AS candidates and political parties traverse the country seeking votes ahead of the 2023 general elections, the demand that restructuring the country into a truly federal polity should be the dominant issue on the hustings resonates. In separate media interactions, leaders of different socio-political groups have restated the urgency of returning Nigeria to its pre-military era federalist principles, and urged all candidates and parties jostling for elective public offices to commit to this imperative. This should be an absolute minimum to bring the country out of stagnation and unleash the full potential of its component units.
Long suppressed and resisted by powerful interest groups, the dysfunction of the present centralising 1999 Constitution and its brake on development have become too visible to ignore. Reluctantly, groups long opposed to a reset to authentic federalism have realised its inevitability.
Nigeria faces multiple crises. There is the crisis of identity; many of its 218.19 million people owe allegiance to their ethnic nationalities, not the supranational contraption created in 1914. From this follows a crisis of governance; a natural federation of over 250 ethnic nationalities has operated a unitary, centralising system more suitable for a mono-ethnic polity. Consequently, crises abound in the economy and in the social sector, while insecurity pervades the country.
The calls that true federalism be the main agenda should therefore be heeded. Indeed, if Nigerians desire progress instead of just regular elections that bring neither autonomy nor prosperity – there have been five general elections since 1999 – choosing candidates or parties by the electorate should be based on the restructuring action plans presented by the presidential candidates and the parties.
Afenifere, a pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the apex Igbo socio-cultural body and the Ijaw National Congress made this clear in separate interviews with the Sunday PUNCH. They want all the candidates seeking to succeed the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to commit to leading the charge to restructure the country. While the Afenifere leader, Ayo Adebanjo, recalled that the true federalist structure of pre-1966 Nigeria facilitated fast-paced development in the defunct four regions, the National Publicity Secretary of Ohanaeze, Chiedozie Ogbonnia, insisted that the current strange “paradigm unitary-federal system” enshrined in the 1999 Constitution “is the source of our calamity.”
Right on target, he added, “This federal structure is a contradiction; just like a building sitting on a faulty foundation, it is bound to collapse.” So contradictory that it has 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List and only 30 on the Concurrent. It labels state governors as “chief security officers” of their respective states but confers all policing and security powers exclusively on the central government. Illogically, it vests power over minerals, fishing, prisons, and railways exclusively on the centre.
Stripped of resource control and fiscal federalism, effectively, the constitution makes the 36 states dependent on federal allocations. Consequently, the INC’s National Publicity Secretary, Ezonebi Oyakemeagbegha, said the group would support only candidates committed to restructuring.
In the North where opposition to restructuring has always been stiffest, realisation has dawned that Nigeria cannot continue on its current self-defeating trajectory. In November 2021, the Coalition of Northern Groups, through its Convener, Yerima Shettima, acknowledged that the current unitary system retarded the country’s progress while true federalism would squelch rising separatist agitation. With reservations, the Northern Elders Forum, and the Arewa Consultative Forum have also admitted the desirability of reverting to true federalism.
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What should engage Nigerians now therefore are the details. Unitary federalism has delivered poverty and insecurity and pushed the country towards state collapse; from 52 per cent of the population poor in 1999, Nigeria now has 95.1 million abjectly poor persons says the World Bank; unlike in the First Republic when each region had robust economic plans anchored on its natural resources, today, only two states (Lagos and Rivers) can survive without federally allocated revenues.
Insecurity is tipping the country to failed states status; ranked the world’s 16th most fragile state in the 2022 Global Fragile State Index, and the second most terrorised after Iraq by Jihad Analytics, and wracked by banditry, armed robbery and kidnapping, the 36 states are helpless because the constitution forbids state and local policing.
None of the world’s other 24 federations operates on such batty grounds. Regulatory control over mining is shared among the three levels of government in the United States, Australia and Canada. According to Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law Series, Australia’s six states and two territories own and regulate minerals. India’s constitution vests policing powers primarily in the 28 states and law enforcement responsibilities are shared with the centre. Brazil has federal, state and municipal police forces, and the US’ decentralised system boasts almost 18,000 separate police agencies.
The World Prison Brief database lists 4,445 correctional centres run by the federal, states and local authorities in the US, and both the federal and state governments run prisons in Brazil. That is federalism in action.
Nigeria must also be run on rational lines or face the likelihood of state failure. Some stakeholders like the Ilana Oodua and ‘Yoruba Nation’ activists believe that elections should not be a priority but restructuring and negotiations for peaceful separation. Agitators in the South-East are bent on separation, violently if necessary. An elder statesman, Afe Babalola, has repeatedly called for a suspension of the 2023 elections and appointment of an interim government to allow Nigerians negotiate and replace the 1999 Constitution that was imposed by the departing military junta.
The calls for restructuring should be heeded. All candidates and parties should have concrete plans on how they intend to lead the process. Nigeria has lost its peace, cohesion and national direction; it must restructure into a truly federal system urgently or splinter the way all ill-organised artificial states have done.
The various regional groups, civil society and self-determination groups should mobilise all segments of the country to insist on doing the right thing. All parties and candidates should hearken to the clamour for true federalism. ,
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