Punch Newspaper Opinion
November 23, 2020
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), returned recently to the grating fiction of a mythical Nigerian “unity” that is not negotiable. Arising partly from ignorance, partly from arrogance and driven essentially by sectional interest, he now leads a narrowing column of elites desperate to maintain the unjust national contraption that continues to deliver poverty, insecurity and frustration in the midst of plenty. In reality however, Nigeria is negotiable and should be restructured soonest or risk inevitable implosion.
As it has become his sing-song, Buhari boasted in a speech delivered on his behalf at the 72nd Foundation Day and Convocation of the University of Ibadan, “The corporate existence of Nigeria is not negotiable. Hence, efforts should be made to protect our dear country as a single entity.” He added that all divisions, conflicts and violent clashes should be condemned without offering any concrete plan of how to end these.
It bears repeating that there is no political union in the world, nor has there ever been one, that is not negotiable. Second, unity cannot be legislated, forced or preached into existence while the underlying causes of disunity are completely ignored. “Unity without verity,” said John Trapp, an English philosopher, “is no better than conspiracy.” The country’s current political structure as embodied in the 1999 Constitution is a sectional and elite conspiracy and must be dismantled.
Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups and about 250 other ethnic groups are not united and have never been because of the present and past pretensions of power holders. Describing it as a “mere geographical expression,” the late Obafemi Awolowo said over 70 years ago, “Nigeria is not a nation in the same way that Germans or English are,” but a natural federation of diverse nationalities that can prosper only when properly organised as such. Indeed, the country was not amalgamated for “unity,” but for Britain’s economic convenience. But the gradual movement to federal principles in the early 1950s that saw the defunct regions, having considerable autonomy, ran sub-national political and economic entities arrested that. The rapid building of roads in the Eastern Region is still remarked today. The Northern Region was famed for its groundnut pyramids; groundnut was Nigeria’s single most valuable export between 1956 and 1967, according to the International Crops Research Institute. The Western Region set the pace in education, industrialisation and infrastructure, building a civil service acclaimed to be comparable to the United Kingdom’s.
Today, the country is worse than the Lugardian contraption in 1914 as it is not structured for justice, social cohesion and economic growth. Britannica rightly says, “The political principles that animate federal systems emphasise the primacy of bargaining and negotiated coordination among several power centres; they stress the virtues of dispersed power centres as a means for safeguarding individual and local liberties.” Lack of autonomy has reduced the 36 states to beggarly liabilities, created 774 skewed and resource-draining local governments and nurtured a monstrous centre that appropriates most resources.
The results are terrible. The government has lost control of parts of the country to bandits and terrorist insurgents. It is arguably the only country in the world not at war where soldiers are keeping the peace in 33 out of its 36 states. Figures by Amnesty International that 1,126 persons were killed and 380 others abducted by bandits from January to June are regarded as understated. In many Northern states, even the governors cannot travel safely on the highways. Insurgents and bandits ambush, kill and abduct police officers and soldiers. Apart from hosting three of the world’s five most deadly terrorist groups – Boko Haram, ISWAP and Fulani militants – insecurity, in the form of kidnapping, armed robbery, cult and gang violence, piracy, rape and drug abuse, has created food insecurity and 2.5 million refugees, over 200,000 of whom are taking refuge in neighbouring countries.
Through it all, the Buhari regime resists the clamour for state policing, insisting on the single policing system that has failed so abysmally.
Deprived of control over resources in their domains, the states have become mere administrative centres instead of drivers of economic development. This has created a disarticulated economy, with inflation at 14.23 per cent, unemployment and underemployment at 55 per cent and dependence on oil revenues for all to share at the expense of inclusive, poverty-reducing productive economic activities.
It is a supreme irony that Buhari, who preaches unity and non-negotiation, epitomises the dysfunction, disunity and futility of this ghastly contraption. He runs the most divisive, most sectional and most exclusionary government in Nigeria’s history. He does not believe in the unity he preaches. Prior to the 2015 election, anticipating a fourth time defeat, he notoriously prepped his base for battle, “the dog and the baboon will be soaked in blood,” he reportedly said on a BBC Hausa Service programme. He took office with the vow that those who gave him fewer votes would not be treated like those who gave him 95 per cent support. And truly, he has been working that discriminative talk, favouring his North-East/North-West base in appointments, funding and federal support. Under him, the hollowness of the “unity in diversity” slogan is laid bare. Calls for separation, once a fringe activity, have moved into the mainstream.
Yet, Buhari is holding the country down through fear, harassment and threats. He and his group will soon become irrelevant as the restructuring train gathers momentum. Pressure for reform is rising. Every day, inflation, economic recession, poverty and unemployment, political stasis, public corruption and a stifled, censored public space are becoming more intolerable. These are obvious signs of systemic failures.
Countries once professed to be non-negotiable are today sad historical footnotes. Yugoslavia splintered violently, mighty Soviet Union collapsed violently, Eritrea emerged from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan. Singapore separated from Malaysia to become a model of economic dexterity. Under wiser leaders, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into thriving Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Definitely, Buhari’s dictatorship will end one day. Advocacy for a just, economically viable and politically stable federation should not waver. No individual or group should be allowed to act like a metaphoric dog in the manger. Like every other country, Nigeria, to survive, must remain work-in-progress. A series of negotiations and restructuring have featured since England and Scotland merged to form the UK in 1707. The four nations in the union are still negotiating and a majority of Scots seek separation. Belgium’s constitution has been amended 29 times since 1994 to reflect the aspirations of its diverse ethnic and language groups and 104 times in India since 1947.
Even countries that are not contending with multiple fault lines are rewriting their constitutions. For instance, Chile is leaving behind the constitution of Augusto Pinochet and his entourage. After prolonged protests across Chile, the President, Sebastian Piñera, agreed in November 2019 to hold a referendum. More than 78 per cent voted in favour of a new constitution and 79 per cent also voted in favour of the new constitution to be drawn up by a body, which will be 100 per cent elected by a popular vote rather than one which would have been made up by 50 per cent of members of Congress. On April 11, 2021, the people will finally choose 155 citizens that will draw up an entirely new constitution.
This is the only viable option to defend Nigeria’s corporate existence; not a worn out intimidation and threat. There is no such thing as a united Nigeria that anyone can justly and morally defend. Unless he changes his course and acts courageously and patriotically like his Chilean counterpart has done, the path Buhari and his cohorts are leading Nigeria to may end in destruction.