Restructuring Nigeria: Silver Bullets from an Empty Barrel

Source: ISEMAG

One of my popular arguments on this medium (read: Medium) is that for Nigeria to find geometric advance, the country needs to find meaning to nationhood rather than trying to pursue an ethnic agenda. I raised the analogy that “fractured societies don’t scale” and we might do injustice to Nigeria’s greatness if we keep scavenging over the parts rather than building the whole. Well, is it okay to change one’s mind that such aspiration remains utopian in the context of the nation’s direction as it appears that the lines struggle to converge?

The current disposition of the leaders who in appearance and reality have remained lukewarm to issues that divide the country is nauseating and makes an ethnic agitator out of unbowed nationalists. Beneath these issues are growls for either restructuring, devolution of powers, confederacy or secession. At this point, one is forced to pick a point in the spectrum. What has grown louder in recent times has been the chants of restructuring, a loud din that this economy, funded by oil drilled at gunpoint is no longer sufficient nor sustainable. Above the bedlam is the spate of insecurity that has shown that current systems can no longer protect neither the elite nor the proletariat. If I am to throw a dart at restructuring, what exactly will that mean?

Amara Nwakpa rightly captured my thoughts on first principles when it comes to restructuring. He tweeted that, ‘I just believe that you cannot address any of the structural problems in Nigeria by maintaining the power asymmetries that created them in the first place.” I don’t believe that restructuring will have any measurable effect if we keep the current unaccountable systems that lack empathy or concern for the people. We are all aware of the powers that the governors wield at the state level with all institutions and structures collapsing at the whim of the executive. The legislature, judiciary, local government systems, audit and other institutions are woven around the governor. Even a constitutional amendment that provides independence for equal arms of government in a democratic system has not been delivered and there are no consequences. How do governors now wholly ask for more powers if they haven’t earned trust with the ones advanced to them? Are we encouraging the expansion of fiefdoms at the local levels?

I have heard counter-arguments that if we “localise” governance, we will move the accountability paradigm to the sub-national levels. I have been told that governors would no longer point the index finger to the centre and this rapidly changes the narrative of citizen power. I believe this is a costly assumption — apologies to Bro Gbile Akanni’s book. For all the taxes paid by Lagos residents, I do not see more concentrated efforts to hold the government accountable or offered sufficient information to do so.

Nigeria’s civic behaviour can turn the thesis into antithesis. We have to write it firmly into laws and codify it properly with punitive statements on how laws check the abuse and how it rises above everyone. In a restructured Nigeria, how will institutions of the law remain independent? How will the citizens safeguard the supremacy of the law? This is why our restructuring should start with one question: how do we establish and reinforce an accountable system that reworks power symmetry? After that, we can further explore questions to expand productivity and improve security. We need a constitution that binds everyone to conduct, a review that changes the power symmetry and truly returns power to the people.

We need to talk. Yes! Another national conference — as a nation, put all our cards on the table and rethink how we build productivity, social welfare and security. The current system that divides corporate taxes and oil rent on the basis of the population does not incentivise production, it only favours outsized population growth and elite consumption. A centrally controlled security system that’s bereft of local context does not protect Nigerians anymore. We have enough reports on restructuring that can start a conversation on the devolution of powers, thereby initiating every region to find its progress. We should start by interrogating these documents and bring the entire legislative apparatus — national and state levels — together to our national conversation.

Also, I am not a fan of huge sudden changes, especially on fiscal federalism. I maintain that if the FAAC trough is severed, a lot of states will rot in crisis, and walk straight into collapse. We need the signalling with clarity that it might be 13% derivation today, it would graduate to 25% in 5 years and possibly 40% in 10 years. In cushioning this effect, the Federal Government should set up two funds — Productivity Fund and Equity Fund. A Productivity Fund provides seed support to states interested in exploring new economic themes that expand their revenue profile in the long term while an Equity Fund that plugs inequities such as education, youth empowerment and health statistics across Nigeria’s geopolitical zones for a fixed period. The Equity Fund might be a repurposing of current development outlets such as NDDC, NEDC, Social Investment Programmes in a manner that pays attention to environments with severe socio-economic indices.

We also need to answer some hard questions as a nation: why do we have a federal PAYE law? Why can’t states collect their VAT and remit to the Federal Government with a tax tribunal to resolve differences? What needs to change in the Exclusive List that states have seen as opportunities for economic growth? What laws will work for every section of the country and how will minorities be protected?

These answers will not come easily or quickly. We will require steady answers to non-exhaustive questions that will define the existence of Nigeria. Restructuring is no longer a wish for Nigeria, it needs to be on the table as well as the principles of fairness, accountability and productivity. If Nigeria is to survive, it cannot continue to shy away from its existential questions and it’s about how to rework the current power inequities and truly give power to the people.

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow