Dr. Olisa Agbakoba is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. He spoke recently with newsmen on some salient issues including restructuring of the country and the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB amongst others. EFE AGHALOKPE covered the session and brings the excerpts:
What is your stand on the clamour for restructuring of Nigeria?
Nigeria is in pieces; we need to find a way to come out of the problem, unfortunately the issue of restructuring lies with the South leaders. The Southern leaders had failed to articulate what they mean by restructuring clearly. The Nigerian experiment is not working. We all know that we need new answers and these answers had been sought since the time of former military president Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida in his national conference, the late Gen Sani Abacha, former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, they all did national conferences yet the problem exists.
How do we get out of it?
One of the problems in the issue is the reluctance of the North to be on board on restructuring and the failure of the Southern leaders; by this, I mean the ethnic leaders, such as Afenifere, National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, Ohanaeze, etc. They had failed to understand that the reluctance of the North needs to be addressed because in order to carry along the issue, everybody must agree, everybody must be part of the deal. The South is more resourceful than the North, so the North thinks if there is fiscal federalism the table of distribution will turn. They are natural fears, and I am shocked that our Southern leaders don’t see the need to reach out to the North. The other shock is the way the President (Muhammadu Buhari) is handling the issue. He had not been engaged in the issue of restructuring while he came back from his medical leave. He announced that he will allow the National Council of States and the National Assembly to lead the process; that I think is a mistake. The President is the leader of Nigeria and the reason we have this issue is simply because he had not taken direct control. Everywhere is just scattered, Southern leaders are there having series of meetings, they don’t engage the North in any meeting to discuss way forward. It’s obvious that Mr. President is not interested in restructuring and my advice for President as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and executive officer of Nigeria should initiate the restructuring project.
What is the missing link?
The first missing link is about what is on the table if you restructure Nigeria in the narrow sense, the danger of transferring from the center (federal government) to the regions or the states. The inefficiency in the system today lies in the fact that you cannot restructure unless you begin to dismantle big government. The big government needs to go. I make this point because we cannot continue with 80percent of our resources consumed by 3percent of the population, mostly civil servants. It just can’t work so if we don’t deal with these problems and we take it to the regions or the states then the same problem will persist. Take an instance power sector; the minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola is jumping around the whole place trying to fix the problem of power without success, he is doing what he should not do; he has no business going into operational side of power. That is the role of the private sector. His role is to make policy, execute it and regulate it then it will unleash tremendous amount of the kind of money we have never seen in the private sector. When that begins to happen infrastructures get fixed. Every day, we hear billions of Naira from the government, yet nothing is happening.
There are certain fundamental things that must be done for restructuring to work and that is why it is important we widen the scope of the debate and bring on board some of these essential points that I am making. In fiscal federalism two or more suggestions which if we don’t take into account will result in the kind of challenges that we saw in confab of 2014. One way to assuage all Nigerians about fiscal federalism is for the federal government to demarcate on shore hydro carbon (oil and gas) to be left to the states and off shore to the Federal government. If that is put on the table we can have a debate about it. But I prefer to have a situation in which there is complete distribution of resources to the states and regions; nobody knows what the debate will consist of which is another big issue. There is so much confusion about what the issue of fiscal federalism should be. The North is used to having big government and therefore slow to accept transformation. The South is used to enterprise and is ready to accommodate shrinking of government. If we don’t say this honestly we are going nowhere,
How do we marry the two?
First if we don’t put it on the table of discussion and arrive at an agreement we are going nowhere. It is important that in discussing restructuring we understand what restructuring is all about. Restructuring must have a National outlook and every constituent part of Nigeria must be carried along. In the South, there is a consensus on restructuring, in the North, there is reluctance. The South needs to reach out to the North and allay the fears. The process of restructuring should involve give and take or else it will fail.
What does that mean?
The restructure project must be taken to the people; it’s not enough to have meetings and issue endless press statements. We should not assume that a new Constitution will change Nigeria, we should not assume a restructuring will mean a changed Nigeria, a restructured Nigeria could mean a worse Nigeria, a more fragile Nigeria, which is the fear that the President has. The President should initiate the restructuring project by providing context as iidentified above. Restructuring can be implemented by executive and administrative orders.
Scope of restructuring
Restructuring is not only about political arrangement namely new regions; it is also about economic and administrative governance. Prof. Ben Nwabueze provided a context for political restructuring; he said “Federalism in Nigeria is dictated by the existence of a territorially large community comprising various geographically segregated ethnic groups divided by wide differences of religion, language culture or economic. Its purpose is to enable each group, free from interference or control by the other groups to govern itself in matters of internal concern leaving matters of common concern, not overwhelming extensive in their range to be managed under a central government constituted in such a manner as to ensure it is not dominated by one group or a combination of them and above all to ensure justice, fairness and equity in the management of matters of common concern ” . But political restructuring is not enough otherwise the inefficiency at the Centre will simply be transffered to the new regions. Restructuring must address other connecting issues.
In order to succeed, the restructuring process must identify potential challenges. One of the issue is the contentious problem of fiscal federalism; how a balance can be created between the federal and federating units in revenue sharing. I suggest that the federal government should allow states take control over natural resources in their domain. Another vital challenge is to develop a blue print on restructuring to be used to engage Nigerians; at this stage, it is not clear what restructuring is all about. We need to recognize the difference between devolution of powers and redistribution of powers. The relevant concept for restructuring is redistribution and not devolution of powers. The contexts are mixed up. Redistribution is when power is rearranged between the federal and regional government. Devolution relates to powers given up by the unitary government to the regions. Nigeria is a federation and not a unitary state.
The IPOB matter has not helped. It’s a massive distraction, unfortunately distracting, and people are saying I hope the restructuring is not a break up of Nigeria. So in discussing restructuring we have to contend with another big issue: IPOB. IPOB was mishandled by the federal government. The issue has two sides; the legal side and the political side. On the political side, the federal government mishandled IPOB because there was proscription by the governors of the South East. The President has no power to proscribe. I don’t like to criticize any judge till I verify but I believe the judge was in error.
Is it true that Nigeria sovereignty is on question?
No, I don’t think so. You will agree with me that since Nigeria came together in 1914, we have not had a conversation about the way we want to live. We must accept a fact that restructuring will not occur unless we challenge the doctrine of Nigeria existence. What Nnamdi Kanu is doing wrong is that he is forcing the issue of Biafra. You cannot use a sledge hammer to knock him dead all in the name of Operation Python Dance. All of these had made a simple issue complicated. Only few leaders from the South East are open to the issue. Nigeria is a highly split and divided nation, the northern leaders are even more honest because they made their position known so I would had expected the southern leaders to be in the North. They should travel to the North where they should be having conversation about how to persuade northern leaders to accept this new Nigeria. Anambra state as an instance: Former Governor Peter Obi brought the incumbent Willie Obiano to power. If the Peter obi phenomenon is repeated across the country, it is known as personal power not national development.
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