The debate on the restructuring of the Nigerian federation, which has been raging for quite some time, remains a hot button political issue, because the people’s life chances are at stake. Everyone will be affected one way or the other by the outcome of the debate. At least, two Presidents since 1999 have responded to the debate by convening a national conference on how best to restructure the country. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo did so in 2005 with the National Political Reform Conference, while former President Goodluck Jonathan followed suit in 2014 with the National Conference. Both conferences submitted reports, which largely have been ignored.
There were reasons for the scepticism about the conference reports. It was felt that both Presidents used the conference to achieve selfish political goals, the former to aid a third term ambition and the latter to aid reelection. Besides, there was no legal backing for either conference, which left the report open for manipulation by the lawmakers. In 2005, a Senate committee, believed to have been sponsored by the then President, sought to use the conference report to amend the constitution in favour of a single six-year tenure for the President and governors.
In 2014 and 2015, the Peoples Democratic Party campaigned vigorously on restructuring the federation, following the 2014 Conference report, hoping that the issue would garner votes for Jonathan’s reelection. Both schemes flopped.
In the last two years, however, the debate on restructuring the federation has intensified, the initial scepticism having given way to genuine concern about the lopsidedness in the federal structure in favour of a poorly administered and low achieving Federal Government from where the economy leaks like water from a basket.
There are various reasons for the intensification of the debate. One, the economic downturn has pushed most citizens to the edge, leading to a serious reappraisal of their place and their future in a federation where power is concentrated in the centre, with a small fraction of the population sitting on the nation’s oil wealth and diverting most of it into their pockets, while the rest of the population, including those from the oil producing states, wallow in poverty.
Two, various groups in the federation have expressed a feeling of marginalisation or frustration, leading, in some cases, to separatist agitations. In the forefront of such agitations are the Indigenous People of Biafra and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, both groups calling for an independent State of Biafra. Similarly, like the Niger Delta Avengers did last year, a new group, named Region of the Niger Delta, is demanding the independence of the South-South geopolitical zone, comprising six states, from the Nigerian federation.
Three, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has been stubbornly indifferent to the call for restructuring, having taken an ideological, rather than a pragmatic, position on the matter, all in keeping with the opposition to the Jonathan-sponsored National Conference in 2015 by his political party, the All Progressives Congress. As a result, agitators have been harassed, tormented, and incarcerated to the point of attracting public sympathy.
Today, the resolution of the near-suicidal factionalism within the PDP will further encourage the PDP politicians to piggyback on the agitation for restructuring as the party regroups for the 2019 presidential election. Already, many voices within the party are echoing the restructuring theme, including former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, elder statesman Chief Edwin Clark, and a former Chairman of the PDP Governors’ Forum and former Ondo Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, who spearheaded the debate during the 2014/2015 presidential campaign cycle.
Nevertheless, the advocates of restructuring have been going about the project the wrong way, by targeting the elite through organised lectures and other public forums. The audiences at such settings are largely supporters of restructuring. What the advocates of restructuring need are new, but critical, converts. They also need to demystify the concept of restructuring by teasing out the beneficial aspects, especially as agreed upon by a majority of the delegates at the 2014 National Conference.
There are four major groups in need of conversion. One group consists of the APC leaders at the federal, state, and local levels, including federal and state legislators. Although the APC as a political party has an ideological opposition to political restructuring, a number of the APC leaders are not so dogmatic. Advocates of restructuring should seek them out and talk to them, rather than talk past them. They should learn from the strategy recently employed by Democratic Party leaders in the United States Congress, who sought critical support from leading Republicans, including Senator John McCain, to defeat a Republican bill on health care aimed at reversing Obamacare.
Another major group to convert consists of religious and traditional leaders, especially from the North, which is the major stumbling block to political restructuring. The emirs and the imams have a major role to play in convincing their people, including political leaders, about the advantages of restructuring, emphasising the benefits of self-determination and the opportunities for self-actualisation. They need to be assured that the devolution of powers will not adversely affect them. To achieve this goal, the support of traditional and religious leaders from the South, most of whom support restructuring, should be enlisted to talk to their Northern counterparts.
A third group is the teeming Northern youth population, who have been left out of the debate. Southern youths should be encouraged to engage their Northern counterparts in restructuring talks, trading ideas and fears about the project and mutually educating themselves. Had such engagements been in place, perhaps the militancy of Southern youth agitations and the ultimatum issued on the Igbo in the North by some Northern youth groups would have been ameliorated, if not averted.
Finally, the Presidency needs to be courted, rather than antagonised on this all-important national project. The translation of oppositional politics to stark antagonism and obstructionism is not always the best path to effective governance and the prosecution of developmental projects. In an all-important project like political restructuring, not much can be achieved without the cooperation of the Presidency and the National Assembly.
At the same time, President Buhari and other APC leaders have a unique opportunity to shape and chart Nigeria’s future by reconsidering their stance on political restructuring. The credit will go to the APC administration, if the yearnings of the people for restructuring are duly recognised and acted upon before the next election.
Similarly, the Senate is urged to revisit the devolution of powers, as promised by the Senate leadership. It is the heart of the restructuring project, from which other matters will flow. For many citizens, it is one of the most important tasks before the Senate and one for which it will be eternally be remembered in praise, if it is achieved.