By Adagbo Onoja
With the debate on restructuring, for instance, becoming a shouting match between the protagonists and the antagonists, it is an interesting time to interview Professor Jonah Isawa Elaigwu, one of the few scholars and practitioners of federalism left in Nigeria. He was the Director-General of the defunct National Council on Inter-Governmental Relations set up under the General Ibrahim Babangida regime in 1992. Added to that is the prestige of a doctorate in Political Science from Stanford University. So, when he talks federalism, he combines the force of theory and the empirical vigour of practice, including the practice of his plumage with Professor Ali Mazrui, the late Kenyan Political Scientist. If nothing else, the duo occupies their own castle in the linguistic constitution of Africa in the global space.
In fact, the headquarters of the Jos based Institute of Governance and Social Research that he now runs is named Ali Mazrui House. Ali Mazrui House is a small but seemingly interesting place. For one, everyone there appears to take saying hello to a visitor seriously. As one sat waiting for the appointment with Elaigwu on Monday, August 15th, 2016, no staff passed who failed to say hi to someone they certainly hadn’t seen around the place anytime recently. Everyone, right from the professor himself down, also seem to be time conscious. Even the receptionist manifested that. When he appeared to read me as probably anxious, he reminded me that my appointment was 12 noon. I told him I was absolutely relaxed. Before long, the summons upstairs came, even before it was noon. A small wait, then the small talks to fill the gaps since we last interacted and the interview began, with a reminder that I had an hour.
But I cheated the Prof. When the interview was over, I showed him the recorder. It was reading an hour, 18 minutes and 34 seconds. We laughed over that. I have listened to Professor Elaigwu on many platforms before. I have also been with him in the same office before. Listening to this interview, however, one could say that the older he gets, the more vigorous he is, both in delivery and the substance. He is obviously discharging from the cumulative experiences of having taught across the world, been a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee under the Babangida regime, resource person on federalism across Africa and Asia, consultant to several United Nations agencies and the author of over two dozen books, similar number of book chapters and academic essays.
The interview is split into two. Part one can be crudely said to deal with Nigeria while part two deals with the global order and Africa’s place in it. Enjoy.
To what extent would you disagree with someone who says Nigeria is too conflicted for comfort? We have always had conflict but it has never been this congested. I mean the country is confronting herdsmen conflict with farmers, two insurgencies, separatist agitations, a corrosive restructuring debate and corruption has gone wild. So, some people think we are like going over the cliff eventually.
Well, I don’t know if a country can be said to be too conflicted for comfort because the amount of conflict at any point in time is as a result of the circumstances which you find yourself as a country. It is very difficult to find any country today, any country of substance today that doesn’t have security concerns in these days. Cyber security issues are emerging, computers are hacked, information leaked and so on. In the past, you used to know who your enemies are. September 11th, 2001 in the US shows that your enemies could be invisible. One thing we do know is that security is the first order of the state. In other words, without security, nothing else works. And so when a country is beset by a number of security challenges, what it does is to try to reduce the intensity as well as the incidences of insecurity so that other forms of development can go on. Today, you find France has been beset with many security issues. France, Belgium, Germany, Britain is on the sideline but even in Europe, you see what is happening.
In Nigeria, we do have, yes, Boko Haram which was totally avoidable but very badly handled. A small issue that could have been maintained below visible threshold was allowed to gestate to the very high realm. Under Yar’Adua government, Boko Haram could have been attenuated. Jonathan, (immediate past Nigerian president) in his lethargy allowed Boko Haram to expand and become very visible. Boko Haram had no land beyond personal holdings. Suddenly, Boko Haram went on to control many local governments. Something was wrong, particularly because Jonathan government got its back to the wall where it was a victim of two pressures. One, anything that happened in an opposition state was interpreted as a design to make sure he didn’t come back as the president which was a psychological dimension. So, the Chibok girls! For three weeks, he was still doubting if they were not lying to him. Within 48 hours, they could have caught up with this people and dealt with them. They wasted that amount of time. And secondly, he said, look, these northerners, particularly from the north-east, want to mess me up. And that attitude allowed these people to go on and rampage.
Niger Delta has been there for years even though there is a distinction between what I call demonstrable opportunism and genuine concern for development. I mean when you want your area developed, it makes sense to fight for it but the way you fight for it is not to collect government dollars, stay at Hilton and Sheraton, blowing the money enjoying yourself. Meanwhile, your people are still in the quagmire they were. The poverty continued. Decay in infrastructures continued but you were enjoying yourself in Abuja. Another government comes and takes that off and you react. Are you reacting violently because you have genuine desire to deal with the poverty of your people or are you reacting violently because of what you have lost? I hope you get the distinction I am making. So, you are not sure if this is demonstrable opportunism or genuine desire to help remove poverty in the area. It’s so clear from what is happening recently that, at times, they cut their nose to spite their faces. It is, for a Nigerian like me, annoying to find Niger Delta Avengers proud of spilling oil and polluting the environment when the one in Ogoniland is going to take over ten years to clean up. Yet, you are proud that you are spilling oil, destroying the water, destroying the land, believing that you are making Nigeria ungovernable for Buhari. Buhari is not the issue. Why do you punish somebody else by punishing yourself doubly? Because all those place have to be cleaned off eventually. And it would take money, time and energy to do all of that.
In addition, you do have the conflict between the herdsmen and farmers which is a potential source of a civil war. When farmers, all the way from Bauchi down to Enugu, find they cannot go to farm alone anymore, finds that their children, wives are killed, raped, maimed, it became very difficult for them to cope. So, what are they doing? They resort to organising in the village. Take Nsukka for an example and it is like that all over the country. They buy small arms, organize vigilantes to accompany their people to the farms. Now, when you have a situation in which, at every point in the country, you have pockets of people arming themselves, you have the potential for a civil war because, number one, government should have the monopoly of the instruments of warfare. Then everyone else is supposed to be disarmed except those licensed to carry arms. But here is a situation in which everyone is armed, including the herdsmen who visibly carry AK 47 and nobody arrests them. So, that is an element of insecurity that needs to be dealt with. The worst thing about it is that it is countrywide and it is spreading.
So, in a lot of ways, yes, yes, yes, Nigeria is besieged by a number of problematic issues of security, including the crisis of confidence in government which has been there for awhile, the gap between the leader and the led, the governors and the governed, kidnapping, armed robbery and blatant criminality. I found it very interesting relating all these to federalism. I criticised Yar’Adua when he announced the amnesty. I said look, once you announced amnesty the way you did and how you were pursuing it, you were virtually opening a Pandora box. Was it surprising, therefore, that, under Jonathan, some political leaders from Abia did say that we should have amnesty for kidnappers too just like was done for Niger Delta militants. For Boko Haram, you have heard that too. In the long run, we end up having amnesty for murderers, armed robbers and the likes. There is a federalisation of criminality in terms of federal character in amnesty. So, you make it that, as one group dies, another group rises up because it hopes to get amnesty at the end of the day, isn’t it it?
So, we do have all these problems but has it actually come to a point where there are too many things to deal with in the security sector for Nigeria to move ahead? No, I don’t think so. Many countries have even worse than what we are confronting and they still moved on. It depends on how we handle it all.
You have mentioned civil war as a plausible scenario relating to where one of the security challenges could lead. Are these then still the normal stresses of nation building or something strange?
One of the problems of state building, if you want to make a distinction between nation building and state building, is that, in terms of state building, you are talking of penetration of the periphery by the centre – bringing every peripheral units – local governments, districts and what have you under the centre. Isn’t it? So, there you say you are building a state. Nation building is slightly more complex. It is not building a state. It is not as straightforward as state building. It is more complex because it has two dimensions. One, the fact that a central government epitomises a new political community. In other words, you accept that the government of Nigeria is the symbol of a new political community called Nigeria. That is on the vertical level. On the horizontal level, it is the ability not to transfer identity as the Western literature has been talking about but the ability of each group to partialize its identity to the extent that it includes others. That is, widen your horizon to include others as you share the bitter and the sweet of the experiences of that political community. So, the psychological sense of sharing the bitter and the sweet is important.
Nation building is like a salad bowl. In the salad bowel, you have the tomatoes, carrot, eggs, you have cucumber, you have all kinds of things but you don’t have any in a whole piece. Tomatoes are partialized. Carrots are partialized. Eggs are partialized. Okay! Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to fit into the salad bowl. But, because they are partialized, others can also occupy space. In other words, you partialize your identity in order to accommodate others. Now, it is the bitter and sweet experiences you had, whether the civil war and the lessons learnt from it that, in the Nigerian case, we don’t seem to be learning. Rather, we seem to be exhorting it. And, in other cases, the sweet experiences form the salad cream that binds the pieces in the salad bowl. Over time, these pieces, as they understand themselves, become finer and finer. No country has overcome the problem of unity which is infinite. No country. In Africa, the most homogenous state, Somalia, with a single cultural group is, today, a failed state whereas the multinational states such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and all others are still states, no matter what problems they have. So, nation building itself is a torturous process, a long process, a process which goes through co-existence, compromises made among groups, establishing mechanism for conflict resolution. And moving on. And gradually, gradually, creating a society in which one understands the other.
So, in the case of Niger Delta, is this a matter of federalism in terms of, quote and unquote, resource control? My attitude is that resource control may be important but if we remember the history of Nigeria, people should always remember that one part of the country would depend on other parts of the country and resources from one part embellishes the development of resources from other parts. I remember that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were exploring oil, Oloibri and all that, it is the money from the north and the west, (groundnuts, hides and skin, tin mining, cocoa) that were actually used for the exploration in Oloibiri. After sometime, oil will cease to be as consequential an element in our fiscal federalism. And something else may come up. Oil would have been used for the exploration of such a new item and yet, every other Nigerian would benefit from it. So, I think, usually what happens in a federation like ours, there are others in the context of fiscal federalism, you would normally think of a formula. We did have formula, even colonial rule, and in 1964, in 1969 which the Gowon administration implemented through the backyard after all the trouble. And then the military, by the nature of their own governance, centralised the process. Gradually, we came to 1979 and then 1999 and the 13% derivation. In a lot of ways, the principle of fiscal federalism should not be one that says I take everything because it is produced from my place. It should be the one that says, yes, some percentage be allocated to my place in order to ensure that issues of development and endowment are taken care of while others are shared.
In the case of Boko Haram, we had an intra-religious crisis in which one group claimed that orthodox Islam is not the correct version of the religion. You do have a situation in which federalism provides cross cutting environment for dealing with these matters. In other words, instead of making it a national issue, the state governments can deal with it. Because the Constitution says there should be no state religion. So, the Federal Government hasn’t got much to do there. The states that are predominantly Islamic can deal with it and some of them have done that. And this is why the issue of Sharia and Customary courts came up to enable states that are predominantly Islamic to have courts where Muslims can sort out such. Obasanjo experienced the resurgence of Sharia when Zamfara went beyond where such courts dealt with personal inheritance to criminal issues in Sharia. Again, after all the violence in some places, for example, Kaduna, it became a state matter. Kaduna reacted and said, look, we are not all Muslims here. Makarfi, (Ahmed Makarfi, the state governor at the time) made sure both were protected. And that federal solution was helpful.
The essence of federalism is to manage conflicts among contending forces in a heterogeneous setting. So, whether Niger Delta or Boko Haram or herdsmen, federalism can help. When Nigerian leaders pretend not to know what to do, it is their self interest they have become prisoners of. Very often, they forget that a leader comes once. A leader who does the right thing lays the foundation for the right thing in term two. The hypocrisy of Nigerian leaders can be very nauseating. There is so much religiosity without faith, so much churcheanity without Christianity, so much Mosqueanity without Islam. And you find that, suddenly, suddenly, from 1980 to now, we have been fighting and quarrelling over identity that didn’t exist. I was in a provincial secondary and we had Muslims and Christians, nobody cared whether you were a Christian or a Muslim. When it was time for your prayers, you go. Many Christians did Islamic Religious Studies just as many Muslims took Christian Religious Studies and passed with flying colors. An example is Danladi Yakubu, the former Deputy-Governor of Plateau State who is in Katsina now or Muazu who was governor of Bauchi State. He did very well in Christian Religious Studies. Those bridges those days were based on the understanding that it didn’t matter which religion you belonged to. Nobody fought over religion. Suddenly, in the 1980s, they were now fighting over uniforms. Uniforms! In Osun State today, uniform is still a problem. A symbolism that shouldn’t matter is deliberately raised to the political level of saliency it doesn’t deserve by politicians for their own selfish interests. You can see how nauseating it can be. And many of these people are not religious, just using religion. So, again, I do not see the security challenges you have mentioned as totally strange to Nigeria or beyond federalism. In a lot of ways, federalism provides a mechanism for us to reduce the intensity of conflicts, find solutions to conflicts, make what is not solvable at any point in time such that we can cope with them and at the same time transcend others that we can transcend. In other words, it can cope with contentions in a heterogeneous entity.
In other words, you would dismiss any claim of peculiarly or something out of joint in the case of nation building in Nigeria. But there is an observable resistance to the state which is mostly articulated in such paradigms as the mistake of 1914, how the different ethnic groups were not consulted and did not negotiate the terms of co-existence and so on.
There is nothing peculiar. Nigerians are a terrible people when it comes to this matter. First of all, they said Nigeria is very diversified. Isn’t that so? But India has over a thousand religious and ethnic groups. It is about 1.3 billion people while we are just 170 millions. Where is the peculiarity in this diversity that we cannot manage it? India is trying to take advantage of its diversity, turn whatever is there that is negative into positive, thinking of the complementarity of culture, creating avenues for forging a new Indian nation out of many Indias. The United States fought a civil war, learnt from it and have built on it. And you know the level of patriotism of the average American. Britain with all the wars with Scotland, the Welsh, Irish still formed the United Kingdom. Most countries in continental Europe, particularly Germany, Austria and a whole lot of them, were they not the result of wars? Which country on earth was created by God and put on the ground and told, okay, you are now a special country, you wouldn’t have any problems?
There is nothing like any mistake of 1914. All countries are artificial. The boundaries are artificial but it is left to you to make it natural. I read things about the civil war and I just laugh. People talk about the civil war from their own ethnic standpoint. I thought that the essence of all these is that, collectively, we have all made mistakes and it is time to learn from it. Instead of that, you hear people talk of mistake of 1914. What of Britain? Has it not gone beyond the mistakes of yester years? What of Austria, Germany, old USSR, look at Ukraine and Crimea? So, I laugh when people take themselves too seriously, wasting their time about the mistake of 1914. Can’t you see how other countries are solving their own? Isn’t the challenge before us to build a state from a crude state we inherited and make a contribution instead of wallowing in the past. Take cognisance of the past, critically learn from it, contribute constructively to the present and lay the foundations for tomorrow for our children. We are not doing that. We are busy talking about the mistake of 1914.
But were you to divide Nigeria along ethnic lines today, there will be more mistakes. There will be mistakes again. Niger Delta Avengers are talking of Niger Delta Republic. If you create Niger Delta Republic today, it will become another Southern Sudan. Instead of taking advantage that Nigeria is big and highly recognized, instead of identifying commonalities, identifying areas of differences and respecting them, be fair, be just, be accommodating of one another, we are concentrating on mistakes. Who made the mistake? Would pre-colonial Nigeria have come together as Nigeria if not the mistake they are talking about? The way to go is to note that we have a destiny or we make a mess of ourselves always complaining instead of learning from our past.
Would Nigeria have been better than it is now if there had been no military intervention in Nigerian politics?
That is speculation. With hindsight, one could see the arguments. One school of thought says Nigeria would have been better if the military had stayed away. That is if each of the old regions took care of its problems effectively and if they had learnt from their mistakes and solved the problems in their own way without military intervention. The other school of thought says, look, going by the way we were going, if the military hadn’t come in 1966, (forget the pattern of intervention which created its own problems), Nigeria might have broken up into many countries. For me, I see the military as the only symbol of the Nigerian nation. As children marching on Empire Day in those days, particularly the 1st of October every year, we saw the military as the symbol of the Nigerian nation. And even now, when there are ethnic, religious crises, the average person runs to the barrack because they know that the soldiers would accommodate them irrespective of their religious or ethnic identity. And this happen everywhere in Nigeria where you have barracks. For me, the military has been part of Nigeria’s problem but also part of Nigeria’s solution. Yes, the military came in at the height of Nigeria’s crises among political parties. And this is the way I have my own analysis. You may not like it or agree with it. By independence, we had two institutions. One was the institution of political party which was embedded in the democratic structure. The political party inherited from Westminster was a mechanism for interest aggregation, interest articulation and provision of alternative governance. The political party, therefore, was very crucial in the Westminster model. But what did we do? We inherited the parties without inheriting the values that underwrote it. We forgot or we refused to inherit the values. The members of the political parties in the British House of Commons would argue, finish and go out and have coffee together. And come back and argue again. Because they know politics is a game. Politics is a game. We didn’t have those values.
Secondly, if you are member of a political party, it is like being a member of a football team. You accommodate one another. In Nigeria, if you are a member of a political party, you saw the other person in the other party not as an opponent but as an enemy. In the House of Commons, they are opponents, not enemies and that is why they can go and drink tea together, talk about Britain and come back to argue the more. On issues of national interest, you make sure you are united. Well, what happened in the case of Nigeria? We were used in the traditional setting to government by consensus. There is nothing like institutionalised opposition. There is no other institution in Africa that deals with the opposition as institutionalised body. So, when we inherited the political party as such, we saw it as institutionalised enemy. Your president, Obasanjo said this is a do or die affair. You remember. Later, he amended it and said this is total war. I am illustrating to you the perspective of the politician here. And, of course, people who go into political parties here see the parties as instrument of their convenience because there is nothing ideological about them. The only thing ideological about it is the politics of starvation. This is a country where people go into politics to make a career rather than have a career, make their money and then go into politics to serve and make a name for themselves. So, when you see party A man talking and taking tea with party B man, you shout and allege anti-party activity against him. But they have the right to interact because they are not enemies, merely opponents. So, there is a gap, a gap between institutional transfer and the values which underwrite that. With that gap, crisis was inevitable.
But, on the other hand, you had the military. The military had started in Nigeria as the Forty Thieves, the Royal Niger Constabulary, the West Africa Frontier Force in 1958, the Nigerian Queen’s Own Regiment before formally becoming the Nigerian Army. Everald, (the last British General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army), left in 1965. By 1966, there was a coup. So, what’s happening? The typical Western liberal model of civil-military relations is one in which the military is supposed to be apolitical, subject to the supremacy of the civilians who are their masters and give them instructions on what to do on behalf of the people. In no time, we created a military or inherited a military institution without the adequate values of apolitical military subject to civilian supremacy. Again, another crisis. So, the military took over from the politicians, thinking it was easy. The military came in as political physicians but ended up as political patients requiring even greater dosages of the medicinal prescription they had come in to serve to politicians. So, while the military saved us and kept us together during the civil war, they remained as a problem. A military tiger on whose back we rode for many years had found it difficult to dismantle. Creating a new civil-military relations in which the military would go back to the barracks and play the role of a professional military is still an ongoing project in Nigeria. We are still going through that problem. That was one of the reasons why Jonathan could not even control the military. And one of the reasons why military institutions were used for corruption. And yet one of the reasons why the war against terrorism was messed up. So, in a lot of ways, the military has been useful, kept us together as a country but it has also created many new problems. Corruption predated them because Nzeogwu, (first coup leader in Nigeria) mentioned corruption in his broadcast but it has gotten worse with the military. Virtually every problem the military came in as political physicians to cure has become even worse under their rule. So, is it that the military created these problems or is it the Nigerian factor? Because when the military are not in the office, they use civilians as their proxies. Since 1999, what we have found is that the military has turned itself into a commercial class and also imploded into the political arena as relevant actors in a democratic setting. A military man was head of state for two terms. A military man was president of the Senate for two terms. Many military men are in the Senate today. Some of them have been governors under civilian rule. So, I am more bent toward the feeling that the problem is a Nigerian problem, not whether you are military or civilian. Because we have found that whether you are in khaki uniform or you are in Agbada, what has happened is that corruption has gone increased. So, is the military the Nigerian problem? Yes, up to a point but beyond a point, no. The political class is its own enemy.