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Why We Have Been Restructuring

As the debate continues, we may also want to place the French option on the table. The tight fiscal situation in the country has made it difficult for regional governments to raise enough resources to run their affairs… Why should we not allow states that are willing to negotiate mergers so we can advance the debate from restructuring to self-structuring?

I often hear or read the phrase that Nigeria must re-structure or risk political collapse. I do not understand it because we have been restructuring since 1914. Of course, at the beginning of the story under colonialism, what occurred was a violent usurpation of the sovereignty of the Nigerian peoples. A political structure was imposed in several polities of what later became Nigeria on the basis of colonial military conquest. In 1914, having successfully conquered us, the British amalgamated their three territories in the Nigeria area – the colony of Lagos and the two Protectorates to the North and South of the Niger. This symbolic act representing the “creation of Nigeria” has been widely castigated as an artificial act and a mistake. Such views erroneously believe that there are states that have been “naturally constituted”. We do know however that throughout history, state formations have occurred in a fluid and artificial manner. State cohesion has been built at a later stage. What the British created as Nigeria was made up of many autonomous and independent polities, as well as diverse languages and cultures that were coerced into a new political formation. The problem of Nigeria is not so much the amalgamation of 1914, but the failure to forge a cohesive state from the said territories after independence.

Lord Lugard first structured Nigeria into a political system based on ‘indirect rule’, with a policy of non-centralised administration or separate government for ‘different peoples’. This policy led to the evolution of certain structures and institutions, which to a certain extent still characterise the contemporary Nigerian State. The basic principle of ‘Indirect Rule’ was divide and rule. In the Emirates of Northern Nigeria and in the Yoruba kingdoms of the South-West, indigenous political structures were retained and often reinforced by the colonial administration as the primary level of government, while in the South-East, as well as among some of the acephalous ‘Middle Belt’ societies, a new order of colonial chiefs known as ‘warrant chiefs’ was imposed. The system of ‘Indirect Rule’ had a profound impact on the evolution of Nigerian elites.

In the North, traditional elites were fully involved in the administration of British imperialism, thanks to the system of ‘Native Administration’ (NA) and were therefore allies of the Crown. Secondly, they had a pact with Lord Lugard to keep Christian missionaries and by extension, western education, out of the Emirates. The result was that the pace of development of western education in the Muslim part of the North was very slow and the few that were chosen for the western schools were all employed in the NA. Thus, virtually the totality of the elite in the Muslim North collaborated with colonialism and had a stake in it. In the other parts of the country, Christian missionaries were given full freedom for proselytisation and virtually exclusive control of Western education. It resulted in a fairly rapid evolution of a Western educated elite, to the detriment of traditional ruling elites. The new elite, however, had very limited chances of integrating into the upper echelons of the civil service even when they had high levels of education. Given their educational background and the frustrations of exclusion, they naturally drifted into political agitation and adversary journalism.

It was the military that subsequently succeeded in completely restructuring the Nigerian State. They dismantled the tripartite structure, which had become quadripartite with the creation of the Mid West in 1963. In 1967, just before the advent of the civil war, the Gowon Military Administration created 12 states from the four existing regions.

In 1938, the South was restructured into two regions, the West and East, while the North was left intact – hence the origins of the tripartite political system. This system was formalised with the Richards Constitution of 1946. The Nigerian debate over restructuring started with the Richards Constitution. The nationalists – Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Imoudu rejected the Constitution because it was designed to perpetuate the colonial structure of sharing power between the Crown and Native Authorities and mobilised for a new structure in which citizens would be the repositories of power. They mobilised, travelled round the country, raised funds and went to London in 1946 to demand for a new structure. When five years later they succeeded in placing self-government on the agenda with Governor Macpherson’s Constitution, the Nigerian political elite had agreed to a federation based on the three tier regional structure Lord Lugard had invented. In the process, the profound demand for democratic government, in which power resided with citizens, was abandoned. The guiding principle of this “new” tripartite federation was that each Region had a ‘majority ethnic group’, which was to play the role of the leading actor – in the North the Hausa, in the West the Yoruba, and in the East the Igbo. In fact the whole process of constitution making between 1946 and 1958 was an elaborate bargaining pantomime to find equilibrium between the three regions, or rather, between the leading elites of the majority ethnic groups. No wonder the process resulted in the emergence of three major political parties, each allied to a majority group.

The pre-independence restructuring was problematic because Nigeria was never composed of three cultural groups but of hundreds of cultural and ethnic groups dominated by the majority groups. Although Nigeria was profoundly multipolar, the Hausa-Yoruba–Igbo political elites opted to maintain the colonial tripartite structure. It’s important to remember that none of the three regions of the First Republic represented a historic political bloc, as there were minority groups in each. The refusal of the British to create more regions in 1958 when the Willinks Commission affirmed that fears of domination of the ‘minorities’ by the ‘majorities’ were justified was virtually a disenfranchisement of at least 45 percent of the population.

It was the military that subsequently succeeded in completely restructuring the Nigerian State. They dismantled the tripartite structure, which had become quadripartite with the creation of the Mid West in 1963. In 1967, just before the advent of the civil war, the Gowon Military Administration created 12 states from the four existing regions. The move appeared to have been a political advance because it was addressing the correction of the structural imbalances and ethno-regional inequities of the inherited federal structure. In 1976, the Mohammed-Obasanjo Administration increased the number of states from 12 to 19; General Babangida raised the number of states to 21 in 1987 and to 30 in 1991 while the regime of General Abacha increased the number of states in the country to 36.

I am all for the continued restructuring of Nigeria but let us all remember the objective is not restructuring in itself but as Herbert Macaulay articulated at the beginning of the debate in 1946, restructuring to transfer power to citizens.

This restructuring through the multiplication of states has produced a Jacobin effect that strengthened federal power relative to the powers of the federating states. We should not forget that there was elite consensus that the First Republic collapsed because the regions were too strong. Weakening their power base was therefore the logical objective of restructuring. The real issue however was not weakening of the states per se, but the erosion of a counter weight to what became known as the “Federal Might”. Rather than correct the ethno-regional balance in the country, the fissiparous state creation tendency by concentrating enormous powers at the centre weakened all political groups that are not in control of the centre. Increasingly, restructuring led to the emergence of a quasi-unitary State. This tendency was reinforced with further restructuring through the decentralisation policy of the Babangida regime carried out between 1987 and 1991 with the declared aim of increasing the autonomy, democratising, improving the finances and strengthening the political and administrative capacities of local governments. The number of local governments was increased from 301 to 449 in 1989 and to 589 in 1991 and again to 776 in 1996.

Given that political re-structuring has been on-going since 1914, that in itself cannot be the issue. We need to pose the debate more clearly. One option is to go back towards the tripartite regionalism of the First Republic. I suspect no one is ready for that. The second option is to dismantle the state structure and reconstitute Nigeria’s political structure along the six zonal structure. This option is dead on arrival, as the elites that control the 36 States are not going to accept the dismantling of their power structure for a new one in which the former big fry will become the new small fry. The third option is to take power and resources from the federal level and transfer it to the state level. This is broadly acceptable but Nigerians are worried that state governors are not accountable to anybody and more power will simply produce 36 despots lording it over citizens.

I am all for the continued restructuring of Nigeria but let us all remember the objective is not restructuring in itself but as Herbert Macaulay articulated at the beginning of the debate in 1946, restructuring to transfer power to citizens. As the debate continues, we may also want to place the French option on the table. The tight fiscal situation in the country has made it difficult for regional governments to raise enough resources to run their affairs. Consequently, they have decided democratically that regions can negotiate with themselves and merge so that they can enjoy economies of scale. Why should we not allow states that are willing to negotiate mergers so we can advance the debate from restructuring to self-structuring?


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