Former president, Ibrahim Babangida, recently added his voice to a plethora of others striving to calm Nigeria’s stormy political waters. He decried the “ongoing altercations and vituperations” in the country, which he feared could lead to war, and reminded Nigerians of the miserable conditions of war-ravaged African countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Rwanda.
Babangida also lent his weight to the many calls for the political restructuring of the Nigerian federation. While admitting that restructuring and devolution of powers would not provide all the answers, he explained that they would help to reposition the mindset of Nigerians to generate new ideas and initiatives that would make the Nigerian union worthwhile. He suggested the devolution of more powers to the states while the Federal Government should be vested with the responsibility to oversee our “foreign policy, defence, and the economy.”
Babangida is probably the first former head of state from the northern part of Nigeria to support restructuring at a time the government and its supporters seem dead-set against it. Many other prominent northerners, including the former Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, have spoken in favour of restructuring, but the overwhelming majority of the notables in the ruling party and in the government seem scared of what it would portend for their hold on power.
The former president also noted that the idea of having federal roads in towns and cities has become outdated and the country should urgently tinker with its constitution to accommodate new thoughts in this regard. Nigerians, he added, should not be scared of talking about restructuring because the discussion implies that they are agreed on their unity in diversity and the need to strengthen the nation’s political structure “to make the union more functional.” In furtherance of the devolution of powers, he also called for the control of the police by state governments, a concept that has been controversial owing to the ignoble role such decentralized police authorities played in the First Republic, when they were turned into political tools by politicians.
It is good that Babangida has added his voice to those of several other Nigerian leaders have earlier spoken in the same vein. His views, however, command considerable attention because he has played a critical role in the nation’s political development. He annuled the June 12, 1993 presidential election widely believed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola, and which, in his own words, was free and fair. Babangida presided over the affairs of Nigeria for eight years (1985-1993) and it may be assumed that he has now seen the light or is speaking with the benefit of hindsight.
The basic argument for restructuring has been constant: that Nigeria performs better when it is organised as a federal political structure. The federating units come together and assign certain functions which they cannot perform individually to the central government. However, since 1966 when the military turned Nigeria into a unitary state through the command and control pyramidal structure, the country has been beset by problems which did not exist pre-1966. The Federal Exclusive legislative list has a sweeping 68 items whereas it should, ideally, include no more than 10 items, including external affairs, defence and macroeconomics. Because the centre has too much power, the struggle for its control has become a do-or-die affair, leading to corruption, nepotism, fraud, waste, abuse and administrative dysfunction.
There is no doubt that the structure leads to centripetal forces which unleash a great deal of instability and distort logical decision-making in government. The results are there for all to see – unviable states, distorted and illogical revenue allocation systems, policemen trying to investigate crimes in regions they are ignorant of the local language and culture, the need for the state government to seek permission to build or repair a road in Lagos or any other state.
The Federal Government is ignoring the calls for restructuring at the country’s peril. The quickest way to start is to get serious with the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference which was a unanimous decision of 492 eminent representatives of the Nigerian people. The continuing disregard of that document which is a compendium of 600 draft proposals in 22 volumes gives the impression that the government has no intention of making needed changes.
No one is saying that the recommendations of the conference are perfect. National debates can, indeed, improve them. But, they incorporate the outcome of all the previous national conferences since the1978 and the 1985 Constituent Assembly and the 1994 and 2005 Constitutional Conferences. The recommendations of the 2014 edition should, therefore, come handy as a template to facilitate the resolution of the country’s contentious issues. It is, indeed, a good place for the government to begin a search for answers to our national questions.