Redeeming the sub-nationals By PAT UTOMI


How things have changed. At the time of independence, they drove progress. It was by the name of the premiers of the regions, that citizens spelt relief. Not so anymore. Today, it is from the leadership of sub-nationals that workers spell indigestion, many not having received salaries for nearly one year. What happened to the sub-national government in Nigeria? If it is bad at many states, it is simply horrendous at the local government level.

To be sure, not all states are badly run. But there has been a big reversal of fortunes in the contribution of the sub-national level of government to citizen well-being today as against the way things were in the1960’s. Where and how did things go so very wrong? In my view a number of factors can be located. Among them, the changing nature of Nigerian federalism; deterioration of both political culture and values in general in Nigeria, and the misuse or misdirection of leadership talent in the country. Also critical to this is the sense of accountability and the shift in the structure of the Nigerian economy.

Let us begin with the over-flogged issue of Nigeria’s federal system. The system of government the founding fathers of Nigeria opted for made the tier of government closer to the people, the regions, the location where their essence was defined. Both the concurrent list and residuary powers pointed clearly to the distribution of authority. It was therefore no surprise that one of the most powerful politicians of the time, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, chose to send his deputy, Sir. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to the centre in Lagos to be Prime Minister, while he manned the backbone, as Premier of Northern Nigeria. This bottom-up federal structure, examples of which remain available in Canada’s contemporary experience, are there to look at.

In the first self-governing epoch from 1956 to 1966, the tradition of sub-nationals competing around who will most bring progress to their people is well-established. Robert Melson and Howard Wolpe’s book on modernisation in Nigeria speaks to this “competitive communalism”. My own favourite examples include the rush to industrialisation in which Chief Obafemi Awolowo rushed out with the Ikeja Industrial Estate and Chief Michael Okpara responded with Aba and Port Harcourt, as the Sardauna did in erecting Kakuri in Kaduna as the hub of textile manufacturing in Nigeria. The same race for television with Ibadan as the first city in Africa to have TV. With education, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, having gone East, tried to respond to free education in the West, with the budget-bursting 1957 Eastern Nigeria thrust.

Today, hardly any initiative for progress is coming from the sub-national level. It’s all about the Federal Account Allocation Commission account receipts and salaries payments. Some say it is because they are too small and not viable relative to the regions of the 1960s. Even though I was one of those who argued this fission of states, making the point that federations are better built by accretion, I still think small states can be viable with intelligent creative and dedicated leadership. The city state of Singapore is proof-positive of that as Luxemburg in Europe from an earlier time. Indeed, the prosperity of the low countries in Europe defying images of viability by economists presents enduring examples.

It is pertinent to note the prudence of those who ran the larger, so-called more viable sub-nationals of Nigeria in the 1960s compared to those who run the extant atomised structures. The Premier of Northern Nigeria made do with one or two official cars with his ministers using their own cars and claiming mileage allowances. In the last few years, however, state governors disappeared from front row business class seats and the hearty welcome by the captain of His Excellency to chartered or owned jets even when the previous month’s salaries had not been paid to people whose precarious existence looked so deep in water that even a ripple could drown them.

The ethics and morality of the times as well as the quality of exposure of those who run our states today, compared to those earlier times, compared with failure of citizen engagement for accountability are significantly responsible for the problems. State governors are treated and therefore act as Lords of the Manor presiding over fiefdoms.

I never stop talking about how Dr. Michael Okpara never allocated a plot of land in Enugu even though he had responsibility for the allocation, because of ethics and how those who came long after, presiding over smaller portions allocated hundreds of plots to themselves as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission cases suggest. The Sarduana’s case in the North is even more amazing because he not only could not buy government land but when he tried to buy private land, the banks told him his income was inadequate to support a mortgage. Can you imagine that happening today?

Part of the reason for this slip is the alchemy of soldiers and oil. Military rule with the command structure and limited room for questioning a superior officer, mixed with oil revenues making taxation less of an imperative of how we govern ownership of the essence of governing slipped from the people and accountability, as what people demand for use of their money, was lost.

With a general collapse of culture, as the simple life left politics the sub-national governments not given to wealth creation and the sourcing of future tax receipts, multiple dimensions of the problem resulted in the crisis of this moment.

In my view, what is needed is a radical rethinking of the way states are governed, especially in view of the abuse of the 1975/76 reforms of local government administration that brought them into the fiscal arrangements with transfers to them from the Federation Account. Access to the distributable pool fund has not buoyed local government administration largely because of the quality of leadership there and the advantage it provided governors who with the excuse of poor capacity prey on local government funds. A comprehensive probe of this phenomenon in the last 16 years with consequences should help correct things.

We must become a learning people. It is not acceptable that in a time of forward surge around a globalised world, our yesterday seems better than our today. This failure to learn is seen in the current crisis in the National Assembly where the practice of capture from the states has moved with the governors who ran them to their favourite next step, the National Assembly. When I first reflected on the Senate Presidency election and lamented that the change Nigerian people clamoured for could be under threat, some thought it was alarmist. Not more than a week after, it had become evident that I was prophetic and that if the people do not rally appropriately, even regime legitimacy could be shaken.

It is critical that we not only rebuild our institutions but that we all take personal responsibility for how our conduct shapes history and the future of our children. The youth of our nation must seek better understanding of the signs and seasons and not just go on stereotyped abuse on matters they understand little. They must seek to make sure the pursuit of personal power does not jeopardise the promise of a nation and its generation of now.

If we can begin from the sub-nationals to rebuild, we may yet save the national government beset by the major challenges of economic management that has forgotten the people in favour of special interests, creating income distribution challenges moving towards a time bomb with the levels of unemployment, systemic corruption, huge infrastructure deficit, and insecurity writ large on the land.


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