By Olu Ojewale*
FOR now, the debate appears to be unending. Since the Arewa Youths Council on June 6, served a quit notice to Nigerians of the South East origin to leave the Northern part of the country on or before October 1, or be forced out, Nigerians from all walks of life have engaged in a nationwide debate on how to restructure Nigeria to promote, peace, unity and development of the country.
Invariably, there have been various suggestions across the country on what needs to be done. As, perhaps, should be expected, there has been no consensus on how the country should be structured, but it has been generally agreed that the federal government is too powerful and needs to devolve more powers to the federating states. Even then, the question has remained on the aspect of the Nigerian life that should be restructured to meet the yearning of the Nigerian public; could it be the social, political, physical or even, religious?
In any case, while some would want the six geo-political zones to become the federating units, some said the states should remain the federating units with more responsibilities and funds given to them.
There are those who would like Nigeria to go back to regionalism or a return to what Nigeria used to be in the First Republic when the centre was weak, while the regions were very strong. Then, the regions had their respective constitutions, police, controlled their resources of which they kept 50 percent and contributed the rest to the central pool, which was further shared.
Supporting restructuring are the likes of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Afenifere and the Middle Belt Forum, all socio-cultural organisations who aired their opinions at various times and on different occasions.
In its submission, Ohanaeze Ndigbo reiterated its support for the restructuring of Nigeria to benefit every tribe and geo-political zone.
Chukwudi Ibegbu, deputy national publicity secretary, Ohanaeze, said a situation where other geo-political zones have six states while South East has only five and 95 local government areas was not acceptable. It stated: “A state like Kano alone has 44 local governments while the entire South-East has 95 despite the huge population of Ndigbo in Nigeria.”
Besides, Ohanaeze lamented that there has not been credible census in Nigeria since the 1963 headcount. His words: “Igbo are the second in population in Nigeria. Igbo are everywhere. Nigeria needs a credible census that will factor in religion and ethnicity for proper and equitable distribution of resources. There has not been any credible census in Nigeria. The South-East has only five states and many have said that is equivalent to its population but we know that is not true.
“We want fiscal and structural restructuring. We want implementation of the 2014 confab reports and more states and more local government areas in the South-East. We want equity, justice and fair-play. We want issues that lead to agitation to be addressed. We want the killing of our people in the North to be stopped.”
Similarly, the Afenifere, in a statement issued in Akure, Ondo State, on Thursday, July 6, and signed by Yinka Odumakin, its national publicity secretary, reiterated its support for restructuring. It warned: “Without equivocation, Nigeria has entered a terminal crisis and clearly withering away and can only manage to be pulled back from the brink if we commence the processes of restructuring or restoring the country back to its independence constitutional status before the coup of January 1966. Failure to do this will make demands for self-determination to become more strident.
“We call on the APC-led Federal Government to rise to its avowed commitment in its manifesto to initiate action to amend our constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit” before it is too late.”
The MBF further urged the federal government to look into the recommendations contained in the 2014 conference report to tame growing agitations for secession by some ethnic nationalities, arguing that the confab report if implemented, would douse tensions currently prevailing in the land, “promote peace, harmony and greater security, thereby giving Nigeria a new lease of life.”Similarly, the clamour for restructuring found favour with the Middle Belt Forum, MBF. On Wednesday, June 21, on behalf of the MBF, Jerry Gana, its national president and a former Information minister, said leaders of the Middle Belt region had taken a cursory look at the existing federal system, and consequently called for restructuring that would ultimately culminate in the devolution of more powers to the federating units to enthrone a sense of balance and stability. “We are resolutely of the view that the current federal structure is unbalanced, unfair, over-centralised and, therefore, unstable. Accordingly, we firmly support the demand to restructure the federation, together with appropriate devolution of powers to the federating units, and a commensurate revenue allocation formula,” Gana said.
But the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, want none of it, saying what the country needed was competent leadership at all levels of government and not doing anything that would weaken the centre. Anthony Sani, secretary general of the ACF, in a newspaper interview said the northern group would not support the call for restructuring because it could not understand the vision behind it and what it was meant to achieve.
Sani claimed that if restructuring was in the manifesto of the governing All Progressives Congress, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would not have been indifferent to the agitation for it. “I doubt it because the vice president once raised issues about what is meant by the term ‘restructuring’, considering the fact that some people talk of ‘true federalism’; some talk of ‘fiscal federalism’. Others talk of ‘resource control’ and still others talk about ‘resource ownership’. ACF is not for restructuring. ACF cannot be for a restructuring whose definition is not clear,” Sani said.
Besides, he disclosed that the ACF had not given restructuring any serious thought, not for lack of ideas, but because it does not believe the problems of Nigeria has anything to do with its structure or form of government, “but due more to collapse of national ideals and core values of humanity which have affected the way we do things substantially. By that, I mean our shared values of justice, liberty, common decency and prosperity for all.”
The ACF secretary noted that the country had had a “confederation with a weak centre which the first military coup supplanted with the unitary system before the current federalism that is compromised between the two extremes.”
Some observers would be convinced that, perhaps, Sani got his brief from Tanko Yakasai, an elder statesman and prominent Northerner, who is vehemently opposed to restructuring. Yakasai recently argued in an interview that the clamour for restructuring was to whittle down the population advantage of the North over the South. He said the current system was okay and could not understand the clamour for a change.
Besides, he said those advocating for restructuring were selfish and their aim was to put the North out of power. Rather than restructure, he said the nation could adopt France system where there president and prime minister are elected, while cabinet ministers actually come from the legislature. He said: “Apart from saving us money, Nigerians can also make the ministers accountable to them.”
That notwithstanding, there are also eminent Nigerians, across the country, who have also joined the vanguard of the restructuring crusade. They include former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who wants the six geo-political zones to become the federating units; Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former Lagos State governor, who has canvassed true federalism and urged the federal government to devolve power to the federating units and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a retired general and former military president who has joined the chorus.
Indeed, Babangida is the latest pro-restructuring voice from the North. In his support for restructuring, he said: “If we have repeatedly done certain things and not getting the desired results, we need to change tactics and approach, and renew our commitment… I will strongly advocate for devolution of powers to the extent that more responsibilities be given to the states while the federal government is vested with the responsibility to oversee our foreign policy, defence, and economy.”
In advocating restructuring, Babangida said he was mindful of the fact that restructuring and devolution of powers would not address all the problems facing the country, but “it will help to reposition our mindset as we generate new ideas and initiatives that would make our union worthwhile.”
The former maximum ruler, who also advocated state Police, said the first step should be an agreement among the federating units that the country be restructured to promote the nation’s unity in diversity.
Similarly, Udoka Udeogaranya, a prominent leader of the APC, is convinced that what the nation needs now are three basic things, “constitution amendment, good leadership with a human face, enthronement of meritocracy and reorientation of our citizenry. I am particularly against big governments and the idea of states/local councils being funded from the centre. A constitution amendment that will allow states to fend for themselves, develop at their own pace or be proscribed is the solution.”
But the IPOB whose agitation for a Biafran State brought out the issue of restructuring to the front burner appears vehemently opposed to such arrangement. Baring his mind on the calls for restructuring, Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the IPOB, said he does not believe in the restructuring of Nigeria, saying that Nigerian government would not keep any agreement reached in the restructuring exercise.
On whether the IPOB has formally written to the United Nations demanding referendum, Kanu said the best letter was the continuous civil disobedience, which he said should serve as “handwriting on the wall for the government. They wake up to see it every day.”According to him, it is referendum or nothing. He also made a reference to the Aburi agreement, which was reneged on by Nigerian government and the 2014 National Conference which was dumped where it was coated by dust until the Biafra agitation became intense and it was remembered.
Similarly, Sunday Okereafor, national director of information, the Biafra Independence Movement, BIM, has declared that South-East governors, National Assembly members, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and other leaders that met in Enugu recently to declare their support for restructuring are on their own. Okereafor, who spoke to newsmen, said the clamour for the state of Biafra was already beyond those clamouring for restructuring. He said: “BIM is saying that restructuring is not in the interest of Igbo nation. All we are saying is that the federal government should give room for the conduct of a referendum, then we will know if our political leaders were right in their support for restructuring or the people’s demand for Biafra is more popular.”
The IPOB and BIM stance seems to enjoy the support of the likes of Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, a prominent Igbo lawyer and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. On Tuesday, July 4, Agbakoba condemned the call for the country’s restructuring, describing it as a political calculation by the elite to grab power in 2019. Instead, Agbakoba justified the demand for self-determination as championed by the Indigenous People of Biafra, which is seeking a referendum to achieve its objective.
Consequently, he said the federal government must immediately initiate a process to put the continued existence of Nigeria as a sovereign entity to a debate, insisting that restructuring was not the road map to federalism.Agbakoba, who rejected the declaration by acting President Yemi Osinbajo that Nigeria’s sovereignty was not negotiable, said the IPOB’s quest for self-determination was lawful and found justification in Article 1 (2) of the United Nations Charter and Article 20 (1) of the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights, to which Nigeria was a signatory.
The senior lawyer who addressed journalists in Lagos, on Tuesday, July 4, at his Ikoyi office, said: “I see every politician now says restructure but I disagree. I also think the acting President was wrong to say that Nigeria is insoluble. There is nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria. It can blow up anytime. It’s an artificial creation, which was made in 1914 and when it was amalgamated we were not there. It was amalgamated in the interest of the colonialists.”
He said it was unfortunate that since 1914 when amalgamation was imposed on the people, there had not been any home-grown process to resolve the will of the people to co-exist.
Agbakoba, who had once sued the federal government for neglecting the South-East, argued that the it was wrong to have charged Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the IPOB with treasonable felony for seeking self-determination. Rather, he said: “For me, the best that he can be charged with is unlawful assembly and an act capable of breaching public peace. Those are the things he can be charged with, but not treason; because Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations’ Charter, which recognises the right for self-determination.”
Asked whether he supported the IPOB’s call for a referendum for self-determination, Agbakoba said: “Absolutely! What is sacrosanct about Nigeria? Nothing. What is sacrosanct about Nigeria is our agreement to be part of Nigeria. I’m not suggesting that Nigeria should not exist but to say that Nigeria’s sovereignty is not negotiable, nobody should talk about it.”
The senior lawyer, who was a delegate at the 2014 National Conference, also said that implementing the resolutions of the conference would not quell the various secessionist agitations in the country.
Nevertheless, the debate on the need for the restructuring of the country is also getting attention from the National Assembly. The Nigerian Senate has also moved to consider the report of the 2014 National Conference which addressed most of the agitations for a reviewed federal structure.
Besides, Femi Gbajiabiamila, a member of the House Representatives from Lagos, and majority leader, has said the House would address the calls for the restructuring of the country.
In an interview the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, in Abuja, on Wednesday July 5, Gbajabiamila, who frowned at the approach adopted by some groups to press home their demands, said the unity and stability of the country could not be compromised. “This is a matter the House will address very soon and we are all concerned and we cannot bury our heads in the sand (and pretend nothing is going on around us) like the proverbial ostrich (would do). “The National Assembly as an institution has a role to play on the issue of whether you want to call it restructuring or re-engineering – however you want to describe it. And very soon National Assembly will come up with a position. We are discussing it, we are talking with stakeholders behind the scenes and it will be tabled at some point hopefully before we go for another break,’’ he said.
Whatever the National Assembly can do to douse the current tension caused by the new clamour for restructuring of the country would be a welcome development. But the stakeholders must also realise that there is a deep set suspicion that the President Muhammadu Buhari government is not favourably disposed to restructuring, more so, as his promise to work for devolution of power once he took office is yet to be honoured.
*Real News Magazine Nigeria