By Sampson Ikemitang
Several decades after the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 by Lord Lugard, and 57 years of the nation’s independence, there are still strong and persistent agitations by some interest groups in the polity demanding the restructuring of the existing political arrangement. This, they say, should be done if the country must remain an indivisible and indissoluble entity. Their agitations are coming on the heels that Nigerian federalism has totally assumed the attributes of a unitary system of government. Pundits have also agreed with the above line of thought, describing the federalism in practice as a “proxy unitary.” Proxy because Nigeria being a federalist state is in character with a unitary system.
Considered from the system of practice, a unitary system of government, or a unitary state is a sovereign state governed as a single entity. While the central government is supreme, the administrative divisions exercise only powers that the central government delegates to them. On the other hand, a federal government is a system that divides up power between a strong national (federal) government and states and local governments, otherwise known as the component units. Drawing from the above, it is understandable that under federalism, each level of government has sovereignty in some areas and shares powers in other areas. For instance, both the federal and state governments have the power to collect tax. However, only the Federal Government has exclusive jurisdiction over the issues of defence, immigration, currency and external affairs.
Political watchers are unanimous that the unitary system of government was occasioned by the 1966 military incursion into the nation’s politics, which invariably truncated the constitutional democracy of the First Republic. Meanwhile, the military has been swift to cite the ethnocentric politics, regionalism, corruption and failure of the political elite to play by the rules that pervaded the First Republic as some of the reasons for their intervention and takeover of government.
Indeed, there are contending views regarding the ongoing restructuring debate. Those leading the fray have asserted that given the present economic realities, the hitherto political thermostat of the nation is not only weak, but lacks the propelling force to regulate the political temperature of the country. The force being the ingredient to instil the much-needed stability for socio-economic and political emancipation of the people for sustainable development, hence the need for restructuring. They have averred that Nigeria, as it stands currently, is not working, and cannot experience development unless a fundamental political restructuring is first addressed. They have also described as worthless, even the constitution upon which our democracy is based, saying it was bequeathed to the nation by the past military regimes.
Conversely, those that are averse to the restructuring idea have equally posited that Nigeria has since the First Republic, undergone a series of restructuring journeys without commensurate progress. Besides, the country has also failed to consolidate on the gains of restructuring and/ or making a conscious effort to improve on the challenges. Therefore, they opined that those clamouring for restructuring are perhaps, looking for avenues to position themselves for relevance and wait for the opportunity to milk the country dry.
In the midst of all this rambunctious debate, it is important that we establish the meaning of political restructuring in this context. By political restructuring, we simply refer to an arrangement whereby a decision on public policy issues is shifted from one level or tier of government to another. It connotes the devolution of power on the federating units. It also presupposes fiscal federalism or resource control whereby states are allowed some measure of control over the resources in their domains and contribute a percentage to the government at the centre. They submitted that it does not in any way suggest or imply the balkanisation of the Nigerian state. The advocates of restructuring have maintained that for Nigeria to progress and exit the current economic quandary, it must be returned to the First Republic’s regional political structure or the constitution of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones into federating units. They are of the view that during the First Republic, Nigeria practised a true federalist system with three regions – Western, Eastern and Northern. These regions, they said, served as federating units with each being quite semi-autonomous. They are quick to point to the exploits and giant strides undertaken by these regions during the period to buttress their claim.
From the foregoing, it can be deduced that each region worked assiduously without having to wait for the monthly handout or what is otherwise now regarded as the “national cake” from the centre to generate the financial resources needed for development. Each region channelled its energies to the production of goods and services in the areas they had comparative advantage. In fact, there was a healthy rivalry and this made production across the three regions to be at its peak. The country did not have to rely on the importation of consumer goods to feed its citizens, as it is the case today. The naira firmed up strongly against the dollar in terms of exchange and above all, there was a balance of trade cum balance of payment.
Currently, experts have noted that the reverse is the case. We have come to a point where some state governments are unable to develop Internally Generated Revenue. For example, a recent report published by the Economic Confidential Magazine and cited by the Nigerian Pilot Newspaper of Wednesday May 31, 2017, pp. 5, showed that 14 states of the federation are insolvent. What this means is that they are broke. They have ridiculously low IGR for 2016 which were far below 10 per cent of their Federation Account Allocations. The implication is that without the federally-shared allocation, such states cannot run their affairs.
Aside from the issue of insolvency, 15 states of the federation are also incapable of paying their workers’ salaries, in spite of the huge bailouts by the Federal Government. The arrears of unpaid salaries range from five months to 15 months respectively. Observers have therefore, posited that most states are not economically viable, but have depended largely on the monthly handouts from the federation account to survive. Many have described this situation as worrisome for a country with the aspiration of joining the league of developed nations. Therefore, they have urged the Federal Government not to brush aside the calls for restructuring, which to them will pull the country out of the woods.
In view of the above, one cannot agree less with the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu when he described our federalism as a “feeding bottle federalism.” He said: “Unfortunately, there is little we can do about meaningful youth economic inclusion and employment until we restructure our behemoth federalism. I still hold the view that this feeding bottle federalism, this act of robbing Peter to pay Paul, which we have gradually enthroned as State Policy since the fall of the First Republic remains the cause of our economic quandary.”
As part of the effort towards finding a lasting solution to the nation’s ailing economy, which is undoubtedly fuelling agitations in the polity, many have therefore canvassed the convocation of a national conference to discuss and agree on the modus operandi for a workable federalism. As profound as this thinking appears to be, the intended methodology to be adopted is grossly flawed. In my view, we do not need to convoke a confab to resurrect regionalism or enthrone true federalism.
A subtle way to resolving this conundrum is for the National Assembly, as the elected representatives of the people, to commence the amendment of some provisions of the 1999 Constitution which are perceived to be antithetical to the practice of true federalism. For example, Section 162(1) stipulates that the Federation shall maintain a special account to be called “the Federation Account” into which shall be paid all revenues collected by the Government of the Federation, except the proceeds from the personal income tax of personnel of the Armed Forces of the Federation, the Nigeria Police Force, the Ministry or Departments of government charged with the responsibility for Foreign Affairs and the residents of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Ikemitang wrote in from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Abuja.