Nigeria Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Image via This Day
THIS DAY NEWSPAPERS
“Restructuring” is all the rage. It has become all things to all segments and a political battering ram in an election season. Unfortunately, very much like Richard Nixon’s campaign catchphrase, “Law and Order”, referred to jocularly in the press as Laura Norder during the American presidential election in 1968, in some areas it has inadvertently acquired a sinister undertone. In 1968, “Law and Order” on the surface sounded innocuous. Who could possibly be against the imposition of “law” and “order” unless of course you are anarchist? Nevertheless, many believed that Nixon was talking in code. Decoded, it actually stood for – “keeping the African – Americans firmly in their place.” Things like this have to be handled with care, analytical rigour and sensitivity.
In a campaign season in which ill-prepared candidates have sadly not presented a coherent alternative perspective on social and economic reconstruction, a nebulous “restructuring” unsurprisingly, has replaced clinical analysis of the key issues. Former vice-president Atiku Abubakar has seized on the buzzword with glee. Glaringly obvious is the former VP’s problem in explaining why he did not seek action on an issue he is now so passionate about earlier in his long political career.
Until his present reboot for another presidential run, Atiku has certainly not been associated with any deep thinking on the issue of the structure of the Nigerian state. In looking for a cause to use as a campaign theme, he makes a faux pas in taking on the current Vice-President Professor Yemi Osinbajo who in words and in deed has a proven track-record on this issue. What is intended to be Atiku’s knock-out punch is the mistaken belief by Atiku that Osinbajo has taken an opportunistic maneuver, a u-turn conveniently because he is now in government. This flies in the face of available evidence much of it verifiable in court decisions. As Attorney- General of Lagos State from 1999-2007, Osinbajo was fortuitously thrust into the heat of a series of legal battles and jurisprudential jousts over the issue of the rights of the federating units and the necessity to operate a real federal structure in Nigeria.
The irony of history here is pronounced. At the time the Lagos State Attorney – General was jousting in the courts on states’ rights, the sitting vice-president, surprise, surprise, was Atiku Abubakar. On the contrary, there is no available evidence of dissent from the sitting vice-president on these issues. On most of the defining issues, only the states of the Niger Delta sided with Lagos. It is on record that Osinbajo as Attorney General of Lagos State went to court to ascertain the fact that every state should control, to a certain extent, its own resources. This eventually led to the landmark ruling that the oil-producing states should continue to get 13% derivation.
In Attorney General of Abia State & 2 Ors v Attorney General of the Federation and 33 Ors, VP Osinbajo (as Attorney General of Lagos State) challenged the constitutionality of the Local Government Revenue Monitoring Act in the Supreme Court contending that it is a major negation of true federalism. As third plaintiff in the case, Lagos State filed the most comprehensive objections to the act. Osinbajo had argued that the National Assembly could not exercise oversight functions over local government administration in the country.
The act which provided for direct disbursement of local government allocations from the federal account and monitoring of the process by the federal government, amounted to undue interference with the powers of the states over local governments as provided by Section 7 (and other sections) of the 1999 Constitution. He argued too that it was also unconstitutional for the National Assembly to impose a duty on the state as – the act sought to do -, in matters within the legislative competence of the state legislature. The other 33 states supported the arguments. The Supreme Court agreed with his position and ruled in favour of Lagos State. This case has been pivotal to maintaining the powers of states over local governments till in line with the principles of true federalism till today.
In Attorney General of Lagos State v Attorney General of the Federation & 35 Ors (Urban Planning case), he challenged the provisions of the Urban Planning Decree which had been passed by the military and adopted by the PDP government of President Olusegun Obasanjo (with Atiku as VP). The law had purported to confer powers of urban and regional planning for the whole country on the federal government. Based on the decree, the federal government was issuing building plan approvals to people in Lagos State and other parts of the country, in complete disregard of the physical planning laws and arrangements of the states.
The facts are incontrovertible that vice-president Osinbajo has had a distinguished track record of fighting for true federalist cause. What he should not be stampeded into doing is to jump into a vacuous bandwagon using the buzzword ‘restructuring’ to obscure the decisive realities that the Nigerian federation faces. Apart from devolution of authority to the states and the local governments, the critical issue is not a nebulous, ill-defined ‘restructuring’, but a programme of social and economic reconstruction of the glaring inequalities in our country.
Much of the sources of conflicts can be traced to social inequalities and the limitations of opportunities. With the advent of the preposterously termed Structural Adjustment Programme in 1985, Nigeria has largely had what the Latin American economist Andre Gunder Frank described as ‘growth without development’. Ephemeral ‘growth’ figures have not translated into the realities of higher living standards and a fight back against the underlying causes of structured poverty. Cyclical commodities boom have come and gone without policies which have been of benefit to the majority and not to just a privileged view. In contradistinction, the government of Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil took 40 million people out of poverty in eight years through the sort of social intervention programmes which vice-president Osinbajo is associated with.
As the vice-president himself in response to Atiku has pointed out, “Good governance involves, inter alia, transparency and prudence in public finance. It involves social justice, investing in the poor, and jobs for young people; which explains our school feeding programme, providing a meal a day to over nine million public school children in 25 states as of today. Our NPower is now employing 500,000 graduates; our TraderMoni that will be giving microcredit to two million petty traders; our Conditional Cash Transfers giving monthly grants to over 400,000 of the poorest in Nigeria. The plan is to cover a million households.”
There are a myriad of other social intervention programmes such as free school meals and the anchor borrowing programme for farmers which are a demonstrable attempt to convert millions of subsistence farmers into commercial farmers.
The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci decades ago very astutely pointed out that the central ethos of politics is to shift the territory of debate decisively in favour of one’s own position. For the first time in decades, the territory of the discourse is being shifted to focus on government policies that will benefit the majority. It is early days and there will be hitches and hiccups. Nevertheless, what is shaping up as a decisive break from a dismal past should be supported. What will not be helpful to the prospects of the hitherto neglected majority are attempts by the beneficiaries of underserved and unsustainable privileges to obscure attempts at building a more inclusive, socially just society and lessening inequalities by hiding behind the smokescreen of ill-defined buzzwords and catch-phrases. The central issue of our time is widening social injustice. Personally, I am glad that at least there is now a re-direction of policies to face it.