There’s no doubt that we are facing serious challenges as a nation, including building an economy that creates vast opportunities for our citizens and giving each of our diverse people a sense of fairness in the distribution of opportunities across the country and creating in them a sense of unity and oneness. Over the years political and civic leaders have stressed the inviolability of Nigeria as one united country and called on our citizens to show a sense of unity and patriotism. Unfortunately, as leaders, we have not done enough to encourage the behaviour and values we expect of our citizens. We have not always matched our rhetoric with our actual behaviour.
Thus it has been difficult for us to achieve national integration and development. I will identify objective or structural and subjective or non-structural factors responsible for this: Objective/Structural Factors: These include our multi-ethnic/multi-religious nature, with regional differences and imbalances with respect to population, natural resource endowment, land mass, topography, etc. Our governments are also dependent on revenues from oil derived from a small patch of the country, mainly three states.
We are also characterized by differential location of economic and political power or dominance, among our groups/regions. This diversity is in itself not a problem. Indeed, it can be a source of strength if we are organised in a way that each section or group contributes its special endowments to the whole. The issue is our subjective responses to our diversity. Those responses have profound impact on nation-building processes, especially our perception of our relationships with one another.
I also have to point out that while our dependence on oil is now a structural fact, it is not natural; it resulted from conscious government policies and practices which can be reversed. And we have excessive centralization and concentration of power and resources at the federal level relative to the states. Non-Structural/Subjective: These are what we do, can do or fail to do to improve our society and realise our national goals.
These include quality of governance: what the government does or fails to do as well as the practices and pronouncements of political and civic leaders, which profoundly shape political discourse and the relationships among citizens. Let’s take a closer look. We are a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with three dominant groups in three geographic regions each with many minority groups. None of the three major groups and neither of the two main religions has overall dominance in the country. Another dimension of our diversity is that the government’s revenue base (oil) is located within a minority section of the country while political power is broadly located elsewhere – with the majority group(s). Although these two features can make for a harmonious relationship among the component groups, by locating different forms of power in different groups/ regions, they have largely been a recipe for conflict in Nigeria. Another aspect of our diversity, which contributes to conflicts, is the uneven development among the regions/zones, which had been there since our political independence.
There is also what I regard as the excessive centralization of power and concentration of resources in the Federal Government relative to the federating states. Our leaders at independence, after vigorous debates and negotiations, decided, rightly in my view, that a federal system is better suited for our situation. A federal system allows for shared national goals and policies, but also allows federating states the autonomy to pursue peculiar priorities. A federal system is also best suited for the protection of the interests of minorities, especially with the creation of states that allowed many numerically large minorities to have more political influence.
At independence we had three (later four) regions with adequate autonomy and powers to develop at their own paces. When the regional leaders tried to extend their influence outside their region of dominance, especially in ways that were less than democratic, it created a political crisis that helped precipitate the military’s seizure of power.
Military command and control structure and the crisis and civil war led to centralization and concentration of power and resources in the centre at the expense of the federating states, which had then been carved out of the regions. Oil revenues underwrote the process, ensuring little resistance. That’s how we came to have “unitary federalism.”
Our “unitary federalism” has also been characterized by too much government involvement in economic and other activities. We now have federal roads, schools, and hospitals, in addition to business investments that the Federal Government embarked upon. With unprecedented inflow of oil revenues the expansion of government didn’t seem to be a problem.
The state became the means to wealth. Politics became a zero sum game. But soon government overreached itself and when oil prices collapsed, the folly of our ways became very obvious. The collapse of our infrastructure and the fiscal crises across the country are pointers to this. It is now so bad that all but a handful of states cannot pay their workers unless they collect monthly revenue allocations from Abuja. And people have come to depend on the governments just as the governments are dependent on oil revenues. Consequently, there has been a crowding out of the private sector, with excessive dependence of people on the government for jobs and other opportunities in addition to social services. The result, therefore, is huge unmet expectations. The government’s inability to meet these expectations heightens inter-group tensions, which contribute to political instability and insecurity, and scare investors.
Our governments over the years, in response to some of the crisis thrown up by these objective structures have tried a number of policies and measures. These include state creation, federal character, NYSC, and changes to revenue allocation formula, which moved more resources to the centre at the expense of the federating states and later moved a little bit more back to the states.
Contradictorily the government has also encouraged the distinction between indigenes and settlers, emphasizing place of origin rather than place of residence in the allocation of opportunities such as jobs and school admissions. This is clearly the wrong type of value to impart in our young people.
What needs to be done? So we need to step back, agree on what the centre must do and what can and should be devolved to the lower tiers of government. We must devolve powers and responsibilities to the federating states. Much of what is currently in the Exclusive Legislative List need to be moved to the Concurrent List. We don’t need federal roads, federal hospitals, and federal schools.
They should be transferred to the states along with the funds expended on them. At best the federal government may establish regional centres of excellence in medicine and research in each of the geopolitical zones, which can act as models for state governments. The federal government should handsoff the administration of local governments.
States should have the power to create as many local governments as they wish or to not create any. With the devolution of powers to state governments, people in each state would know who to hold responsible if their roads are not fixed and if their hospitals have no medication. And the devolution of powers to states must extend to political parties. Our political parties should not behave in a unitary manner and expect a robust democratic federal system for Nigeria. Having the party headquarters in Abuja dictate to state (and even local government) branches even on purely local matters is not healthy for democracy and federalism. Such highhandedness promotes corruption and impedes attention to minority interests and local peculiarities.
•We need to also follow the letter and spirit of such existing mechanisms as federal character and other affirmative action policies to help manage distributive conflicts until such a time when we do enough to enhance production in order to reduce the scarcity that drives our conflicts over distribution. Inevitably in federal systems, component units will bicker over the distribution of resources, including revenues, location of investments and other opportunities. We need to acknowledge that much of our conflicts over distribution are driven by scarcity. That is why I strongly believe that our efforts at redistributive justice must be accompanied by efforts and reforms to improve the productive capacity of our country.
We need to remove all impediments to and provide all necessary incentives for the emergence of a truly productive economy. We must invest in infrastructure, education and innovation, and health care. And these will be more difficult if we maintain the current “unitarized federal” structure and the overblown government bureaucracy.
Rather than relying on revenues from oil we should create a really private-sector led thriving economy that creates enormous jobs, reduces poverty, and creates wealth commensurate with our potentials. When our economy starts creating so many jobs that we will have a hard time filling them, employers will pay less attention to the place of origin of the applicant.
The willingness and ability to do the job will become paramount. When we have enough university spaces that our universities compete for students to fill those spaces, they will pay little attention to place of origin of the prospective students. Transparency in policy making and implementation are also critical. Our distributive system needs to be fairer and seen to be so by the vast majority of our people.
If we promote merit even in the context of federal character (best from each area) conflicts will reduce. In determining access to public resources and services, our emphasis should be on place of residence rather than place of origin. The cause of national unity and integration will be better served when we encourage mobility of persons across the country as opposed to encouraging people to stay in their places of “origin.” Obviously the use of place of residence rather than place of origin will be easier to sell under a very productive and growing economy rather than one characterized by low productivity and contraction. It will also help if we improve governance.
A well-governed people tend to worry less about where their leaders come from. While citizens may maintain their identities, these do not define their attitude to the state or leaders per se. And the most sustainable way to ensure good governance is by improving our democracy and electoral system so that the people’s choices are usually elected.
Thus we must ensure internal party democracy, reduce the role of money and godfathers in our elections, reduce the use of state resources for electoral advantage by incumbents, and strengthen the independence of our electoral umpire. If we restructure our federation, make compromises, and govern better, we will have a greater chance of transforming our diversity into a national asset. And enduring changes to our structure and redistributive systems can only come about through negotiations and compromises by leaders of our diverse groups and zones. With a spirit of give and take, the capacity to empathise, to walk in the other’s shoes, compromises will be easier.
•Abubakar is a former Vice President (1999-2007)
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