THE problem with this call has been the connotations it carries. Agitation for “true” federalism or restructuring has refused to be jettisoned out of our political lexica, like poverty and corruption. The voices for a new form of federalism that will give more powers to the constituent parts of the federation and reduce the power at the centre are getting louder and heading to a crescendo. The central concern, it appears, is how the national cake is split among the constituent units. Opponents of the proposed new federalism support the status quo or, at best, may not support the old ways of running our federation but are suspicious of the new federalism touted by these agitators, who sometimes they see as troublemakers or secessionist sympathisers.
The calls for a new form of federalism have polarised Nigeria. This polarisation has taken regional dimensions and seems to be creating a North/South divide. The history of this call shows a general acceptance that such change from the status quo must be championed and brought about by the Federal Government, and the struggle for this change has been a struggle to convince the central government not only to initiate this restructuring and reforms but also to bring them to fruition. The objectives over the years have remained the same. What has changed is the strategy and approach to achieving them.
From 1979 when Nigeria adopted the presidential system from the US, its distribution of powers has been heavily skewed towards the centre. The reason for this may be historical. Nigeria inherited a semi unitary state from the military, who ruled from the centre and established a hierarchy where the centre imposes its authority and wishes on the component parts. The centralist power structure they created was supposed to hold the country together and ensure the indivisibility of Nigeria. Besides, the proper federal system of the early 1960s backed by the 1963 Constitution created strong regions capable of challenging the centre. An agitation for self-determination by one of such regions led to a war that claimed over three million lives.
Given these scenarios, the pervading psyche of leaders, especially military administrators, was to equate true federalism with disunity and possible break up of Nigeria. This psychology is still pervasive today, especially in the North where they fear the disintegration of Nigeria if the centre loses power to the states or “regions”. When the military administration of Olusegun Obasanjo and Abdulsalami Abubakar midwifed the 1979 and 1999 constitutions respectively, the military government made sure that it reposed much power to the Federal Government whilst relegating the constituent parts to the background. In the three main areas of functions of government, viz: security, finance, and resource control, the central government has a strangling controlling power over the states.
For years there has been agitation primarily by Southern states for restructuring to “true” federalism. It is as old as Nigeria’s democratic journey. Then the trust was and still is about how much natural resources from my backyard go to feed the collective pool. Nothing much was achieved despite these agitations. Recent events point to the direction of using other means to achieve the objectives of “true” federalism. The move is unfolding very fast. The voices for true federalism are increasing daily and getting more united across party lines.
Apostles of a new federalism or fiscal federalism seem to have found a new route to their destination. This new traction, championed not by ordinary people but by highly placed elected leaders and political operatives, have further widened the natural fault lines of Southern, Middle Belt and Northern Nigeria. In this new unfolding scenario, the theatre of war is not some constitutional conference, constituent assembly, national conference or even National Assembly but through the platform of the states or in a more collective sense “Southern states” using the same constitution we know.
These recent developments have achieved something very significant. States have reclaimed the inner spirit of the Constitution by reiterating, in every available public space, its core principles of a federation and respect for the diversity of cultures. This state-sponsored push towards more fiscal federalism happened despite relentless resistance by the Federal Government to hold on to the old system that is not working. The tendency towards fiscal federalism has now reached an unprecedented height. State governments are pushing for this from four different directions: exercising greater financial power, starting from VAT and going for more IGR; establishing local security infrastructure parallel to federal ones; anti-open grazing laws; Southern governors’ pressure for zoning of presidency to the South across all parties.
Led by Lagos and now Rivers State governments, the Southern governors are clamouring to control all VAT collections made within their states. The key issue in the clamour of the Southern states is whether the fruit and returns of the tax obligations of citizens in one state should be appropriated by the federal authority and dispersed among the states of the union? A Federal High Court ruled in favour of Rivers State in a case between Rivers State and FIRS regarding VAT collection. The court’s interpretation of the Nigerian Constitution regarding VAT collection is that the states have a right to collect VAT and use the proceeds rather than wait for the Federal Government through FIRS to collect tax and distribute to all the states and local governments in a predetermined ratio.
It is likely that the case will get to the Supreme Court for the final verdict. If the judgement goes in favour of the states, it will have huge implications. One of such is that it may mark the beginning of a call for proper state control of resources within its boundaries. Another issue this will bring to the fore is that states that bandy huge demographics for electoral and federal allocation purposes should now be ready to match those figures with tax returns to fulfil their obligations. In more established federal systems, states control their resources and contribute to the centre and not vice versa.
The security situation in the South occasioned by the herders/farmers conflict led the governors to push for and enact anti-open grazing laws in most of the Southern states and some Middle Belt states. These anti-open grazing laws are against the Federal Government’s stance that banning open grazing without providing an alternative for the herders is counter-productive and even vindictive. The states have rejected all Federal Government initiatives (RUGA and grazing reserve route) to interfere with land use in states. The states are standing on the Land Use Act enshrined in the Constitution that placed all lands in their control and not the Federal Government. The states that have enacted anti-open grazing laws are bent on implementing and enforcing them, using local state security infrastructure where available.
Security is another area where the states want significant control. Almost all the Southern states, organised along the lines of the three geo-political zones, have regional security outfits. Although a child of necessity, these regional security outfits are created to complement the work of the federal police services.
The synergy among these state outfits across the region is noteworthy. For the first time in Nigeria history, the states are formalising their security operations and creating security institutions working in tandem with the Nigerian police, a federal security outfit. Security was almost an exclusive item for the Federal Government, and all calls for state police had previously fallen on deaf ears. The pertinent question is: is this the first step to launching state police?
Although not a democratic decision or backed by the Constitution, the Southern governors are clamouring for the zoning of the 2023 presidency to the South. They argue that the nature of Nigeria’s federalism dictates that justice, equity and fairness is not only seen to have been always done in power-sharing but must be done to save our federation from imploding. The Southern governors’ unity across party lines in clamouring for this is unprecedented in Nigeria’s political history. In its last meeting in Enugu, the governors made it clear they will not support any party that fields a non-Southerner for the presidency.
These bold steps, though undemocratic, is a sign of state governors’ new understanding of their role in influencing the politics at the centre to navigate the stormy waters of our federalism where equity in power-sharing is central to the harmonious coexistence of the components of the federation. Only time will tell how things will unfold in the coming months leading to the 2023 elections. However, these moves by state governors of the South will impact our federation in many years to come.
This push for fiscal federalism seems to be a southern affair though supported by some members of the northern elite. The reason may be that majority of Northern political elite seems to have always favoured a federal system with a unitary-like central control system. These elite class prefers a ‘strong Federal Government’, based on the claim of “one country and a common destiny”. This sentiment has always appealed to the North but has not helped advance development and prosperity in that region; instead, it has raised a state structure of dependency on the central government and a political elite with agency mentality.
The federal structure has created among all the states, but especially in some Northern states, psychology of depending on the centre for their survival instead of building an enabling socio-economic ecosystem that is pro-development, especially around human capital development and infrastructure. States go cap in hands to the Federal Government at the end of every month for federal allocation, without which more than 60 per cent of the states will become insolvent and collapse.
Some Northern states have suffered from the paradox of ‘disadvantaged area’ and the negative consequences of poorly managed affirmative processes. The quota system, federal character and educationally disadvantaged area status only made some Northern states less competitive and lagged behind some of their contemporaries in the South. Some Northern intellectuals and elite have concluded and support fiscal federalism that will empower states to look inward and tap into their human and natural resources to develop. That is the future! Instead of being suspicious or afraid of fiscal federalism, some Southern and Northern states that are not economically viable should start developing the enabling systems and structures that will provide economic, social and political independence from the centre.
Nigerians should jettison this pseudo feudal system where most affirmative processes favour only a few morally bankrupt elite in most states who equate their personal socio-economic growth to that of the whole state or even region whilst most people languish in abject poverty of global proportions.
It is alleged that the northern elite has had it so good in this unitarian aberration of federalism practised now to the exclusion of the masses in the North who are poor and wretched. Often, migrants to the North take the middle-class level after the elite, and most of the locals are not working class, but impoverished and pauperised lower class. The complete lack of social mobility perpetuates the circle of penury in the system..
In conclusion, it appears that restructuring or true federalism is a matter we cannot wish away. As matters stand today, it is a reality we must resolve for our country to move forward. The state governments, especially in the South, seem to be forcing a new form of federalism on Nigeria by looking inward in the existing constitution and enforcing their rights in areas hitherto seen as the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government.
The ongoing constitutional review by the National Assembly needs to be swift before a constitutional crisis ensues that will shock our political ecosystem.