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Federalism is the answer, after all – Part 1

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In the last couple of weeks, protest against bad governance and demands for change have rocked the country. The public space is clogged with huge associational conversations. As it were, Nigeria is under pressure for change. Well-meaning Nigerians including this medium have at various times tried to provide solution to our un-ending problems of nation-building and development. Nigeria is not well at the moment. Some have even referred to it as ‘‘the sick man of Africa’’ because of its unending crisis of governance and poor leadership. This is in comparison to the problem that Turkey constituted to Europe in the 19th century that earned that country label of ‘‘the sick man of Europe.” We provide here an answer to the question: What is to be done?

First and foremost, a little bit of history is important. Nigeria entered into independence on the basis of a federal state structure, and a government structure that was parliamentary. Mode of sharing national wealth was about 50 per cent derivation flowing from a long history of revenue allocation that was 100 per cent derivation designed by the Sydney Philipson Commission of 1946 in the colonial era. The military coup and counter coup of 1966, the consequent civil war and entrenchment of military rule wiped away what was a harmonious governance system that accommodated the diversities and sensibilities of the peoples of Nigeria. Indeed, military rule led to a leadership based on sectional interest over the rest of the country. In Aburi, Ghana, there was a negotiation of the state structure along confederal line or loose federation that did not succeed but plunged the country into an avoidable civil war with an estimated loss of two million lives.  

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Military misrule underlined by its centralisation of a supposed federal state structure into unitary one where order flows from the central authority while undermining the authority of the component units of the Nigerian federation compounded governance. It was such that state elite carried on with a rentier mentality of misapplying and misappropriating Nigeria’s commonwealth, that is the wealth that belonged to all of us. Oil wealth from the Niger-Delta sustained the greed of the military elite whose leadership was often sectional. The politicians who succeeded them in the programmed-to-fail democratic dispensations did not fare better. They lived like lords over their impoverished citizens’ squandering of our riches. They thereby provided a basis for military incursion into politics. So, governing Nigeria has been one of motion without movement, and the consequence is that the country has been reduced to world of underdevelopment. 

Therefore, the current crisis was easily predictable except for those running the country and living in a world of lies and self-delusion. Prodemocracy activists like the late Aka-Bashorun, Gani Fawehinmi and Beko Ransome-Kuti among others tried to provide solutions by calling for national dialogue. Under the toga of the ad-hoc body called the National Consultative Forum. They tried to convey a national conference at the National Theatre, Iganmu which was stopped with amoured tanks by the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. The June 12 annulment made it clear that the country could not be governed the old way: the pro-democrats called for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC), which was ignored by those controlling the federal institutions of violence and authority.

Ever since the commencement of the Fourth Republic, late Chief Anthony Enahoro the man who moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence under the colonial regime designed a new state structure that would be truly federal but was ignored. Obasanjo half-heartedly conveyed a conference that was truncated by selfish interest, and Jonathan administration tried in 2014 to do same with some degree of success but was ignored by those who preferred the prevalent decadent status quo. 

Curiously, the need to re-design the state structure has taken on different names, such as ‘restructuring’, ‘true federalism’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘fiscal federalism’ among others. It is clear from the foregoing that Nigeria’s problem is essentially the state structure. So, the battle for Nigeria is about restoring freedom to the component units to chart the course of development in their respective enclaves. Those who plant yam should harvest yam; and those who plant rice should harvest rice and should not be made poor despite their natural resources. 

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Let’s not play the ostrich anymore: this newspaper would like to state for the umpteenth time that federalism is the answer. And so what is the question? What is this thing called federalism? We must warn that there is a lot of literature on the meaning of federalism and people have approached it from sociological, economic and political directions. But we must avoid the rigmarole, in other words, the acrobatics of academics, and put it simply. Federalism is an agreement by peoples of different backgrounds, it could be race, language or religion to live together based on certain principles such as how to manage the wealth of the country, how to defend the country from a common enemy, and the type of rights the citizens should enjoy. The history of the peoples entering into a covenant or agreement to live together in a political unit normally shapes the nature of a federation. In our case, it must invest fiscal autonomy in the units as well as political authority to govern the people. The central government would be saddled with limited functions of leadership of the country in core areas like national defence, national currency, foreign policies as may be so defined by the peoples in the federal pact. In this respect we share the classical definition of Kenneth Wheare that a federal system is one that where both the central and state governments are equal and coordinate in the distribution of power. As he argues further, you have not federation without fiscal autonomy. In ways similar, Shidath Ramphal, former Commonwealth Secretary General, says a federal system “is process of unifying power within the cluster of states and decentralisng power within the unified state.”  

It is to be noted therefore that the current system whereby a state government cannot re-engineer the local units of governments according to the needs and resources of the state; where it will require permission of the central authorities to provide electricity, to build railway; and exploit its resource endowment among other things key to good governance, is unsustainable and a deviation from the federal spirit. However, even as we would like to add here a caveat that this will not end all our problems, we are convinced that it will be a useful and important step towards building a country of our dream – humane and egalitarian.

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