Punch: Buhari, Save Nigeria From Disintegration

NIGERIA is 57 years old today and still wobbling. Though, the country, Africa’s most populous, is relatively young when compared with some other democracies of the world, it is important to look at the past with clear eyes in view of the corrosive political, economic and social factors that are hitting hard at the very foundation of Nigeria’s corporate existence.

We are daily faced with knife-to-the-throat brinkmanship and venomous rhetoric in our national life. Nigeria is ranked 13th “most fragile” among 178 countries by the think tank, Fund for Peace, in its 2016 Fragile States Index. Using political, economic and social indices such as mounting demographic pressures and humanitarian emergencies; severe economic decline and uneven economic development; deteriorating public services and factionalised elite; impunity and revenge-seeking, Nigeria has been featuring among the 15 most endangered states since 2005.

Poverty level, assessed at 54 per cent in 1999, was rated 72 per cent by Fitch International in 2016. Rather than being agents of development and centres of productive activities, the 36 states (save Lagos) and 774 local government areas rely on money shared from the Federation Account monthly for survival. The World Bank’s Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2017 revealed that 35 million more Nigerians were living in extreme poverty in 2013 than in 1990, the only country that had more poor among the 10 most populous assessed.

Lack of competition among these “beggar” federating states has entrenched reliance on oil and gas revenues extracted from only nine states, while most of our 82 million hectares of arable land (out of a total 91 million ha) are unutilised, creating a food-dependent economy spending up to $20 billion on agricultural imports each year, according to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh.

Over the years, the country has survived many near-death experiences. But never since the troubled era that culminated in the civil war (1967-70) have Nigerians been so divided. Insurgents-cum-Islamist terrorists have rendered large swaths of the North-East region ungovernable for six years: 12 northern states have brushed aside all constitutional strictures to impose penal aspects of Islamic sharia law; Fulani herdsmen, ranked as the world’s fourth most deadly terror group, have turned parts of the North-Central region into killing fields and also made forays into the southern states. In the midst of these fractious tendencies, the central government is often unable to deal decisively or objectively with the security menace as key political and security functionaries take, or are alleged to take, sides.

Cries of alienation have also fostered militant groups espousing violence or secession. Militant gangs in the Niger Delta are joined by IPOB, MASSOB and mushrooming self-determination groups in the South-East. In the South-West, ideologically home to the ideals and agitation for strict federalism, renewed impetus to press for a rational re-make of the tottering federation is under way.

Oil prices have crumbled and the future of oil itself doubtful. Thirty five states are no longer viable under what the lawyer/rights activist, Itse Sagay, labelled “feeding bottle” federalism. Younger elements in the six geopolitical zones, who suffer 41 per cent unemployment, have become impatient and ethnic nationalities are increasingly restive. The system that confers perpetual advantages on a few and denies the majority of the people and the states opportunities for full self-actualisation is no longer sustainable.

Discerning minds argue that the current unitary style federalism cannot deliver development. Unlike the federal system that endured till 1966, where the four regions controlled their own resources and territories, today’s 36 states are dependent on the centre, deprived of the 50 per cent of revenues from natural resources that the regions had under the 1963 constitution. A state like Lagos is deprived of the full benefits of its VAT revenues, while Akwa Ibom is given only 13 per cent of the oil gas revenues generated in its territory.

Unlike other national groupings, we are not tethered across our vast geography and diverse communities by language, blood or soil; we are by definition a multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious society. This is the harsh reality of our existence, but a reality we are always running away from or pretending it does not exist. Today, 103 years in an amalgamated entity and almost six decades after independence, Nigeria is more bedevilled by the worst form of ethnic and religious intolerance than any other time in her long and tortuous search for national identity. And we have paid so dearly for all the decades of our hypocrisy with a gory civil war, series of bloody military coups, economic mismanagement and serial social disturbances.

Unlike some post-communist era states, like the Czech and Slovak republics, Romania, Hungary and Poland, Nigeria has failed to build strong democratic institutions despite the self-adulation over the successful transition from one party to another in the 2015 presidential election. South Korea and Taiwan moved from military-backed dictatorship to become today’s pillars of democracy and the rule of law. Our political system has failed to deliver real development, but facilitated a debilitating rent-seeking society and a financially prohibitive bureaucracy where the national budget routinely assigns 70 per cent to recurrent expenses.

Sadly, there has been an attempt by many, either out of ignorance or deliberate mischief, to obfuscate or misrepresent the concept of restructuring as it relates to Nigeria’s contemporary politics. But the truth remains that the clamour for restructuring is nothing but a call to return to the 1963 Constitution, as Sagay and the former Governor of Osun State, Bisi Akande, put it. Wole Soyinka, the renowned playwright and social critic, also captured it in his own unique way, describing it as a “reconstruction or reconfiguration” of the Nigerian polity.

Under the 1963 Constitution, Nigeria had four regions, and operated a federal system where much of the powers were devolved to the regions, which were the federating units. So when Akande said that Nigeria should return to the 1963 Constitution, he meant a return to the federal system that was operated then, instead of the unitary system that is currently being masqueraded as a federal system. The only difference this time is that, instead of regions serving as the federating units, the 36 states will now play that role.

If Nigeria can be restructured in such a way that the states become the federating units, making their own laws, controlling their resources and paying royalty to the centre, and controlling the means of enforcing law and order, it would then be left for any state that feels it cannot survive on its own to seek alliances and cooperation with other states. There are even some states that are struggling today that might discover their potentialities once it becomes clear to them that they can no longer depend on the monthly federal dole. In a federal state, resources flow from the federating units to the centre, not the other way round.

Right from the beginning, the founding fathers of the country realised that the only way to have a united country in a polity made up of more than 400 distinct linguistic units and ethnic groups is by federalism. Quoting from the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s book, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, Sagay, a professor of law, in his publication, Nigeria: Federalism, the Constitution and Resource Control, said, “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.”

This is why Federalism had become part of Nigeria’s historical growth right from 1951, when the Macpherson Constitution was introduced. It had remained so and further strengthened over the years until the military coup of 1966 that replaced the constitution with an unworkable unitary government, purportedly to enhance the country’s fractious unity. It can never work.

Today, Nigeria is driving recklessly on a slippery slope. The evidence of this dangerous omen is everywhere. Security-wise, kidnappers, armed robbers, ritualists and cultists are running riot. This is so because the centralised, ineffectual policing system has abysmally failed the country. The Nigeria Customs Service interception of 2,671 pump action rifles illegally imported into the country, arms limited to agents of the state to bear, between February and September this year, underscores the danger that lies ahead. Much more of these weapons might have escaped their scrutiny.

Indeed, this is a loveless union. But these ugly trends are reversible if President Muhammadu Buhari could unleash pragmatic political and economic policy initiatives on the country. As Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian prime minister, said in 1971, “A society which emphasises uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”

It is within Buhari’s competence to halt this obvious fatal romance, having made promises to the people in this regard during the electioneering leading to the 2015 polls. The 2014 national political conference report with over 600 recommendations are available to make the country a functional, truly federal state again. Where this fails, the alternatives for the country are bleak. But the buck stops at President Buhari’s desk.