Buhari’s thesis: What manner of federalism?

The era of intense activism appears to be fading away in the country, after the exit of military from the political scene. This is amply evident in the fact that the tribe of revolutionary activists appears to be diminishing. The list of such principled activists, who cut across the Bar and the bench, the intelligentsia, the trade union and other professions and callings has been shortened by the passage of time, as the flame of activism no longer billow, unlike the days of distinguished men like the late erudite Justice Akinola Aguda; Alao Aka Bashorun, Dr Tunji Otegbeye and Dr Ishola Kanmi-Osobu, who gave the establishment sleepless nights over the ‘national question,’ a euphemism for core issues in Nigeria’s quest for stability and nationhood.

The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti and a number of others whose generation, in collaboration with a coterie of ideologues from the political class, reinforced the issue of ‘national question’ with a demand for the convening of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). But as the message resonated among the citizens, the Establishment and a few allies among the political elite became more fistic, using crude power and force to repress the advocates of a conference with sovereign powers. Deploying Machiavellian antics and other fascist methodologies, the authorities foisted a clique that promoted the concept of a national conference without a sovereign status, just as the weird term ‘true federalism’ began to creep into the nation’s lexicon and apparently trying to subsume the universal term of federalism.

We need national meeting to settle Nigeria’s national identity now —Obasanjo

Notwithstanding the weirdness of term, the unsuspecting section of the society regurgitated it like broken records, hoping that with time, the idea of true federalism would be ingrained in the subconscious of most Nigerians. After all, a lie told many times could soon wear the toga of truth.

That appears to be how most Nigerians interpret the recent statement of President Muhammadu Buhari that the time had come for Nigeria to have ‘true federalism.’ Mass-based organisations, including pro-democracy and rights bodies, ethnic nationality groups, as well as constitutional lawyers and other professionals are curious about the realisation by the president.

Curiously, Buhari had chosen an auspicious event organised by All Progressives Congress (APC) governors, where he was honoured, to make a total U-turn over his position on an issue that had become an albatross to all successive administrations in the country.

“We remain committed to improving the welfare of the Nigerian people. Your Excellencies, it will be belabouring the point to say that true federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution.

“At a time when some few privileged individuals and groups have chosen to exploit and manipulate the ethnic and religious faults for seeking personal and partisan advantage, we need to build bridges across the different divides and instill faith in the unity and indivisibility of one Nigeria,” he said.

But neither he nor any of his close allies, especially at the main corridor of power, has come out to expatiate on his volte face.

Last year, during an interactive session with Nigerians living in France, the president had expressed a completely different position on the strident clamour for restructuring of the country, accusing the promoters of ambiguity, and challenged them to make their demand more explicit. In short, he listed conditions for their case to probably receive any form of serious attention.


“There are too many people talking lazily about restructuring in Nigeria. Unfortunately, people are not asking them individually; what do they mean by restructuring? What form do they want restructuring to take? Do they want us to have something like the three regions we used to have? And now we have 36 states and the FCT. They are just talking loosely about restructuring. Let them define it and then, we see how we can peacefully do it in the interest of Nigerians.

“They are just saying they want Nigeria restructured and they don’t have the clue of what the form the restructuring should be. So, anybody who talks to you about restructuring in Nigeria, ask him what he means and the form he wants it to take,” he stated.

But before then, President Buhari had unequivocally declared he was averse to the debate and call for restructuring, saying it did not underlay the problem of Nigeria. He did not mince word in his New Year broadcast to Nigerians that the clamour was a mere distraction, because he was convinced the challenge of the country was about process and not structure.

“When all the aggregates of nationwide opinions are considered, my firm view is that our problems are more to do with process than structure. No human law or edifice is perfect,” he had said.

However, the president said the existing system and structure could be made stronger, effective and efficient through prudence and transparency.

“There is a strong case for a closer look at the cost of government and for the public services long used to extravagance, waste and corruption to change for the better,” he emphasized.

In retaining the satus quo, he called for patience among Nigerians. In spite of spontaneous reactions from the public each time he made such pronouncement, the president did not go back to the issue, rather, some of his functionaries joined the fray in a defensive position; not even when it became a major campaign issue ahead of the 2019 general election.


Crisis of confidence

The crisis of confidence in the Nigerian federation has expression in the issues that have led to violent change of government and counter moves with the concomitant negative impact on the country. Beyond the teething challenges that usually confront a young country, most of the dramatis personae in pre and post-independent Nigeria blamed the crisis that befell the country on the very objectionable ethnic marginalization, flagrant abuse of power by a major ethnic group and a lot of other tendencies that negated the principle of federalism. Therefore, on his return to Nigeria, after years of self-exile after the Nigerian civil war, the late Chukwuemeka Odimegwu-Ojukwu wrote about his country: “In my lonely moments, I relived the pendulum swing of Nigerian political emotions – day before yesterday a federation, yesterday a confederation, today a union and tomorrow, perhaps a separation.”

He found it reprehensive that the country was still in a frightening condition, ostensibly in spite of the reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the post-civil war era.

“Nigeria is crippled by four fears: fear of change, fear of truth, fear of truth, fear of unity and fear of man,” Odimegwu-Ojukwu said.

At the early stage of the civilian dispensation, a former Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Alani Akinrinade (retd) also decried the defects in the present structure in the country, which he said had almost eroded the gains of the First Republic under a regional arrangement. Akinrinade, who was one of the officers that prosecuted the civil war, stated that that though experts blame leadership for Nigeria’s problems, “knowing where we are coming from, it is crystal clear that the absence of functional federalism in the country has exacerbated the decline of Yorubaland.”

He expressed concern that the usurpation of the functions of the federating unit by the centre had done a collateral damage to the country.

“If some parts of Nigeria or even the rest of Nigeria have no problem with the current constitution and political structure, and I am sure they do, that should not stop us from raising issues with a system that daily traumatises, impoverishes and completely degrades our people.”

Accordingly, he insisted on a return to the path that guaranteed a coordinate arrangement between the federating units. He declared: “We must not continue to look askance, at a political structure, and Constitution which continues to deny us our place in the sun as it completely rubbishes our freedom to develop at our usual pace as eloquently demonstrated in the days of Awolowo and his team when each region had the authority and freedom to grow as it wished. We believe this should not be a matter that divides the country or even the region into warring groups. It is, ordinarily, a contestation that should be evil and peaceful, being basically constitutional and which can therefore be approached in the most respectful manner amongst the various people making up Nigeria.“


Devolution of powers

Much of the conversations on restructuring have been on devolution of powers. Years of military rule had subjected states to a beggarly status, with the central government taking absolute control of the common patrimony of what belonged to the federating units. A major leap towards redressing the injustice that remained the veritable source of instability and threat to the unity of the country was the convening of the 2014 National Conference, with some far-reaching recommendations made to foster equity, justice and fairness among the constituent units of the federation. Of particular reference is the recommendation on power devolution, a critical integral part of restructuring. Incidentally, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who had exhaustively treated the issue of devolution became the deputy chairman of the 2014 Confab, and it was believed his wealth of experience would come in god stead. In one of his past contributions entitled, “Devolution of power: a prerequisite for national unity—the need for dialogue. He lamented the damaged done to the Nigerian federalism by usurpation of the powers of the states by the central government. He recalled that each region was once allowed to have its own constitution, coat of arms, and representatives in London, aside having powers to create its own local government areas and local police. “Pertinent to this division of power was the financial provisions as regards revenue allocation. The provisions were clear: the regions controlled the revenue derived from their resources and surrendered only a percentage to the federal government. Under modern parlance, we would call this a system of resource control. The thinking behind this revenue allocation formula will reinforce the conclusion that in spite of what looked like an impressive Exclusive List above, the independence constitution did saddle the regions with responsibilities that were way above those of the federal government” he affirms this conforms with “the collective wisdom of our founding fathers.  It did not represent all that the Sardauna wanted. It did not represent all that Awolowo wanted. It did not represent all that Dr Azikiwe wanted. But it represented all reasoned and well-crafted compromises—not compromises formed on the spur of the moment, not compromises formed in a fit of desperation or despair but compromises based on long reflection after five constitutional conferences spread over eight years. During those long years of negotiation, our founding fathers got to know each other and Nigeria. They got to understand Nigeria and finally they gave us, not a perfect constitution but a balanced federal constitution.”

Similar lamentation cuts across board, especially among major stakeholders in the Nigerian project. In his view, the chancellor of the Eastern Mandate, Dr Author Nwankwo, for instance, said it was sad that those who found themselves to power always lived in self-denial on the defects in the so-called federation and the demand for restructuring.  He said “we need a new Nigeria of equal partners; not the relationship between a master and a slave or between a man and a lady of means.” But such dream might remain a mirage because of lack of sincerity and political will by those in authority. He added: “We must come to terms with our situation in contemporary Nigerian politics, especially in relation to national restructuring.  Whether anybody likes it or not, the nationality question is today the most critical element in Nigeria. This being the case, the Igbo question is certainly vital in resolving the political crisis that presently threatens to consume Nigeria.”

Agitation by ethnic nationalities

The multifaceted defects in the existing structure underly the various shades and forms of agitation by the about the 350 ethnic groups making up the country. The preponderance of the anger and frustration is hinged on allegations by them of being victims of varying degrees of injustice. Such complaints include marginalisation in political power, wealth distribution and allocation. The frustration has culminated in the emergence of hordes of pressure groups with all manner of nomenclatures making higher demands if they must remain part of the geographical and political structure called Nigeria. Others have gone beyond deploying passive resistance to orchestrate their cause with the attendant tension and clash with agents of the state. Bodies such like the Movement for the Survival of Biafra (MASSOB), Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND); Movement for the People of Ogoni-Land (MOSOP), and other militant organisations have festered, due to fundamental issues bothering on the existing quasi unitary arrangement with all its command structure. With the state becoming more repressive against the driving forces in those organisations, their leaders have taken their cases to international organisations, including the United Nations and its agencies for protection and enforcement of the rights of their people to self-determination. MOSOP under the leadership of the playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Urhobo ethnic nationalities came up with separate Bills of Rights, just as other sundry groups in the Niger Delta region, MASSOB, came up with similar documents that were sent to the UN. In its Bill of Rights dated October 4, 2000, the Urhobo asked “to be granted political autonomy as a distinct and separate entity.”

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara

In the preface, the Urhobo National Coalition Council (UNCC) said the ethnic group claimed the Nigerian State repressed the Urhobo Nation, despite being the fifth largest ethnic nationality in Nigeria. “The case of the Urhobo is founded on the wrongs of relegation; degradation, oppression and marginalisation committeed by the Government of Nigeria against the Urhobo,” it stated.

The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo broadened the scope of the conversation in his book entitled, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution. He broadened the scope of debate and illumination on the discourse. Other personalities like a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku; Ibrahim Babangida, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Ndubuisi Kanu have lent their voices to the insistence of majority of the population for restructuring.

For instance, for the umpteenth time, Anyaoku observed that Awolowo’s writings, especially in Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, had continued to inspire many political thinkers and activists as well as scholars, who genuinely want to see a united, politically stable, peaceful and progressively developing Nigeria. According to Anyaoku, the agitation for a restructuring of the present non-conducive governance architecture is partly informed by what many people consider to be Chief Awolowo’s analysis and prescriptions for the country. “It bears repeating to say that the experiences across the world have shown that any country with a history and diversity that are comparable to Nigeria’s, can only achieve unity, stability and deserved development, if it has a governance architecture, i.e., a constitution that devolves considerable powers to its component parts and has at its centre, a Federal Government that operates on an inclusive basis,” he said.


APC committee report on restructuring

In its report submitted in January 2018, the Committee on True Federalism, set up by the All Progressives Congress (APC) recommended more devolution of powers to states; that 10 items be moved from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent List. The items the Nasir el-Rufai-led committee recommended included to be moved are: Foods, Drugs, Poison, Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances; Fingerprints and Identification of Business names; Labour; Mines and Minerals, including oil fields, oil mining, geographical surveys and natural gas; Police; Prisons; Public Holidays (to be classified as National Public Holidays and State Public Holidays); Railways and; Stamp Duties. Also germane in the recommendations were acquiescence of state police, resource control, local government autonomy, among others. “We proposed amendments to Sections 7, 8, 162, the first schedule, part one and the first schedule of the constitution to give effect to our recommendations. The section that lists the local governments and their headquarters should be removed, so local governments are no longer named in the constitution. States can create their local governments and determine the structure of their local governments. We are by this, recognising that in a federal system, you cannot have more than two tiers of government. Having three tiers of government is an aberration,” el-Rufai had said.

With pride, the then APC national chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, had said the recommendations of the committee had only confirmed the commitment of his party to restructuring. He promised action on the report. He said: ‘’From the presentation of the chairman of this committee, everybody now has an idea of what the APC stands for with regards to true federalism and restructuring. This is the totality of our views, but it is still going to go through the mill.”

But in the views of many, Odigie-Oyegun only made a political statement that lacked the force of law and legitimacy, as neither the president nor the leadership of the APC caucus in the National Assembly pushed for the process of legitimising the recommendations.

It is for this singular reason that some have described the advocacy for restructuring by President Buhari with pessimism. Having failed to implement the provision of the manifesto of the party that brought him to power on power devolution or restructuring, many experts claim the sudden position of the president is suspect.

Therefore, some prominent bodies like the Yoruba Council of Elders, Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Southern and Middle Belt Forum and South-South Assembly have insisted that he set the necessary machinery in motion to show sincerity of purpose in making such a presidential pronouncement. This, he should do, by treating with expediency, the recommendations of the 2014 confab and similar reports that bother on power devolution, especially fiscal federalism/resource control, form and type of government, security architecture of the country, among others.