Barrister Manni Ochugboju, an Attorney at Ochugboju & Co, Abuja returns to the debate on ‘True Federalism’ in Nigeria in this piece. He is reachable via email@example.com
In Nigeria, peculiar words not found in the English Dictionary are in common usage. That includes phrases that are misconceived, or that means something in Nigeria that is nonsensical to other English speakers. Words, like “Toyota Jeep, Mercedes Benz Jeep” instead of SUV, “go-slow” instead of traffic jam, “opportuned”, instead of opportune, “trafficator” instead of turn signal or indicator, “disvirgin”, “plumpy”, “installmentally”, “cross carpeting”, “all protocols observed”, etc. are fabrications by less educated folks, that are now in common parlance. The increasingly popular usage of wrong terminologies or words does not negate the fact that they are grammatically erroneous or illogical. The same goes for the utterly misconceived usage of the term “true federalism”. There is theoretically no such concept as “true federalism”. It is simply politically illiterate so to say.
Thomas Sankara once opined, that, “a soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal”. In this era of fledgling democracy, the same can be said of politicians, tribal jingoists, even TV pundits, masquerading as patriots, who are so poorly politically educated. They are mostly potential criminals. The pervasive use of a fallacious terminology like “true federalism” is a pathology of ideological and political illiteracy. It is a dangerous propaganda, which needs to be interrogated, discredited and discontinued.
Arising from the failure of leadership and governmental institutions in Nigeria is another divisionary wild goose chase, agitating for a so called, “true federalism” by a section of the ruling class. They are not clamouring for good governance, equitable distribution of resources and sustainable development. They are not fighting for the working class, peasants, youths or women who are generally marginalized. It is the content of governance not its form or structure that’s imperative. Squabbling over structure to the neglect of a qualitative, equitable, content is strategically unwise. It is politics of opportunism, self seeking and backward. We are poignantly reminded of Alexander Pope’s saying, “for forms of government, let fools contest”.
It is equally unwise to devise a dubious bogyman like ‘false federalism’ and make it the mantra of the agitation. If there is a “true federalism” then the one that’s not “true” must be “false federalism”. Where on earth is the Eldorado of “true federalism” to be found? It does not exist anywhere on earth, except in the twisted mendacious fantasy of some misguided hatchet men.
The coining of the dubious term ‘true federalism’ is particularly misleading, insidious and defamatory. It implies, a binary logic, of one federal practice being “true” and the other “false”. Maliciously, what is being suggested is that other federal systems of government are “true” while the Nigerian system is “false”. Turning our system into a bogyman that must be attacked or reconstructed, on the basis of a fallacious theory. That type of propaganda is vulgarized self effacing and shamelessly Machiavellian.
What are the tenets of this vulgarised theory of federalism that is only heard of in Nigeria? The principal precept of this bogus theory is to either deliberately or illiterately conflate confederalism for federalism. It is conceded that in common parlance, the terms may be used interchangeably. However, in a doctrinaire sense, there is a significant distinction between the two. This distinction is largely only at the abstract theoretical realm. In practice, nearly all the countries referred to as a confederation are in actuality a federation. It is therefore a lack of clarity of thought, to confuse the two concepts. In Nigeria that devious conflation is a cheap political potshot to delegitimize our federal system of government. Even the confederalism that they theoretically refer to instead of federalism, can hardly be said to exist anywhere on earth. Which country can any one identify, that conforms practically to the definition of a confederation?
What in theory is a confederation? It is a union of sovereign states, with a unity of purpose, such as defence, trade relations, a common currency and a central government. The operative word there is “sovereign states”. Which “sovereign states” did we ever have within the territory now called Nigeria, around 1860?
Thus, a confederation is a form of inter-governmental association, like the European Union, or the African Union, whereby states interact or cooperate on the basis of sovereign autonomy. There is no stretching of the definition of the feudal kingdoms that existed in Nigeria before 1860, whether of the Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo formations that can be categorised as a sovereign state. Even if they were, an imperial external force intervened in their history, to merge them into one country. That is not a unique phenomenon to Nigeria, it happened world wide, as most nation states have emerged by conquest, or the dictatorship of the ruling class.
In theory, the nature of the relationship among confederating states varies widely. Similarly, the relationship between the member states, the central government, and the distribution of powers among them is vastly variable. Confederations are usually loose, detachable, or weak units, resembling international organisations like the European Union, African Union or ECOWAS while other federations are said to be of a tight, firmer formation, like a federal system. Does Nigeria require a loose, weak, fragile, fledgling structure? That is what confederation is in essence. So when you hear idle political jobbers agitating for “true federalism” what they mean is confederation.
Implicit in a confederation, is the presumption, that since the confederating states retain their sovereignty, they have a right of secession. True Federalism agitators are no different from the Don Quixote Nnamdi Kalu type of “Biafran” agitators. The only difference between them is, with the “Biafran” you know where you stand with them. They are brazen about their grossly exaggerated claim of being marginalized, and impoverished. While the so called “true federalism” agitator is a sneaky, slimy, reptilian subversive hiding behind a mask.
Despite the terminology, even countries like the Swiss Confederation, the Kingdom of Belgium and the Confederation of Canada, are in practice actually a federation. There is no modern government (in this century) that can fit that description today. It is therefore a pernicious fallacy, for regional jingoists to go advocating a system of government that is non existent and dishonestly presenting it as the “true federalism”.
Another tenet of the ‘true federalists” in Nigeria is a romanticised nostalgia for the old abandoned regional system of government. Regionalism in Nigeria is defective, dead and buried. Stop trying to resurrect its ghost. It was not the roaring success we are being made to believe. Those of us from the Northern Region have to date not recovered from the lopsided allocation of resources that excluded and pauperized the minorities therein. Not to talk of the terror that the regional police inflicted upon those with different political creed.
So those agitating for state police should go read their history of our regional police very well. I heard an old Comrade of mine, a member of the Federal House of Assembly from Taraba State on TV the other day saying we should forget the disgraceful abuse of police power in the then Northern region. Well, he is a member of the PDP, and now a petty bourgeois elite. It is all so convenient for him to tell us to forget the horrid chronicle of tyrannical abuse of powers in the Northern region. It is rather tongue in cheek of him as he has also totally forgotten the gross abuses of police powers by his party the PDP of just yesterday that is still so painfully raw. We have not successfully reformed the one Nigerian Police service we have, you want us to balkanised them into thirty six state forces, to reproduce and multiply the problems? Counterproductive and absurd institutional failure on stilts is what state police portends.
The selective amnesia of the ‘true federalism” advocates is dubious. The relative socio-economic and educational policy success of the Action Group under the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo seems to becloud the odious fierce political crisis that engulfed that region. Was the Western Region such a glorious success indeed? Go ask the supporters of Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, and the members of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) who were butchered or roasted en mass like barbecue. So much so that a state of emergency had to be declared in the region, on 29th of May, 1962. By 9th August, 1963, the Mid West region had to be hastily carved out of the old Western region by a popular referendum. By 11th September 1963, at the height of Action Group’s reign and the extreme political crisis that trailed it, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was imprisoned along with about ten others, including late Chief Anthony Enahoro, and Chief Lateef Jakande. That is barely two years and ten months of Nigeria gaining independence.
Concealed in the romanticism of the regionalists is the usual denial of the relentlessly rumbling minority agitation for their own states. Minority fears of domination by the three powerful regions were expressed way back at the 1953 Constitutional Conference. At the 1957 Constitutional Conference the British Colonial Secretary appointed a Commission headed by Henry Willinks to ascertain the facts of the fears of minorities in Nigeria and propose means to allay those fears. Those safeguards were to be included in the Constitution, including the case for the creation of states.
The demand of the minorities for creation of states as a way of dismantling the colonial, tribal based regions was adapted by the 1958 Willinks Commission Report. The Willinks Report was not given consideration during the Constitutional Conference of 1960, which also worked out the final arrangements for the independence of Nigeria, and the ratification of the resolution of the House of Assembly of Southern Cameroons to cease to be part of Nigeria from 1st October, 1960 after a Plebiscite in which the Northern Cameroons opted to stay in Nigeria while the Southern Cameroon opted to be part of the Republic of Cameroon. It is alleged that the Southern Cameroon opted to leave Nigeria, largely due to their marginalization and maltreatment in the Eastern Region. Further, that, Igbo leaders schemed to reduce the minorities in the region by encouraging Southern Cameroon to vote for exit.
Before 1960, about 9 to 15 demands for creation of new states were expressed including a Yoruba Central State, Ondo Central and Mid-West from the Western Region. Cross River-Ogoja-Rivers States from the Eastern Region and Middle Belt State from the Northern Region. No other State apart from the Mid-West Region was created before the collapse of the First Republic in January 1966. The political crisis in the various regions, the suffocation of minorities, tribal jingoism, corruption, and the inherent defects of regionalism provided the ammunition for the military overthrow of that government. Was regionalism a success? The acute defects of regionalism, and the defacto confederalism of the 1960s facilitated the slippery slope for the secessionist, devastating civil war and genocide that bedevilled our beloved country.
It is therefore against the background of the colossal failure of regionalism or “confederalism” in Nigeria, that the succeeding Military Regimes, embarked on dismantling that moribund structure, by creating more states. River States, Bayela State, Cross River State, and Akwa Ibom states, were created from the old Eastern Region. When you add the other five states, Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi, and Imo States, we have nine states created from the old Eastern Region alone. But you will hardly hear a “Biafran” agitator admitting that fact. They would rather say, they are marginalised, and need one more state for the purposes of “equity”. That’s reinforcing inequality, from a minority’s standpoint. There are minorities like the amiable people of Idoma, spread over three states, Benue State, Cross River and Nasarawa State, who don’t have even one state. And they have not started taking up arms yet over their repugnant and unconscionable marginalization.
Least we forget, state creation, was hailed as one of the glittering achievements of the General Yakubu Gowon’s regime. Hence it was emulated by subsequent military regimes. They infused a centralised, command and control system of federalism, that some critics unfairly label a unitary system of government. But that is an aspect of the historical character of our evolving federalism. It was a positive corrective reaction to the weak confederation of the regions that lead to civil war. Its centralised, military birth – mark cannot be wished away. Undemocratic as it may seem today, it is that strong arm approach that has unified Nigeria beyond the “geographical expression” it was to our political leaders in the last century. Nigeria is now a gigantic prosperous African nation state, slowly but surely asserting its manifest destiny in the comity of nations. It is a geographical expression no more. That “geographical expression” cliché was once used by Count Klemens von Metternich in 1814 to describe the various constituent principalities of Italy at its early stage. Italy has since evolved into a powerful, proud nation. Like Italy, Nigeria will surely transcend the nascent stage of nationhood into a global nuclear black power.
Still on federalism, the principles introduced by the military regimes in Nigeria, which entailed a distribution of power between the central government and the constituent states is consistent with federalism practiced world wide. There are no theoretically perfect examples of any system of government anywhere. Each system contains elements of the other. And that does not make it less valid. It is an affirmation of the exceptionality of each and every country, which our “true federalists” distort.
Federalism is not a one seize fits all principles for any and every nation. Each country on earth has its relatively unique historical, socio-economic, and political co-relation of forces that drive and shape its system of government at a given time. For most federal states today, they evolved from confederalism, loose, weak, semi autonomous sovereign states, to amalgamate into a firmer, united country such as the United States of America, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. At the root of our federalism is a unitary system of government inherited from our colonial and military regimes. That does not invalidate the constitutional fact of Nigeria being a form of federal state. It is, therefore, an error of judgment to say that to be “true federalism” Nigeria ought to be like Canada or United States or function in a particular way.
A further underpinning of the ‘true federalism’ fallacy is the hypocrisy of the debate over ‘fiscal federalism”. When one agitator was asked if by “fiscal federalism” the oil producing states can be allowed to keep a substantial proceed or all of their oil earnings, he said no. Fiscal Federalism is all sound and fury signifying nothing. It is our contention that part of the famous “fiscal federalism”, that is the tax and spend capacity of the central government being advocated for in Nigeria is actually not exclusive to the federating states but largely that of the central government in a federation. So, what’s all that hue and cry about?
Lastly, the ‘true federalism’ narrative propagates a falsified picture of Nigerian Constitution. They cry wolf over an exclusive list that is supposedly “too large” and a concurrent list of functions between the central and state governments that is minimal. Which is incorrect! They even go to the extreme to melodramatise their perceived “marginalisation”. And to suggest that, if you are not “agitating” with them, then you must be a beneficiary of what they call a bad political structure of Nigeria. But this dubious clamour against marginalization is founded on a deep-seated parochial tripodal paradigm, of a Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba narrative which continues to exclude and discriminate against the minorities.
There are over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups in Nigeria. Majority of those crying wolf over marginalization cannot name thirty or forty of those ethnic groups. A vast number of Nigerians, the aggregation of the minorities, millions of us, far more in number than those clamouring over perceived ‘marginalisation”, are excluded from the general ‘restructuring’ discuss. Those Nigerians like me are referred to merely in generic terms, like North Central, North East, South South. We are basically invisible, as the names of our ethnic groups are hardly known or mentioned in the daily interactions, negotiations, contestations, and socio-economic exchange. We are the “unknown Nigerians”. Yet in numerical terms, combined, we are larger than each of the three big ethnic groups.
The silencing of the so called, minority ethnic groups in Nigeria, the attempt to continually exclude them from the allocation of resources and power is also part of the fallacy of true federalism. Maybe we need to initiate an uprising too, to assert our “marginalization” is worst than thou. When we see folks from the three big ethnic groups shedding crocodile tears over perceived marginalization in Nigeria, we the minorities marvel at, the hypocrisy, tribal jingoism, crass insensitivity, and lack of nationalist spirit. It is even more laughable when they complain to us, totally oblivious of the aggravated historical plight of the minorities. Fancy an Igbo person or a Yoruba person complaining to an Idoma person about marginalization, it’s an outrageous mockery, isn’t it? What do they know about marginalization? Any minority group will gladly trade place for the privileged status of the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa in Nigeria.
In sum, every nation on earth has its distinct cultural, economical and political mode of development. Federalism in Canada is different from Federalism in USA, ditto for Switzerland and Nigeria. No two nations have an identical historical formation of their system of governance. If a tinge of unitary approach was at the base of the history of our federalism, it does not by any means make it false. It is our authentic political legacy.
As the foregoing has canvassed, the socio-economic and political impetus for state creation in Nigeria predated the Military regimes. It goes way back into the colonial era, arising from the ethnic minorities justifiable fears of oppression in the various regions. The military regimes rightly sought to redress that problem. And the federalism we are bequeathed with is largely as a consequence thereof. How we redesign that foundation, build upon it, or seek to improve its weaknesses in this era is our challenge or mission. It is a legitimate aspiration towards a more perfect union. Denigrating that legacy, with a false theory will not bring about a generally acceptable option. Using false propaganda to archive a political objective will give rise to an equally false untenable outcome.
Blatantly telling lies, misconstruing facts, resorting to historical revisionism, shameless opportunism, election rigging, and of course looting the treasury is a character of our present stage of political development. It is an expression of the primitive form of capital accumulation, that’s the prevailing mode of production. It is therefore also another typically Nigerian idiosyncrasy to hear folks saying, our political parties have no ideology. Has PDP no ideology? Really? But surely it is not pursuing Pan Africanism, anti-imperialism, welfarism or Socialism, is it? Inchoate, inarticulate, or vulgarized as it maybe, no political activity, no political party, or a politician, in Nigeria is devoid of a driving ideology, or a pathology thereof. True Federalism has its ethnocentric wellspring, it is a false propaganda, primitive and regressive.
True Federalism is a fallacious theoretical construct, like other illogical phrases and illiterate grammar, which permeates and pollute the Nigerian linguistic environment. It is a festering disinformation being peddled to distract the rest of us from the perennial failure of leadership, poverty of vision, and sterility of ideas.