Written by Atiku Abubakar
An Agenda for the National Conference by Atiku Abubakar
I had publicly expressed reservations about the National Conference that has just been inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan, especially regarding its timing and whether the government has the capacity to manage the conference as well as the impending general election. The conference ought to have been convoked a long time ago so as to give enough time for the agreed outcomes of its deliberations to have the force of law, especially as some may require the arduous process of amending our constitution. It is also a conference that may inflame passions at a time of growing tensions in the country over the 2015 general election, governance and generalised insecurity in the land. The government’s goal and the legal framework of the conference are also not clear to me. However, I want to assume that a new and improved Nigeria is the goal.
Delegates have been selected and are in attendance. Deliberations are taking place and a report or reports will be prepared and submitted, which, at the very least, will become part of the public record.
Renewing Our Federalism
At the core of the calls for a National Conference of one type or the other has been the desire to renew our federalism, to make it work. Some have called it the national question; others call it restructuring. Obviously our federation is not working well. It has not worked well for a long time; indeed it is broken, and therefore, needs fixing.
Each delegate or delegation will have expectations of the outcomes of the conference, which may be different from those of others. But if Nigeria and Nigerians are placed first (and that is a big “if”), the outcome will be useful. If, however, as some suspect, the conference is intended to sidestep the constitutional requirement for general election in 2015 for some other arranged transitional contraption, then the fate of similar conferences in our recent memory will befall this one as well. Nigerians, including the conference delegates, must defend our constitution and our democracy.
It is critical to achieve some kind of national consensus on key issues that will help this country and our people. To me, the agenda should be limited to a few critical issues that need to be urgently addressed in order for us to adequately confront such development challenges as economic diversification, youth employment, security, education, and infrastructure. Therefore, the conference, in my view, should focus on the structure of relations among the tiers of government (local, state and federal) that would best ensure the optimal solution to these development challenges and deepening and securing our democracy. And many of the issues around this would not even require constitutional amendment.
Let us not waste time asking for what nobody will give. There are things we can easily agree on if only we are willing to listen to each other. And there is a need to start with what we can agree on and deal with more controversial issues later.
What We Can Agree On
A major reason why Nigeria is not working is the way we have structured our country and governance, especially since the emergence of military rule in 1966. We can agree that the federal government is too big, too rich, and too strong relative to the federating states. We can agree that there is too much centralisation of resources and concentration of power at the federal level.
Nigerians would not have been calling for a National Conference, sovereign or not, if we were meeting our people’s basic needs, including food, shelter, education, security, energy, and transportation infrastructure, if we were putting the country on the right path and every segment of the country feels equitably treated. And we would unlikely see people describing as a mistake the amalgamation of the northern and southern parts of Nigeria 100 years ago.
Therefore, many of our challenges are governance issues which can be tackled by a serious government committed to uplifting our people. To me then, the National Conference should design a political and governmental system that empowers local authorities and gives them greater autonomy to address peculiar local issues, and enhances accountability, while contributing to the general good of the country. Such a robust federal system would reduce the tensions that are built into our current over-centralised system. While the relationships among Nigeria’s ethnic and religious groups are important, the National Conference cannot expect to create a federating structure that coheres with our ethnic identities. Those identities are not only numerous but cross-cutting as well.
Although our regional arrangement in the First Republic was not perfect – and did have its tensions – it certainly made for more local autonomy and better quality governance than what we have today. Our current structure, which can best be described as “unitary federalism” (a contradiction in terms), was created under our military regimes in the context of rising ethnic tensions and violence, an unfortunate civil war and the sudden rise in revenues from crude oil rents.
As more power was concentrated in the centre, the federal government appropriated more resources and expanded its responsibilities. All of these were done in the name of promoting national unity. And the process was relatively easy as the unified command structure of the military ensured little opposition. Military governors/administrators in the states could not defend greater autonomy for their states against their commanders from the nation’s capital: they were merely on military posting.
Therefore, fixing Nigeria, to me, will require reversing decades of over-centralisation of power and over-concentration of resources at the centre. That is, it requires federal retreat or a degree of retrenchment of the federal government. The features will include:
i. Fiscal federalism (which allows the component states to keep their resources but allows the federal government taxing powers)
ii. Devolution of powers to states and local governments (e.g. state and local control of education, health, roads and other infrastructure)
iii. State and local police to augment the federal police (with clearly defined roles and jurisdictions)
iv. Independence of key democratic institutions, security and anti-corruption agencies.
We need to eschew emotions and knee-jerk reactions and examine these issues critically. As is to be expected, interests have been formed and entrenched so that calls for devolution and decentralisation (mostly from the south) have been met with very strident opposition (mostly from the north). It is as though the over-centralisation of power and concentration of resources in the federal government benefit the north more than the south. Nothing can be further from the truth. In my view, and the evidence is there for all to see, the excessive dominance of the federal government has been detrimental to the development aspirations of all sections of this country. It is precisely why we now rely almost exclusively on oil revenues, which come mainly from a small section of the country. It is what has, by extension, killed our agriculture, local control of schools, and promoted corruption that has eroded the quality of our public and even private institutions.
I come from the north, and I can tell you that government’s reliance on oil revenues has virtually destroyed the economy of the north, and no part of Nigeria has been left unaffected. I readily acknowledge the role of oil revenues in expanding our infrastructure such as schools, roads and irrigation facilities. However, were oil prices to suddenly drop significantly, the country, every part of the country, will be in even more serious trouble than we are today.
Yet this is a country which, while I was growing up, had federating units that were able to send their children to school, build roads, universities, ports, factories, farm settlements, etc. I had all my formal education in northern Nigeria and it was the Native Authority and regional government that funded it, even paid me to go to school. Three of the first generation universities, UNN, ABU and OAU were built by the then regional governments.
We must stop assuming that anyone calling for the restructuring of our federation is working for the breakup of the country. And the notion that over-centralisation and an excessively powerful centre is equivalent to national unity is false. If anything, it has made our unity more fragile and our government more unstable. We must renegotiate our union in order to make it stronger. Greater autonomy, power and resources for states and local authorities will unleash our people’s creative energies and spur more development. It will help with improving security. It will help give the federating units and the local governments greater freedom and flexibility to address local issues, priorities and peculiarities. It will promote healthy rivalries among the federating units and local authorities. It will help make us richer and stronger as a nation.
In addition to devolution of powers from the centre, the conference should also examine the wisdom of retaining the current 36-state structure. In place of the current structure of states that are too weak and hardly viable, we should revisit Dr Alex Ekwueme’s proposal during the 1994-95 Constitutional Conference for the country to adopt the six geo-political zones as the federating units. I acknowledge that I was one of those who opposed Ekwueme’s proposal at the time in the mistaken belief that he wanted to break up the country. Let us consider restructuring our federation on the basis of the current six geo-political zones as regions and the states as provinces.
Let us look at our First Republic Constitution for guidance. It is a constitution that resulted from hard bargaining among our leaders then, leaders whom no one would accuse of lacking in patriotism or developmental zeal. Let us look at our history, for example the history of our education management and social provisioning in the First Republic and compare that with the current situation. Let us also look at other working federations around the world such as the United States, Canada, and India. What we will learn from them is that states or provinces and local municipalities have greater autonomy over their resources, development choices, and wage structures, among other things. There is no reason for the governor of Lagos State to earn the same salary as the Governor of Kogi State or for a teacher in Mubi to earn the same salary as the one in Abuja or Port Harcourt, given the widely varying costs of living, productivity and revenue generating capacities across the country.
In a nutshell, the national conference should produce proposals that enable us have a smaller, leaner federal government with reduced responsibilities, a tax-focused revenue base, and a true federal system with greater autonomy for the component states and localities to control their revenues and their development.
Let me also add that even if, through the work of the national conference, we are able to restructure and renew our federalism, Nigerians have a responsibility to elect leaders who will keep faith with the new reality and hold those leaders accountable. Obviously, that requires genuine electoral reform largely along the lines recommended by the Justice Mohammed Uwais Committee on electoral reform.
I wish the distinguished delegates fruitful deliberations.
•Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president, Federal Republic of Nigeria. One time presidental candidate and a member of All Progressives Congress (APC), who maybe nursing a presidential ambition.