On Fiscal Federalism: An Open Letter to the Nigerian Senate, by Tony Osborg
Dear Distinguished Senators of the Federal Republic,
There is no other time than now to begin, or better put, to reintroduce the debate over what might, in fact, be the foundation of Nigeria’s unending political challenges. First, it was widely believed that the trouble with Nigeria was squarely the trouble with leadership. Bad leadership, to be precise. We have in the past, faulted all the government’s inadequacies to the personalities who we had entrusted with the duties of leadership. We have consistently blamed our leaders for the failure of government without asking why all our leaders fail right from the local level to the federal level. I intend to start this letter with a series of questions which I hope we shall all find answers to as I progress with the letter. Have our leaders truly failed us over the years or is it the government that has failed our leaders by providing for them institutions that are morally bankrupt, socially irreconcilable and economically defective of sustaining political and economic development? Which is the major enemy of Nigeria today – our leaders or the structure of our federation? Is the present structure of federalism skewed and defective to the extent that it is solely responsible for the crises we have witnessed over the years? Can any leader successfully transform Nigeria under the present structure of our federalism? Is underdevelopment not an inevitable consequence of our skewed federal system of government? How long shall we continue with this same ‘Nigerian experiment’ and yet expecting to get a different result?
To the Nigerian political experiment, corruption is a by-product of bad leadership, so is every other institutional deficiency and abnormality. Bad roads, fuel scarcity, low quality education, lack of electricity, union strikes, etc. are all effects of bad leadership. It is, in fact, on this premise that Nigerians decided to vote out the previous government, believing that once we have a man of an incorruptible nature as our president, every other thing will simply fall into place. So we thought. If every democratic leader, starting from 1999 has failed in Nigeria till date, then we cannot continue to say the leaders are the cause of their own failures, we must now begin to look at the structure of the federation, upon which these leaders have tried, as probably being responsible and as the reason why all our leaders fail despite their sincere and patriotic efforts. I have now come to the firm conclusion that something is obviously and fundamentally wrong with the structure of Nigeria’s federalism and this is the foundation of our consistent historical underdevelopment.
Indeed, we now have an acclaimed incorruptible leader at the apex of our leadership, accompanied by saints and driven by a patriotic passion for change. Six months into this new federal government, the experiment in change of leadership has not given us any iota of either economic stability or political inclusiveness. I agree that it might be too early to declare the outcome of this Nigerian experiment as a failure, just six months in? Well, many would argue ‘you do not expect our newly installed incorruptible leader to transform the mess he inherited in such a short time. It is not possible’. Although I see such defence as a dangerous form of sycophancy in our new political dispensation. However, it is tolerable for time’s sake and besides, I do not see a President Buhari transforming Nigeria without restructuring the country, even if we give him twelve years of uninterrupted presidency. Three months in is enough to know how prepared a leader is in tackling critical national issues that concerns national progress. Implementing policies could take years to achieve but convincing the people on how this policy would work is not something that should take more than a month to explain.
My aim of writing this open letter is an attempt to convince you all that we have been wrong in our approach towards solving the Nigerian trouble. It is true that we have had an unfavourable run of bad leaders, but it is not exactly true that this crop of bad leadership is the cause of our national troubles. We have had leaders of various characters; the ugly, the weak, the bad, it is believed that we now have the good, yet the troubles won’t go away. What then is wrong with Nigeria?
After an interesting research into these issues and having studied the historical precedents of Nigeria’s style of federalism and constitutionalism, I am now convinced that the trouble with Nigeria is not the biases of our leaders but the structure of our federalism. I have now come to the firm conclusion that Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP, just like every other past democratic leader, were actually not the problem of Nigeria. And also, President Buhari and the APC are likely not to be the solution to Nigeria’s seemingly endless problems. The problem with Nigeria is the present structure of its federalism. The existing federal structure does not only breed corruption, it also corrupts our politicians, youths and leaders alike. It makes the state governments lazy and unproductive, it makes the local people poor, it sends too much power and money to the centre and leaves the local people and their local economy miserable. And worst of it all, the present structure does not enhance competitive productivity and efficiency amongst states and at the local levels. It makes Nigeria look like a joke which for now, Nigeria is. The idea of sending all our money to Abuja on a monthly basis only for the same money to be shared among the federating units is not only ridiculous but also the harbinger of docility among the federating units.
If Nigeria must make swift progress and rebuild it’s failing institutions, then she must be restructured as soon as possible from this present unitary system into a robust and sustainable true fiscal federalism. What does restructuring mean? It simply means that the bulk of what we have on the exclusive list should be sent down to the concurrent and residual lists and the FG should stay clear of the concurrent list. In a nutshell, the states (or regions as the amended constitution may decide) should be given more powers and more money to allow them embark on their new ‘fiscal’ responsibilities. The states should be allowed to build, own, operate and distribute their own electricity and other critical infrastructures. The federal government should take its hands of such issues like education, health, infrastructure, and other issues that are currently on our exclusive list. Policing should be a state affair while the Federal Government handles defence and national policies. Nigeria is now too abstract for us to be looking up to her all the time, but our state and local governments are not, they are here with us, we can hold them to ransom if the need arises. Under a restructured system, the people of Lagos can shut down their government house if the state fails to provide them electricity for too long, but under the present structure, who do we hold responsible for lack of electricity? We cannot continue to look up to the presidency for lack of electricity in our hometowns or the bad roads in or regions, when under a proper arrangement our states or regional government can conveniently handle such issues.
Under a restructured Nigeria, how can the states or regions have more money to do these new things? First, the monthly ritual of sharing allocation at Abuja MUST stop. The federating units must stop sending all their revenues to Abuja. All monies generated in Lagos should be spent alone in Lagos and by the Lagos government; same applies to Kano, Bayelsa, Anambra, Maiduguri, etc. The states should be allowed to manage their own economies and pay an agreed tax or royalty to Abuja for Nigeria’s upkeep. We must adopt a bottom-top approach against the top-bottom approach we currently practice. Let us not forget that it is only when the local federating units of Nigeria are developing that we can actually say Nigeria is developing. GDP that does not reflect the economic efforts of our local people and impact on our local population is meaningless. This is a problem we have always had in Nigeria. States that cannot afford to cope with this new arrangement should either go bankrupt or merge to survive. We do not need thirty-six unproductive states to make up Nigeria. One of the basic qualities of a state is its internal economic capabilities. A state that cannot sufficiently generate an internal minimum revenue to at least pay its civil servants does not and should not qualify to be called a political state. Under a restructured Nigeria, any state (or region as the new constitution might decide) that cannot internally generate its own revenue to run its basic overhead needs should either be declared bankrupt, merged or even dissolved. We cannot continue to use the resources of Kano state to fund a liability elsewhere, all in the name of One Nigeria. Every state/region must be economically viable and responsible to its own needs. It is only through this process of state/regional competition can we put in place the necessary mechanism to drive national development.
We must not forget that Abuja is not Nigeria; if the various constituting units of Nigeria are not developing, especially from the local levels, then Nigeria is not progressive, irrespective of the beautiful statistics that we might be getting from Abuja regularly. It is only when the local people are in charge of their economy and politics and through federal moderations that we can truly verify how genuine our GDP is reflecting the economic realities of our people. Local governments must not continue to look up to Abuja to survive, they must look within. They must be allowed to build local infrastructure, tax local businesses, have a reasonable share in local business explorations, and make profit to run their local economy and government. What is missing in Nigeria today is competition amongst the federating states and the only way to correct this abnormality is to restructure the polity into a True Fiscal Federalism. We must learn to send more fiscal responsibilities to the local governments and save Abuja this regular embarrassments of being responsible for the failure of the entire country.
Restructuring Nigeria into a True Fiscal Federalism requires a constitutional amendment, if not an entirely new constitution. This is specifically why I have deemed it appropriate to write to the Senate, rather than to the president. The power to transform Nigeria into what it has dreamt of becoming now lies in the hands of the Senate. All that is required is an agreement built on an equitable compromise. We should not wait till 2019 before affirming the fact that the structure, not the leaders, is the trouble with Nigeria. We should not wait for President Buhari to fail, just like the leaders before him, before we begin to consider critical reflections. Nigerians desire change, so also, I believe, does the Senate. However, we cannot rely on the goodwill and integrity of the president alone to bring about this change. This change is a collective responsibility and it begins with the Senate. There is now an urgent need to restructure Nigeria into a country of competing states/regions built on self-reliance, equity, freedom and economic sustainability.
It might interest you also to note that restructuring Nigeria also solves the secessionist agitations arising from various corners of the country and might possibly put an end to the Boko Haram crises! If each region is allowed to govern itself, manage its economy and dictate its own politics and social relations, all at its own resource capacity and pace, there will be no cry of marginalisation, oppression, exclusion or even accusations of genocide. Under a fiscal federalism arrangement, every regional crises will be given a final nail and the rebirth of regional economic competitions will give rise to national growth. This is what True Fiscal Federalism can do. In fact, under a restructured Nigeria, we can have the ‘Biafran’ Region of Nigeria, likewise others, without having the Igbos or others seceding or dividing the country! This is what True Fiscal Federalism can do if we so wish it that way. The time to return to True Fiscal Regional government is now.
As a youth, I am more than ever convinced that the solution to Nigeria’s seemingly unlimited abnormalities and can be found in a restructured Nigeria.
Let me close this letter by saying that corruption, just like every other abnormality in Nigeria’s political setting is an inevitable byproduct of the present structure of our federalism. If we do not restructure our federalism, we might all end up being overwhelmed by the criminality of the present structure, irrespective of our personal moral principles. May we, be we politicians, policy makers, youths, private sector drivers, etc, in due time succeed in restructuring Nigeria into a true fiscal federalism so that we may not be overwhelmed by the criminality of the present system as the people before us. Amen.
This is the message I have brought forward to the Nigerian Senate. Pardon my negligence for not using our recently launched Senate ‘suggestion box’ in conveying this letter to the House. The cost of transportation to and from Abuja is high, so is the cost of postal services. One must learn to be prudent in these days economic uncertainties. I believe you all will receive this letter and treat its content with urgency and patriotism, despite it been delivered through an open medium. I will be delighted, like millions of other youths, if in the next couple of weeks, the debate for a constitutional amendment towards a restructured Nigeria is raised in the House. The time to restructure Nigeria is now. We cannot continue to do the same thing with different leaders and political parties and still, expect a different result. We cannot continue to pretend that changing politicians and political parties is the panacea to Nigeria’s challenges. We must now in all honesty learn to admit that what is desired as true change is to change the structure of the Federal Government. We must now learn to send more money and more fiscal responsibilities to the government closest to the local people, this we must do if we are honest in embracing genuine grassroots development. This can only be achievable under a true fiscal federalism.
Tony Osborg writes from Kano City.