…We must dismantle this Presidential system
…Parliamentary system, the solution to our unworkable federal structure
…Where Nigeria went wrong
Professor Ango Abdullahi, former vice-chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, and currently the convener, Northern Elders Forum NEF has been very vociferous in his calls for a change of tactics in respect of administering the country.
In this interview, he discloses the position of northern elders on the future of Nigeria and concludes that the North is ready for restructuring of the federation. He said the current Presidential system of government is useless, must be dismantled and replaced with a Parliamentary system.
By Omeiza Ajayi
What is your idea of true federalism or restructuring?
A lot of people do not understand what federalism, true federalism or untrue federalism are.
Federalism is a concept of government and if you look around the world, there are many “Federal Governments” and there are differences in context in terms of mechanism of operations. Even in Nigeria, we started with what I believe was true federalism in 1960 because the federalism was based on federating units made of regions. At least, I was old enough to be in the university as of then and I know we had the Eastern Region with its own Constitution, Police and other structures that made it look like an independent country.
It was the same with the Western Region and also the Northern Region. It was in 1963 that another region was created – the Midwest Region and together with the Federal and Regional Governments, we had a ‘Federal’ system of government made up of three or four federating units depending on the date you are talking about.
To my mind, the system was working for us until somebody decided that something else should be introduced in 1966/67. So, my idea of Federalism is the one that was bequeathed to us in 1960 by the colonial powers and they did this in consultation with Nigerian leaders at the time after series of constitutional conferences that took place, some in Nigeria and most of them in London.
We ended up with a federal system of government which was effective and my idea of true federalism is the federalism we inherited from the colonial masters in 1960 and it was good enough to keep this country going for a very long time.
We seem to have a confusing scenario in that we do not have full federalism and at the same time do not have a full unitary system…
Let us go back to the concept of true federalism which I believe in but which was destroyed – the concept of true federalism which was working for us and should have worked for us for a long time was in 1960 and this was disrupted in 1966. That moved us away from federalism to unitary system of government under a military regime. That was the beginning of all the problems that we are having today.
We moved away from federating units that were functional, that were working as much as possible competing with one another within the same country and so on. So, what people, particularly those who were born after 1960 and even more so those who were born around 1966 was that they could not understand the federal system of government that we had in 1960 and the series of governments that have followed since 1966.
So, true federalism was disrupted in 1966 and from then on we began to fiddle with one experiment or the other. And the first experiment which failed was the introduction of unitary system of government by the military and even then, they tried to see whether they could introduce some federalism under states because we had four regions when they took over and when they came and found that their unitary system was not acceptable, they introduced 12 states.
The 12 states were to replace the regions and they became the federating units of the Federal Government but the federal government was not truly a federal system of government because it was a military government that was not elected under a normal federal system of government and the more complicating factor was the disruption of the political system that allowed us to elect people under a parliamentary arrangement.
But these were all kicked out with the kicking out of regions. What we have ended up with today from that 1966/67 was to move away from true federalism with three or four regions that were virtually independent or operating very well to today’s 36 states that are hardly functional, that are hardly independent and so on.
Today, we may appear to have a federal system of government but we are truly not because these federating units are not viable, they are not functional, they are only functional from one point. Maybe we talk about the even more complicating factor that moved us from parliamentary that was quiet democratic, to the current so-called Presidential system of government.
Presidential or Parliamentary, which one is desirable for now?
Parliamentary of course. If today I am involved in discussions in terms of how to restructure Nigeria, bring back democracy under a federal system that would allow federating units take decisions that are largely their own initiatives, then we have to move away from this Presidential system and go back to parliamentary because the parliamentary system was working. You would not be a minister or a commissioner if you are talking about regions, until you were elected from your village. What is happening here now is totally useless.
What then should be the federating units under a true federal system? States or regions?
I do not want you to stick to this word, true. The only thing that is true is the one that has been tested and working. There are many federal systems of government in the world today and for the ones that are working you can say that is true to them.
For us now, what we have is a presidential system that is not working. That is because the political base from which it is working is also faulty and this is why if we really want to go back to my own “true federalism” as operated in 1960 up to 1966, we also have to abandon the so-called Presidential system and go back to Parliamentary.
In essence, are you saying we should scrap the states and go back to regionalism?
Whatever you want to call it, if it is region or we should go back to federating units that were democratically viable, economically viable and so on. That was what we had. We had a viable Northern region, we had a viable Western region and we had a viable Eastern region as well as a viable Midwest region.
They had political and economic structures that were working. This is what I want us to understand. What will work is what we should call true federal system with federating units that are working on their own, and working together, have a central government that would serve other needs of Nigeria as a country.
What do we do to achieve this? Do we go for a constitutional amendment, referendum or another national conference?
In 1976, there was a Constituent Assembly set up by the military government that was preparing to hand over government to civilians and the directive they gave to that Constituent Assembly was that they should not even discuss the parliamentary system of government that they dismantled in 1966. They said that the country should seek for another system of government and they even suggested that that system should be presidential.
I think at that time, the Presidential system that was available that they were constantly referring to was the American Presidential system and the French. That was what they did. They did not allow the Constituent Assembly to debate the pros and cons of parliamentary vis a vis the presidential. They denied them that discussion. So, the Constituent Assembly that eventually turned in its report to the military government that was preparing to hand over to civilians was only concerned about the presidential system of government.
What will happen now, unfortunately for us, for those who are running the government, they are running a presidential system and they seem to be enjoying it, even if that enjoyment is to the detriment of the Nigerian people. This is why it is difficult for us to achieve this change back to parliamentary using the present leadership both in he Executive and the Legislature, because changing from where we are is for them to admit that they have failed the country or they have not been able to manage the country well.
This means admitting failure and it is difficult for a human being to admit failure.
So, what I think we should do is that those of us who are really serious about changing this system to what is likely to be durable and lasting for Nigeria is to persuade our constituents who are representing us, the representatives who are in the various legislatures starting from the states to debate this; debate the pros and cons, the history of parliamentary vis a vis presidential and the failings or successes of both systems and so on, so that this debate should start from the grassroots so that, under pressure from Nigerians, they are forced to debate this.
This has to be debated because this debate was not allowed in 1976 when it ought to have been allowed. Now that we have tried the presidential, there should be a debate. There was no debate about parliamentary vis a vis presidential in 1976 and if there was, there would have been an opportunity for Nigerians to truly decide through their representatives in the Constituent Assembly to keep parliamentary or bring in another system but this was not done.
We tried parliamentary for only five years, 1960-1966 but we have now tried presidential for 24 years, that is, four years under the Shagari administration and now 20 years under the so-called civilian regimes and yet we are saying that this country is not doing well. So, there is enough evidence to show that the presidential system we have tried for 24 years in Nigeria is not working and this is the time for us to honestly accept the need for a debate which we must undertake extensively through out the country to agree as to where parliamentary system succeeded and where presidential has failed and what needs to be from now on. And once we exhaust the debate which could take place within just six months, once we have done that and Nigerians have aired their views one way or the other, then we subject the issue to a referendum.
Referendum is allowed even under our presidential system. People will be given a chance to express their views not necessarily through their representatives from their constituencies but collectively they should be able to make a choice on an important subject such as this one. So, after a referendum, if the referendum sustains the present presidential system, fine.
Then we keep it and see what adjustments need to be made under the presidential. But in my estimation, from discussions with people who really had experienced the past system that we had operated over the years, I would be optimistic that Nigerians would rather go back to parliamentary after a referendum.
From what is available in the public, it does appear that your position is not very popular among the northern political elite
Well, you have to point out who are those political leaders that are not at home with these views because people hide behind some of these excuses because if there is a forum today and seriously determined that the Nigerian state requires a rehash, I am sure you would find people from all over the country who are ready, who are willing, who are up to the task of doing this. I give you an example of my group, the Northern Elders Forum. The forum has advocated this for the past three to four years.
Before I even became its leader, our late leader, Maitama Sule, who was a federal commissioner under Azikiwe and Abubakar was agreeable to the need for Nigeria to really take another look at itself. These broken up units, the states and local governments that they said would bring unity, I tell you that even as a journalist if you want to be sincere, you would agree with me that state and local government creation in Nigeria has brought more division than it has brought people together because under the old system, you could perhaps move from your state (Kogi) to pick up a job in Kano but now you cannot move from Kogi to Kwara (formerly one state) to pick up a job because these so-called units have brought more divisions than unity and have brought about more wastage of our limited resources. We are a consuming state now rather than a productive state.
So, I can assure you that the North, at least from my own perspective and the perspectives of many groups in the North here, is ready to engage in serious discussions as to how to reshape the Nigerian state to something that is better for not only now but also for the future generations that will be coming behind us.
You talked about a debate. By debate, are you saying there should be another national conference? Who should drive the debate?
Nigerians should drive the debate. There are people who are concerned about this; if people who have been talking about restructuring, who have been talking about failures of one form of government or the other are serious, we are free Nigerians and people who feel this way should be able to sit together and bring out the issues and serious discussions rather than rhetoric or politics. People should bring out some of these issues in a discussion group and in any case, there are so many groups that are talking about it now.
Why can’t they put their heads together and sit down, draw the agenda for discussions and then discuss it, and the discussions are open, Nigerians are hearing the discussions. If the discussions are open, that should be enough for Nigerians to make up their minds beyond the narrow constructs that exist in the states or federal legislature because that is what is keeping us down -this narrow understanding of wider issues by people who are very narrow conscious.
Don’t you think the Establishment would view such discussions as an affront?
You mean we are no longer free to discuss our way of life or governance? That we can only discuss governance through some people who are, so-called representing us and in most cases, people who really have stolen elections into the legislature and so on? No. This is not fair. There must be people who are equally more committed than legislators in terms of the future of Nigeria.
Is this not too late considering that the larger percentage of the Nigerian population (youths) today were not around in the 1960’s?
Those who were around then do not have to still be with us now. The records are still there. In any case, we cannot hope that Dr Azikiwe, Abubakar, Aminu Kano, Okpara and others should be here.
This is not the essence of a nation. The essence of a nation is its history and records of its yearnings and we have records of our yearnings and it is enough for us to take decisions from time to time. How many Constitutional Conferences did we have from 1960 to date? I attended three – one in 1987, 1995/96 and the 2005 political reform conference. The other one I refused to attend was that of 2014.
So, a lot of our challenges are traceable to what happened in 1966 when you are talking about the federal system of government because the disruption started from there and we have not been able to correct the faults which pushed us from four viable regions to 36 unviable states that are doing nothing except consumption of our meagre resources.
There are those who accuse advocates of regionalism of trying to secede from the country because, as they say, it is difficult to fuse the states back into regions. What is your reaction?
We already have states. States that are not working and people are complaining about the states. So, what do you want to do? You cannot eat your cake and have it. You cannot have states that are not viable and not working and you still want to keep them. You must think of something different. What I am saying today is that we have unfortunately moved from a federal system of government made up of what the British perceived, working together with our elders, to leave us, independent Nigeria with four regions that were reasonably working with a lot of independence.
They had their Police. Each region had its own Constitution and so on and then they converged at the federal level where certain responsibilities were kept or reserved for the entire country because the regions cannot operate foreign policies, monetary policies and a few others. These were some of the things that were reserved for the federal government at that time but the remaining job of developing the country in terms of the nitty-gritty of work that has to be done to develop the country was left to the regions and the resources were generated within the regions and there was agreement on what to share at the federal level.
Would you say the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914 was a mistake?
May I put it the other way; would you say the arrival of the British in Nigeria or Africa was a mistake or was an accident or was it designed? Which one would you take? When the British came and they conquered different pieces of the present-day Nigeria, the Lagos Colony and others and then eventually conquered the North in 1903, they were not discussing it with my grand fathers who were traditional rulers and they were not discussing with traditional rulers or any leader from any part of the present-day Nigeria because the truth is that they were colonial forces of occupation.
We had no way of resisting them and so we succumbed to the power of being colonised. Whether it turned out to be a success or a mistake is for us now to recount. There are some of our elders and I can mention a few without any reservations at all – I remember I sat down with Prof. Ben Nwabueze, older than I am, more statesman than I am, a Constitutional Lawyer and so on, and he said the amalgamation that took place in 1914 was a mistake and I think he was referring to the amalgamation of Northern Nigeria and the territories occupied by the British in Southern Nigeria. So, he was objecting to the amalgamation of the North and South to form Nigeria.
That was his objection and even recently, we had some discussions on this with my elder, Ayo Adebanjo who also said that the problem of Nigeria is the Hausa/Fulani Muslim North. And you remember also the so-called Orkah coup which was hatched not from the North but somewhere else. I don’t want to mention the location. The coup excised the Northern part of Nigeria from Jaji northwards to be expelled from Nigeria and that if they wanted to come back to Nigeria, they should come and negotiate their re-entry into Nigeria.
So, you can see that there are people, in terms of age, in terms of official responsibilities held at various points in time who are holding this view that Nigeria’s diversity apparently has no obvious solution and this is why they have reached the conclusion that the merger or the fusion of these diverse communities was a mistake.
But there are others who are a bit more optimistic that there are other countries who are more diverse than we are but have succeeded in moulding countries and why shouldn’t Nigeria be more optimistic and hopeful that at some point in time, maybe not now but in later years, that Nigerians will come to benefit from being together irrespective of what language they speak or what area they come from. It is an emotional subject that is subject to emotional response by people, depending on how they feel about certain issues at various points in time.