Too much of everything
It is good that many of the old guards who once held courts at the sanctum of power are joining the call for the restructuring of our great country. The latest convert is General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, our former military ruler who has been seeking traction within the country’s democratic milieu since 1999. Babangida knows Nigeria and he has been at the receiving end of the occasional inclement temper of our country. It is good he is backing the call for a debate on our country’s future. Chief Tola Adeniyi, veteran journalist and former Managing Director of the old Daily Times even prescribed that the county should devolved into a federation of fewer regions.
One thing is clear: Nigerians do not want a unitary government. Yet, the current Constitution, though federal in name, is actually unitary in operation. During the First Republic when Nigeria was a proper federation, every state had its own Constitution, its own coat of arms and its own judiciary. It was because of this that the Western Region established its Court of Appeal years before the Federal Government followed suit. In the same instance, the West puts its minimum wage at five shillings while that of the Federal was three shillings. The West also had its Agent-General in London (because of the high population of its citizens in the United Kingdom), while Nigeria had its High Commissioner.
Today almost everybody agrees that there is a need for restructuring. So why are we not having it? Despite the apparent consensus, it is clear that most politicians are only paying lip service to it. If they want it, it would be done. But the call has been governed more by hypocrisy and self-service than for genuine concern about the future of the country. In truth, restructuring makes both political and economic sense. It is not probable that this Federation, with its dwindling resources would continue to sustain a federation of 36 states and 774 local governments. In truth, this federation has too many governors, too many ministers, too many commissioners and too many local government chairmen. We need to know that too much of everything is bad. Though this arrangement provides high-profile jobs for politicians and their fellow travellers, it is a big and unsustainable burden on the treasury.
Before 1950, Nigeria was virtually governed as two countries. The Northern Protectorate was ruled directly by the colonial Governor-General while Lagos Colony and Southern Protectorate was government by the Governor-General and his Executive Council. There was also the Legislative Council into which four Nigerians were elected; one from Calabar and three from Lagos. At the Ibadan Conference of 1950, our leaders agreed that the country should remain together as one and that we should be a Federation. Our leaders rejected the call for unitary government. Both Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello participated in the Ibadan Conference.
The 1958 Constitutional Conference led to issues that have bedeviled Nigeria till today. At that time, Nigeria was already a federation of three unequal regions. Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group wanted the country split into more manageable regions to take care of the fears of the minority ethnic groups. He wanted four more regions: two in the North, one from the West and one from the East. He also wanted the Yoruba of the North, mainly in Ilorin-Kabba Province, to be merged with the West. He wanted the Lagos Colony to also be merged with the West. He lost on all fronts. At the last Constitutional Conference in 1959, the Willink Commission was set up to look for ways to allay the fears of the minorities. The call for additional regions by the AG was rejected.
The aftermath of the 1958 conference was the first time some of the leaders of the AG felt they should push for the independence of the Western Region as a separate country. Some of the leaders were not happy that the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, led by the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, had teamed up with the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, of Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, to deprive the West of both Lagos and Ilorin-Kabba Province. At that time, most Lagosians were in support of the NCNC and the Lagos branch of the party was dominated by the likes of Modupe Johnson and H.O. Davies. At a point during the debate, Chief Josiah Olawoyin, who was the leader of the Yoruba of the North, burst into tears, fearing that his people would be left in the lurch. In the end, the meeting resolved that the West would remain part of Nigeria. They also agreed that the problem of Ilorin-Kabba Province would be solved in future in a democratic manner.
Today the problem has become more complicated. The Yoruba of the North, who were the largest minority group in the old Northern Region, have now being split into the two states of Kogi and Kwara. In Kwara, they constitute the majority with the Ilorin playing the unending dominant role. In Kogi, the Okun Yoruba are the permanent minority. They seem as distant from the main Yoruba of the South-West like the Yoruba of Benin Republic where cities like Ketu, Ajase and Pobe are flourishing in splendid isolation from the Yoruba heartland.
Despite the rhetoric of politicians, they have always found unitarism irresistibly attractive. First Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa could not resist the temptation to seize control of the government of the old Western Region in the wake of the fierce internal struggle within the opposition Action Group, AG from 1962. That was a big blow against federalism. A bigger blow was to come with the coup of January 1966 which brought Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi to power. Ironsi abolished the federal structure of the country, blaming it for the woes that afflicted the ill-fated First Republic.
Ironsi was killed in the July coup that brought Colonel Yakubu Gowon to power. The new men wanted a loose federation when they have been advised that the succession of the Northern Region would not be in their interest. Gowon created 12 states. Ojukwu wanted the former Eastern Region to become the independent Republic of Biafra. Three years later and with more than one million people dead, Ojukwu fled into exile after Biafra collapsed. Gowon maintained a testy federalism until he was toppled in 1975 when the war commanders, led by General Murtala Muhammed, took over.
The Muhammed coup was a triumph for those who wanted a unitary government or its euphemism, a strong central government. Under Muhammed and his successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo, strong symbols of old regionalism were either abolished or taken over by the Federal Government. All the regional radio and television stations were taken over by the Federal Government. The three big regional universities at Ile-Ife, Zaria and Nsukka, were seized by the Federal Government. By the time Babangida seized power in 1985, the Federal Government had become a Leviathan, controlling everything but basically uncontrollable.
It was this limitless power that allowed Babangida to void the victory of Chief Moshood Abiola at the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. That annulment was unprecedented in Nigerian history and its aftermath and consequences are still with us. Later that year, it was agreed that Abiola may forgo his mandate provided the military allow the restructuring of Nigeria. General Sani Abacha, who seized power from the successor of Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, promised a Constitutional Conference with full powers with all the members elected through a free and fair election based on universal adult suffrage. He later reneged on his solemn promise.
Abacha had his conference but the Yoruba leadership did not participate. Five regimes later, Nigerians are still talking about the need for constitutional reforms. Both Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan made attempts to reform the Constitution, but there was no indication that they favour regionalism. Most of the old campaigners for regionalism and constitutional reforms are now in government. It is time they remember their old rhetoric and take action to kick-start the process. If not, their inaction would set the agenda for the next general elections or even fuel immediate centrifugal assumptions and precipitate action.
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