Nigerians will go to the polls early next year to elect a president, governors, federal and state legislators, the sixth general election since 1999. At the last count, a host of candidates had picked up the presidential tickets of their respective political parties. With poverty, insecurity and despair pervasive, Nigerians should resolve to demand from all the candidates and all parties a commitment to a return to true federalism that can translate elections and changes in personnel to tangible development.
Nigerians can rightly take some satisfaction from the relative stability of the Fourth Republic: five back-to-back national elections have been held since 1999, including the ground-breaking 2015 polls where an incumbent President was defeated and succeeded by an opposition candidate. The system has held, despite severe battering from the familiar ills of electoral brigandage, irresponsible leadership, massive treasury looting, general insecurity, weak institutions and obvious unfamiliarity with the workings and nuances of democracy by those thrust onto leadership. The First Republic collapsed in less than six years; the second in four years and three months, and the third attempt, a transitive hybrid of military and civilian rule, imploded under the weight of its own contradictions in two years.
But that is all that can be said for all our 19 years of civil rule. As this newspaper has argued repeatedly, democracy is a means to an end, work-in-progress: it is a vehicle to deliver development. It has worked well elsewhere with results ranging from good to excellent, unleashing the human and material resources of nations. The hope that democracy would reverse decades of poverty and underdevelopment has dissolved and, with it, a national consensus that democracy must be accompanied by a return to true federalism to deliver progress.
From East to West and the North-Central, the clarion call is restructuring, a remodelling of the country to reflect its federal DNA as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, diverse polity, many of whose people never had any contact, formal or informal, before amalgamation in 1914. While popular organisations in four of the six zones are committed to restructuring, a majority of the elite in two — the North-East and the North-West — are adamantly opposed to it, preferring the present system that inhibits the majority, entrenches poverty, but bestows them with advantages in access to power and resources. This is no longer sustainable.
On the socio-political front, there is a groundswell of resentment against the unjust system; on the economic front, poverty has spiked and the country is way behind its peers. The centrist federal system constrains competition and productivity. The states are fiscal basket cases. A recent report for the Brookings Institution said Nigeria, despite bumper oil revenues, overtook India in May to become the country with the world’s highest number of people living in extreme poverty. While India’s extreme poor (now 73 million people) have been declining at the rate of 44 people a minute, Nigeria’s (now 87 million) have been rising by six people a minute, according to the report. It has the world’s largest number of out-of-school children put at 13.2 million and the eighth highest infant mortality rate as ranked by the CIA Fact Book.
Nigeria has not realised its potential because it runs a natural federation like a unitary state. By experimentation and accumulated wisdom, a diverse polity should necessarily be arranged on the principles of federalism where the component units have considerable autonomy over their affairs. Though advertised as federal, Nigeria, in practice, is a travesty. The centre is too powerful while the basics of fiscal federalism, state policing and control of resources, among others, are denied the beggarly states. Oil and gas deposits as well as minerals are under exclusive federal control.
We have to reach back into our past where the principle of federalism was recognised, even by the colonial overlord. Britain forced the 250-plus ethnic nationalities together but divided the country into three regions that were formalised in the Richards Constitution of 1946, then strengthened by later constitutions in 1951 and 1954. The 1963 Constitution was also truly federal.
There is no ambiguity about federalism: the existing states should have greater powers over natural resources, commerce and security. Those that so desire, can, through referendums, merge. Derivation principle should be nothing less than 50 per cent of revenue generated in the states. Each should have power to establish police forces or, like in Canada, by their own sovereign choice, outsource it to the federal police. Those like President Muhammadu Buhari, who believe the myth that “good governance” is the tonic needed to move forward, are deluded. Evidence everywhere demonstrates the efficacy of federalism driving competition and as accelerator of development.
Established with strong attachment to state autonomy by colonies peopled by different European nationalities, the US states have remained individual economic powerhouses. India, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia are other natural federations. We should stop the charade in Nigeria. Even people with shared ethnicity, language and culture like the Germans, have taken their legacy as a multiplicity of autonomous polities into consideration, organised themselves into two federal countries — Germany with 16 states and Austria with nine states. Ethnic German populations also run their own affairs as autonomous component units in the asymmetric federal states of Switzerland and Belgium. Other asymmetric federations — where not all constituent states have the same autonomy — include Iraq, Malaysia and Russia.
The pretence cannot continue that all parts of Nigeria can progress at the same pace or share the same values and aspirations. Autonomy enabled the defunct four regions to record faster growth up to January 1966. But since 1999, poverty has risen faster while most states can’t pay salaries and pensions without statutory allocations, bailouts and loans.
For Nigerians, the 2019 elections offer another opportunity to take charge of their destiny. Any party or candidate worthy of their votes at any level should commit to restructuring the country to empower the states. This should go beyond the usual false promises of politicians: there should be road maps with clear timelines and schedules. Voters should roundly reject any presidential candidate who fails to present a road map and sincere commitment to returning the country to federalism. In other democracies, parties canvass votes on the basis of a legislative agenda; this election should be defined by restructuring. Anything less will translate to more of the same poverty, illiteracy, violence and fragility that has characterised the country since 1999.