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Nigeria: Back to the drawing board

By Eromo Egbejule and Patrick Smith in Abuja
Posted on Monday, 14 May 2018 13:15

For so many, it is the main question in Nigerian politics; for some, it is the only question. It comes down to the organisation of Nigeria: how can some 180 million people share political power and the income from an economy that generates $500bn per year?

Few like the status quo. For tens of millions of Nigerians living on $2 per day, the current system is corrupt, unfair and run by remote politicians in Abuja. For much of the business elite, the centralised government, with its massive equity stakes in the economy, is holding back growth and trade. And for the political elite, arguments turn around the mooted solution to these problems: ‘national restructuring’. It has been a perennial issue, one debated even before independence in 1960. “In some countries, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” jokes a local politician in a Lagos bar. “In Nigeria, it’s the constitutional conference.”

His scepticism is widely shared. Every administration – civil or military – tries to concoct its own answer to the constitutional conundrum. Sometimes, it is just a matter of political convenience. Hard-pressed leaders know that promises to create more states, viable or otherwise, can win votes.

Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Hassan Kukah, who served as secretary to the last government’s National Political Reform Conference, argues its conclusions merit serious consideration. The formula adopted by that conference – more powers to the state governments on security and social policy, and allocating states in the Delta most of the revenue from oil production – was frozen after then president Goodluck Jonathan lost elections in 2015. According to Kukah, this is part of the problem: the exploitation of the constitutional issues by partisan politicians. “Our situation in Nigeria […] has been that a new government comes and wants to do everything afresh. With this government, the report of the national conference has become a political football,” he adds.

Initially, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) showed little interest in reforming the constitution. Critics said this reflected the dominant view in Buhari’s northern support base that no further concessions should be made on allocating revenue and administrative powers to states in the south.

Three years on, much has changed. Although Buhari’s support has held up in the north, his party has been losing out in the Middle Belt and the south-west on security and economic issues. At the same time, the APC has been winning over people in the south-east and south-south.

More power to the regions

Some of this is coming from the Buhari government’s big investment plans, vice-president Yemi Osinbajo told a news conference on 9 March: “We are building the Lagos-Kano rail, doing the Lagos-Calabar rail, the second Niger Bridge and the Mambilla hydro project […], we are improving capacities in power, in things that will create an economy that can support a large number of graduates.” Apart from arguing that its team of ministers and heads of state companies is much more inclusive than critics claim, Buhari’s government now acknowledges that constitutional reform is topping the political agenda again.

Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-­president now vying for the presidential nomination in the opposition People’s Democratic Party, says giving more powers to the country’s 36 state governments is a top priority. Partly for economic and security reasons, according to Atiku. Others see it as a matter of votes.

From Adamawa State in the north-east, Atiku criticised what he regards as the government’s slow response to herder-­farmer clashes in the Middle Belt, which are reckoned to have killed some 2,500 people last year. He condemns some politicians’ explanation of the violence as a fight between Fulani herders and Christian minority groups: “When kidnappers kidnap,” Atiku told the Lagos daily This Day, “we do not identify them by their ethnicity. We identify them as kidnappers, pure and simple. There may be fringe elements with criminal tendencies. Some may be Fulani, some may not.” On that, but not much else, Atiku and the Buhari government agree.

Radical groups such as Afenifere in the south-west and Ohanaeze Ndigbo from the south-east, along with groups from the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt, held a convocation in January entitled ‘A Handshake Across the Niger’ to push for more powers to the regions and states. But sharp differences remain.

Some demand secession, others want the loosest of federations, and some moderates call for a rebalancing of state revenue. At the heart of the matter is the carve-up of the $100bn a year the country earns from oil exports, between the federal government in Abuja, the 36 states and the 774 local governments.

States in the Delta want a bigger share. Currently, they get an extra 13% of the revenue as the oil comes from their territory. Their claims seem to have won some recognition from the government’s Committee on True Federalism, jointly led by Kaduna State governor Nasir El-­Rufai and John Odigie Oyegun, chairman of the governing APC.

The committee has agreed , according to Odigie Oyegun (see page 40), to devolving control over on-shore oil and gas assets to state governments. Such revenue-sharing proposals go down well in the Delta and the south-east, two regions where the APC did badly in the 2015 elections. It will be a matter of faith for the voters, as that new formula would take months, maybe years, of negotiation to reach an agreement in the national assembly. Traditionally, politicians from the north oppose more concessions to the Delta states.

For and against State Police

More immediately, security – and the local control of police – looms large as another area for constitutional change. Chief of defence staff General Abayomi Olonisakin says the military is fighting at least 14 separate challenges across the country: from the smouldering Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east, herder-farmer clashes in the Middle Belt, sporadic militancy in the oil-producing zones and a new wave of separatism in the south-east.

On this, President Buhari signalled another policy change at a security conference in Abuja in February. “We cannot realistically police a country the size of Nigeria centrally from Abuja. State police and other community policing methods are the way to go.” Buhari’s speech was read by vice-president Osinbajo, but that did nothing to dull its political impact.

On the face of it, this is an abrupt reversal. Some, such as former military leader Yakubu Gowon, adamantly oppose it: “The states have all the powers they need. This restructuring is costing the nation too much,” he tells The Africa Report. Gowon goes back to the civil war and Emeka Ojukwu’s attempt to lead the south-east – Biafra – out of Nigeria. “If they [the states] take responsibility for defence, then what happened to us during my time would happen again.” He continues: “That would be disastrous. In fact one of the reasons that Ojukwu defected was that he wanted to have control of the security and police in his region. I said no, I won’t allow that to be the responsibility of the state. So he decided to break away. That is what really brought about the civil war.”

Others oppose giving states the power to run police forces, mainly because of the poor standards of governance in many state capitals. Some claim it would be setting up state governments to fail: giving them the responsibility without the resources to run effective state and community police forces.

Federal force and army

In practice, the establishment of state police forces will take long and careful negotiations. The federal capital in Abuja controls a federal force, as Washington does in the US system, and it will retain absolute control over the military. So the spectre of state governors becoming ‘warlords’ is a little overdone.

State governments already have some powers over policing, such as oversight on the federal police commission. And they also have a vote in the appointment of the national police chief. State governors already have access to “security votes”, which allow them to set up what are essentially mini-police forces with little public scrutiny.

Better-financed states such as Lagos have already set up public-private partnerships with commercial security companies, which operate as a local police force. Out of the country’s 36 states, only four – Lagos, Rivers, Katsina and Kano – are able to finance their budgets from their own revenue. Lagos State accounts for over 30% of the tax revenue collected at state level across the federation.

Despite Gowon’s concerns, the arguments over state police forces will be less hard-fought than agreeing a new national revenue-sharing formula. But at least two national leaders from the north – Buhari and his likely challenger Atiku – have committed themselves to fundamental constitutional change on security and oil money. And that will change the stakes in the election campaign over the next year.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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