Constitutional and structural reform will not magically cure all our ills. The depth of our predicament forecloses that. But it will solve several of our problems and begin the process of healing. Constitutional reform that begins from the existential questions of our troubled union will return Nigeria to a truly federal structure where control over the bulk of resource revenue, developmental initiative, accountability, and policymaking will reside with the regions or states, not with a bloated and overbearing federal government. Under this reform scenario a small pool of revenue will flow to Abuja to fund a much diminished federal government. The exact formula needs to be agreed upon. It seems to me that a 50:50 formula (with 50 percent of revenue going to derivation zones and the other 50 percent being shared between the federal government and the other states) is a good starting point, from where a movement towards 60:40 or 70:30 ratio in favor of derivation areas can begin. There will be several advantages to this:
1. Admittedly, this may preserve and even exacerbate corruption at the state level in the sort term. In the long run, however, it will produce grassroots interest and vigilance regarding the financial and political affairs of states and local governments. The principle is simple and commonsensical: the closer an institutional is to the people it is designed to serve the more stake people develop in it. The bigger the stake—political, economic, and emotional—the sharper the vigilance of citizens and the more determined they will be to ensure that elected representatives and leaders are transparent stewards of public resources and trust.
2. For oil producing states/regions the effect will be dramatic both in terms of revenue pool and the transformation of political dynamics. In the short term, contests for political office in those regions will escalate, as politicians will (re)position themselves to secure supervisory access to the larger resource pool that will become available. Indeed politicians from these regions will most certainly begin an epic migration from Abuja to participate in what they anticipate will be a regional oil dollar feast. Beneath all of this chaos, however, a quiet political dynamic will gradually take hold, as the citizens of these regions realize that their politicians can no longer rely on power and coercive instruments mobilized from Abuja to protect themselves against their agitation or to put down clamor for accountability and responsive governance. A new sense of political empowerment and a new awareness of stake-holding will develop among the citizens of these states. Over time, this will crystallize into a formidable civil society that will insist on both fiscal and electoral accountability. Their ethno-regional proximity to the politicians will intensify this citizen power, ensuring that politicians make themselves accountable to their constituents instead of using Abuja as a shield, alibi, and foil to deflect local clamor for good governance and transparency as is currently the case. The Niger Delta politicians who will flock “home” from Abuja in the hope of constituting themselves into a new, Abuja-type oligarchy will, over time and as their constituents exercise their new voice, find their operational liberties curtailed and their immunity and impunities challenged. This will be a seminal shift in the struggle for accountable governance and electoral integrity. The oil-producing states will be much better for it.
3. For non-oil producing states (mine included), the benefits may be counterintuitive but they are many. States without oil will be compelled to shop for revenue outside of the assured purview of the federal allocation formula, which is guaranteed, for now, on a perennial oil revenue bonanza. New revenues do not come easy. Necessity will force these governments to explore previously neglected sources of extractive revenue. Taxes and levies will also have to be imposed on economically challenged citizens. The citizens, by virtue of funding the government—or the bulk of it—from their toil will develop instant proprietary interest in the management of government finances, ensuring through their vigilance that those they elect to run the government put their tax money to good, prudent use. The proximity of the electorate’s anger, the prospect of its eruption, and the new reality that local politicians can no longer call upon Abuja for political protection or use Abuja as an alibi for poor performance will ensure an appreciable degree of accountability from public office holders.
4. All of these should, over time, produce a culture of public vigilance, accountability, transparency, and healthy competition between states and regions.
5. True federalism will help construct the basis for an enduring union. At a time when our nation stands challenged on many fronts by movements that reject the social, political, and economic tyranny of the Nigerian state, the lazy, repetitively hollow assertion that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable will no longer do. The problem we have in Nigeria is that we assume that nations are incubators of sameness and so we frown upon any expression of difference and desire for autonomous identity platforms. Nations are not harvesters of homogeneity. They are efficient managers of difference. Often they are patchworks of different groups and different primordial and aspirational interests that agree to pursue some common goals while retaining their values, differences, and cherished autonomies. In Nigeria we are afraid to broach the question of difference, primordial or otherwise, let alone confront it in an open national conversation. Yet the signs are there—and festering—that differences, real differences exist in the values, aspirations, priorities, and worldviews of the different regions and ethno-religious clusters in the country.
The Marxist and neo-Marxist claptrap about everyone being motivated by the same existential economic needs and of identity issues being felt by the masses only when manipulated by elite calculations is no longer tenable and has become part of the problem. It is deceptive, escapist, and stands disproved on many fronts. Most committed Marxists no longer believe in the exclusive primacy of economic or materialist motivation and subscribe to a more holistic index of impulses and needs. Those who still believe that foundational Marxist mantra do so as a matter of doctrinal correctness, not of philosophical logic or empirical compulsion. In Nigeria, identity questions and desires have become as important as economic ones. They are real, heartfelt, and are part of our slate of unresolved issues. We should not bury them behind empty, pretentious slogans.
Take the Caliphate and Bornuan North (the Northwest and huge swathes of the Northeast). Boko Haram, which was birthed in that part of the country, threatens the fabric of the nation. The movement obviously does not enjoy widespread support in this zone. The same cannot however be said of Sharia, which posed an existential challenge to Nigeria in the 2000s, when its constitutionality was debated and when Muslims and Christians clashed over its implementation. When Sharia fever gripped this zone in 2000, there were diverse views as to what catalyzed the grassroots clamor for Sharia as a legal, social, and political order. Some attributed it to bad governance and an attendant desire for a Utopian religious alternative. Others pointed to the manipulation of politicians who saw in Sharia a means to easy political legitimacy and immunity. Yet others insisted that this was not a clamor produced by politics or ephemeral discontent with poor governance but a genuine religious awakening at the grassroots.
Today, we still have not settled the Sharia question. We have not determined its constitutionality. Nor have we answered the question of whether it is a fleeting, emotive desire or a deeper matter of identity and values that needs to be addressed explicitly in the constitution to douse the dueling contentions on its constitutionality and its supposed threat to Nigeria. But how can we come to this resolution outside a serious discussion of regional, ethnic and religious values and differences? How can we construct constitutional protections for those desirous of certain religious or social reforms and comforts and those fearful of those changes? In fact, how can we even determine whether Sharia is indeed the overarching political template preferred by the population of the Caliphate North if we are not willing to discuss the constellation of national questions that we are constantly reminded of during moments of national crisis?
For other regions and clusters, the touchstone of sub-national aspiration may not be Sharia but a preoccupation with the autonomy to do things in other spheres without the intruding override of the federal government. In the Southwest, the desire for a state-controlled police force is strong, eliciting diverse views on its constitutionality. Given the strong sentiment in its favor in several Southern states, should we not have a serious discussion on it? What about the recurring decimal of citizenship—the question of whether the rights of indigene should flow from residency or origin. Given its deadly centrality to many ethnic and ethno-religious conflicts in different parts of the country, does it not deserve a serious constitutional conversation that will settle it once and for all?
The Way Froward
These are problems, desires, and identity questions that a serious, profound constitutional reform in the direction of true federalism can resolve. With resolution comes clarity and with clarity comes understanding and pragmatic choices about what to do, where to live, and how to live. With those choices comes mutual respect and acceptance of differences of values, beliefs, aspirations, and worldviews. A nation is not forced; it is forged. The unitary tyranny and ambition of the status quo, which is etched in the current constitutional order, constitutes an existential danger to the country and will doom any movement for incremental or cosmetic change that ignores these fundamental questions. This is my problem with the laudable but naïve electoral reform movement. It pretends that elections can be reformed in a meaningful way without first addressing the foundational fiscal issues that actuate and sustain the impulse to rig and cheat.
This escapist refusal to broach foundational questions among the menu of national concerns is also the trouble with the messianic industry that grew around Muhammadu Buhari during the last presidential election. I saw in Buhari a sincere man motivated by a desire to do good for his compatriots. But I also saw a naïve, trusting political upstart who will have been chewed alive and rendered impotent by the political sharks in Abuja precisely because of that naïve eagerness to trust and project himself unto his supporters. I saw a man eager to accept the adulation and financial sponsorship of corrupt, establishment politicians who lost in the unfolding power game and saw Buhari as an easy gateway back to power. I saw a man who believed naively that he could, with the force of personal integrity, change the way Abuja works—the way it was constitutionally designed to work, and the vast patronage system that even members of his party and inner circle belong to. I saw a man who was unaware of the constitutional, structural constraints in the way of accountable, responsible governance. He believed in personality as the be-all and end-all—the idea that because I am good everyone will come on board and get with my program.
Do not get me wrong. A Buhari presidency would have fared better than Jonathan’s current confusion. But it would have failed woefully in the task of fundamentally and radically transforming the business of governance in Nigeria, let alone in charting a new, more transparent, honest, and truly federal constitutional order.
I stayed uncommitted in the last elections believing that our problems now go beyond elections, beyond good or bad elections, and that no leader, no matter how well intentioned, can do enough to reverse the rot, hamstrung as they will be under the current constitutional order. They may better their predecessor or do better than any of their competitors would have done, but ultimately they will be consumed by the Abuja-centric system. I had several reservations about Buhari, which I expressed in my write-up on his candidacy (I also documented my reservations about Jonathan and Ribadu in published articles), but this was my biggest concern. And yet it had nothing to do with Buhari as a person. It was a systemic concern that will not easily permit me to endorse a candidate in our ritualistic, ultimately meaningless elections unless the candidate was too compelling for me to ignore and could open up the space to introduce uncomfortable fundamental questions about our union.
I prefer a return to first principles and first questions but none of the candidates demonstrated a commitment to them in the last election. Only the candidacy of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi would have made me reconsider my stance. I would have supported him not because he is explicitly committed to a reconsideration of all the fundaments of our union but because his presidency would have inaugurated a new, discourse- and debate-driven government. His cerebral approach to governance and policymaking would have made civilized, unfettered political debate fashionable and consequential. It would have opened up the discursive space and made it possible to broach touchy constitutional and structural questions. Sanusi, we all know, is not afraid of uncomfortable conversations. This willingness to entertain insurgent debates on the national question(s) is what would have earned my support.
I am not a reform purist with an all-or-nothing determination. I recognize that, while the consensus and political will for the profound structural reforms we need remains elusive, a committed, unconventional, incorruptible, and smart president could plug the hemorrhage, halt the bleeding, and create the conversational context for foundational reform down the road. The Buhari of 2011, along with his retinue of aides, sponsors, and advisers, met some but not all of these criteria. Sanusi was my man for the job of stabilizer and damage controller, pending the much needed constitutional overhaul. But he was not on the ballot.
The issues confronting Nigeria today transcends Jonathan, Buhari, and even Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, although the last two would obviously be a vast improvement over our current president and would not deepen the deterioration as Jonathan seems to be doing. However, the questions confronting us fall outside the orbit of individual or group messianism. Nigeria’s predicament has crossed the juncture at which messianic figures would have made a difference. We have now entered a zone where only fundamental restructuring will do as a solution. Accordingly, conversations about electoral reform as a solution to the problems of corruption and bad governance should be rooted in a desire to advance and discuss reforms that preempt the causes of electoral malpractice and bad, corrupt governance. There is no alternative to meaningful constitutional reform and to restructuring the country away from the current Abuja-centric system.
In the past those who advocated this path of true federalism couched it in the angry terms of a nation saddled with incompatible differences. They expressed it in the vocabulary of blame. They posited that a section of the country is a leech and a drag on the rest, that it deserves expulsion, and that the other “productive” section deserves freedom from the burden of subsidizing its lazy appendage. That was and is still a turn off. Instead of advancing mutual gain and healthy, developmental competition as the basis for their advocacy of pristine federalism, many federalists spoke about parasites that needed to be banished or punished. That is why the idea of a serious, people-driven, everything-is-on-the-table constitutional conference never gained traction and spooked politicians and regular citizens alike. The best case for reforming and rewriting our unitary constitution is the logic of compatible differences—the conviction that Nigeria may be a bewildering congregation of different peoples, interests, aspirations, values, beliefs, and priorities but that the differences are compatible and can/should be preserved through a pragmatic process of reimagining and reconstructing the very foundations of the nation. We will live or die by how we treat this foundational imperative.