Excerpts from a contribution to a two-day seminar on National Integration, Devolution of Power and Restructuring organized by the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, Abuja 13-14th July, 2017
Origins of the current crisis
Every now and then, Nigeria seems to be seized by a strange linguistic animation. A particular word or concept, hitherto innocent and innocuous, suddenly takes hold of the political imagination of the country. And then all hell is let loose.
In the past it used to be resource control or fiscal federalism. Going further there were buzz terms such as hidden agenda, self-succession, army arrangement, Sovereign National Conference, and going much further into the seventies we had a romance with diarchy and its discontents.
Now it is the noise of restructuring rumbling across the firmament of the nation. In recent times, no phrase or political terminology has been a greater source of pains and perplexity to Nigerians than the notion of restructuring or devolution of power.
The two words are often used interchangeably in contemporary Nigerian political discourse. Yet it is only by an extreme generosity of interpretation that they be lumped together to mean the same thing. For example, restructuring may not necessarily involve devolution of power, whereas devolution of power does not necessarily entail restructuring. Yet despite the semantic confusion, it has come to point in some parts of the country when no contrary voice can be uttered against restructuring without the person casting a furtive glance across the shoulder.
But what really is restructuring? Ironically, the ordinary dictionary meaning of restructure is to reinforce or rearrange, alter or change a current structure with a view to enhancing its overall performance and efficiency. This also engenders profound semantic difficulties. To panel beat, alter or change an existing structure is also to preserve its fundamentals without repealing its organic nature
Consequently, it can be seen from this definition that for any human organization or social entity, restructuring, or constant and ceaseless self-invention, is a precondition or sine qua non for survival. No human organization can survive for long without occasionally restructuring itself. In Britain, Spain, the US, France and indeed all the older nation states, restructuring has been going on for centuries and they are still at it. In America, they call it striving towards a more perfect union.
Sometimes, this involves tinkering with the entire state architecture, sometimes it involves changing the demographic configuration of the nation and occasionally it means altering the national alchemy in a way that throws up a new national leadership. This is to cope with historical dilemmas or emergent realities.
But occasionally, an attempt at restructuring can also go catastrophically awry, such as we saw in the Brexit vote in Britain. It is now left to the leadership of the nation to deal with the pain and trauma. The Brexit gamble accounted for the political scalp of the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and has put the nose of his successor, Theresa May, out of joints. In France, it was a voluntary restructuring which finally threw up Charles de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic. A decade later, De Gaulle was to succumb to an involuntary restructuring induced by popular protests.
It can be seen from the foregoing that restructuring does not lead to an automatic El Dorado. It is not a panacea for good governance but a strategic ancillary. Restructuring is not a once and for all cure or talisman but a means to an end. Any restructuring which leaves Nigeria with the current level of grinding poverty, environmental squalor, biblical misery and legislative larceny has not achieved anything.
By decentralising and devolving power away from a bloated and overburdened centre to the margins, genuine federalism aims to liberate the local genius of the people and unfetter their creative and enterprising spirit. Local productivity is radically enhanced and so is accountability and transparency in governance since there is a face to government. Surely, there is less to steal at the centre and less humongous resources available to placate the larcenous appetite of the political elite. Like a revolution, restructuring can also be an act of societal desperation when available human agency can no longer be trusted to do what is right without a constraining structure.
Foregrounding the current crisis
Once again, Nigeria has reached uncharted waters. Uncharted waters must be negotiated but they call for caution and circumspection. But at the same time, they call for visionary leadership.
Eighteen years into post-military civilian rule, and despite enviable strides in some departments of governance, it is clear that the expectations of the Nigerian people have not been fully met. There is a disconnect between the governing and the governed. Poverty and biblical misery stalk the land. With the naira undergoing an unprecedented free fall, Nigerians have never been this poor. Centrifugal forces of regional, religious, economic divisions are having a field day. This is because the institutions of the state designed to rein them in are either too weak or too enervated by their own internal contradictions to function effectively.
This is the nearest thing to what is known as a perfect storm, a freak situation in which all the classic requirements for a naval disaster is present at once. In such circumstances, something is bound to give. This is why there is an urgent need for a modulating and moderating voice at this critical conjuncture in our history.
Etymology of Restructuring
The struggle for restructuring has been with us ever since the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates into a unified country known as Nigeria. In fact in the Crown Colony of Lagos, restructuring has been going on since the naval bombardment of the city in 1862. The colonial authorities were constantly tinkering and searching for the most convenient mode of administration for their prized overseas possession. It briefly led to the anomaly of Lagos indigenes being regarded as British citizens while the rest of the country endured colonial subjecthood.
Famously it was reported that the first civil war in Nigeria was not fought among Nigerian nationals or between Nigeria and Biafra but among British colonial officials duelling over the most suitable form of governance for the amalgamated territory. Such was the intense ferocity of the infighting that at a point Whitehall intervened, overruling the submission of the ranking British administrator of that period in favour the more cogent and superior argument of the subordinate.
The new colonial thinking aligned itself with the fact that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation in which the constituting nationalities are in different states of political and economic development. Given this reality of different modes of cultural and spiritual production, it was thought that rather than imposing a unitary and arbitrary blanket on them, it may be better to allow the constituting regions to develop according to their own internal logic and peculiarities.
This was the first major battle of restructuring and it led to the regional federalism that Nigerian enjoyed in the run up to independence and for the first five years after independence until the military put their boot in. After amalgamation and in consonance with Lord Lugard’s originating vision, Nigeria was ruled very much like a dual-nation state with a unitary organogram. The colonialists firmly discouraged interaction between the two entities.
When leaders of the three regions met eventually several decades later, they could well have been visitors from different planets and not the same nation. This mutual misgiving and misunderstanding was to lead to the infamous incident of 1953 which led Ahmadu Bello to explode that the mistake of 1914 had been discovered. He was lamenting the forcible conjoining of two separate and distinct entities.
Yet by 1954 when self-government was inaugurated for the three regions, the ice had significantly thawed among the leaders as a result of quality interaction and sustained contacts. Although mutual suspicion, such as inevitable among rivals simmered just below the surface, the three leaders were able to do the needful in the overall interest of the new nation.
This new spirit of cooperation was to yield bounteous fruits in the epic conferences that preceded independence. Sir Ahmadu Bello, the northern leader, was persuaded to moderate the confederal position which he had adopted to protect the social, educational and economic vulnerabilities of his region in favour of a federal arrangement.
Zik was prevailed upon to modulate the unitary utopianism of a borderless Black intellectual who saw the entire country, nay the Black world, as his oyster in favour of regional federalism. In the case of Awo, political realities on ground and the need to sustain the momentum and tempo towards independence forced him to jettison his Utopian federalism.
Tragically, this new cooperation could not be sustained as independence opened up new vistas of competition and struggle for economic and political domination. Consequently, the ominous fact remains that in the history of the country, no civilian government has been known to successfully undertake even a minimal restructuring of the country. The only exception was the Balewa administration which summarily expunged the mid-west from the old west in an attempt to restrict Awolowo to his ethnic stronghold, contrary to a subsisting elite consensus which recommended the wholesale reinvention of the entire country.
In triumphant exultation, Balewa would openly declare that any other ethnic group that dared the federal might would face a similar fracturing. This misbegotten restructuring, accompanied by the open persecution of its leader, set the old west on the course of open insurrection and the nation itself on what one of its finest poets described as the path of thunder. It led directly to the first military putsch of January 1966.
The Devil’s Conundrum
From the foregoing, let us extrapolate and tease out certain facts which may be useful for getting out of the structural impasse that the nation has found itself. In 1966, the military administration abolished the imperfect federalism they met on ground ostensibly in the name of staving off the centrifugal forces threatening the nation.
In keeping with the institutional ethos of rigid centralization, the military embarked on a wholesale unitary destruction of the extant order eventually imposing a twelve-state architectural structure on the nation. Thirty years later, the twelve-state structure, under relentless restructuring, had mutated into an unwieldy thirty six state arrangement with many unviable states unable to pay salary and lacking in the organic capacity to turn their dominion into productive, self-sustaining entities no matter the federal alms. It is a scandalous travesty of what federalism is all about. In the name of satisfying the yearning of a delinquent political elite, Nigeria has found itself in a developmental cul de sac.
Emergent realities tend to suggest that the military mantra of deploying unitary and statist engineering to stave off destructive centrifugal forces has proved a hollow failure. The reality on ground suggests that the nation has never been more divided and polarized along ethnic, regional, religious and economic lines than this moment. A restive pan-Nigerian underclass, the product of economic, political and spiritual mismanagement, is on destructive rampage.
It is useful to recall that it was under military statist and unitary engineering that the annulment of the freest and fairest democratic election in the annals of Nigeria took place. The country is yet to recover from the poisoned inter-ethnic relations arising from the summary abrogation of the electoral rights of fourteen million Nigerians. Similarly, in 1986 and 1990, Nigeria played host to military bloodbath as a result of internal opposition to military rule.
It must also be recalled that it was under unitary military rule that Nigeria witnessed an intensification of military autocracy as seen in the regime of General Sani Abacha leading to the harsh repression of the Ogoni Movement and the execution of its leaders. The military regime that succeeded General Abacha had to hurry out of town as a result of the fact that military rule had exhausted its political and historical possibilities. It could not even furnish the political class with the constitution under which they were supposed to operate.
Consequently, post-military Fourth Republic civil rule was inaugurated on very shaky foundation indeed. The martial culture of a militarized national psyche persists in virtually all the institutions of the state. Subsequently, despite successful elections witnessing regime transition and a historic regime change, Nigeria has never been farther away from the economic and democratic promise land. It has been proved that elections do not alleviate the National Question. As a matter of fact, they tend to exacerbate it as we have witnessed in Nigeria particularly since 2015.
The polarization and bitter division of the Nigeria polity have proceeded apace even under civil rule, reaching its zenith of hype and hysteria in recent times. Separatist agitations followed by calls for a referendum to determine the status of the country have become the order of the day. Going forward in a situation of massive hunger and unprecedented misery in the land, it is obvious that something will have to give and much sooner than we expect.
With the route to political reform virtually foreclosed, ethnic, religious and regional restiveness is likely to escalate; armed critiques by rogue liberation groups trying to impose a solution on the grave national crisis will become prevalent; social cannibalism such as we are witnessing in many parts of the country will turn into a security nightmare for our already overstretched armed forces. The coming anarchy and freewheeling chaos will be unprecedented in the history of Africa.
This is the devil’s conundrum in which we have found ourselves. The failure of military social engineering and the absence of a truly visionary political class have plunged the nation into its worst political crisis since the civil war. As many have noticed, there are ominous echoes of 1966. Many have also hazarded that no nation can survive two civil wars.
But Africa has proved an exception to that rule. In Congo since independence from Belgium and even in post-partition Sudan, they have been fighting serial civil wars since the sixties and fifties respectively while until recently Somali state disappeared with the ouster of the monstrous Siad Barre in 1991.
From the foregoing, it is no longer a question of whether Nigeria needs restructuring or not but a question of recognising its pressing immediacy and the fierce urgency of now. But there is restructuring and there is restructuring. The old-type restructuring, a mere cosmetic make-over which does not allow a fundamental shift of paradigm or a repeal of the organic nature of the militarized garrison that Nigeria has become, is a mere exercise in futility designed to prolong the pains and trauma of a longsuffering people.
What Nigeria now needs a complete and comprehensive overhaul of its state architecture and organogram of governance including provision for a confederal arrangement or a referendum to determine the basis of the union. Yet it is also obvious that in a civilian regime, no restructuring can take place within the context of elite polarization and mutual hostility. We must now deal with this contradiction in the final and concluding part of this piece.
Prospects of restructuring
Restructuring in a democratic polity requires substantial elite buy-in and compliance. Restructuring can never take place in the context of elite sabre-rattling and war-mongering. Unless we are ready to settle matters on the field of battle, democratic restructuring requires elite-pacting and intense negotiation on a give and take basis. It is this absence of elite-pacting and consensus building that hobbled the Obasanjo conference eventuating in a walk-out. It also plagued the Jonathan conference resulting in the eventual repudiation of its major recommendations by a section.
As we have noted, the only civilian restructuring that has taken place in the country was preceded by a subsisting elite consensus among the three regional titans. The final push to demilitarize the polity which resulted in the Obasanjo Settlement of 1998 was made possible by a series of elite negotiations and pacting which commenced with the death of General Abacha and MKO Abiola.
Elite negotiations and quality interactions can also result in the moderation and modulation of extreme views and notions of the nation. We have seen the example of the constitutional conferences of fifties which allowed Nigeria to have its closest approximation to a functioning federalism.
In 1966, it was again the turn of Chief Obafemi Awolowo to be persuaded to change his mind. Uncharacteristically, Awolowo had pushed and canvassed for a confederal arrangement for the country. The Ikenne sage had been shaken to the foundation of his faith in the country by the gory events of January and July.
Apart from the refusal of the federal authorities to remove northern troops laying a siege to the old west, Awolowo believed that he would almost certainly have been killed in Calabar prison if Fajuyi had not volunteered to be killed along with Ironsi. Awolowo was persuaded to moderate his views through interaction with the Lagos and mid-west delegates. Once again, he became a staunch advocate of federalism. It was this that encouraged and emboldened Gowon to embark on a twelve-state restructuring of the federation.
This elite preponderance in restructuring is a reflection of the situation on ground and is not about to change given the existing balance of forces. Populist pundits may hew and haw about the absence of the people in these deal-making ventures on their behalf and the obvious lack of citizens buy in. But popular restructuring, like popular democracy, is a pious fiction. The people are merely brought in, if at all, to legitimize and validate decisions taken and position canvassed by the elite. The American Federalist papers were not written by farmers.
With no provision for a referendum in the constitution, only a Sovereign National Conference can restore sovereignty to the people and only in a context of catastrophic state collapse. Except in this situation of extraordinary political turmoil and revolutionary turbulence, a Sovereign National Conference is out of the question. For it will be argued that once there is a successful election, the people have already transferred their sovereignty to an elected sovereign until the next election.
Such a conference succeeded in the old Benin Republic simply because it confronted an unelected military dictatorship lacking in popular legitimacy. Mathieu Kerekou who had demonstrated exemplary patriotism and visionary sagacity in recognising the end when it had come would later return as the democratically elected of his country whereas in the old Zaire Joseph Mobutu prevaricated till the bitter end until the Mobutu state collapsed in an orgy of violence and bloodbath.
Given the foregoing, the Nigerian political elite must now find the visionary courage, the inner reserves of moral strength and the patriotism to begin the series of consultations in order to commence an urgent political and economic restructuring of the nation. Given the current dismal realities, this may sound like a tall order indeed. But the alternative is eventual state collapse opening the door to anarchy and the reign of war-lords. Thank you