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Does Nigeria need 36 states?

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The chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Abdulaziz Yari, recently denounced the state of the Nigerian economy, saying both state and federal governments have been borrowing money to pay workers’ salaries. He mentioned the recent bailout given to the states as a temporary measure.

How many times will we need to revisit the same issue for it to finally be solved? Is fixing Nigeria rocket science? Probably not, but the will to do so has always been the chief impediment to real change. Everyone mentions the urgent need for diversification of the Nigerian economy.Nigeria

Everyone always points to our decaying infrastructure, or to the need for drastic improvements and focus on agriculture, mining, etc. So why is this never done? Of course, depending on one’s party allegiance, one could say that non-oil industries (particularly agriculture) under Jonathan grew significantly.

Or, again, depending on different allegiances, one could say that when agriculture was rumoured to have overtaken oil as our chief export or source of revenue, it was only because of the allegedly stupendous levels of corruption in the oil industry.

So, to some, corruption’s unintended consequence might have been, on a surface level, to develop agriculture in Nigeria! However, what I find most interesting is the attempt by the Governors Forum to talk policy. Nigerians are more used to the governors arguing over who should be the forum’s chairman (was this how and when the Amaechi name got its national fame, compounded by an epic battle with the Jonathans?)

Fundamental problems

Despite the Nigerian political class’ tendency to grapple with the obvious, in terms of policy direction, there are fundamental problems to be debated and resolved. We all know Nigeria’s economy needs to be diversified. The question is, what is each state doing to contribute to this process? What can each territory produce for export, or even for consumption internally, thus employing and empowering Nigerians?

The Federal Government does not need to take the lead for this to happen. The tradition for Nigerian governors has been to be spoon-fed a direction by those at the national level.

Very few of our governors have the reputation of being impactful: most cities outside Lagos, Kano or Port Harcourt who some might say live off old glories, haven’t known any real transformation in the past ten years. So what is really the point of having 36 states and governors if we cannot have 36 functioning hubs for trade, industry and performing social services?

Has governance come closer to the people? Why do we, the people, bother to pay 36 governors if there is little to gain in terms of development for all? Who gains, if not the retinue of aides and special advisers who typically assist their boss in laundering funds?

The National Conference should have been the opportunity to hold ground-breaking conversations to truly impact our nation’s future. Instead, it became a petty squabble over allowances for its grand attendees who were often caught on camera dozing. The larger problem behind delivering quality services to all Nigerians, isn’t just diversification of the economy, it is our unwillingness to cut our coats according to our size.

With little improvements in productivity (at least 19 of our states survive only based on federal allocations and seemingly exist only to pay salaries) or in terms of Nigerians’ standard of living, the question of “statehood” is one we should ask ourselves.

France is completing the process of merging its 22 regions into 13 in order to save costs in a dwindling economy. It was agreed that despite sentimental value, the cost of running a French region in comparison to merging a number of them, would mean less taxes and better services for the people.

Indeed, having 15 local governments does not determine the quality of service in each. What we need are enforceable standards and investment in health care and education, not a numerical obsession or “more is more” mind-set. Less can be more if things work properly. Even in America, which currently has 50 states, states had to “apply” to become states, that is, to prove they could be viable.

We have lost the essence of who we are and what works for us or why we chose federalism in the first place. States should exist to empower local populations and enable self-determination. They should be places for the discovery of new, groundbreaking ideas replicable at the national level. Today, states in Nigeria exist mostly to elect governors. Nigerians kill themselves over the political ambition of people who barely notice them.We must discuss how to meet the needs of the average Nigerian. Statehood remains the best way, in my opinion, to cater to those needs but not the way it is being practised in Nigeria. We need to talk about true federalism in order to solve our economic, ethnic and religious woes.

Buharification: I borrowed this term from Sonala Oluhemse, a columnist whom unlike Reuben Abati (who by his own admission wasn’t a journalist during his time as presidential spokesperson) writes in the interest of the voiceless. The “buharification” of Nigerian politics is urgent. Beyond APC and PDP there is a system of governance, a way of doing things in Nigeria that is fundamentally wrong.

When Fayose had accusations of corruption thrown at him, he still won his party’s nomination for governor. Similarly, Audu and Sylva, despite the allegations trailing them, won their party’s nominations in Kogi and Bayelsa respectively, with someone in Audu’s camp even allegedly claiming, according to some news sources, that he would refund the moneys he is purported to have “held onto” if elected!

Corruption allegations

Reforming our electoral laws and processes is urgent: Nigerians should encourage temporarily banning politicians with corruption allegations levelled against them from seeking public office (at least until investigated and cleared by the courts). Perhaps the President was (wrongly) advised to stay out of state politics.

Unfortunately, with him being one of the few who deeply wants change, Buhari will have to intervene when necessary: this doesn’t make him a dictator, he doesn’t govern by fiat. Simply, he must use the powers accorded to the President to do more of what he has started; that is, redress a terrible situation.

Prof Osinbajo

IN an interview he mentioned the presidential initiative on the North East, a regional programme to tackle insurgency. It’s a shame the presidential spokesmen spend more time bickering with OlisaMetuh (who is only too glad to drag them into denials over would-be conspiracy theories and witch-hunts) than they do informing Nigerians on the real issues at stake.

Unfortunately the interviewer didn’t ask for more details on the presidential initiative: it clearly wasn’t deemed to be “juicy” news.

Greater effort

But there needs to be a greater effort, from the Federal Government to educate and enlighten Nigerians as to its policies and I believe the Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, should spearhead that attempt, in conjunction with the future Minister of Information.

There is too much misinformation out there and unfortunately, some media outlets add to the confusion. One thing is published today then denied tomorrow. In the interest of Nigerians and the change we voted for, the Presidency should consider a website like the White House’s where both educating and entertaining reliable, up to date facts and information are published.

The Treasury Single Account is one such misunderstood policy. Those who don’t want change in Nigeria mislead Nigerians by demonising it (like they once did to Buhari), claiming it will destroy the banking sector as most deposits in banks come from government.They forget, that fact in itself isn’t normal. Without government money (and money from “leakages”), banks will be forced to do what their counterparts abroad do; that is, not to be socially useless and instead grant loans and grow businesses. Osinbajo, during his many social engagements, should be at the forefront of singing the change gospel by explaining the usefulness of these policies to Nigerians, beyond their demonisation by the opposition or the unknowing (or both).

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