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Referendum as stepping stone for rescuing Nigeria from the precipice

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This is an invaluable book on issues, options and solutions to the Nigerian political crisis. Nigeria on the Precipice (Universe, Bloomington, 2017; Indiana, U.S.) contains lessons for emerging multi-ethnic and democratic societies. Written by Michael Owhoko, the book tells the story of how the British created Nigeria in 1914 without regard to the cultural differences and the incompatibility of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria. This was why Nigeria has been wracked by problems ever since. According to Owhoko, two groups have laid claim to the control and domination of Nigeria since independence that culminated in a military coup on January 15, 1966.

That action was followed by a counter-coup, led by the second group six months later. The Nigerian Civil War, fought between 1967 and 1970, was part of the violence that has crippled the nation. With the persistent call for a change from unitary to true federalism, it is certain that Nigerians are not satisfied with the current system of government. Nigeria on the Precipice is a slim volume with loaded information and analysis.

The first two chapters deal with the historical development of Nigeria and her contractual federal system of government. So far, the author argues, leaders have not responded to the seething discontent pervading the country, advising that they should hold a referendum to decide which system of government to adopt.

However, it is contentious to argue that Britain was mischievous in amalgamating Nigeria’s two protectorates in 1914, with the knowledge that it would not work due to the heterogeneous nature of the country. It can, however, be safely argued that Nigeria is failing due to the unwarranted ambitions of the Fulani and the Igbo to control and dominate Nigeria, which was why unitary government was foisted on Nigeria by General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi. The consequence has been the alienation of the natural resources from their rightful owners. Now that it is apparent that neither the Fulani nor the Igbo have the capacity to dominate Nigeria, the need to restructure to true federalism and a restoration of the revenue allocation system of the First Republic has become inevitable.

Without doubt, the federal system of government has been accepted as a viable system of social contract in Nigeria. It is also known that every federation varies slightly in structure and operation based on history and peculiar needs. For a federation to be viable, the federating units must be autonomous. Neither the state nor the centre is inferior to the other, but autonomous and interdependent. The federal system practised in Nigeria during the first republic fitted perfectly into the country’s diverse ethnic and cultural composition.

Back then, the regions were autonomous, with both the regions and the centre deriving their powers from the Constitution. The powers, duties and responsibilities of each tier were clearly spelt out under the exclusive, concurrent and residual lists in the Basic Law. Were it not for the 1966 coup, which truncated the system, Nigeria would have been transformed and grown into an enviable power in the comity of nations. Another feature of federalism of the first republic was the composition of the regions.

They were based on linguistic groupings that provided a huge advantage due to the assemblage of people with similar attitudes, social values and political beliefs. This made it easier for them to live together under an inclusive government. The federating units also had constitutions, regional police and coats of arms. They also practised fiscal federalism, which was acceptable to both tiers without any observable agitations.

Then, fiscal federalism was as follows: There were revenues collected and retained by the centre. There were those collected by the centre, but credited to the regions, according to derivation or consumption. Also, there were revenues collected at the centre, but allocated to a distributable pool account and shared between the regions in the percentages of 42 to the north, 30 to the East, 20 to the West and eight to the Midwest. There were revenues collected and retained by the regions.

Of particular interest was revenue distributed to the regions on the basis of derivation, which was 50 percent of proceeds generated from rents and royalties of mineral resources. Regions where these resources were found were paid and enjoyed 50 percent. The remaining 50 percent was retained by the centre for national development. Until Providence raised oil and gas from the Niger Delta, the minorities of the Niger Delta earned zero income from derivation.

But instead of continuing with 50 percent derivation, it was abandoned. However, pressure from the Niger Delta forced President Shehu Shagari to increase derivation to 1.5 percent. This was raised to three percent by President Ibrahim Babangida. However, the 1999 Constitution gave the region 13 percent. Reversion to 50 percent was refused till today. Lack of sincerity and courage to revert to the old order is part of the problems of Nigeria, the author posits. There is obvious conspiracy of silence from the big tribes to deprive the Niger Delta people from enjoying 50 percent derivation proceeds from oil and gas: resources that were deposited in their land by God.

The violent overthrow of the government of Tafawa Balewa in 1966 brought in the unitary system of government. Through Decree 34 of 1966, the new leader, General Aguiyi Ironsi, replaced federalism with the unitary system of government. The pattern of killings in the coup justifiably called into question the sincerity of the plotters. In executing his new system, Ironsi provoked fears of Igbo domination of Nigeria. These fears first led to the pogrom against the Igbo in Northern Nigeria.

Fears of Igbo domination were already evident in the economy, bureaucracy and commerce. Ironsi never initiated any policy to allay the fears of the other ethnic groups. In reaction to the loss of power, a counter-coup was hatched in which Ironsi and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi were killed and Colonel Yakubu Gowon was thrust into power. These coups abrogated derivation and introduced ethnic consciousness into the country.

“So far, we have related the origin and reasons for agitation for reconstruction in Nigeria. If Gowon had reverted to federalism and 50 percent derivation, our story as a nation would have been different. But the legacy of injustice from Ironsi, Gowon and their successors fuelled instability in Nigeria,” Owhoko writes. “Apparently, the current system isn’t working and cannot deliver on the aspirations of Nigerians. Therefore, what are the rescue measures needed for Nigeria’s renewal?”

For Owhoko, conducting a referendum is the solution. Through a referendum the book avows, the people can decide which system of government to adopt. Thus, the way out of the imbroglio is that a referendum be activated to resolve Nigeria’s contending political logjam. Indecision by the government is pushing Nigeria beyond the cliff, where it currently stands. With a referendum, the government would not only make headway on overcoming the problems, it would also regain the trust of the people.

The author, Owhoko is a media and public relations practitioner. He had mostly worked in the banking, oil and gas and media industries. He earned degrees in political science, mass communication and is the publisher of Media Issues, an online newspaper. He is also the author of The Language of Oil and Gas and Career Frustration in the Workplace. Nigeria on the Precipice is essential reading for journalists, legislators, politicians and anyone seeking to rescue Nigeria from the brink she seems inevitably headed.



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