Restructuring: Confronting Northern elite’s narrative

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Punch Editorial Board

When delegates representing various northern interest groups met in Kaduna recently, they were obliged to sign on to the inevitability of a re-ordering of the Nigerian project. Reluctant, petulant and clearly irritated by the increasingly vociferous clamour for fundamental changes in the current national political arrangement, the Northern elite opted for a vague vote for a “return to regionalism.” Call it by whatever name, however, a return to federalism and all it connotes, has become imperative to re-position the country for real development and to avoid an implosion.

 Organised under the auspices of the Arewa Research and Development Project in collaboration with several other socio-political groups from northern Nigeria, the conference had met in response to the agitation for restructuring spearheaded by groups representing the three Southern geo-political zones and the North-Central zone. That agitation has spiked in the last two years and spawned secessionist fringe movements in the South-East and South-South regions where IPOB and MASSOB in the one, and relapsed militants in the other, have signalled their loss of patience with the current system.

To these, the Northern elite, angry as usual at being called out by their Southern and North-Central counterparts, for the undue advantages the current patronage system confers on them, spent considerable time berating restructuring and the longstanding complaints that the North contributes least to the central pot but takes the lion’s share of the spoils. Their solution: a return to pre-1966 regionalism appears progressive at first blush, but could well be a booby trap and bargaining chip to delay and obfuscate the urgent need to restructure Nigeria as a truly federal state with considerable powers devolved to the self-sustaining federating units. Restoring the defunct four regions today is nigh impossible.

The Northern elite should in the interest of all 180 million Nigerians overcome their morbid fear of equity and federalism. What we have today is a unitary state pretending to be a federation and everyone is a loser as a result. As some of the delegates recalled, each of the pre-1967 regions was self-sufficient, including the preponderant Northern Region and each was able to develop at a fast pace as they competed with each other. Today, unmitigated poverty stalks the land and the North is worse off. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, with Sokoto at the bottom posting 81.2 per cent poverty in 2015, nine of the 10 poorest states in Nigeria were in the North. The UN’s Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2015, cities average poverty rates at 80.9 per cent in the North-West and 76.8 per cent in the North-East compared to 27.4 per cent in the South-East and 25.2 per cent in the South-South. Overall, Nigeria ranked 152 out of 188 countries in UNDP’s Human Development Index 2016.

Clearly, our system is delivering poverty in the midst of plenty instead of creating wealth. We reject the disingenuous arguments by the Northern elite and their disparagement of true federalism: contrary to their posturing, no one has ever suggested that there is a perfect federal system; rather, each polity, following on universally accepted principles, adopts a system that is best suited to its circumstances and enacts amendments when necessary. While the United States and Canada fashioned a federal system based on the vision of their founding fathers’ amalgamation of multi-national population, Germany’s is described by The Economist of London as a product of history where many independent states with people of the same nationality created a single federal polity.

Unlike the German states, Canadian provinces, Australian states and Swiss cantons exercise control over their natural resources, have separate police forces and are economically independent, but Nigeria’s weird “federal” constitution lists 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List and reduces the states to fiscal beggars at the mercy of the centre.

The intelligent position canvassed by Southern groups is a qualified return to the 1963 Republican Constitution with regions replaced by states, complete with fiscal federalism, state police and control over natural resources. Now that the Northern groups are bowing, howbeit reluctantly, to the inevitable, it is important to remind all of the potential in each state and region. The North’s advantages in agriculture and solid minerals are unassailable. From the Middle Belt savannah to the upper Sahelian fringes criss-crossed by rivers and streams, including the mighty Niger and Benue; Yobe, Rima and Hadejia, the region can re-enact the strides made by the late Ahmadu Bello, as regional premier. Olugbenga Okunlola, a professor of geology, has mapped the prevalence of diverse minerals with the Northern states obviously more endowed.

The Northern leadership must end its fixation with oil and gas and the revenues that accrue there from: the resources belong to the host states who ought to retain 50 per cent of the proceeds and share the rest with the centre and the other states. Southern groups do not advance the provocative position that minerals or livestock belong to all as Northerners routinely claim for oil. The ongoing desperate search for oil all over the North using revenues from oil-bearing states is unjust. It is also counter-productive as the world’s major buyers of crude have launched programmes to switch to alternative energy, while oil has been proved to distort the economies of developing nations.

Instead of belly-aching at the agitation for restructuring, they should ponder why they perpetually deliver poverty to their own people. Federalism, like all human endeavours, may not be perfect, but experience proves that it offers the basis for development in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural polity. Regular amendments seek to adapt constitutions to current realities. Thus, the US has made 27 amendments to its constitution since 1787, India 101 to its 1950 constitution and Canada 10 amendments since 1982.

Even a unitary state like the United Kingdom devolves considerable powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whose populations of 5.29 million, 3.02 million and 1.8 million respectively cannot match those of many Nigerian nationalities and states.

Nigeria can no longer carry on with the pretence of “unity in diversity” when a skewed system engenders strife and mutual hostility. We just have to restructure or dissolve eventually in strife.

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