To take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.—The Economist at its founding in 1843.
‘Unitary federalism’ in today’s title is a borrowing from Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and man-times contender for presidential candidature under several parties including, most recently, All Progressives Congress (APC). I am not re-using the phrase of one of the leaders of APC to draw attention— positive or negative—to claims by Abubakar’s political associates and opponents who call the former vice president a born-again federalist. Such exercise is better done by professional power seekers. I have borrowed the title because it captures, among other things, the absurdity that underlies ongoing constitutional amendments in the National Assembly, an absurdity spawned by the fact that the ruling party under which Abubakar had contested for presidential candidacy also has high on its manifesto: “A NEW PARTY, A NEW NIGERIA, THE APC MANIFESTO” the pledge to Initiate action to amend our Constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit.
This column has in the last ten years addressed ad nauseam the issue of re-federalisation of the country’s polity and, consequently, its economy. The column has no intention today to re-tell the story of how the country came into its present dire straits. It seeks to expose some contradictions in the ongoing constitutional amendments that smack of obsession over a governance system that does have everything to pamper its political elite but lacks the structure that can create an enabling space for improvement of the life of the country’s silent masses. The current system, characterised by Abubakar as ‘unitary federalism’ has deliberately under-developed the masses, to ensure continuity of a system stacked against the interests of the masses: limited access to an education that can open the minds of the masses and push them to hold their political representatives responsible for their suffering; imprisonment of the few with above average education by religious merchants who promise miracles and prosperity in a political and fiscal system that restricts creativity and innovation; and saddling of post-military political rulers with a governance system that makes it more profitable for politicians to sustain rather than change. I prefer to leave consideration of the sincerity of Abubakar’s commitment to re-federalisation to political power speculators and focus on the potential of oxymoronic political reality to stymie national and regional development in a multi-national democracy.
Now to the various contradictions being authored by current lawmakers. Those criticising federal lawmakers for making laws to further dismantle federalism in the country need to go back to read APC manifesto that pointedly seeks to devolve powers and responsibilities to states and local governments: “Initiate action to amend our Constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit.” It will be curious how many politicians committed to federalism in the APC paid attention to the promise by the party to constitutionalise local governments as a distinct federating unit completely autonomous of the state. Commenters who choose not to pay attention to subtle attempts to decapitate states and predispose the 774 communities (referenced as local governments in the 1999 Constitution) to eventually demand abrogation of the states to return to two tiers of oversize central government and 774 fragmented administrative units) should put on their thinking caps before it is too late.
What is needed to reduce the current ‘unitary federalism’ is to recognise that most of the globe’s successful federal systems believe in the principle that the logical structure to have in a federation is national and subnational governance, not national, subnational, and sub-subnational governance structure, an absurdity designed by military dictators to sustain unitarism while at the same time glorifying federalism rhetorically. Some pundits have observed that the ongoing constitutional amendments are as oxymoronic as they are because the lawmakers do not expect the amendments to be approved by the states. Good luck to those who are this optimistic about any issue that promises to give power and money to individuals in our dear country. In the absence of clear ideological guide of lawmakers by their parties about importance of federalism to stability and development, the matter of getting the amendments approved may not be between federal and state legislators, but between potential premiers or mayors of local governments wanting to have their own fiefdom and citizens who are kept in the dark about implications of approving such amendments for their wellbeing.
Another contradictions-laden amendment is abrogation of State Electoral Independent Commission (SIEC) currently under the supervision of states. The text of this proposal is to create a uniform (so-called national) electoral agency culture, largely on the assumption that INEC is better than SIEC, even though no verifiable research has been done to establish this fact. This is reminiscent of the fear had been generated against state police system. Opponents of autonomy to states have said that state police is likely to be corrupt, an assumption that the central police is not corrupt, a conclusion that has not been supported by any evidence. One erroneous assumption is that anything that is central is good and whatever is subnational is bad, an attempt to construct a metaphysics of sub-humanity for subnational entities in relation to the central government in a multicultural society. Those who are lucky to benefit from electoral power in the hands of the central government are likely to see this amendment as progressive and the insistence that subnational governments must be denied of the power to determine where and how to improve governance at that level very friendly to the electoral politics of the party in power at the centre.
One contradiction that cannot be overlooked is the reticence of lawmakers from regions that have been clamouring for re-federalisation, particularly legislators from the Southwest, Southeast, and the South-south. For example, the average newspaper-reading or television-watching student in the Southwest is likely to be more at ease to remember names of lawmakers from the Northeast and Northwest than those from the Southwest, largely because nothing is heard from the latter group’s participation in the debate on constitutional amendments, especially changes that threaten the residual powers in the hands of states under the 1999 Constitution. Additionally, it is curious that lawmakers from the Southwest have not given noticeable attention to interacting with the electorate on issues as critical as constitutional amendment. Political leaders in a region that has championed the call for restoration of federalism consistently since the 1990s need to do two things urgently: remind Southwestern lawmakers in the National Assembly that they are representatives of the region in the federal legislature and not appointees of the central government, and that consequently legislators from the region need to interact with citizens and show signs that they are contributing to debates in the legislature on behalf of those who voted for them.
As APC prepares for the 2019 elections, it will be necessary for voters to demand from their political leaders the stand of each state in the region vis-à-vis the current unitary federalism upon which Atiku Abubakar from the Northeast has almost become an authority in recent times. A referendum on what citizens in the region want: unitarism or federalism should be conducted in each of the six states, to guide lawmakers sent to the National Assembly, particularly those that seem not to have any idea on the matter on the type of debates expected from them on matters of choosing between more federalism or more unitarism.