assembly on July 26 and 27, it is obvious that the votes equally reflected the thoughts on this issue in the media. Members voted along geo-political preferences. The implication is that both the National Assembly and the media are reflections of the situation in Nigeria, particularly on the issue of restructuring.

Ours is a country with sharp divisions. To some Nigerians, the agitation for restructuring is limited to the South. With this perception, a deep distrust, suspicion and misunderstanding has welled up around it. Restructuring is now seen in some quarters as equivalent to the agitation of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for secession, the campaign for resource control by the militants in the South-south creeks and demand for fiscal federalism and Oodua Republic in the South-west. Incidentally, the advocates of restructuring have not tried to even articulate their position on what the concept means.

In a very surprising manner, the advocates of restructuring have been carrying on as if the entire nation need not understand what the concept means but just accept it without question, debate or explanation. It is even obvious some advocates of restructuring do not understand what it means. And that accounts for why there are as many definitions of the concept as there are definers. Different situations create different definitions and sometimes, the audience determines what the definer presents as the meaning of the concept. As at today, that concept remains nebulous, vague and opaque.

Meanwhile, the Senators and House members who are being vilified for voting against devolution of power represent different constituencies. Up till now, the constituents of those who voted against it have not protested that their representatives did not vote according to the interests, preferences and opinions of their electors. What this means is that the legislators voted in accordance to the wishes of the people. The devolution of power bill is seen in some areas of this same country as a trick by legislators from certain parts of the country to do the bidding of their leaders who are outside the legislature. It is also seen as the equivalent of restructuring being orchestrated by those parts of the country to seize power and subjugate the other parts to their whims and caprices. That is why the devolution of power got 44 votes for and 46 against when it needs 72 votes to scale through.

However, the commentaries and editorial opinions I have read just dish out blanket condemnation of the legislators. The division in the votes show that the pro-restructuring just took the rest of the country who do not understand what the concept means for granted. There was no attempt to enlighten others and explain the idea vigorously. There was no public education and persuasion on what restructuring means and the benefits it would bring to Nigeria.
The advocates of restructuring are not engaging with other Nigerians with a view to explaining the concept, persuading others and building confidence and consensus on the idea. They forget or chose to ignore the fact that Nigeria is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The aims and aspirations of the federating units may differ sometimes. Thus, for an idea to work across board, there is need for constant dialogue and persuasion, explanation and education.

No federating unit, in this case, no region or part of the country should seek to impose ideas on the others, except of course, it is sure of mustering the needed majority support. Yes, it is true that development and prosperity have no tribal mark or speak no language. Every human being desires them. In the same way, poverty is enemy to all. However, in an era of deep national distrust, suspicion and disunity, even the best idea could be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

That is why I believe the people to blame for the votes in the National Assembly are the advocates of restructuring who are still not clear about what the concept is all about and what it is aimed at achieving. The lack of information on the issue is a minus for the sponsors and advocates. They are also not doing the best job by deploying propaganda against the National Assembly. It should be clear that a part of the country cannot bully, coerce and intimidate the rest of the country to accept an arrangement which has serious implication on the future of the country.

Do not misunderstand my position. I want devolution of powers and I thought it should have been a recipe for solving the problem of an over-bloated Federal Government with too much centralised power, even though there is the fear of the state governors who are already functioning like Emperors. It will be good to give some powers to the states and get them to be more responsible and efficient. This may even reduce the rat race for the Presidency by different geo-political zones.

However, those of us who subscribe to this idea should know Nigeria does not belong to us alone. It is a jointly owned entity. We should learn to carry the others along and build consensus.

––Olaniyonu writes from Abuja