The Financial Times recently interviewed me and quoted me in a special feature on Nigeria as saying that restructuring “is the defining issue in Nigerian politics” and that “If it is not done, it will never go away”. Regular readers of this column will not be surprised that I hold those views. Restructuring is one of the main themes of this column over the past four years. I believe Nigeria can’t make progress unless it is restructured; and that its stability and unity would be seriously endangered without an enduring political settlement and a suitable governance structure.
The motto of the London School of Economics, to which I am affiliated, is: “To understand the causes of things”. That is a sensible endeavour for any human being, organisation and, indeed, country. If something is not working, the right thing to do is to understand why and how to fix it. Truth is, Nigeria is not working; it’s acutely underperforming. Above all, it is deeply divided, with strong schismatic tendencies. Nigeria looks like a country sitting on a ticking time bomb, its deep internal tensions make it a tinderbox ready to ignite. The country seems perpetually at the centre of a perfect storm, always facing headwinds. Only those benefitting from the rut will deny these realities.
But why is Nigeria in such dire situations? Some will blame leadership, some followership. Both are right. Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, had positive impacts in shaping the destinies of their nations. And societies with a critical mass of well-informed citizens that demand progress and put pressure on leaders will perform better than those in which the citizens are docile and can’t hold their leaders to account. So, both leadership and followership matter. But Nigeria’s problems are far more structural and fundamental than that, even though, in the end, it would still take the right leadership and followership to solve them. But, as the LSE motto says, you can only solve a problem when you understand its nature or causes. So, what are the root causes of Nigeria’s predicament.
Well, the truth is that Nigeria’s problems stem from its birth defect and flawed governance structure. By “birth defect”, I mean the way Nigeria was created or, as Wole Soyinka puts it, “cobbled together”. And by “flawed governance structure”, I refer to the over-centralised politico-governance system that ignores Nigeria’s multi-ethnic nature. Understanding the problems posed by Nigeria’s birth defect and flawed governance structure is really essential to appreciating the need for restructuring the country. So, let’s start by reminding ourselves how Nigeria came to be.
Now, as everyone knows, what later became Nigeria was not a no-man’s land. For centuries, the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Hausa/Fulani and other nationalities owned and lived in their territories almost independent of one another. Then, in the mid-1880s, George Goldie, a British businessman – most British colonies started as commercial entities – came and used the “Maxim guns” to beat the different nationalities into total surrender. Having defeated them, he created their territories into the Northern and Southern protectorates. Goldie ran these protectorates until 1900, when he handed them over to the British government, as all colonial commercial entities eventually were. Fredrick Lugard then took over the two protectorates as the representative of the British government. In 1914, Lugard merged the two protectorates to form one country, and called it Nigeria. Indeed, it was Lugard’s wife, Flora Shaw, who gave the country its name. So, neither the creation of Nigeria nor its name was indigenous; neither resulted from negotiations or explicit agreement by the people.
Now, it’s worth reiterating that the nationalities that make up Nigeria existed, as I said, centuries before Nigeria itself was created, with distinct history, culture, language and a strong sense of national pride. As David Pilling, Africa editor of the Financial Times, once wrote, “Africa’s so-called tribes are better seen as mini-nations, with mutually unintelligible language as distinct as French, English and German”. Each of the nationalities that were cobbled together to form Nigeria could easily have been an independent nation. Note, for instance, that what was known as British India used to include today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka. They are now separate countries. So, if the British had wanted, they could have constituted the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Hausa/Fulani, the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta into independent nations.
But the British decided to keep Nigeria as one country. As a British colonial official once wrote in a British newspaper, the British government wanted to create Nigeria as a regional power. Fair enough. There are many advantages in having Nigeria as one country, including the size, the people, the resources etc. But here’s the rub. If you want to keep different nationalities together in one country, you must make sure they enjoy equal status and feel the fullest autonomy of nationhood within a federal structure, rather than become vassals to a powerful centre. As I told the FT in the interview, “The idea you can have a federal structure with a very powerful centre and weak regions is a non-starter”. Indeed!
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Nigeria’s pre-eminent federalist, who advocated a federal structure for Nigeria, wrote in his book The People’s Republic that every multilingual or multi-national country “must either have a federal constitution … disintegrate or be perennially afflicted with disharmony and instability”. Wasn’t he prescient? Isn’t Nigeria perennially afflicted with disharmony and instability because it refuses to have a truly federal structure? Chief Awolowo said he came to his view after studying the constitutions of virtually all countries in the world (and, of course, you can be sure he did!) and was convinced that only a federal structure was suited to the diverse population of Nigeria. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, offered a similar view a few years ago when he said: “From my over 30 years’ experience of governance in over 50 Commonwealth countries, I believe that, given its history and pluralistic character, a truer federalism is a sine qua non for Nigeria’s achievement of its development potentials and enduring political stability”.
So, why, despite the preponderance of evidence about how a multi-national country should be organised, are Nigerian leaders still showing arrogant antipathy towards political restructuring? President Buhari, whose arrogance on this issue is beyond belief, recently said, patronisingly, that “There are too many people talking lazily about restructuring in Nigeria”. Really? Was he referring to those, like Chief Anyaoku, who understand comparative politics and know that no country with a multinational structure like Nigeria is organised so centrally as Nigeria is? Does President Buhari know a federal state that has an “Exclusive Legislative list”, under which the federal government can do virtually everything? Does he know a federal state where the police iscontrolled centrally or where business people have to go to the federal capital to obtain a licence for virtually everything?
The British themselves knew the dangers of over-centralising Nigeria. They rejected the Macpherson constitution of 1951 because it over-centralised governance in Nigeria, and created the Lyttleton constitution of 1954, which shifted power from the centre to the regions. Indeed, the 1963 constitution devolved even more power to the regions, enabling strong and effective regional governments. Of course, the military came and reversed everything, centralising governance in Nigeria. If the British knew what restructuring Nigeria meant, why is Buhari, as Nigeria’s president, behaving arrogantly and ignorantly on the issue?
In 2015, the then British prime Minister, David Cameron, announced a restructuring or devolution plan in which the nations of the UK would “become more powerful, with wider responsibilities”, adding that “our plans are to create the strongest devolved governments anywhere in the world”. But why? Well, because “we have to bring together the different nations of our United Kingdom”. So, if the UK, which created Nigeria, recognises that radical devolution of powers to the nations is the only way to bring the country together, why is Nigeria ignoring the fact that its stability and unity depend on political restructuring or political settlement thatcreates strong sub-national governments within a federal state?
But, of course, restructuring Nigeria is not just about political stability and unity, it’s also about administrative consolidation (to reduce the cost of governance) and economic efficiency. Who can deny that the multiplicity of government administrative structures in Nigeria drains the country’s limited resources? Can Nigeria really afford an expensive presidential system with a behemothic presidency, more than 500 overlapping federal agencies and resourcing-draining federal legislature? Equally, can Nigeria afford 36 barely solvent states, some technically bankrupt, with each having extensive and expensive administrative structures while borrowing heavily and relying on the federal government for bailouts? Surely, restructuring would rationalise governance in Nigeria.
The logic of economic efficiency, based on notions of economies of scale and competitive federalism, also favour restructuring. Surely, strong and autonomous regions that can exploit economies of scale and their comparative advantages and compete healthily with each other is better than weak and fragmented states. Thus, I told the FT that Nigeria must be divided into “8 – or a maximum of 12 – regional governments” in a competitive federalism.
The truth is that political imperative (stability and unity), administrative efficiency (cost of governance) and economic efficiency make restructuring Nigeria unavoidable. It is indeed a task that must be done!