By Bolanle Bolawole
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Comrade Femi Falana’s 20th Convocation Lecture to the Ekiti State University delivered on Wednesday, December 16, 2020 is not only topical but also profound. Titled “Restructuring and the liberation of Nigeria”, it speaks to the burning issues of the moment and cannot but command the attention of anyone bothered about this country’s dipping fortunes on all fronts and the unfortunate turn of events, especially on security of life and property, since retired General Muhammadu Buhari and the APC mounted the saddle of leadership in 2015. Rather than improve, the security situation gets worse by the day. Rather than recover, the economy gets more comatose by the day. Rather than up its ante, the Buhari administration leaves no one in doubt that it loses more of the little grip it has each passing day.
There is no denying the fact that the country needs liberation from a clueless, inept, incompetent and corrupt leadership. Whether restructuring, which has been touted as panacea in some quarters, or dissolution, as growing self-determination groups advocate, is what is needed, remains to be seen.
Because of its length and also for the fact that human memory is very short as Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels have conclusively proven, I have chosen to split the lecture into series and interrogate it as we go along. I invite readers to do similarly.
First, let us listen to Falana, SAN, a social crusader and human rights activists of no mean repute. Whether on campus as a Students’ Union leader or in practice as a progressive lawyer, FF, as we fondly call him, has paid his due:
“Introduction: In an age in which crucial debates on the future of Nigeria are led by ethnic warlords, demagogues and clairvoyants from their declared “territories” with captive audiences, it is worthy of salute that the Ekiti State University decided to go back to the tradition of making the university a centre of ideas. The voices from the campuses are no more resonant in pointing to the way forward for the country. Things used not to be this way as I will demonstrate in this lecture anon. There was a time in this country when scholars provoked and led debates from their various ideological perspectives. For instance, the making of the 1979 Constitution that was the ground norm of the Second Republic had a lot of inputs from the university system.
Scholars of various ideological hues were members of the 49-member committee that drafted the 1979 constitution. Voices from the university were very strident in the subsequent debates on the draft at the Constituent Assembly of 1977/78.The university was visibly represented in the assembly. As if envisaging the vigorous debate on the structure of Nigeria that came up on the floor of the assembly, the Department of Sociology of the University of Lagos had published a book in 1976 entitled Ethnic Relations in Nigeria. The point at issue here is that deep thinking about problems was once in currency in this country. Orthodoxies and shibboleths were roundly challenged by scholars. In a chapter of the book, eminent sociologist, Professor Onigu Otite, examined the “concept of a Nigerian society” and concluded as follows: “In the current culturally melting stage, the solidarity and stability of the Nigerian society cannot be achieved through processes involving an imposition of single loyalty and perspective but by a process of compromising diverse loyalties and viewpoints, thus providing for group and individual interests through shared participation in different institutional spheres and internal and external systems.”
Given the magnitude of ethnic manipulation being promoted by the various factions of the Nigerian elite, it is as if Otite was writing about today’s Nigeria. In yet another chapter of the book, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, as a young university lecturer in political science at the University of Ibadan, expressed what he described as a “non-conformist view”. Armed with verifiable statistics, Akinyemi reviewed the 1959 federal election and made profound and thought-provoking observations as follows: “We set out to prove that at least on the eve of independence Nigerian electoral behaviour was more complex than that which a crude theory of ethnic voting has ascribed to it.” Akinyemi disproved claims which many still give as the basis of the Nigerian crisis. In other words, contrary to the myth still being parroted in many quarters that Nigerians never looked beyond their ethnic enclaves politically, there were other factors that influenced voting over 60 years ago. That was 34 years before the June 12, 1993 presidential elections in which Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola was said to have defeated Alhaji Bashir Tofa in Kano.
In addition to ethnicity, voters were also influenced by preference for party policies, the urge to be part of power sharing at the centre and even the psychology of being with the winners. For instance, the Ekiti people voted Awolowo’s party because of free primary education for their children and not necessarily for any Yoruba solidarity. After all, the Ekiti dialect is markedly different from Awolowo’s Ijebu tongue among other mutual prejudices and stereotypes among the two intra-ethnic communities. The choice of this topic by the university is, therefore, quite apposite in the context of the present Nigerian condition. Yes! We must restructure Nigeria. But we must quickly add that Nigeria should also be liberated from the shackles of poverty, inequality and gross socio-economic injustice. We must banish hunger, disease and ignorance. These vertical and horizontal steps are important ones to take simultaneously for the development and progress of Nigeria. The implication of the foregoing is that the debates on restructuring should be reframed in the interest of social justice, geo-political equity, genuine freedom and the unity of the people of Nigeria.
Restructuring alone will not automatically answer the menacing question of rising youth joblessness and hopelessness plaguing the Nigerian society. To reframe the question, some myths should be exploded. First, stripped of all obfuscation, restructuring is basically about making the Nigerian Federation work better for the purpose of governance and development. That should be the objective of restructuring rather than the elusive pursuit of “true federalism.” There is nothing like true federalism. Every federation is structured for the specific purpose of each country. That is why the Indian federation is not identical to that of Australia or America. The Swiss federation is operated differently from that of Canada or Brazil. The German federation is working not because it’s “true” but because it meets the specific historical need of the Germans. So we should stop mystifying the debate by calling for a “true federalism” instead of asking for a workable federation of Nigeria.
As a matter of fact, making a federation to work, building a nation or promoting national integration is never a finished business. As the experiences of countries defined by diversity and complexity have shown, the business of a functional federation is actually a work in progress. After all, what’s federalism if not a system of continuous negotiations and compromises? That’s why it’s a gross misnomer when some people pronounce arrogantly that “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable.” That’s wrong. Federations are, of course, subject to negotiations when the need arises in any generation. What is to be done is to accept the reality of negotiation and compromise so as to give everyone a sense of belonging. This will invariably spur a sense of commitment to the union. Come to think of it, there will be negotiations and engagements from generation to generation as issues arise.
Hence, the question of federalism has engaged the attention of philosophers and other thinkers for ages. Problems of federalism were examined in the 18th and 19th centuries by Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Baron de Montesquieu Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart-Mills, Rudolph Hugo and Madison. In fact, in the last century the eminent Marxist scholar of the London School of Economics, Harold Laski, actually posited that the “authority of the modern state is federal” in ultimate terms. In contemporary times, thinkers in various countries are coming up with ideas to make their respective federal union more efficient. That’s how it should be in Nigeria. Here lies the task of the university. There ought to be contesting schools of social science in Nigerian universities. They should conduct research on the question so as to generate solutions to the festering problems of Nigerian federalism.
To be sure, Nigerian scholars in the past had theorised, conducted researches and published volumes on federalism. There was a lot of thinking about the problem. The challenge of the moment is how to continue with this illustrious tradition. Secondly, restructuring is ultimately a constitutional question. For instance, to put into effect devolution of powers from the centre to the units, constitutional amendments have to take place to amend the constitution. Some matters might require only executive orders. For instance, it is an anomaly having federal roads within a state. States should have more money to fix the roads within their geography. The federal ministry of works should only be concerned with inter-state highways and bridges to have appropriate road networks in the country. Thirdly, a lot of confusion has been introduced into the restructuring debate. In fact, in some quarters, restructuring has become a nebulous concept. Some warlords and their intellectual megaphones sometimes use the word restructuring interchangeably with secession. Defenders of the status quo equally accuse advocates of restructuring of nursing plans to break up the country. This is largely due to the fact that the debate has been hijacked by those without clarity of purpose. Restructuring is not synonymous with secession or separation.
Fourthly, the idea of restructuring as a fad should be questioned. Opportunistic politicians join the campaign for restructuring when they are out of power. Whereas when they are in power they muster all their strength to resist the move to restructure even when they have restructuring in the manifestoes of their political parties. Politicians treat the topic of restructuring as a veritable tool for ethnic and regional mobilisation and nothing more. However, approaching the problems of the structure of the Nigerian federation has been part of the Nigerian political history since the colonial times. Unfortunately, the historical context for restructuring is often missed in the debate which has generated more heat than light”.
This is as far as we can take today. Space constraints also limit my own comments. From the very beginning, FF declared war on “ethnic warlords and demagogues” These are the same people Western scholars call “nations” and “nationalities”. To rubbish them, we call them “tribes” and “ethnic groups”. FF wants the unity of Nigeria maintained; he only wants the Nigerian federation made more efficient. “That is how it should be in Nigeria”, he said matter-of-factly. But can it? Has it? And is that not why we are in this bind? He supports restructuring so it can make the Nigerian federation “work better” Even in the First Republic, did it work without hiccups? In our discussions, the only possibility of FF supporting the revolutionary option of dissolving Nigeria is if restructuring is not allowed to happen.
I agree that the universities used to be vibrant and that they resonated with ideas – but who killed that spirit? In many of the fire-brand scholars of yore, the Nigeria Dream died even before they went to their untimely grave. Importantly, we must never play down the place of ethnic solidarity – and religion – in social and political systems. Those who trivialised the National Question burned their fingers.
In the event that Nigeria dissolves into many nationalities, will that solve ALL problems for each of the new nations? No! I agree with FF that more than restructuring and or dissolution of Nigeria is needed for class relations to be altered and for class problems to be addressed. But the wisdom of our people is that when trees fall on trees, you begin by removing the one on top!