Time to reconstruct Nigeria: Its governance structure is not fit for purpose

The phrase “adapt or die” is often used as a warning to corporate organisations: adapt and adjust to operational and market realities, or you will be out of business! Indeed, many world-famous business organisations have become extinct, but “adapt or die” is a phrase that also applies to nations.

Truth is, any country that doesn’t undergo renewal, that doesn’t reform and restructure itself, especially if its structure and institutions are not working, would soon ossify and suffer a decline. Such a nation would inevitably become a fragile, even a failed state.

From a functionalist or institutionalist perspective, every structure exists because of the functions it performs, because of the needs it meets. If a structure fails to perform those functions or meet those needs, it must change or be changed. That’s a great insight from regime theory, which tells us why regimes are formed and why they change.

In his book, ‘Political Restructuring in Europe’, Professor Chris Brown at the London School of Economics argues that no political structure has an ethical reason to survive unless it’s working. As a result, he posits, every political structure should be open to reconstruction.

Nigeria is not a union of consent, but a country being held together by fear or force, with the use of military actions to suppress separatist agitations

One country that has internalised this wisdom is the United Kingdom. For instance, before 1999, there were no governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The three nations were run from the centre. But following agitations for devolution of power, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments were created, each after a referendum, with full-fledged legislative and executive arms and considerable devolved powers.

Similarly, before 2000, there were no mayors in London and other major cities in England, such as Manchester and Liverpool. But, today, there are elected mayors all over England. Before 2009, the UK’s highest court, known as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, sat alongside the legislative arm of the Upper House. Many critics argued that this undermined confidence in the transparency and independence of the judiciary. So, after much consultation, the UK Supreme Court was established as a standalone body, with its own building, in October 2009.

I have given the above British examples just to make the point that even Britain, which founded Nigeria, is renewing and restructuring itself. Of course, part of the reason is to strengthen its union. British politicians always describe Britain as a “multinational union of consent”, which means that the country, consisting of four nations, cannot be held together by fear or force. As a result, even though Britain is often described as a unitary state, the British politico-governance structure is constantly being reformed, underpinned by decentralisation and devolution, to diffuse power and reduce tensions.

By contrast, Nigeria is not a union of consent, but a country being held together by fear or force, with the use of military actions to suppress separatist agitations. Powerful vested interests are holding the country in its current state, resisting political restructuring. Yet, if Nigeria is to make progress, indeed, if, in the long run, it is to survive and remain one, it must be restructured; its current structure is deeply flawed and unsustainable.

Let’s face it, there are three fundamental flaws with Nigeria’s current governance structure. These structural flaws create dysfunctional or bad government and a deep sense of injustice and inequity, which breeds disunity and instability. For me, the three flaws are:

1. Overconcentration of power in the hands of the federal government

2. Lack of effective checks and balances, and accountability, at the over powerful centre

3. Structural imbalance between the North and South, which creates perception of Northern hegemony and a sense of powerlessness in the South.

Each of the above could be a subject of a thesis. But within the space constraints of a newspaper column, let’s briefly explain each of them.

Take the first one: over-centralisation of power. Everyone knows it; Nigeria is not a true federal state. In a true federal system, the sub-federal units are not mere appendages of the centre; rather, they are power centres in their own right. They have significant autonomy and resources to develop at their own pace and can even pursue different policies from the centre. The American founding fathers ensured that while the centre is strong, too much power is not concentrated in the hands of the federal government.

But Nigeria has an over powerful federal government, while the states, most of which are technically bankrupt, are over dependent on the centre. That’s not sustainable because, for economic prosperity and political stability, power must be closer to the people. For instance, you can’t say that a state governor is the chief security officer of his state, while the police commissioner doesn’t take orders from him but from the centre. Also, you cannot deny states the control over resources within their territories, while they queue to receive handouts from the centre. That’s why Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of African Development Bank, said Nigeria practises “fatherism”, not federalism!

Then, take the second point: lack of checks and balances and accountability at the centre. The federal government is over powerful, yet unaccountable. You can see this from the utter arrogance with which the “Presidency” talks down at Nigerians. Read the press statements from President Buhari’s spokespersons and you would wonder whether Nigeria is under an absolute monarchy; the disdain is palpable!

Think of it. Who can hold President Buhari to account? Who can check his excesses? Certainly, not the docile National Assembly or the quasi-independent judiciary. All the state institutions and agencies, even though supposedly independent on paper, are, in fact, politicised and subject to presidential control. No country can be well run without proper checks and balances, without effective accountability structures. Nigeria lacks them!

Finally, the third point: power imbalance between the North and the South. This is rarely talked about, but the main source of political tension in Nigeria is the North-South schism. The two attempts at secession are due to tensions between the North and the South. When the North planned to secede in 1953, it was because it felt the South was railroading Nigeria into independence against its wish. And when the East attempted to secede in 1967, it was because of the way it felt the Igbo were treated in the North. So, the stability of Nigeria rests on peace and unity between the North and the South.

But as the resolutions of the Southern governors at their meeting in Asaba, Delta State, on May 11, 2021, show, there remains deep polarisation between the North and the South. In the resolutions, now famously called “Asaba Declaration”, the Southern governors, among other things, demanded the restructuring of Nigeria, including the practice of true federalism; declared a ban on open grazing of cattle in the South; and called for federal appointments to reflect the Federal Character principle.

Predictably, the Northern elites condemned the resolutions. In unhelpful interventions, the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, criticised the call for restructuring, and the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubarkar Malami, SAN, said the ban on open grazing of cattle in the South was akin to banning “spare parts trading in the North.” These interventions were misguided and uncalled for, but Ahmed and Malami were simply acting as mouthpieces for the North’s opposition to the South’s demand for restructuring.

However, this fuels perceptions of the North’s political hegemony and its treatment of the South as a junior party in the Nigerian ‘union’. Such perceptions, of course, do not bode well for unity and stability in Nigeria. If Nigeria must survive, it must be a union of equals!

Truth is, all the above create the imperative for restructuring. Over centralised governance, over powerful and unaccountable presidency, and structural imbalance between the North and the South cannot engender unity, stability and progress. It’s time to reconstruct Nigeria!

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