Nigerians want change, but the change on offer today is still within the same dysfunctional political system. This is not just about corruption. In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell describes Aristotle’s views of the ideal political setup. According to Aristotle, large cities are never well governed because a multitude cannot be orderly. “A State ought to be large enough to be more or less self-sufficing, but not too large for constitutional government. It ought to be small enough for the citizens to know each other’s characters; otherwise right will not be done in elections and lawsuits. The territory should be small enough to be surveyed in its entirety from a hill-top.
Without delving much into Aristotle’s Politics, his disapproval of large States seems valid enough when one considers the Nigerian political system. Nigeria—in 2016—still runs a system where a population of over 180 million depends on one man at the centre for fuel, electricity, trade, and security. Nigeria’s political system is what an ignorant aristocrat with presidential ambitions would design as a federation of states. The resulting hogwash is a case study in socio-political inefficiency.
Our official name, Federal Republic of Nigeria, pretends—or aspires—to a federation of 36 semi-independent political units and a federal capital. But, in design and practice, what we have is a centralised government with 37 branches “nationwide”. State legislatures are caricatures of government, and the federal legislature is a joke. The state executive runs errands for its federal boss. The judicial system does not even pretend at federalism: it is a mishmash of jurisdictions. A federation ought to be like a holding company with its nearly autonomous group entities, but ours is more like a head office with several confused branches.
To be fair, this is not the fault of the federating units or their governors. The usual admonition that states should generate internal revenue conveniently ignores the fact that what we call “states” are arbitrary designs. For example, although I admit Ogun as my state of origin, I am not from Ogun. Nobody is from Ogun. There is an Ogun River, but Ogun State is merely a concept. Instead, I am from Abeokuta or—when I am in the mood for patrilineal descent—Ota.
Abeokuta and Ota are organic entities, not concepts. They have an “identity”—history, culture, people, and even genetics. But, Ogun has no emotive identity. It is an artificial location drawn from the imagination of a soldier. The military designed it to be dependent on Abuja. It is, therefore, silly to attach any serious federating status to Ogun State. The simple test is this: What unit can secede from Nigeria? Abeokuta can declare its independence. “Ogun” cannot, neither can “Yoruba”. This is trite: Abeokuta and Oyo did not join Nigeria at the same time (or even as “Yoruba”).
The road to political change begins with the real constituent units of Nigeria. We have to deemphasise the artificial ideas handed over to us. True, we cannot just “break up”. We have bonded over a hundred years of shared history. Still, there are no good reasons why we should continue to operate artificial units instead of independent city-states.
The strongest argument against centralism is the ease of system disruption. Consider the latest in our continuing dysfunctions: the emergence of the cartoonish-named Niger Delta Avengers. But the activities of the group are not funny. Destroyed pipelines, delayed gas production and dead power plants increase the suffering of ordinary citizens who are dependent on Abuja. Domestic terrorism wins by crippling the people. The typical Nigerian reaction, of course, is: “Kill them all”. But that lazy—and primitive—mentality only tackles the criminal aspects of the problem temporarily. The socioeconomic aspects will keep multiplying.
Yet, it is annoying that the consequences of this type of terrorism are extensive only because we run a centralist State. It is ridiculous that, in the absence of a trade agreement, a vandal in Warri should easily disrupt the electricity of people in Kaduna or Ibadan. Federating units ought to be insulated from system failures in their neighbours. But militants inflict so much damage because the lifeblood of the country has only one central vein. It runs from the pipelines in the South-South to the Budget Office of the President.
And so, we ought to reorganise our federating units along lines of natural city-states and their adjoining villages. Let’s call this a “Township”. For example, Lagos State should be two or three Townships with each having its own economy, constitution, government and agencies. Townships can be micro-managed through districts. Each Township would be responsible for its utilities and infrastructure—electricity, fuel, health care, education, roads, and internal security—whether generated or contracted. There would be a loose regional government of some hundred Townships, and a limited federal government of regional representatives. These regional and federal governments would legislate on strictly national affairs, particularly federal courts, the federal bank, inter-Township transport, national borders, and international diplomacy.
Naturally, there will be poor Townships and rich ones; industrial ones and agrarian ones; sane places and insane ones. Some will be delightful while others will be tough. Everyone makes their own bed. Still, half a loaf is better than the whole country waiting for Mr Kachikwu to do magic.
Why won’t this work? Only one reason: each “Township” has to have control of its land, water and other natural resources and to exploit and allocate these as seems best. The federal and regional governments will own little. But this will be the end of mega-contracts, super ministers and pampered senators. In short, nobody in Abuja today is going to approve that type of change.
Maybe this is about corruption, after all. The mooching type of corruption, not just the looting type.
In case you missed the point of this article, “Change” has to be a coordinated constitutional reform and system overhaul.It should not be this same old Abuja drama of: Where can we find money, and what next can we spend it on?
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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