• Wednesday, December 06, 2023
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Nigeria is stunted at 63: Time to rethink its political and governance structures

Imperatives of active citizenship: Why Nigerians must hold their leaders accountable

Perfunctorily, Nigeria’s 63rd independence anniversary was marked last week, on October 1. Perfunctory, because it was not a celebration of Nigeria’s success as a nation, but of its mere existence. Yet, the mere existence of a country is not a sufficient reason for celebration, but its strength, stability and progress, as well as the prosperity and well-being of its citizens.

Sadly, at 63, Nigeria is stunted politically, economically and socially. Even worse, as currently constituted, with its deeply flawed political and governance structures, Nigeria cannot escape from the rot. Yet, Nigeria’s political leaders are in denial, playing Russian roulette!

In his first Independence Day broadcast as president, Bola Tinubu gave a flowery speech full of rhetorical flourishes but utterly devoid of meaning and substance. Hear him: “Nigeria is remarkable in its formation and essential character. We are a broad and dynamic blend of ethnic groups, religions, traditions and cultures. Yet, our bonds are intangible, yet strong; invisible, yet universal.” As I wrote last week, George Orwell would find such words amusing for their banality, vacuity and sophistry.

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Yes, Nigeria is a diverse country, but why is diversity a source of disunity, not unity, a source of instability, not stability? If “our bonds” are “strong” and “universal”, why have deep ethnic and religious divisions cracked and fissured Nigeria’s oneness? At no point in the speech did Tinubu talk about managing Nigeria’s diversity to promote national cohesion or about political restructuring. Rather, he resorted to vacuous rhetoric: “Some people have said an independent Nigeria should never have come into existence. Some have said that our country would be torn apart. They are forever mistaken. Here, our nation stands and here we shall remain.”

Wait a minute, didn’t he once say he did not believe in one Nigeria? In 1997, after being forced into exile by the Abacha regime, Tinubu granted an interview to ThisDay, which the newspaper published on April 13, 1997, with the headline: “I don’t believe in one Nigeria – Tinubu”. So, what changed? Power, of course. His Damascene conversion came about when power was within reach. Someone who never believed in Nigeria’s oneness now rails against those questioning its unity simply because he’s in power. Such double-speak erodes the credibility of leaders and their narratives.

But Tinubu wasn’t the only one sanguine and blasé about Nigeria’s future. In their Independence Day messages, many political and religious leaders blithely said that “Nigeria will be great”, as if any nation ever became great merely through positive confessions. In James 2:17, the Bible says: “Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.” Last week, Professor Patrick Lumumba, the renowned Kenyan scholar, made the same point at a symposium, saying: “Africa won’t be liberated by prayer and fasting.” Of course, prayer and fasting matter hugely, but without actions or “works” they are meaningless. A country’s greatness doesn’t emerge spontaneously as an act of nature. Rather, a nation becomes great by combining faith with deliberate transformative actions.

 Nigeria needs a new political and constitutional settlement, designed to foster national cohesion, effective governance and a healthy and prosperous country that delivers reasonable living standards for its citizens

Which brings us back to Nigeria. Everyone agrees that Nigeria has great potential, based on its large and young population of, currently, 220million, 70 per cent of which are under 30; its enormous natural resources; and its huge human talents, evidenced by the great accomplishments of individual Nigerians at home and abroad. Yet, there’s also a consensus that Nigeria suffers from acutely poor leadership, and that its institutional structures – political, economic and social – are fundamental obstacles to its unity, stability and progress. Unfortunately, the powerful vested interests that benefit from the current system continue to resist change. Yet, without restructuring and a new constitution, Nigeria faces a dire future of entrenched disunity, instability and stunted development.

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That’s not a doomsday prognosis of a decline theorist. Nigeria’s current political system cannot engender national cohesion and harmony. Here’s a country where the struggle for political power is a Darwinian “survival of the fittest”, where bigger ethnic regions collude to exclude smaller ones from power. Here’s a country where someone secured 37 per cent of the total votes cast in a presidential election but controls 100 per cent of political power, ruling magisterially. Here’s a country where whichever party controls the centre controls all the institutions of state such that the electoral body, the judiciary, the security agencies, etc, are never truly independent and impartial. Here’s a country where too much power is concentrated, centralised and vested in an executive, freewheeling president. And here’s a country where the state rules over the people, rather than for them.

Multi-ethnic, multinational countries usually don’t have the political system and constitution that Nigeria has. All over the world, such countries operate either a parliamentary or hybrid system, not Nigeria’s extremely costly and unsuitable presidential system. They have a system of proportional representation and power sharing, not Nigeria’s winner-take-all system. They have strong and autonomous regional governments, not Nigeria’s multiple states, only few of which are viable on their own. Finally, they have a system of decentralised and devolved power, not Nigeria’s concentration and centralisation of power.

In his book ‘Associative Democracy’, Professor Paul Hirst argues that the complexity of contemporary economic and social life requires more subtle, local and flexible forms of governance. Indeed, the principle of subsidiarity, which underpins the decentralisation of power, says that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have their effect. Thus, any political system where most power flows from the centre, where most power is arrogated to the centre, is deeply flawed, and cannot produce good governance and deliver prosperity for the people. In particular, a political and governance structure based on concentration and centralisation of power is utterly unsuitable for multiethnic nations, federal systems or republican states.

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic country, a supposed federal system, and a supposed republican state. Yet, it has over concentrated and over centralised political and governance structures. Its political system is malfunctioning, and its constitution is deeply flawed. Thus, Nigeria needs a new political and constitutional settlement, designed to foster national cohesion, effective governance and a healthy and prosperous country that delivers reasonable living standards for its citizens, rather than trap them in perpetual poverty and distress.

Rightly, there’s no appetite for another political and constitutional conference. Therefore, instead of another jamboree, a reasonably-sized group of respectable Nigerians should be asked to pore over the reports of previous conferences, learn from other countries, and pull together constitutional proposals that could be consulted upon and put to Nigerians in a referendum. Truth is, only a proper and genuine referendum about the future of Nigeria can engender national renewal and a true sense of ownership. The National Assembly should legislate for such a referendum and endorse its outcome, translating it into a new constitution.

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Talking about national renewal, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, recently advocated that the name “Nigeria” be dropped, saying “it’s demeaning”. Indeed, it’s embarrassing that this country retains a name invented by Flora Lewis, a colonial editor of the Times of London and later wife of Nigeria’s first colonial governor, Frederick Lugard. Many independent nations have changed their colonial names. It was recently speculated that India would change its name to Bharat. The constitution already refers to “India, that is, Bharat”, and the Indian president sends letters to foreign leaders addressing herself as “President of Bharat”.

It’s time for a national conversation about Nigeria’s future, leading to a political and constitutional settlement. A UN report says: “The political settlement is central to all development.” So, to avoid more decades of stunted development, Nigeria needs restructuring and a new constitution! But where is the political leadership?