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Democracy and its travails: Fallacy of ‘true’ federalism

By Kalu N. Kalu
26 February 2015   |   11:00 pm
NIGERIA today remains an unfortunate travesty that betrays the very reason people form governments in the first place. I am not talking merely about poverty, unemployment, and hunger; but there are other structural inadequacies that make these problems possible and persistent. Today, our public school system has collapsed, libraries are non-existent, teachers are not paid…


NIGERIA today remains an unfortunate travesty that betrays the very reason people form governments in the first place. I am not talking merely about poverty, unemployment, and hunger; but there are other structural inadequacies that make these problems possible and persistent. Today, our public school system has collapsed, libraries are non-existent, teachers are not paid nor are their qualifications evaluated; our unemployed youth have become desperate and agitated, the great agricultural edifices such as the groundnut pyramids and the oil palm refineries bequeathed to us by our forbearers have been selfishly mortgaged for the allure of imported food and products available only to those who can afford it.  Criminal cartels and gangs have taken over our neighborhoods. Our market places are marked by mountains of thrash as welcome habitats for disease and stench. Our motorways have become death traps. Our dusty air impairs our lungs. Our hospital systems are grossly dilapidated and mismanaged. Adulterated medicaments lurk at every corner. Disease and hunger have become rife everywhere. Preventive medicine and practice is a luxury. Our industries have collapsed for lack of sustainable capital, energy and materials. 

Most of our public industries have converted to skeletal remains of their past glory. Unscrupulous Indian and Chinese merchants have poisoned the Nigerian civic psyche through underhand bribery to the extent that public servants and citizens look the other way while these people run roughshod by selling unapproved and adulterated medications to the Nigerian public. Our once vibrant middle class has disappeared. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very few ultra-rich and the rest of our citizens toil in misery and abject poverty. Our children go to bed hungry. Law and order has become an instrument of gain and patronage rather than justice. But then let me be clear on this particular point. I have no interest in laying the onus on any particular government or sets of people; it is too late for that. I lay it on all of us: those who govern as well as those who are governed; but most importantly, on Nigeria’seducated elite and the academia for their inability and refusal to provide the needed leadership and vision.

The Nigerian intelligentsia has abandoned itsmoral and professional obligation to provide answers and leadership to vexing problems of governance in thecountry. It has put itself on trial and stand convicted not only for negligence but for the implied absence demonstrated by its abject indifference to the mal-administration and corrupt governance that has remained the bane of Nigeria for decades. We now have a political system where all kinds of unsavory characters run for national and local elections and also occupy critical public offices. We now have a system fraught with political hawkers, market traders, charlatans, and where illiteracy and mediocrity reign supreme at the apex of all major institutions of government from the top-most to the local government levels. Most deliberations in the national assembly have become as farcical and comical as one could ever conceive, yet those who claim to be most educated and who may be in a position to profess solutions to some of our national problems have either been cowed away, frightened, refuse to stand up or bribed into becomingaccomplices to the rape and plunder that occur in the name of “democratic” governance. 

The Nigerian intelligentsia should see this as a clarion call to repudiate the existing rot in the system but to rise to the occasion by reclaiming its place and playing a more constructive role in the enduring cause of state-building. To continue to surrender this duty to political marketers and opportunists who misconstrue government as an avenue for unbridled wealth and splendor is an omission of unfathomable proportion that will continue to undermine the fabric of this country as well as any sense of decency and meritocracy in the body politic.The message of this article comes in three parts: the first section discusses enduring macro-political issues facing a prospective democratic Nigeria and the long term implications. By reflecting on the concept of democracy as a philosophical ideal, I draw on its implications for federalism and confederacy. The second section briefly delineates central governance issues that deserve attention as Nigeria engages its developmental challenges for the 21st Century. The third discusses the inchoate circumstance of the Nigerian military as it struggles to reclaim its raison d’etre. By drawing from the above three premises, the article achieves its dual objectives of seeking to marry extant theory with practice, and on the other hand, raising critical governance issues that continue to beg for answers. 

Democracy offers an essential framework within which political structures such as federalism and confederacy could be actualized.  But in other to properly discuss the applicability of each of these political structures to the Nigerian context, I will explore, first, the broader implications of democracy as a guiding principle. Democracy is an ideal of governance that has been embraced by many societies and countries. But the irony is that while “liberal democracy may be more functional for a society that has already achieved a high degree of social equality and consensus concerning certain basic values; but for societies that are highly polarized along lines of social class, nationality, or religion, democracy can be a formula for stalemate and stagnation.”1 And to the extent that the “universalism and formality that characterizes the rule of law in liberal democracies does provide a level playing field on which people can compete, form coalitions, and ultimately make compromises;” the ideal, none the less, could pose some problems in the way the political calculus of majority rule evolves, especially for multi-ethnic societies such as Nigeria. 

In a multi-ethnic society, outright majority rule is highly problematic. Majority rule has a way of making democracy undemocratic. What this means is that the ethnic group or geopolitical zone that has the largest majority would always be in apposition to win major popular elections if they do not allow their votes to be split between two or more competing parties. They will practically rule the country and impose their arbitrary will on it forever. If one of the major ethnic groups has a majority, then it would be able to dominate the government (especially the legislature) on an almost permanent basis. The minority would be forced on a regular basis to compromise or build such coalitions in which their own interests would become secondary. But then the only mitigating factor would be the creation of a minority veto power to check potential excesses of the majority. 

But Nigeria has tried to avoid this scenario by creating what it believes to be “broad- based” national political parties. However, it would be very difficult to create a truly “broad-based” national party in Nigeria because sooner or later, one finds that the party has become dominated by a particular ethnic group or geopolitical zone. The party becomes ‘regionalized’ while co-opting elements from other geopolitical zones in an attempt to create a false image of national appeal and followership. The simple reason why minority legislators in the National Assembly are oftentimes unable to deliver on their proposals is that they may not have the votes. In those rare circumstances when they are able to muster any form of loose coalition, they are forced to compromise away the core elements of their proposals in such a way that the original incentive for making such a proposal is lost. In the practical sense of the term, absolute ‘majority rule’ within an absolute democracy are inimical to the political interests of ‘legislative’ minorities and their constituencies. 

Federalism: Federalism is the division of powers between the national and state governments. Under this arrangement, the federal government and states derive authority from the people. But while the national government holds such powers as foreign and economic policies; state governments hold power (often reserved) in various programmatic areas and policy implementation. There are also other areas where they share concurrent powers such as the power to tax, borrow money, and law enforcement. It is equally noteworthy that many segments of the Nigerian society have been advocating what is called “true” federalism. This could be a desirable option, that is, if the operational conditions clearly follow the normal conventions of a federal system. 

In Nigeria, the long period of military government produced greater discontinuities between the two sets of federal arrangements (the First and Second Republics) than is ordinarily present when federal systems are altered.2 The simple reality is that the national government cannot control or regulate the states without the power of resource control. If you add military (coercive) power, then the national government is naturally in a better position to back up its demands with force. But how willing is the national government to give up the power of resource control for the sake of “true” federalism? As long as state governments lack control of the resources within their territories, and as long as the national government controls law enforcement, the ultimate power of distributive and coercive politics will be concentrated at the center but under a de facto ‘unitary’ system. Hence whoever controls the federal government controls the purse strings of the nation as well as the authoritative allocation of values (distribution of public goods, political and economic rents, as well as opportunities for development). The centralization of oil resources breeds corruption at the political center, and corruption,3 in turn, breeds bad governance. And all these militate against the ideal of securing of a “true” federal system. 

The contradiction in Nigeria’s hybrid form of federalism is that it reflects a competing interest between presidential and a federal system of government. In a tug-of-war between the president and the legislature or any of the states, the president therefore would be inclined to resort to dictatorial tendencies to resolve issues of shared powers and authority. “It is sometimes argued that presidentialism is particularly appropriate for federal republics because the presidency can serve as a unifying symbol, especially in the absence of a monarchy, and can represent the nation as a totality in a way a parliament cannot.”4 However, the success of such an arrangement depends very much on the method of election chosen. A simple plurality in a single election, which might assure hegemony to the largest ethnic group might not work. “Nigerians have attempted to deal with this problem in their constitution by dividing the country into relatively large, ethnically homogenous states and requiring that a presidential candidate gain at least 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the states of the federation to assure that he does not represent any particular ethnic group or narrow coalition.”5 The idea here is that a union of any two of the three largest groups behind a single candidate would not be sufficient support to reach the required threshold. But this formula has not worked in Nigeria simply because the idea itself works at cross-purposes to the six-region zonal formula for electing the president, or in the larger picture, other competing issues of the North-South divide.

Furthermore, because presidential systems are, more often than not, associated with weak, fractionalized, and clientelistic or personalistic parties, its various problems have also manifested themselves at the state level in Nigeria. The direct election of governors and their unipersonal authority is an indirect consequence of presidentialism. Such a system creates an inequality of representation because, in the case of multiple competitors for the office, it may deprive the majority of citizens of any chance to meaningfully participate in the choice of the executive of the State; which, invariably, enhances executive power vis-a vis the state legislature. This is the problem that Nigerians in general, have with most of their state Governors—the inclination to personalize the state government and to use executive authority to enforce arbitrary rule. Hence, a presidential system within a democracy based on straight majority rule will not solve the endemic problem of ethnic conflict in a multi-ethnic society such as Nigeria.In the long run, a structural realignment of the model and form of governance may serve the best interest of the country.

Confederacy: In the same vein, confederacy had its appeal when it was expedient to resolve the tensed situation in Nigeria in the 1960s. Confederacy is a type of governmental system in which the national government derives its powers from the states (units). In this case, essentially all the policymaking and implementation authority belong to the states, and each state retains its independence and quasi-authority to govern within its territory. The national government is weak. But how does it fare today as an option for Nigeria? The danger is that many who prefer this option may still be doing so with a similar mindset as that of the 1960s. But there ought to be a recognition that the politics and the realignment of social forces in the 1960s is much different from what we have today in the 21st century. What confederacy offered then pales in comparison to the political and socioeconomic problems it would unravel today. While this is not an attempt to undermine continuing debate on the merits of confederacy, it is equally important to explore its dynamics as well as the specific contexts where its application would be mutually exclusive. 

Confederacy would not solve all of Nigeria’s problems and could, in fact, make them more complex and difficult to manage. And the reason is very simple. Confederacy means that much of the controlling power of the state would be given back to the constituent units. But in a political model where the units could literarily do or pass any law they deem necessary, non-citizens of other states (to the extent that they are spread out all over the country) could become the target. Each state would be in a position to impose its own vision of education on non-citizens living in their territory, declare exclusionary zones for certain types of businesses, would seek to regulate aspects of social and family life, the location of churches, mosques, synagogues, as well as invoke arbitrary laws with a specific intent to harm. The worst that non-citizens could face would be the loss of ‘property rights’ in other states and an increased arbitrariness in the application of the principle of eminent domain. To an extent, while the federal constitution offers minimal individual protection regarding property rights; states, on the other hand, would have the discretion to decide for themselves how issues of this nature would be handled.

Confederacy is an option that should be considered with great care from the perspective of collective rights and from an economic point of view. Because many industrial activities, investments, and assets owned by citizens of other states are located outside their own territories, it would therefore be highly problematic if individual states have the exclusive authority and discretion to decide on such issues as property rights and ownership, legal residency rules, business certification and revocation, right to worship one’s own religious preference, education policy, and other arbitrary regulations that may be targeted against the economic interests of non-indigenes. Even under the existing federal system, some states in Nigeria have engaged in arbitrary policies that have proven to be inimical to the political and economic interests of non-indigenes. And when considered in light of current realities, it would harm the prospects of all Nigerians, particularly non-indigenes of states, more than it advances the collective right of citizenship and its entitlements. 

But despite its seeming inadequacies, Nigeria could still secure the most important incentives of confederacy (devolution of power) while at the same time avoiding its negative consequences. Part of this could be state ‘control’ of public safety, education policy (as long as it is non-discriminatory), proportional increase in the derivative formula, economic development and intra-state commerce; legal residency in any state—-the right of all citizens of Nigeria to take up legal residency in any state of the federation for the purpose of voting, running for public office, employment, or as an inalienable right of citizenship. Every legal resident should be granted the same privileges and immunities as native born citizens of the state. The case of education policy deserves specific mention. While many continue to advocate universal education for the country, it is important that states take on this responsibility so that each can develop at its own pace within its available human resources and skills. Hence a “universal” education that seeks to offer preferential or reserve domains of privilege to a section or sections of the country is not universal after all. 

And this brings me back to the issue of potential state control of public safety or the police force. This issue should not be anchored on the present security situation in the country but must be prefaced on a sound reasoning that draws on the political antecedents and unsavory disposition of the Nigerian character. In societies governed by the rule of law and in which citizens have come to internalize and practice its virtues, the idea of state control of public safety is a good one. But my fear as well as that of others is that in Nigeria, it might go the wrong way of others before it. In fact, it might portend more dangers than would ordinarily be the case. It runs the danger of being coopted by state governors as a private army to be used against the political opposition; by political and economic god fathers, criminal cartels and drug barons as instruments of intimidation and harm against individual opponents or the government itself; and as a formal instrument of economic ‘shake downs’ and support for illiberal regimes at the state level.   But perhaps, this might not all be the case—but then, it is only —perhaps.

No matter the extent of self-denial, there are many things to worry about our dear country—all at the same time but occurring in multiple variations. It has become a tale of too many incredibles. In a country where more than two hundred young girlswere kidnapped by terrorists that continue to rampage throughout much of the northeastern part of the country, it remains mind-boggling why this matter has not been at the forefront of the current presidential election campaign. In many other countries, a sitting president would either resign or, at least, provide a credible reason why he or she should be re-elected but not without providing clear answers as to the whereabouts of the young girls who may now most possibly be ruined for life. But in the Nigerian case, this issue has been swept underground and very few are being held accountable. The much-vaunted Nigerian army, whose military prowess was as much extolled during the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970 has been found wanting as a series of logistical and operationalinadequaciesare exposed. 

While Nigeria has spent a lot of funds training its soldiers and turning them into a professional army, but the stark reality remains the lack of morale within its ranks and the politicization of the traditional military objective of serving the national security interests of the country. Soldiers are personally dissuaded from dying for a cause for which there is less clarity and a strategic end-game; they reject the notion of protecting not a nation but a corrupt and insidious political system in which members of the national legislature feed fat on a salary and compensation system that is unrivalled in any other developing or developed country in the world. When public servants flaunt their ill-gotten wealth as ubiquitously as is done in Nigeria with little inhibition at concealment, soldiers also worry about how their own sacrifices would translate to the welfare of their own families. The reason why the Nigerian army may seem unable to effectively address the Boko Haram juggernaut raises a critical question that has rarely been addressedby the political system—a system in which much of the general public remain oblivious to a simple truism that nothing opposed to right can ever be advantageous. It is not that soldiers are not willing or able to fight; rather it is a reflection of how their own professional ethic and the objective of fighting and dying for one’s own country have become overly politicized or under-valued. Political calculations oftentimes generate operational problems when they, wittingly or not, undermine strategic military thinking. But the most destructive of this is when such political calculations generate conflicting assumptions that are superimposed on the strategic doctrine instead of being complementary to it. This is a difficult situation for any military to be. 

As a result, the consequence for the Nigerian military will be severe and enduring both as an institution as well as in the sustenanceof its professionalethic of sacrifice. The Economist of January 24, 2015: 44, sums it up quite well when it opines that while “Nigeria’s government would probably reject the notion of foreign forces fighting on its soil; yet there is little to justify its pride.” Today, Chadian and more likely Cameroonian forces are “fighting” on Nigerian soil against an insurgency that pales in comparison to the Biafran forces it faced in 1967-1970 or the Niger Delta militants of previous years. And prefacing the Economist (January 24, 2015: 44) again, “unless Nigeria’s leaders show that they can take the war as seriously as they do politicking, it will be impossible to curb Boko Haram—even with regional forces.” Yet, very few people are asking why and how did we come to be in this situation? Definitely something needs to be done to rework the institutional mindset, psychology, and the essential purpose of the Nigerian military beyond the existing professional training and weapons acquisition systems. What is required is a bottom-up review of all aspects of the military infrastructure including its strategic doctrine, leadership, training and logistics, command and control systems, and personnel well-being and welfare. The evident decline in motivation and morale within some of its ranks can inextricably be linked to its seeming inability to contain the emergent security situation in the country. Hence if the army is allowed to fester and fall apart either by design or omission, so will the country. 

Kalu N. Kalu, Ph. D, is Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science & Security Policy, and a Fulbright Scholar. He has been an FDD Academic Fellow to Israel on terrorism, counterterrorism and intelligence. He writes from the United States.