Remarks by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the South-South Mega Rally on Restructuring, at Oxbow Lake Pavillion, Swali-Yenegoa on 24th March, 2018.
Thank you very much for inviting me to this rally in support of the restructuring of the Nigerian federation. All who support the calls for restructuring our federation are united in their desire to live in a society that works better and works for its people. They are also united by their love for their country, their patriotism. Those who do not love their country would just want it to break up; they would not be interested in making Nigeria work better. And I want to believe that those who oppose restructuring, preferring instead the retention of our current structure, with all its challenges, are also driven by their love of the country. I just happen to think that they are wrong; they are mistaken in their views.
Let me begin by addressing some misconceptions about restructuring of the Nigerian federation.
The first misconception is that restructuring is a Southern project designed to put the North at an economic and political disadvantage. The fact is different segments of this country have clamoured for restructuring at different times in our history. Besides, even if the current clamour originated in the South it does not diminish the importance of restructuring for the survival and development of our country and the mutual coexistence our peoples. Obviously if it were against the interests of the North I would not be advocating for or supporting it. I am from the North, and I believe that I have, over the years, demonstrated through my deeds that I care about the North, and I care about Nigeria.
The second misconception is that the North is opposed to restructuring because it threatens its access to oil money from the South. The fact is the North, like any other group is rightly concerned about its future place in the federation, especially because of the rhetoric of some advocates of restructuring, who present it as designed to punish the North. In any case, while it is true that the bulk of the current opposition to restructuring comes from the North, there are also highly placed individuals from the South who oppose restructuring and diminish its importance. Besides, it is our responsibility as advocates of restructuring to reassure all sections of the country that their share of revenues from the Federation Account is not going to be reduced as a result of restructuring.
The third misconception is that those of us from the North who advocate for restructuring are pandering to the South for votes. The fact is there are more bloc votes in the North and therefore it would be politically easier for a Northern politician to oppose restructuring (which some are doing). But doing what is politically easy isn’t the same as doing what is right for the North and for Nigeria.
The fourth misconception that I want to address is that Nigeria’s problem is corruption and not the structure of the country. The fact is that advocates of restructuring do not claim that it would resolve all our challenges. Obviously, corruption is a huge problem in our country but it is not the only problem. Besides the current structure of the federation, our “unitary federalism”, facilitates and promotes corruption simply by centralizing too much power and resources in one tier of government and its leaders. Thus one of the ways to reduce corruption is actually to change the structure of the relationship between the centre and the federating units, including greater decentralization and the reduction in the size of the federal government. Restructuring will bring government closer to the people and make accountability easier.
Lets’ take a closer look at why we need to restructure and how.
Almost on a daily basis we see news reports that one state government or another has donated operational vehicles to the Nigeria Police Force; this or that state government is asking for a refund of what it spent to fix federal roads in its jurisdiction; this or that state government is building or promising to build camps or hostels for the National Youth Service Corps. Such reports and actions have become so commonplace that we no longer seem to notice that there is something unusual about them. States and local governments donating to federal agencies in the context where the federal government appropriates the bulk of the country’s revenues! In proper functioning federal systems, it is the federal government that typically sends grants-in–aid to lower tiers of government or their agencies to assist them meet national standards in infrastructure and service provisioning. Yet we still have people opposing the restructuring of the federation that would make the states and local governments better-resourced and empowered to provide services to their peoples; a restructuring that would enable people hold their state and local governments accountable. Rather they prefer to stick with a status quo that has not worked well and is collapsing before our very eyes.
But it hasn’t always been this way. We haven’t always lived with this skewed and unhelpful structure.
Our current over-centralization came with military rule and was underwritten by a huge surge in oil revenues, which the federal government basically took control of. The federal government then proceeded to involve itself in all manner of economic activities and social engineering. Oil revenues made it seem like money was not a problem. But by 1982 money had become a problem and we were plunged into an economic crisis from which we are yet to fully recover. We are now a civilian democracy, yet we have stuck to the structure which was underwritten by huge oil revenues and maintained by the command structure of military regimes.
Whatever disagreements people may have about restructuring, there is, I believe, general consensus that our current federal structure vests too much power in the central government and too little in the states and local governments and that there is a need to devolve more powers to the federating states. I believe there is also agreement that the federal government is too bloated and corners much of the resources of the country at the expense of the other tiers of government. Just think about this: how can we continue to spend 75% of our revenues on recurrent expenditures and hope to develop as a country? How can we hope to provide critical infrastructure and other capital projects needed for industrialization, including agricultural modernization with only 25% of our revenues?
Excessive centralization has made us become too inefficient and corrupt. Have you tried procuring a driver’s license recently? What about university admission? Or company registration? Everything is centralized as if all wisdom resides in federal authorities in Abuja. Does it require rocket science to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong in paying workers in Yenegoa, Yola and Yauri the same salary or having the governors and commissioners in Lagos and Lokoja earn the same as though the revenue generating capacities, productivity and cost of living in those localities are the same? This is not how to run a federal system.
If we want rapid sustainable development, and peaceful coexistence, then we must restructure.
The foundation of our existing structure – oil money – is eroding. We should not be caught napping as the world moves on. All major auto makers and oil consumers have announced dates for phasing out fossil fuel-only vehicles. Some countries are now paying people to use excessive power generated from renewable sources. Clearly the march away from fossil fuels, mainly oil and gas, now seem irreversible. So, in a way, our fights over oil revenues are yesterday’s fights. We need to look to the future, to policies and practices that would enable our people to create wealth which we would then tax for government revenues. Think about this: both those who want to monopolise oil revenues and those who want it shared either equitably or inequitably will soon find out that they are fighting yesterday’s battles. The caravan has moved on.
This is particularly important for the South-South and other oil-bearing sections of this country, where some people sometimes talk about restructuring as though it is designed to punish the North. Well, I know that a restructured Nigeria is in the North’s long-term economic interest. The North is rich in solid minerals, including the rarest and most expensive. It has ample supply of arable land, and huge potentials for livestock production and renewable energy such as solar. In view of the long-term trajectory of the world’s oil economics, it will be in the interest of the South, especially the South-South to also look to the future even (indeed, especially) with restructuring: to agriculture, fisheries, information technology, biotechnology, and renewable energy such as wind and solar.
We therefore need to decentralize and devolve more powers to the federating states. Devolution and decentralization will help us to develop rapidly and make government more accountable. It would force us to look to non-oil sources of revenue, especially taxation, which will also encourage us to facilitate investment, job and wealth creation. Without the latter there would be little to tax. Devolution will allow states to focus on their peculiar priorities and plan their expenditures, such as wages, according to their earning capacities and cost of living. Too much uniformity in wages kills productivity, competitiveness and the drive for innovation.
Federal roads, federal hospitals and federal schools should be handed over to the states where they are located along with the funds the federal government expends on them. At best the federal government can have centres of excellence in medicine and research in each of our geo-political zones to serve as models.
We can only significantly improve security in this large and complex country if we allow states that so desire to have their own police forces. Police personnel drawn from and serving mainly the local communities will do better with intelligence gathering and crime prevention, and accountability.
Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate
The way to achieve the restructuring that we clamour for is through negotiations among the leaders of our various regions and zones. We will not achieve it by vilifying the North or the South. Thus in our rhetoric, we have to be mindful of the sensibilities and sensitivities of others. An issue that is harmless to a group may be presented in a manner that makes it appear harmful. We must avoid that if we truly want results in the best interest of the country.
As a Northerner, I can tell you that the North, like any section, would need assurances that restructuring is not designed to weaken or destroy the North. Relatively painless, timely restructuring cannot happen without the support of the North, so we have to be mindful of that rather than promoting restructuring as though it is designed to get at the North. We must explain, re-explain and illustrate our position, however frustrating it may sometimes be. Remember that the North feels it is lagging behind the South on many indices of development. We have to show that restructuring will not compound that but rather help lift the North up with the rest of the country. A united Nigeria is potentially unstoppable. Dividing up the country into tiny bits to fit into our ethnic or zonal lines will weaken us and render us largely irrelevant in Africa and the world. Therefore our challenge, as those deeply concerned about this issue, is to show that it will be a win-win outcome for the North and the South.
We have to learn to engage with those who are real leaders in their zones. I mean leaders who have demonstrated, through their actions, that they care about their zones and the country, rather than rabble rousers who shout the loudest but have nothing to show for their professed love for their zones or ethnic groups. Both the South and the North have their share of such noise makers.
Johnny Come Lately:
Let me also caution us all not be fooled by the recent apparent change of mind by some of the most ardent opponents of restructuring. Some of them may not be genuine converts but are just looking towards the next election cycle. We must remain vigilant, step up the pressure and not be lured to sleep. Restructuring is too important for this country’s development and wellbeing to be subjected to cynical manipulation during election cycles.
Thank you and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.