Whither Nation or Country? By Najim Animashaun
I find the Swiss a remarkable people. More so now, in the wake of the Scottish referendum and the end of Nigeria’s National Confab (a Constitutional Conference). They have seemingly engineered a unified yet very Swiss country out of a diverse gaggle of squabbling German, French, Italian and Romansh speakers, after realising that they really were “better together” than be gobbled up piece-by-piece by the neighbouring German, French and Italian states.
What makes the Swiss system tick so smoothly and efficiently? Why did the Germans yearn for unification (as do the Koreans), and the Swiss work so hard to keep it together? The tone and flavor of the Swiss Constitution of 1999 (which is of the same vintage as Nigeria), is a useful starting point. It is a document whose aspirational humanity, communal spirit and pragmatism is surpassed only by the simplicity of its construction. (Which is a strange thing for a Muslim, like me, to say about a Constitution that expressly forbids, in article 72, the building of minarets!
Unlike the bulky legalese that passes for Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, the Swiss constitution addresses complex and contentious issues with conciliatory humility. Its preamble is as aspirationally communitarian as it is pragmatic, and as spiritually emotive as it is clinically precise in its economy of words.
“In the name of Almighty God!
The Swiss People and the Cantons, mindful of their responsibility towards creation, resolved to renew their alliance so as to strengthen liberty, democracy, independence and peace in a spirit of solidarity and openness towards the world, determined to live together with mutual consideration and respect for their diversity, conscious of their common achievements and their responsibility towards future generations, and in the knowledge that only those who use their freedom remain free, and that the strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members; adopt the following Constitution”
By contrast the preamble to Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution struggles to flow in trying to express the same sentiments and does not even reach the giddy emotional highs of the National Anthem’s “labours of our heroes past”, or even mention social responsibility for the weak or intergenerational equity; reason for creating the Nigerian Sovereign investment Authority.
Whereas, Nigeria’s constitution is obsessed with creating offices, officeholders and exercising powers and dividing the spoils, the Swiss approach is different. It is less about who exercises power and more about the purpose for which power is to be exercised. It is less about immunity for office holders and more about responsibility. Each citizen has a say in the exercise of power in their name, and can directly and personally influence policy, as they did for example in a referendum amending the Constitution to include a ban on building Minarets.
The divisive issue of resource control and revenue sharing so bitterly contested in Nigeria, and a historical Scottish grievance, finds a pragmatic solution in Article 135 of the Swiss Constitution:
1 The Confederation shall issue regulations on the equitable equalisation of financial resources and burdens between the Confederation and the Cantons as well as among the Cantons.
2 The equalisation of financial resources and burdens is intended in particular to:
- reduce the differences in financial capacity among the Cantons;
- guarantee the Cantons a minimum level of financial resources;
- compensate for excessive financial burdens on individual Cantons due to geo-topographical or socio-demographic factors;
- encourage intercantonal cooperation on burden equalisation;
- maintain the tax competitiveness of the Cantons by national and international comparison.
3 The funds for the equalisation of financial resources shall be provided by those Cantons with a higher level of resources and by the Confederation……”
Two things stand out about this. First, revenue mobilization and sharing is a joint federal state function within the exclusive legislative purview of the Federation. And second, revenue sharing between states is also a joint federal state function. Thus rich Cantons (or states) have a constitutional duty to subsidize the poorer cantons along with the Federal Government (who is a junior contributing financial partner). They are required to contribute a minimum of 2/3 to a maximum of 4/5 of what the Federal Government provides, in keeping with the promise in the preamble. A similar principle is enshrined in the German Constitution.
So the issue of derivation is turned on its head. Sure, rich states– Abuja, Lagos, Anambra, Kano, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta and Akwa Ibom – keep more of the revenue from their resources, but they must also shoulder the lions-share of the burden with the Federal Government for the poorer states. This is already happening in Nigeria as governors of some states provide loans and funds to other states to meet budget shortfalls – Lagos and Rivers being notable examples. But no provision in the Nigerian constitution mandates this so simply or so elegantly or at all.
Implementing this in Nigeria can have a profound impact on our fractious elites, and rupture, in one fell swoop, the symbiotic relationship of mutual need and suspicion that perpetuates patronage networks and rent seeking. Obliging the more endowed to foot the bill for the less well off, with the option for minorities to partially excise themselves from the grip of majorities in their state, increases everyone’s stake, participation and voice. States will be entitled, at source, to the funds they generate and contribute to the Federation account, and be credited with that contribution towards their obligations to meet the needs of less well endowed states.
AS a consequence, the Petroleum Industry will necessarily be restructured in such a way that states will be as central to Government-take as the Federal government is. In effect this is what some enterprising oil companies are doing in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The federal government calculate and remit a state’s entitlement. The Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission will take on an enhanced and ultimately more independent role while the Accountant General of the Federation will have less of a distributive role and more of an audit role.
Another potentially useful Swiss constitutional creation that could address the long running agitation for state creation in Nigeria is the ability to merge, split and redefine Cantonal (State) boundaries by negotiation and mutual consent. Something concerning which Nigeria’s constitution could do more about.
In Switzerland the process for creating a Canton is enshrined in Article 53:
“The Confederation shall protect the existence and territory of the Cantons.
2 Any change in the number of Cantons requires the consent of the citizens and the Cantons concerned together with the consent of the People and the Cantons.
3 Any change in territory between Cantons requires the consent both of the Cantons concerned and of their citizens as well as the approval of the Federal Assembly in the form of a Federal Decree.
4 Inter-cantonal boundary adjustments may be made by agreement between the Cantons concerned.
State or Canton creation is thus not a zero-sum all-or-nothing affair in Switzerland- i.e. a new state or no state. New Cantons can be created by Cantonal referendum and subsequent National Referendum. Two or more Cantons can merge. Boundary issues between Cantons can be resolved by both Cantons without the need for litigation. And, most importantly for minority ethnic groups, a half measure called a half Canton is permitted under Swiss law that requires the consent of the Cantons concerned and ratification from the Federal (National) Assembly. This allows Cantons to split into two but remain one for Federal representation purposes. So the two half Cantons such as Appenzell – Appenzell Innerrhoden (mainly catholic) and Appenzell (Ausserrhoden- mainly protestant) are considered one Canton in the equivalent of the Swiss Senate at Federal level. So states like Benue, Kogi, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Lagos Kaduna and Cross River can be divided for state purposes into Half States with much of the benefit of statehood while remaining in many other ways a single state at Federal level. Bakassi-like disputes between states such as is currently ongoing between Anambra and Kogi can be resolved in a similar way to that Nigeria and Sao Tome chose to resolve their boundary dispute when they created the Nigeria Sao Tome Joint Development Authority. Similarly Cross-River State and Akwa Ibom can similarly share resources without acrimony. Ultimately everyone gets more with carrots than sticks.
Ours may be a young democracy, but as the Scottish referendum demonstrates and the Swiss through their dedication show, no nation can take its existence or Sovereignty for granted. Put another way, what the Scottish referendum and Swiss Constitution tell us is that no nation has a right to exist, but every nation has a duty to preserve and perpetuate itself.
To make our Constitution an inclusive living and breathing document the perpetuates and propels prosperity in this diverse and vibrant country, we need to dispense with the pretense of legal formalism, rigidity and the lip service to federalism. We should consider adopting a more functional and meaningfully pragmatic approach that allows everyone a say and everyone to get at least some of their way. The Swiss may operate a confederacy, unlike Nigeria’s federation and the U.K.’s unitary state. But they,the Swiss, appear at least to be a more cohesive nation than we or our British colonial masters are. Perhaps, looser ties like them will improve our common Nigerian-ness and British-ness and prove that you can be fully Scottish and British without buying into Westminster, and be fully Nigerian without suppressing your Ibo, Hausa, Ijaw or Yoruba-ness. Ultimately, that’s really what Scottish independence and the Niger Delta struggle were about.