Amid fears of civil war in Nigeria, agitation for restructuring goes north
By Moses E. Ochonu, March 2021
On 17 February, the Nigerian online newspaper, Peoples Gazette, published a rather shocking story. Mohammed Enagi, who represents Niger South constituency in the Nigerian Senate, accused President Muhammadu Buhari, a member of his own APC ruling party, of incompetence in matters of security. Such intra-party criticism is rare, especially when directed at the president.
Enagi, along with two other senators from Niger State in north-central Nigeria, was reacting in a Senate plenary session to news that the armed bandits terrorising the northwest and north-central regions of Nigeria had abducted 57 passengers from a commercial bus in Niger along with 42 students from a nearby science secondary school.
Senator Enagi’s outburst was bound to go viral when he called for new laws that would allow state governors to control security agencies and assets in their states, replace Nigeria’s failed centralised security architecture, and authorise citizens to bear arms to defend themselves against armed terrorists rampaging through the country.
Whether he intended it or not, in raising the issue of centralised, unitary control of security, the failure of this centralisation, and the uncharted path of decentralising public safety bureaucracies and instruments, Enagi plunged into the old debate on restructuring, or radical devolution, which has dominated Nigerian political discourse since at least the 1990s.
As massacres by Boko Haram, bandits, and armed herdsmen have proliferated, and as kidnapping and hostage-taking have become lucrative organised criminal enterprises, the federal government, custodian of all policing, security, and military power, has looked helpless, confused, and at times even complicit.
The ensuing death, trauma, and destruction have not only dramatised the failures of a distant, overly centralised, and politicised security apparatus, they have also demonstrated the need for local, on-the-ground solutions derived from and implemented by states superintended by governors who are knowledgeable about their states’ identity complexities, contending agitations, and ethno-religious fissures.
Northern Muslim elites, with roots in the legacies of the Sokoto Caliphate and the Borno empire... have vehemently opposed restructuring
Northern Muslim elites, with roots in the legacies of the Sokoto Caliphate and the Borno empire, Buhari’s power base, have vehemently opposed restructuring because they suspect that it is a disguised pathway to secession devised by the south to leave the significantly poorer north hanging.
In the past, southern and Middle Belt elites and commentators called for the establishment of police units equipped, controlled, and deployed by governors. Most of the opposition to “state police”, a component of restructuring, comes from the north. Enagi’s open embrace of “state police” and the right of citizens and communities to acquire arms to protect themselves demonstrates that Nigeria has reached an inflection point of insecurity, and that the northern elite, long suspicious of restructuring and its cognate structural reforms, have seen the wisdom therein.
In January, the respected northern intellectual and former chairman of Nigeria’s electoral commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, shocked the nation by publicly supporting the cause of restructuring and carefully outlining a roadmap with the ambitious timeline of 2023.
Many Nigerians welcomed Jega’s intervention as a catalyst for a much-needed national constitutional conversation around the many existential questions plaguing the Nigerian union.
As an advocate of restructuring I have been reflecting on its capacity to ease the tensions and bridge the fissures that threaten to provoke a civil war in Africa’s most populous country.
A restructuring agenda that begins with the existential questions of a troubled union will return Nigeria to a truly federal structure
The Nigerian predicament is such that constitutional and structural reform would not magically cure all the nation’s ills. Nonetheless, it would solve several national problems and reset the nation’s trajectory. A restructuring agenda that begins with the existential questions of a troubled union will return Nigeria to a truly federal structure where control over resource revenue, developmental vision, accountability, and policymaking reside with subnational units, not with a bloated and overbearing central government.
Under this reform scenario, a small pool of revenue would flow to Abuja to fund the diminished responsibilities of the federal government. The exact formula for this process needs to be agreed upon, but a 50:50 ratio, with 50 percent of revenue going to resource derivation zones and the other 50 percent shared between the federal government and states, would be a good starting point. There would be several advantages to this.
First, radical decentralisation would incentivise subnational grassroots vigilance and initiative by holding political power-wielders accountable in security and policing matters and in matters of economic management and poverty amelioration – causes of the growing wave of resentment and criminality.
Second, for oil-producing states and regions, the effect would be dramatic in terms of both revenue and the transformation of political dynamics. In the short term, contests for political office would escalate, as politicians reposition themselves to secure superintending access to the larger resource pool that would become available. However, a new sense of political empowerment and an awareness of stakeholding would then develop among the citizens. Over time, this would crystallise in a formidable civil society that would insist on both fiscal and electoral accountability, not to mention the security and safety of citizens.
For non-oil-producing states, the benefits of restructuring may be counterintuitive, but they are many. Regions without oil would be compelled to explore previously neglected sources of revenue. Taxes and levies would have to be imposed on economically challenged citizens.
By virtue of funding the government through their labour, citizens of non-oil producing states would develop instant proprietary interest in the management of government finances, ensuring that those they elect to run the government put their tax money to good, prudent use. The prospect of arousing their citizens’ anger and the new reality that local politicians could no longer call upon federal might for political protection or as an alibi for poor performance would ensure an appreciable degree of accountability and effective governance.
True federalism engendered by restructuring would help construct the basis for an enduring, if imperfect, union. At a time when Nigeria stands challenged on many fronts by self-determination movements, Islamist insurgents, and murderous bandits that reject the legitimacy of the unitary state, the lazy assertion that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable rings increasingly hollow.
Nations are not harvesters or incubators of homogeneity. They are managers of difference and diversity. A nation’s stability is proportional to its effective management of divergent identities and worldviews. A true federal structure would accommodate rather than criminalise the expression of different views and divergent aspirations. And that, in turn, would promote citizen vigilance and responsible, result-oriented governance at subnational levels, reducing the need for self-help through violence.
Moses Ebe Ochonu is a Nigerian academic, historian, author and professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee