By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
You cannot conquer what you do not confront—Anon
I HAVE decided to publish an old material on restructuring in the hope that it will contribute to an understanding of an issue over which Nigerians agree.
What is restructuring? Restructuring is the generic term applied to complex and varying demands by Nigerian elite for changes in the manner the Nigerian state is designed, governed and shares its resources among groups, communities and individuals. It is a term which represents the expression of grievances by elites largely outside the mainstream political process, and is invariably presented as a fundamental panacea to most of the failings and weaknesses of the Nigerian state.
Is this a new issue in Nigerian politics? The complaints that the Nigerian federal state is imperfect, or is structured around basic injustices, inequalities and unfair distribution of power and resources is as old as the Nigerian nation itself. From colonial times, the manner a large and complex country like Nigeria should be structured and governed has been a major source of political quarrel.
Demands for restructuring have notably been more pronounced at moments of acute political crises and tensions. Causes and sources of localised generation of large economic resources and poverty have also provided major reasons behind periodic resurgence of debates and demands for restructuring of the Nigerian state.
Why has this remained an unresolved problem? Many political problems are never entirely resolved to the satisfaction of most interests. Dominant perspectives on the manner restructuring should proceed all had in-built potentials to create new grounds for emergence of demands for further restructuring. The most pronounced alterations in the federal structure of the Nigerian state were made by the military, and were informed primarily by the imperatives of national security and management of plural interests that had access to the narrow political base of military governments.
Democratically-elected governments have been prime beneficiaries of the post-military restructuring processes, and their attempts to engineer elite consensus around the essentials of restructuring the federation were half-hearted and duplicitous. Elite that champion restructuring as key national challenges have remained outside the political mainstream, unable to influence formal political structures to genuinely respond to demands for restructuring.
Is there national consensus around structuring? The most common roots for the clamour for restructuring are grievances expressed as marginalisation or unfair distribution of resources. Virtually every group or community in Nigeria can find good reasons why the nature of the Nigerian state violates its rights to justice and fairness. In this respect, there is consensus.
Beyond this point, however, there is little agreement over process and outcome of restructuring. Federal and state governments disagree over sharing of responsibilities and resources. Elite that speak for ethnic groups disagree on all key elements put forward by each other. Demands for restructuring tend to be put across in combative and largely alienating manners, which tend to push others championing different perspectives to harden their positions.
What are the basic outlines of these demands? One is the demand for a federal structure with fewer but stronger federating units that will generate and retain larger portions of economic resources, and a centre with less powers and less resources. This is often expressed in the case for six or eight federating units, involving the collapse of states into the larger units.
The case against this position comes from minority ethnic groups, many of which will lose defining political characters and economic clouts. There is also suspicion that this option will bestow parity to the “South” against a “North “which had enjoyed historical superiority in population and numbers of federating units. Another is the demand for a federal structure that allows federating units to retain, almost exclusively, the benefits of all resources located within them. This is a variant of the “fiscal federalism” case, often expressed as resource control.
The case against this position is that it ignores the historical roots of the modern Nigerian economy which pooled resources from all Nigerians and sections to build today’s sources of wealth. More significantly, it jeopardises the future of a nation which fails to establish a minimum, flexible threshold on sharing national resources, and allowing unequal distribution of resources and wealth in a stable federal system with varied and bountiful resources.
A third is predicated on addressing grievances of specific groups, such as additional state in the South East, additional states to relieve tensions between ethnic groups currently lumped together in “artificial” units, additional states to reflect population and geographical sizes, and states to be created to accord recognition to ethnic groups as federating units.
A fourth makes the case for a fully-operational third tier of government, or a system that allows federating units to choose how or if they want to create sub-unit structures. Then there are others which make the case for a return to pre-1966 federal structure, a confederation that will leave a very weak centre and largely autonomous units, and a federal system that contains provisions for any part or parts to leave the nation entirely. Some demands combine elements of many of these outlines.
Which one of these is true federalism? Every federal system is true or false depending on the perspectives and interests of those who support it, or oppose it. Federal systems are imperfect, man-made compromises that should contain dynamic elements for adjustment, and operate on the basic assumption that relationships between and among federating units must be constantly policed to address rigidity and loss of the underlying philosophy that the best federal system is one where the whole is only as important as the parts decide, and that decisions on its nature and operation are products of consensus and compromise.
Is any section of the country benefitting from the status quo? Some fractions of the Nigerian elite appear to champion the cause for restructuring more than others, and cultivate impressions that other elite are specifically against restructuring. The clamour for restructuring has been a major victim of the substance and character of the Nigerian political system.
Elite competition for power and economic resources have had little to do with interests of the poor or the weak in all parts of the nation. Poverty can be addressed under any arrangement, but elites do gain or lose on the basis of their relationships with sources of power and wealth, which is substantially the state. All elites will oppose or support versions of restructuring that best suits their interests, in the same manner most non-elite will kick against virtually all restructuring proposals if the details are made known to them.
Can we ever agree on the best federal system for Nigeria? A federal system that is the product of continuous discussions and negotiations involving elite, communities and governments as interested parties can improve the operations of our federal system. Violence and threats over restructuring have tendencies to emasculate dispositions to discuss grievances.
Government platforms tend to reinforce elitist competition over power and economic resources rather than address popular grievances, and have been historically vehicles for the actualisation of incumbent political goals. The best prospects for reviews in the manner the Nigerian state is structured lie in elites and community leaders directly engaging each other in discussions and negotiations.
What can be done to improve the way we live without restructuring? Sustained improvements in the quality of governance at all levels as well as rapid and even development are essential. Elite cohesion and respect for the complex nature of the nation will build bridges that can create positive dispositions to look for solutions that give everyone something. Constitutional amendments can be made to make changes in the federal structure less cumbersome, and ensure that irrespective of geographical locations, ethnic origin or other defining characteristics, no Nigerian suffers disadvantages arising from the operations of our federal structure.