We are offered the example of California, a successful American state and the 6th largest economy in the world, as an argument for Nigeria to be restructured into a ‘true federation’.
The Californian Argument in support of Restructuring sounds like a Brazilian Argument in support of Football: Brazil speaks Portuguese and plays excellent football, therefore let us learn Portuguese so we can also win the World Cup three times. Yet, fluency on the pitch requires more than language fluency, just as Californian success wasn’t just down to a federal framework.
Over 70% of Japanese territory is unsuitable for residential, industrial or agricultural use and Japan, like the UK, France, and 150 other countries, operates a unitary system of government. Despite the burden of that unitary system tying together over 6,000 islands, 430 of which are inhabited, or perhaps because of it, Tokyo has managed to become the city with the highest GDP in the world, outstripping even Los Angeles and New York. Japan as a whole has less territory, less natural resources, and three times the population of California, yet it has the third-largest economy in the world, with the world’s highest life expectancy to boot.
All this to say that a federation may be a road to the fantastic, but it is by no means the only road to the fantastic. While Germany and the USA are successful federations, there have been failed federations like Yugoslavia; and China, despite her vast land mass, complex history and 56 ethnicities, operates a unitary constitution.
The salient question for Nigeria today is whether political structure is our fundamental problem. In other words, could Nigeria’s problems survive radical political restructuring as effortlessly as power failures have survived the privatization of PHCN? In answering this question, we must remember other bandwagons in our history: Indigenization, commercialisation, deregulation, monitization… each runs its course, raising new billionaires, sending hundreds of state agencies to the grave, dissipating state assets, and leaving the country in a bigger morass.
Is ‘Restructural Phensic’ the right medicine for Nigeria’s bullet in the head?
The Restructure Train must be understood for what it is: like other trains before it, it is an engine driven by vocal intellectuals, sometimes hired, sometimes well-intentioned, dragging along the masses with no sense of history, on a track laid by corrupt politicians and leading to a destination of milk and honey, for politicians. It is great in theory: socioeconomic improvement will happen when powers devolves from London to Lagos with independence, or from Abuja to the ‘grassroots’ with restructuring. At its most cynical, it is more jobs for the boys. At its most idealistic, it is a pious hope that kleptomaniac governors, assemblymen and politicians who have been raiding their billion naira budgets for ever will suddenly become paragons of integrity and transform their states into clones of California, once they get more constitutional powers and trillion naira budgets. But African Political Power is like Musical Chairs for assassins: once the dancer captures a chair, he shoots the DJ and every other dancer stupid enough not to flee the room, and spends the rest of his life trying to hang onto power and resources.
To determine how great Nigeria will be after unbundling maximum powers and resources from the centre, we must study how our 774 local governments and 37 states and territories are using their current powers and budgets, for if we cannot police billion naira state and local government budgets, how can we police trillion naira budgets? If we cannot get a local government chairman to repair a potholed road, how do we persuade him to get robotics on the primary school curriculum? Is it easier for Nigeria to collectively persuade a single federal government minister to update an antiquated curriculum for all Nigeria, or to get 774 LGA barely literate education councillors to do the same for their 774 councils?
From Lagos to Maiduguri, from Oron to Sokoto, millions of citizens of different tongues and faiths languish in circumstances that have not changed significantly in a century. Voiceless citizens for whom roads, schools, markets and electricity are budgeted annually. And embezzled annually. Their fate was not much improved by independence, dictatorship, democracy, Indigenization, commercialisation or privatization.
It will be no different, with political restructuring.
Before we raid the Constitution in search of more powers for states, local governments, regions or secessionists, we must ask why the powers and resources already “at the grassroots” serve a clique of the few rather than the interests of the many. Clamouring for political restructuring is a little like fetching water from a well. We may want to dig another well to meet our water needs, but our first step must be to replace the basket we currently use to fetch water with a bucket. A hundred more oil wells will not be enough to provide chalk in primary schools, if our governors and oil commissioners are kleptomaniacs with their fangs in the pipelines. Our first and overwhelming problem is good governance. If we can make serious corruption history by creating a system that guarantees that public power and resources are always used for the public good, we would have replaced the basket we were using to fetch water with a bucket, so that further trips to the well will deliver more resources to the people, rather than kickbacks to the few.
Without the guarantee of good governance that effectively subordinates public officers to the Constitution and the citizenery, restructuring, whether by way of confederation, regionalism, secession, unitarianism or even theocracy will be more deceptive a mirage than independence was. Even if a new crop of young leaders are empowered, they will be promptly corrupted by the broken system and will simply create new power centres, with even wider gaps between the richest and the poorest.
Nigeria should indeed be restructured, but a corrupt political class is incapable of restructuring Nigeria in the public interest. Before the political (or pork-barrel, jobs-for-the-boys) restructuring, what we need is the restructuring of our governance system to give state attorneys general jurisdiction to prosecute serious corruption anywhere it occurs in Nigeria. This will give teeth to the rule of law for the first time in Nigerian history by engineering the political will to prosecute the corrupt, even if their godfather were a sitting president. This constitutional change, coupled with reward for whistleblowers and new penalties that liquidate companies guilty of serious corruption while punishing individuals with total assets forfeiture will create the environment for good governance by clearing the public space of carpetbaggers. Public office will then attract visionaries and technocrats rather than thieves and their free-loading relations. These ideas are contained in the proposed Bribecode bill which is canvassed in detail at www.bribecode.org.
With this systemic change to our governance model, Nigeria can operate any political framework successfully, and optimize or restructure it in the public interest. On the other hand, without changing our governance model, even a new constellation of 370 independent nations will not improve the lot of the Nigerian people. Because the offspring of pigs are usually pigs.