It’s time to correct Aguiyi Ironsi’s faux pas

Before the military putsch of January 15, 1966, which ended the First Republic and foisted the first military rule on the country, Nigeria operated as a true federal state. The regions were strong and took full responsibility for determining their destinies. Each region developed at its pace; each was responsible for generating its own resources, merely paying tax to the centre. No region waited on Lagos, then the Federal Capital, for monthly handouts; none called on the Federal Government to fix any road, furnish any school or equip any hospital. The regions were responsible for determining their own affairs and by so doing contributed to the strengthening of the centre.

But the coming of Major General Johnson Thomas UmunnakweAguiyi-Ironsi as the Head of State put paid to that. Aguiyi-Ironsi, who took over a fragmented country after the coup d’état, thought that concentrating powers in the centre would facilitate unity and enhance cooperation among the ethnic groups. So, he came up, on May 24, with the Unification Decree 34 of 1966. The Decree abolished the federal structure of the country and concentrated powers at the centre. With the promulgation of the Decree, the regions, and subsequently the states, were deprived of right to minerals in their states; the Federal Government became the custodian of the country’s treasures and resources.

Although Colonel Yakubu Gowon (as he was then known), who took over from Aguiyi-Ironsi, after the July 29 coup of 1966, abrogated Decree 34 and promulgated Decree 59 of 1966, which came into effect on September 1, and returned Nigeria to its federal status, the truth is that nothing really changed. The government at the centre continued to appropriate to itself powers meant for the states.

When the country returned to democratic government in 1979, the same pattern continued, the unitary-like federal structure bequeathed to the country by the military was sustained by the political class. Even now, the model is still in place. But the mightiness of the Federal Government has enfeebled the states and the local councils. Since the abrogation of the nation’s federal structure in 1966, development in the country has been very slow, especially at the state and local council levels because the Federal Government is so powerful that it is involved in primary education as well as primary health care. The power of the federal government is such that it is involved in maintaining roads in rural places and also saddled with the provision of water.

Similarly, control over the minerals has been ceded to the Federal Government. No state can take any decision over any mineral deposit within its area without seeking approval from the Federal Government. Though states sit on potential wealth, they can’t benefit from this until they get to Abuja.

This has two clear implications. One, the government at the centre is glaringly overwhelmed; the Federal Government is choking because it has bitten more than it has capacity to chew. This has resulted in many of its projects either being executed shabbily or not executed at all despite humongous resources allocated to same. Consequently, many federal roads are in appalling state, many water projects have been abandoned just as many primary health care facilities run by the Federal Government are dilapidated. The import of this is that the current structure in operation in the country has contributed in no mean measure to the backwardness we experience as a people.

The second consequence is that the states and local councils have been denied the opportunity to realise their potentialities. If states cannot convert their natural resources to opportunities for their people, not only will the states become beggarly, the people will also become impoverished.

That is the greatest undoing of the structure in place in the country.

The rising poverty in the country is a consequence of the structure that we run. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, at independence in 1960 about 15 per cent of the population was poor. This rose to 28 per cent in 1980. By 1985, it had risen to 46 per cent, dropping to 43 per cent in 1992 However, by 1996 poverty in the country had gone up to 66 per cent before climbing further to the current rate of 67 per cent. From this, it is glaring that the farther the people are from controlling their resources, the closer they get to poverty.

When the people control their resources, they are able to create opportunities for themselves. When opportunities are created, wealth is generated. When wealth is generated, poverty declines. When poverty goes on the decline, restiveness and criminality also go down and the people are able to channel their energies into productive ventures.

Scaling down poverty and putting our country back on the pathway to greatness will require tinkering with the current structure. A structure that produces poor citizens cannot produce a great nation. If after practising our unitary-like federalism for half a century and the result is backward progress, the time to correct the 50-year old mistake made by General Ironsi is now.