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Nigeria’s broken federal system

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By Prof. Mike Ikhariale 

It is no longer academic to say that the political experiment which ultimately led to the assemblage of Nigeria as a single independent sovereign State in 1960 has not gone as projected. It is becoming clear that ‘Project Nigeria’ which began in earnest with the arbitrary amalgamation of previously separate colonial territories in 1914 has not fully materialised if the original goal was to create a new political entity with a common national identity out of the diverse and variegated native territories that existed before the colonialists arrived. 

It would however not be correct to say that there has been no progress in the process of evolving some semblance of nationhood from the complex mosaic that was ambitiously styled as the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is just that things have not been seamless as expected despite the enormous material and human resources available. It could momentarily be said that the nation’s elevator has fallen to the ground and the only option is to either rot away or find a way up again. Following the steady decline over the years, Nigeria has finally arrived at a decisive crossroads: a possible calamitous dissolution or a timeous reversal and rejoining the universal race for progress now characterised by an ever-expanding global prosperity and political stability. Whereas the hallmark of a successful political State is the wellbeing and security of her citizens, Nigerians on the contrary are experiencing communal misery occasioned by bad leadership.

It is a sad testimonial to the mismanagement of this country that citizens of the federation are no longer sure if the federalism that we operate is for the benefit of all or just a few in view of the degenerative trend in the quality of governance and its negative impact on them, a situation which has escalated in the last few years. The rising perception of mutual incompatibility amongst various Nigerian groups is amply validated by the seemly unwillingness of the government to accept the fundamental responsibility of managing a polyglot like Nigeria and the imperative of consciously uniting the diverse nationalities through continuous integrative policies. 

From a constitutional point of view, the leadership of Nigeria has been presented with a governing template which, if minimally complied with, would have effectively led to an integrational governance with a happy and contented citizenry. The reality so far, is that those who are privileged to ascend unto leadership positions have stubbornly disregarded these constitutional prescriptions, customary administrative ethos and common sense required for a health federal polity. 

For example, the present administration has been widely criticised for pursuing antediluvian and nepotist policies in utter disregard of the subsisting constitutional directives regarding federal character, inclusiveness and social justice. That the government has not convincingly handled the collapsing economy and the insecurity enveloping the land with the requisite sincerity and seriousness which they deserve is indicative of a serious governance aberration because the security and welfare of the citizens ought to be the primary obligation of government; any government deficient on those scores has constitutionally forfeited its mandate to remain in office.

There is however the real possibility that Nigeria could still be saved if certain things are taken care of with the seriousness that they deserve. The fundamental nature of our Republic is that it is a complex collection of nationalities and peoples who have been presented with an existential fait accompli to device workable modalities for living together harmoniously within the existing world order as a progressive and healthy sovereign entity. 

It is my belief that the moment this country gets an enterprising leader who truly understands that his office is not for promoting only the interest of his nativity, faith and cronies but strictly one for patriotic and balanced ministration to the whole nation, there will certainly be a reversal of fortunes. It is simply a matter of action and reaction. Whoever must lead this diverse country out of the present political and economic wilderness must be prepared to run an open and inclusive government that brings every citizen on board, irrespective of their political and religious leanings. Nigerians will enthusiastically follow a credible and honest leader who demonstrably believes in the Rule of Law, social justice, fairness and accountability.

Unfortunately, this has not been our experience. Alhaji Abubakar Balewa was the pioneer Prime Minister, he could not liberate himself from the sectional grip of the Northern People’s Congress, NPC, whereas a more cosmopolitan (a Lee Kuan Yew-like) outlook would have altered the nation’s trajectory. This bigoted disposition was amply “normalised” by his contemporaries, Chief Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe were evidently anxious to be seen as regional champions. The consequence of their provincial dispositions at a time when the larger Nigerian nation-building effort ought to be their primary focus is the fledging nature of Nigeria’s unity today.

They unwittingly set the stage for the lingering doubt that Nigerian citizens harbour today about the survival of their country. Matters went worse when the military forced themselves into power in 1966 under General Ironsi. As it turned out, Ironsi did not quite understand the fundamentals of the Nigerian State. He was misled into seeing the problems as that of “undue regionalism” whereupon he proceeded to “eliminate” the regions by dissolving the federation via Decree 34, the fundamental condition on which the diverse peoples of Nigeria came together. 

The Decree gutted the foundations of the Nigerian State, composed basically of diverse nationalities under an integrative federal arrangement which duly recognised and respected the peculiarities of the various peoples of Nigeria. The General forgot that even though we pride ourselves as “Nigerians”, we are all still intrinsically linked with our various ethnic roots. 

So, when people bemoan the fate of federalism today, they’re actually confronting the ghost of the “Unification Decree” which has provided an unwritten template for operating a unitary form of government in a supposed federation; a tactless move during an ephemeral moment of misguided triumphalism has produced a monster that has made nonsense of Nigeria’s federalism. Rectifying the structural damage has become Nigeria’s Achilles Heels ever since, a veritable lesson for those who are currently undermining whatever remains in the federal principle. 

All those aberrations could be remedied any moment Nigeria finds a leadership that would not seek to exploit negative precedents from our constitutional history but that believes that the future must be re-engineered with greater vigor and focus on nation-building and then proceeds to establish a genuine Government of National Unity encompassing every segment of the country. Next, he must be both physically and mentally capable of discharging his assignments as President and faithfully accountable to all; his stewardship must be demonstrably pragmatic, deeply philosophical and ideologically established. Sadly, this combination of leadership virtues has been missing in Nigeria thus opening the political field to interlopers, jesters and corruption-propelled ‘State Capturing’ tycoons. 

Leadership has so far been an unbroken relay of incompetence, corruption and unabashed disdain for legitimate nation-building assignments. The only attributes that seem common to all are those founded in mischiefs and insufficient understanding of the basic nature of the country that they seek to govern. That is why most Nigerians find it difficult to accept that there are indeed that many “heroes” in our national history. Otherwise, they might actually be calling us out to be worshipping fake gods and charlatans. 

The resuscitation of Nigeria, if it will ever happen, shall have no place for those who participated, in whatever capacity, in undermining the country’s federalism and, by implication, her destiny. The country needs a clean break from the present ineffectual political order in terms of personnel, structure and system for there to be any meaningful and sustainable revival/resurrection. 

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