I welcome the decision of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, to identify itself with the lingering agitation for the restructuring of the country hitherto largely given a strident voice by southern leaders.
The apparent silence of the north was taken to mean that the old region was opposed to it. I was becoming increasingly worried that the debate was degenerating into the primitive politics of north versus south – its fast track to a standstill or a do-nothing. But let us be clear about this. Restructuring is not a northern problem; and it is not a southern problem. It is a Nigerian problem. We are all in it together.
If, after 60 years of independence and years of military experiments with remaking Nigeria, we still find that we have issues with the structure of our federation and the nature of our federalism, it only shows that we have serious problems that can no longer be ignored. If they were ignored in the past, and they were, present circumstances make it increasingly difficult to either pretend they do not exist or that they do not threaten our corporate existence. Ignoring them is not an option; at least, it is not a sensible option.
I have written a zillion times about restructuring here and elsewhere. I have consistently argued that there is need to radically tinker with our federal system because what the generals bequeathed to us is a strange form of federalism that Professor Isawa Elaigwu rightly described as military federalism. It is a stifling form of federalism that mimics the military command structure and denies the states which, by the way, are not treated as not even faux federating units but as administrative units of the federal government, a measure of autonomy consistent with the letter and the spirit of federalism. Our post-military federal structure is compounded by the flawed nature of our federalism in which power is concentrated at the centre. This is not the nature of federalism known to the more than 50 federating states in the world.
We must now think of ways of means of dismantling this structure through restructuring to give the states enough space to develop at their individual pace by sensibly making sure they do not sew embroidered agbada when all they can pay for is okrika shirt.
Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, the spokesman for NEF in his television in Lagos last week, put it this way: “The two basic functions of the state are to secure citizens and provide for their welfare. Now, the Nigerian state is failing in both camps. So, restructuring for us means addressing those failures and identifying ideas, suggestions, and changes that can actually fit into of improving them.
“When we make demands for the restructuring of the country, we are not necessarily saying that the government is deliberately causing the problems – they are cumulative issues, matters that should have been addressed a long time ago but they were not addressed. Nations must accept to revisit how they live.”
Our neglect of those issues in the past continues to haunt us. In 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan reluctantly listened to the voice of reason and set up a political conference to examine those issues that agitate us as a people and as a country. Restructuring featured prominently in the deliberations and the recommendations of the conference. Nothing came of it. The report, ignored and forgotten, gathers dust on the shelf and has become a metaphor for a nation with a well-honed hypocritical attitude towards solving its identified problems.
The bells are tolling. The sound is not particularly pleasant. The restructuring debate is assuming a dangerous dimension and has, in the opinion of some people, become a matter of either or. Either we restructure or the country breaks up. Pastor Enoch Adeboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, is one of this view. Adeboye said: “We all know that we must restructure. It is either we restructure or we break up; you don’t have to be a prophet to know that one.”
The man of God did not speak as a prophet but as a Nigerian who can see, like most people, that the military federalism is not working. Military federalism was not cast in stone. No one says that a system that does not serve us should not be tinkered with and possibly replaced to make it respond to our contemporary political, economic and social problems. The future of our country is too important to be toyed with. Too many people have made sacrifices for the nation. Those sacrifices ought not to be in vain.
This is not about Buhari and his administration. This is an important national conversation on the nature of our federal system hobbled by its myriads of political, social and economic problems. It is about finding rejigging the system and repositioning it as a political structure best suited to our political and economic needs as a nation. These agitations should not be allowed to become a permanent feature of our national politics. President Buhari can and should end it or set in motion a process for doing so by openly declaring his commitment to reshaping the nation in a manner consistent with best practices in true federal system. If it is the burden that history has saddled him with, then it is a burden he must discharge. The verdict of history matters to all leaders in all countries and all climes.
The president is actually in some luck here. He can fall back on a) the constitution of his party and its manifesto and b) the report of the APC Committee on True Federalism headed by the governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. The committee was set up by the national working committee of the party to advise the party on how best to fulfil its promise made in its manifesto to a) “implement efficient public financial management strategies and ensure true federalism,” b) to create a federal system “with more equitable distribution of national revenue to the states and local government because this is where grassroots democracy and economic development must be established,” and c) for the party to redeem its pledge contained in its manifesto to “devolve more revenue and powers to the states and local government so that decision making is closer to the people (and) bring government closer to the people through political decentralisation including local policing.”
The committee did a great job in addressing these and other issues in its terms of reference and submitted its report to the party as far back as January 2018. This very comprehensive report addressed the entire gamut of true federalism, fiscal federalism, resource control, devolution of power, state police, revenue allocation, and the creation of more states, among other cocktail of issues in the restructuring basket.
The report is now in the good company of such reports condemned eternally to gathering dust on the shelves. Was the party insincere in setting up the committee and acted merely to mollify the public? It would be such huge pity if it only intended to deceive the public and nothing more. As the party in power, the party moguls cannot afford to sit on their haunches and ignore their moral responsibility in taking steps, as they did in setting up the El-Rufai committee, to respond to the lingering problems that threaten our corporate existence. They must be the only people who have ears to hear but cannot hear the bells tolling rather ominously as the country is being pushed towards where we do not wish to be.
In his preface to the report, El-Rufai wrote: “I will invite all political functionaries in the country to study the report and the accompanying documents. Without any doubt I am certain that our party and its leadership, especially at national level, including our leaders in the national assembly and the presidency will find it very resourceful in accomplishing the arduous task of giving our nation a new political life.”