Atiku and Osinbajo Who is the true advocate of restructuring Nigeria?
The general election session in Nigeria has acquired notoriety for how it is wantonly exploited by some politicians for self-promotion the back of issues of public interest. This reality is currently playing out in the public space with the fast approaching 2019 general elections with politicians and especially presidential hopefuls seizing on the issue of ‘restructuring’ the country. It is thus not a surprise that the issue of restructuring has become subject of debate between the country’s No.2 official, Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) and ex-Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
Osinbajo and Atiku have laid claims to being advocates of restructuring Nigeria with at least implicit suggestion of a lack of sincerity from both sides. Talk is of course cheap. So, it is crucial that the record is set straight on the matter. The issue engaged in this op-ed is who has been a genuine advocate of restructuring or true federalism in Nigeria between Osinbajo and Atiku? We need a fact check of their past engagements and performance in office to set the records straight and separate pseudo advocacy from genuine commitment to true federalism and who is employing it to score cheap political points?
It is a matter of the records that Atiku was Obasanjo’s vice president from 1999-2007. So, what did he say and, or do as vice president for eight years to advance his agenda for restructuring Nigeria which he has become a ‘champion’ of? An excellent point of reference for Atiku’s personal life and political views as articulated on his personal website is his biography ‘Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar’ authored by the now late former Managing Director of Daily Times, Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba in 2006.
On 271 page of the book, ‘restructuring’ is mentioned three times and ‘restructure’, once. In the electronic version of the book, restructuring is first mentioned on page 62 where it came up with reference to the late Biafran leader, then Col. Odimegwu Ojukwu (in the run up to the civil war) who had ‘asked for a restructuring of Nigeria into a loose confederation of autonomous regions.’ The second mention is of ‘restructure’ on page 226 where we are told that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in the run up to the 1999 general elections had ‘also resolved to restructure Nigeria in the spirit of true federalism so as to achieve a just and equitable distribution of power, wealth and opportunities…conducive for our living together in peace, unity and social harmony.’
The third reference is with regard to the attempt to recruit late Chief Bola Ige to become President of Nigeria through the Abdusalami Abubakar political transitional programme. We are told that Ige was ‘tough and uncompromising in his demands for restructuring and other fundamental changes in Nigeria.’ The fourth and final reference is on page 230 of the book where we are informed that Atiku ‘said the PDP is solidly in favour of restructuring of the federation… “Any politician who is opposing the clamour for a true federalism in Nigeria is not sincere.” This is the only place in the book where the word restructuring is connected to Atiku.
We otherwise do not have a direct mention of the word restructuring in the political agenda or career of Atiku for the eight years of his vice-presidency. Needless to say then that he did not articulate it during his tenure nor actively took steps to advance the course of restructuring the country when he had auspicious opportunity to do so. So, for eight years as number two man in the country, his authorised biography shows he was neither an advocate nor active implementer of a restructuring agenda in Nigeria.
Moreover, in his autobiography; ‘My Life’ published in 2013, the word ‘restructuring’ appears once and ‘restructure’ also once. He stated that: ‘Another major plank of our economic reforms programme was restructuring the tax system to yield more revenue, stimulate economic growth and redistribute income between the rich and the poor.’ He also stated that: ‘Also, we set up the Debt Management Office (DMO) to review and restructure Nigeria’s debt.’ Both are on page 47 of the book and clearly, none was talking about true federalism. Thus, those who have pointed out that the Atiku’s newly found love for restructuring is opportunistic and a matter of political brinksmanship have a strong point especially as his public statements on it are coming months to another general election in which he is aspiring to contest for president.
Now, let us look at the public service profile of Osinbajo. As Attorney-General of Lagos State from 1999-2007, he led a series of legal battles against the Federal Government to secure true federalism. The PDP was in power with Obasanjo and Atiku as president and vice president respectively. The National Assembly was dominated by the PDP. The cases ranged from laws which sought to control urban and regional planning in the states, monitoring local government revenue (allocation), to the creation of local governments. Let us look at just two of the cases and their significance for true federalism in Nigeria.
In Attorney General of Abia State & 2 Ors v Attorney General of the Federation and 33 Ors. VP Osinbajo (as Attorney General of Lagos State) challenged the constitutionality of the Local Government Revenue Monitoring Act in the Supreme Court contending that it is a major negation of true federalism. As 3rd Plaintiff in the case, Lagos State filed the most comprehensive objections to the Act. Osinbajo had argued that the National Assembly could not exercise oversight functions over local government administration in the country.
The Act which provided for direct disbursement of local government allocations from the federal account and monitoring of the process by the Federal Government, amounted to undue interference with the powers of the states over local governments as provided by Section 7 (and other sections) of the 1999 Constitution. He argued too that it was also unconstitutional for the National Assembly to impose a duty on the state as – the Act sought to do -, in matters within the legislative competence of the state legislature. The other 33 states supported the arguments. The Supreme Court agreed with his position and ruled in favour of Lagos State. This case has been pivotal to maintaining the powers of states over local governments till in line with the principles of true federalism till today.
In Attorney General of Lagos State v Attorney General of the Federation & 35 Ors (Urban Planning case), he challenged the provisions of the Urban Planning Decree which had been passed by the military and adopted by the PDP government of President Obasanjo (with Atiku as VP). The law had purported to confer powers of urban and regional planning for the whole country on the Federal Government. Based on the Decree, the Federal Government was issuing building plan approvals to people in Lagos State and other parts of the country, in complete disregard of the physical planning laws and arrangements of the states.
Dr. Yusuf is a reader in Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Osinbajo led the way in arguing that the provisions were unconstitutional and emphasized the need to preserve the autonomy of the states in physical planning matters to enable them develop based on their preferences. He won the case. The Supreme Court gave judgment in favour of the states declaring the provisions unconstitutional and thus preserved the autonomy of the states for planning with their territories which is critical for their development and maintaining true federalism in the country. To be sure, the states have been able to regain and maintain their powers to control the physical development of their territories till today, more than 12 years after the judgment of the Supreme Court.
Moreover, as vice president, Osinbajo has been unequivocal in his support for state police among other issues on restructuring of the country. There is thus, a consistency, which is clearly missing in Atiku’s public record on restructuring. True federalism is important. However, unless there is accountability and good governance, no system of government will salvage the morass in the polity. We are all living witnesses of the monumental pillage and stealing of public funds by governments that have ruled the country from 1999-2015 when billions of dollars earned mainly from oil revenues were diverted into the national and mainly foreign accounts of those in public office and their cronies.
The blatant corruption has held the country hostage and we are now reaping the harvest of the impact of the gross abuse of public trust. Osinbajo has lately stated that Nigeria’s major problem is the lack of good governance and the grand corruption by the political elite. It beclouds the fundamental problem of governance in Nigeria to disagree.
Dr. Yusuf is a reader in Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham.