Prof. Attahiru Jega is a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In this interview monitored on Arise Television, he speaks on the clamour for restructuring of Nigeria and why the Federal Government should support it to address the imbalance in the polity. ANAYO EZUGWU reports
You have argued consistently and you did so again at the Daily Trust Dialogue that restructuring is necessary. But restructuring on itself is not a sufficient condition as we need to have good governance, leaders, justice, equity, values of equality. Which comes first?
Is restructuring itself a precondition to ensure good governance, equality, equity and stability as proposed by those who are arguing for restructuring?
There is no doubt that in a federal system like the one we have in Nigeria, efforts have to be made to ensure that power, resources and authority are appropriately shared between the national and the subordinate governments, which in our present context in Nigeria is between the federal and the state governments. But sharing authority, power and resources have to be predicated on equity, justice, equality of opportunity and these can only be driven by good leadership in a process of good governance.
So, really it is not an either or, they have to be combined together. But the key thing is that the Nigerian federal arrangement has been characterized by imbalance, and regrettably, the concentration of power and resources in the Federal Government. It is very important that we address this because it has been generating tension.
The key objective of federalism is to manage diversity, foster peaceful co-existence as a precondition for national progress and socioeconomic development. In Nigeria all these are undermined and obstructed by the perception of inequity because of the concentration of power and resources in the Federal Government and because of poor governance in the way in which this diversity is managed.
To your question, I will say that clearly we have to address the structural imbalance and inequity in sharing of power and resources but it can only succeed if we combine it with good democratic governance.
How possible is it to implement the 1960 and 1963 constitutions as a way of achieving restructuring?
I am one of those who think that history teaches us lessons but in order to make progress, we need not to go in history. So, I think any suggestion as to going back to 1960 or 1963 constitutions really is a dream and unrealistic.
There are a lot of lessons we can learn and certainly if we review that history of the past, we could see that the democratic arrangement in Nigeria was better managed than it is currently. So, the lesson is how we can ensure that we introduce substantive reforms of restructuring that can ensure that we manage our diversity much better than those who operated under the 1960 and 1963 constitutions were able to do.
The idea of let’s go back to what it was in 1963, I think it is unrealistic but there are lessons we can learn from that which we can combine with the best practices of the management of diversity in other federal systems in the world.
And that for me is the way forward in terms of how we can improve our present federal arrangement and make it more equitable and be able to generate a sense of belonging for all Nigerians as citizens of a country that has verse potentials for progress and development.
What are those lessons we can learn from those constitutions?
The key lesson is that we have to ensure equity and we have to strive to ensure unity in diversity. Sub-national governments need to have relative autonomy in the way in which they generate their resources and in the way they manage their resources. And obviously, there are lessons to learn from the way in which resources were generated and shared in the First Republic.
These lessons need to be factored into how we move forward and in improving our own federal system. But the notion of resource control, really, I won’t say is abnormal but it is something that connotes something totally different from the traditional and good practice notion of sharing on the basis of equity, justice and equality of opportunity.
So, this extremist notion of every state in the federation should control all their resource was not what happened in the 1960 and 1963 constitutions.
But there were opportunities for the regions at that time to have substantial resources from the revenues they generate from within their territories, which enabled them to be able to chart a course of development for those who reside in their regions. I think in this discussion of how to move forward in this country, we should choose a better concept than those that create more division and more controversy in our discourses.
To the issue of resource control, yes it has been espoused and championed and promoted but that was not really what happened under the 1960 and 1963 constitutions. It is very important that we recognize this.
To improve our federal arrangement and manage our diversity better, it is important that we put aside brinkmanship and pandering to ethnoregional or religious sentiments.
These are practical matters that can be addressed practically and scientifically in terms of how we can ensure equity in the distribution of resources in our present federal arrangement. Obviously, there are inequalities and we must ensure that we address them.
Two things are significant in the management of power and resources in a federal system. First and foremost, is to ensure relative autonomy of what we can call the federating units.
While we will push for that relative autonomy, we must also insist on balanced development because you can’t have a federal system in which there is unequal and unbalance development. It can also generate its own consequences.
The good practice in all federal systems that have become models in this world is balancing equity and relative autonomy with the necessity of balanced development.
So, I will avoid speaking about resource control because it has its own political and controversial connotations but I would insist that there must be justice and fairness in the ways in which we distribute resources that are generated from each of the components of the federation.
One of your major arguments at the Daily Trust Dialogue was that the major challenge of restructuring is doing it without upsetting the existing structure. Is that really possible because you argued against dismounting the state structure, how do we restructure without upsetting the existing structure?
I don’t think that there is any contradiction in what I said or discussed in my paper and if there is a perception of that contradiction, what I will say now will help clarify it.
What I meant by the existing structure is Nigeria as an entity and what will improve the federal arrangement is mobilization of ethnic, religious and other irredentist tendencies.
That was why I said the challenge of improving the federal arrangement through some form of restructuring is a challenge of ensuring that all these variables which are being mobilize in the politics of restructuring do not actually end up creating so much division such that Nigeria is destroyed and the whole objective would be therefore be lost.
So, that was what I meant and the best way to do this obviously is not in the revolutionary destructive sense but what I have argued to be incremental positive changes. Things have been so bad and I keep saying this and in fact it is something that applies to many sectors of our country.
Things have been so bad for so long, particularly on the issue of imbalance and inequity in our federal arrangement that it will require careful systematic planning and a timeframe within which to address them.
A revolutionary destructive approach in the sense of we have to do everything at the same time will be counterproductive and the little history we have of trying to do wholesale constitutional amendment has showed that it doesn’t work. But you can prioritize and say within a reasonable timeframe, we will do this and this, consolidate it and then move on to something else.
Let’s talk about the benefits in relation to the cost that could possibly be attached to execution of restructuring?
If I understand your question correctly, there are tremendous benefits of making serious efforts to pursue some form of restructuring, particularly what I consider to be the incremental positive changes to improve the management of diversity and create more sense of belonging for Nigerian citizens between now and 2023, and then have other things that can also consolidate what have been done during this period between 2023 and 2027.
Of course the benefits would enormous. One of the key benefits is that unity in diversity is very difficult to have but the overriding objective is to have peaceful co-existence because if there is perpetual instability in our federal system, obviously it would obstruct and undermine socio-economic development. In fact, it can result in perpetual conflict and violence that are destructive of the economic potentials and other potentials of our country.
So, restructuring to mitigate this sense of marginalization and perception of inequity and injustice in the ways in which our diversity is managed will definitely go a long way to improve the environment for socio-economic development in our country, which we all desire.
I also believe it will ensure that our sub-national governmental units whether they are the states or under the states, the local governments will also have relative autonomy to begin to address the fundamental needs and aspirations of the people who are residents in their territories.
I think it is very important and that is why good governance is also key because even you if bring resources to the states and local governments under the present contest of mis-governance and poor leadership, those resources would be frittered away and may not be impactful in terms of addressing the fundamental needs and aspirations of the people.
So, there are substantial benefits to gain in terms of peace, stability and stable socio-economic development.
What do you think can be achieved between now and 2023 and how can avoid crisis in the course of restructuring?
Definitely, it is possible to do quite a lot of restructuring focusing on what you call the low hanging fruits between now and 2023 and then consolidate those with other reforms after 2023 until the next election in 2027.
Obviously, once you do this and take measures to ensure that post-2023 we have substantially better elected leaders in governance whether at the federal or state levels, people who will respect democracy and who would be selfless in the ways in which they serve the people and manage resources and satisfy the needs and aspirations of the people.
Then we would be able to avoid all those crises and conflicts of the First Republic. A lot of these have to do with not only authoritarian and selfish disposition of leaders but also issues of lack of respect and trust to differing opinions.
Under good and democratic governance, obviously, there should be a lot of tolerance and mutual respect for each other even if you have differing opinions under full compliance to the rule of law.
In the present context, we have seen situations at both the federal and state levels that those entrusted with leadership positions do not comply or respect the rule of law. And if you don’t comply with the rule of law, you provide incentives for people to take laws into their hands and that is a recipe conflict, crisis and violence. A lot of that happened in the Western Region or other regions in the First Republic.
So, entrenching democratic culture and practice with good leadership and governance will minimize all of these. But more specifically, the low hanging fruit that I see we can address between now and 2023 could be done with a quick constitutional amendment that is not wholesale but focuses on just those issues.
And a lot of other things, particularly, with regard to governance can be done by the Federal Government if there is a political will in terms of addressing them and improving the process of governance.
For example, I think that it is possible between now and 2023 for the Federal Government to set-up a very small technical committee but very broadly inclusive to be able to study the recommendations of the 2005 National Political Conference and the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference and be able to sort them out in terms of priority and then be able to identify them in terms of what should be addressed in short and in medium terms.
I also think it is possible to do this given the intellectual resources we have in this country. We should be able to get competent people from across the country, who should be able to do this dispassionately within the shortest possible time.
Secondly and most importantly, nobody can doubt the fact the federal legislative list is unhealthy and concentrates too much power and authority and therefore commensurate resources to the Federal Government. We can talk about what bring this about; there are so many reasons, obviously the legacy of military rule and also its own continuous impact in the period of transition to democracy since 1999. But that is not the issue.
The issue is anybody who compares Nigeria’s federal legislative list with the federal legislative list in any federal country in the world will see the remarkable imbalance.
We should address that and begin to de-concentrate power assign to the federal government and allocate it to the state governments. Doing so would also mean turning those resources associated with those responsibilities from the Federal Government to the state levels. If we do that, you will find out that the whole reason why there is a lot of clamour for who controls the Federal Government is because who controls the Federal Government particularly under our very terrible governance circumstances, controls also these resources, vandalise them, privatise them and actually undermine the sense of belonging by marginalizing others in real sense or even creating the perception of marginalization which is even more serious and dangerous.
So, de-concentrate power and commensurate resources from the central government to the federating units or states in our own context. And how do you do that? It is very simple. What is the best practice in all federal systems in the world?
The practice is that there are certain responsibilities that are the exclusive responsibilities of states. All the Federal Government needs to do is to create a regulatory framework, an incentive structure that can ensure equity and respect for rule of law as well as balanced development.
For example, why should the Federal Government have responsibility in secondary and basic education with a Federal Ministry of Education or Federal Ministry of Health or Federal Ministry of Housing? These are unnecessary in a federal system.
The resources should be channeled to the states so that the states can handle these responsibilities because these are what directly affect the needs and aspirations of the people. I think this is something that can be done between now and 2023.
Of course the challenge is that you have to ensure that there is a good governance framework at the state level to ensure that these resources are not commandeered by reckless governors or chairmen of local governments, who will divert them into personal use through corruption.
That will be a challenge but I believe that once there is a lot of resources at the state level, the attention of the local elites will now focus on states in terms of how those resources are managed and how they become beneficial to our citizens.
This means that all citizens will therefore have to be mobilized and engaged in terms of ensuring appropriate utilization of these resources. So, that’s for me a low hanging fruit that can have substantive impact in terms of reducing all these focus at the federal level and all these competition for resources.
In fact, all these tendencies for those who control the Federal Government to begin to convert resources into their own personal and selfish uses to the disadvantage of other Nigerians will cease. I think this is something that is doable and practical than trying to create new states or going back to the original four regions or even in creating a new regional structure on the basis of the so called six geopolitical zones.
By doing so, all these arguments about how some of the 36 states in the federation are unviable economically would be addressed because the more resources that come to these states, the more viable they become, particularly if there are efforts to ensure that these resources are not mismanaged.
One low hanging fruit in the area of governance that can be done immediately is to begin to strengthen the anti-corruption fight, particularly at the state and local government levels.
We have been focusing on celebrated cases at the federal level, if we can focus on the state level and ensure people who steal public funds are dealt with and penalized appropriately, we will begin to also create that environment in which when more resources come they can be handled much better than they are being handled now.
How do we build elite consensus to the issue of restructuring? Secondly are you running for president in 2023 in order to put some of these ideas into practice? And finally, what do you say to the presidency that said whoever wants restructuring should approach the National Assembly?
First of all I don’t think that is helpful for the Federal Government to take that position. I think in this kind of desire to improve the federal arrangement, the Federal Government needs to play a critical role in order to bring positive change to this country.
So, sitting back and say go to National Assembly is unhelpful. I think there is a lot the Federal Government can do.
This thing that I suggested about a small technical group that can review the recommendations of the two major national conferences that we had can only be done by a federal authority not by the legislature or anybody. So, I don’t think is the right approach and I hope the Federal Government will review its position in this regard.
Secondly, in 2023 I want for Nigeria the best competent, experienced group leaders both at the federal and state levels, so that they can help us have good democratic governance for national development and management of our diversity as well as for our progress and development as a nation. In a country of over 200 million people, if we look carefully and improve the selection process for leadership with political parties, we can find these people.
So, my joining politics and critical engagement now is to help those young men and women in the country, who are losing hope to regain hope and to become engaged because that is the only way for us to find the kind of leadership we need for both federal and state levels to drive our progress and development post-2023.
The issue of contesting for a public office really is not in my mind as I speak with you; all I want is that everybody has to be involved because we can no longer seat on the fence.
We need to mobilize people to come out and participate in the electoral and political processes and ensure that the right people we need given our resources in this country are fielded. I think all of us have the responsibility to do that. With regard to all of these things being tried before, I can tell you the difference from what I’m saying.
All of these have been tried before under a wrong framework. Under a framework that is undemocratic even in the period when we said we are transitioning to democracy under very poor leadership at both the federal and in most of the states. So, that is why I think that restructuring is necessary but it is not a sufficient condition for both stability and progress in Nigeria.
And that is why we have to combine all these with reforms in governance. For example, cost of governance is something a presidential order or directive can addressed, particularly at the federal level.
Look at the expenditure that is wasted in overhead. As the chief executive of the electoral commission, I related at that time with many federal agencies and I could see the waste. Of course that waste is waste of public resources but it is obviously avenue for corruption for many public officers.
We can address that. Look at the resources we spend on foreign trips and even entertainments in offices. This is something that can be addressed if there is a political will by those holding public positions. There is a lot we can do if we focus our mind on it between now and 2023.