By Tabia Princewill
I DECIDED to prolong last week’s discussion on ethnicity due to the number of responses I got from it. I was pleased (and reassured) to find that Nigeria is not as divided as some politicians would have us believe. We are still able, as a people, to listen to sound arguments and debate.
For every nonsensical (sometimes sponsored) rant online, there are intelligent, open-minded Nigerians who are willing to critically assess the status quo whenever it is pointed out to them that things can and should be different in the interest of all.
Someone pointed out to me that “federal character” is the Nigerian equivalent of the American “affirmative action” or the European “positive discrimination” which is the policy of favouring members of a disadvantaged group who are perceived to suffer from discrimination within a culture. So, I went back to the Constitution and found that Federal Character is not about “positive discrimination” at all.
It is in fact a policy created to promote national unity and loyalty; most of all, to ensure no particular ethnic group dominates the civil service and that positions are awarded to all groups. National unity in the post-Biafra period was the guiding light behind most policies but it would be useful, in 21st century Nigeria to reassess said policies and modernise them, to optimise their focus.
“Federal character” presents a noble sentiment on paper, but in practice, it now tends to reward ethnicity rather than competence, as stated in my last article. Indeed, Nigeria has long operated a curious system whereby certain occupations seemed natural for certain ethnic groups: in the ’60s and ’70s, Hausas seemed to be the most prevalent group in the military while one found mostly Southern tribes in academia, business and the civil service.
So, the perception over time became that federal character ended up benefiting the North and enabling Hausa-Fulanis to “play catch-up” and occupy more government and administrative positions. As well intentioned as policy-makers can be, some policies can have unintended consequences and when operating in a multi-ethnic country such as Nigeria, when these nefarious consequences are noticed, reformers must not shy away from the difficult conversations about where we are now and the dangers to our stability as a nation should things remain the same.
We are not asking the right questions about our country. Why should any group need to play catch-up if certain fundamental mistakes were not made? How much do states spend on education? How are our local governments faring? Are they truly able, as currently constituted, to bring development closer to the people? These questions are relevant, especially in the North and in the South-South. Indeed, the North still has one of the lowest pass rates for WAEC in the country and the Niger Delta, despite the oil revenue at state governments’ disposal, remains underdeveloped. These regions have thus become a breeding ground for various sorts of insecurity.
This has nothing to do with ethnicity but rather with flawed decisions by leadership. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo championed free education in the South-West why was this not made a national policy? Today, we see the policy’s benefits as regularly in Lagos, one meets now prosperous Igbos who still thank the late Awolowo for investing in them in their childhood.
If every child, whether he is in Benue, Kaduna, Ibadan or Onitsha can get the same standard of education, then ethnic competition or federal character would become irrelevant. Children would grow up to invest in their surroundings and have the skills to develop themselves and their communities rather than realise that vying for public office is the only saviour or “the only game in town”.
Affirmative action was intended to compensate for past discrimination of minority groups and promote new opportunities. In truth, it might be controversial to say this, but no group in today’s Nigeria is truly discriminated against. Only selfish leadership is to blame if any group feels marginalised. When people get to power in Nigeria, they are quick to forget about their constituents, so when asked why they have not delivered on their promises, they make excuses and play the ethnic card, saying it is difficult to champion their people’s cause.
Politicians in other climes are not more intelligent or endowed with more sagacity than our own leaders. Simply, the will to do the right thing is ever present, as the electorate understands the necessity of holding its leaders accountable. They see the long-term benefits of such freedom rather than the culpable way in which Nigerians subserviently bind themselves to their leaders by surviving off handouts.
In France, the Constitution disallows distinctions based on race, religion or sex and it is forbidden, on any administrative form, to ask for a person’s ethnic origin. However, a version of affirmative action exists: schools in neighbourhoods labelled “Priority Education Zones”, are granted more funds than others in order to bring them up to national standard.
For Nigeria to grow into a peaceful, prosperous nation where its fledgling democracy can have real, unshakable roots, universal primary education, complete rehabilitation of secondary schools (the problem does not start with universities) will create equal opportunities and fair, honest competition for any positions on the basis of merit and not ethnicity.
In the interest of Nigeria, federal and state governments must work together to implement key reforms. Nigeria is not currently benefitting from federalism and decentralization due to some greedy, power-hungry elements in the polity.
All we have are polarised parties, policies and politics rendering intergovernmental relations and people-oriented development difficult, if not impossible. What we need now is a new standard for educational federalism: that is the only lasting solution to ethnic competition.
The Director of Media and Publicity of the Peoples Democratic Party Presidential Campaign Organisation, Femi Fani-Kayode, has said the newspaper advertorials citing his outdated views of President Goodluck Jonathan, were renounced by him before his return to the PDP.
It is so easy to cross over between political parties, which is one of the major reasons why most Nigerians do not take politicians seriously nor do they have much regard for a politician’s word.
Nigerian politics makes a mockery of democratic institutions and policy-making by promoting name-calling and one-upmanship over development, of which Nigerians are in dire need. I hope all politicians in these climes find peace within themselves, the agitation surrounding them seems both unnatural and unhealthy.
The robbery which occurred in Lekki, Lagos, last week, had many thinking of a Hollywood script. It was reported that a 15-year-old girl, a fried fish hawker, was killed by a stray bullet. She wanted to become a lawyer. I keep wondering how many more innocents will die before Nigeria gets it right. Why does human life mean so little to us in Nigeria and Africa generally? Certainly, criminality occurs even in more developed countries but in Nigeria poverty is often a death sentence.
I hope, however, that the elites notice the shift: stray bullets can kill anyone, whether rich or poor. Let us work harder at ensuring the right people get into office at all levels so that we can adequately provide for and protect every Nigerian. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for us to talk about state police.
Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State was recently quoted as saying that democracy is for the rich and that luxuries such as private jets are needed for protection.
I am continuously baffled by the lack of public uproar in response to certain utterances which clearly prove the disconnect between our leaders and the stark reality the masses face. What is described here is “plutocracy”, that is government by the wealthy, where the ruling class’ power is derived from its wealth, or even “oligarchy” where a small group dominates a country.
This indeed describes Nigeria but democracy is something else entirely. The confusion between these opposing systems is telling. Change is definitely needed.