In recent times, no phrase or political terminology has been a greater source of pains and perplexity to Nigerians than the notion of unitary federalism. Federalism and all the ancillary benefits that may flow from it presupposes freely federating units, whereas unitary government suggests entities that have been forcibly brought together or territorial units compulsorily conjoined by superior force.
The question Nigerians do not often ask themselves is how conquered territories would be allowed to freely federate and —were this to be so— how a hugely favoured entity among the federating units can be prevented from naturally imposing its hegemonic fiat on the others. In other words, unitary federalism is a grand oxymoron. But as a complex and contradictory mediation of complicated reality, it was an oxymoron that has served its historical purpose. It closed the lid firmly on a roiling cauldron of combustible nationalities until it is either no longer cost effective or the captives themselves figure out that something is terribly amiss.
This is the stage we seem to have reached in Nigeria, with the giant of Africa increasingly looking like the sick man of Africa; a post-colonial version of the Ottoman Empire at the end of its tether. Unitary federalism is another name for feudal federalism. We use the word feudal not in any pejorative sense but as an analytical tool for describing a historical phenomenon and its mode of political, economic, intellectual and spiritual production.
But if feudal federalism appears as a violent oxymoron and a contradiction in terms, it is because the transition from one epoch to another is not a neat and symmetrical affair. It is often messy and chaotic. History is not like a snake slithering out and casting off its slough in one fell swoop. In the transition from feudalism and empire state to the modern nation-state and liberal democracy, some of the features of classical feudalism are willy-nilly grafted to the new mode of political production until the historic transformation is complete.
The unitary state with its harsh centralization and relentless militarization is a sine qua non of empires and the feudal order. It didn’t make sense to talk of federating units in such arrangements. Force of arms and the writ of empire are needed to administer such a vast and humongous territory stretching from one corner of the globe to the other and often incorporating people of different races, creeds and mutually unintelligible cultures. Unlike modern federations which work from the bottom up, empires are top-heavy affairs with orders given and orders enforced.
As the transition from feudalism and empire-states to modern nation-states got underway, it was inevitable that some of the vestiges of the old arrangement, particularly its architecture of power and ideological apparatuses in all their toxic potency, would be handy in the administration of the new order. This is why it was inevitable that old empire states such as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Russia, even after shedding their empire status, still resembled something like empire-nations or some oxymoronic hybrids straddling two different historical epochs.
History often mocks the bold and revolutionary efforts of the human species to chart a new and independent course for itself. As it has been famously observed, people make history but not under the circumstances of their choice. Looking back and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how conceptually impossible it was for humanity to transit straight from the old feudal order to modernity without some intervening hybrids and genetic monstrosities. The uneven nature of human consciousness and unequal development can be seen in the fact that almost six hundred years after this fundamental disruption of the old feudal order, some human communities are still in the throes of traumatic transition even as they grapple with the toxic pathologies.
In Africa in particular and in Latin America where the transition from the feudal order to modernity was accompanied by imperial conquest and colonial subjugation, impossible genetic anomalies subsist. The transition to modernity cannot be a tea party. Several wars of national liberation had to be fought on both continents. The arbitrary boxing of human communities in different stages of economic development and political consciousness into a fit-all colonial trunk has led to unspeakable horrors and some of the worst human tragedies of our time.
Portugal, which is technically speaking the first nation-state, did not even have a concept of the modern nation-state. All its overseas possessions were treated as mere extensions and plantations of the metropolitan homeland. At a point, the entire Portuguese royal household relocated to Brazil, gifting the world with its first tri-continental state. Consequently, ruinous and bitter wars of liberation had to be fought in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau to wrest control, triggering an internal political revolution in the metropolitan homeland itself.
France, having spurned the famous interdiction of Toussaint L’ Ouverture, the great Haitian Black revolutionary, not to substitute the aristocracy of class it has overthrown in a blood-soaked drama for an aristocracy of superior race, elected to turn its conquered natives into proud French people. The tragic consequences of this romantic racism and genetic engineering can be seen in the racial and religious disorder crippling the French homeland. Swallowing strange human species has not proved a delectable meal. A majority of the Frenchified evolues still remember that they came from somewhere.
The historic luck of the United States of America resides in the fact that it was blessed at the beginning with a set of visionary intellectuals and revolutionary thinkers who were bent on charting a new course for a radical modern nation away from the ruins of feudal Europe. It was the first collective experiment in revolutionary humanism where humankind and its rapid progress towards self-actualization and not some divine ordination became the measure of all things.
Even then, the American revolutionaries were not far behind the French romantic idealists. To gain traction, this new elitism took off with a savage pogrom of the native Indian population who were viewed as surplus to modern human requirement and the dehumanization of non-European races, particularly the African slaves who have had to struggle through centuries of unspeakable terror in order to achieve racial parity.
The unspeakable irony is that it is the backlash that has created the pulsating paradox of a multi-racial American underclass up in arms against the entire American establishment with the unspeakably bigoted and joyfully racist Donald Trump as its champion and chief haymaker. There are secessionist tremors from Texas and California and no one is sure of how all this will pan out. The world has arrived at the truly post-modern and post-liberal frontiers.
Yet it can be worse and the grey mist can only be lifted by another oxymoron: gloomy optimism. No nation or people can escape the historic consequences of their own actions. As the originator and prime mover of the world’s seminal break with the old feudal order, it is to Europe that we must look for the early warning signals of another rupture in the global order and arrangement of territorial space.
Nations which behaved very much like the old empires forcibly co-opting people of different nationalities and diverse cultures by unitary fiat have disappeared in the sand of time: Yugoslavia, the old Soviet Union, Sudan, Ethiopia, and good old Czechoslovakia have all disintegrated into their components parts. If care is not taken, Britain is most likely to follow in the wake of the Brexit rumpus.
It is not as if the world has been cursed with the collapse of the old nation-state paradigm. Rather, what is staring us in the face is the possibility that human evolution no longer requires vast and unwieldy nation-states as the engine and accelerator of human development and the maximization of opportunities for self-actualization.
This is even more so if such nations brim and bristle with irresolvable and insurmountable national contradictions which stifle developments and hobble the creative energies of their diverse people. Rather than face eventual dismemberment and disintegration, it is better and more beneficial to humanity for such nations to find within their inner resources, the structural re-engineering which will liberate their national genius and blast open the frigid dialectic of history. This is different from the strident calls for summary disintegration by affronted and traumatized nationals.
Africans in general and Nigerians in particular can no longer afford to play the ostrich to global developments. All available indices of human development, stability and accelerated growth tend to support the fact that the fastest developing, best governed, most congenial and amenable nations on earth are loose federations such as Canada, Australia and India or the portable compact wonders of northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and probably Northern Ireland. These havens of human progress and prosperity prove the thesis that when it comes to nations big can be big for nothing indeed.
As a matter of fact, recent research tend to support the notion that in the last five thousand years the greatest monument to civilization and perhaps the most outstanding achievement of the human race are not great kingdoms, remarkable empires and outstanding nations but great cities or megalopolis. As it was in the earliest time, it is these great human conurbations that drive accelerated development and rapid growth irrespective of changing territorial rationalizations.
In the UK, the greater London metropolis alone accounts for almost half of Britain’s GDP. In America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and the Californian arcadia stretching all the way to the Silicon valley hold at least one-third of America’s GDP, just as the Taiheiyo Belt in Japan, Greater Sao Paulo in Brazil, Mumbai-Pune in India, Chongqing in China with its concentric city-cells and the emerging African wonder of Lagos all hold the key to unlocking the staggering economic potentials of these huge nations.
And just as it happened with the great rivers of the world which powered and served as a hub for prosperity for earlier civilizations, great urban enclaves are swelling around major airports of the world often bypassing the constraints of the hosting domains to connect with the global emporia and the ceaseless air traffic. Known as aerotropolises, these economic and technological nirvanas drive human commerce to a level that would have been unimaginable in an earlier epoch. Goods from the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka ultrapolis and Seoul’s Incheon Airport arrive at Los Angeles on a daily basis while Sydney in Australia has become just one aerial hop from London.
If this new demographic reconfiguration solves the problem of accelerated development and rapid economic progress for humanity, it is also likely to resolve the political conundrum of unitary federalism in the least politically advanced societies, particularly in Nigeria and generally in Africa. Already dubbed as one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the fifth largest in Africa, the greater Lagos megalopolis eventually stretching to Epe and incorporating Abeokuta, Shagamu and Badagry is likely to put paid to the arrant conceit of unitary federalism in Nigeria.
When fully operationalized, this vast urban Mesopotamia, aided by its culturally congenial and socially conducive environment, is likely to profoundly affect the contours and complexion of the colonial cartography of Nigeria through economic decoupling from the iron cage of futile and feeble unitarism. There is no caging the human spirit. When you block the political path to human progress, you also open up other avenues.
This is subtle but firm restructuring in progress. No power on earth can stop this development. This is because it does not depend on force or the power of a famished state but on the collective genius of over forty million people. No contemporary state can muster that kind of anti-work force against its most politically sophisticated and economically advanced citizenry.
It is no longer possible in contemporary post-military Nigeria to equalize and federalize poverty and deliberate under-development as a strategy for maintaining political stranglehold. With its current difficulties and obvious inability to galvanize the entire nation for a purposeful national project of salvation, the Nigerian post-colonial state will struggle hard in the coming years to come to terms with this developing scenario.
But it will be akin to locking the door of the stable after the horse might have bolted. As we have demonstrated in this piece, unitary federalism has had its day in other parts of the world. It is a carry-over from the epoch of feudal empire. Whatever advantages it conferred on earlier state and nation formations have now dissolved in the crucible of human evolution. It is also about to come to grief in Nigeria with portentous implications for state and nation alike.
Rather than working on the next mega party or rearranging the sitting and feeding order in a sinking Titanic, what is now imperative is for the nation to sit together in order to chart a new course for the Nigerian people. With economic sabotage bringing the country to its knees and with centrifugal forces seizing hold of its jugular from all directions, the omens are very dire indeed.