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Southern governors and the road to a new Nigeria

By Niyi Bello (Political Editor) and Seye Olumide
25 October 2017   |   4:05 am
A communiqué read at the end of the parley by the host governor, Akinwunmi Ambode stated: “We reiterate our belief in true federalism and devolution of powers. We are committed to collaborating with...

Southern Governors’ Forum

Last Monday’s resolutions of the Southern Governors’ Forum (SGF) to back the call for restructuring of the Nigerian federation may have reduced the journey to a new Nigeria by half if enough commitment and unity of purpose are shown by the political class.

Agitations for a restructuring of the Nigerian federation in line with the original concept of true federalism, which had been very strident in recent times, entered a new phase with the resolutions of support from governors of the southern part of the country at the end of their Lagos summit on Monday evening.

The governors threw their heavy political weights behind the agitation and if they walked the talk of their Monday resolutions by exerting the necessary pressure and providing the political will and commitment, the battle for opening a new frontier of building a new nation, 57 years after the attainment of independence from Colonial Britain, may have been half won.

This position of the governors, 17 of them drawn from three geo-political zones of Nigeria, has further strengthened the calls for a redefinition of the nation in a way that all the components would feel a sense of belonging and put the country on a path of development and progress.

Coming from a very high level of representation that has great influence over policy determination and socio-economic and political control, the decision of the governors to lend weight to the call for restructuring, may be the needed impetus to achieve the dream of a Nigeria devoid of structural imbalance that is already threatening the nation’s existence.

Apparently bending to the demands of majority of their constituents as shown in the widespread quest for a return to a Nigeria that was envisaged by the founding fathers before being derailed by military adventurism, the governors forged an uncommon unity and spoke with one loud voice that the country must be brought back on track.

It is to the credit of the significance of the agitation that despite political differences and unhealthy regional rivalries that had always stood on the path of unity of southern Nigeria as a political entity unlike its northern counterpart, the southern governors were able to swim along the currents of the demands of majority of their people.

For months, many groups in the South comprising the youths and the elderly and cutting across social and economic strata including the academic and traditional institutions have been resolute in their call for a restructured Nigeria in which all the anti-unity elements will be discarded.

New grounds of inter-zonal cooperation and consultations were broken in the call for restructuring in the southern states and for the first time, a small but vocal section of the conservative North, identified with the agitations from the South by towing the same line of arguments that indeed, the country needed to be restructured.

While some have been mild in their demands, many others have gone to the extreme with calls for dismemberment of the nation thereby raising ethnic tension to a very high level for the first time since the civil war of 1967-1970.

At the end of the summit attended personally by 13 governors with three sending representatives and one absentia in the person of Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, the governors, as true statesmen, reiterated their belief and commitment to the unity and continued existence of Nigeria but called for devolution of power and true federalism which are two of the major ingredients of restructuring.

A communiqué read at the end of the parley by the host governor, Akinwunmi Ambode stated: “We reiterate our belief in true federalism and devolution of powers. We are committed to collaborating with one another for the growth and development of our economies.

“We also emphasize the need for effective linkage on good infrastructure within Southern Nigeria and we are also committed to a united and indivisible nation.”

Ambode who was chosen alongside Dave Umahi of Ebonyi and Udom Emmanuel of Akwa-Ibom as co-chairmen of the Forum of Southern governors, in a speech that he had earlier read to the governors, urged his colleagues to urgently demand and push for devolution of powers in the on-going amendments of the 1999 Constitution.

He pleaded with them to collaborate with their Houses of Assembly and ensure that the devolution of powers is achieved and passed into law, adding, “There is a lot to be done about true federalism, an issue that requires urgent, meticulous and proactive attention by this forum. No less disturbing is the failure to undertake the periodic review of the revenue allocation formula as provided for by the Constitution to reflect evolving realities.

“All too often, states are disparaged for always carrying begging bowls to Abuja in quest of handouts from the Federal Government. This is a function of our present Constitution that burdens the Federal Government with responsibilities that falls within the province of the states.

“The productivity and revenue generating capacities of most states are thus stifled, turning them into no better than street beggar states incapable of meeting routine obligations of paying workers’ salaries and pensions without federal support. The resolution of the SGF comes at the most appropriate time as the Senate and House of Representatives are harmonising the provisions in the proposed amendment of the 1999 constitution.

“It is important for this forum to comprehensively look at the proposed amendments with a view to working with our respective Houses of Assembly to ensure a coordinated response on our part that will strengthen the practice of democracy, federalism and institutionalisation of the rule of law.

“In our deliberation, particularly on the pressing need for devolution of powers, our preoccupation must not be with having a weak center and strong states or vice versa, rather, we want a center which will function on the basis of democratic principles and safeguard the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Expectedly, the position of the governors has elicited excitement across the country with many giving kudos to them for acting in consonance with the demands of majority of Nigerians and in tune with what will aid the country’s human and physical development.

There are however others who believe the governors might be playing to the gallery by identifying with common public demands to score political goals especially as the 2019 election is fast approaching while others said the governors, by stifling the autonomy of the third tier of government in their various states, are not in the best position to demand for true federalism.

President General, Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), Olorogun Moses Taiga said although the governors’ parley was a welcome development, it was a bit delayed since it was the first to hold after the ones summoned at the instance of the former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu in 2001 and 2005.

He said, “The northern governors have been consistent in their meetings but since our governors have now woken up, there is the need to give them every support required as long as the purpose was nothing other than what would benefit the entire country and also aid the realisation of the popular demand for the restructuring of the country.”

On the resolution on devolution of powers, he said the governors said nothing different from what the Southern Leaders Forum (SLF) and several other socio-cultural bodies across the country, including some northern groups, have been saying that Nigeria should return to the Independent Constitution of 1960 or First Republic Constitution of 1963, which provided autonomy and resource control for the regions over their natural endowment and to also developed at own space.

Taiga lamented that the distortion of the First Republic Constitution through military intervention caused a lot of setback for Nigeria and Nigerians “that is what the Southern leaders have been saying that we need to return to the basics. The position of the Southern governors would further give impetus to the demand and I believe that sooner or later the fundamental challenges dragging this country backwards would be addressed.”

He however disagreed with the position of some skeptics, who said the Monday meeting has more of political undertone than the purpose for which the people were made to believe.

Some skeptics have raised the sentiment that the governors simply wanted to lash onto the popularity the demand for restructuring has gained in the polity to either attract sympathy for their second term ambitions in office or to enable the outgoing ones install whosoever they desire on the excuse that such person would continue in line with their agitation.

Taiga however said such assumption has no basis and could not be so because the problem at hand in Nigeria over restructuring and the need to rewind the present system to what it was at independence is bigger than individual ambition.

According to him, “In the first instance, some founding members of the ruling party have come to terms that this country needs to be restructured and they are not hiding their feelings. Even some crucial people in the north, which were initially skeptical on the same subject, are singing in line with what the Southern leaders have been saying, it is therefore not true that the southern governors were playing politics.”

He also said that “the fact that the governors eschew their party differences and come together to forge a common front on the best way to move the country forward suggested nothing but their sincerity of purpose to support what we have been clamouring for. For instance, if Nigeria is restructured to true federalism, it will save the states from going cap in hands to Abuja for monthly allocations.”

Expressing satisfaction that it is now crystal clear that well above half of the Nigerian population, including considerable number of those in the position of authority and public officers are unequivocal in their demand for restructuring, the Secretary General, Nigeria National Summit Group (NNSG), Mr. Tony Uranta congratulated the Southern Governors Forum for a long-overdue rebirth.

He called on them to be unshakeable in their unity and their resolve to begin integrating politically and economically.

According to him, “We look forward to their formally and relentlessly lobbying both their State Assemblies and the National Assembly to ensure that relevant Bills are presented and passed to bring about Southern emancipation and development; whilst, we anticipate that both state and non-state actors of Southern Nigeria will come together to speak with one voice for the progress and unity of the South of Nigeria.”

But the Dean of Faculty, Social and Management Sciences, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Prof. Bamidele Badejo took the southern governors meeting with a pinch of salt, saying, “He that must go into equity must go with a clean hand. The same governors who were now clamouring for devolution of powers were the ones holding tightly on the autonomy of the local governments under their domains. That is my first bias to what they were doing although it does not mean their coming together to discuss restructuring of the country, which has become so popular and almost inevitable even to the ruling party, is bad.”

The former Lagos Commissioner of Transport also said the constitution is the fulcrum upon which the country runs but unfortunately there is nothing in the document that support such meeting. My concern is what power has the summit to change or influence anything based on the constitution or what can it do in terms of constitutional structure?

The professor also said having gone through the communiqué issued after the summit “the governors have told us nothing and they have said nothing new. Evidence on ground does not show they are serious or that they would be serious in what they pretend to achieve. The summit, though good, is more or less a highway to nowhere. It is a jeun jeun arrangement because the race for 2019 is kick starting.”

Former lawmaker, who represented the Kana and Gokana Federal Constituency of Rivers State, Mr. Bernard Mikko said the governors should be given the benefit of doubt pending when they fail or succeed in the endeavour. He said what the southern governors had embarked upon was a kind of dialogue, which is better than monologue.

Mikko however faulted the governors’ call for devolution of power, saying, “Devolution of power is not practicable under a federal system the country is currently operating.”

One of the arrowheads of the 1990 Major Gideon Orkar Coup plot, Col. Tony Nyiam (rtd) commended the governors but insisted they must go beyond talking to actualise their position.

According to him, “It is a good sign that the political leadership of the south is fusing together to speak in one voice. If they can persist in their new quest Nigeria will definitely be restructured sooner than later. Their meeting was useful because they (the governors) made fiscal federalism their desire instead of the centralised government we are practising.”

Also speaking, spokesman of Afenifere, the Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, Mr. Yinka Odumakin gave kudos to the governors for thinking in the direction of Southern Leaders but he was quick to add that what they issued in their communiqué were issues under the restructuring that Nigerians were clamouring for.”

Odumakin said what was left for the Southern governors is to carry the political leadership of the south and other necessary organisations along like their counterpart in the north had done adding, “They need to set up various committees to assist them in this new endeavour like the northern governors did.”

He alerted the governors on the need to be proactive because the northern governors may want to implement a kind of restructure in their own term urging them to go the extra mile by showing total commitment to the agitation.

While he appealed to skeptics to give them the benefit of doubt, he said virtually every Nigerian has come to realise that the country can no longer work effectively under the present arrangement.

He also advised against any clandestine attempt to use the forum for political advantage otherwise “the governors would be playing into the hands of the northerners and enemies of restructuring.”

Odumakin also urged the governors to consult experts on the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference report, which he said would help them to achieve the demands while also calling on them to carry along their representatives in the National Assembly, saying, “if they were able to do this, history would be very kind to them. This issue must be taken with absolute seriousness.”

While urging the governors to show commitment and convince the people of the south about their seriousness on the demands, coordinator of Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), Otunba Gani Adams said the fact that they agreed on fiscal federalism showed the governors were on the same page with several other bodies across the southern region that had been calling for the restructuring of Nigeria “interestingly, they were able to forge a common front despite their political party divide.”

He however charged them to put machineries in motion to sensitize their citizens about what restructuring is all about “because as we speak, many people are yet to understand what the issue is all about.”

Adams also advised the governors to continue to put unrelenting pressure on the Federal Government, saying, “The meeting was the first step, it must not end there, it must not be politicised or jettisoned because their body language would henceforth ginger other bodies to action.”