Making Nigeria Work

Guest Columnist

Kayode Fayemi

Last week, I had the honour of addressing the topic “How to Make Nigeria Work” during the 60th birthday celebration of my dear friend and comrade, Professor Udenta Udenta. Our journey together in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria began under the guidance of our late leader, Chief Arthur Nwankwo, leader of the Eastern Mandate Union and a key figure in the Alliance for Democracy. Since those formative years, Professor Udenta and I have remained resolute in our commitment to building a more inclusive Nigeria that serves all its citizens.

However, it was intriguing to witness the diverse reactions to my speech, which regrettably, have been misrepresented and sensationalised in the media. The sensationalised portions of my presentation have also sparked counterarguments from analysts and critics who did not listen to my full speech and only depended on media snippets. In light of these developments and to ensure an accurate record, I find it necessary to clarify my statements.

The implicit assumption in the topic “How to Make Nigeria Work” is that we all acknowledge Nigeria’s challenges and some believe they possess the solutions to address them. These challenges encompass Nigeria’s vast size, ethnic conflicts, leadership issues, constitutional matters, poverty, colonial history, and external influences. People often search for excuses and culprits for our difficulties, with some advocating for secession and others lamenting mutual marginalisation. “Making Nigeria Work” is viewed by some as a response to the belief that Nigeria is on the verge of collapse, necessitating a complete overhaul. However, I hold a different perspective. I firmly believe that we can confront our nation’s problems without dismantling it entirely.

Nation-building is an ongoing process, and no generation can claim to have perfected it. Progress is often appreciated by future generations. Instead of dwelling on past failures, we should look ahead with optimism and heed Frantz Fanon’s wisdom: “Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, betray it or fulfill it.”

Nigeria has grappled with slow development despite various government initiatives. Some experts argue that development was not a priority in post-colonial Africa. In my view, the core issue lies in the prioritisation of development over nation-building – putting the cart before the horse. We must first address the challenges of nation-building because you cannot develop what does not exist. Wole Soyinka’s question, “When is a Nation?” underscores the unresolved national questions. Development relies on elite consensus, which can only emerge after addressing these fundamental questions. When the nation’s existence is easily contested, as seen in recent elections, we must resolve foundational issues to guide our vision for society and national development. In essence, national greatness stems directly from successful nation-building.

Over the years, some have labeled the creation of Nigeria in 1914 as a mistake, but was it truly? While colonialists’ “divide and rule” strategy may have contributed to ongoing divisions, it is inaccurate to view the amalgamation itself as a mistake. Our people had pre-existing networks, relationships, and shared experiences long before colonial rule. To forge a unified nation out of this colonial legacy, we must revisit our history, particularly our pre-colonial history. Historian Obaro Ikime stressed the importance of a framework highlighting the influences and factors shaping our history and the interactions among our diverse cultures. Sir Ahmadu Bello’s concept of “unity in diversity” suggests that acknowledging and respecting our differences, rather than erasing them, can foster national unity. Unfortunately, we have often stigmatised and weaponised diversity, using it as a basis for inclusion or exclusion.

Development anthropologists argue that culture plays a pivotal role in development, and diversity can be a resource for progress. Homogeneity is not necessarily beneficial, and we should distinguish between benign differences and the political exploitation of those differences. Misapplying our diversity has turned it into a threat rather than a strength. Inclusion and exclusion based on ethnic preferences can erode a nation’s cohesion. Protecting minority rights, ensuring gender equality, and preserving cultural assets are vital aspects of nation-building. Ultimately, embracing our diversity can lead to a stronger, more unified Nigeria.

Despite the challenges Nigeria faces, it is crucial to remember that nation-building is an evolving process. The dynamic nature of this process should inspire hope and encourage us to strive for continuous improvement. We must experiment, learn from trial and error, and adapt. Our national framework should be viewed as a dynamic system, not a set of immutable rules. Many of today’s challenges could not have been foreseen in 1999, but they provide opportunities to test the ability of our governance system to address national issues and promote the common good. If the system falls short, we must be willing to examine why it is not working for all of us. To address these issues constructively, we must first overcome mutual suspicion and distrust in our politics, fostering the consensus necessary for our journey toward becoming a great nation.

The imperative for “Making Nigeria Work” is deeply embedded in our national anthem, which emphasises the continuous pursuit of perfection. It encapsulates the mission and means in a simple phrase: “To build a nation where peace and justice shall reign.” The path to nation-building is through peace, the path to peace is justice, and the path to justice is equity and inclusion. Even in the United States, a country founded on common purpose and consent, the quest for a “more perfect union” never ends. This should inspire us not to give up on nation-building in Nigeria. Ben Okri’s words remind us that every generation carries the responsibility of nation-building, reconnecting with earlier dreams and plans. The character and preferences of each generation determine how far we progress on this journey. Young Nigerians today, born in the era of democracy, have a different outlook. They demand results from democracy and are less fearful of change. They want democracy to work for them and facilitate their dreams. In response to today’s challenges, we must recognise that the status quo won’t suffice. We need a fundamental overhaul of our governance and electoral system to make Nigeria work better for all its people.

I advocate for restructuring, devolution of powers, fiscal federalism, and electoral reform as key elements in our effort to make Nigeria thrive. The primary challenge we face in this pursuit is redefining the basis of our national unity. Regrettably, this issue has been tainted by mutual suspicion and political strife, often interpreted differently based on one’s ethnicity or region. I align with the views of respected scholar Professor Attahiru Jega, who emphasises the need to address these matters dispassionately and without inciting ethnic or religious sentiments. Our motivation for restructuring should be our responsibility to build a nation of peace and justice, where everyone benefits, regardless of language or religious beliefs.

Historically, attempts at constitutional reform, such as the 2005 Constitutional Reform Conference and the 2014 National Conference, were hindered by the contentious issue of restructuring. However, avoiding this issue is no longer a viable solution. Rather than pursuing structural changes like state creation or reverting to the pre-1966 regional structure, we should focus on making the current system more efficient. This entails improving our governance, boosting our economy, and promoting inclusivity. Devolution of powers, reallocating resources to our federating units, is central to this effort. Decades of military rule led to an unhealthy concentration of power at the federal level. A key aspect of this restructuring should necessarily review what falls under exclusive federal jurisdiction and what is on the concurrent list. Other critical issues include revenue allocation, land tenure, local government autonomy, and more.

In this endeavour, I lean toward strengthening the sub-national units, assigning functions consistent with a devolved federal system. This would involve maintaining a short, exclusive federal list focused on areas like national defense and security, while states would have primary responsibility for functions listed in the second schedule of the 1999 constitution. On revenue sharing, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum’s proposal of 42% to states, 35% to the federal government, and 23% to local governments makes sense, given the increased responsibilities of states. Ultimately, remaking Nigeria through devolution of powers and reorganisation of the federating units is a timely and necessary idea. As Attahiru Jega noted, this approach would lead to a better-functioning federation with states as the primary units, fostering cooperation among contiguous states, substantial power devolution, and mechanisms for greater equality and inclusion for marginalised groups.

Finally, my idea concerning alternative politics and electoral reform has elicited widespread reactions from analysts, critics, and the public. But we must recognise that despite several election cycles, we continue to grapple with their consequences. I firmly believe that it is time to readdress electoral reform. While I have no doubt that my party, the All Progressives Congress, secured victory in the Presidential election as declared by the electoral authority, largely due to a better grasp of the country’s political dynamics and the self-destruct button pressed by the opposition, I propose a shift towards alternative politics rather than the perennial pursuit of political alternatives within nearly indistinguishable political parties. This shift aims to make Nigeria thrive through inclusion, stability, and national unity.

If we regard alternative politics as a comprehensive overhaul of our political system, particularly in crafting a consensual and developmental approach, then the initial step must involve a reengineering of our electoral system, moving away from the current majoritarian “winner takes all” model. With the three major parties winning nearly an equal number of states and the ultimate winner garnering only 37 percent of the total votes cast in the Presidential elections, it becomes evident that this approach does not bode well for the stability of our nation.

Therefore, my proposal centres on the adoption of what is commonly referred to as proportional representation system in place of the inadequate and divisive first-past-the-post electoral system. This is something that has bern used in divided societies like ours as a nation building strategy. My concept of proportional representation entails the inclusion of political parties in proportion to their performance in national elections. While this would still ensure that the election winner leads the government, it would eliminate the incongruity of having a party with 37 percent of the vote claim 100 percent of the government. Importantly, my vision of proportional representation does not align with the often-misinterpreted idea of a government of national unity that has been sensationalised in the media. Instead, it envisions a synthesis of party manifestoes towards a comprehensive national integration perspective, with all parties viewing themselves as essential contributors to the national project. This approach would foster stability and cohesion, from which government nominees could be drawn.

My experiences in politics have led me to believe that any strategy aimed at building a sustainable democracy in a diverse and divided society like Nigeria must prioritise electoral systems that promote inclusivity and accommodation. This approach serves to mitigate the fractures and tensions that impede national progress and change. I have no doubt in my mind that I have not exhausted all the factors that can make Nigeria work for the benefit of all her citizens and residents. However, I also have no doubt that the subsequent conversation by my analysts will not only add new points but also amplify some of the points I have highlighted, rather than misconstrue or sensationalise them.

•Kayode Fayemi, Visiting Professor, School of Global Affairs, King’s College, University of London, England

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