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Battle of the Veepees

Battle of the Veepees

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Lekan Sote

The other day, a friend called and asked, “What is your take on the game of wits panning out between former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, and current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo?” What he got was an inchoate rambling. And when it was clear to him that not enough judicious notice had been taken of the spat, he suggested a write-up.

This essay is therefore written so that the Caesar that is resident inside of this friend gets his due. But in this season of electioneering, it is not so much of a bad idea to interrogate the matter of restructuring which promises to be a campaign issue.

At a Town Hall Meeting in the cold American state of Minnesota, Vice President Osinbajo reportedly said that instead of concentrating on “geographical restructuring,” he would rather dwell on the need for prudent management of Nigeria’s resources for the benefit of the people of Nigeria, sans corruption, for obvious reasons.

Osinbajo then asserts that “geographical restructuring” would either “(take) us back to the (old) regional governments (that were founded on tribal or ethnic lines), or increasing the number of states,” most of which are currently economically unviable.

He queries the rationale of the 2014 National Conference convoked by former President Goodluck Jonathan, which recommended 18 additional states to the already unviable 36. He thinks its implementation would increase the cost of governance, as he also reveals that “several states (are) struggling, or (are) unable, to pay salaries.”

His seemingly simplistic, one dimensional, and maybe bald, perspective on restructuring got the dander of former Vice President Atiku up. He thus wasted no time in playing the political sleight of hand, to the discomfort of Osinbajo, who left his flanks open, by seemingly committing what amounted to a cardinal sin in the books of the pro-restructuring lobby.

But Osinbajo rallied back, and pointed to corruption, the elephant in the room, which he argued that former Vice President Atiku had failed to see. The Yoruba, who say a behemoth is not something you see in a flash, encourage anyone who saw an elephant to acknowledge that he saw an elephant. Some however think that unresolved structural flaws is what encourages corruption in the country.

And though Osinbajo tried as much as he could to get Atiku to discuss the issue of corruption, which he argued subverts good governance, and is responsible for the poverty and despair in Nigeria, the latter deftly dodged biting into the bait. He avoided what appears to be a booby trap.

At the Minnesota meeting, Osinbajo had said inter alia, “The problem with our country is not a matter of restructuring, and we must not… be drawn into the argument that our problem stems from geographical restructuring. It is about managing resources properly, and providing for the people.”

Some prefer to put it in a different way, and insist that ineptitude is the cause of poor governance in Nigeria. Yet others think the arbitrariness introduced into the body politics by the incursion of the military, and the ill-conceived Nigerian constitution, are the culprits.

Osinbajo recalls that prudent management of resources was the strength of the old Western Region government, which Obafemi Awolowo, his storied grandfather-in-law, led. One may add that a clearly articulated ideology was a valuable assist to that government.

The government used revenues from capitation tax, export of cocoa produce, and royalties from mineral resources, to fund free education; build the imposing Cocoa House, the first skyscraper in Nigeria; and establish farm settlements, and the first TV station in Africa; while never failing to remit 50 per cent of its revenue to the central government.

Probably to assuage the sensibilities of the Yoruba of his South-West Nigerian constituency, which includes this writer, Osinbajo added that no one should think that he did not believe in restructuring.

And in case, any doubting Thomas thought that this response was an afterthought, he quickly waved his restructuring credentials, and reminded everyone that he was an advocate of fiscal federalism, and even state police.

He adds that, as Attorney General of Lagos State, under former Governor Bola Tinubu, he had fought for fiscal federalism all the way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and collaborated in advancing the arguments that states should have constitutional powers to create local governments.

He reports: “We felt there was a need for the states to be (financially) stronger and for the states to more or less determine their fortunes… We went to (the Supreme Court of Nigeria) to contest the idea that every state should control, to a certain extent, its own resources.” Those who canvass that oil blocs should be allocated to the (essentially indigent) states, to shore up their finances may not quite like this argument.

In the spirit of partisan electioneering, which employs every trick in the book to play to the gallery, and then score political points, Atiku had pointedly said to Osinbajo, “restructuring is a necessity, and not an option.”

Some uncharitable persons think that Vice President Osinbajo chose the safe “geographical restructuring” to avoid riling his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari, who is not so keen on restructuring.

But those on his corner of the political boxing ring argue that he merely used the phrase, “geographical restructuring,” in the course of discussions during the Town Hall meeting, and that it wasn’t part of a prepared speech.

Even if you don’t like it when people are quoted out of context, you cannot miss Atiku’s admonishment that Osinbajo should avoid woolly terminologies in discussing restructuring. If you don’t explain that a calabash has some content, a Yoruba won’t agree that it’s heavier than a ceramic bowl.

In asking Vice President Osinbajo to be more specific, former Vice President Atiku, who is seeking to be Nigeria’s President for the umpteenth time, enumerated his detailed idea of restructuring, which include devolution of more powers and resources to states.

He also advocates privatisation of non-viable government assets; replacing “state of origin” with “state of residence;” and allowing the private sector to run the oil and gas industry, with government regulation. But his suggestion that the central government should give grants to states is not too far from what currently obtains.

To Atiku’s unnecessary reminder that the government that he served obtained forgiveness for Nigeria’s $30 billion loan, Osinbajo listed some achievements of President Buhari’s administration.

He reeled a catalogue of social intervention programmes of the Buhari administration, which include the School Feeding Plan that feeds nine million schoolchildren in 25 states; the N-Power that employs 500,000 graduates; the Conditional Cash Transfer that pays N5,000 to 400,000 poor citizens; and the TraderMoni credit targeted at two million petty traders.

With the back-and-forth on what they had done, or are doing, both Vice Presidents descended into politicking, and vacated the substance of their argument on the more pertinent issue of restructuring the polity.

But anyway, it is good news that all hues of progressives and ultra conservatives are talking about restructuring. All they need to do now is to seek common grounds to move Nigeria forward.

Twitter @lekansote1

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