Restructuring Part 2: Conceptual Foundations


Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

In part 1, we saw a sort of bidirectional indication of how restructuring might unfold.  It dealt with the constricting effects of over-centralization.  In the case of education, we saw the apathy-inducing complications of separating constituencies from owning and contributing to the development of institutions that affect their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children.  But there are certain assumptions lurking beneath the phenomenon of restructuring that often are not identified much less factored into the equation of the discourse around it.  We elicit those assumptions and explore them in this final part.

Restructuring presupposes a structure the shape of which is meant to be altered at the end of the process.  There is a further assumption that the structure involved is a composite one made up of two or more parts.  Given this, one of the exigencies we must deal with concerns what ought to be the relationship between and among the different parts comprising the whole in question.  The analogy we draw from the two complex areas is quite instructive.

When the titans of the entertainment industry united what are otherwise separable and separate functions in themselves, yes, they attained great heights, but at the price of stifling creativity, forcing unhealthy relationships—enmity-inflected splits, disruptive legal disputes, etc.—and overall denying their audiences the full possibilities of heterogeneity and heterodoxy, even with the inevitable problems and difficulties—conflicts, for instance—that come in their wake.

Let us now delve into the assumptions that are at the base of restructuring in the Nigerian case.  What are the components of the political structure called Nigeria that require that modifications be made?  We have a federal government, 36 state governments, and, at least, 775 local governments and only goodness knows how many more mimic units in their own rights.  The armed forces run their own school system, for instance.  Unfortunately, because no attention is paid to the assumptions that are at work in any federal system, much of the ongoing debate on restructuring focuses on only one—federal/state—of those multiple relationships and even too much of that focus turns on sharing the proverbial “national cake”.

Meanwhile, it is a mark of how much the complexity of the idea of restructuring eludes us that for many, what preoccupies them is the sharing of the cake, it is rarely ever about producing it.  This is easily explained.  Because the greater part of our understanding of Nigeria’s wealth is in terms of natural resources and nature is reduced to geography, the issue turns on who should have the lion’s share of the proceeds of selling natural resources found in specific locations across the country.  Derivation looms disproportionately large in the discussion because what is at issue is nature-derived cake.

Our nature fetish makes the issue a lot simpler than it is.  I often wonder why the argument for derivation is not made for Value Added Taxes (VAT).  Is it because this cannot be “owned” by the states in which they are collected?  There is something ironic about this situation.  When it is natural, the location owns it; when it is produced, the people whose collective genius put together the system that is so productive don’t.  Whereas, in a sense, relating to inert nature that we exploit may seem easy, dealing with constituencies that are responsible for creating the wealth that is subject to VAT and other taxes is sure to be more, if I may say so, taxing [all puns intended].

Taxpayers are neither inert nor a monolith.  They are individuals organized, in many instances, in groups.  The occurrence of organized groups does not in any way eliminate the presence of individuals or obviate the need to pay attention to their preferences in customizing the relationship between the state, the groups, and the individuals involved.

Restructuring, properly conceived, must account for its constituent elements.  For one thing, the very clear lines of geography that defined the original structure at independence and the open debates, pre-independence, on what the relationship should be between the federal centre and the three regions enabled a structure that recognized its constituent units and the boundaries—geographical, political, economic and even cultural—they shared.  Within the component units, too, there were subdivisions marked by divisions and municipalities that themselves mimicked federal relations within their own boundaries.  Finally, municipalities and villages had their own boundaries within which they exercised relatively autonomous powers.

What was distinctive about this period was that Nigerians and their leaders debated what structure the country would have and, more importantly, what would be the relationships between the different units and their respective inhabitants.The outcomes of those debates were validated by popular elections.

Notable was the insistence of one of the principal leaders who also became our foremost theorist of federalism, Obafemi Awolowo, that Nigeria must be further divided not so much for the purposes of development or administrative convenience, but respect for the integrity and autonomy of the constituting nations that make up the state called Nigeria.  It was the basis of his insistence that the federation concocted by the British colonialists and which they practically blackmailed the leaders to embrace or else postpone the realization of independence was fatally flawed.

One unit was bigger than the other two combined which meant that the other parts of the federation were forever vulnerable to the preferences of the dominant region.

Second, there was more to being a people than region and all the regions, including the one everyone thought Awolowo favoured, were multinational characterized by the presence of a plurality of nationalities whose cultural heritages must not be sacrificed to the new contraption cobbled together by outsiders.  On this score, Awolowo argued that all national groups were equal and their capacity for self-determination should be recognized.  The best way to do so was to have a federal structure where the federating units were organized anchored on nationalities and mutual consent to live together with rules agreed respecting their mutual interactions and disposition of their resources, what their citizens owe one another, and so on.

No, I do not wish to litigate the sorry history of how that argument was turned against him and only his “base”—Western Region—ended up being carved up for purely political reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the principles he canvassed for creating a better structure for Nigeria.  The important point was that the tradition of dividing the country, of restructuring without rhyme or reason, was thereby inaugurated.

Then, again, the army came in!  Since the first and subsequent coups in the country, restructuring has been continuous though it has remained on the no-rhyme, no-reason trajectory till now.  It has all had to do, geographically, with whoever had the ear of the military ruler at any given time.  Yes, the expansion to 19 states came closest to carving up the country along lines suggested by Awolowo.  But that only lasted for so long.  The present 36-state structure follows no discernible logic in its construction.  Problem #1.

As we noted above, geography is the littlest part of putting together a solid federal structure.  Of greater importance is the medley of relations between the centre and the federating units; the inhabitants that make up the polity, the citizens, and the geographical spaces they inhabit and what resources inhere in those spaces, and so on.  The conceptualizations of these relationships are the real meat and potatoes of any structure and they are the ones that have most fatally afflicted the discourse of restructuring as it continues to unfold in the Nigerian public space.

Successive civilian administrations have persisted in playing ostrich when it comes to the inoperability of the bastard federal structure bequeathed by our country’s military.  From a structure in which each constituent unit had its integrity and autonomy recognized and made the basis of negotiations over all the relationships we iterated previously, the military erased all integrity and autonomy and substituted states that are more like military divisions and less like quasi-republics that true federations embody.

In the original structure, there was a recognition and celebration of difference.  Each region was adjudged different from the others.  Each had a sense of itself in terms of identity, fully apprised of its capacities and possessed of a vision of who its members are, and what life they consider is best for them within the ambience of a federation of units characterized by formal equality and recognition of one another’s identity, autonomy and integrity.

The most significant problem is that, at present, we have units with no identity, no vision of who they are, almost sundered from their inherent possibilities, and severally incapable of claiming, much less, operationalizing, any autonomy.  Now, each of the qualities just mentioned depends on the whims, caprices, and personalities of whoever happens to be governor at a given time and whether the party he represents controls the centre or is at variance with same.

Nigerian states are now no more than wards in a large village that pretends to be a republic.  Our intellectuals now are so petrified of acknowledging that federalism and conflict are inseparable that anyone who asks that states recover autonomy and fight to activate it is immediately accused of canvassing the break-up of the country.  It is why we foolishly abide a one-size fits all in everything that is responsible for the collapse of all our major systems.

We live under a nondescript constitution foisted on the polity by the military and abide by bankrupt politicians aided by their intellectual enablers which makes state governors act as if they are subordinate officers in military formations.  Our “democratic” president pays “state visits” to states and public holidays are declared, reception parties are mobilized, and state economies shut down!  Just as in military days, governors have “Oga on top” and are not, as they should be, in their respective states, the final authorities in tandem with their state assemblies.  State “First Ladies” are ranked by their husbands’ “ranking” with the “Oga on top” in Aso Rock and are all too happy to be errand women for their own “Oga on top” also known as the First Lady.

This should not surprise anybody.  The return of civilian rule should have been marked by the equivalent of the kinds of constitutional conventions that heralded the original structure at independence.  Instead of stepping into the levelling world of the military and the infinite substitutability of states for one another, we ought to have insisted on states striving to define themselves and together establishing the rules of engagement with one another in the context of a federal structure.  This, too, would have forced states to deal with their own heterogeneity and craft appropriate modes of governance that do not trash pluralism across board.

Appropriate lessons would have been drawn from antecedents within individual regions with relevant principles for bilateral and multilateral relations between and among states established, away from the purview of the federal government.  There would have been clear demarcation of where states are coordinate with the federal and where the federal would be superior to the states.  Right now, states are permanently subordinate to the federal.  That is by no means even a bad federal system.  Simply put, it is no federal system at all.

Such is the unthinking that afflicts our approach to restructuring that hardly anyone in any state thinks of pulling their higher education institutions out of the orbit and authority of JAMB, NUC, NUBTE and their secondary and primary schools from the sway of UBEC or any of the other misbegotten pseudo-federal bureaucracies manufactured by the military because they were consistent with the streamlining and centralizing stratagems of military formations.

Doubtless, military formation is an extremely bad model for the complexities of federal systems characterized by pluralism of diverse sorts.  The cause of efficiency is not served when states cannot do much without federal approval and the purse strings are so firmly held at the federal level that the very idea of state autonomy is clearly meaningless.  The situation is not helped by the restless run of apparatchik governors who are convinced that states are party divisions and they are mere ciphers for the president who is the head of their party whose whims they must conform to.

Lost in the shuffle is any awareness of the loss of local initiative symbolized by the death of local government, especially in the demise of cities that usually are the engines of modern economies.  Our cities are headless and small towns have no ambition to become bigger by creating better life prospects for those who might wish to move to them.  We don’t build cities; cities happen, again, without rhyme or reason.

Genuine restructuring must start from a philosophical orientation that has for its cornerstone the autonomy and integrity of the entities that make up the pluralism of the structure to be reordered.  It must take seriously the independent energies and creativities of the federating units that would yield the kind of efflorescence that we identified in the first part dealing with the entertainment industry.  It must enable the kind of heterogeneous flourishing that characterized the education industry that we discussed also in the first part of this series.  Outside of for-profit institutions now curated by businesspersons, the stifling centralization of schools, via government ownership, has led to the death of local initiatives, funding by voluntary agencies, and community ownership which, in their diverse ways, expanded both access to and availability of decent, even superb schools in the past.

I hope that this series has reminded us of the fact that there is a lot more to restructuring than is at present being canvassed in the discourse around it.


Táíwò teaches at the African Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.