Why we cannot run away from genuine federalism —Obong Attah

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The CONFAB resumed its daily routine of predictable motions and meaningless expressions of gratitude to the Head of State. That was how General Sani Abacha wanted it, until Obong Victor Attah, who later became the governor of Akwa Ibom State for eight years, dropped a bombshell on Wednesday, July 20, I994.

Thereafter, things were never the same at the CONFAB; mostly because, like most gatherings of Nigerians, this CONFAB was also supposed to be dominated by the three large ethnic groups – Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo.

obong_victor_attahThe minority tribes would literally have to beg for any concessions to be granted to them by the big three. Instead, Attah, an Ibibio, one of the minority tribes, jolted them and challenged them with unprecedented audacity. The submission was a masterpiece in tone and courage. The Attah speech:

“I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for giving me this opportunity to join others in thanking the Head of State for convening this conference, for a very comprehensive inauguration speech, and for the opportunity to continue the debate on that speech; from which I intend to quote quite liberally.

I have a lot to say, in only ten minutes; so, I will right away deal with two quick issues before concentrating on my main area of concern.
The first is the question of leadership and good governance which have been proffered as the panacea for stopping coups.

The military has been condemned; the political class has been castigated. I have to ask in which market are we going to find a good leader and a good government to buy?
The truth of the matter is that you elect people and the government on trust, in the hope that they will govern well. At the end of their tenure in office, the people ought to have the unfettered right to assess the government and its leaders, and either endorse them to carry on or replace them.

I believe that if this had been allowed to happen in the past, barring the total indiscipline of the military itself, we might not have had any coups. The reason I say this is that, hardly ever a coup succeeded, in this country that was not considered a popular coup.

In other words, whether at the prompting of civilians or not, the military always took the opportunity of such frustration of the people’s will, at the polls, to fulfill only half of the people’s will. I say only half, because, while they would have helped to remove the bad government that the people wanted to see removed, they would then proceed to install themselves rather than give the people an immediate second chance to elect a replacement.
This is what the Head of State has to say about this in paragraph 34 of his speech and I quote:

”A common denominator of all forms of democracy is the belief that power, which is legitimate, is that which derives from the authority and consent of the people. It must provide for a credible and inviolable procedure for orderly succession”.

Answer to bad leadership
The answer to coups, to bad leadership and bad governance, can all be found in the provision that the people will have the right to decide; and their decision will not be frustrated by rigging, by the blatant declaration of false results or by annulment.

The second point that I would like to deal with, quickly, is the issue of the transition programme, and I thank the delegate whose amendment made it possible for the matter to be dealt with at committee level. I could not agree more with the delegate who suggested that the worst thing we could do is to send the military packing in disarray.

If NADECO and others, in that group, can go this far with a military government, there is no gain saying the need for us to plan our transition very carefully. But having said that, I have to admit that, today, Nigeria is treated like a leper in the community of nations.

Already we are familiar with the sanctions that have been clamped against us.
Last week the Times of London carried an editorial asking for the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.

All forms of aid have been withdrawn; at a time that our own earnings are dwindling; trade missions have been cancelled; our appeals for debt relief have been rebuffed and capital inflow has totally dried up. In other words, we have been isolated to the point that, socio-economically, we are dead.

This is what the Head of State has to say about it:
“As you all know, we in the present government in Nigeria are committed to ensuring that there is a speedy and unimpeded transition to a civil democratic rule in which we shall not be participants”.
You will find that in paragraph 5. And in paragraph 41 he adds:
“No set of Nigerians look forward to early democratic rule more than patriotic Nigerians who are serving in this administration”.

Therefore, Mr. Chairman, sir, fellow delegates, none of us should feel hesitant to suggest that the military has already become a most unfortunate and regrettable anachronism and should be dispensed with very quickly so that Nigeria can begin to live again.

Now to my major mission which is to try and tackle the related issues of:

  • The Structure of the Nigerian State
  • Power Sharing
  • Revenue Generation and
  • Revenue Allocation Formula.

In bringing us here, the Head of State, in paragraph 8 of his speech said:
“History invites you today to bear the burden of our nation’s regeneration”.
Though representing various conference districts of various states, we are national delegates on a national assignment.
It was disturbing therefore to listen to several delegates speaking as though we have come here to see what we can take home to our various parochial enclaves.

NigeriaForm of federalism
A few, though, have spoken with varying degrees of concern for Nigeria, and those are the ones that I wish to join; in an attempt to find a possible solution to the problems that now plague Nigeria.
In doing so, I will affirm that, though from Akwa Ibom, whatever I am going to say, I would say if I had come from any other part of this country because I am going to dwell on principles.

Nigeria, in my assessment, has one essential problem; and, that is that we profess federalism and practice something else entirely. All the other problems seem to derive from this.
Dr. Ekeng Anamdu gave us a brilliant presentation of the basis and framework for the establishment of true federalism. I want to go one step further and say that true federalism, balanced federalism, genuine federalism, however we may wish to qualify it, has certain incontrovertible characteristics and all of them, to varying degrees, must be present in any form of federalism.

These characteristics include the empowerment of the federating units towards political and socio-economic self actualisation. In other words, much of the powers that the Federal Government now exercises are in contravention of the norms of federalism and must be taken back to the states.

Self propulsion of the federating parts implies the availability of the wherewithal. That is why derivation has become a cardinal principle of revenue allocation in any successful federation.
And that is why the 1963 Constitution represents the epitome of Federal Constitution making in Nigeria. It was this twin principle of empowerment and derivation that made it possible for the country to develop as it did in the past.

The West, in particular, was able, as we have already been told, to build Cocoa House in Ibadan, Western House in Lagos, several cocoa roads, and through prudent management of its resources, rather than through allocations from federal funds, was able to offer free education to its people.

My father did not go to the Federal Government to complain that he had to pay fees for me, my brothers, sisters and numerous others. He accepted that federalism did not mean uniformity nor did unity imply equality of means. Equality of opportunities, yes, but not of means.

The West did what it could for its people as did the North and the East and none was jealous or envious of the other. That was the golden age of federalism.
Then the coup of 1966 started a series of events that culminated in the civil war. As patriotic citizens, we offered this country the proceeds from all the oil within our continental shelf, so that this country could prosecute the civil war without having to borrow one red cent or one penny from any source.

And what did we get in return! A slap in the face — for being so naive and so trusting.
A law was passed, an obnoxious, vicious law, passed by decree called offshore —/onshore dichotomy. Decree No II3 of I970, so the oil whose ownership was never in dispute; the ownership of which was enshrined in the 1963 Constitution, became “our oil” – common property to be shared equally by all.

“That was the most unkindest cut of all for when the mighty Ceaser saw him stab, ingratitude more strong than traitors arms, quite vanquised him, then burst his mighty heart”. Quote from Shakerspears’s Julius Caeser.
Mr. Chairman sir, fellow delegates, that was indeed the most unkindest cut of all. A most devisive thing, that any people, using the strength of numbers, could perpetrate on their follow countrymen.

Mr. Chairman sir, I wish to say, with all the solemnity that I can command, that law could never have been passed against any of the three major tribes in this country.

From federal to unitary system
With the onset of military rule, we had started the very unfortunate process of transforming a beautiful federal system into a unitary system.
Of course at that time, we had so much money from oil that was seized by force from its rightful owners that we did not know what to do with it.

So we relaxed. We allowed indolence to massage us into a stupor. So much so that when we were confronted with another constitution making exercise in 1979, we refused to confront the real issues. Instead we came up with an apology to the military in power who evidently preferred an approximation to a unitary rather than a true federal type of governance.

That Constitution remained silent on the cardinal issue of derivation and that is why today, the question of how much rightfully belongs to those from whose land and continental shelf the oil is being extracted has become a matter for capricious jerry meandering.

Derivation is not a matter of how much you give me, it is not manna from heaven, it is rather a question of how much I give you out of what is extracted from my soil, my waters and my toils and enterprise.

Mr. Chairman sir, fellow delegates, I want to assure you that I would be repeating these same principles if, rather than the oil in my backyard, we were discussing the gold in Sokoto, the precious stones in Niger, the salt in Abia, the marble in Ikpeti, the tar in Ondo, the granite and other rocks that we quarry, the clay, the limestone or any other sub soil minerals which I understand have been found in such large quantities that this government was considering setting up a separate ministry for solid minerals.

Monstrous system
So, please, there is no selfishness about the position that we are taking. What we want, in fact, is that Nigeria will enjoy total development rather than develpment of the oil sector only. After all, one day, the oil will finish.
When I hear people say that we should come and put all our complaints about marginalization and domination on the table to determine who has been the victim, I feel quite distressed.

Why do we want to indulge in such futile exercise of tribal witch- hunting? It is sufficient to know that, by our own foibles, we have transmogrified a federal system into a monstrous unitary system that appears to have terrorized all of us.
All we need to do is to confront this monster and kill it and, in its place, install a true federal system.

If we do that, we will never again have cause to go to the Federal Government with a plethora of complaints which are borne out of a series of political and socio-economic dislocations and misconceptions.
As has been said here before, waiting on oil money will not help us to truly develop. And, unless we develop our resources, there is no state, including the new ones that we are being urged to create, that cannot live in some measure of abundance.

Late Sani Abacha

Late Sani Abacha

I will give you a few examples. Start from the East. We have allowed Malaysia which, only a few years ago, came to borrow palm nuts from us, to outstrip us. They are now trying to refine palm oil for use in lieu of petroleum oil. But the oil producing areas have some excuse because, quite apart from the fact that their land has been confiscated, other oil related activities such as flaring will destroy your crops and damage your buildings for several kilometers around the oil flares which are all over the place.

A lot has been said about the disappearance of the ground nut pyramids in Kano and I want to add that, recently, UAC of Nigeria had to close some of its textiles mills because it could no longer get cotton. And this has happened since oil money was used to build several dams for irrigation. The people have taken instead to selling currency in the streets of Lagos and other state capitals.

If you go to Adamawa, you find that the Savannah sugar plantation land is more than three times the size of the Island State of Barbados. Yet that Island is exporting sugar from five plantations to large areas of the world. But Savannah, even along with Bacita and Sunti, cannot give Nigeria sugar, because we have oil money with which to import. What will we do when the oil dries up? As, indeed, it will.

I designed the tea factory on the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba State, and I know that the Highland tea from there was sought after in the London Tea Exchange because it was of such high quality that it was used to blend and improve the poorer quality tea from certain other parts of the world.Today we have all been reduced to Yellow label tea lovers. And that same Mambilla Plateau could flood this country with milk cheese and butter but instead we have to pay N20:00 for a tin of Peak Milk.

Drought and the threat of the desert are no excuse either because a lot of dams and irrigation systems have been built. Far more money too has been spent on afforestation and desert control than has ever been spent on erosion control. And what is interesting is that, though Niger Republic is far more into the desert, it is able to produce so much more cattle and sheep that, every Sallah, we go there to import rams into Nigeria.

Justice and derivation
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not saying any of this to pillory or castigate anybody. I am merely appealing to us to accept that this oil has already done a lot to develop this country but most of it outside the oil areas themselves. The fly overs, the dams, the dual carriage ways, electrification projects — none of which you will find in the oil producing areas. Even, this new Federal Capital territory where we are.

We are not querreling with any of this. We are proud to have been the cause of it all.
But we are certainly saying that we should now also be able to share in it.
It is time for us to return to justice, equity and fairplay by reinstating the derivation principle.
This appeal would not be difficult for anybody to understand and accept except for the fact that we have come to confuse revenue generation with allocation.

The Head of State in paragraph 23 of his speech had this to say:
“Any useful and long lasting revenue allocation formula has to conform with the political structure of the country One of the valid observations which has been made is that revenue allocation should complement rather than substitute revenue generation”.

Anti-federalism
We have for too long now been substituting generation with allocation, and this is anti-federalism.
In this regard, I will say that I was very disturbed, by something that was claimed to have said by Prof. Bala Usman, in an interview.

He was quoted as saying that Ogoni claim was baseless. That they had lost all claims to whatever they might have had when they were conquered by the British and this conquest – listen to this very carefully, dear fellow delegates – this conquest has since been transferred to Nigeria.

Several questions come to mind, and it must be recognised in this context that Ogoni is only representational of all the oil producing areas.
Does Ogoni not belong in Nigeria that inherited the conquest from the British; can Ogoni people therefore be wrong in claiming that they are now suffering from internal colonization from Nigeria; are they therefore not justified in asking for their independence?

cartoon-derivationSimilarly, I want to counsel that we discountenance and dismiss such specious arguments as, “they did not put the oil in the ground so they are no more entitled to it than we are”.
Such arguments can only lead us to serious confrontation. We heard the man from Bonny say that if a father ill treats a child for too long, the child has the right to renounce the father.

We heard the Ijaw man say that if Nigeria rejects them, they cannot reject themselves.
These are weighty statements but the Akwa Ibom man is not saying anything yet than to hope that we will come up with a Constitution that will give everybody a sense of belonging and guarantee justice, equity and fair play”.

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