• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Restructuring Nigeria: Osinbajo has gone native



The recent intervention by the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, on the vexed issue of the political restructuring of Nigeria was dramatic and gobsmacking. He said Nigeria doesn’t need political restructuring, and that he is opposed to restructuring the country along ethnic lines. This is intriguing on two levels, first emotional, second intellectual. Emotionally, it’s baffling that a prominent Yoruba politician would denounce political restructuring, and doubly so when that politician belongs to a group that has long demanded the restructuring of Nigeria. And, on an intellectual level, the vice president’s intervention has triggered curiosity about whether his ideas can withstand scrutiny.

Take the emotional point first. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, Osinbajo was either a member of, or sympathetic to, NADECO, Alliance for Democracy (AD), Action Congress (AC), and Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which metamorphosed into All Progressives Congress (APC). These groups claimed historical or ideological links to Obafemi Awolowo’s Afenifere and Action Group. These are what you might call Osinbajo’s political family, and at the heart of their ‘progressive’ agenda for decades was the political restructuring of Nigeria. Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, throughout his membership of this group, up until he was selected as the group’s choice for vice-president of Nigeria and, subsequently, throughout last year’s presidential election campaign, Osinbajo never once publicly express opposition to the political restructuring of this country.

So, here is the point. Unless the professor was a closet anti-political restructuring, in which case he cleverly kept his views to himself, it is safe to assume that he came to his new position only recently either because of the insights he has gained since becoming Nigeria’s vice president or out of loyalty to his boss, Muhammadu Buhari, who is strongly opposed to restructuring this country, and whose body language on the issue appears to have been picked up across the government and the APC.

Loyalty is, of course, an absolutely desirable quality, and President Buhari demands and rewards it. But, on the critical issue of how to secure political stability in Nigeria, how to engender unity among Nigerians and how to diversify the economy and grow it sustainably, Osinbajo will be accused in the court of public opinion of going native if he simply wants to sing from the same hymn sheet as the president. The question of the political restructuring of Nigeria can’t be based on personal predilections – what someone likes or doesn’t like. It must be based on what, given Nigeria’s situation and lessons from other nations, works for this country. It’s in that context that I would like to examine the vice president’s proposition in the light of theoretical and empirical evidence.

According to media reports, Osinbajo said: “So, if there are people who believe we must restructure ourselves along ethnic lines, I don’t accept that is the right way to go”. I assume that, by “ethnic lines”, the vice president means the six regional or geo-political units, namely the South West for the Yoruba, the South East for the Igbo, the North East and North West for the Hausa/Fulani, and the South-South and North Central for, broadly speaking, the minority ethnic groups. Surely, that’s what those of us who advocate returning Nigeria to regionalism have in mind. If this is the restructuring “along ethnic lines” that the vice president rejects, then, in my view, his proposition belongs to the ivory tower! Nigeria is a multi-national state, and to conjure up any structure that ignores the ethnic or national identities is inconsistent with history, experience and reality.

In his book, “Political Restructuring in Europe”, Chris Brown of the London School of Economics argues that in multi-national states, politics “at best takes the form of group bargaining and compromise and at worst degenerate into a struggle for domination”. The latter, of course, is true in Nigeria, where politics is defined by a struggle for or against domination, as some ethnic groups have deep concerns they are not getting fair material treatment from the state. The widespread criticism of President Buhari’s key military, security and administrative appointments, which disproportionately favour the Hausa/Fulani ethnic group, fits very well into the “struggle for domination” hypothesis. Surely, as a multi-national state, Nigeria needs its politics to be based on “group bargaining and compromise”, but that won’t happen without a political structure that recognises the ethnic or national groups as units or agents of communicative action.

Awolowo advocated in “Path to Nigerian Freedom”, published in 1945, that Nigeria should have a federal structure based on ethnic and linguistic affinities. Two decades later, in 1968, he predicted in “The People’s Republic”, that every multi-lingual or multi-national country “must either have a federal constitution based on the principles which I have enunciated, or disintegrate, or be perennially afflicted with disharmony and instability”. Awolowo said he came to this view after studying the constitutions of virtually all countries in the world, and was convinced that a federal system, based on ethnic and linguistic lines, was best suited to the diverse population of Nigeria. As I wrote recently, I too have examined the political systems of nearly all the 53 Commonwealth countries and found none with the same multi-national structure as Nigeria that has a centralised political system as we have in this country.

So, Osinbajo’s antipathy to restructuring along ethnic lines doesn’t only ignore theory, it also flies in the face of empirical evidence. Obviously, if the vice president was the prime minister of Britain, he would oppose the devolution of significant powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since that would mean restructuring Britain along ethnic lines. We can also assume that if he was the prime minister of India, he would not have signed the State Reorganisation Act of 1956 that reorganised India’s 29 powerful states along linguistic lines. Indeed, if Osinbajo was Nelson Mandela, he would have rejected the post-apartheid political settlement that created nine provinces, based broadly on ethnic and linguistic lines. In 1997, South Africa abolished its Senate and replaced it with the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), as the upper house above the National Assembly. This certainly reflects the country’s sensitivityto its multi-national identity.

The preponderance of evidence thus favours devolved or federal multi-national politico-governance structures for multi-national countries. Yet, the vice president said restructuring Nigeria along ethnic lines is not “the right way to go”. So, what is the right way to go? That all the separate national identities should be moulded or forged into a common national identity? Surely, that’s a legitimate aspiration. But you can’t achieve that union in a country where politics is defined by a struggle for or against domination, where some groups are marginalised or don’t get equal opportunities and fair material treatment, where power is so concentrated at the centre that the peripheries are reduced to dependent and unviable entities, where an ethnic group fears it would lose out unless it belongs to the party controlling the centre, where the president has enormous power of patronage and uses it to favour his ethnic group.

Now, why does all this matter? Well, it matters for two reasons. First, Nigeria can’t be politically stable unless it is restructured in a way that engenders stability. Simply saying Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable without creating structures that would foster that unity is wishful thinking. Secondly, without political restructuring, Nigeria can’t have economic progress. The vice president was patently wrong to say that Nigeria needs economic   diversification and not political restructuring: you can’t have the former without the latter. The closest Nigeria has ever been to having economic diversification was in the 1960s, when each of the regions exploited their comparative advantages in agriculture and manufacturing, and competed with and emulated one another on educational and infrastructural development. But with the arrival of oil and the collapsing of the regional structures into a dominant centre and weak and fragmented peripheries (states), Nigeria lost the halcyon days!

Nigeria must return to regionalism. The six geo-political zones should become not only administrative units but also geo-economic units. Nigeria’s transformation requires regional economic power houses. No country succeeds by centralising political and economic activities. Osinbajo and his boss, Buhari, must rethink their views on political restructuring. Nigeria’s greatness depends on it!


Olu Fasan