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Re-federalizing Nigeria and the challenge of innovative governance

Recently, the National Institute for Policy ad Strategic Studies (NIPSS) organised a two-day Think Tank Conference on an appropriately timely theme, “Federalism and the Challenges of Dynamic Equilibrium in Nigeria: Towards a National Strategy” at which I was one of the speakers. It is the intervention that I made at the conference that I share in this piece. The critical objective of the conference was to facilitate a brainstorming amongst opinion leaders and experts on the need to develop a problem-solving discourse that could eventually facilitate the evolution of “a national strategy for effective response to the current challenges of federalism in Nigeria.” It is certain that we can never have a surfeit of discourses and debates on Nigeria’s lopsided federal arrangement. And this is simply because that is essentially Nigeria’s predicament; the predicament that has prevented the nation from achieving her full postcolonial potentials as the giant of Africa.

The challenge of Nigeria’s federalism goes beyond the mere troubles generated by Nigeria’s federation. The trajectory of the resilience of federation since independence has, to a great extent, given the lie to the suspicion that perceives Nigeria as a mere geographical expression. In other words, as a conglomerate society, Nigeria seems to have managed the thorny dynamics of what Professor Richard Joseph calls “conglomerate governance” which has tenaciously survived significant and severe challenges and upheavals, notably the Nigerian Civil War, ethno-national crises and religious conflicts. We have managed, despite the sundry pessimistic geopolitical analyses, to elect a South-south minority personality as a president of Nigeria. yet, being a federation is a long way from achieving true federalism that has the capacity to wield Nigeria together to being a mere “conglomerate society” (to use Kenneth Post and Michael Vickers’ apt description of Nigeria’s plural predicament).

My interventions at the NIPSS Conference were premised on two critical questions. One: How can the ethnic and sub-ethnic units in Nigeria be mobilized into a stabilized and sustaining national unity through a federal framework? Two: How can Nigeria’s sub-national units, namely, the states and the local governments, interdependently relate in a manner that yields a more unified and prosperous federation? These two questions are not meant to elicit just intellectual scrutiny and debates. They are meant to generate a practical policy framework, in the spirit of the Conference objective, which could point towards a rethinking of Nigeria’s federal predicament. One of the dilemmas Nigeria has had to confront is relating our collective outcries on behalf of federalism and the alacrity with which the leadership blocks bold policy initiatives focusing on making our federalism enabling. Policy and politics have always been at loggerhead. But then politics can only save Nigeria if it accedes to significant policies that can help dislodge the vested interests benefiting from the lopsidedness.

Getting Nigeria’s federalism on track to backstop our nascent experiment of democratic governance requires policy focus and strategic dynamism. As a reform-minded public administrator, I am always guided by these two elements in any attempt at redeeming the institutional fabric of the Nigerian state. Federalism is an all-encompassing and fundamental institutional matter that speaks to the institutional imperative arising from the devolution and decentralization of powers, especially for the sake of national development. This devolution strengthens democratic foundations because it prevents the internal domination of one group by another. The devolution of powers therefore constitutes the first element in my five-element policy proposal for re-federalizing the Nigerian state that I presented at the NIPSS conference.

Nigeria labours under the federal illusion that there exists a three-tier government structure—federal, state and local. Nothing is farther from the truth. The reality is that the local government areas owe their existence and operational capacity to the existence of the states whose viability are in turn determined by the federal government. This debilitating unitary arrangement undermines the essence of local governance as the essential motor of democratic government. Thus, bottom-up development and grassroots democracy can only thrive if instigated by the devolution of greater freedom and autonomy in power and resource initiatives are given to both the states and the local government. Local governance is significant because it takes off from the critical point of local development peculiarities which differentiate one LGA from another. A bland federal template that lumps all local governments and states together does more harm than good to Nigeria’s democratic governance and development efforts.

This leads automatically to the second element of a regional economic corridor that essentially feeds into the imperative of local governance. Regionalism devolves critical autonomies to the federating units in any federation. While the regional arrangement of the first Republic may have been long compromised, I am strongly convinced that the six pragmatically expedient geopolitical zones in Nigeria could serve as the launch pad for instigating an economically vibrant development rivalry that constituted the core of the regionalism of the immediate post-independence period. Nigeria’s present structure of an overburdened centre struggling to carry 36 viable and unviable states does not have the capacity to maximize the significant gains of a genuine fiscal federalism.

The re-federalizing logic in this case is therefore founded on a simple principle: political restructuring as a precondition for economic prosperity. In other words, Nigeria needs to leverage on a political and economic dimensions for making the regional idea work.

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