Naanen: Regional governments will not serve interest of minorities, Nigerians
Professor Benedict Benapepena Naanen, a specialist in economic history in the Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Port Harcourt, told KELVIN EBIRI that the clamour for states was an outcome of ethnic agitations and a way to allow the various plural interests to find their expression in the new system.
Should Nigeria revert to regionalism due to the huge costs of governance in the country?
One of the ideas behind the creation of states or proliferation of states is the issue of containing multifarious ethnic identities. Definitely, in terms of cost, regionalism is a better option, but how would you give expression to the various ethnic communities that have now found expression in these states? I think it is something we have to reconsider. In terms of cost, it is better, but let us also look at the political implication of that. The proliferation of states was definitely an outcome of ethnic agitations that that was a true way of expressing federalism, to allow the various plural interests to find their expression in the new system. We can benefit in terms of cost, but definitely, there are some political costs that are involved that are not necessarily financial. So, I may support it. What we should now do is, to ensure that states are able to fend for themselves. We need to ensure that states are self-sustaining.
We cannot go back to the 1960s or pre 1960s arrangement. It is definitely not in the best interest of the minorities in the various parts of the country. We need to ensure that states are able to generate their own revenues and are viable. If we had done that, the proliferation of states would not have occurred. And we are now seeing the true situation at the moment, where a lot of states are not able to pay salaries, which means that these states should not have been created in the first place. You only create states when they are viable. I don’t think that regionalism is the best idea. It will not serve the best interest of Nigeria at the moment. It will not be able to accomplish and serve the various plural interests we have in the country, which have found expression in the creation of 12 states, and subsequently, in the present 36 states structure. We need to ensure that states are viable. That is the issue. Financial implication and cost of governance has been a real source of concern for the country. If states are viable, they will be able to manage themselves, reduce the cost of bureaucracy, tailor their budget according to their need and be able to generate revenue. And not to be depending on the centre for every budget and their other activities.
Doesn’t the over-concentration of power negate the principle of federalism, which Nigeria claims to be running?
That is a direct outcome of military government in Nigeria. You know the military government is essentially a unitary system. So, when the military came to power under the guise of keeping Nigeria one, they concentrated power in the centre. And that power structure, concentration has been consolidated by the fact that the centre of gravity of the Nigerian economy has shifted. And so, if we have a weak centre, some regions will be more powerful than the others. That was one way of decentralising the economic power and empowering the less powerful entities, I mean parts of the country that are not really producing resources, that are not able to sustain themselves. So, that concentration of power has been used to redistribute resources in Nigeria. It has been used on the basis of revenue allocation and all that.
Concentrating power at the centre means that some parts of the country may not be able to rise up and assert an independent or sovereign identity. It is not in the best interest of federalism. A federal system is not supposed to be run the way the Nigerian system is being run. One could say that whatever we are at the moment is a product of the system. It is a product of our history. It was basically a historical necessity at the time, but it is not too late to begin to find ways to decentralise that power and to make it less concentrated at the centre. And that is one of the issues people have been talking about in the national conference. We have had two of those conferences, which have not really solved any problem, as their recommendations have not been implemented. I do believe that you can reduce the power at the centre to the benefit of Nigeria and national unity. People are afraid that if you do that that some regions would secede. But if you look at India, the various states in that country, they are the people, who sustain the centre in New Delhi and not the other way round. The Nigerian system is very peculiar.
Can’t the six geopolitical zones serve as a basis for regionalism?
I think that there are some reasons in that. But I will not support that. Even within states, we have minority agitation, let alone, the regions. Converting the geopolitical zones to regions is like going back to Provincial system of the pre and post 1960s system. Rivers State, for example, used to have the Rivers Province and Yenagoa Province. I keep in insisting that state creation and the attempted decentralisation of power, though, not yet effective, was a way of giving vent to minority aspiration in the country. If you go back to South-South as the basis for regional arrangement, how do you posit a small group such as Ogoni? Already, they are clamouring for greater autonomy within Rivers State, not to talk of when you fuse them into the South-South. There is an issue here. The Ogoni and Ikwerre, for instance, what will be our expression in a South-South arrangement? I am not talking personally, but this is the type of argument that could arise in terms of that arrangement.
Do you think that the monthly sharing of revenues accruable to the country is the bane of states’ failure to harness their comparative advantage to drive their respective development?
A system that just talks of sharing without talking about how to generate is not sustainable at all. One positive effect of this revenue downturn, vastly reduced revenue, is that states are now beginning to bring out economic initiatives that could make them self-sustainable. That is a trend that should be encouraged. Previously, what happened in the country was like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ and that is not the best arrangement. Even, when we have the resources, what have we made of them? Look at the kind of revenue flow into the Niger Delta oil producing states since 1999 when the 13 per cent derivation implementation started, what have we benefited from it? States without the 13 per cent are even better off. Go to Cross River State and see what it has made out of tourism. What have we made of the vast inflow of resources into the Niger Delta? We haven’t made the best of it. If you go to Bayelsa State, any time salary is not paid, the whole state is dead. In fact, everything there revolves around the government. If the governor is away, the state goes dead. Is that the kind of arrangement we should be having? We should also look inwards into our own activities. Are we expressing ourselves adequately? Are we asserting ourselves economically to ensure that we reduce poverty? That there is economic development in the area and that we make the best use of the resources in a very accountable manner? That is very important. Niger Delta states have to question themselves and their performance.
The present 36 states structure is gulping huge chuck of Nigeria’s revenue. Shouldn’t less viable states merge with more prosperous ones?
Let’s look at something practicable. I think we should make these states economically viable. Let them be self-sustaining. Look at the way other countries manage their commonwealth. Take Norway for instance. Norway is one of the major oil producers, but the oil revenue goes into one special account that is not part of the national budget. It goes to special projects and the country has one of the greatest foreign reserves in the world for special project. And so, if you don’t have a system, where every month, you share money and states are able to fend for themselves, I think they will do better than what they are doing now. The states are dependent on the Federal Government. Meanwhile, the Federal Government does not have any resources, just the resources coming from the states. But all the same, the Federal Government now acts as a distributing agency. It shares for itself and shares for the states. That should not be.
The states should actually fend for themselves. Putting everything into a pool and the share, meanwhile you are not saving, is not in the best interest of this country. That is part of why this country is not making progress. We have to look at the fiscal arrangement in this country and overhaul it. In that way the states can profit in terms of self-sustaining development. Right now, it is not happening. Everybody looks straight to the centre.
As I said earlier, some states have become innovative. Look at the current conference in Kaduna on unlocking potential beyond oil revenue. It is something that is impressive. And I hope after all the talking something positive comes out of it. If Kaduna State is able to stand on its own and many states are able to stand on their own, Nigeria will be richer, because they will be able to identify their area of economic strength. They will be able to export, earn foreign exchange into Nigeria, Naira will stabilised. Foreign exchange will flow in and Naira will be strong. Currently, everything is dependent on oil and once oil revenue goes down, everybody suffers.
The Naira has so depreciated that it has lost any value whatsoever. This is not the way it should be. We should learn from economic history. During the colonial time, they were experimenting on different products that could be sold and earn foreign exchange from the foreign market and create job opportunities. Why have we not been able to do that? Rivers State, for example, can live beyond oil. The planting of pineapple. If you are riding through Ogoni to Port Harcourt, you will see pineapple all over the place? What stops the government from identifying that as export commodity and then promote it, support it and earn millions of dollars every year from the export of pineapple. Every state should be able to identify a product, while also promoting industrialization.
Look at the whole Economic Community of West Africa States and the kind of market potential we have and we are not even benefiting from it. Assuming all these years, Nigeria had concentrated on development of refineries and export refined products to West African countries, imagine the amount of jobs that should have been created and the revenue that should have been coming in. We have lost tremendous opportunities. We need to go back and reset our economy and political relations.