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Nigeria: Redefining nationhood

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‘…in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966).

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On the need for objectivity:

  • ‘It is incumbent upon us…to endeavour to discover, from the empirical facts which political history supplies, and from the conclusions which political scientists and analysts have reached, whether there are any patent well-established political principles by which our action can be guided. And if we discover them, to follow them with objective fidelity, whatever our predilections, personal feelings, or secret aspirations.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

On the need for a suitable constitution he says:

  • ‘In our view, three factors combine to produce political stability: the type of constitution, the form of government, and the calibre and character of political leaders in and outside government…

As regards the type of constitution, political scientists and analysts have reached two firm conclusions, namely, that a unitary constitution will not work in circumstances which warrant a federal constitution… Suitability is, therefore, of the essence of a constitution. This is so for all countries of the world. It is so for Nigeria where the search for a suitable constitution has gone on for more than 20 years, and still goes on today with renewed vigour and reanimated fervour. We predict that the search will go on after this generation of Nigerians has passed away, unless we are realistic and objective enough to give ourselves now a constitution which is suited to the circumstances of our country and which will, therefore, endure.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

On the alleged threat to national unity by a truly federal constitution, he had this to say:

  • ‘…in the peculiar circumstances of Nigeria, only a federal constitution can foster unity with concord among the diverse national groups in the country, as well as promote economy and efficiency in administration…

…if federalism had not disrupted the unity of those other countries which have operated this type of constitution for decades it cannot by itself impair or ruin the unity of our own country.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

From the foregoing, therefore, we can see that Chief Awolowo, painstakingly, proffered solutions to what he had earlier perceived as Nigeria’s defective nationhood and, thereby, lent credence to theopinion that Ray Ekpu expressed some 40 years later in the Guardian newspaper that,“being a geographical expression is not a death sentence. Most countries of the world are some sort of expression – geographical, ethnic, linguistic, and religious. They all have their differences and imperfections but they work hard to reduce their differences and increase their similarities. We should do likewise.”

In other words, it would be grossly inaccurate and unfair to insinuate that, by describing Nigeria as ‘a mere geographical entity’ in 1947, Chief Awolowo was somehow writing off her future prospect of ever being transformed into a nation.

Rather than remain in denial about ourethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions, divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic and cultural differences, we would do much better to acknowledge and embrace them through a truly federal constitution.

The tragedy, however, is that, 53 years after Chief Awolowo predicted it in 1966, we are still searching for a suitable constitution because we have failed to accept wise counsel and be‘realistic and objective enough to give ourselves … a constitution which is suited to the circumstances of our country and which will, therefore, endure.’ We have failed to do that which is necessary to set Nigeria on the path to true nationhood.

The Second Wave of Redefinition of Nationhood, Travails of Federalism in Nigeria and Current Realities

A federal system of government is defined as a system of government whereby the powers of the government are divided between the national or central government and the governments of the component states, regions and provinces and in which each is legally supreme in its own sphere of authority. Both federal and regional governments are co-ordinate and independent of one another as regards the powers and functions expressly or impliedly given to them by the constitution.

Up until 1945 when the Richards Constitution was introduced, Nigeria was administered, to all intents and purposes, as a unitary state. The Richards Constitution was, however, more federal in character, although leaders like Chief Awolowo believed that it did not go far enough. Their reasons had to do with the fact that, in their view, the delineation of the three regions was arbitrary and that the minorities were not given sufficient recognition and autonomy.

A review of the Richards Constitution was undertaken under the administration of Sir Richards’ successor as Governor General, Sir John Macpherson. The review was carried out by the General Conference in 1950. Prior to this, however, consultations by the Northern, Eastern and Western Regional Conferences returned a unanimous preference for a federal constitution. The Macpherson constitution therefore retained federalism, the imperfections in its other details notwithstanding.

This was, perhaps, the first glimmer of hope that, despite her unusual creation, the goal of forging a nation with a common destiny might be achievable in Nigeria after all. So, for the purpose of this presentation, the Macpherson Constitution represented the second wave of redefinition of nationhood.

At that time, each of the three regions, North, East and West, had its own constitution. They even had foreign representation and their envoys were known as ‘Agents General’. That was the extent of the autonomy the federating units enjoyed under the constitution.

In the area of resource control, the Chick Commission, in 1954, recommended the principle of derivation ‘in the fullest degree’.

The regions, therefore, exercised substantial control over their resources and significant power over the pace of their development. That was the age of what Pat Utomi calls, ‘competitive communalism’, the outcome of which was the delivery of real, substantial dividends of democracy to the people. It was the era of real and rapid human capital, economic and infrastructural development.

The calibre of leaders of that era, no doubt, also made a significant difference to the achievements of that ‘golden age’ of Nigeria’s history. They were single-minded in their pursuit of the best interests of the people they represented. They were visionary, they were always mindful of the verdict of history and they were determined to secure for themselves a place on the right side of it.

At the time, a parliamentary system of government was in place, the advantages of which included the regular checks and reviews of the activities of government and its functionaries through ‘question time’ in parliament.

By far the greatest advantage of the parliamentary system, in view of current politics in Nigeria, was the fact that the constituency for election, even for those aspiring to become Prime Minister, was no larger than the Federal Constituencies, as delineated. Consequently,the cost of running campaigns was nowhere near the colossal sums we hear being expended for Presidential elections these days. What is more, the nation could be confident that the representation of the crop of leaders so elected enjoyed the confidence and approval of the people who knew them best, their immediate community.

As for the electorate, the irony is that despite the fact that the literacy rate was far lower in those days than is currently the case (~16% in 1959 and ~51% in 2018), they proved far more alive to, and more discerning in matters of politics, civic responsibility and choice of leaders than today’s electorate.

So in the first republic, the constitution was suitable in the sense that it guaranteed the powers and the resources to the leaders who, themselves were supremely capable of harnessing both for the purpose of moving their regions, and the nation forward and were, for the most part, regularly held accountable for their actions.

The third wave of the redefinition of nationhood

All the diverse nationalities in Nigeria have shared a common territory and government for the past 104 years, yet nationhood appears to elude us still.

Although it was mostly in response to minority and other agitations, the number of federating units was increased from the original three to four in 1963, to twelve in 1967, to nineteen in 1976, to twenty-one in 1987, to thirty in 1991 and to thirty-six in 1996. However, Nigeria does not appear to have moved any closer to achieving nationhood as a result.

The reason for this anomaly probably has to do with the introduction, in 1966, of a unitary system of governance which subsists in practice till today in a country that is supposed to be a federation. This reversal, then, represents the third wave of the redefinition of Nigerian nationhood.

Paradoxically, although the goal of the agitators for more states was for greater autonomy, the ensuing proliferation achieved the exact opposite. As the number of states increased, the central government became stronger whilethe states became weaker, contrary to what obtained in the first republic. So much so that today, a good number of states are considered unviable.

As a result,cross-national and social tensions persist and, in some cases, are on the increase, sometimes assuming a more violent nature.

Furthermore, the powers vested in the President and the Federal Government by the constitution are so enormous that they could, in the wrong hands, conceivably, pose an existential threat to Nigeria’s unity and nationhood. Indeed, no sector, public or private, is totally immune from these magisterial powers.

…Continues on Sunday

The post Nigeria: Redefining nationhood appeared first on Tribune Online.

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