By Femi Aribisala
INAUGURATING the organizing committee for the proposed Sovereign National Conference, President Goodluck Jonathan said: “I will, therefore, like to allay the fears of those who think the Conference will call the integrity of Nigeria into question.
This National Discourse will strengthen our union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored.” In spite of the non ambiguity of this brief, the chairman of the advisory committee, Dr. Femi Okurounmu, nevertheless commended the President for establishing no “no-go” areas for the committee.
One of the requirements of being the chairman of such an important committee is the ability to listen. Dr. Okurounmu apparently did not listen to the President. In the brief the President gave him, there is a clearly defined “no-go” area. The conference is not to be about how to dismantle or break up Nigeria. The conference is about how to strengthen our union. The division of Nigeria is a “no-go” area. Those who asked for the conference conceptualized it as a Sovereign National Conference. That is entirely different from a conference of Nigeria’s nationalities.
Dismemberment of Nigeria
That means for a start, people like Femi Fani-Kayode, who are calling for the dismemberment of Nigeria and the establishment of a Yoruba state, should not be included among the delegates to the conference. The Fani-Kayodes must be “no-go” delegates. That also means those who are still hankering after the establishment of a Biafran state should understand that the conference is not designed to actualize their dreams. The conference is designed to ensure that issues militating against a more perfect Nigerian union are addressed and put to rest.
Here are some of the issues that should be of major interest to the conference.
Inalienable rights: We need to agree on the inalienable rights of Nigerians. These should include the right to life and liberty; the right to free speech; the right to religious freedom; the right to live and work in any state of the federation without hindrance.
Resource control: A situation where some states generate scanty resources and, nevertheless, come forward every month with outstretched hands for money to be allocated to them from the proceeds of oil from the oil-states is unproductive and unacceptable.
There should be a tie-in clause between productivity and financial bailouts from the center. Some percentage of monies receivable must be matched by local income. Every means must be employed to discourage indolence. The Nigerian union must of necessity be an economically productive union.
Devolution of power: The centre is too strong. A lot of the power struggle for control of the presidency would recede with greater devolution of government to the states. It is clear now that the states are where the real action is. Whatever strides Nigeria is making today is coming mainly from the states. Therefore, there is need for further review of Nigeria’s fiscal federalism. State governments currently receive roughly 26 percent of the federal budget, relative to roughly 52 percent for the federal government. The allocation to the states needs to go up considerably to between 30 and 35 percent.
The biggest corruption in Nigeria comes from the local governments. They receive roughly 20 percent of the budget and the councilors simply pocket most of the money. The activities and performance of the local government authorities in Nigeria have been dismal. There should be greater accountability structures put in place to ensure that the functions of the local governments are performed with little scope for embezzlement, and without undue interference from state governments.
National Constitution: The Nigerian constitution is a colonial document. The colonialists, in this case, were the military. They seize power, abrogate the constitution, and then impose new ones that reflect their narrow points of view. Thereby, they imprison the country in their inadequacies by instituting very stringent means by which the constitution can be amended.
The military constitution of Nigeria should be thrown out of the window. We, the people of Nigeria, need to sit down and write a Nigerian Constitution that truly reflects the wishes and aspirations of Nigerians. We should not have a constitution imposed on the country through the illegality of a military coup. One of the things that should be in the Nigerian Constitution is that the abrogation of the Constitution by a gang of soldiers is unlawful. Any group of soldiers that presume to abrogate the Constitution should be sentenced to life imprisonment whenever the Constitution is re-established.
Fight against corruption: Corruption remains a major problem in Nigeria. It is an incubus that ravages virtually all aspects of the polity. However, there is near universal agreement that corruption should be fought vigorously. A situation where corrupt politicians hardly ever go to jail for stealing public finds in Nigeria needs to be redressed. This can be done through the creation of special courts to try public officers who are accused of embezzlement. Minimum years of imprisonment, such as seven years, should be imposed for those found guilty.
Power-sharing: Certain designated public offices, such as the presidency and vice-presidency, must be rotated among the regions of the country on an equitable basis. The modalities for this process should be ironed out in the interest of national peace and security.
National productivity: National productivity should now take greater precedence over federal character. For the advancement of the Nigerian union, Nigeria has to become far more economically productive.
A situation where all emphasis is placed on the division of the national cake and not on the baking and growing of the cake should no longer be acceptable.
The location of economic units should follow economic logic. Economic decisions cannot be subject to federal character if they are to make sense. If it is not advisable to use federal character to choose a national football team, neither should we use federal character to determine the location of a refinery.
If the Lagos-Ogun axis is the powerhouse of Nigerian industrialization, then that axis needs to be allocated a disproportionate amount of the electricity. If states create schemes to increase local electricity generation, they should be allocated the requisite increase in electrical power from the national grid. Everything should be geared towards the determination of Nigeria to become an advanced economic giant within the next generation.
State-creation and origin: The issue of further states-creation must be buried. There are already too many states in Nigeria. State creation cannot be based on the desire for access to wealth generated from elsewhere. State creation must be based on economic viability and economic productivity. We cannot continue to spend all of our resources on paying salaries and for administrative purposes. The United States is the richest country in the world. It has 300 million people but only 50 states. Nigeria is one of the poorer countries in the world. We have roughly half of the American population but four-fifths of the states. The United Sates has 100 senators; Nigeria has 109. This is wasteful.
The issue of state of origin should also be addressed. A Nigerian born in a state should be adjudged to belong to that state. A Nigerian who lives in a state for more than a year should have a right to become an indigene of that state. That means he can vote and be voted for. This will go a long way to promote national cohesion.
Big government: The government of Nigeria is too big. A disproportionately large amount of money is spent just paying salaries. When CBN Governor Lamido Sanusi pointed out the need to down-size the civil-service, he was shouted down. But we cannot continue to waste over 70% of our income just on recurrent expenditure. Why for heaven’s sake, must we have 19 ministries with 36 ministers? In big United States, there are only 15. Why must we have Ministers and then Ministers of State? What is the job of a Minister of Information? Not many countries in the world have such a useless ministry. Countries with far more resources than ours do not have half the size of the Nigerian government.
Oil-producing states: The oil-states cannot continue to be made to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation and oil spillages without adequate national compensation.
Adequate compensation must also be made for the fact that the oil comes from their area. In this regard, a 13 percent derivation in the federal budget for the oil states is not enough. It should be at least 20 percent percent. Such compensation will encourage other states to look for resources in their own states and to benefit from them. Let the West re-energise cocoa production once again. Let the ground-nut pyramids reappear in the North.
Conclusion: It is generally agreed that Nigeria is a frontier country with huge potentials. Our tragedy is that we have failed to realise our potentials over the last 50 years. The next 50 years should not be allowed to be the same as the last 50. We are fast running out of time.
By 2050, Nigeria’s population is projected by the United Nations to be 389 million, rivaling that of the United States at 403 million. By the end of the century, the U.N. projects that Nigeria’s population would be between 900 million and 1 billion, nearing that of China and making it the third largest country in the world.
Such a huge population offers great promise for Nigeria if it can be harnessed for economic growth and development, just as happened in China. But it also portends great social upheavals if it is not more than matched by economic growth. The economic opportunities that are now opening up in Nigeria are unparalleled anywhere in the world. It is time to take the Nigeria project seriously by mapping out how we can effectively leap-frog as a nation into the 21st century. The Sovereign National Conference is a useful platform for doing precisely that.