Posted on Tuesday, 25 March 2014 13:12

Nigeria's big question: Divide or conquer?

Children celebrate Nigeria’s independence, though the legacy still hangs heavy. Photo©PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFPIn the century since unity Nigeria has experimented with federalism in myriad forms. Today, as President Jonathan plans a national conference in the face of growing criticism, he fields demands ranging from restructuring and the division of states to autonomous control.

Down a rutted track in the neglected railway town of Zungeru in the Middle Belt lies a dilapidated building where a couple of British colonial governors drew up the frontiers of Africa's most populous nation.

With the stroke of a pen on 1 January 1914, what had formerly been the northern and southern protectorates became the single country of Nigeria.

A century later, the abandoned house replete with history is for some a potent symbol of the current state of the nation.

Nigeria's tangled federalism is an issue that is bedevilling President Goodluck Jonathan's administration with growing ferocity.

Groups agitating for more regional autonomy or even secession have burgeoned since the end of military rule in 1999. Some totally reject the authority of the federal government in Abuja.

The shifting states of Nigeria

Sir George Taubman Goldie claims British dominion over the lower Niger at the Berlin Conference on West Africa. He makes treaties with more than 400 chiefs and obtains a trading charter for the Royal Niger Company.


Area now known as modern Nigeria is brought together as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. The country was still divided administratively between the North, the South and the Lagos Colony.


On 1 October Nigeria gains independence. The 1961 plebiscite results in greater political power for the north. Nigeria becomes a three-region federal republic in 1963. In 1967, General Gowon divides the country into 12 states.


Nigeria emerges united from its 30-month civil war, provoked by the Eastern Region's declaration of independence. A succession of military leaders follows.


The Second Republic is declared as General Olusegun Obasanjo hands over power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari. Regional diversity is underlined by the 'federal character' of the nation.


Nigeria regains democracy after another 16 years of military rule, including the short-lived Third Republic of 1993. Obasanjo is elected president of the Fourth Republic, which formalised the current 36-state system.


President Jonathan launches constitutional talks on resource control and devolution. Some are calling for yet more states, but others want the existing states consolidated into larger semi-autonomous regions.

At the extreme end are the militant Islamists of Boko Haram based in the north-east.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has reconfigured itself in the south-south, and the Oodua People's Congress still has support in the south- western heartlands.

In the middle – and less easily dismissed as 'mischief-makers' by the government – is a broad range of activists calling for a restructuring of the federal government, with its 36 states and federal capital territory in Abuja.

Dissatisfaction with the way Nigeria is governed and the cost of governance is a popular sentiment.

"One nigeria consciousness"

It was those concerns that President Jonathan was tapping into when he launched his "national conversation" last year about the future of the country.

For some, the move to reopen the debate about a national conference and reform of the federal structure looked like political opportunism ahead of a national election.

For others, it was a great opportunity to make their positions felt.

Jonathan referred approvingly to a "one Nigeria consciousness" when he launched a year of centenary celebrations in October 2013.

Addressing a large crowd at Eagle Square in Abuja, Jonathan drew cheers as he called the amalgamation "a blessing".

Commemorative events had been carefully stage-managed, right down to a game show quiz that included participants from each of Nigeria's six geopolitical zones.

Alongside the pomp and cheers celebrating nationhood, the president's speech included a warning to would-be secessionists. "No one should insist on reversing history; those who seek a return to pre-1914 Nigeria only seek to diminish our collective heritage," he said.

That warning has fallen on deaf ears in many quarters.

A few days after Jonathan's speech, the Movement for New Nigeria, a small but vociferous campaign, told a crowd of youths in Lagos that the country was on the verge of a "monumental disaster" if a "sovereign national dialogue" was not held early this year.

"The range of problems that Nigeria is facing requires a resetting of the foundations. We propose a number of federations, each with the right to self-determination," said Oguchi Nkwocha as his fellow campaigners distributed inch-thick documents emblazoned with the words "True Federation Character".

Nkwocha heads this multi-ethnic movement that advocates that Nigeria should split into several smaller federations.

In many other countries, such groups would be seen as fringe sideshows. But Nkwocha caused newspapers to sit up, and, at times, stung the odd politician into responding.

Now, as elections approach in February 2015, the pressure has been turned up.

Since its inception, Africa's giant has wrestled with various formulae to give its 250 ethnic groups better representation.

Calls for a sovereign national conference have grown louder since 1993, when the dictator General Sani Abacha annulled the election win of Moshood Abiola.

Aiming to legitimise his regime, Abacha commissioned a watered-down constitutional conference commission. Those talks produced one important result: that all states in the Niger Delta would be entitled to 13% of the revenue earned from their oil production.

Since then, the oil-producing states have been militating for ever higher percentages.

Olusegun Obasanjo, the first elected president after the return to civil rule in 1999, organised the National Political Reforms Conference near the end of his administration in 2005, but little changed on the ground.

Then, last October, Jonathan set up a 13- man committee to head a promised national conference "within a month".

Logic of the splinters

Senate president David Mark, a People's Democratic Party (PDP) loyalist who has long lobbied for the creation of additional states, tells The Africa Report that a convention – and a constitutional overhaul in the longer term – is much needed: "Nigeria has too many bright candidates in each region not to have them all represented at national level. That is not in doubt. Rather the issue is how to make sure each region is fairly represented. This is not something that is decided overnight, but it is an issue that cannot be avoided."

The planned convention would not have "legally binding status," but state creation would be a key point on the agenda.

"I have not yet heard anybody who has cogent reasons as to why [state creation] would not be viable for the development of Nigeria," adds Mark, who has called for his home region, Benue State, to be divided into two to provide a separate new state for his Idoma ethnic group.

As several senators convened a meet- ing another senior aide dismissed the chances of far-reaching constitutional reform: "The presidency holds so much power in this country that I cannot see any man in that position relinquishing it."

What lies beneath

Oil, as with so much in Nigeria, is at the heart of the debate.

Some of the recent infighting that has erupted in the PDP stems from attempts by Rotimi Amaechi, the governor of Rivers State, to exert greater control over the flow of locally produced oil. Resource control has long been the cri de coeur of militants in the Niger Delta. The Delta, with its myriad creeks, accounts for some 40% of the country's oil output.

"[One] factor that caused the erosion of state autonomy was oil. Quite frankly there was too much money at stake to allow individual states to develop at their own pace and do as they pleased," argues the historian Max Siollun, whose book Oil, Politics and Violence examines the military coup culture that followed Nigeria's First Republic.

"It would have caused spectacular disparities in wealth between the Delta and the rest of the country – even worse than is the case today. Nigeria was created as an economic union and has remained so even 100 years later," adds Siollun. Check interesting information at this site

A lasting and deep suspicion that the country's ruling class is holding Nigeria together solely to feed off its resource riches fuels popular anger.

It is hard to deny the truth of the sentiment. Northern governors fear a renegotiation of Nigeria's constitution would endanger their access to southern oil.

So in the topsy-turvy world of Nigerian politics, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the voice of the northern elite, has thrown its backing behind Jonathan's calls for national unity.

That is a rare case of northern and southern leaders see- ing eye to eye.

Vote of no confidence

"The ACF has made it clear long ago that it is not opposed to any national dialogue that can calm nerves and bring about the strengthening of the Nigeria project, provided such national dialogue would not take the form of a sovereign national conference," explains Anthony Sani, the group's public secretary.

"This is because a sovereign national conference amounts to a vote of no confidence on our democracy and its institutions [...] which nobody [and no] group has the right to do."

However, southern activists such as those in MEND accuse the 12 northern states of doing exactly that when they opted for sharia law more than a decade ago.

Regional autonomy has been shrinking since the military seized power in 1966.

With the country's three regions turning to four regions, then 12 states and now 36 states, the centre has become stronger at the expense of the periphery.

And the military still wields enormous power on-stage and behind the scenes.

Calls for a sovereign national conference are an accurate barometer of the political climate

"First and foremost the military came to power as a unifying force, and its credo was to maintain the corporate existence of Nigeria, even fighting a war to do so. Their fear was that increased state autonomy would encourage secessionist sentiment. It got to a stage where calls for devolution became interpreted as treason," Siollun points out.

A whiff of this is reflected in the recent heavy-handed reaction by security officials – controlled by the centre – who have prevented the dissenting Rivers State assembly from sitting.

Many believe loosening Abuja's hold would force local governments to move away from being 'glorified economic subsidiaries' of the federal government.

"Calls for a sovereign national conference are an accurate barometer of the political climate [...] that seems to heighten whenever things seem to be going awry in the polity," argues Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi.

The system of "asymmetric federalism", says Fayemi, explains why his state, with just three million people, is sometimes buffeted by political violence.

"The choice is between competitive federalism and a revenue allocation formula that encourages hard work and competition on the one hand, and the post-civil-war order with its highly centralised governance that stifled local creativity and autonomy on the other hand. In effect, the choice was no choice."

Although there is distrust when calls for greater devolution have come from some at the top, there are signs that it could boost development.

Certainly history shows the average Nigerian was better off under the First Republic, when the three large regions had substantial political authority and autonomy from the centre.

Even after discounting the rapid population growth and inflation, the average income in Nigeria then was almost twice as much as today's figure of around $1,500 per capita.

Others point to the success of the commercial capital Lagos, where the opposition All Progressives Congress nurses a long-running feud with the PDP-controlled government in Abuja.

"There has to be a loosening of federal control and impetus for states to have greater control of their affairs. At some point the oil is going to run out, and when it does the raison d'être for keeping such a unified structure will expire," says Siollun.

Three become one

There is a final twist. When the country's Richards Constitution was drawn up in 1945, creating a federation of three regions, national experts argued it would undermine national unity and encourage separatist tendencies.

Into the fray entered Bernard Henry Bourdillon, the former colonial administrator whose popularity can be seen in the abundance of squares that bear his surname.

"In fact, this measure represents not the division of one unit into three, but the beginning of the fusion of innumerable small units into three and from these three into one," he declared.

Bourdillon could hardly have foreseen the political and constitutional maelstrom that would occur 70 years later, after Nigeria had adopted an elaborate and costly federal system: now some activists demand a return to three semi-autonomous regions, while politicians are still lobbying for the creation of ever more states. ●

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