The (Missing) Agenda of Restructuring Nigeria, By Jibrin Ibrahim

Almost on a daily basis, there are stringent demands that we must restructure Nigeria. The tone of the argument is that if Nigeria does not restructure, the State runs the risk of complete collapse. What is surprising in the demands is that there is little content on what will change – very few people are talking about what the restructured Nigeria would look like. Over the past month, some delegates to the Jonathan National Conference have been canvassing for the restructuring of Nigeria on the basis of the report of the National Conference. The most significant structural proposal in the Report is the transformation of Nigeria from a Federation of 36 to one of 54 States. The creation of 18 new States today would be the most idiotic act in Nigeria’s political history. Presently, we are unable to finance the 36 States so creating more would simply not be feasible. Politically, it would enhance the powers of the Federal Government relative to State Governments thereby weakening what some people call genuine federalism. Other delegates to the Conference from Northern Nigeria also met to counter the advocacy for the adoption and implementation of the National Conference report. The questioned the legitimacy of the Conference, its composition and its mode of decision-making.

I believe that most of the contents of restructuring are not feasible or desirable for a majority of Nigerians so the tactics of proponents is to avoid talking about what they really mean when they call for structuring. Some proponents of restructuring desire a return to the tripartite regionalism of the First Republic. Those interested in recreating a Pan Yoruba political structure are very keen on this but are unable to make there advocacy open because North Central Nigeria is profoundly opposed to the return of “One North” and the Niger Delta is also opposed to the “Biafran idea” of one Eastern Nigeria. For the South East, their key concern is that they have only five States while the other zones have six and the North West has seven. Restructuring for them therefore means creating an additional State for the zone and not adding any new ones to the other zones. The sought and failed to get this outcome at the National Conference.

On demand on restructuring relates to our six geo-political zones, which have always existed but had never been part of our structure. It is however important to recall that in his 1995 Independence address to the Nation, General Abacha announced the introduction of a modified Presidential system in which six key executive and legislative offices will be zoned and rotated between six identifiable geographical groupings; North-West, North-East, Middle-Belt, South-West, East-Central and Southern-Minority. These geographical zones correspond roughly to the six cultural zones – Emirate states, Borno and environs, Middle Belt minorities, Yorubaland, Igboland and Southern minorities, which followed the original assessment of British colonialism, and became rooted in Nigerian society, in part because of the Indirect Rule policy that was subsequently adopted. The six cultural zones are indeed central poles around which much ethno-regional mobilisation has occurred in the country’s recent political history. Fears of domination of one zone over the others played a central role in convincing politicians of the necessity of a federal solution for the First Republic. The First Republic, which operated essentially as equilibrium of regional tyrannies, was however characterised by the domination of each region by a majority ethnic group and the repression of regional minorities. More recently, there have been calls for the restructuring of the country along these zones.

Restructuring is extremely difficult because it is difficult to imagine any of the existing 36 States surrendering its existence to a new structure to which it would hand over its authority. The alternative of retaining existing States and simply super-imposing a six zonal structure on them is also unrealistic because it would mean multiplying political structures and financial costs at a time in which resources are very scarce. The third option is to take power and resources from the Federal level and transfer it to the State level while retaining the present structure. This is broadly acceptable but Nigerians are worried that State Governors are not accountable to anybody and more power for them would simply produce 36 despots lording it over citizens. I am all for the continued restructuring of Nigeria but let us all remember the objective is not restructuring in itself but as Herbert Macaulay articulated at the beginning of the debate in 1946, restructuring can only make sense if it leads to the transfer of power to citizens.

As the debate continues, we may also want to place the French option on the table. The tight fiscal situation in the country has made it difficult for regional governments to raise enough resources to run their affairs. Consequently, they have decided democratically that regions can negotiate with themselves and merge so that they can enjoy economies of scale. We could adopt this example and allow States that want to merge do so while others continue with their current structure. By so doing, we can advance the debate from restructuring to self-structuring?

The strident calls for restructuring is making Nigerians forget the fact that in reality, we have been restructuring since 1914. Of course at the beginning of the story under colonialism, what occurred was a violent usurpation of the sovereignty of the Nigerian peoples. A political structure was imposed in several polities of what later became Nigeria on the basis of colonial military conquest. In 1914, having successfully conquered us, the British amalgamated their three territories in the Nigeria area, the colony of Lagos and the two Protectorates to the North and South of the Niger. This symbolic act representing the “creation of Nigeria” has been widely castigated as an artificial act and a mistake. Such views erroneously believe that there are states that have been “naturally constituted”. We do know however that throughout history, state formations have occurred in a fluid and artificial manner. State cohesion has been built at a later stage. What the British created as Nigeria was made up of many autonomous and independent polities as well as diverse languages and cultures that were coerced into a new political formation. The problem of Nigeria is not so much the amalgamation of 1914, but the failure to forge a cohesive state from the said territories after independence. In 1938, the South was restructured into two regions, the West and East while the North was left intact – hence the origins of the tripartite political system. This system was formalised with the Richards Constitution of 1946. The Nigerian debate over restructuring started with the Richards Constitution. The nationalists – Hubert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Imoudu rejected the Constitution because it was designed to perpetuate the colonial structure of sharing power between the Crown and Native Authorities and mobilised for a new structure in which citizens would be the repositories of power. They mobilised, travelled round the country, raised funds and went to London in 1946 to demand for a new structure. When five years later, they succeeded on placing self-government on the agenda with Governor Macpherson’s Constitution, the Nigerian political elite had agreed to a Federation based on the three tier regional structure Lord Lugard had invented. In the process, the profound demand for democratic government in which power resided with citizens was abandoned.

The guiding principle of this “new” tripartite Federation was that each Region had a ‘majority ethnic group’, which was to play the role of the leading actor – in the North the Hausa, in the West the Yoruba, and in the East the Igbo. In fact the whole process of constitution making between 1946 and 1958 was an elaborate bargaining pantomime to find equilibrium between the three regions, or rather, between the leading elites of the majority ethnic groups. No wonder the process resulted in the emergence of three major political parties each allied to a majority group.

The pre-independence restructuring was problematic because Nigeria was never composed of three cultural groups but of hundreds of cultural and ethnic groups dominated the majority groups. Although Nigeria was profoundly multipolar, the Hausa-Yoruba–Igbo political elites opted to maintain the colonial tripartite structure.  It’s important to remember that none of the three regions of the First Republic represented a historic political bloc, as there were minority groups in each. The refusal of the British to create more regions in 1958 when the Willinks Commission affirmed that fears of domination of the ‘minorities’ by the ‘majorities’ were justified was virtually a disenfranchisement of at least 45 per cent of the population.

It was the military that subsequently succeeded in completely restructuring the Nigerian State. They dismantled the tripartite structure, which had become quadripartite with the creation of the Mid West in 1963. In 1967, just before the advent of the civil war, the Gowon Military Administration created 12 states from the four existing regions. The move appeared to have been a political advance because it was addressing the correction of the structural imbalances and ethno-regional inequities of the inherited federal structure. In 1976, the Mohammed-Obasanjo Administration increased the number of states from 12 to 19; General Babangida raised the number of states to 21 in 1987 and to 30 in 1991 while the regime of General Abacha increased the number of states in the country to 36.

This restructuring through the multiplication of States has produced what is called a Jacobin effect (excessive centralisation) that strengthened Federal power relative to the powers of the federating States. We should not forget that there was elite consensus that the First Republic collapsed because the regions were too strong. Weakening their power base was therefore the logical objective of restructuring. The real issue however was not weakening of the States per se, but the erosion of a counter weight to what became known as the “Federal Might”. Rather than correct the ethno-regional balance in the country, the fissiparous state creation tendency by concentrating enormous powers at the centre weakened all political groups that are not in control of the centre. Increasingly, restructuring led to the emergence of a quasi-unitary State. This tendency was reinforced with further restructuring through the decentralisation policy of the Babangida regime carried out between 1987 and 1991 with the declared aim of increasing the autonomy, democratising, improving the finance and strengthening the political and administrative capacities of local governments. The number of local governments was increased from 301 to 449 in 1989 and to 589 in 1991 and again to 776 in 1996.

Yes let’s restructure but the debate should be real by placing the proposals on the table so that we can have a national conversation.

Jibrin Ibrahim on  Buhari Second Anniversary Edition, Daily Trust, 29th May 2017