DIALOGUE WITH NIGERIA AKIN OSUNTOKUN, Email:
When the advocacy for the constitutional review of Nigeria towards achieving the objective of devolution and decentralisation of power (aka restructuring) is cast as ‘meaning different things to different advocates’ the clear insinuation is that the debate is mired in confusion. Often, those who take recourse to this admonition are ideologically hostile to any progressive review of the political status quo of Nigeria in the first place. But there are others who raise this reservation in good faith. This is an indication of a communication gap between the advocates and the Nigerian audience. The practical way to bridge this gap is simplification and clarity of definition and terms; and the identification of an irreducible minimum principle to which all Nigerians can potentially subscribe.
We also have to bear in mind that we are not reinventing the wheel. The argument for Nigerian federalism has well been made and settled before the majority of Nigerians were born and encapsulated in the independence constitution of Niger. In its failure, the history of Nigeria since the 1966 violation is not only a persistent vindication of the independence constitution but the farther we move away from it, in spirit and letter, the worse the political failure has become. What distinguishes federalism from other organising principles (or the present bastardisation of federalism) is the emphasis on the distribution of powers between the two tiers of government namely the federal and regional\state governments in a way that the two tiers are coordinate and autonomous, that they are complementary but not dependent on one another.
In order to attain to a similarly meaningful federalism in Nigeria today, it is required that constitutional powers are redistributed in a manner that results in substantial decentralisation and devolution of such powers. Now, the redistribution of these powers may or may not be prescriptive of amendments to the political (not geographical) structure of Nigeria-which is subject to negotiations among Nigerians in the spirit of mutual interest and cooperation-so this is what restructuring means-primarily the redistribution\restructuring of powers between the federal and regional\state governments. In sum it is the restoration of the federalist framework that served Nigeria optimally under the independence constitution. It is essential to be mindful that, in all this, the end that we seek is not federalism itself but federalism as a means to attaining optimal results in the delivery of good governance, social harmony, economic and political stability. Fortunately for Nigeria, we have both empirical (practical) and theoretical experience to validate the potential of federalism as best suited to serve this end.
Constitutional debate and politics are inherently conflictual and rancorous hence the onus is on the advocates to be responsive to this burden. In responding to this task, there is the negative potential for internal subversion and sabotage-by those promoting themselves as ostensible sympathisers while adopting a language and rhetoric that confuses rather than clarifies and demonizes the cause they purportedly promote, as contradictory to the good governance and the political stability of Nigeria. I identified Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as belonging in the latter category on the basis of the confounding instability and inconstancy of his positions and pronouncements; tendentious flip flops, conflating the logic of today with the trivialisation of tomorrow and the propagation of outright distortions and jargons-the latest is what he calls ‘geographical restructuring’
My very good brother and comrade (a noble fellow) Kayode Komolafe has decided to stand proxy for the Vice President and threw the following challenge at me-“Osuntokun’s question cannot be rhetorical. There is, of course, geographical restructuring. An example is contained in the communiqué released the other day after the Yoruba summit in Ibadan. Among other things, the summit of a segment of the Yoruba elite suggested the creation of a regional parliament in addition to the national and state assemblies. Such a parliament in the South-west to be based in Ibadan would legislate for the people of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti states. Doubtless, geography underpins such a proposition. Otherwise you would propose a regional arrangement that would group Ekiti with Rivers or Lagos with Kebbi”.
Not surprisingly and following on the footsteps of Osinbajo, Komolafe has fallen into the same error of misrepresentation, distortion and reductionism that is responsible for most of the confusion on the much maligned subject of restructuring. How can anyone, in good faith, seize on one single item from a communiqué comprising more consequential proposals, delink it from the prescribing ideology and principle, dress it up in loose and ill-fitting garb and mischaracterise it as representative of the Yoruba notion of restructuring? Has the dysfunctional restructuring of Nigeria from four regions to 36 states ever answer to geographical restructuring as an adequate and correct qualification?
Yet assuming we even accept this reductionism, what the reference to regional parliament implies is regionalism not geographical restructuring. And there is a specific historical basis for this nostalgia for regionalism-being the golden era of the development of the Western region. To use this as a validation of the usage of geographical restructuring exposes a deep lack of understanding of constitutional development and terminologies and no professor of law should want to take credit for this lapse. At best, it is a very poor choice of language for the description of constitutional reconfiguration. A less awkward but passable descriptive jargon is geopolitical-but note that this is a post facto description of an aspect and not the meaning of restructuring. And there is the inherent demonisation in the attribution of so called geographical restructuring to the Ibadan summit-it is a familiar ploy of setting up your straw man in order to demolish it. The geographical restructuring label carries with it the unseemly implication of placing emphasis on division and physical separation as the leitmotif for the advocacy.
Komolafe continues “Contrary to Osuntokun’s misappropriation of Awolowo, Osinbajo appears more consistent with the Awolowo’s school of politics. By focusing on development issues Osinbajo in treading the same path of progress as Awolowo. In other words, the agitation to restructure the federation should be matched with the struggle to end mass poverty plaguing the land”.
I am at a loss over what Komolafe cited as my misappropriation of Obafemi Awolowo with regards to federalism. If I may recall myself I wrote that Awolowo made the valid observation that Nigeria was little more than a geographical expression in 1947 and thereafter prescribed federalism as the most responsive constitutional principle to the Nigerian situation. According to Awolowo in ‘Thoughts on Nigerian constitution’, pp. 48-49. ‘‘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 recognised 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.’’
I have quoted Awolowo to give readers the latitude to decide for themselves who is and who is not misappropriating Awolowo. Second is his implicit subordination of the good governance and political durability of Nigeria to federalism. Taking a lead from the political titan, I suggest that those who gripe about “good governance, honest management of public resources, deeper fiscal federalism, and a clear vision for development” are doing so in vain without the enabling constitutional framework and policy environment of federalism. And this is a logic I have iterated over and over again on this page. It all comes down to the point that without a made to measure groundnorm of structural-Institutional incentives and constraints, the predication of good governance and political stability on good leadership is a non-starter. Democracy and other forms of popular choices do not guarantee good leadership-all it does is give you the freewill to elect a buffoon or someone better. Since democracy is thereby inherently flawed you then seek mitigation and equilibrium in structural-institutional checks and balances; incentives and disincentives. Within the context of Nigeria, federalism is the most consequential of such structural norms.
The maladministration of Nigeria, especially in the past three and half years, illustrates the logic of Awolowo’s position. To begin with, on what pedestal does Osinbajo stand to pontificate on good governance and honest management of resources? The Mo Ibrahim governance ratings agency is the latest among almost all credible international rating agencies including the US annual reports, transparency international, World Bank, Carnegie foundation, to return the same verdict on the sorry record and reputation of the APC government. According to Mo Ibrahim, ‘Nigeria scored 48.1 in overall governance, ranking 35th out of 54 in Africa.. though Nigeria ranked 35th, its score was lower than the African average of 50.8 and lower than the regional average for West Africa which was put at 53.8’.
I have admitted that not all that is wrong with Nigeria lies in Buhari’s star. The government is no less a victim of the inherent structural incapacity and dysfunction of the operative pseudo Nigerian federalism. What is peculiar is the exacerbation of this extant dysfunctional policy environment by the unspeakable incompetence and subversive intensification of corruption in public life. Those who keep harping on good leadership (heedless of the prior imperative of federalism\restructuring) as the solution (to our seemingly intractable problem) should learn to temper their expectation with the realization of the limited capacity of the electorate to influence the quality of Nigeria leadership recruitment. How, for instance, does a society in dire need of good governance countenance the possibility of the reelection of Buhari? How can Nigeria, on the basis of the governance record of this President, contemplate his reelection and expect to be seen as desirous or capable of ensuring that the regime of good leadership prevails in Nigeria? At the general level, can anyone look at the constellation and prevalence of the other unworthy candidates down the ballot and across the parties and conclude that Nigeria has the capacity to produce the elusive good leadership anytime soon?