Which way forward?
How we got to where we are as a nation considering not just our level of intelligence but also the number of people perceived to be intelligent is completely mind boggling. Considering the quality of our founding fathers and their level of sophistication, some of our pains could and should have been avoided but just like generations before them, we seem to be committing the same mistakes they did and careering down a ruinous path.
Our history seems to be littered with several spurned opportunities of guiding our nationhood unto a path where the collective hopes of all can be realistically implemented without the fear of ethnic and cultural cannibalism. First, our founding fathers failed to reach a mutually working arrangement following the declaration of independence. Second, we missed the opportunity during the Aburi Accord negotiation to agree on a lasting and workable federal or con-federal structure and thirdly, we failed to use the first parliamentary session of our latest dalliance with democracy to set out and agree a new democratic structure for the long term. In our rush to get rid of the military, we failed to properly consider the sustainability of our new democratic venture; a venture based on a document prepared by the very military we were running from.
Our failure to do the needful, always kicking the can into the future, has led directly to where we are today. A nation without a national identity where none of its citizen knows what “the Nigerian Dream” is. @xeenarh asked on twitter the other day what the ‘Nigerian Dream’ was and the consensus, based on a satirical but truthful comment by a responder, was “to become your own local government”.
There’s no sugar coating it, Nigeria to all intent and purposes is a failed state. The description of the Nigerian dream above is testament to that. Most social institutions, if not all, have failed. The Police are unreliable, other security forces have been compromised, the judiciary is hardly referred to settle injustice between ordinary citizens, healthcare, energy and other infrastructures are all in a dire state. Regardless of what strata of society you look at, there seems to be a clear failure of leadership and followership. Further, the country is one big giant welfare state with the civil/public (federal & state) service the biggest employers. To compound this, many states appear insolvent to the extent that payment of salaries (pension to retirees) to civil servants has become a serious challenge. All we do is consume, consume and then consume some more.
The years of military rule and its attendant abuse of society and its institutions has completely eroded any chance of the current approach working. One of the opening preambles of our Constitution states “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; having firmly and solemnly resolved, to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God….” Unity and harmony aren’t just words that can be declared into being. There has to be a foundation on which basis those words are laid; foundations such as understanding, mutual respect, mutual recognition, truth, sanctity of life amongst others. Without these foundations, the words in the preamble are meaningless and without life. Looking at the Nigeria around us, it is clear that these foundations are not in place otherwise it won’t be so difficult for Nigerians to sit down and have honest conversations with one another. The ‘state of origin’ issue is evidence that there is no mutual recognition as Nigerians; the initial and prolonged indifference to the insecurity and insurgency in the north east is evidence of the little value placed on the ‘sanctity of life’ and its associated freedom of rights.
Whilst there are obvious differences between us, several commonalities also exist. Our reaction to one another regarding these differences reeks of prejudices. Rather than seeking to celebrate, understand and accept, we mostly seem to discriminate against them thereby sacrificing the benefit that we should be getting from our diversity.
The point is we can’t continue like this. We have to make our diversity work for us. We have to remove the contentious issues that so perpetually plague us and make it impossible for us to have peaceful, amicable and honest conversations with each other. We need to charge our National and State assemblies with the task of delivering a new Constitution that identifies and aligns with the cultural diversity in our nation over the next parliament. We need them to deliver a comprehensive political reform that customises the democratic system of governance to our unique national characteristic and panders to our multi ethnic society.
Our current Constitution concentrates too much power in the centre implying that the government with the most power is too far removed from the people that are most in need of its policies. This concentration of power lends the federal government to be perceived as on overlord, whose favour everyone courts. This makes capturing power at the centre a do or die affair. The distrust created by years of military rule, as well as the unresolved repercussion of the civil war has also contributed to a nation where inter-ethnic empathy is almost non-existent. Unfortunately for us, globalization has made it nigh impossible for us to work through our ethnic disharmony without the international community scrutinising and possibly interfering in what should mainly be a private affair. It is to this end that I would suggest that rather than us continuing to painfully try and force the issue of sustaining an overpowering federal government, we should self diagnose and administer a healthy dose of morphine. This can be done by stripping the centre of much of its powers and transferring majority of it to the local and state governments.
The federal government should only have powers that I would refer to as constitutional minimums. Constitutional minimums are laws that will be common to all irrespective of place of birth or location. The minimums will be the social contract among all Nigerians. For example, a constitutional minimum could be a law eradicating the ‘state of origin’ and replacing it with ‘state of residence’. Linked to this law could be a further declaration that any Nigerian can contest for any public office so long as they are locally resident. We may choose to allow each state set the length of time a Nigerian needs to be resident in that state to be eligible to contest public office or we could agree to include the length in the constitutional minimum. Another example is to make education up to WAEC level a constitutional minimum for every Nigerian child. Whether it is an Almajiri school or an anglicised one could be up to the local/state governments. The education minimum could make education up to primary level free for every child with states determining if they want to subsidise secondary school fees. Every other aspect of our social life could have a constitutional minimum that makes sure that certain services and expectations are uniform regardless of where you choose to be resident.
Of course certain aspects of government need to remain national and controlled at the centre, for example, national defence, protecting the sovereignty of the nation, sovereign debt/rating, monetary policies, customs, some infrastructures like nuclear energy, citizenship & immigration, diplomacy and defending our fundamental rights. Everything else currently in the Exclusive Legislative List should be up for negotiation in terms of transference to local and state governments.
Furthermore, I believe the resource/revenue control of the nation should be shared in this manner with complete autonomy among the different levels of government; Local Government 42.5%, State Governments 30% and Federal Government 27.5%. A related constitutional minimum could be a law stipulating that each level of government should commit at least 15% of its revenues to a reserve account, only to be accessed if very specific requirements are triggered. On resource control, the issuance of licenses for exploration of natural resources should be vested with the state government where the resource is found. We need our States to collaborate and compete on their strengths. Whilst there is the Odua Investment Company and an Arewa one, most states in Nigeria can’t afford to cooperate. They’re mostly too insolvent to cooperate. Also, we don’t have any business creating more states. There is simply no economic basis to do so.
Alongside the need for constitutional reform is democratic reform. We need to decide what form of democracy suits us. Democracy by default is a system of government that facilitates debate. Plurality of opinions is healthy to any debate and contributes towards a qualitative outcome. The current winner-takes-all electoral system doesn’t appear to be the most suitable to our democratic maturity given the deep rooted disharmony and distrust among ethnicities.
Perhaps a proportional representation electoral system is more suitable to Nigeria. In this system, the distribution of seats gained by a party will be directly related to the proportion of votes cast for that party at a general election. The system is one that ensures all votes contribute towards the result rather than a majority. For example, if during a State House of Assembly election, the APC gets 40% of votes, PDP 25%, Kowa 20% and SDP 15%, this would mean that all parties will have members in the Assembly with the numbers of members gained by each party directly related to the percentage of total votes it received. This system also reduces the scenario where a State or State Assembly will be completely dominated by a single party.
There are no ideological differences between the two main political parties (APC and PDP) – neither political nor economical. What we need to accelerate our development and deepen our democracy are parties that differ along ideological lines. The ideology could even be influenced by culture or tradition. A proportional system almost forces the issue as parties will need to come up with ways of differentiating themselves beyond “they are bad, we are good”, “they are corrupt and we are not”. What I’ve found most disappointing about the current presidential campaign is how the main opposition party and its supporters attack the incumbent party on the very same thing their party is guilty of. For example, on one hand Jimi Agbaje is too old at 57 to be governor but on the other General Buhari is not too old at 72 to be president. If APC are really an anticorruption party, the allegation that Jimi Agbaje is a tax evader should have been found out when the government charged him to court and used as a political tool.
As a party, APC is as weak as the PDP. If APC were truly pro Nigeria, they would not avoid a presidential debate. The avoidance is a good strategy for them to win the election, but definitely a bad thing for our democracy. This tells me they are happy to sacrifice Nigeria, if it means they get their way. The PDP shenanigans regarding INEC can be read in like manner.
A matured democracy is one where the interest and opinion of the minority not only matters, but is protected. A democracy where no one is left behind, where everyone willing and able gets a chance to live a life of dignity. General Buhari referring to smaller parties as ‘mushroom’ parties suggests he doesn’t quite get it yet. As a military man, one would have thought he’d appreciate the importance of the voice of the little man, defending the indefensible etc. Neither of the two main parties is offering fundamental solutions to our problems. Neither of them is asking if our form of democracy is working or if our constitution requires overhauling. If they are, for example, one of them will be seeking to close the loophole used by Speaker Tambuwal to defect from his party yet retain his Speakership. If they truly cared about Nigeria, they will as a matter of principle or ideology be pushing for or willing to sacrifice the cost of maintaining the NASS given our economic headwind.
If the main parties are not going to be pro Nigeria, we the citizen may as well argue for a democratic system that increases the number of debaters and plurality of ideas. We cannot compare ourselves to countries with more mature democracies. What we have to deal with in the open to get to their level, they dealt with centuries ago when no one was looking and when the world wasn’t so global.
So let’s not repeat the mistakes of our founding fathers, let’s stop forcing the centralist issue.