Monday, 5th June 2023

National dialogue in two words

By Dan Agbese
21 May 2021   |   4:20 am
We have a very limited vocabulary in what passes for our national dialogue, debate, conversation and incendiary arguments that quite often shake the foundation of this house.

We have a very limited vocabulary in what passes for our national dialogue, debate, conversation and incendiary arguments that quite often shake the foundation of this house. Given our tendency to be voluble, I am sure you would find it difficult to believe that we use only two words in all cases of our national debate or conversation or dialogue or argument. One is a three-letter word, YES; the other is a two-letter word, NO. Plus the rat. Note that.

The tradition is cast in stone, to wit, if one section of the country says yes to a new or a refurbished idea on how to move this behemoth of a nation from point A to point B, the other section must say no. A nation that permanently disagrees distances itself from the soporific nature of agreeing with itself. The unlikely culprit is the rat. Its presence fouls the atmosphere and disorganises rational thinking. The section of the country that says no to a new idea on nation-building, smells the rat and feels offended by its brazenness.

It is a given that once you smell a rat, your dander is up. We are condemned to live with the mutual suspicion forged on the anvil of eternal distrust between the north and the south and among the ethnic groups on both sides of the great divide. If you are looking for reasons why nothing is settled in our country, look no further. We are because we say yes; and we are because we say no. If we cannot agree, we can settle nothing; and if we can settle nothing, nothing of course, is settled; consequently, we move in circles and mistake mere motion for movement to the deafening drumbeats of political soundbites.

Since our return to civilian rule in 1999, the argument that our federal system has become progressively unworkable has gripped our imagination. It has been served as a political diet in various forms as resource control, fiscal federalism, true federalism and restructuring. It was impossible for our country to emerge from years of military dictatorship without being encumbered by the detritus and the baggage of arbitrariness. All the words that fuel the debate have one point to one objective – and that is to dismantle the current centralised federal system and replace it with best practices in a ventilated federal system. The debate packs emotions and it packs suspicion and it packs fear and it packs ignorance. It has minted local champions on both sides of the divide.

From the welter of ideas, we have now settled on one: restructuring, as possibly the most neutered solution to our heaps of national problems. Its main proponents are in the south. Last week, the governors of the southern states, all 17 of them, met in Asaba, Delta State, and gave their tacit support to restructuring. A few days later, senators and members of the House of Representatives from all the 17 southern states, lent their weight to the decision of their state governors; well, minus Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House of Representatives.

You would be naïve not to expect the north to smell the rat in what the southern governors have done. But the 19 northern state governors have not yet met to take a formal position on restructuring. Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), that touts itself as the voice of the north, filled the silent space while we wait for their excellencies to be heard. Its publicity secretary, Emmanuel Yawe, said, “On restructuring, the ACF believes that before we take a decision on this, we should agree on whether Nigeria should remain as one country…”

That is a rather strange view on restructuring. It is arrant ignorance. Restructuring is not about choosing between one Nigeria and no Nigeria. It is about ironing out some creases in the structure of our federation and the bastardised nature of our federalism to strengthen and make Nigeria a poster child for how a multi-ethnic and multi-religious federated state could find its groove. It obliges us as citizens to explore options that would make for its unity and cohesion and make our nation fair and just to all its citizens.

The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, do not particularly welcome the position of the southern governors and their distinguished and honourable colleagues in the national assembly. Lawan said the decision of the southern governors was a call for regionalism – a possible indication of our backward march in our forward thinking. General Yakubu Gowon removed regionalism from our body politic aeons ago in 1967.

Gbajabiamila advised the governors “not to champion the movement for restructuring without first replicating the idea at the state level.” I thought the speaker knew that under our current centralised system, the governors cannot restructure their states. If a state governor decides to collapse his local governments into fewer local governments that he can manage, he would run afoul of the constitution. Restructuring, unlike charity, cannot begin at home with the states. It is a fundamental national challenge not to be trivialised.

There you have it – yes and no. And there is the rat. The two words run on parallel lines and in the nature of parallel lines, they are destined not to meet. We face some very critical challenges on the present and the future of our country. If we cannot honestly face them, it would be naïve for us to think that despite the skyscrapers everywhere, Nigeria is matching in tandem with other modern nations into the sunrise of its future.

All nations are dynamic human constructs. Things change within and outside them. Nations that refuse to change or adjust to accommodate necessary changes to invigorate the business of government and human management, risk ending up as ancient nations among modern nations. All constitutions provide their amendments because inflexibility is anathema to human progress.

We have reached a fork on the road. Let us not be shy about this or under-play the enormity of the challenges we face. The burden of a mixed unitary and federal systems is crushing all the 811 governments in the country. It is a strange anomaly in governance.

The Nigeria Governors’ Forum is as good a platform as any for the state governors to hunker down and interrogate restructuring and tell us if it is a good or a bad idea. Yes and no will only see this atomistic nation wasting valuable time on mere political soundbites that generate public applause but does not advance the cause of our nation, its people and its true socio-economic development.

Two things must happen to move the debate on restructuring to its next phase. One, its proponents should quit looking at the easy options such as going back to the 1963 constitution. It cannot serve our modern needs now. We have moved on. We do need new thinking and not refurbished thoughts.

Two, they must tell us if we are talking of physical or administrative restructuring or both. Do we need the constellation of the current impoverished 36 states or fewer states? Should we merge them into six regions (Atiku Abubakar) or eight regions (Chief Anthony Enahoro)? No nation makes appreciable development strides beyond the cosmetics by doing nothing more radical than servicing its recurrent expenditure. We spend 80 per cent of the annual federal and state budgets on our politicians and civil servants. Go figure why the roads are impassable; millions of our people depend on unhygienic water; the hospitals are not even consulting clinics and ours is the largest generator-importing country in the world.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo saw it coming when he described the states as glorified local governments. Let me borrow from the late sage and say that the local governments, all 774 of them, are glorified village councils. Of the 36 states, only Lagos and a couple of other states do not put out the empty bowl each month for their share of oil and other earnings from the federation account. Most of the states are poor and impoverished and cannot meet their basic obligations to their civil servants, serving and retired, let alone drive development at that level of government.

Restructuring should help us make some sense of the unnecessary burden we carry with some 811 governments. It should help us settle whose responsibilities the local governments are between the federal and the states. Restructuring holds the promise of our rejigging our country to wean it from being potentially great to being truly great.

The El-Rufai committee on true federalism set up by APC, turned in its report long ago. In its manifesto, the party promised to effect true federalism. It has turned out to be a 419 promise. In his preface to the report, El-Rufai noted that “we should be able to, as a nation, evolve new political culture and praxis towards consensus agreements on issues that confront us as a nation.”
Yes? No? It’s our collective call.