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Constitution amendment and devolution of powers

THE legislative list exclusive to the Federal Government in the 1999 Constitution is intolerably skewed in favour of the Federal Government. Nigeria is clearly a federal environment with three major ethnic groups, each with over 30 million people, populations that are singly more than half of countries of the world.

This, in addition to 250 other smaller ethnic groups, all bunched together, no doubt informed the choice of federalism by the nation’s founding fathers. Yet, the country, though not the most complex in the world, is almost run from a central source.

This is the nation’s undoing because the states have since become amorphous and run as cash-cows of governors and their godfathers, while the local governments are kept in perpetual abeyance since the return to democratic rule.

In theory and practice, the 1999 Constitution conceives Nigerian federalism as almost unitary. The military mentality that Nigeria can only be kept together by force is what may have made those who guided the nation at critical moments to break away from federal principles that were already very preponderant at independence.

The governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India and Mexico, among others, are also organised along federalist principles but none of them is unitary as Nigeria. Where the National Assembly, therefore, needs to start in delivering or restoring enough federal features to the Nigerian practice is taking position to dilute the centre so as to allow the states to play a greater role in determining their future happiness and development.

The argument has been that before the war, regions were too powerful to the point that the Eastern region could secede and hold the country to civil war for three years. This claim is not essentially true. What led to the collapse of the First Republic was the inability of the founding fathers to agree on a nation and their covert and overt desires to take over the country and subjugate the rest of the country.

For example, the Willick Commission had made it very clear that the young nation (Nigeria) must deal with the issue of minorities’ fears of domination by the major ethnic groups before it could settle down into full nationhood. But rather than create the minorities in the North, East and West into separate regions, the colonists folded the union jack and left Nigeria. The succeeding government of NPC/NCNC (Tafawa Balewa/Nnamdi Azikiwe) created only the Midwestern region obviously to deal with Awo/Action Group and failed to create the South-South and Middle belt regions.

Even if for mere academic exercise, one
can fairly state that if Nigeria was carved into six regions by the departing colonial powers or those who succeeded able to do so immediately after independence, and democracy allowed by those who introduced rigging into Nigeria to take over the entire country undemocratically, there wouldn’t have been the need for the military to overthrow the First Republic or Nigeria going into the civil war to force Biafra back into the fold.

So, essentially, the British left Nigeria in a hurry and should have dealt with the minority factor before handing over power. If you ask me, I sincerely believe that Nigerian independence should have been delayed to about 1962 or even later, to avoid the bloody scramble for the control of the country that followed by the regional powers.

For the avoidance of doubt, the term “federalism” is used to describe a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states and local governments as should be the case with Nigeria). FEDERALISM is also a system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and state/local governments, creating what is then called a federation.

Instructively, in 1999, the government of Canada established the Forum of Federations as an international network for exchange of best practices among federal and federalizing countries. Headquartered in Ottawa, the Forum of Federations partner governments including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria and Switzerland. It is not known what Nigeria has learned from that forum as a federation, assuming the nation learned anything at all.

Yet the fact remains that none of these federal nations is unitary or confederal and all have survived as exemplary nations and flagships of both democracy and development by abiding by truly federal principles and precepts.

Those factors that therefore make Nigeria unitary need to be picked out with a fine comb and the Federal Government divested of such powers that can be better handled at the state levels or shared concurrently by the National Assembly for country to stand firmly and make progress.

Examples of such overbearing concentrations of powers at the centre are many: Single police force, national grid for power/electricity supple (no state can generate electricity and distribute), one Appeal Court/Supreme Court and more importantly, the abrogation of the right of states to the natural resources found in their soil. The 1999 Constitution has barred states in Nigeria from tapping the natural resources abounding in virtually all states of the federation. This has left such natural resources in the hands of illegal miners and bandits who are feeding fat on them, while the Federal Government concentrates on the exclusive mining of the crude oil.

For the Nigerian federation to survive, therefore, the National Assembly needs to open up the space for constructive engagements of the states in development according to their inherent competences and desires. The practice where the states wait for the end of the month to report to Abuja for handouts from the Federal Government needs to stop. It is an aberration of democracy. We cannot continue to pretend that the multiplicity of nationalities that make Nigeria can be well administered as a unitary entity. To avoid a situation where the country is forced by circumstances beyond its control to embrace such measure, the National Assembly, as the only statutory body vested with powers to restructure the country, should move now to mobilize stakeholders to key into this agenda as listed by the Senate in Asaba.

More importantly, the nation will also lay to rest the cry for Sovereign National Conference, SNC. After all, all such agitators are only saying is: Restructure the country into a workable, true, fiscal, equitable, federation, not necessarily dismember her.

Mr. Law Mefor,  an author, wrote from Abuja.


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