Unfinished greatness: Towards a more perfect union in Nigeria

November 4, 2020

By Dr Kayode Fayemi

Continued from yesterday

We must therefore appreciate the responsibilities that our destiny has imposed on us. We have to start by first conquering the demon of mutual suspicion and distrust that has poisoned our politics and subverted our will to forge the necessary consensus that is so crucial to marching confidently towards our destiny as a great nation. If we do this, we would have scaled the major obstacle to forging a great nation out of this colonial creation and show the world that we are finally ready to embrace our true destiny as the hope of all black people everywhere.

Imperatives for a ‘More Perfect Union’

The word “perfect” is superlative. Therefore, to speak of building a “more perfect” union is to be superfluous. But embedded in that deliberate superfluity is a fundamental notion of eternal work in progress, a perpetual commitment to perfection and improvement no matter how satisfying or dissatisfying the present condition. The second stanza of our national anthem ends with an infinitive that underlines that nation building is an unending search for perfection. It says: “To build a nation, where peace and justice shall reign.” For the next one thousand years, no matter the progress we would have made, as long as the country continues to exist, generations after generations, will continue to seek “to build a nation, where peace and justice shall reign.” It is credit to the genius of whoever invented that line that both the mission and the means to achieve it is captured in one simple phrase. The path to nation-building is peace, the path to peace is justice, and the path to justice is equity and inclusion. Even for Americans who coined the mantra, “a more perfect union’, it was done out of the understanding that the work of nation-building is never done. If a country like the United States, forged out of a common purpose and common consent, perpetually seeks to make a more perfect union, we have no excuse to give up on the task of nation-building in Nigeria.

Permit me to quote the award-winning Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, who wrote that “each new generation begins with nothing and with everything. They know all the earlier mistakes. They may not know that they know, but they do. They know the early plans, the original intentions, the earliest dreams. Each generation has to reconnect the dreams for themselves. They tend to become a little wiser, but don’t go very far. It is possible that they now travel slower, and will make bigger mistakes. That is how they are as a people. They have an infinity of hope and an eternity of struggles. Nothing can destroy them except themselves and they will never finish the road that is their soul and they do not know it.” Okri tells us that the work of nation building is for all generations. And how far each generation is able to go on the journey to nation-building and the attainment of greatness depends on the aggregate character and predilections of that generation. Perhaps, as products of a specific period of our history and national experience, we are distrustful of change even if change is what our situation recommends. We must however take note that the generation that wants to take over from us are products of a different historical experience. A great number of young Nigerians marching on the streets in protest never lived under military rule. They are akin to the people post-apartheid South Africans refer to as the “born free’ generation. Because they can take the fact of democracy for granted, it will not be enough to them to see democracy as an end in itself. What matters to them is what democracy can do for them. Nurtured in the cusp of some of the most rapid transformation in human history, they are less fearful of change and experimentation. If it is not working, they want it fixed, and fixed immediately.

This is why anyone who holds a semblance of power or authority in this country should be deeply worried by the events of the past few weeks. What started as an innocuous online protest over police brutality snowballed before our very eyes into a mass movement that assumed more frightening dimensions. From the demand to #EndSARS, we have seen vigorous demands for greater accountability, and greater efficiency in government. What I understand the youths to be saying is that we the older generation have failed them by our inability to create a system that supports their dreams and accommodate their aspirations. From the language of their protests, we can see clearly that our youths feel pushed to the margins of our nation’s socio-political and economic structures. It is incumbent on us to listen to what they are saying and a lot more that they are probably not saying yet.

For over a decade, several analysts have noted that our massive youth population could be a major demographic advantage to our country if it is properly nurtured. Failure to make the right investments to support this population is turning it to a major disruptive force and a time bomb. I am afraid that the bomb has started to tick and we must act fast.

In responding to the challenges that this moment imposes on us, we must recognise that a business-as-usual approach will no longer be sufficient. What we need is a fundamental re-engineering of our governance system in a way that will make our country work better for everyone. I understand the recent protest as a discursive signal that encapsulates the frustration of our young people at multiple levels. We must therefore engage it as such and try to focus on the opportunities that the situation presents.

Restructuring, Devolution, Fiscal Federalism and Greatness

In our quest towards a more perfect union therefore, the main challenge is one of re-creating the union and the basis of its fundamental national association. Unfortunately for us as a people, it is a challenge that has been affected by mutual suspicion and unnecessary brickbats. Caught in our politics of difference and otherness, devolution, decentralisation and restructuring often used as synonyms and such other epithets have come to mean   different things to different peoples, depending on the ethnic and regional toga they wear. Our age-long distrusts and suspicions of one another are now being tested and contested on these epithets. However, stripped of all opportunism and dysfunctional baggage, these epithets should simply refer to a way to re-imagine and reinvent our country to make it work well for everyone. In fact, I associate fully with the views of respected scholar and former Chairman of INEC, Professor AttahiruJega when he opined that “sooner than later, these matters have to be addressed squarely but dispassionately. The challenge is how to address the issue of restructuring the Nigerian federal system without upsetting the apple-cart; that is, how to add value to the structure and systemic efficacy of the federal arrangement, without unleashing instability occasioned by the mobilisation of ethnic, regional and religious sentiments and identities.” [Jega:2017]

I will argue therefore, that our idea of restructuring must be motivated only by our generational responsibility to perfect our union and to build a nation where peace and justice shall reign based on an operative principle that true greatness lies in building a country that works for everyone, regardless of the language they speak, or how they understand and worship God.

The evolution of Nigeria’s federalism has not served our best interests and it is not surprising that there have been protests and attempts at constitutional reengineering. Two prominent examples were the 2005 Constitutional Reform Conference convened by President Obasanjo’s administration and the 2014 National Conference at the instance of President Jonathan’s. In the two conferences, one recurrent and topical issue remains how to remake and allocate powers and resources.

However, the truth is that in a democratic dispensation, roots and branch structural changes (like region or state creation) would appear to me unrealistic as we cannot easily go back to the pre-1966 regional structure nor is the 54 federating units proposal of the 2014 conference realistic, no matter the appeal or attraction. Rather, our preoccupations should be, how can we better organise, mobilize, and collaborate for the inevitable task of stability, nation-building and economic productivity?

Even at that, the more contentious parts of our quest for a more perfect union  resonates/revolves around devolution of powers – that is, re-allocation of powers and resources and reconfiguring the country’s federating units. The reasons for this are not far-fetched.  First, long years of military rule has produced a concentration of powers and resources at the centre to the detriment of the federating units. Two, the 1999 constitution, as has been argued by several observers, was hurriedly put together by the departing military authority and was not a product of sufficient inclusiveness. Part of the focus of reconfiguring exercise should be: what items should remain on the exclusive legislative list and which ones should be transferred to the concurrent and residual lists? Other topical issues include derivation principle; fiscal federalism and revenue allocation; land tenure, local government creation and autonomy; etc.

Again, in arriving at a position on what ought to be in the quest for a more perfect union, I wish to further say that my sentiments are more associated with strengthening the sub-national units in the re-allocation of powers and resources.  The assignment of functions that would be consistent with a devolved but strengthened federal system would have a short, exclusive federal list focusing on national defence and security, macro-economy, foreign affairs, customs and excise; joint responsibility in respect of certain functions that are currently assigned exclusively to the federal government (for example, internal security and policing) and primary responsibility of the sub-national governments in respect of the other functions in the second schedule of the 1999 constitution whilst the remaining powers devolve to states.

On revenue collection and sharing, the position of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum bears restating. It is that the sharing formula should be reviewed in favour of the states, especially given the argument of devolved responsibilities to the sub-nationals. In the context of the proposed new Federal structure, Governors’ have argued for a formula along the lines of 42% to states, 35% to the Federal and 23% to Local Governments.

Remaking Nigeria through devolution of powers and re-organisation of the federating units is an idea whose time has come.  To quote Professor AttahiruJega, again,, “by working hard and rationally, scientifically, to remove all the distortions in our federal system, we would have a better functioning federation with only states as federating units; with conscious commitment to zonal cooperation among contiguous states, with local governments subsumed under states…with substantial devolution of power, responsibilities and resources from the federal government to the states, and with mechanisms of ensuring greater equality of opportunity for all and affirmative action for inclusion of the marginalised, minorities and groups discriminated against in the country…”[Jega:2017]

Greatness beckons – The Power of Leadership

  1. While we set out as a country on a somewhat progressive footing under the ‘Founding Fathers’, the reversals that we experienced mainly from the implosions that arose within the polity and the incursion of authoritarian rule, alongside its ‘civilian’ inflections, enthroned a paradigm of government and public governance that coalesced around waste, bureaucratic inefficiency, red-tapism and certainly, corrosive corruption.

Thereafter, we witnessed how the State became more and more unitary, and how the contest for the privileges of the centre took on an increasingly desperate tenor among the different groups and stakeholders in the country. While corruption and state exclusion thrived, several groups began to feel a sense of alienation, leading to their desertion of a sense of national citizenship and affiliation to the State, which they subsequently considered as being a contraption to be exploited for individual ‘gain’ – a ‘cake’ that everyone needed to grab a share of. Thus, whatever could be taken out of the centre – more so illegally – was considered acceptable and just within the perception of local interest.

From the foregoing, what is evident is that, most prominently at the national level, the Nigerian post-colonial state has not behaved in a fundamentally different way from the colonial state. Even though operated by Nigerians, the post-colonial state has been as alien and as predatory as its colonial predecessor. As late Professor Claude Ake argued in the early 1990s, this legacy has its roots in the colonial era when political discourse excluded not only democracy but even the idea of good government, and politics was reduced to the clash of one exclusive claim to power against another. The question therefore is: How can the business of state be serious business in a context in which public governance is largely a predatory exercise in which power is captured from citizens and not freely given by citizens; a context in which the consent of the people is not integral to the constitution of legitimacy?

Against the backdrop of the post-colonial state in Africa, it is still possible to argue that political leadership remains a major determinant of good public governance.   The African experience, among others, has shown that the quality, vision, patriotism and competence of the political leadership is critical to the transformation of African states and the possibilities of good governance. In our specific experience in Nigeria, we also have experiences of how the quality of the leadership has produced good system of public governance, even if few and far between. One can readily give the examples of Northern Nigeria under Sir Ahmadu Bello and Western Nigeria under Chief ObafemiAwolowo.

Yet, important as the power of leadership by example is, until and unless we re-compose the Nigerian State and make it to derive her original consent and legitimacy from the people, then we labour in vain.  Contrary to the pretensions of neo-liberal economists, without a modern state, there cannot be an economy or society; therefore, before public governance, there must be a modern state in the real sense. A predatory state cannot give birth to proper public governance and a sense of justice and fairness.

Those of us in public office may delude ourselves, but the events of the past few weeks have brought the contradictions of the Nigerian state into a sharper focus. Whether your immediate concern is police brutality and the need for police reform or you reflect upon the rationale and the challenges of those who insist that unless and until Nigeria becomes a theocracy, there shall be blood and tears unlimited; whether you look towards the Niger Delta where, despite the amnesty and the industry of graft and greed that it has re-produced, there is a continuous and bloody demand for justice and equity; or you examine the endless pretexts for ethnic strife and blood-letting between the so called indigenous people and the “settlers” in the Middle Belt; whether you scrutinise the regular apocalyptic predictions of highly placed Nigerians about the fate of the country, or you contemplate what would happen if measures are not taken to arrest the drift, you cannot but come to the conclusion that Nigeria needs to be re-created.

Equity, fairness and justice are imperatives of a prosperous and progressive society. Peace is definitely not the absence of conflicts within a polity but indeed the presence of social justice. Excellencies, Royal Highnesses, Distinguished  guests, I leave you with another famous quotation from ShehuUsmanu Dan Fodiyo which I understand had been the guiding principle of Sardauna’s leadership style in life. In his book, Bayan Wujub al-Hijra, the great Islamic reformer said “A kingdom can endure with unbelief, but it cannot endure with injustice.”  May we have the courage and the conviction to confront injustice in our country.

Dr. KayodeFayemi, CON

Governor, Ekiti State, Nigeria

Chairman, Nigeria Governors’ Forum

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