By Atiku Abubakar
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, the three key issues that constitute the topic of this presentation – Unity, Diversity and National Development – are among Nigeria’s greatest challenges. Unity has been a scarce commodity among our country’s diverse peoples and communities, as a consequence of the way and manner the country was put together by British colonial authorities and our collective failure as a people to create a true and viable nation out of the union. This has become a major source of disquiet, anxiety and frustration and a veritable obstacle to national development.
Disagreements and controversies over the best political structure to be adopted, size and responsibility of government, the nature of relationship between and among component units, the type and system of government, as well as how resources available in and accruing to the country should be allocated have continued unabated. Those controversies have sometimes threatened the very existence of the country. A huge pall of pessimism hangs over a section of the citizenry, and the ranks of those who harbour real doubt about the future of the country swell by the day.
The country is truly at a crossroads, and things are made worse by the cocktail of economic, social, political and problems which we have had to contend with, and which add to the abysmally low estimation of our country even by its own citizens.
However, I am not here just to lament over the sad and unenviable state of affairs in Nigeria. I firmly believe in the viability of the Nigerian Project, I remain unshaken and completely persuaded that we can eventually change the story of Nigeria for good by collectively making Nigeria a productive, prosperous, peaceful and united nation whose people are happy and contented and one that is able to really lead Africa and assume a pride of place in the comity of nations.
But to achieve that, we must elevate and steer conversation away from empty rhetoric and platitudes. We must instigate and see to the full and faithful implementation of profound changes in the political structure, organization, functions and performance of state, and a radical re-organization of government, its organs and personnel.
HOW WE STARTED
British colonialism created a country where over 350 ethnic and language groups compete for space and attempt to coexist, in spite of obvious differences in culture, aptitudes and level of development. But then, we were not entirely alien to one another: there are documented evidences that, prior to the coming of the Europeans, our ancestors had interacted with one another through trade and commerce, wars, inter-marriages, religion, etc. Yes, we are diverse, plural and complex, but we are not so different from one another that we cannot live together. Whatever we may think of the creation of the country, we are one now and should do the needful to make our unity work for us and also endure.
Our challenge of lack of unity has been part and parcel of our chequered history. Yes, our First Republic national political leaders, at some point found it easy to mobilize, capture and consolidate power as regional and ethnic champions.
However, by the second general elections after independence, in 1965, alliances and coalition politics had produced national parties, groupings and cleavages whose structure, reach and membership transcended regions and ethnicity.
Despite the tragic events leading to the collapse of the First Republic, the civil war and even l3 years of military rule that followed there did emerge a national – rather than ethnic or regional – elite class, as evidenced by the politics of the Second Republic and thereafter. Successive governments have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to address the problem of lack of unity and the tendency toward primordial attachments through deliberate policies and programmes. However, the problem has persisted partly because we have failed to consistently provide good governance; failed to take full advantage of the very many pluses in our diversity – to use it as a source of strength rather than weakness and, consequently, it remains easy to manipulate the people by appealing to their base sentiments.
OUR SKEWED STRUCTURE AS IMPEDIMENT TO UNITY IN DIVERSITY
There are several reasons why we have failed to be welded into one nation after over a hundred years since we became one country. I would like to talk about the nature of the country’s structure as one factor. We purport to operate a federal structure, but over the years our federalism has experienced fundamental distortion to the extent that there is now a huge, acrimonious debate as to the true nature and character of our brand of federalism. I call it unitary federalism because while we still have a formal federal system, the centre has become too powerful relative to the increasingly unviable federating units.
As regions, the different levels of government were fairly viable, notwithstanding their modest financial standing, and were largely administered according to established rules and procedures. Accountability, probity and relatively prudent management of resources were evident. The citizens were happy and substantially felt part of the governance process – at least they recognized the existence of government, paid their taxes and could point at tangible deliverables from government.
Then came rising crude oil revenues, military rule and the excessive centralization of power and concentration of resources at the federal level at the expense of the federating states. The Federal government came to assume too many responsibilities to the extent that our current constitution has 87 items in the Exclusive Legislative List while only 15 items are in the Concurrent List, which the federal government can also dominate.
Now as “indigenes” of states, the citizens are largely disgruntled and unhappy. And although most of them don’t pay taxes directly to the government coffers, they often feel short-changed and complain of abject neglect. They hardly feel that they are part of the governance process, and they often hold their leaders in contempt – or at least they are more likely to blame than praise their leaders. Some have emotionally, and for all intents and purposes, completely de-linked themselves from the Nigerian state and now inhabit a surreal world where they believe in all sorts of strange ideas.
What went wrong? We have 36 states and the FCT that are almost totally dependent on proceeds from the federation account to even fund their overheads. Thus they have hardly focused on inventing avenues of diversifying revenue collection from internal sources states such as Lagos has been doing in recent years. So we are shouldering the burden of nearly 36 dependent bureaucracies, most of which commit at least 75 percent of their annual budget to recurrent expenditure. We therefore have an almighty federal government that has assumed so much powers and responsibilities that it does virtually everything either alone or in tandem with the other federating units. In the end, very little gets done at both the federal and state levels. The people get disillusioned, and in frustration they embrace and imbibe all sorts of views, beliefs and ideas including ones that suggest that people from the other ethnic, religious or regional group is responsible for their woes.
To be sure, good leaders do make a difference in the fortunes of countries. However, leaders operate within structural constraints imposed by constitutions, laws and regulations and the local and world economy.
But the most germane question we need to ask ourselves is: must we really continue to live together as one country amidst such pervasive climate of disunity, which is impeding our development? My prompt answer to this is yes, we should remain together, because it is the best option, and because we will be stronger, greater, and better in one piece than in pieces. In the global scheme of things our economy is too small to be broken into several pieces. We can always discuss the basis and terms of our unity with a view to finding ways to make it stronger, our development more rapid, even and fair, and our politics more stable. We simply have to find ways solidify and strengthen our union and making it conducive for development. And that includes re-examining the terms of our union and, where necessary, affirm or adjust some or all the terms, particularly in relation to the structure and functions of the Nigerian state and its component parts.
WITHER DEVELOPMENT IN A SKEWED STRUCTURE?
Some people have talked about the federal system of government as if it has universal features and all federal working systems have similar characteristics. But that is not the case. A careful look at different societies that operate the federal arrangement shows that they differ from one another in remarkable ways. There isn’t no “true federalism,” so to speak. A people always decide on the nature, shape and content of their preferred federal system based on specific histories, peculiarities and needs. The problem with our federalism is that over the years it has become so skewed in favour of the centre that it impedes our economic development, distorts our politics, weakens our people’s commitment to the country and threatens our existence as a united country.
It is, therefore, necessary to discuss and agree on the kind of federal structure we desire. Reverting to the regions of the past seem untenable because those minority groups which feel that they have been liberated from their bigger, dominant neighbours, are unlikely to accept a return to that older order. We may consider using the existing the geo-political zones as federating units because they will be more viable economically and address some of the minorities’ concerns? If we prefer to keep the current state structure, could we consider introducing a means-test such that a state that is unable to raise a specified percentage of its revenues from internal sources would have to be collapsed into another state?
Our beloved country has been in the throes of severe and debilitating social and economic problems. Virtually all the development indices have not been favourable: massive and pervasive poverty, double-digit inflation, unemployment, dwindling foreign exchange receipts, poor GDP growth rates, high infant and maternal mortality, high levels of illiteracy, and millions of school-age children out of school.
My take is that we will likely continue to grapple with such problems unless we get the structures of our federalism and governance right. Our current system, which is characterized by a focus on sharing rather than production, is clearly not conducive to development. For Nigeria to develop – or even make any appreciable progress – we must re-structure Nigeria’s political, administrative and political architecture. That way we can free resources that would otherwise go to unviable ventures and projects, then commit same to areas that directly cater for and benefit the people. Restructuring will facilitate the emergence of a leaner bureaucracy, enhance efficiency, block wastages and promote more prudent management. It will make for happier constituent units more committed to the progress and unity of the country and the emergence of a sense of nationhood.
How do we do that? We should, first, dispassionately and painstakingly re-visit our 36-state structure vis-a-vis the idea of overly dominant federal government. Second, we should devolve power from the centre to the federating units: many of the items in the Exclusive List should be devolved to the states or any other agreed federating units. Third, that devolution of powers must include an end to federal intrusion in local government administration. The so-called States/Local Governments joint account has virtually absolved state governments of responsibilities to fund local governments while they virtually confiscate the funds allocated by the federal government to the local government.
To have the federal government create local governments and directly fund them makes nonsense of the word “local.” Those powers should be vested in the state governments. And it should include an end to federal ownership of interstate roads, schools, hospitals and the uniformity in remunerations across the country. Fourth, we must sit down, discuss, and agree on the nature of our fiscal federalism – how to share our resources. I am on record as having advocated for the control of rents by the federating units from which they are derived while the federal government retains its powers to levy taxes. That will make us all productive again and our federating units to engage in healthy rivalries and competition, which will only result in more progress.
There is no doubt in my mind that that structure of our federation and governance constitute an impediment to our economic development, political stability and social harmony. Changing them would help to place our country on a path to phenomenal and unhindered development. To persist in what we are doing now is to do injustice to ourselves and jeopardize our future. We should endeavour to effect the needed changes by talking among ourselves and across our various divides – engaging in meaningful dialogue. We should take full advantage of the democratic spaces and institutions to instigate positive conversations in that regard. Given the right environment, there is hardly a limit to what a people can do for themselves by themselves.
I thank the Daily Stream newspaper for the opportunity to share my thoughts on these issues. And I wish you many years of excellent, fearless, responsible and accountable journalism.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Atiku Abubakar, GCON, a former Vice President of Nigeria delivered this speech at the formal public presentation of the Daily Stream newspaper, at the Banquet Hall, Nigeria Airforce Conference Centre, Kado, Abuja, Thursday, April 27, 2017.
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