Gowon, Obasanjo on threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence – Punch

The clamour for urgent restructuring is nearing a crescendo: when prominent beneficiaries and erstwhile champions of the unitary contortion masquerading as a “federal republic” voice shrill warnings of implosion and disintegration, it is time for the elite to translate angst into action and redefine Nigeria’s future. Two former heads of state, Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo, minced no words in warning that the eruption of the centrifugal forces could well provoke another civil war, which, in their opinion, the country might not survive. There is no hiding place anymore. The very foundation of the state is crumbling and unless the sensible step of remodelling it to guarantee equity, justice and local autonomy is taken today, the spectre of a cataclysmic collapse is real indeed.

Gowon, who led Nigeria through a gruesome civil war between 1967 and 1970, said: “I believe that a lot of injustice has been done to the Igbo and a constitutional debate on restructuring must address all imbalances and restore hope and confidence.” In his latest intervention, Obasanjo, another war time leader and two-time head of state, warned that the calls for restructuring the country to reflect its diversity could easily morph into self-determination movements, which, in his view, would, unlike the Biafran secessionist enterprise, be unstoppable. He noted that the impunity of the Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime, “fractional political division, poor management of the economy, the non-protecting security and the politics of uncertainty in the land had provoked a renewed agitation for restructuring,” which he added, should not be allowed to degenerate to self-determination. Yet, another latter-day convert to true federalism, Theophilus Danjuma, like Obasanjo, a former civil war field commander and army chief, has stuck to his repeated monitorial warning that the country may not survive a second civil war or a religious war.

It is symptomatic of the state of the country that in the face of unprecedented security and economic challenges, instead of consensus, division, rancour, disaffection and disillusionment, stridently proclaimed, are rife. Nigeria is broken, heading for the precipice and living in denial, as many are wont to say, is not helping. On all fronts, the country is slipping. If the “state” as defined by Max Weber, a foremost social theorist of the twentieth century, is “the organisation that has the monopoly of legitimate use of physical force and extraction within a clearly bounded territory”, then Nigeria is failing as illegitimate use of physical force by non-state actors is disturbingly threatening state power.

The North-East and North-West regions are under siege from terrorist insurgency, banditry, brigandage and industrial scale kidnapping. Aggressive Fulani herdsmen and other criminal groups from all over West Africa are laying waste to large swathes of the North, the Middle Belt and increasingly, the Southern states, with tepid or ambiguous response from the Federal Government. Add to the gory mix, ubiquitous armed robbery, gang wars, oil infrastructure vandalism in the South and piracy along the coast and Nigeria cuts a picture of a society at war with itself. Also, the scary figure of over 350 million illegal arms in circulation in a population of about 200 million tells the story of instability. Over 100,000 persons have perished in the Boko Haram insurgency since 2009 and over two million displaced.

The present system allows Nigeria’s rulers to simply extract rents from the territory without giving a hoot about nation-building. While this is pulling Nigerians apart, a true federal structure will promote economic competition for the good of all. This, in turn, will make the citizens feel a sufficient amount of commonality of interests and a sense of loyalty that is sorely deficient now. But ambling along at an average 2.2 per cent, economic growth cannot keep pace with population growth of 2.6 per cent, partly because the unitary federation hamstrings the 36 states as drivers of development. Innovation, initiative and competition, which define constituent units in other federations, are awfully absent in Nigeria’s pseudo federalism. This leaves the country and its people to the tyranny of dependence on oil and gas revenue for survival. Infrastructure is patchy and unemployment at 23.1 per cent across the board and 55.4 per cent among youth is a ticking bomb.

The predicament worries the rest of the world, too. The country remains one of the 25 ranked by the World Bank as fragile, defined as states with weak state capacity, weak legitimacy that leaves their citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks. In the Fragile States Index, produced by The Fund for Peace, Nigeria took a lowly ranked 14th position out of the 178 countries analysed in 2019. In the Global Terrorism Index 2019, Nigeria clinched the third place after Afghanistan and Iraq among the top 50 countries. And human development index put the country in the low human development category – positioning it at 158 out of 189 countries and territories in 2019. The Fund for Peace adds that corruption, criminality, poor public services, refugees and involuntary movement of populations as well as sharp economic decline highlight fragility.

The country is fundamentally weak because it is based on a fraudulent foundation. With over 400 ethnic nationalities, diverse faiths and cultures, it is a natural federation being run like a unitary state to everyone’s ruin. In the run-up to and in the immediate post-independence era, the country operated a true federation and recorded real progress. The Western Region pioneered free education and set the pace in economic initiatives; the Eastern Region closed the formal education gap within a decade and built a network of roads adjudged the best in West Africa, while the Northern Region followed at a slower but steady pace. Each established its own priorities and relied on their natural resources – cocoa in the West, palm oil/kernels in the East, rubber in the Mid-West and groundnuts and cotton in the North.

The centralising misadventure that began after the military seizure of power in 1966 demolished the federal superstructure and made the country unitary in all but name. Today’s 36 states are dependent on allocations from the Federation Account, lack control over the minerals in their territories and lack autonomy over many issues. The 1999 Constitution lists 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List and 30 on the Concurrent List, ridiculously assigning responsibility to the Federal Government for mundane matters including marriage registration. Oil-bearing states take only 13 per cent as derivation compared to the pre-1967 era when regions/states retained 50 per cent of revenue generated.

But a federation is a union characterised by self-governing provinces, states or regions under a federal government. Nigeria is a natural one with ethnic nationalities that even 106 years after amalgamation and 60 years after flag independence, have very little in common, thus compelling a political and administrative structure that would grant considerable autonomy to federating states. The gigantic contraption the British left as India immediately splintered with the violent exit of Pakistan and later, Bangladesh. Freed from the iron grip of communism, the former Soviet Union broke into several states and the unravelling is still ongoing; the rupture of former Yugoslavia witnessed war, pogroms and the only post-World War II genocide in Europe of the 20th Century.

Papered over for decades, the fiction of unity in diversity has exploded. It is hard to legislate national unity into existence. The odious sectionalism of the Buhari regime is only a trigger, as the fragility of the contraption predates him. According to OECD’s States of Fragility Reports, “Fragility is an intricate beast, sometimes exposed, often lurking underneath, but always holding progress back.”

Restructuring simply means devolving power to the component states, radically restricting the power of the centre to defence, immigration/emigration, customs and foreign policy; along with resource control or fiscal federalism. Its disingenuous equation to disintegration by personalities such as the Sultan of Sokoto and the northern elite is false and unreasonable. Once a unitary state, Austria is still strong and united. The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 strengthened federalism and it has reinvigorated the country. Wracked by civil war under a centralising communist government in the 1970s and 80s, the return to federalism has made Ethiopia stronger, while the evolution of Belgium from a unitary kingdom since the 19th century to federalism this century has strengthened its union. Post Saddam Hussein, once unitary Iraq runs a federal system that grants autonomy to Sunnis and Kurds. On the other hand, the insistence on denying autonomy leads to break-ups, as seen in former Yugoslavia, Eritrea leaving Ethiopia and the violent breakaways of South Sudan from Sudan and  secessionist movements in former USSR.

A new constitution that will reflect true federalism will encourage viable conditions for accommodation and foster national integration. Buhari and the narrow group of elite resisting restructuring will need to give way to the majority. They do not own Nigeria. They should not be allowed to gamble with the destiny of over 200 million people in their desperation to maintain the advantages the present skewed federation confers on them. Gowon, Obasanjo, civil society and regional groupings should step up the game and insist on upturning the system to birth a true, equitable and just federal polity. As Obasanjo said, it is not about a constitutional amendment project, but about making a new basic law.

Historically, no country is sacrosanct and Nigeria is not an exemption. The choice before Nigerians, therefore, is stark and urgent: either restructure or await the inevitable implosion.

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