Restructuring Nigeria for National Cohesion and Good Governance, By Atiku Abubakar
Restructuring will ensure greater accountability. People are more likely to hold their state and local governments to account once those governments are no longer able to convincingly blame the central government for their shortcomings.
I have spoken a few times over a long period of time about the need to restructure our federation in order to make it stronger.
Our founding political leaders agreed on and erected a federal system of government. They believed, quite rightly in my view, that such a structure was the only guarantee of national cohesion, in view of our diversity, varying resource endowments, varying levels of development, and the centrifugal forces threatening our unity. Over the years, that structure, which we inherited, has been changed towards greater centralisation of power and concentration of resources at the centre at the expense of the federating units. This has had enormous consequences, including a culture of fiscal dependency of the federating units on the centre, and an over-extended federal government dominating virtually every aspect of our national life. Others are the cries of marginalisation by virtually all segments of our country at different times, the rising din of demands for restructuring, fiscal federalism and even violent extremism. There have also been voices opposed to those demands and agitations.
Restructuring, to me, therefore, means effecting changes to our current federal structure to bring it closer to what our founding leaders erected in order to address the very issues and challenges that led them to opt for a less centralised system. It means devolution of more powers to the federating units with the accompanying resources, and it would involve greater control by the federating units of the resources in their areas. It would mean, by implication, the reduction of the powers and roles of the federal government so that it focuses only on those matters best handled by the centre, such as defence, immigration, customs and excise, foreign policy, aviation, as well as setting and enforcing national standards on such matters as education, health and safety.
Good governance, in a democratic setting, would mean that the government effectively and efficiently delivers on its constitutional duties and promises to the electorate in a fair and equitable manner. It also includes meeting other challenges that emerge in the society during the government’s tenure. And it includes government being accountable to the people and recognising and effectuating the people’s right to know. Thus, transparency is at the core of good governance. Good governance is a requirement for a country’s development which, to me, means improving the society’s productive capacity, improving the people’s welfare and enhancing their freedoms. As we know, governments do not often voluntarily offer transparency, which is why a viable opposition and a vibrant and independent news media are essential ingredients of good governance. Above all, perhaps, good governance requires a vigilant and demanding electorate.
In contemporary Nigeria, good governance would involve addressing the country’s economic stagnation and crisis, including transitioning the economy to a post-oil/commodities trajectory, ensuring security, fighting corruption and restructuring the polity, including the structure of the federation and government institutions.
National cohesion refers to a sense of unity and oneness by citizens of a country to the extent that, despite their diversity, they see themselves as forming a nation. That sense of solidarity encourages them to invest economically, socially, politically and emotionally in the wellbeing of the nation-country. National cohesion does not mean the absence of disagreements but that those disagreements play out and are resolved within the parameters laid out by the country’s laws and regulations and in a manner that preserves the sense of oneness.
On whether restructuring is the panacea for naational cohesion and good governance: Well, I do not believe that any one single thing is the panacea for national cohesion and good governance in Nigeria, but I have no doubt that effecting the necessary changes to our existing federal structure will help to promote national cohesion and good governance. Some have argued that what our country needs is just good governance, not restructuring. This is misleading. In fact you may have good governance without necessarily having national cohesion, and vice versa. Yes, people want good governance, but often they also want to feel as a part of the governance process. They like to have a sense of belonging. They do not just want to see good governance, they also want fair and equitable governance. And they want to be respected as bona fide members of the society. People like to see themselves represented in those doing the governing. Let’s not forget that some of the most efficient and effective governments in history were also exclusionary brutal dictatorships which maintained national cohesion until those regimes collapsed. Equally important is that while restructuring our federal system would help ensure good governance, the latter does not depend on restructuring alone. People and communities at every level must continually demand good governance from their elected officials.
About a week before the last Ramadan, a small business owner in Yola complained to me about how poor power supply was hurting her restaurant business. She wondered why the power situation remains very bad and pleaded with me to do something about it. I explained to her that our country’s generation and distribution capacities are not anywhere near enough and that even the little that is generated is sometimes sabotaged by attacks on the pipelines that supply gas to the power plants in the Niger Delta. “Why should we in Yola rely on power from the Niger Delta?”, she wondered aloud. “Why can’t we have our own power plants in Yola or Adamawa State? Am I supposed to go the Niger Delta to complain?”, she fumed.
We should try to understand the basis for the agitations and calls for a new compact, rather than vilifying the agitators. It is disingenuous to accuse everyone who calls for restructuring as trying to break up the country.
I am aware that the current government is working hard to improve the power situation in the country but this woman’s questions and statements capture the pitfalls of the excessive centralisation that has been foisted on our country over the years. It must be reversed if we are to set ourselves on a path of sustainable development, peaceful coexistence, and national cohesion.
Ever since the creation of this country out of diverse peoples, cultures, histories and geographies, we have had our differences and conflicts, and early in our history we tried to resolve those differences through negotiations and compromises. Our resolutions were never perfect but they didn’t have to be. Human relationships evolve; they change as they seek perfection. Our diversity encouraged our founding leaders to opt for a federal system of the government which they hoped would allow the federating regions the space to control their resources and to develop at their own paces, according to their peculiar situations. At a point in our history, those negotiations and compromises broke down and we had a military take-over of power and subsequently fought a civil war.
Military rule and the civil war led to the steady erosion of our federal structure. The increasing centralisation of power and concentration of resources at the federal level, in the context of rising oil revenues and neglect of other revenue sources, weakened and relatively impoverished the states. As vice president and chairman of the National Privatisation Council (NPC), I saw firsthand what an overly centralised federal government can do wrong. Having confiscated the bulk of national revenues, the federal government proceeded to insert itself in a dominant manner in virtually every aspect of our national life, including the economy where it became an investor in all manner of businesses rather than facilitating the emergence of a vibrant and thriving private sector.
Although we have succeeded in privatising many public enterprises, we still engage in what I call institutional escapism and duplication/ multiplication. Rather than fix existing challenges in existing ministries and departments, we create new ones to carry out the same functions as the existing ones. If the Federal Ministry of Works is not functioning well, we create Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA). If the police is not doing well with respect to traffic management, we create Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC). Again we create a Civil Defence Corps in response to the shortcomings of the police in providing security rather than decentralising the police, among other reforms. The list goes on and on. We claim that state governments would abuse state police, yet we hypocritically accept their donations of equipment and funds to the police commands in their states, pretending we don’t know that those donations have relational consequences.
As you deliberate, there are three things I suggest you pay serious attention to:
1. People have a constitutional right to peacefully agitate for restructuring, so focus on identifying the reasons for the agitations.
We are now in a democracy and democratic freedoms allow people to freely express themselves, including questioning the political and economic structures of the country and their place in it. We should try to understand the basis for the agitations and calls for a new compact, rather than vilifying the agitators. It is disingenuous to accuse everyone who calls for restructuring as trying to break up the country. History tells us that that kind of cheap blackmail will not work as long as the underlying reasons for the agitations persist.
2. It is Ok to have different positions on restructuring.
Yes, restructuring may mean different things to different people. Like all things with political and economic implications, those calling for restructuring have varying positions, which is not a bad thing. But we won’t really find out how close our positions are to those of others until we sit down with them and start to talk and negotiate. The biggest challenge seems to be that we appear to be allowing moderate voices on this issue to be drowned out by the reckless utterances of a few rabble rousers on all sides, who may be tools in the hands of those who do not wish this country well. These are some of the people who arrogate to themselves the toga of spokespersons of our diverse groups.
This country was built originally out of negotiations by sectional groups and leaders. I believe that our generation is capable of negotiations and compromises for the greater good of our country and our peoples.
3. Restructuring will contribute to national cohesion and good governance.
I have no doubt that restructuring our federal system would contribute the following, among other things:
a. Devolving more powers to the federating units and transferring more resources to them will help to decongest the centre and enhance greater manageability, efficiency and accountability. There will be more clarity in the division of powers and responsibilities between the centre and the federating units, and there will be a reduction in the attention paid to the centre. In my view, there should be no federal roads, therefore states will be responsible for road construction and maintenance and people will know that. The same would go for schools and hospitals. State police (for states that so desire) will help improve security. States that do not want their own police forces will work out arrangements with the federal authorities over cost-sharing for policing in their jurisdictions. The key thing is that federating units will have greater resources, authority and capacity to tackle localised problems with national impact, including education, health care, roads and insecurity, such as the herdsmen-farmers clashes, armed robbery, kidnapping, militancy and other forms of insecurity that may manifest themselves as cultism or other anti-social behaviours. That would be good governance. And the incentive for states in a region or zone to pool together to provide services will be stronger when we pull the federal government out of direct involvement in these. And there’s nothing that says we must maintain a 36-state structure. We obviously can’t go back to the former regions because of minority rights concerns. So, we should explore the option of using the geo-political zones as federating units. With devolved powers and resources, they will be more viable than the existing states. And their current make-up is more suited to addressing minority concerns.
b. Restructuring will ensure greater accountability. People are more likely to hold their state and local governments to account once those governments are no longer able to convincingly blame the central government for their shortcomings.
c. Restructuring will promote healthy competition among our federating units, which will encourage them to diversify their revenue sources.
d. Restructuring will ensure greater fairness and a perception of same among our constituent parts.
e. Beyond these, there is also another huge economic imperative for us to restructure: Oil, which underlined and underwrote our excessive centralisation and fragmentation into numerous unviable states, and which has been at the centre of much of our squabbles, seems to have reached its peak as a source of revenues for our country. In fact, long-term, it seems to be on a downward trajectory. And even if its contribution to our revenues were to remain at current levels in the long term, it still spells trouble for our economy and the unsustainable structure which it has supported for nearly 50 years. The states or zones of the country that are most dependent on oil revenues have a greater urgency to decouple themselves from that dependency now that there is still some oil revenue to assist them in the transition. That window may not remain open for a long time, which may then make the inevitable transition much more painful and chaotic. New technologies of oil production have hugely increased oil output, especially in the US. This, as well as the massive investments in alternative energy sources around the world, has depressed oil prices. And things are going to get worse for oil dependent economies. Norway has announced a ban on the sale of fossil fuel powered cars from 2025. France will ban the sale of such vehicles from 2040. And Volvo has just announced that every new model of car that it would produce from 2019 – in just two years’ time – will be either wholly electric or hybrid. Tesla, the American maker of electric vehicles, just started the production of its soon-to-be mass-produced Model 3, just as other vehicle manufacturers are joining the bandwagon.
We must be open-minded as we debate issues of restructuring and as we approach negotiations on it. Sponsoring so-called youth groups to issue provocative statements and cause trouble is not a substitute for reasoned arguments on the better path to the future. This country was built originally out of negotiations by sectional groups and leaders. I believe that our generation is capable of negotiations and compromises for the greater good of our country and our peoples.
Atiku Abubakar was vice president of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007.
This is text of the speech delivered at the Third Policy Monitoring Dialogue Series on National Unity, Integration, and Devolution of Power/Restructuring,” organised by the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, at Ladi Kwali Hall, Sheraton Hotels and Towers, Abuja.