ATIKU AND OUR QUEST FOR FEDERALISM   

Former Vice President and PDP flagbearer understands the structural problem facing Nigeria, argues CYRUS ADEMOLA  

If Nigeria problems—as myriad, contradictory and perpetual as they seem—could be captured in a single phrase, that phrase would be: the lack of Federalism. The absence of federal character in our polity has contributed to the putrefying power abuse, humongous yet inefficient centrality of responsibility and resources, the lack of transparency in governance and many countless woes that beleaguered our beloved nation.   

Because we refuse to practice true Federalism since the inception of democracy in 1999, we’ve seen the erosion of our institutions, the inability for the local and state government to deliver their promises and manifestos as well as the systemic corruption we witness today in our polity. Federalism is the one-word answer to these lingering predicaments.   

As the saying goes, government is a continuum, and each government comes and goes. In a democratic system such as ours, power rotates and those at the helm of power today are found not to be there tomorrow. It’s this transitory nature of power that makes it imperative that we embrace federalism as a system of governance. The reasons are obvious, one of which is that power is transitory, but systems and structures are enduring.   

Great democratic nations all around the world work not because they have near-perfect politicians or are exceptional in their knowledge of politics. Even in advance nations, men are still corrupt. Power still corrupts men and absolute power still corrupts them absolutely. However, the difference between these nations and ours is that they’ve been able to create a system that can contain the excesses of powerful men and women. These systems serve as a gridlock for those who are seeking to abuse power or leverage on it for their own vested interest.   

In Nigeria, we had an imitation of this in the first republic. There was regionalism, a system of government that limits the power of the federal government and made political decisions first and foremost a matter of the local and state—or in our case, the regions. Although the central government (the prime minister) exercised certain power and responsibilities, but the regional system created constraints and checks against preponderance over other arms of government. The central government became less attractive and alluring for most power-grabbers and opportunists of that time.  

However, this system couldn’t endure not because of any inherent demerit in its practice, but because of other external intrusions. With no attempt to go into painstaking details in this article, I would only say here that the intrusion of the military brought an end of the first order. Today, while we mourn and long for the good old days, we know they are beyond our reach. Regionalism as a system of government is now the thing of the past. Thanks, or no thanks to khaki men.   

But then again, all hope isn’t lost. Between regionalism and excessive centralisation of power, there’s still a beacon of light in the horizon. Here is what brings us to federalism. In practice, federalism simply means power should be devolved in such a way that creates a healthy contention and semi-equal responsibility between the federal government, state and the local government. In other words, government should be practiced from bottom-up, rather than the top-down system we now have today.   

Without mincing words, it’s too explicit that the federal government today has excessive power in its control. As a result, this has made it almost impossible for a big nation like Nigeria to rise from the quagmire of corruption, inefficiency and irredentism. Our people have been subjected to all forms of abuse, malpractice and retrogression because the federal government is just too big. It’s almost as big as the Orwellian Big Brother, excluding the creepy universal surveillance.   

Personally, I’ve always been a firm believer in federalism and the limitation of powers. Whether we like it or not, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ours is a government of men, not angels. Give a man the incentive to steal, he will steal a bowl of tomatoes. Give him more incentives, he will steal a trailer of it. In a skewed way of looking at it, our elected officials are victim of a corrupt system, not the other way around.   

This brings me to Atiku Abubakar. Thanks be to God, he has granted a long, exclusive interview to the media. That should put an end to the whole discussion about his whereabouts. He has shown those who agitate over his legitimacy and competence that he can indeed defend himself. He’s not a silent candidate and won’t be a silent president if elected. Atiku can articulate.   

But more importantly, the part that struck me most in his interview is his belief in limited federal power. In fact, he seems like the only presidential candidate that holds this belief or understand what it entails in essence. In his own words, he said, “I want to see a very lean federal government. I want to rationalise the agencies of the federal government. They are just too many. They are just duplicating responsibilities.” He also added that he will introduce reforms to limit federal powers to the state and local governments and mobilise the state governors to pass legislatures that sync with these reforms. If this isn’t federalism, I don’t know what is.   

It’s really interesting to hear such insights from a presidential candidate, especially in this part of the world. Indeed, we’re so used to what I call “a granddaddy presidency” that does everything and erodes on states’ autonomy and interest. It’s time we got away from that. We need a federal government that will challenge our state government to step up their game as well as give them the power and capability to do so. We need federalism.   

We have issues of insecurity so deepened that even a state governor is now advocating for arm-bearing for the people of his state. Who can blame him? Governors have no real power over the security apparatus of their states. The same can be said of every other challenge we face as a country. If Federalism is indeed the answer, the question would then be, isn’t Atiku the man for the job? I leave that to the readers to decide.   

 Ademola is a freelance journalist and columnist,  

Writes from Lagos via cyrusademola@gmail.com  

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