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Broke states, broken Federation: Will Buhari restructure Nigeria?

By Ogaga Ifowodo

JUSTICE Oloyede Folahanmi must be relishing his starring role in Osun’s unpaid salaries saga even though his call for Governor Rauf Aregbesola’s impeachment is unlikely to result in a special assizes to celebrate the victory of the judge as opposition politician. The learned judge’s 30-page petition—actually, a rant—was part Sunday sermon (“Neglecting the welfare of members of the community under the guise of wanting to provide infrastructure, runs contrary to the teachings of Christ, the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth”), part chic internationalism (“Instead of pursuing . . . the ideals of social order . . . ensur[ing] a just world economic order . . . and universal brotherhood Mr. Governor and his deputy are assiduously working against it”), and little to do with law (only perfunctory allusions to the constitution) or the adjudication of justice (his pronouncements were made not as intolerable but legitimate obiter dicta in the course of delivering judgement in a case before him but as an act of score settling [“I have firsthand experience which constitutes evidence of the unfortunate situation in which Osun currently finds herself”).

President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

Consequently, Justice Folahanmi almost single-handedly deflected attention from an impecunious Federal Government that had to borrow N473 billion to pay its own workers and focussed it intensely on Osun State. Overnight, Aregbesola became the poster-boy of “mismanagement”—Folahanmi cleverly avoided accusing him of corruption. Such that while virtually all governors are broke, and had besieged President Buhari to bail them out, poor Aregbesola became the cynosure of all eyes. He may have introduced drastic austerity measures, cutting the salaries of political appointees by 50% and reducing their numbers, even cleared some of the backlog and managed to restore some sanity to the normally sober State of Osun, still the truth of his claim that his troubles were beyond his control remains.

In spite of himself, however, Folahanmi gestured towards the root cause of his unpaid salaries in his averred goal of averting “the reproach of our state as ‘[a] bankrupt’ and ‘[a] failed state.’” That the 36 states of the federation, with the possible exception of Lagos, are all economically unviable, and so bankrupt without monthly federal allocations financed almost wholly by earnings from oil and gas drawn exclusively from the Niger Delta, is literally a fact of nature. With the steep fall in world oil prices that began last year, the states are now confronted with the stark reality of being no more than glorified administrative units. What self-sufficient economy, I ask, could be founded in Sokoto, Ondo, Edo, Jigawa, Taraba, Nassarawa, Kwara, Yobe, Gombe, Benue, Bauchi, Ekiti, Ebonyi, for instance? How much can these states ever hope to generate from taxes to pay the wages of the full blown bureaucracies of governor, deputy governor, first lady’s office, commissioners, legislators, judges, advisers and assistants, teachers and other civil servants? I mentioned only one oil state, Edo, above but all of our 36 states are no less unviable measured by the strictest rules of state creation. Indeed, the very idea of a federal government creating states, where the reverse ought to be the case, perpetually mocks our monstrous federalism.

There is no dodging the question of restructuring Nigeria into a true and honest federation any longer. And there is no better time for it than under a change government headed by a president who for 12 years begged to be allowed to fix Nigeria until the country was persuaded and elected him. But the change needed is fundamental. It requires a return to the basics, to the first principles of nation-building that we have been content to skip these many years since independence because easy oil money fooled us into a false sense of nationhood and security. We could manufacture any number of states we wished, so Jonathan’s parting gift was yet another national conference that recommended more states—what matter, we have oil! Yet, the only time Nigeria has had viable states was during the pre-independence period of 1957-1960, and the six years of continued regional government after nominal independence. First, three regions, and then four with the creation of the defunct Mid-West in 1963. Oil was not then the Manna from the Delta it would soon become once the military conversion of Nigeria into a unitary state began with General Aguiyi Ironsi’s abominable Decree 1 of 1966 in which he blithely declared the end of the “Federal” Republic of Nigeria. Every other head of state, military or civilian, has perpetuated that lamentable legacy.

Clearly, President Buhari and the All Progressives Congress’s change agenda would be radically shortchanged if it did not entail the restructuring of our warped, wasteful and withering Federation-in-Name-Only (FINO). To really save Nigeria, Buhari must begin to plan for a genuine Sovereign National Conference by the mid-point of his tenure. Two years to restore sanity to the nation, enthrone the requisite discipline and temperament for nation-building, after which he must convene an SNC. Nigeria needs no more than eight states, perhaps, and twice or thrice as many autonomous or provincial regions, but that is a question to be decided by “We the people.” We live on borrowed time and history beckons on Buhari to effect one of the greatest transformation marvels of the world: from military dictator to democratic founder of modern Nigeria and restoration of black pride. Kemal Ataturk might even envy him if he accepts the challenge.


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