By Obadiah Mailafia
THE debate on the restructuring of our federation has been unrelenting. In an attempt to douse the embers of demands for restructuring the APC-led administration set up a committee under the leadership of Governor Nassir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. In January this year, the Committee came up with some cosmetic recommendations. They were being too clever by half; believing they can bring in cosmetic changes through the backdoor while preserving their iniquitous privileges. They aim to preserve the 1999 constitution both in letter and spirit. The idea that states with governors that jealously guard their power bases and autonomy will voluntarily cede those prerogatives in a merger with other states is totally unrealistic. It also does not placate many who view the 1999 constitution as an illegitimate contraption that was not based on the will of “We, the people”.
The term “restructuring” is not a particularly elegant word. If people loath the term “restructuring”, we could substitute it with the term “re-engineering”. Whether we call it “restructuring” or re-engineering, reforming the state and our federalism is what this business is ultimately all about. If we desire a stronger union and a better society anchored on democracy and social justice, it is imperative that we reinvent the state in such a manner that it meets with the demands and expectations of all our citizens in their quest for a better life.
I have been a keen student of American constitutional government for as long as I can remember. I have read the great works of the American Founding Fathers from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams and the authors of the Federalist Papers. Nobody can claim to understand the moral structure of American politics until they have read the eponymous Democracy in America by the nineteenth century French aristocrat and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. Sir Kenneth Wheare, late Gladstone Professor of Government at All Souls College Oxford, is the father of modern federalist theory. My understanding of federalism derives from these great thinkers, in addition to constitutional theorists such as Obafemi Awolowo, Kalu Ezera and Benjamin Nwabueze.
And we must begin from basics. Federalism is an arrangement whereby power is shared between a central government and federating units. The federal predominates in diverse societies where the people choose to live together within a broader political community while preserving their cultural, linguistic and ethno-religious diversities. Central to the federalist philosophy is the devolution of power, with clear constitutional provisions regarding the rights and prerogatives of the centre vis-a-vis the federating units. It is not a panacea for all political problems but merely an arrangement that preserves diversity while promoting a stronger union.
We often hear the refrain, “we want true federalism”. Well, I am afraid, there is no such thing as “true federalism”. Such an animal does not exist anywhere in the encyclopaedia of world politics. There are different forms and degrees of federalism. Federalism in the United States has its own peculiarities as does that of Canada, India, Australia, Malaysia, Switzerland and other jurisdictions. The type, form and success of every federal system derive from the unique trajectory of a country’s historical experience, political conditions, peculiar challenges and the temperament of its people. What this means is that every country needs to evolve a federal system that works for its people and helps them to secure their liberties while promoting social justice and their flourishing.
The debate on the necessity of a federal system for Nigeria is now a settled question. The voluminous writings by the late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo have shown conclusively that the only way our more than 200 ethnic nationalities can live together as a harmonious political community is through the federalist road. From independence in October 1960 to the collapse of the First Republic in January 1966, we had a federal structure that was patently defective. The system collapsed mainly because it lacked one of the most important elements in federalism: that no single region should be as powerful as to overwhelm or threaten the others. In the federal structure that was bequeathed to us by the British, the North overwhelmed the rest of the regions by its sheer population and geographical landmass. Linked to this was the problem of “competitive ethnicity”. The eminent scholar on colonial administration, Dame Margery Perham, famously noted that Nigerian federalism was an edifice hanging on a “tripod”, which, by definition, was unstable. It only required one of the legs to bend for the entire structure to come crashing down. This was what eventually happened in January 1966.
The military administration of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi did briefly experiment with the unitary system of government by way of Decree No. 34 of May 24 1966. It failed disastrously; contributing to the bitterness which engineered the countercoup of July 1966 that brought General Yakubu Gowon to power.
The long night of military tyranny did affect the spirit and form of our federalism. By virtue of their hierarchical and centralised command structure, the military super-imposed their mindset and leadership culture on the federal system. What emerged was a highly centralised federation with a domineering central government and relatively weak states. The greatest casualty was the institution of parliament. When the military take over power, the executive and the judiciary are always preserved while the legislature stands outlawed. As a consequence, the institution of parliament has remained the weakest link in our traditions of democracy and civil government. Even with the return to civilian rule during 1979, and, later 1999, we have had to live with a rather dominant centre, with overly centralised administrative structure.
There are guarantees that a federation will last forever. Indeed, some federations in history have gone under, notable among them the Union between Singapore and Malaya; the West Indies Federation; the defunct USSR; and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. If we do not want our federation to go down that unfortunate route then it is our bounden duty to do everything to salvage it.
Among the critical success factors are the desire for federal union embodied in the sentiments of the citizens, with people being happy to have a dual loyalty to the federal centre and to their own state or region; a formally written constitution based on the popular will, with inbuilt guarantees that preserve the identity of the constituent units while promoting loyalty to a common union; a political culture anchored on liberal democracy, equality and the rule of law; leaderships imbued with the capacity to govern and to work together within the framework of a collective sense of national vocation and destiny, with a vibrant party system that allows participation by all citizens in the political process; a prudent system of fiscal federalism with a capacity to effectively address the contentious issues of resource allocation and redistribution in a fair and equitable manner; and promotion of widespread commitment to the federal idea as a political and moral principle that all citizens can buy into.
Re-engineering our federation requires addressing a regional structure of no more than 8 federating unites, with greater devolution of power, a unicameral legislature, autonomy for local councils, creation of a state police and genuine fiscal federalism. One thing that is never mentioned in our “restructuring” discourse is the fact that, in all democratic federations the richest regions normally transfer some resources to the poorest regions to ensure greater equity and financial balance.
When everything is considered, the ultimate guarantee of a successful federation rests in the hearts and minds of the citizens. In the words of the American statesman John Quincy Adams, “the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the Right, but in the Heart.”