A sceptic view of regionalism
Agitation for a return to regions seems to have a somewhat tribal assumption, the assumption that once a people of shared identities have constituted themselves into one region they would be able to confront the larger society as a united front. The history of regionalism in Nigeria, especially that of the defunct Western Region predominated by the Yoruba, contradicts that assumption.
The Western Region was great between 1952 and 1959 when the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was premier of the region. His achievements were outstanding and historical, especially in the field of education. Many, who otherwise would have been palm wine tappers, rose to become great professionals because the free education policy of Awolowo and his party made it possible for them to attend schools. Without any disputations, it is generally agreed that Awolowo has a legacy that will endure in history.
However, the same Western Region crumbled into an eyesore soon after the exit of Awolowo. The regional politics of 1962-1965 contributed significantly to the collapse of the Nigerian First Republic. While not disagreeing that external influences had a hand in what eventually became of the region, the honest truth is that key politicians of that era did not have the discipline that marked out Obafemi Awolowo as an historical leader. Regional politicians publicly told prospective voters that their votes did not matter because their political party would still win without them. Non-collaborative traditional rulers had their salaries reduced to a penny a year. The post-election disagreements of 1965 were expressed in the burning of houses and killing of political opponents.
Even during the leadership of Awolowo, political competition in the Western Region was evenly balanced between his Action Group and the rival National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun, headed by the great Nnamdi Azikiwe. In fact, the latter won the 1954 federal election in the region. Awolowo was not the most popular politician in the regional headquarters of Ibadan, that honour belonged to his bete noire, the crowd-pulling Adegoke Adelabu of the NCNC.
A renewed Western Region will not be an El Dorado, as being canvassed by proponents. As against just two universities in 1965, there are now over 20 universities in the former region as well as scores of polytechnics and colleges of education. The problems of unemployment and delayed payment of salaries will not disappear simply because states have merged into a region. Neither will the competition or rivalry that is inevitable between the sub-groups – Oyo, Ekiti, Egba, Ijebu, Ondo, etc.
The assumption here is that creation of states by the military has reduced the tensions that once existed within regions. In the Eastern and Northern Regions in particular, there were serious conflicts between the majority ethnic groups and the minority ones. Those who experienced those tensions arising from the domination of the majority ethnic groups, would not be too keen about any suggestion of a return to regional government. A preliminary survey of public opinion indicates that the majority of Nigerians would rather cling to their states than return to regions.
Thanks to money from the oil producing territories, creation of states seems to have resulted in the growth of more urban cities. It can be said that prosperity has been evenly distributed that it once was. Gone were the days when the good things were the exclusive preserve of regional headquarters – Enugu, Kaduna, Ibadan. The states will have to fend for themselves once a possible restructuring of the Nigerian federation has visited them with new economic implications or realities. Oil may not be the most attractive commodity in a couple of decades and that is one reality staring us in the face.
States do not have to be equally endowed in financial terms. There will be rich and poor states, as it is the case even in the United States of America. The Nigerian states will have to learn how to generate wealth, as well as cut their coats according to their sizes. The erstwhile culture which assumes that citizens can enjoy governmental facilities while they do not pay tax will have to change. Tax-paying is a reciprocal obligation which arms the citizenry with moral authority over the running of state and society. One reason why corruption has become a monster in our society is the perception of oil money as free money.
Be that as it may, the one semblance of regionalism canvassed by this writer is the constitutional recognition of the six geopolitical zones for the purpose of leadership rotation and the balancing of political appointments. It is wasteful having 36 ministers, one minister per state, when 24 or less will do. America would have had 50 ministers if, like Nigeria, every state must have a minister. States that have a special affinity can always cooperate in many respects without endangering the drive towards a more cohesive Nigerian federation.
• Akinola is the author of Rotational Presidency, and Party Coalitions in Nigeria – History, Trends and Prospects.