You Want Federalism? Fight For It!, By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
You either have federalism or you don’t. In the present case, there is no federalism. We do not have a “false federalism”. We have “Unitarism”, pure and simple. It is a brazen unitarism that our ruling classes, ever willing to beggar their teeming, suffering masses, embrace because it serves their immediate, extreme narrow interests: their respective places at the national feeding trough.
If I hear another Southern governor, especially from the Western states of old, call for “true federalism” one more time, I am going to throw up. Seriously.
To start with, the phrase “true federalism” is one of those meaningless monikers that now dominate what passes for public discourse in Nigeria. Others include “stakeholders”, “organised civil society”, “girl child”, and so on.
But it is “true federalism” that is under focus in this discussion. Mr. Akinwumi Ambode, I hope people realise who it is I am talking about, you may be right that only “true federalism” will save Nigeria and its democracy. The problem is what the heck do you and are we, your audience, to understand by “true federalism”?
I would like to submit that it is only in a Nigeria dominated by “Illiterates in Power” (apologies to Felá) where people, leaders and the led alike, can permit themselves to think that the term “true federalism” means something or has any cognitive content. The truth is: it does not.
Federalism and its many variants are not the kinds of things that can be true or false. What would a “false federalism” look like? Judging by the almost orgasmic attachment that Nigerian functionaries and their intellectual enablers now have to the phrase you’d think that they would be exercised enough by the idea to, at least, evince some understanding of what it means and how it would manifest in real life.
I take it that they all think what obtains in Nigeria at present is “false federalism” to which “true federalism” would be the antidote. This all presupposes that whatever dominates the Nigerian political landscape right now is federalism of some sort. Therein lies the rub.
Truth be told, what obtains right now in Nigeria is a nondescript political and economic mish-mash cobbled together by the military while they held direct sway and which our newly-minted “democrats” have, since 1999, been too petrified or too ignorant to alter or tinker with in the name of a false, demonstrably false, commitment “to keep Nigeria one”; a slogan, incidentally, that was used to mobilise the federal side during our bloody civil war.
Unfortunately, as I pointed out in another piece, the military never left. You either have federalism or you don’t. In the present case, there is no federalism. We do not have a “false federalism”. We have “Unitarism”, pure and simple. It is a brazen unitarism that our ruling classes, ever willing to beggar their teeming, suffering masses, embrace because it serves their immediate, extreme narrow interests: their respective places at the national feeding trough. This shameless addiction to cash-and-carry politics that has for its life-blood the blood money that is extracted from the oil-producing areas is why what matters to our rulers is to preserve that centralised pot from which each gets his or her portion at regular intervals.
Think of it, although the country would be richer when there are more diffuse modes of revenue generation and distribution—as was the case before the scourge of military rule—the ruling classes will have less access to the wealth thus produced since they would have to do more work to know and monitor what is being produced, where, by whom and in what quantities to determine who should have what and when. Our lazy rulers cannot contemplate such an outcome that will make them literally earn their keep.
If you still have doubt that there is no federalism in Nigeria, here are a few pointers. I read recently that the First Lady sent a state First Lady to go and stand in for her at an event. Where did we ever hear of that previously? In the military, of course. Of course, in the military, however distinguished an officer’s wife may be in her own right, she is by definition inferior to another wife married to an officer of superior rank. The implication of this is ugly enough that a more accomplished individual is made subordinate to a less accomplished other on account of her choosing the ‘wrong’ person to marry. It is uglier for both women who are turned into appendages of their respective husbands’ pips and epaulettes. Mr. Ambode, be a federalist, stop subordinating your wife to the federal might.
Only a military-ised civilian regime will establish a state university and put it under federal control, in spite of the fact that education is on the Concurrent List, and put it under contraptions like the NUC, JAMB, and other misbegotten bureaucracies that have literally killed higher education in Nigeria.
Because of the illiteracy of their husbands and the wives’ own cooperation in their own subjugation for the spoils of sleeping with the ‘right’ man, our current First Ladies never ask themselves whether anyone back in the day when Nigeria was a federal polity, Flora Azikiwe would have contemplated asking one of Sir Adesoji Aderemi’s wives to go represent her at an event. And there was no time, I can recall, that Chief (Mrs.) Faderera Akintola felt that she was going to be running errands for any of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s wives.
Not too long ago, there was Babatunde Raji Fashola, literally, in the dock at the National Assembly trying to beg his way for Lagos to be allowed to take a loan and he did not feel anything wrong with that picture. Or Kayode Fayemi getting into argument with ordinary mobile policemen on the streets of Ado-Ekiti regarding the latter’s behaviour and the security of the state he was then shepherding. Of course, under the military, inferior officers always obey the orders of their superior officers. Such is the military-ised civilian regime that runs Nigeria now that governors receive orders from Oga-on-top in Abuja and fall in line. They are always afraid that their pocket-money equivalent from the federal parent would be withheld if they do not comply. In federalism, a slave mentality is anathema. I will explain that presently.
When Nigeria had federalism, southern states/regions had the Criminal Code; the north operated under the Penal Code. The Western Region and later State had a Court of Appeal and the business of appointing judges was strictly that of the state/region. There is a reason that the Nigerian judiciary was such a shining light to the rest of Africa—at different times Nigeria supplied the Chief Justices of Uganda, Botswana and other judicial officers all the way to the Caribbean. This was all before the scourge of military rule destroyed it.
In a federal system, state authorities knew the lawyers who lived and practiced in their neighbourhoods. That way the appointing authorities were not likely to mistake a charge-and-bail hustler for a proper judge material. Now, as long as you have the right channels to Abuja, what if nobody knows you in your city, not to talk of your state, it does not matter: you can be a judge at any level. Mr. Ambode, stop being an accessory to rubbish, assert your prerogative to administer your state with your elected representatives and tell the pokenosing federal busybodies to butt out.
This is an important point that our illiterate rulers either don’t know or can’t be bothered about. If a fine judiciary is crucial to a well-functioning democracy, it is even more so in a federal system. Like democracy, federalism is not a mechanism for the avoidance of conflict; it is a mechanism for the management of conflict. It is founded on a recognition of a pluralism of interests as well as their divergence with one another that almost always guarantees the occurrence of conflict. That is the principal reason why federating units are not in a subordinate-superordinate relationship with one another and the federation they create is coordinate with, not superior to, the federating units.
Hence, there are clear divisions of powers and responsibilities. Conflicts that arise between states are resolved by the judiciary. Conflicts between the federal government and constituting states are resolved the same way. Only under quasi-military rule would the federal government spitefully choose May 29 and not June 12 as Democracy Day and all states would dare not say, No! and where the state would literally shut down its capital because the First Lady or even the president is visiting it.
I need not multiply examples but I cannot resist a final one. Only a military-ised civilian regime will establish a state university and put it under federal control, in spite of the fact that education is on the Concurrent List, and put it under contraptions like the NUC, JAMB, and other misbegotten bureaucracies that have literally killed higher education in Nigeria. Mr. Ambode, recover your university from federal control, organise higher education in your state and let NUC go to court and show its constitutional bona fides.
If Mr. Ambode wants federalism, he must be willing to fight for it. There is no finer way of putting the point. For starters, in addition to the preceding suggestions, he might want to reconsider frittering away the state’s resources, however ample they may be, on equipping federal institutions like the police. How about establishing your own police and, for once, be the real chief security officer of your state?
As we say in Yorùbá, ààbò ọ̀rọ̀ là à sọ fún ọmọlúàbí, bó bá dénú ẹ̀, yóò dodidi. I have said my own.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.