Federalism-Restructuring Fixation: What’s Future for Nigeria?

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By Tunji Olaopa

In his 2015 book, Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century, Richard Bourne states categorically that “Anyone who claims to understand Nigeria is either deluded, or a liar.” The reason is that, according to Bourne, Nigeria is made up of not only too many ethnicities, there are equally too many perspectives to contend with in any attempt to unravel the national essence of the Nigerian state. Like most plural states, from the United States to India, most political scientists and political geographers are aware of the complex dynamics involved in the process of nation building within a political context characterized by fissures and fault lines. Nigeria is even worse for many reasons. Of course, there is the fact that since independence, sixty whole years ago, Nigeria has been involved in a project of national integration that seems not to have yielded any significant fruits. It has remained a protracted project that so many have no enthusiasm for any longer.

The fundamental predicament Nigeria has been battling has to do with the lopsided federal arrangement and the gross dysfunctionality it breeds. To the extent that any plural state requires a federal system to achieve the requisite balance between its critical constituencies, to that extent the Nigerian state has failed to do justice to the concept of federalism that has the potential to alleviate some of its fundamental national worries. The structural imbalance in the Nigerian polity is further compounded by a monocultural national economy that keeps undermining the hope of fiscal federalism. One implication of this awareness of the disturbing elements of Nigeria’s predicament is that the discourse on federalism, restructuring and nation building will remain a perpetual feature of Nigeria’s public sphere.

In coming to this discourse again, I will like to pose two significant questions that motivated this piece. First: under what conditions can a plural state be said to be practicing federalism? Second: why are some federations so successful and continue to meet their challenges, while others have failed and collapsed, and yet some others remain deeply fixated on critical crises that remain prolonged and deeply vitiating? Understanding the concept of federalism boils down to a deep appreciation of its elemental dynamics. One, it should be noted fundamentally that a federal state is essentially a constitutional state. Apart from the unenlightening fact that a federal system requires a concise constitutional arrangement that outlines the responsibilities of the federating parts to the whole, federalism itself is founded on constitutionalism, the reign of the rule of law. It is this regime of law that holds the key to the optimal operation of a federal state. Two, powers in a federal state must be constitutionally shared between at least two levels of constituted authorities, especially the federal and the state. In some other instances, like the Nigerian case, the power distribution is among three tiers of constituted authorities, including the local government. The essence of this arrangement is to facilitate the appreciation of the diversity defining any plural state. It is to open up the state to the participation of its multiethnic and multi-religious constituencies in some measure of self-determination that eventually build in them a sense of belonging in the commonwealth. Third, each of these federating units must not only be independent relative to other units, it must also enjoy a measure of fiscal autonomy that enable it to develop at its own pace, relative to other units.

How is Nigeria’s political and historical trajectory to be understood vis-à-vis these elements of federalism? History demonstrates that between October 1954 and January 1966, Nigeria operated what approximates a federal system that was bedeviled by the usual evolutionary hiccups that other federal states also witnessed. The intervention of the military in 1966 led to a subversion of the federal element in Nigeria’s constitutional order. A unitary legal protocol was then imposed on the federal constitutional framework. That protocol centralized the governance and authority structures, and destabilized the federal requirement by empowering the center at the expense of the federating units. Thus, between 1966 and 1999, Nigeria has confronted and battled the acute dysfunctionality resulting from this historical power play with Nigeria’s future. The Nigerian polity is defined by an arrested development that leads to protracted visioning and planning that have failed to yield significant transformation of the welfare of Nigerians.

What has complicated the predicament is the failure of the Nigerian political elites and power brokers to form a united front that is able to agree on the common ideological ground and the shared governance template that consensually address the questions of how, what, when, where and by whom the dysfunctional structure can be rectified in manners that facilitate a genuine restructuring of the Nigerian polity. On the contrary, the whole agitation for restructuring has become another political rhetoric, a marketing narrative deployed by the political class (especially those who consider themselves in opposition) to achieve political relevance and accommodation in the power sharing formula. And thus, we are clearly confronted with a perplexity as to why a state’s political class will refuse to unite around the urgency of transforming the state when the means to do so are available, and where the political will is possible.

To understand the behavior of the political elites as well as their reluctance to achieve unity of purpose takes us back to the multiplicity of perspectives on the past, present and future of the Nigerian state. From 1914 and the amalgamation down to the present, various nationalities have developed different, and often conflicting, agenda that they rigorously pursue in an atmosphere of deep distrust and antagonism. Thus, restructuring for the Middle Belt is defined in terms of liberation from Islamic irredentism and the Hausa-Fulani political hegemony. For the Southeast, restructuring constitutes a window of opportunity to revisit and rejuvenate the Biafra secessionist agenda. Of course, the South South restructuring agenda is anchored on the availability of crude oil in the region, and hence a key issue becomes the agitation for resource control. For the Southwest, where the restructuring noise has been most vociferous, there is a suspicion that it is just a covet cry for the creation of the “Oduduwa State.” This is despite the fact that the agenda has always been outlined in terms of regionalism, greater fiscal autonomy and resource control. And, of course, the North and most of its political class see the whole restructuring as a call for a confederal arrangement that will destabilize the status quo and the power dynamics that translate to a loss of political control for those who believe the region has a manifest destiny to continue to rule Nigeria.

To move forward, there are three clear options for Nigeria to pursue. First, her political elites could resolve to put their acts together and get the basics right in the effort to move Nigeria forward on the federal path and achieve success like the United States, Switzerland, India or Australia. Second, the same political class could bury their heads in the sand and watch as everything degenerate to the point of implosion. This was the terrible fate of the former USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Third, and even worse, Nigeria could just be allowed to keep up its dynamics of motion without movement that will either perpetually keep it as a reverence point for academic and practical underdevelopment thesis and hypothesis for developing states (an exemplification of Princeton Lyman’s “greatness to irrelevance thesis”), or we eventually arrive at violent implosion due to lack of attention to what matters in nation building.

So, is federalism the ultimate end to Nigeria’s hydra-headed predicament? As a political scientist and institutional reformer, I am sufficiently aware of the limit of theory especially in a complex political and institutional situation presented by the Nigerian state. Thus, while it is futile to hanker for what is often termed “true federalism,” there is no doubt that federalism serves a critical purpose in Nigeria’s political rehabilitation and restructuring. In other words, federalism is not an end in itself, a panacea to end all national evils. On the contrary, it is a means to an end of a constitutional and governance order that will facilitate the sense of hierarchical interdependence among the federating parts that will lead to fiscal autonomy. Federalism, when fully appreciated and constitutionally organized, will enable Nigeria to take significant national steps forward to socioeconomic progress on a surer path to its self-evident greatness.

The fundamental challenge however, which federalism is supposed to mediate, is that of harnessing the diverse and warring ethnic diversity into a coherent and solid national capital that can be deployed to the task of human capital development and the eventual socioeconomic development of the Nigerian state. As should be obvious, this requires a committed leadership—a new breed of patriotic individuals and political elites who instinctively understand what is required to make Nigeria great. This new breed of Nigerian leadership will be committed to a pan Nigerian ideal or dream—a pax Nigeriana—around which a strategic governance framework can be built to rally Nigerians to the urgent imperatives of good governance and social justice. It goes without saying that such a leadership will immediately recognize the significance of education and value reorientation as key elements in the restructuring of the mindset and attitudinal behavior of Nigerians. Education instigates in the citizens a state of mind of that is reflective, respectful and ethically aware of the shades of difference—ethnic, sexual gender, cultural—that makes up a plural state.

This is the ultimate challenge of the Nigerian political class: to dedicate its attention and political capacities and competences to articulating a vision of what Nigeria should be, and how to achieve national integration. And at the very heart of such a vision is the blueprint for building an active citizenship that will be patriotic and willing to contribute to the challenge of national development. Outside of these, Nigeria’s future is very bleak, and all debates about restructuring is sham.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, Jos (tolaopa2003@gmail.com tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)