What the federal government owes these badly governed states is tough love. It should make it very clear that henceforth, it will no longer bailout any state that receives the FAAC allocation. This because some governors have become addicts, hooked on Abuja manna. It is, therefore, appropriate for the federal government to enforce constraints on them…

Many analysts argue ad nauseam, that before the 1966 coup in Nigeria, the true practice of federalism was responsible for the great achievements of the Northern, Eastern, and Western regions of the country.  And then, they reel out the same tired old evidence for the billionth time – groundnuts pyramids in the North, palm oil in the East, and cocoa in the West.

You never hear that those three regions were all unitary governments of sorts because the premiers were ultimate sources of authority or power in all the regions at the time, as are the governors in our 36 states today.  Yet, many of our states today are unable to generate enough self-sustaining internal revenue.  So what matters may not be whether a state is governed as a single entity or under federalism.  The truth is that Nigeria’s federalism was not created to check the power of the national government.  It was created to prevent ethnic domination.

In a speech given on November 14, 2001, at the Speaker Events Series of the Harvard Law School, I argued that the defining feature of Nigeria’s federalism was distrust and the fear of domination.  This consequential fear of domination of each other is the problem with Nigeria.  As a veteran journalist, Dan Agbese, put it more elegantly: “…nearly all our problems as a nation flowed from the “domination bug.”  This is the main reason our federalism is ‘dysfunctional’, to borrow an adjective from Governor  El Rufai of Kaduna State.

It may be true that Nigeria cannot survive its present state of a ‘dysfunctional’ federation, but any resultant adversity will not be because we are more unitary than federal.  It will be because of bad governance epitomised by some governors who cannot even pay salaries. Our other demon is the bloated central government in Abuja, which inadvertently debilitates our emerging economy and democracy.

Accordingly, what the country needs to do is to first summon the courage to face down its demons, rein in those governors who cannot pay salaries, and then, decentralise power.  COVID-19 offers a great opportunity to do these.

If the Nigerian Civil War provided a win-the-war opportunity to dice up the country into 12 (and now 36) dependent states, in order to isolate the core Igbo part of Biafra, COVID-19, the  second most impactful event in Nigeria’s post colonial history, offers a second opportunity to drop those states that have failed.

…COVID-19 is sure to be marked by suffering, misery, and lasting distress for many of our citizens, particularly those who live in states where the state governments claim to be too poor to pay salaries. 

While the Civil War disastrously visited huge losses and deprivation on many people, COVID-19 is sure to be marked by suffering, misery, and lasting distress for many of our citizens, particularly those who live in states where the state governments claim to be too poor to pay salaries. True, many of them depend primarily on monthly Federal Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) disbursements to fund their own budgets. But this dependency is in fact a measure of bad governance because we are not talking about small change here!

Last month alone, states received N86.14 billion, while local governments (read ‘states’, in many cases) received N66.411 billion.  According to The Cable, the total disbursement (including the federal government’s) was N606.196 billion,   “…down N174 billion from the N780.926 billion disbursed in April from the revenue generated in March and N581.566 billion in March as revenue generated in February.” Add to this the huge debt the states are piling on the necks of their citizens.  According to the Debt Management Office, ten states alone have accumulated debts of well over N100 billion each. So, why should the federal government still bail some states out for not paying salaries?

What the federal government owes these badly governed states is tough love. It should make it very clear that henceforth, it will no longer bailout any state that receives the FAAC allocation. This because some governors have become addicts, hooked on Abuja manna. It is, therefore, appropriate for the federal government to enforce constraints on them, to make them think twice before employing another set of a hundred advisers, or adding to their fleet of official cars, while the children of teachers, nurses and other workers in their states go to bed hungry because of unpaid salaries.

Ebere Onwudiwe is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja.