Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami stirred controversy last week following his unsolicited, infamous and despotic comment directed at everyone, advocating the reorganisation of the current federal configuration. The Attorney-General, who is regarded as the chief law officer of the country, would not tolerate or entertain any discussion about the restructuring of Nigeria. And the manner he expressed his views, including the words he used, have marked him out as a public intimidator rather than a defender of the public interests.
In light of the enormity of issues that need to be addressed nationwide, it was odd to hear Malami last week suggest with a note of finality or irrevocability that people crusading for the reorganisation of the present federal structure should stop wasting their time because no amount of vigorous campaigning would achieve that purpose.
The Attorney-General’s position is bizarre because, even as he expressed opposition to calls for restructuring, he acknowledged that reorganisations and reconfigurations of national systems were standard practice across the world. If that was the case, why was the Attorney-General inflexible that such a reorganisation would take place in Nigeria? He said his opposition was based on the idea that Nigerians wanted the country to be restructured in one session. That is not exactly correct.
Malami, who spoke at a conference on “Federalism and challenges of dynamic equilibrium in Nigeria: Towards a National Strategy”, which was arranged by the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in Abuja, also said that massive reforms in the magnitude being proposed for Nigerians were not good for the country. He said: “Change is a gradual exercise, which must be democratic and subjected to legislative and administrative processes as provided by law. We must use democratic means to reform our federal system. We need to recognise that both federalism and democracy are mechanisms for managing diversity.”
It is hypocritical to hear Malami talk about democracy and legislative frameworks and yet he remained opposed to the idea of reforming the federal structure. This is a case of speaking with a forked tongue. No one advocating the reorganisation of the country has said that they will not observe democratic processes and principles or constitutional requirements. Malami spoke as though advocates of restructuring are determined to achieve their objectives without national dialogue, without legislative agreement, and without compromise.
Obviously, Malami as the chief law officer does not believe the citizens have a right under our constitution to freely express their views, even if the views are at odds with the government’s position on a topic or subject of public debate.
Malami is wrong. Nigeria is a democracy and not a dictatorship. The Attorney-General does not have the right to determine topics on which citizens are free to express themselves. He cannot declare dead and futile a matter that has caused so much angst among the citizens. Someone has argued rightfully that a restructured Nigeria will serve us all better than a disorganised Nigeria.
If the government continues to suppress people’s desire for restructuring or people’s demand for freedom of expression, the government would have laid the foundation for a revolution, sooner or later.
In the past few weeks, there has been a rise in the tempo of calls for the restructuring of the country. The clamours have come not only from ordinary people but also from high profile former state officials, including those who had served the nation at high levels. The calls have also come not only from those agitating for the creation of Biafra but also from people who are dissatisfied with the present lopsided structure of our federal system of government.
Clamours for restructuring therefore must be seen against the background of agitations over those issues that need to be resolved or sorted out, in the context of the people’s desire to operate in a level playing field in which every ethnic nationality must be recognised, respected, treated as equal partner in the federation and accorded its fair share of national resources and infrastructure.
The kind of restructuring that many people have called for will touch on any one or a combination of the following – political, economic, and ethnic inequalities, including resource sharing formula, infrastructure distribution, federal character strengths and drawbacks, crumbling education system, corruption in the judiciary, the rights of every Nigerian to reside and work or do business in any other part of the country, the rampant destruction of farmlands and people’s lives by Fulani herdsmen, who operate freely while the Federal Government looks away, concentration of power at the federal level, inadequacies of the existing local government system, and so on.
Currently, we live in a federation of unequal partners, unequal ethnic nationalities, unequal religious denominations and unequal states. It is a federation in which some regions constitute the industrious monkeys that work tirelessly while other regions are happy to serve as the baboons that eat off the sweat and hard work of the hardworking regions. To put it straight in a local expression, it is an unfair situation in which monkey de work and baboon de chop.
We live in a so-called federation that comprises regions that make unequal contributions to our national coffers. It is a partnership in which some regions see themselves as divinely ordained to produce national leaders. Emboldened by the misconception and arrogance that they must receive preferential treatment, people in one region believe that when it comes to sharing national revenue, their region must always get the lion’s share even though their region produces nothing that earns significant foreign exchange.
The current structure comprises regions that believe that national population census must be manipulated to their advantage. These and more injustices constitute the underlying reasons restructuring the country is more critical now than ever before. If the north, south, east, and west cannot be treated equally, if some regions believe and are accorded privileged treatment in federal appointments in total disregard for the Federal Character Principle, then there is no basis for anyone to sing the meaningless mantra that we are a nation of equal citizens.
It is time we ended the charade that pops up when leaders preach equality but practise inequality, when political leaders talk about fairness but find good reasons to justify unfair treatment of people in other regions, or when leaders moralise about the rule of law but do nothing when lawbreakers in a certain part of the country operate with impunity and destroy farms and means of livelihoods of people in other parts of the country. The hypocrisy cannot continue under the present arrangement.
The essence of restructuring the federation is to end these glaring double standards and to correct wrongs that have persisted for decades.
History is always on the side of the people. You can only look at what happened in Arab North Africa in 2011 to realise that nothing is impossible. For over four decades, Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, ruled with maximum authority. In 2011, the kingdom that he superintended for himself and his family imploded. Everything tumbled down. Gaddafi was hunted down, captured and tortured like a petty criminal. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, who was in office for more than three decades was toppled. A man whose authority could not be challenged when he was in power was treated like a big time crook and arraigned before the courts. In Tunisia, where the revolution actually started, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who held power and engineered several landslide election victories for himself, was overwhelmed by popular demonstrations. He fled into exile. But that did not stop the courts from trying and convicting him and his wife. They were jailed for 35 years.
In all three countries, the revolution was triggered by government corruption, social injustice and inequalities, grinding poverty, unemployment and political repression. We have elements of all these in Nigeria. In a remarkable speech he delivered at a regional meeting, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, said: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages are injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness, and public disaffection with the ruling elite.” Do I need to say more?
Let me end by drawing on an instructive and widely cited phrase: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.” That expression is directed at Malami and other officials of state who may be impervious to public agitations for reorganisation.