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Nigeria: Federalism, unitarism, hybrid or what?

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It is a puzzle that the Bola Tinubu administration has dragged the 36 state governments to court to compel them to respect the autonomy of the 774 Local Government Councils, often touted, though erroneously, as the third tier of government and the government that is closest to the grassroots. That Tinubu has seemingly chosen the path of strengthening the existing Nigerian political structure or system contrary to the avalanche of cries for restructuring will baffle many.

It may appear that Tinubu is negating, nay, rubbishing, the very battle he waged – successfully – against President Olusegun Obasanjo when he (Tinubu) was the governor of Lagos State (1999 – 2007). After conducting a referendum and getting the endorsement of the state House of Assembly, Tinubu announced in April 2004 the creation of 37 additional Local Government Areas (LGAs), bringing the number to 57.

Obasanjo would have none of it. Yet, Tinubu would not back down. Obasanjo seized the federally-allocated funds for the state’s LGAs. Tinubu took a step backward by designating his new LGAs as “Local Government Development Areas”, subsumed under the constitutionally-recognised 20 LGAs. Obasanjo was not assuaged. Tinubu went to court and the matter dragged up to the Supreme Court. In the end, Tinubu won, but Obasanjo would not be persuaded to let go of the Lagos State local government funds he had placed a lien on.

Tinubu was, thus, forced to ingeniously search for means to increase the state’s internally-generated revenue. It remains to his eternal credit that he succeeded in doing that, setting the pace for Lagos to wean itself from dependence on federal allocation. The bad belly generated between Obasanjo and Tinubu as a result of that tango remains to this day. It was the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua, who succeeded Obasanjo, that obeyed the courts and ordered the release of the seized Lagos State LG funds – amounting to N10.8 billion – in July 2007.

Lessons learned include that of putting to test the principles of federalism or constitutional democracy. One is that the Federal Government (or the Centre) may not dictate or breathe down the neck of its constituent parts or federating units on matters concerning local administration.

Two: That the same system of local government administration cannot be imposed on a heterogeneous society like Nigeria, where there are over 370 nationalities with different languages, cultures, traditions, ways of life, economic and political systems, religions, etc. Even the colonial powers recognized and respected this basic fact in the system of government they imposed on the conquered peoples of Nigeria for the period they bore rule over them.

Three: that the command-and obey structure or unitary system of government imposed on Nigerians by successive military leaders, beginning with the first military coup of 1966, and which Obasanjo, himself an erstwhile military dictator, appeared to favour, could not be tolerated in a supposedly civilian federal system of government.

What, then, has changed since he stepped down as a two-term civilian governor of Lagos state that has made Tinubu to now step into the shoes and assume the same position as Obasanjo? Why seek to strengthen a local government system that is as oppressive and wasteful as it is unjust to a large section of the Nigerian polity? The present local government system is an aberration, to say the least. It is unitary in concept as well as in its implementation.

The same system cannot be expected to work uniformly all over the federation. Each segment of the country is unique and should be allowed to formulate, fashion out, and administer a local government system suitable to it. What the Tinubu administration seeks is an imposition and must be discarded for a truly federal system to emerge; to do otherwise is to enhance illogically.

The question many are also asking is whether Tinubu as governor allowed the local government councils the kind of autonomy he is seeking for them now as the President! It is on record that Tinubu as governor took the Federal Government of Obasanjo to court on many occasions over this or that issue, testing the constitutionality of Obasanjo’s efforts to arm-twist the States. No other governor was that audacious against President Obasanjo. Will Tinubu stomach the same treatment from any of the governors? Shall we have at least one State governor able and willing to do unto Tinubu what he did to Obasanjo?

The present local government system is not the only incongruous creation of the military that must be done away with. To start with, the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria by Lord Lugard to form what is now known as Nigeria was an imposition. There was no referendum or plebiscite allowed for the people under the two protectorates to determine whether or not they wanted the amalgamation. It was a “diktat”, pure and simple, imposed by the British colonialists for their own selfish reasons.

The agitations for self-rule by Nigerians, over which a civil war was fought, and over which some have, again, taken up arms, must now be respected. Let Nigerians decide whether or not they want a continuation of the Lugardian experiment, as some have described it, or they want a break-up; be it a “velvet divorce” along the lines of erstwhile Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Sudan model.

Nigeria’s Constitutions, especially after those of 1960 and 1963, have been described as a fraud – and appropriately so – because they make claims that everyone knows to be patently false. They all started by saying “We the people (of Nigeria)” made those constitutions for ourselves when we did not. Our first military ruler, JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, destroyed Nigeria’s federalism with his Unification Decree Number 34 of 1966; since then, all the states created by fiat by our military rulers cannot be regarded as “federating units” properly so-called but are mere “begging bowls” as my sister, Funke Egbemode, once described them.

Virtually all the states are weak and are not economically viable. In many cases, strange bedfellows have been lumped together and birds of a feather separated, giving rise to perpetual acrimony and animosity. One reason why we do not, and cannot, see the kind of economic development witnessed in the First Republic is because the states as we have them today are a far cry from the Regions of old.

Why restructuring is not top on President Tinubu’s agenda – seemingly – should baffle many; for that has been canvassed as the panacea to the myriad problems bedeviling the country. Prof. Akinyemi Onigbinde’s position on the issue of federalism titled “Granting autonomy to Local Governments undermines federalism principles”, aligns with mine.

Hear the erudite professor: “In a federal system of government, such as the one we claim to be running, granting autonomy to local governments undermines the principles of federalism. Successive military leaders from certain sections of Nigeria have used their power to create local government areas in their regions, giving them demographic and fiscal advantages over other sections which provide the bulk of the fiscal resources that all tiers of government rely on. This autonomy is a subversion of federalism and should be rejected by all who value democracy within a federal system.

“In a true federal system, regions, provinces, or states are the federating units that create a central authority to achieve specific mutual benefits. Local government areas, which are created for administrative convenience, do not qualify as federating units and should not draw administrative costs from the federation account. In principle, they are unknown to the central authority as established by the federating units.

“While efforts should be focused on repairing our feudalistic unitary system disguised as federalism, we are instead dismantling the political architecture of the federal system by undermining the states’ authority over local governments. The argument that governors are misappropriating local government funds from the federation account does not justify dismantling the federal system. The neglect of local roads and other responsibilities of local governments is not solely due to state governors’ controlling funds, but also due to politicians’ general disregard for the welfare of the people and their tendency to prioritize personal gain.

“Even if local government funds were distributed directly to them, there is no guarantee that local government chairmen would not emulate the governors’ corrupt practices. This could lead to further fragmentation, with each political ward or village demanding direct allocations from the federation account.

“The issue of underdevelopment in local government areas is more about the politicians’ lack of accountability than the governors’ control over funds. Constituents must mobilize to hold their local leaders accountable, regardless of political party affiliations. Furthermore, while state governors are criticized for mismanaging funds, there is little concern about the federal government’s handling of its share of the federation account, which affects national infrastructure and services like policing.

“As part of our journey towards a restructured federal system that allows states or geographical zones to flourish socioeconomically, we should consider dissolving existing local government areas. States should delineate their own local-governing areas based on demographics, administrative needs, and available financial resources. The current proliferation of local government areas, driven by military rulers from the North, was primarily to receive funds from the federation account without considering viability.

“Granting local government areas direct funding from the central purse has serious implications for rural lands. Local government chairmen in rural areas, dependent on federal allocations, may be pressured into relinquishing land for projects that serve the political or personal interests of the central authority. The RUGA project under former President Muhammadu Buhari exemplifies the potential dangers of such autonomy, which could have led to significant land loss for communities if local governments had been autonomous.

“The Yoruba people in the South-West are still not free from the threat of land subjugation, even with their son in power. It is important to avoid supporting policies simply because they are pushed by someone from one’s own group. While President Bola Tinubu may have good intentions for local government administration, we must be wary of the potential misuse of rural lands by future presidents from other geopolitical zones. The idea of RUGA remains alive in the consciousness of herdsmen in Nigeria, and local government autonomy could provide a legal basis for similar projects in the future”.

I agree no less with Onigbinde! From experience, creation of LGAs have not led to development at the grassroots; if anything, it has only democratised corruption, taking it from the top (Federal Government) through the middle (state governments) to the bottom (Local Government Councils) of the country’s leadership ladder! In Lagos where I work and live, don’t we see how LG chairmen live large, abandoning their localities and relocating to VGC or Banana Island? Don’t we see how they compete with governors to send their children to the most expensive schools and acquire choice properties abroad?

Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of the Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Bolawole writes the On the Lord’s Day column in the Sunday Tribune and the Treasurers column in the New Telegraph newspapers. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television. He can be reached on turnpot@gmail.com +234 807 552 5533

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