NIGERIA: Time To Offload Our Unitary Burden

This year’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day celebration a couple of months ago triggered discussions of sad memories of our tortuous journey through military incursion into politics, which consequences were also felt in the just concluded general elections.

Specifically, at press time, a committee was still sitting on alleged undemocratic role the armed forces (and police) played in the 2019 elections. This is a sad commentary that this newspaper cannot ignore.

More important, the army remembrance day also marks the incursion of the military into politics and signalled the death of democratic institutions and the organic laws of the country once anchored on a functional federalism. Similarly, probing the role of soldiers in a critical election 59 years after independence is also saddening.

In the same vein, 53 years after military incursion into the political arena, the country has remained in the wilderness in search of the right constitutional framework.

Ostensibly, the country retains the appellation of a federal republic but this is merely in name as the country is still being run as a unitary state, despite democratic institutions. This is unacceptable!

In other words, the country is run on ‘command and obey’ code of military ethics. Indeed, the component units have been run as military garrisons. The military, which hitherto dominated the polity introduced and domesticated this obnoxious method of governance in a highly plural and multi-ethnic society.

First was the promulgation of Decree No 1, which dissolved and modified the constitution and followed by Decree No. 34 of 1966, which centralised administration structures and abolished the federal regional arrangement well thought out by the founding fathers and prevalent at the time.

The decree states inter alia that Nigeria ceases to be a federation but a republic comprising all the component units of the federation.

In spite of extant opposition to centralisation of the country by some of the federating regions, the so-called victors of the civil war saw the new dispensation as a convenient tool for the hegemonic control of the country thereby introducing buccaneering and whimsical control of the institutions of state from which the country is yet to recover.

And so, subsequent efforts at constitutional engineering witnessed deliberate erosion of the federal essentiality of the Nigerian state by means of atomisation of existing regions through capricious state creation and overweighed exclusive legislative list.

Disingenuously, those whose hegemonic interests are served by the prevalent unitary structures have argued that a unitary system is the elixir to the country’s unity; that the plurality of the country can only engender multiple problems; unnecessary duplications of the institutions of state; and uneven development. It is further argued that a unitary system allows for quick intervention in matters of national interest by the central government. Besides, they argued that a federal system engenders legal differentiation and jurisdictional dispute.

Nevertheless, the cost of reversal of the federal structure of the country invalidates the stream of arguments for unitarism. The net effect of the actuality of the unitary contraption is the destruction of regional autonomy in terms of fiscal autonomy and independent development initiative.

Consequently, the country slipped into the nature of a rentier state, dependent on a mono-product—oil—which accrual is the source of funding for the non-descript states passed as units of the federation and which has fuelled external consumption pattern, large-scale corruption, debt overhang and inter- and intra ethnic conflicts as well as partisan pacification of ethnic groups on a genocidal scale.

Sadly, the development initiative of hitherto flourishing regions has been held down – since that darkness of 1966.

The irresistible logic of federalism cannot be overemphasised. The call for restructuring is about restoration of the Nigerian state to a federal constitution or state structure.

Nicholas Schmitt once defined federalism as a system of polity building in which the benefits of statehood such as liberty and autonomy are harnessed in a constitutional federal arrangement.

In the inimitable words of Kenneth Wheare, it is a power sharing process such that both the central and regional governments are compartmentalised but simultaneously coordinate and independent. Central to Wheare’s definition is the fiscal autonomy of the component units of a federal system. Remove this principle and you will not have a federal system but a unitary patchwork.

Indeed, in a federation, the national and state governments are split into their own spheres and each is supreme in its respective sphere.

Clearly, the power of the central government are enumerated often with a limited set of constitutional functions while the component units, namely, state and federal are sovereign within their sphere of jurisdiction.

Besides, the rationale for federalism is unambiguous: if a country is unilingual or bilingual or multilingual and has divergent nationalities or a combination of all these cultural accoutrements, such a country must be organised along: one, linguistic, and two, on the dual basis of linguistic and nationality.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo did emphasise the point that, “of all the cultural equipment of a people, language is the most formidable, the most irrepressible, and the most resistant to diffusion, not to talk of fusion. It lies at the base of human divisions and divergences.”

This is why thinkers on the federal idea say that focus must be on the forces of economic, socio-political and cultural that have made inevitable federalism as an organising principle of polity building.

The Nigerian case is quite instructive that we can only ignore it to the detriment of the country’s wellbeing. The peoples are not only diverse but territorially segregated in ways in which each of the component nationalities can be defined by geographical location and linguistic distinction.

Therefore, to organise them on a unitary basis as the military has done, and equally reified in the so-called democratic constitutions, is a recipe for chaos. The continuous agitation for restructuring of the polity to unleash development in the component parts of the federation is only intelligible in this regard.

It is to be noted that if the country must move forward and avoid a slip towards a predictable dislocation, it is about time that its minders offloaded the unitary burden. It is not suitable for the country; and a step backward to the pre-1966 period might begin the restoration process of a federation badly caricatured. It is better late than never.

Apparently recalcitrant authorities in Abuja and other peripheries of the centre should consider the expediency of offloading the unitary burden as a significant preface to rebuilding the nation’s broken walls.