Re-federalising Nigeria and the Challenge of Innovative Governance -By Tunji Olaopa

Filed under: National Issues |


Recently, the National Institute for Policy ad Strategic Studies (NIPSS) organised a two-day conference on an appropriately timely theme, “Federalism and the Challenges of Dynamic Equilibrium in Nigeria: Towards a National Strategy”, in which I was one of the speakers. It is the intervention that I made at the conference that I will share in this piece. The critical objective of the conference was to facilitate a brainstorming amongst opinion leaders and experts on the need to develop a problem-solving discourse that could eventually facilitate the evolution of “a national strategy for effective response to the current challenges of federalism in Nigeria.” It is certain that we can never have a surfeit of discourses and debates on Nigeria’s lopsided federal arrangement. And this is simply because that is essentially Nigeria’s predicament – a predicament that has prevented the nation from achieving her full postcolonial potentials as the giant of Africa.

The challenge of Nigeria’s federalism goes beyond the mere troubles generated by Nigeria’s federation. The trajectory of the resilience of the federation since independence has, to a great extent, given the lie to the suspicion that perceives Nigeria as a mere geographical expression. In other words, as a conglomerate society, Nigeria seems to have managed the thorny dynamics of what Professor Richard Joseph calls “conglomerate governance”, which has tenaciously survived significant and severe challenges and upheavals, notably the Nigerian Civil War, ethno-national crises and religious conflicts. We have managed, despite the sundry pessimistic geopolitical analyses, to elect a South-South minority personality as a president of Nigeria. Yet, being a federation is a long way from achieving true federalism that has the capacity to wield Nigeria together to being a mere “conglomerate society” (to use Kenneth Post and Michael Vickers’ apt description of Nigeria’s plural predicament).

My interventions at the NIPSS Conference were premised on two critical questions. One: How can the ethnic and sub-ethnic units in Nigeria be mobilised into a stabilised and sustaining national unity through a federal framework? Two: How can Nigeria’s sub-national units, namely, the states and the local governments, interdependently relate in a manner that yields a more unified and prosperous federation? These two questions are not meant to elicit just intellectual scrutiny and debates. They are meant to generate a practical policy framework, in the spirit of the conference objective, which could point towards a rethinking of Nigeria’s federal predicament. One of the dilemmas Nigeria has had to confront is relating our collective outcries on behalf of federalism and the alacrity with which the leadership blocks bold policy initiatives focusing on making our federalism enabling. Policy and politics have always been at loggerhead. But then politics can only save Nigeria if it accedes to significant policies that can help dislodge the vested interests benefiting from the lopsidedness.

Getting Nigeria’s federalism on track to backstop our nascent experiment of democratic governance requires policy focus and strategic dynamism. As a reform-minded public administrator, I am always guided by these two elements in any attempt at redeeming the institutional fabric of the Nigerian state. Federalism is an all-encompassing and fundamental institutional matter that speaks to the institutional imperative arising from the devolution and decentralisation of powers, especially for the sake of national development. This devolution strengthens democratic foundations because it prevents the internal domination of one group by another. The devolution of powers, therefore, constitutes the first element in my five-element policy proposal for re-federalising the Nigerian state that I presented at the NIPSS conference.

Nigeria labours under the federal illusion that there exists a three-tier government structure—federal, state and local. Nothing is farther from the truth. The reality is that the local government areas owe their existence and operational capacity to the existence of the states whose viability are in turn determined by the federal government. This debilitating unitary arrangement undermines the essence of local governance as the essential motor of democratic government. Thus, bottom-up development and grassroots democracy can only thrive if instigated by the devolution of greater freedom and autonomy in power and resource initiatives given to both the states and the local government. Local governance is significant because it takes off from the critical point of local development peculiarities which differentiate one LGA from another. A bland federal template that lumps all local governments and states together does more harm than good to Nigeria’s democratic governance and development efforts.

This leads automatically to the second element of a regional economic corridor that essentially feeds into the imperative of local governance. Regionalism devolves critical autonomies to the federating units in any federation. While the regional arrangement of the First Republic may have been long compromised, I am strongly convinced that the six pragmatically expedient geopolitical zones in Nigeria could serve as the launch pad for instigating an economically vibrant development rivalry that constituted the core of the regionalism of the immediate post-independence period. Nigeria’s present structure of an overburdened centre struggling to carry 36 viable and unviable states does not have the capacity to maximise the significant gains of a genuine fiscal federalism. The re-federalising logic in this case is therefore founded on a simple principle: Political restructuring as a precondition for economic prosperity. In other words, Nigeria needs to leverage on political and economic dimensions for making the regional idea work. The political dimension requires transforming the six geopolitical zones into regions made up of states and local governments. The economic dimension requires leveraging the comparative advantages of each region as the source of development. While agriculture will definitely constitute a developmental common denominator across the region, as a counterpoint to the monoeconomic domination of crude oil, each region can then be allowed to explore and exploit its peculiar economic advantage, especially in mineral resources. In this context, the subsidiarity principle serves a singularly developmental purpose. The federal government is therefore compelled, by this principle, to hands off those matters that the local government can best oversee.

The third element essential for a project of re-federalising Nigeria demands paying attention to Nigeria’s plural or conglomerate status and how that affect its public administration operational functionality. The federal character principle is a brilliant framework that is meant to manage Nigeria’s plural diversity with justice and equity. However, that framework has been allowed to degenerate into a principle that cripples rather than strengthening the Nigerian project of national integration and development. This is because we have traded representativeness for meritocracy in the placement of individuals into critical positions. Representativeness and meritocracy are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can give a nod to the one without undermining the other. This is a critical constant if federalism must turn into a development factor. With a surfeit of representativeness, we end up only damaging the institutional integrity of the Nigerian state by unwittingly promoting ethnic chauvinism, religious jingoism and, of course, corruption!

Everyone agrees that corruption is easily the most devastating of Nigeria’s underdevelopment evils. Its corrosive influence not only devastates institutional capacity, but also vitiates political will to make progress. This is why it becomes imperative that the anti-corruption campaign constitutes the first condition of development. But to follow the logic of federalism to its conclusion, we also need to urgently undermine the centralisation of the anti-corruption strategy. This is because it paradoxically makes the federal government both too powerful but then too weak to adequately fight corruption and unleash development energies. The federal government becomes powerful because the strategy for fighting corruption is centralised in the Federal Ministry of Justice and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). But this centralised strategy immediately reveals the weakest point of the anti-corruption campaign: the multitude of cases concentrated at one point ensures that the campaign will never move forward. We are, therefore, confronted with the imperative of decentralising the anti-corruption laws, regulations and policies in a manner that reposes legal capabilities in states and local government as junctures of justiciable actions. This is the fourth element in re-federalising Nigeria, and it points directly, and as a corollary, to the fifth and last element: the need for a multilevel policing strategy.

Law and order are critical for any development initiative. In spite of our central policing system, Nigeria remains critically under-policed. The politics of the First Republic not only led to the unwholesome abuse of the deployment of regional policing and the inevitable violence that follows, especially with the crisis of the Western region, but it also led to the idea of policing being expunged from the concurrent list of the 1979 Constitution. Unfortunately, this critical constitutional action only signals beheading as the cure for headache. One growing sign of Nigeria’s underdevelopment is its multiple security challenge demonstrated by kidnapping, terrorism and insurgency, armed robbery, and sundry criminal activities, which a central policing strategy has no hope of ever arresting. This is all the more so because some of these security challenges have regional locus, like that of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-Eastern part of Nigeria, and kidnapping in the South-Eastern part, with criminal militancy manifesting in the South-South. Thus, while we have debated the bad points of multilevel policing, I suspect it is high time we began critical interrogating its many crucial advantages.

At the level we are now, it is no longer sufficient to pay lip service to Nigeria’s federal status. We have played that national rhetorical game for far too long. And yet, we have equally put in too much energies and struggles into arriving at Nigeria’s democratic status not to make her development work. Re-federalising the Nigerian state simply implies redeeming the historical mistake that has impeded Nigeria’s national development for too long. I believe strongly that these five elements could serve as the point of departure in terms of policy activism for moving the Nigerian state forward.

Tunji Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email: [email protected], [email protected]