The National Assembly vote on the devolution of powers debate is shocking to many Nigerians. It revealed an assembly that is out of touch with reality. Although this is not the first time the National Assembly has demonstrated such levity toward crucial national issues, no one expected that in an important debate like this one on devolution of powers, members would choose to play Nero as Rome burns. Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, tried to explain that “hate speeches and mistrust” pushed the Senate to throw out the bill. That is not how to confront such issues. We had expected the Senate to get to the root of the matter, since hate speeches and mistrust emanate from the polity as symptoms of grave political discord.
The issue did not drop from thin air. In the last 12 months, it has been the opinion of many concerned Nigerians that the Nigerian federation has fared so poorly on account of its lopsided structure that it has long ceased being a true federation. The most reasonable solution to correct such imbalance, many people seem to agree, is to restructure the federation. Restructuring seems to be the least risky option of all the other alternatives that are on offer, which range from confederation to a total dissolution of the union.
The logic is that a re-structuring would restore the appearance of a federal system and this mainstream opinion is nothing but a re-echo of one of the resolutions of the 2014 National Conference of 492 distinguished Nigerians who met at Abuja for months, held unfettered discussions and unanimously agreed on many of the controversial issues of our time, including the idea that the federation must be re-structured and federalized. It is glaring that the Federal Government is grossly over-burdened with issues the states would handle better. Part I of the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, the Exclusive Legislative List detailing the Federal Government’s responsibilities, contains 68 items instead of eight, or at most 12, that it should.
The Concurrent List, which details responsibilities shared by the Federal and state governments, has 30 items, 15 of which are similar to those on the Exclusive List. We have a situation in which Federal revenue as published by the Ministry of Finance was shared in June with the Federal Government receiving N189 billion, while all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory got only N128 billion.
When the share of the states is further broken down, they each received between N1.5 billion and N2.5 billion. The 2014 National Conference, among its 600 resolutions, recommended that the Federal Government should receive 42.5 per cent of national revenue, while the states and local governments receive 57.5 per cent.
Our present situation in which the struggle for the control of the Federal Government is a do-or-die affair portends mortal danger for the country. The Nigerian Presidency, beside America’s, is the most powerful presidency in the world. For decades, calls have been unanimous that the country must return to the status quo. The founding fathers never supported unitarism. Indeed, their condition for participation in the Nigerian project was that Nigeria must be a federal entity. Sir Ahmadu Bello was specific on it; Chief Obafemi Awolowo not only advocated it, he also put it in a book. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe wavered a bit, but later embraced it. The one thing, therefore, on which Nigeria’s founding fathers were unanimous was the federal structure of the country.
The logic of federalism is that the federating units come together and volunteer part of their powers to the centre. They sustain that centre through the payment of taxes, royalties and other resources to enable it perform the functions allocated to it.
We drifted into unitarism via military dictatorships whose command structure virtually entrenched it. But, having returned to regular order after 30 years, we must revert to the federal formula if we must continue to live together as a single entity. The federal structure is not just imperative, it is the antidote to the various existential threats the country is facing.
It is utterly presumptuous to take the existence of Nigeria for granted. There is so much discontent and inequity, which have led to agitations for resource control, separatism and even secession. These cannot be wished away by threats and intimidation. They must be negotiated. Nigerians want a centrifugal centre with a vastly diminished Exclusive List and the residual list left for the federating units. The National Assembly must revisit this issue at the earliest opportunity. The future of the nation depends on it.