True federalism in Nigeria: Now or never
The National Pledge, which is supposed to be like a nationalistic rallying call for every Nigerian, has come to be derided instead of being revered, going by the recent happenings in the country.
The trenchant call for the practice or better put a return to the practice of true Federalism, which is seen by many Nigerians as the solution to the problems plaguing the country seems to be gathering momentum by the day, with a countervailing force pushing against the call, on the ground that the solution to the country’s economic problems lies in the diversification of her resources and not the practice of “true Federalism.”
In the aborted first republic, the system was fiscal federalism and there was less contention for resource control. The economy which was majorly driven by agricultural cash crops like groundnuts, cocoa and palm oil from the northern, western and eastern regions; rubber, cashew nuts and hide and skins boosted the regional economies. The regions only had to contribute part of the revenue in form of taxes to the central government to ensure its smooth and effective running. It is also on record that none of our founding fathers – Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Pa Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro and others were at any point in time, aversed to this form of government. In fact, it was made a condition for the unity of the country before independence.
If the intrusion of the military into the political space on January 15, 1966, destroyed this legacy of fiscal Federalism and the country continued in this error through a constitutional drafting committee that was hastily put together to reflect the intention of their pay masters (military overlords) in the 1979 Constitution rather than the will of the of the people; must we continue to live in this error?
The campaign for the enthronement of true federalism in Nigeria now popularly referred to as restructuring unarguably goes beyond resource control as it is even concerned more with the devolution of powers in several aspects of our national life from the central government to the federating units (states). This is why notable court battles were fought up to the Supreme Court on issues bothering on the powers of the Federal Government to take over the allocation of funds and supervision of finances.
There are so many genuine grievances about the current unitary system masquerading as a federal one that need to be addressed. It ranges from the issues of State police, resource control and the extent of power sharing between the Federal Government and the states; the place of religion in our Federal system; local government autonomy; the settler /indigene question; just to mention a few. If some of these issues are well considered, one would observe that there is merit in addressing them, as some have practically played out in the course of the third republic. Our so-called federal structure, to be candid, has become clearly one for which there is no antecedent and from which no good precedent can be laid as it has become a mockery of the concept.
The vociferous call for the creation of state police is not unfounded. How can you have power and not have power at the same time may sound paradoxical, but it is actually the reality in this present structure. How can a governor claim to be the chief security officer of the state and yet cannot issue orders to the Commissioner of Police within his domain to address an emerging security threat if the interest of the central government from a different party does not favour such move. The Commissioner has to consider the body language or political leanings of the central government to determine which order he will enforce. This is definitely not in the interest of the component state. In this scenario, we see the issue of security being politicised and an attempt to undermine the government of the component state especially when he or she is not in the good book of the government at the centre. The question of Sate police is no longer an issue in several advanced and emerging Federal climes where even community and local government authorities even boast of their own police.
The recent economic recession in the country has shown that the practice of states going cap in hand every month to Abuja is no longer sustainable. How many states in Nigeria can be said to be economically viable? How can a state that generates zero revenue to the national treasury maintain a civil service larger than a state that generates revenue to the national treasury? That is the height of fiscal recklessness. If many regions can boast of a vibrant economy before the advent of oil, why is there the feeling that states will outright collapse when the flow of oil revenue which I will regard as cheap money ends? Over-centralization of the country’s economy has successfully narrowed the economic space as it has not only killed innovation and industry needed to develop other profitable sectors of the nation’s economy, but has also helped to fuel unemployment among millions of Nigerians who would have been engaged in many potential multi-billion dollar sectors of the economy that now lie idle. How can we explain a situation where almost 70 per cent of Nigerian graduates believe they can only get brighter job prospects in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Rives in a country with 36 federating units?
The question with Nigeria’s federalism lies at the heart of ownership of the Federal structure .Many ethnic nationalities do not see their will or desires being reflected in the current federal structure and the disenchantment with the system appears to be growing by the day. It is instructive that unity is forged through the genuine acceptance of a system that is meant to regulate the life of people and this confers on the system some legitimacy, not through coercion . The current structure has only bred a culture of mutual suspicion, distrust, constant conflict among different ethnic groups, stunted development.
Whether we admit it or not, this federal structure is not working for anyone except members of the political elite and their hangers-on with access to political powers, who become apostles of true Federalism outside the confines of power but turn round to scorn the very idea when in power. If we continue in this way things will one day fall apart and the centre will no longer hold.
Though the implementation of true federalism may not be an easy task following the collapse of the local economies of some regions, it can still be achieved through compromise among the component units. The compromise may include setting a timeline for the implementation of fiscal federalism in other to ensure that the local economy of other federating units would have been kick- started through productive diversification in order to cushion the effect of its eventual implementation.
If those opposed to restructuring truly love Nigeria, they should above all, love more, a country that is built on equity, justice and peace.
Ogla is legal practitioner and policy analyst with Spaces for Change (S4C), can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org