National Conference and Nigeria’s future – Punch

WITH the inauguration of the National Conference today, Nigerians must do everything not to squander another chance to build a socially just, democratically stable and economically strong system. The critical factors needed for success are selflessness, intellectual rigour, realistic appraisal of the local and global situations, and boldness. The delegates will have to decide whether to be part of an elaborate, time-wasting and diversionary charade or resolve to change, for the better, the destiny and future of the world’s largest population of Black people.

We are making this clarion call again because viable options to Nigeria’s corporate existence have been dangerously narrowed down to just two: realistic talks now or contend with a disastrous future as Nigeria’s fragile unity now hangs by a thread.

After the initial high hopes following the return to civil rule in 1999, many Nigerians have been disappointed and disillusioned with the entire democratic experiment and, by extension, the Nigerian State.  Nigerians are as divided as never before on ethnic, political and religious grounds; the economy is in a shambles and life in parts of the country has descended to Hobbesian levels with thousands of lives lost and about 600,000 displaced persons locally and in neighbouring Niger Republic, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Twelve states of the federation have adopted the penal Islamic sharia law and set up religious police in defiance of the 1999 Constitution and without regard to the rights of others. Everywhere, once muted secessionist opinions are now openly being voiced and proliferation of arms have effectively broken the state’s legal monopoly of the means of coercion. From studies by a United States think tank that fears a break-up of Nigeria, to analyses by United Nations development agencies that paint deplorable picture of human development indices and the increasing inability of the government to enforce its writ on some deviant groups, the suggestion is that of a failing state. But without a strong political order, neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully.

The task before the conferees is to arrest the drift into chaos and outright state failure by responsibly and realistically drawing up appropriate recommendations and a road map for a viable political configuration.  To head off such a catastrophe, prevailing political, economic and security conditions ought to arrest the minds of the summiteers. They cannot ignore the palpable mood of angst and discontent across the land. They should consider themselves as being on the threshold of history.

We acknowledge that the task is not going to be easy and progress will not come cheap. Even under ideal conditions, formulating a new political structure for a country can be a prolonged process marked by contentious debates. There are political blocs wary of federalism already making some troubling noises and threatening a walk out of the conference. All this sounds familiar. But it is a prescription for disaster. Members should adopt a pragmatic and result-based approach. We must first agree on the type of state we seek to establish, or the type of relationship that should exist between the centre and its different components.

There are a number of areas demanding attention. But one reality is all important here: the present pseudo federalism has failed. The collective wisdom of usage and centuries of research by scholars is that federalism – a political system characterised by a union of self-governing units (states, regions or provinces) under a central (federal) government – is best suited for a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and diverse polity such as Nigeria with its 250 plus major nationalities, diverse cultures and faiths.

But Nigeria is an aborted federation. Top on the agenda should, therefore, be a unanimous resolve to forge a truly federal system, where component units have considerable autonomy and the central government is limited to defence, foreign affairs, customs, immigration, shipping, aviation, paramilitary services and other identified common services. By listing 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List and only 30 on the Concurrent List, among other travesties, the 1999 Constitution is ridiculously centrist. It compounds this by listing local governments and identifying that tier for direct allocation of revenue from the Federation Account. LGs should be state affairs and should never be a criterion for revenue allocation.

A federation must rest on fiscal federalism. Sustainable growth has eluded this country since this principle was dumped after the overthrow in 1966 of the 1963 Constitution, viewed by constitutional scholars as a classic example of federalism. Federalism is not about sharing revenue; it is about resource control, healthy competition and mutual cooperation for security and economic progress. The principle of derivation, at nothing less than 50 per cent of revenues generated from a particular state/region/province, is the acceptable ideal.

Delegates should be courageous enough to determine how many autonomous states or regions should constitute the new federation.  The National Bureau of Statistics confirmed recently that only Lagos State can pay its way through internally generated revenues; other states cannot survive without the indolence-inducing monthly federal allocations.

We should confront the issue of religion and the divisive uses to which it has been deployed over the past four decades. Undoubtedly, the country advertises its non-viability when 12 states out of 36 are allowed to ride roughshod over the rights of millions of Nigerians by adopting discriminatory religious laws and setting up local police formations in all but name to enforce them.  We have argued in the past that a multi-religious state must necessarily be secular in public affairs and leave religion to the private realm.

And this touches the heart of our very continued existence. We reiterate that the Nigerian space as presently constituted is not sacrosanct and should continue only by the mutual agreement of a preponderant majority of its inhabitants.  With over 35 million people each, the Yoruba of South-West and Igbo of the South-East outnumber Scotland’s 5.3 million whose nationalists are bent on taking them out of United Kingdom; or the Czechs (10.5 million) and Slovaks (5.4 million) who peacefully separated from their 76-year-old amalgamation of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

To head off an imminent catastrophe, political courage is needed from all sides. Delegates should reject any so-called “no-go area” and tackle all national issues head-on. Nigeria is negotiable like every other artificial state. Defunct Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia prove that artificial states can survive today only by mutual consent and force has a limited time span.

We need not allow a violent bust-up. Scotland will hold a referendum in September to decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom; in Belgium, the Walloon (French) section and the Flemish-speakers have worked out mutually acceptable formula to remain one country; Switzerland, a confederation in name, has a collective presidency as part of its cobbling together of the diversities of the country, while India and Malaysia have constitutional guarantees for groups and special territories in their federations. Other stress factors like eradicating the settler/indigene issue, free and compulsory primary and secondary education and state police should be recommended.

We must not allow cynics’ narrative of failure to become an excuse for despair. Despite obvious constraints such as the deep suspicion of the motives of President Goodluck Jonathan, the controversial pattern of delegate selection and ambiguity over its legal status, the conference has a good chance of being the take-off point for the long overdue restructuring of this tottering political edifice.


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