Restructuring Nigeria: An existential imperative or much ado about nothing?

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In the face of the existential challenges facing Nigeria and in the lead-up to the 2023 presidential election, three Nigerians in the Diaspora discuss the way forward for a nation in crisis.

Osmund:

I get a bit emotional and quite frankly frustrated, talking about the subject of restructuring Nigeria. It beggars belief that we have a system that is universally acknowledged as being faulty at its very core, yet successive administrations for whatever motivation or lack thereof, continue to drag their feet in addressing such an existential issue. This could be likened to someone suffering from a potentially lethal case of cancer but prefers to party away instead of finding his way to the doctor. Wouldn’t that qualify as suicide?

As far back as one could remember, we have been discussing this same issue, whether we call it restructuring or devolution of power or use other divisive terms such as resource control or regionalism. It’s an acknowledgement that the Greek gift left for us by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar in the name of the 1999 constitution is at the front and center of our current crisis.

The concentration of power and resources at the center, the lack of autonomy for the states, and the feeling of marginalization by a good segment of the country, are topical issues that will continue to pull on the very foundation of this union until they are addressed. They can’t simply be wished away.

Starting from President Obasanjo, every successive government had made an attempt at some form of restructuring. We need to remember that at the inception of his administration, Obasanjo set up the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) which concluded its work in 2005 and submitted both the report and recommendations to him. He sat on those, and nothing came out of it.

When Yar’Adua came on board, he set up another committee to review the recommendations of the NPRC but again, little action was taken. Next was President Jonathan’s 2014 confab that was headed by the late Justice Idris Kutigi of blessed memory. That jamboree cost N10bn of taxpayers’ money and drew 494 Nigerians from all walks of life. We all know what happened and that was the most painful of them all.

Early in this administration, the current C-in-C also inaugurated the Gov. Nasir El-Rufai-led committee on restructuring. Today, that committee’s report and recommendations are somewhere in Aso Rock gathering dust. The truth is, President Buhari never believed in restructuring but wanted to appear as though he was making good on his party’s promise. The whole thing was just one big charade and is so exasperating. Mo, please help! What’s the issue here?

Moses:

The problem with talking about restructuring is that it has been discussed to death and has become a political football that politicians play every election cycle to win the support of the Nigerian intellectual and middle classes who, since the 1990s, have been advancing restructuring in various mutating forms. Then, when the politicians get to power, they disavow their rhetoric and promises on restructuring because they realize that following through would amount to a measure of political suicide or at least a drastic reduction in their federal privileges, perks, powers, and prerogatives.

The example you gave of the restructuring sleight of hand performed by the APC is a great one and is the latest in a series of restructuring games played by our political elites. In the case of the APC, at some point, they even pretended that they didn’t know what restructuring meant and that they still could not figure it out after the charade of setting up a committee to study it. These are the same people whose manifesto in 2015 loudly, and in granular detail, proclaimed their commitment to restructuring the country.

I have written and published about the imperative of restructuring for two decades at least. For some of us believers in substantive rather than rhetorical restructuring, it simply means the constitutionally-backed devolution of power, resource management, developmental initiatives, and considerable legislative and regulatory autonomy to the sub-national units. It means the constitutional decentralization of key apparatuses of governance, governmental responsibility, and statecraft. The ultimate goal is to have national defense, customs, immigration, foreign policy, and important national regulatory policy making remaining in the purview of the federal government while sub-national units remit agreed-upon mineral royalties to fund these federal functions.

Given the divergent developmental aspirations and cultural orientations of the country’s many subnational units, restructuring of the type that some of us envisage and advance can decentralize some of the bitter rivalries and struggles over power and resources at the federal level, making them easier to manage in their subnational iterations.

Restructuring can remove the many federalized bottlenecks and bureaucratic, legislative, and regulatory impediments that have stifled subnational socioeconomic innovation and competition and problem solving. It would give a bigger share of mineral revenues to mineral producing areas and curb resource-related conflicts, resentments, and separatist agitations. It would enable each region’s peculiar character, aspirations, and anxieties to be respected while allowing for localized solutions to problems occurring in different sub-national units.

There are other benefits too, such as reducing the rabid competition for federal elective offices, which is fueled by the unitary flow of revenue to the federal government and its subsequent control and allocation by federal governmental entities. Restructuring can even help with cleaning up our electoral system and with our struggle for accountable leadership.

But having said all this, I have to recognize that since politicians appropriated the word “restructuring” they have defined it in plural, confusing terms in an intentional strategy to muddy the waters and prevent a discussion of the substantive, consequential elements of restructuring. They have rendered restructuring both controversial and meaningless. I even hesitate to use the word nowadays, since politicians have bastardized it and rendered it politically charged and confusing to many of our people.

These days, I often use the term constitutional decentralization. Some people believe that good governance or a succession of good democratic administrations can cure the ills of the nation and remove the need for the constitutional reforms we call restructuring. I disagree. I think that even if the nation’s socioeconomic and political fortunes start to look up, the foundational, unresolved existential questions will remain, and the ebbs and flows of centrifugal agitations will continue to haunt the country’s very existence, escalating and diminishing in correspondence to prevailing conditions but never going away and always threatening to rip apart what’s left of the nation’s social and political fabric.

Besides, we have too many unfinished businesses that are unrelated to and that predate the bad economic conditions and other governance failures. Nigeria is saddled with persistent ethno-religious and identitarian incongruities and conflicts, primordial resentments, tensions, suspicions, and competing and divergent visions of nationhood.

Restructuring, real restructuring, not the fake one sporadically workshopped by politicians, is the most pragmatic way to resolve these lingering national questions, peacefully work out the terms of our coexistence, and possibly save the  fractious union. I know that Farooq has plenty to say on this topic and has a somewhat different take, so I am curious about what his current thoughts are on the issue.

Farooq:

I actually agree with both of you on the imperative of a periodic amendment of the constitution to correct its imperfections and to infuse fresh statutory vigor into it. All progressive societies recognize the inevitability of changes to the structures and processes of governance in light of changes in population, culture, resources, etc.— and in response to the pitfalls observed in implementing the old order.

Societies that don’t evolve stagnate or wilt and die. I see calls for restructuring as cries to action for saving a country that isn’t working, that holds the vast majority of its people back, and whose foundation and institutions are avoidably wobbly.

If even older, more established countries amend their constitutions periodically in recognition of the newness and flux of social and cultural variables in the societies, Nigeria has no reason to insist that it must be perpetually stuck to a flawed constitution that constricts its citizens’ boundless creative energies and that stymies its growth.

Having said that, as Moses has pointed out, for far too long, the debate over restructuring has been mired in bluster, political grandstanding, and semantic impressions. That is why I once described “restructuring” as an empty or floating signifier, that is, an intentionally slippery concept with no fixed or stable meaning. No two Nigerians seem to agree on what exactly it means or what it should entail. It’s a giant but blank discursive slate on which different people inscribe whatever they want on it.

For some, it’s a return to the oppressively stultifying regionalism of the early 1960s that subjugated ethnic and religious minorities in Nigeria’s three defunct regions. Often championed by members of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups, its advocates glorify the putative paradisiacal fiscal federalism of the 1960s and ignore the unbearable marginality it subjected minorities to. They also paper over the imperfections that activated widespread tumult and civil convulsions that ultimately led to the death of the First Republic.

For others, it means what was known as “resource control” in the 1990s. For yet others, it means constitutionalizing the hexagonal geopolitical structure that Dr. Alex Ekwueme advocated and popularized during the 1994-1995 constitutional conference, which we now use informally for distributive politics. They want it to replace states as the basis for our federalism.

I think to make any progress on this matter, we need to first have some consensus about what we mean when we say we want to “restructure” Nigeria. Most ethnic and religious minorities, to give just one example, will go to war if restructuring means a regression to pre- and immediate post-independence regionalism that rendered them invisible and powerless. I can bet you that.
I have my own ideas about what needs to be restructured. I acknowledge that some people will disagree with me and that’ fine.

I pointed out sometime ago that any restructuring that doesn’t see the merit in the constitutionalization of power rotation among ethnic and religious formations at all levels of government— in response to the factious and fissiparous nature of our polity and the need to promote inclusive development in our march to evolve as a nation— is a missed opportunity.

Most importantly, though, as I argued in my September 3, 2022, column titled “Nobody Can Restructure Nigeria in a Democracy,” there are impossibly tall odds stacked against the possibilities for restructuring under Nigeria’s present American-style presidential democracy.

Amending the constitution requires the assent of two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the affirmative resolution of at least two-thirds of all state houses of assembly. Given Nigeria’s religious and regional polarization, I don’t see how that can happen, particularly because we haven’t even started any sort of consensus building on what needs to be restructured. Given this reality, I think what Nigeria needs is some sort of creative destruction, not restructuring.

Osmund:

Farooq you are definitely right about the confusing terminologies. It’s also true that when we get careless and use such terms as Regionalism and Restructuring interchangeably, it muddles up the water and gets many nervous for good reason. That being said, the biggest challenge in my opinion, is not much about the terminologies in use but the unwillingness of our political leaders to act, purely for self-serving reasons.

It’s obvious that every new government in Nigeria recognizes that crucial need to clearly define the relationship between the federating units and the center in a fair and just manner, which is the whole basis for restructuring. This is why every single one of them since 1999 had set up one committee after another on the issue.

The problem is that the executive branch at the federal level, have continued to demonstrate unwillingness to implement any recommendation that has to do with devolution of power to the states since such has the tendency to whittle down the enormous power and influence wielded by the center.

Farooq you also brought up the idea of Creative destruction. If by that you mean embracing innovative changes and disruptive ideas that could force the demise of antiquated and useless ones, it’s a great idea. But if you are proposing that it should take the place of restructuring, I would be asking you for more clarification on the subject.

Farooq:

Well, Osmund, I’m basically saying that it’s impossible to restructure Nigeria under our American-style presidential democracy. If we want to renegotiate the basis of our federation, we should first get rid of the current system. That requires creative destruction which, I must admit, is hard.

A cursory historical excursion into the history of “restructuring” that Nigeria has had since its founding shows that tweaks to the structure of the country took place in colonial arrangements, military dictatorships, and in the simpler, much leaner, less cumbersome parliamentary system we practiced after independence.

The current presidential system we are unimaginatively aping from America is unamenable to restructuring in the ways people imagine it can be. So, my contention is that we need to take care of that first. We need a different system from what we practice now. We need a new system that, while inspired by examples from elsewhere, grows organically from our unique socio-historical experiences.

Moses:

I agree with Farooq that any program of restructuring that does not include the rotation of political offices between different ethnic, religious, and regional constituents and cleavages at all levels would be sidestepping one of the recurring causes of violent political struggles, separatist agitations, feelings of exclusion, and mutual distrust, all of which have converged to threaten the foundation of the Nigerian union.

Unfortunately, when people talk about restructuring in today’s political discourse, this is almost never included in the menu of goals and putative outcomes. If the overarching objective of restructuring is to build a more viable basis for our troubled and dysfunctional union and reduce the tensions that pull us apart then the constitutionalization of political rotation is arguably the most consequential investment that can be made in that direction.

I get what Farooq is saying about the hurdles of amending the constitution on such a controversial issue as restructuring, an issue on which there is no clear elite consensus and on which there are many lingering questions. Given this situation, the pragmatic and practical path to take in my opinion is to do restructuring in a piecemeal manner. Trying to effect wholesale structural reordering of Nigeria in one fell swoop spooks many Nigerians, elites and non-elite alike.

It may even prove too radical a change for most Nigerians even if the constitutional obstacles could be overcome. What needs to be done is to take a gradualist approach. Take some items from the federal exclusive list and hand them to subnational units, which are states. For now, the states approximate the subnational bureaucratic structure of least resistance and enjoy the broadest acceptance, so it makes sense to keep them. This decentralization must of course be accompanied by an increase in the percentage of the federal revenue accruing to states.

Another approach is to seize moments of national elite consensus as they emerge to effect popular “restructuring” amendments to the constitution. For instance, most regional elites have now come to accept that what we colloquially call state police is desirable, maybe even inevitable, given the rampant insecurity in the country and the failure of a federalized policing structure to respond effectively to this problem. Previously, there was no such consensus.

It seems to me that the near unanimity of elite political opinion on this issue at this time creates the perfect moment for acting upon a constitutional amendment to authorize the establishment of state police outfits following a rigorous debate on how to anticipate and curb its problems, complications, and possible abuse. If a constitutional amendment on state policing were to be initiated at this time, I’d bet on it clearing all the constitutional hurdles. But the moment may pass and opposition to it may harden if security improves.

The other less discussed aspect of the restructuring debate is the elephant in the room: the northern opposition to it, which must be frontally confronted and overcome in order to build the elite political consensus for the needed constitutional reform. Northern political elites are arguably the biggest beneficiaries of our de facto unitary system, our Abuja-centered, oil revenue-based distributive faux federalism. As a result they have legitimate concerns and genuine fears about what a restructured Nigeria might mean for them, for their oil revenue-dependent states, and for their current relative dominance of the national political space.

The advocates of restructuring, especially those from the south, have been going about their advocacy the wrong way. They’ve been using the language and rhetoric of insult, condescension, and devaluation to characterize the northern opposition to restructuring, perhaps in the hope of blackmailing the northern political elites to get on board. That approach has been counterproductive. You don’t claim that an entire region is parasitic and you don’t call its peoples leeches and still expect their political elites whose support is indispensable to any constitutional amendment to support your cause. There’s a need, as I have written elsewhere, for the advocates of restructuring to develop an empathetic understanding of what is driving the northern suspicion of restructuring. One aspect of the anxiety is that restructuring is construed rightly or wrongly as a disguise for secession or a bus stop on the way to it. The other fear is the potential loss of revenue and power in a union in which the most consequential economic institutions are already either located in the south or dominated by southerners.

Restructuring advocates need to do away with their current rhetoric and work to build support among the northern elites by reassuring them that in the long term, given the non-renewable nature of oil, the recent commercial discovery of oil in the north, the growing gold mining in the north, and the vast land and solid mineral endowments of the region, the north stands to benefit more from restructuring than the south. Northern elites need to be respectfully convinced that, given the poverty level in the north, its burgeoning youth population, and the potential to creatively leverage the north’s land, agriculture, and human capital resources to build a formidable and accountable post-oil economy and political system, it’s in their interest to support restructuring regardless of its short term disruption.

Northern political elites need to be engaged to convince them that if they want to prevent secession and preserve the union and their advantages in it, restructuring is the most peaceful and least destabilizing way to do it. In other words, the northern political elites need to be persuaded that supporting restructuring would be a self-interested move on their part.

It should be said that as human beings we are generally more comfortable with the familiar than with change. Change scares us because it upends our world and our routine, disrupts what we’re used to, and requires us to make changes to our lives or give up certain benefits. This, ultimately, is the source of the national political elite opposition to deep, wholesale restructuring. It’s the reason people entrenched in power resist or dance around the subject until they leave power. It threatens their privileged, assured perch and benefits and replaces them with uncertainty. No one likes uncertainty when the status quo benefits them. So elite consensus building must continue not just in the north but also among political incumbents from all regions who see restructuring as a threat to their positions.

Osmund:

Wow! We may end up opening a huge can of worms here. I would, however, concede that you guys brought some interesting perspectives to the discussion, opening new vistas and bringing into focus some new ideas that may prove as disruptive as they are novel. It’s clear that the constitutional hurdle needed for wholesale restructuring may prove insurmountable at present, which would mean that taking little bites upon bites of it over time as Mo suggested, may indeed be the most pragmatic approach. In any case, our time is up. Next time when we convene, I definitely would love to hear Mo’s take on the last point Farooq made. Is our American-styled Presidential system of government the problem and should we ditch it in favor of the Parliamentary-Westminster type instead? What other options do we have to choose from? These are questions begging for real answers. But before then, please join me in prayer for a free, fair and violent-free election on Saturday. Many thanks to both of you.

Moses: Amen o! Thanks Osmund.

Farooq: Thank you guys

Osmund Agbo, a medical doctor and social justice advocate, writes from Houston, Texas, while Moses Ochonu is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and Farooq Kperogi is a professor of Communication at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia