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Nigeria’s future: Devolve or die

By Ladipo Adamolekun
26 October 2020   |   3:44 am
Only devolution can unleash the forces for consolidating democracy and achieving accelerated socioeconomic progress in Nigeria. The alternative to devolution will likely be the death of the federation. - Ladipo Adamolekun (2005). Clearly, one of the factors responsible for the ongoing failure of Nigeria is over-centralisation of powers. - Guardian, Editorial, January 6th 2018. In…


Only devolution can unleash the forces for consolidating democracy and achieving accelerated socioeconomic progress in Nigeria. The alternative to devolution will likely be the death of the federation. – Ladipo Adamolekun (2005).
Clearly, one of the factors responsible for the ongoing failure of Nigeria is over-centralisation of powers. – Guardian, Editorial, January 6th 2018.

In the darkest years of military rule under Sanni Abacha, the approaching end to my years abroad was the occasion for me to come up with my credo on the future of Nigeria. My political credo for Nigeria, “devolve or die”, was spelled out in the concluding paragraph to my commemorative article on 50 years of federalism in Nigeria (“The Nigerian Federation at the Crossroads: The Way Forward”) published in Publius, The Journal of Federalism (2005). The paragraph ended with the first quotation cited above. (The Abstract of the article is provided as an Addendum at the end of this short essay). The second quote from a recent editorial of The Guardian is an echo of my credo.

Military culture and unitary federalism
President Buhari’s convoluted structure/process perspective on restructuring in his 2018 New Year speech is no more than a camouflage for his continued attachment to the unitary features of the country’s federal system. He and other military politicians who ruled Nigeria for close to 30 years between January 1966 and September 1999 – from Aguiyi Ironsi to Abdulsalam Abubakar – had introduced the unitary features that were inspired by their military culture. Two crucial illustrations relate to (a) the concentration of powers at the centre (reflected in the skewed allocation of functions between the central and sub-national governments in the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions) and (b) a distorted revenue allocation formula that assigns 52.68% to the federal government, 26.72% to state governments and 20.6% to the local governments.

Then, unsurprisingly, President Obasanjo who ruled as a civilian president between 1999 and 2007 maintained the inherited unitary features because they were consistent with his military culture. Indeed, he promoted increased centralisation with the Universal Basic Education (UBE) law and his failed attempt to impose federal power over local governments. At the primary education level, Obasanjo invented a role for the Federal Government that was different from the relevant provision in the 1999 Constitution: Universal Basic Education (UBE) was designed as a Federal Government policy and programme in defiance of the provision in the 1999 Constitution that assigns responsibility for primary education to state and local governments. The role of the Federal Government in primary education is limited to prescribing minimum standards as provided in the Constitution’s Second Schedule, Exclusive Legislative List, 60 (e). This hi-jacked primary education function (UBE) was used as part of the rationalization for the maintenance of the federal government’s lion’s share of the Federation account. More on this later. Regarding local governments, president Obasanjo promoted the Monitoring of Revenue Allocation to Local Governments Act 2005 that vested the authority in the Auditor General of the Federation. This additional dose of over-centralisation was challenged by Lagos State and a few like-minded states and their challenge was upheld by a Supreme Court decision in July 2006.

Although President Yar’Adua formally committed to abrogating laws that underpin the unitary features of the country’s federal system, he was unable to pull this off because his presidency was short-lived due to illness and eventual death. “I have also directed that all laws be examined that go against the federal system so that they will be amended to be in conformity with the federal system of government” – quote from Yar’Adua’s interview with London’s Financial Times reported in various national newspapers, May 20/08). However, President Yar’Adua’s unambiguous commitment to abrogating the laws that underpin unitary federalism was ignored by his successor, president Jonathan. The latter’s contribution to the debate on Nigeria’s federal system was through the 2014 National Political Conference that he sponsored. The recommendations of the Conference included a significant number that would, if implemented, help tackle the over-centralisation of powers and resources that characterise our military-inspired unitary federalism. However, the Conference’s recommendation on the creation of eighteen (18) new states means that the country would have 54 federating units that would be weaker than the current 36.

Concretely, then, the two key dimensions to restructuring are (i) re-allocation of powers and resources and (ii) reconfiguring the country’s federating units. It is in respect of (i) that restructuring and devolution are used correctly as synonyms. All those who claim that there are as many versions (meanings) of restructuring as there are proponents are only being disingenuous.

Re-allocation of powers and resources
The assignment of functions that would be consistent with a devolved federal system would follow closely the arrangements in the 1954 and 1960 Constitutions – a short exclusive federal list including national defence, the macro-economy and foreign affairs; joint responsibility in respect of some crucial functions that are currently assigned exclusively to the federal government (for example, internal security and policing); and primary responsibility of the sub-national governments in respect of the other functions in the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. The failure of the 8th National Assembly to include devolution of powers in the proposed constitutional amendment that are currently being considered by State Houses of Assembly suggests that continued attachment to over-centralisation of powers is not only at the level of military politicians. In the circumstance, it would make eminent sense for citizens across all geo-political zones to make commitment to a constitutional amendment on devolution a litmus test of their vote for candidates in the 2019 elections: legislators at the state and national levels as well as governors and the president. It is only logical that the existing sharing percentages applied to the Federation Account should reflect the proposed re-assignment of functions. I would propose a 35:65 sharing ratio, that is, 35% for the central government and 65% for the governments of the federating units. (For example, the central: provincial ratio in Canada since 1985 is 45: 55).

Reconfiguring the country’s federating units.
Unlike the clarity in respect of the re-allocation of functions and resources, there are two alternatives for reconfiguring the country’s federating units: increase the number of states by 18 to make a total of 54 states or make the six geopolitical zones the primary sub-national units in the federation. I would argue that it was illogical for the 2014 National Political Conference to simultaneously recommend the re-allocation of powers and resources along the lines summarised in the preceding paragraph (with some variations in the details) and the adoption of a 54-state structure. Support for significant reduction in the powers and resources of the central government should mean either the maintenance of the existing 36-state structure or a fewer number of federating units.

In these circumstances, I align with the school of thought that advocates the adoption of the six geo-political zones as the country’s federating units. The equality of three zones in the south and three in the north will remove once and for all the inequality introduced arbitrarily by military dictators resulting in the current 19:17 north/south sharing of states. When 12 states were created in 1966, the need to maintain balance between the northern and southern parts of the country was explicitly stated. The persistent agitation for an equal number of states among geopolitical zones since 1999 confirms the wisdom of the structural re-organisation of 1966. Next, each geopolitical zone should be free to decide on the number of sub-units (states/provinces, districts/local governments) that are appropriate for its peoples, taking into account both cultural and developmental imperatives.

In the context of the proposed new federal structure, the Federation Account should be shared between the central and six zonal governments in the ratio of 35 to 65. The 65 per cent for sub-national governments should be shared equally among the zonal governments that would then freely decide on the proportions to share among their respective states/provinces and districts/local governments, as well as the formula to use for intra-zonal revenue sharing.

Last Word
Remaking Nigeria through devolution of powers and restructuring of the federating units is a worthy cause and the momentum that it has gathered cannot be stemmed. Yes, it can be delayed but it will triumph sooner than later because it is crucial to keeping Nigeria united.

Addendum: Abstract of “Nigerian Federation at the Crossroads: The Way Forward”
This paper reviews the first fifty years of federal experience in Nigeria. It distinguishes three phases: an apprenticeship to “true” federalism phase (1954-1965); a federal dominance phase under military rule (1966-1979 and 1984-1999); and a “muddling through” phase under civilian rule (1979-1983 and 1999 to date).

The first phase was characterized by political devolution and intergovernmental competition; and regional governments recorded tangible results. During the second phase, successive military regimes imposed centralism and federal dominance that kept Nigeria one but arrested progress towards consolidating federal democracy. Civilian administrations under the third phase have sought to run the federation in a muddling through fashion, and with mixed results: serious political and social tensions, modest economic performance and deepening poverty. In a final section, the paper argues that the Nigerian federation is at the crossroads and it has two options: devolution or death.

• Professor Ladipo Adamolekun wrote from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.