The Ring-Bearer’s Dilemma, By Chris Ngwodo
Restructuring is the next phase of our democratic evolution. The challenge is for elites to moderate these processes with reason and smart policies rather than resort to brute force. The latter approach will only further radicalise discontent, and cede the conversation to extremists, with apocalyptic consequences… The hope is that the Buhari administration’s management of these issues will be led by creative optimists. If not, this administration’s ultimate legacy will be to teach us the limits of having a good man in power.
Recently, the All Progressives Congress declared that restructuring Nigeria’s federal architecture is not a priority in the light of other pressing challenges. The presidency also reiterated this position stressing the need to concentrate on more urgent chores like fighting corruption and terrorism and fixing the economy. These statements have been grossly disappointing to federalists – and also disturbingly lengthen the list of campaign promises that the government has reneged on, or at least, relegated to the backburner.
The APC’s leading lights such as Bola Tinubu, Nasir El-Rufai and Atiku Abubakar have all at various times over the last five years come out in favour of recalibrating Nigeria’s governance structures. There is a broad consensus that Nigeria’s current structure is not working and needs reform. Significantly, President Muhammadu Buhari is on record advocating restructuring. While campaigning in Ibadan in 2011, he pledged that his government would “ensure true federalism in order to allow each federating unit to develop at its pace without let or hindrance.”
It is difficult to consider these statements and not conclude that restructuring is a cause that politicians champion when they are in the opposition and swiftly jettison once they gain public office. It all seems like typical politically-convenient mendacity. But these invocations of restructuring and fiscal federalism are not entirely due to duplicity on the part of politicians. Something more banal and primordial is at work. It is something that theologians refer to, with old-fashioned moral clarity, as the temptation of power.
The Ring of Power
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, the fate of the world hinges on what becomes of an enchanted ring of power. The conflict is between evil forces who seek to seize the ring and use it to conquer the earth and the band of heroes who set out to destroy the ring but must along the way also withstand the temptation to appropriate the ring and use it for good. The point, as they are constantly admonished, is that however noble their intentions, the ring’s awesome power itself cannot be used for noble ends; it can only corrupt the bearer and enthrone the very evil that the heroes want to overcome. The ring-bearer is a tragic hero who must wield the ring only in order to destroy it and in so doing succeed where many well-intentioned souls before him failed, and were corrupted and damned by the ring’s power. Ultimately, only the destruction of the ring vanquishes the dark forces and restores peace to the realm.
The ring of power is a metaphor for what Nigerians euphemistically refer to as “federal might” – the absolute control of economic, administrative, law enforcement, military and security institutions that inhere in the federal government and, more specifically, the presidency. It entails the president’s discretionary power to award oil blocks, to order police and security forces to target political opponents or to wipe out a community for allegedly harbouring insurgents. It is the sort of mandate conceived in Section 315 of the Constitution which appears to grant the president quasi-legislative powers in clear contradiction of the principle of separation of powers. This is close to absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In theory, many politicians accept that federal might must be greatly reduced. In practice, and especially upon winning public office, they balk at the sacrificial implications of that course of action – and this is understandable. Reducing federal might is analogous to the concept of sacrificial self-abnegation that theologians describe as “death to the self.”
Restructuring our federal architecture today would mean the end of federal might as we know it – the devolution of more powers and responsibilities to states and municipalities, decentralising economic administration and resource governance, and allowing greater political and economic autonomy at the grassroots, enabling people to exercise more control over the resources in their domains.
In theory, many politicians accept that federal might must be greatly reduced. In practice, and especially upon winning public office, they balk at the sacrificial implications of that course of action – and this is understandable. Reducing federal might is analogous to the concept of sacrificial self-abnegation that theologians describe as “death to the self.” No president is willing to give up the very perks and powers that in Nigerian eyes make him “presidential.”
Restructuring would involve stripping the presidency of its extraordinarily broad discretionary latitude over economic and coercive resources which presently inform its prestige and mystique. These are the properties that make the president the biggest and most feared masquerade in our village. It is why public functionaries abandon their duty posts to see off the president at the airport when he travels out or congregate at the airport to welcome him back from foreign trips. As one of Achebe’s characters explains, the president holds “the knife and the yam.”
Like an ill-starred ring-bearer, Buhari is seeking to wield the ring of power – “federal might” – for the benefit of the Nigerian people. But for all his good intentions and honest endeavour, he has clearly misread the imperative of his presidency which is to dismantle the oppressive edifice of an excessively centralised state and a dangerously powerful presidency. Federal might, by its very design, cannot be deployed to fulfill the sort of egalitarian vision that many progressives claim to subscribe to. This is because federal might is inherently alienating. Regardless of how populist or welfarist the government’s agenda may be, the schematics of federal power will be manifestly exclusive rather than inclusive, arbitrary rather than systematic, and autocratic rather than democratic. Its directive instincts will be repressive, even more centralising and, consequently, inclined towards what would at best be a genteel totalitarianism.
This has little to do with the character of the particular occupant of Aso Rock. As a retired army general who spent most of his adult life in the military, Buhari is temperamentally oriented towards a command and control paradigm – one which he has tried to apply to the economy with disastrous results. Unlike the armed forces, market forces do not ramrod to attention on the orders of the commander-in-chief.
In Buhari’s first year in office, we have witnessed even more concentration of power in the presidency at the expense of institutions. Apart from appointing himself minister of Petroleum, the autonomy of the central bank, for example, has been remorselessly violated; court orders have been disregarded and security forces have acted with criminal impunity in carrying out massacres of civilians in Zaria and the South-East.
These wrongs can be attributed to personal moral failures of presidents; but it is more accurate to see them as institutional and systemic failures. It is the nature of the beast. Where power is absolute, its abuse is inevitable.
But this institutional behavioural dynamic transcends Buhari’s presidency. President Goodluck Jonathan was regarded as an effete vacillator in some quarters but he also hounded a central bank governor out of office and during his term, his government recorded human rights violations notably by the army in Baga, the case of the Apo 8 killings by the Department of State Services, and the shooting of protesters during the Occupy Nigeria protests. The police also sealed off the National Assembly to prevent the opposition Speaker from presiding while the army was deployed effectively to aid the rigging of a gubernatorial election in Ekiti.
President Umar Musa Yar’Adua preached the rule of law even as he forced anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu out of office in defiance of statutory tenure and his attorney-general shielded corrupt politicians. President Obasanjo disobeyed court orders (although unlike Buhari, he never attempted to defend the indefensible on national TV) and he oversaw the military assaults on Odi and Zaki Biam that remain among the worst atrocities of the Fourth Republic.
While these men can be blamed for the terrible things that happened on their watch, these ills derive not just from the character of the presidents but from the character of the presidency itself and of the federal government. These wrongs can be attributed to personal moral failures of presidents; but it is more accurate to see them as institutional and systemic failures. It is the nature of the beast. Where power is absolute, its abuse is inevitable.
Regardless of their partisan labels, elites will subvert institutions, manipulate processes and secure their privileges, especially where power is centralised. Such acute concentration of power also encourages sycophancy, cronyism, and nepotism, not to mention, executive megalomania.
The present concentration of power in the federal government permits no other expression of presidential authority save that which, though occasionally benevolent, is fundamentally and habitually repressive.
Even for those that want to do good with power, the perks and privileges are tempting. The Presidential Air Fleet which candidate Buhari promise to reduce remains intact. The scandals of secret and illicit recruitments into the central bank and the Federal Inland Revenue Service demonstrate that a mere change in ruling parties does not mean a change in governing principles. Regardless of their partisan labels, elites will subvert institutions, manipulate processes and secure their privileges, especially where power is centralised. Such acute concentration of power also encourages sycophancy, cronyism, and nepotism, not to mention, executive megalomania.
To Diversify the Economy, We Must Decentralise and Devolve Governance
The irony is that none of the chores which the administration highlights as priorities – fighting corruption, creating jobs, growing the economy – will be truly successful without restructuring. A successful anti-corruption campaign, for instance, requires the administration to fulfill its campaign promise to grant autonomy to anti-corruption agencies. The perception of these agencies as presidential attack dogs undermines their credibility. More importantly, police reform is absolutely vital, a necessary keystone of which must be the repeal of Section 9 of the Police Act which grants the president operational control of the police. This is why police Inspectors-General act less like the nation’s chief law enforcement officer than the president’s chief uniformed thug. An independent police force is indispensable to a functional law and order regime.
On the economic front, the policy imperatives – diversification, decentralisation and devolution are all inextricably linked. This administration cannot create enough jobs without diversifying the economy and it cannot diversify the economy without the decentralisation of governance and devolution of powers to states. In practical terms, this requires an amendment of the exclusive legislative list which places so many tasks under federal jurisdiction that it is effectively a charter of economic and administrative tyranny.
Devolution should aim to place mineral rights, value added tax and property tax under state jurisdiction and enact a phased increment of the derivation ratio by 10 percent for five years until it reaches the 50 percent mark which obtained under the 1963 Republican Constitution. States and municipalities rather than the federal government are the primary drivers of economic growth and they need to be unshackled from federal apron strings so that they can fulfill this role.
Restructuring is a politically charged term but leaving aside the politics, economic and administrative logic tells us that we cannot remotely and unitarily manage the aspirations of over 160 million people – half of whom are young, hungry for economic opportunity, self-actualisation and social mobility – from Abuja.
Restructuring is also a national security imperative. Consider our energy and power supply sector. The ease with which terrorists and non-state actors have sabotaged our critical infrastructure highlights the utter vulnerability of highly centralised systems. Nigeria does not need a centralised national grid to cater for 160 million people, when she can liberalise the sector and allow for small and medium scale solutions to our utilities crisis.
Restructuring is a politically charged term but leaving aside the politics, economic and administrative logic tells us that we cannot remotely and unitarily manage the aspirations of over 160 million people – half of whom are young, hungry for economic opportunity, self-actualisation and social mobility – from Abuja. The administration recently launched its N-Power social investment programme that is central to its welfarist campaign promises. The collapse of the N-Power website under the barrage of job applications on its first day demonstrates the scale of the need.
The N-Power programme is well-intended and relatively ambitious. However even its scope portends an invasive encroachment of state and local jurisdictions in ways that further degrade governance capacities at those levels. Basic education, for instance, is primarily under the purview of states and municipalities. The creation of federal intervention programmes like the Universal Basic Education Commission under Obasanjo has created more hidebound bureaucracy rather than actually enhanced the quality of basic education.
N-Power fits the profile of previous federal mega intervention schemes such as Ibrahim Babangida’s Peoples Bank, General Sani Abacha’s Petroleum Trust Fund, Obasanjo’s Poverty Alleviation Programme and Jonathan’s SURE-P. They all had mixed or very poor outcomes for a variety of reasons – corruption, bureaucratic bottlenecks and the fact the there can be no single federal magic bullet to deal with the range of socioeconomic needs in Nigeria. We have to respect the country’s vastness and complexity. Plummeting oil revenues raise questions about the sustainability of these programmes. Given our institutional disdain for data gathering and forensic planning, there is a high risk that the welfare programme aimed at the vulnerable, for example, will be subverted by fraud like its precursors.
Restructuring Is Already Happening
“Restructuring” often suffers from clichéd and imprecise overuse by its proponents, incomprehension by the uninitiated, and intentional misunderstanding by the rent-seeking beneficiaries of the status quo. But, in fact, restructuring is already happening. Nigeria is already renegotiating itself. Beneath the histrionics of our most febrile national conversations about issues like grazing reserves and the Niger Delta lie themes of states’ rights, municipal rights, subsidiarity and subnational law enforcement authority.
The state no longer has a monopoly of violence and the balance of terror is tilting ever more in favour of non-state actors. Vast swathes of the country are actually ungoverned or ungovernable spaces. Sambisa Forest, the sprawling colonial-era game reserve appropriated by terrorists as their base is only the most pungent example of such spaces.
The state no longer has a monopoly of violence and the balance of terror is tilting ever more in favour of non-state actors. Vast swathes of the country are actually ungoverned or ungovernable spaces. Sambisa Forest, the sprawling colonial-era game reserve appropriated by terrorists as their base is only the most pungent example of such spaces. The Niger Delta’s labyrinthine creeks are another. Elsewhere, communities are turning to self-help through militias and vigilante groups to fill the vacuum created by an inadequate and over-centralised law enforcement apparatus.
These developments stem from the state’s failure to intelligently manage dissent as well as its inability to impose order on chaos. But they are also manifestations of the organic processes of state formation and reformation. Nation-states are not cast in stone and must constantly renew and reinvent themselves. Restructuring is the next phase of our democratic evolution. The challenge is for elites to moderate these processes with reason and smart policies rather than resort to brute force. The latter approach will only further radicalise discontent, and cede the conversation to extremists, with apocalyptic consequences. Where pessimism perceives anarchy, creative optimism discerns opportunity. The hope is that the Buhari administration’s management of these issues will be led by creative optimists. If not, this administration’s ultimate legacy will be to teach us the limits of having a good man in power.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.