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What Next for Nigeria as Southern Leaders Take Position on Restructuring?

The clamour for the restructuring of Nigeria got louder recently with leaders from the southern part of the country, gathering in Lagos to take a position on the contentious issue. It was an assemblage that cannot be ignored, taking into consideration the calibre of people in attendance and the resolution thereto. The position of the leaders came diametrically opposed to some elements calling for the breakup of Nigeria and the creation of Biafra, Oodua or Niger Delta Republics.

The call for restructuring of the country is not a new development. The call has been on for a long time, and persistently as well. It started right from the days of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which came up with demand for Sovereign National Conference (SNC) and resource control as a response to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. It was an election that was won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola. It was a long cry and battle that were largely ignored by the military regimes of both Gen. Sani Abacha and Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar.

The agitators did not relent, even when the country returned to civil rule in 1999 but President Olusegun Obasanjo and his successor, Umaru Yar’Adua were clearly opposed to the idea. The 2014 National Conference put together by President Goodluck Jonathan fell short of the demand for SNC and failed to address the structural problems Nigeria is facing, even as Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election.

The agitation was later taken over by those from the South- South region, and its demand to control its oil resources, which even dovetailed to violent campaign when President Muhammadu Buhari took over in 2015.  Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) led the agitation, even if subtle to resuscitate the dead Biafra. The coming of Nnamdi Kanu’s Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), changed the narrative with its sometimes violent campaign and dangerous rhetorics.

Against the cacophony of voices and dangerous demands, the intervention of the Leaders of Thought from the South, led by Prof Ben Nwabueze could not have come at a more auspicious time.

The leaders, in their opening statement on their position paper said: “Re-structuring is a term that currently evokes much public interest and discussion. But its concern is not with the way government is actually conducted, whether well or badly conducted, but rather with the way it is formally organised in terms of its structures – the power structures or power relations, the territorial structures, and so on.

“This is not to underrate the vital importance of good governance, but appropriate structures of government are a necessary foundation for good governance. We need therefore to get our governmental structures right, which is made all the more necessary because of our great ethnic diversity (with over 300 ethnic nationalities) and consequent divergence of interests and outlooks.”

Accordingly, the position of the leaders is that true federalism is “a compelling necessity for Nigeria” as a result of its diverse ethnicity, language, culture, customs etc.

“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 economics. 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 overwhelmingly extensive in their range, to be managed under a central government constituted in such manner as to ensure that it is not dominated by any one group or a combination of them, and above all, to ensure justice, fairness and equity to all in the management of matter of common concern. It assures an optimal measure of self-determination or self-government consistent with the territorial integrity of the country. Self-determination connotes essentially, not independent government, but the right of each group to govern itself within the territorial integrity of the country as one state.

“By this, the differing interests and circumstances of the component groups are accommodated while at the same time securing the peace, stability, development and unity of the country and its survival against the forces of division and conflict inherent in the heterogeneous nature of the society. With the decentralisation of powers to the regional governments and the consequent reduction in the powers exercisable centrally, the central government cannot become an instrument of total domination, so that the question of who controls it can be expected to excite less conflict and bitterness than if all powers are concentrated at the centre,” the leaders said.

According to them, there is inherent anomaly in the current structure of the country, which is federal in name, but unitary in practice, going by its constitutional provisions. They opined that “unitarism and federalism are mutually exclusive, logically opposing concepts”, adding that separate governments, as implied in federalism require separate constitution for each of the federating units. But at the moment, the federally controlled constitution applies and is being implanted in relation to the current 36 federating units.

They noted that Nigeria attained its most glorious era in the 1960s when the country was under regional structure with healthy rivalry among the federating units, noting that both the 1979 and 1999 constitutions were alarmingly altered in favour of a centralised government.

They said: “There are seven main respects in which both the 1979/1999 Constitutions, directly or as interpreted, have altered in favour of the federal government the power structure or power relations as it was under the 1960/63 Constitutions.

“First, 16, or 50 per cent of matters, hitherto concurrent to both the Federal and Regional Governments under the 1960/63 Constitutions, are now made exclusive to the Federal Government; viz arms, ammunition and explosives; bankruptcy and insolvency; census; commercial and industrial monopolies, combines and trusts; drugs and poisons; fingerprints, identification and criminal records; labour (i.e. conditions of labour, industrial relations, trade unions and welfare of labour); prisons; professional occupations as may be designated by the National Assembly; quarantine; registration of business names; regulation of tourist industry; traffic on federal trunk road; public holidays; regulation of political parties; and service and execution in a state of the civil and criminal processes, judgments, decrees, orders and other decisions of any court of law outside Nigeria or any court of law in Nigeria other than a court of law established by the legislature of a state. The complete exclusion of a State Government from all of these areas is a significant change indeed, for it takes away completely the initiative which, in the past, the Regions undertook in some of these matters.

Secondly, not only is the scope of concurrent matters now severely restricted by the transfer of roughly 50 per cent of them to the exclusive competence of the Federal Government, but also some of the matters still formally listed as such are actually dealt with in such a way as to make them exclusive to the Federal Government to a very large extent. For example, a State Government’s power over higher education is now restricted to merely making law for the “establishment of an institution for purposes of university, professional or technological education”. Subject to this, the whole field of higher education, the regulation of admissions and standards, the question of free education at that level, etc. is now exclusive to the Federal Government. While public safety and public order remain a concurrent matter (s.11), the principal instrument for maintaining and securing them, the police force and armed forces, are centralised in the Federal Government, without the concession made to the Regional Governments by the 1960/63 Constitutions to establish local police forces on a provincial basis.

“Thirdly, the federal power over taxation of the income and profit of individuals is now, as in the case of company taxation, plenary, and not, as under the 1963 Constitution, limited to purposes specifically prescribed in the Constitution such as the securing of uniform principles of taxation, etc.

”Fourthly, federal power is now extended to certain matters hitherto under exclusive regional competence as residual matters. Minimum standard at the primary and secondary levels of education is now an exclusive matter for the Federal Government, so is the election of a State Governor and the members of the state House of Assembly. Land title is now largely exclusive to the Federal Government, for not only is the Land Use Act 1978 entrenched in the Constitution (s.315(5)), but also its provisions are to “continue to have effect as federal enactments and as if they related to matters included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part 1 of the Second Schedule to this Constitution”. Aspects of local government are now also brought within the purview of the Federal Government. The extension of federal power to aspects of local government offends against the principle that local government is an example per excellence of a matter of local concern which places it squarely within the exclusive competence of the Regions or States.

“Fifthly, the Federal Government is granted yet another new source of power by the provision authorising the National Assembly to establish and regulate authorities to promote and enforce the observance throughout the country of fundamental objectives and directive principles enshrined in the Constitution (Exclusive Legislative List, item 60(a), Second Schedule) – a provision misinterpreted by the Federal Government of President Obasanjo to grant powers beyond what could reasonably have been within its contemplation.

“Sixthly, and perhaps the most disquieting of the Federal Government’s new sources of power, are the provisions embodied in the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in chapter 2 of the Constitution which may be described as the most people-oriented, part of the Constitution. Regrettably, the declaration of Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles in the chapter has been invoked and is being employed as a grant of power to the Federal Government by a perverse interpretation of its provisions, enabling that Government to enact various laws patently subversive of the division of powers and the entire principle of true federalism enshrined in the Constitution.

Seventhly, again construing the declaration of Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in chapter 2 of the Constitution as a grant of power, the chapter has also been invoked by the Federal Government to enact yet another law even more incompatible with, and more subversive of, Nigeria’s federal system, viz the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act 2004 (re-enacting an earlier Act of 2002). The particular directive relied on as authorising the enactment of the Act is that in section 15(5) directing the State, as defined in section 318 of the Constitution, to “abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of office”. To reiterate, the directive in section 15(5) is not a grant of power, and it is again a manifest distortion of its meaning and purpose so to regard it.

“The result of the accretions of power to the Centre, either by direct grant by the Constitution or by perverse interpretation of its provisions, is to alter the power relations between it (the Centre) and the States so significantly as to change the character of the system quite substantially from a federal to a unitary system. The system remains federal largely in name.”

The leaders picked hole in the clamour for devolution of power. According to them, devolution of power is only possible in a unitary system, noting that in Nigeria, restructuring is more appropriate.

They noted: “Among the misconceptions surrounding the national discourse on Re-structuring is the error that Re-structuring involves, inter alia, devolution of powers by the Central Government to the federating units. The term devolution of powers is appropriate only in a unitary system; it is a process whereby the Central Government delegates or transfers certain powers to subordinate units of government in the country, it is not appropriate in a federal system.

“Re-structuring in a federal system relates to the redistribution of powers by the Constitution among the constituent units of the federal system i.e. the Centre and the federating units, each being co-ordinate with, not subordinate to, the other.”

In their position paper, the leaders said Nigeria should be structured into eight geo-political zones, instead of the current six, while the 36 states structure would also be retained within the zonal structure.

“The issue here is whether the powers to be taken away from the Centre should be given to the present 36 States or to bigger territorial structures based on regions or zones.  Six or eight are proposed. We opt for eight, namely North West, North Central, North East, South West, South East, South South, Middle Belt, (comprising the present States of Kwara, Kogi and Benue) and Mid-Western Zone (comprising Edo and Delta states).

“A structure based on the existing 36 States raises the question of the viability of the 36 States for this purpose. Viability in this context should not be viewed entirely in terms of economics. It should also be considered in relation to the issues mentioned above – the issues of a separate constitution, a separate police force, a separate machinery to organize and conduct elections for the political functionaries of the State.

“The six or eight zones structure envisages that the existing 36 states will be retained as governmental units. The crucial issue would remain, however, that of the relation of the present 36 states to the central government. The relation would depend upon whether the states are to be constituted in, and derive their powers from, a separate zonal constitution or from the federal one.

“On the whole, it would be neater and more appropriate that they be constituted in separate zonal constitutions as suggested by Dr. Ekwueme, with the result that the creation of additional states will be a zonal affair, and cease to be a bedeviling issue at the national level.

“The national constitution will simply define and delimit the powers of the Federal Government, apart of course from provisions relating to citizenship, bill of rights, fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy, the organs and agencies of the federal government. As was the case in 1960 and 1963, the regional or zonal constitutions would derive their status and authority as a supreme, overriding law from a stipulation to that effect in the national constitution, and must not be subject to alteration by the regional legislatures alone, without the concurrence of the National Assembly.”

According to the leaders, there is no provision for the National Assembly in their proposal. They lambasted the national lawmakers of going ahead with the review of the 1999 constitution. The ongoing review exercise, they noted, cannot bring about the desired restructuring of the polity.

They noted that apart from the current constitution not being democratic as it was the product of military regime, it also contains fundamental flaws that cannot be cured.

In essence, the leaders advocated a new constitution to be approved through referendum by the people.

”A draft of the new Constitution to be submitted to the people for approval at a Referendum should be prepared by a Committee composed of persons with requisite knowledge, experience and integrity, including leading members of the 2014 National Conference, and should be subjected to debate and approval by the Committee.

“Approval by the people at a Referendum, given by a majority of Yes votes at the Referendum, is the act that bestows validity and legitimacy on the new Constitution. Discussion of the draft Constitution by a Constituent Assembly set up by law and specially elected for the purpose, may, before its submission to the people for approval at a Referendum, additionally be used to reinforce the process and to impart more thoroughness to it.

“The approval of a new Constitution at a referendum and the abolition of the 1999 Constitution must be synchronized; in other words, the two must be made to take effect at one and the same time, i.e. contemporaneously or simultaneously, in order to avoid a vacuum.

“Again, it needs to be emphasized that the National Assembly cannot be sidelined completely in the process of making a new Constitution, except of course where the process is by means of a revolution. That was the error of the 2014 National Conference which was not established or authorised by law and which therefore lacked power to take legally binding decisions or to implement or enforce them,” they said.

Apart from Nwabueze, other prominent leaders in attendance are Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Prof Kimse Okoko, General Alani Akinrinade, Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, General Ike Nwachukwu, Chief Donald Duke, Obong Victor Attah, Chief Gbanga Daniels, Solomon Asemota, SAN, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu, Prof Pat Utomi, Mr Elliot Ugochukwu-Ukoh, Prof Tony Killa, Chief Harry Akande, Comrade Promise Adewusi, Prof Sola Ehindero, Prof Akin Oyebode, Mr Adewale Adeoye, Mr Chigozie Ubani and Mr Olawale Okunniyi as secretary.

Earlier on Wednesday, another group of Southern leaders, under the aegis of Southern Leaders Forum (SLF), comprising Chief E K Clark, Chief Nnia Nwodo, Chief R F Fasoranti, Chief A K Horsfall, Prof Joe Irukwu and Chief Ayo Adebanjo, at a press conference, also in Lagos, said the country cannot run away from restricting, which they noted, will ensure the unity and economic prosperity of the country.

The elders said “this is the time to renegotiate Nigeria along federal lines negotiated by our founding fathers to stem the tide of separatist feelings and agitations.”

They also sounded  a note of warning to the president not to attempt a clamp down on those agitating for the restructuring of the polity as such a move would only serve to drive the agitators underground with its consequences on the corporate existence of the country.

Now that the southern leaders have spoken, it would be necessary to hear from the other side zone to further enrich the discourse on the way forward for Nigeria as a united prosperous one nation with different nationalities but one destiny.

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